Everybody else is chipping in with their I-Know-Where-the-SNP-Went-Wrong opinions. So here’s mine. (Isn’t it amazing to discover how many experts there are out there AFTER the event.)
It was, we are told, wrong, wrong, wrong to offer a referendum on Scotland after the Brexit deal. Really? I don’t remember anyone but the Tories picking that up – presumably from focus groups. Then of course we hear it’s all the fault of Sturgeon having her husband as party chief – a job he held when they got together as far as I know – and which made not a jot of difference in all the preceding election victories.
Like all mass operations, election results are a volcano spewing out clouds of barely discernible material that can only be identified once cooled and hardened over time.
You can certainly argue the referendum issue was key but what is truly indisputable is that this was an anti-SNP spasm. Note: It was not an SNP Loss. That is fake news and a five-year-old can see it’s numerical nonsense. But there is a distinction to be made between losing an election and losing momentum. Momentum is as important as winning/losing in politics. But not in government – hence we see both SNP and Conservatives winning numerically and forming governments (at time of writing) but still losing momentum. It is the oil in the political engine. Without it, the turbines slow and the motor seizes.
For myself I go back to what I was feeling and thinking during the election rather than being smart after the event – a speciality of mainstream writers who fasten on to the zeitgeist in the blink of an eye and please don’t remember what they wrote a month ago.
I became concerned and confused by the SNP election strategy because it was hard to discern what it was. I couldn’t write that it was wrong because there was nothing palpably off-key. But there was nothing to enthuse either. It was a content-free zone relying on the same mantra as two years ago at the last election – a Stronger Voice for Scotland. Did, I wondered, the SNP have its own secret polling indicating that this would work? As a supporter I’m reluctant to raise serous doubts mid-election, not because a Bateman Blog will change public opinion! Rather because it feels like undermining the effort.
I convinced myself that the opinion polls privately confirmed that the anti-referendum feeling wasn’t running strongly enough to make a difference except in a handful of seats and all that was needed was stoicism. Further, a late Corbyn swing was most likely to damage those Tory votes moving against the SNP. I was wrong.
I’m astonished to find the party had little idea it was heading for a crash landing until it was too late. Yet the movement of voters across the North East and the Borders was, it turned out, on a scale that should have set off klaxons much sooner. Was canvassing good enough? Was it accurate? Were the findings relayed to HQ? And were the decision-makers at the centre good enough at their job?
I don’t doubt for a moment that the real problem here was simply timing – the election came too soon instead of playing out over Brexit when there is a greater chance that the grim implications of life outside the EU will compel a demand for a vote to leave the UK, at least to test the idea and give a choice between UK and EU.
May’s hubris knocked out the timing, rather like Iain Gray losing the 2011 election so badly he gave a majority to the SNP and hastened the referendum to a time that proved too early.
In the aftermath of that referendum I was interviewed by Phantom Power and was forthright that Yessers had to accept the outcome and live with it. This prompted an outspoken response accusing me of giving up on independence etc. I will never do that but I am also a democrat and if the Scots vote against me, I’m duty bound to accept it. Like (my very good friend) JK Rowling, I believed the establishment would get such a shock from the closeness of the vote and, subsequently from the amazing 2015 election result, that something akin to federalism had to be the answer. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Not only did we get but crumbs from the table in terms of powers but they devised a fiscal trap by giving income tax rates but not no other balancing taxation levers. They built-in a fiscal time bomb to make us fail. The cynicism of that in the circumstances is shocking and displays contempt both for democracy and the Scots. (Which is one reason I say Mundell is nothing but a Westminster agent rather than a Scottish champion).
The mistake of some was to appear to ignore the result of 2014 and continue as if it never happened. I agree you don’t give up on your principles and objectives after a setback but you have to find the grace and guile to change the language and point of attack. The SNP leadership seemed to get this until the breathtaking gaffe of Cameron in asking Brits to endorse immigration (effectively) in an EU referendum. It doesn’t matter that a second indyref was party policy in the event of a British No and a Scottish Yes, the mistake lay in assuming the wider country would agree to go through another vote because, if you like, the SNP said so. They seemed to be blind to the significant numbers of Yessers who were still anti-EU. When it comes to it, I imagine many of them would vote for independence for Scotland with the EU over staying in the Union outwith the EU but we are steps away from that position and it’s not a answer they want to give right now.
So what could they have done? Well, not pounced on the EU outcome like an osprey on trout. The trick is always to take opinion with you. As I’ve argued before, one of the prime talents of the SNP, certainly under Salmond, was to stay in step by talking up a subject and waiting for the public to catch up once they’d contemplate it. There were over the years many voices urging ‘radical’ solutions – just as there are now, but the leadership understood the nationalist heartlands. Having spent the last 30 years in the north east, Salmond had a firm understanding of more conservative, non-radical voters and what they would tolerate. Regular readers will remember I’ve often written about this phenomenon that too many inside the Central Beltway have never experienced – the cautious traditionalists who could be wooed by a well-run Scottish government if Westminster had lost its appeal but who would unlock the gun safe if they heard danger in the form of a radical idea approaching. Salmond, Robertson and Whiteford all managed this conundrum with craft and Salmond remains a figure of gravity across all sectors in the north east. I’m far from convinced Sturgeon, or any of her immediate cohort have the gifts required to reflect that ability.
The question is: Did she consult wily old Alex before coming out for the referendum so forcibly? I have no doubt he agrees that this is an opportunity not to be missed but would he have urged caution? Why not remind people it has always been an SNP plan then resist the temptation to push it, waiting instead for public opinion to come into line, or otherwise? Political opportunism does not attract the public – one key reason May failed in Westminster and why so many people were thrilled for Corbyn. She was exploiting the numbers and assuming they would back her, taking for granted their votes. Sturgeon looked to do the same. She was saying: Look! My prediction comes true so I’ll threaten a second vote and you’ll back me. She took them for granted.
We’re all a bit weary of voting and maybe Nicola is too. I’m afraid you can’t just stomp the country waving without a new message. If your opponent has a simple, one strand message, you need a riposte. She had none. So that looked complacent. But where were the rest of the talent pool? We saw Angus Robertson but where were the wide range of SNP characters to display the breadth of coverage the party represents in local, Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels arenas? I know they were fighting their seats but I didn’t see Eilidh Whiteford appear, or financial and economic experts Ian Blackford, Geoge Kerevan or Roger Mullin. Did Tommy Sheppard get an outing?
Even her own Holyrood team lack presence. Do you know what brief Angela Constance holds? When did you last see Shona Robison? One the best of the crop is Jeanne Freeman, again not exactly being muscled to the front of the studio queue.
I wrote recently about the dire state of SNP communications, once the flashing glitter ball hypnotising the whole media. It has stopped spinning and somebody’s switched off the lights as a long run of initiatives has spun out of control, perhaps the worst being Named Person laws which burst in the tabloids with virtually no public awareness of its existence or its intentions. It was immediately demonised and all the hard work was needed to extricate it from the lies. Good PR avoids that.
So you see, it may be that the election was the culmination of many issues which were triggered by indyref2.
But I struggle to agree that the thing to do is panic and run in the opposite direction shouting No referendum! That’s what Labour does. You don’t like this policy, I have others. I’m against Corbyn, except for this week when I support him. I will support a referendum until I decide I won’t.
The tactical mistake has been made, let’s not compound it. For a start, taking it off the table will alienate nationalists, rightly or wrongly. It would be a grievous error to compound the problem by disappointing core support. It won’t stop Davidson, as James Kelly points out, who’ll still complain there’s a secret plan for a referendum. It’s party policy, Holyrood voted for it and it’s twice been endorsed in elections, including this one.
You don’t dance to someone else’s tune and call yourself a leader. We don’t need another Kezia.
However, the mood is against, clearly. The chances of winning look remote. Right now. But isn’t that what we said of Corbyn? Of Brexit? Again the timing is key. We haven’t started the Brexit talks yet. Maybe the tone will change and the objectives soften to allow a customs union or market membership. But I doubt it. May’s new friends are hardliners against Europe and even Labour says we must come out of the Single Market – a grievous error when it could be corrected in the aftermath of the election.
The whole point of the referendum was not to hold a vote now but to await the Brexit deal and give Scots the choice. That isn’t scary, it’s logical and if the London government handles the talks as well as it’s handled the last two years, it could result in a mess even doubtful Scots want to escape.
It is perverse to deny yourself an option when you don’t know the deal. For the SNP it would be farcical to deny its own policy and remove the means to achieving it because of a setback. The first question that would be asked is: What are you for? If you deny Scots the chance to decide their own future over as crucial an issue as the EU, what’s the point of you? As countless voices in England are saying, this is a matter of national interest. Our economic wellbeing, if not the security of the nation, is in doubt. Only anti-European zealots claim there will be an improvement in our condition. Indeed they spend their time devising ways in which we can achieve what we have now by other means.
Scotland has suffered enough from the Union – are we now to follow meekly into reduced circumstances, adrift from our European heritage, locked into decline despite our clear EU vote, removed by a hard right failed government whose strings are pulled by Orange bigots?
What message does it send to those we look to in Brussels for rescue that we distance ourselves from the only means of rejoining the EU? They will wash their hands of us as a distinctive entity opposed to England’s perfidy and seeking to build a bridge to Brussels.
(I laughed at the characterisation of anyone saying this kind of thing as hardliners. I suppose if you drop a plan that is policy, approved by parliament, endorsed in two elections and which is a logical democratic response to an impending national emergency, that you are by comparison weak and ready to run at the first sign of trouble. Therefore everyone else is, by that standard, hardline.)
And yet…there is a right enough problem here. Along with internal improvements in management and organisation there will have to found a way of not scaring the horses. Nicola will be obliged to ‘listen to the people’ and shelve the referendum one way or another…because, as they say, that is politics. At times like this national interest shrinks in the glare of party interest and they smile tightly in the face of headlines saying they’re on the run from Ruthie.
That’s how it will be, no doubt.
We need to face a reality, I think. There is a sizeable constituency of Scots who are as politically promiscuous as they are conservative. The drop in SNP voters turning out is a sign of apathy generated by the campaign but the jump in numbers for Unionism shows how readily people can switch between apparently opposing parties when it suits them. It’s worth pondering that those celebrating Tories will still enjoy the fruits of SNP Scotland like free tuition, prescriptions and school buildings while deserting them for a party which would demolish them. They can console themselves that this was a vote against a referendum but it was also a vote FOR removing child benefits from mothers who were raped, unless they can prove it to a civil servant, a vote for punishing the disabled by literally making cripples crawl, consigning a million more children to a life in poverty, keeping the NHS in demoralising crisis, maintaining the lowest wage growth in Europe and demonising essential immigrants. And nuclear weapons or course, and an underfunded defence. And fox hunting. Ironically, they also back a governments that has overseen the shrinkage of the oil sector. And, of course, getting into bed with those other Unionists, the DUP. I hope they enjoy it.
Because some of us think this may be a time to watch events unfold including the exposure of talentless new MPs selected from what has become a severely restricted gene pool. It’s hard not to shake your head at Scots so afraid of their own future they vote for a hard right government just as England turns against them, in an unnecessary election caused by the grave misjudgement of the previous Tory incumbent. No matter how much humiliation and failure the Tories accrue, you can rely on some Scots to stand up and applaud them. What would these people be like as helpers in a newly independent country…worrying thought, eh?by