With Humza Yousaf elected new First Minister of Scotland, Pete Cannell looks back on the SNP’s rise during the 2014 Scottish independence movement, Nicola Sturgeon’s track record as First Minister and the challenges of rebuilding a socialist independence movement today.
A week ago interim Scottish National Party CEO Mike Russell described his party as being ‘in a complete mess’. We argue that the roots of the crisis go back a long way. What can we expect now Humza Yousaf has been elected the new leader of the SNP and steps into Nicola Sturgeon’s shoes as First Minister?
During the summer of 2014 there was a remarkable flowering of grass roots pro-independence activity in Scotland. ‘Yes groups’ were active in every locality. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in part led, and in part reflected a spirit of radical optimism that contrasted with the cautious approach adopted by the Scottish National Party (SNP). So, for example, while the SNP had narrowly reversed its long-held position of opposition to NATO at its 2012 conference, RIC and most Yes groups foregrounded the closure of nuclear bases in the West of Scotland. Scrap Trident and Bairns not Bombs stickers and banners were everywhere. As referendum day approached, activity intensified and unprecedented numbers of people registered to vote. In the last few days tens of thousands took part in meetings, street stalls and marches. It felt like something special was going to happen. The result of course was a narrow victory for the status quo. There was widespread anger at Labour’s alliance with the Tories in ‘Better Together’. In the weeks that followed, most of the activists energised by the campaign flooded into the SNP. Many of these new recruits had been Labour voters. Labour’s electoral hold in cities like Dundee and Glasgow and across the central belt, already in decline, was shattered.
In 2016 SNP membership stood at 120,000. It was and remains a highly centralised party with a small core leadership and a mass base. It had a huge asset in Nicola Sturgeon; easily the most popular politician in the UK. Her personal popularity enabled her to ride above the tensions between the aspirations of the party’s base, the consequences of centralising, pro-business policies and the limitations of a constitutional approach to independence in the face of the hard-line unionist Westminster government, for a surprisingly long time. Moreover, there was a widespread belief among SNP members that the party provided the best hope of achieving independence. While Sturgeon and others in the SNP leadership kept away from the huge demonstrations organised by ‘All Under One Banner’, the marches provided a vehicle for SNP membership to reaffirm their commitment to independence but posed little challenge to the party hierarchy.
Sturgeon’s great strength was her ability to communicate and articulate socially progressive positions. Failures to tackle systemic issues in education and health had less impact than they should have because apologists could argue that Westminster was worse. ‘Better than the Tories’ also applied to issues like action on climate change and the social care crisis – although in both cases the SNP’s rigid commitment to the private sector and outsourcing was often overlooked. A few critics left the party – mostly the status quo prevailed – discontent among the party’s mass membership could be directed on Westminster.
Sturgeon’s resignation highlighted the extent to which her personal credibility has been covering up the cracks. Party membership has dropped by 37% since 2016. The faultlines are political. Some of those leaving will have left over education or other issues where the SNP has failed to deliver. However, independence is the key issue for the party membership and dissatisfaction with the lack of a clear roadmap to achieve independence has grown. Winning majorities in elections and relying on democratic legitimacy seems inadequate in the face of an intransigent Westminster. Support for independence hovers frustratingly around 50%. A less constitutional approach from the SNP could have played into anger over the cost-of-living crisis. For example, most Scottish electricity comes from low cost renewables – but consumers pay for it at prices set by the oil and gas market. Far from highlighting this the SNP dropped plans for a Scottish energy company and continued to rely 100% on the private sector for the development and control of new large-scale offshore wind. But effective opposition over cost of living would shift the locus of activity from the ballot box to the workplace and the streets and run counter to the SNP’s vision of a transition to independence that maintains the economic status quo.
Compared to 2014 the pro-independence landscape has become more fragmented, less radical, more sour and more fractious. RIC has shrunk to a tiny group on the left. The pro-indy marches are much smaller than they were pre-Covid. Alex Salmond’s Alba party has failed to make an electoral breakthrough although it represents a potential threat to an SNP in crisis and the candidacy of Ash Regan has shown up the socially reactionary links between a minority of SNP members and Alba. In the leadership election debates the sharp disagreements between Humza Yousuf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan on Indy strategy reveal an absence of alternative strategies that could extend the mass base for independence.
After eight and a half years with Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister the election of Humza Yousaf marks a new chapter for the SNP. The ‘continuity’ candidate with the backing of most of the MSPs and MPs his victory was a narrow one, just over 2000 second preference votes ahead of Kate Forbes. Winning the support of the party rank and file and halting the decline in membership is going to be tough. There are internal scandals over party finance, sharp divisions exposed by the election campaign and all the problems of policy and strategy that were brought into sharp focus by Sturgeon’s resignation. Speaking straight after the leadership election result was announced he pledged to focus on cost of living, the NHS and a well-being economy. He also talked about continuing to pursue net-zero carbon emissions and ending fuel poverty. Most strikingly in the context of the rest of the UK he argued for increased immigration and the importance of migrants to society. In many respects the speech could have been written by Nicola Sturgeon but the problem remains that a socially progressive programme comes up against an unstated but also unchallenged commitment to the private sector. And neither Yousaf or his defeated rivals had a serious strategy for winning independence.
With no credible alternative it seems likely that the SNP will remain the largest party in Scottish politics. But the gloss is gone. There is a huge challenge for the pro-independence extra-parliamentary left. There will be opportunities to win disaffected SNP members but the key to doing so will be to build on the fires that have been lit during the last few months of industrial disputes and combine the flair and creativity of the social movements with building workplace power and clear and principled opposition to oppression. The fight for trans liberation and implementation of the Gender Recognition Act will be central – not least because it has become a stand off between Holyrood and Westminster – but also because it’s a standard around which reactionary strands of the pro-independence movement, Tories and the far right have gathered. But on pay, the cost of living, climate action, self determination and more the task is to patiently build a vibrant new left based on networks of solidarity and revolt.