Notes from conference: SNP 'unity' relies on having a common foe
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
At the Scottish National Party conference in October there was an injection of adrenaline in the air, floating around the enormous Aberdeen Conference Centre. It created a strange sense of positivity in me, an ardent unionist, which I soon twigged was nothing to do with a change of Great British heart. It was in fact the seductive lull of being in a room where everyone seems to agree. Yet, over the course of the weekend it became obvious that this is the illusion the SNP project, not the hard and fast reality. So why are we fooled into thinking the SNP are united? Because they hold the trump card for party unification: a common enemy.
It is an acknowledged truth amongst historians, psychologists and writers that nothing is better for bringing people together than a common foe. ‘War is Peace’ as Orwell would have it, and nothing whips politicians into a party line quicker. You can see it in politicians’ answers in interviews ‘Please tell me Labour’s policy on this?’ ‘Well, I can tell you what the wrong position is and that’s the Tories’.’ The ability to blanket blame Westminster for every conceivable problem in Scotland, socially and economically allows the SNP to avoid scrutiny. The Scottish government has long held power over its own health service, for example, which has performed dismally against its recent targets, failing to meet all but one. This is not a new government stifled by Westminster, but a party that has been at the helm for over a decade and is still pointing fingers.
The portentous storm brewing between Johnson and Sturgeon is between two strong mandates; an almost clean sweep for the SNP in Scotland, but a whopping 80 seat majority for the Conservative union vote in England. Our uncodified constitution has undergone a high-speed rattling over some perilous tracks since 2014 and the SNP’s obsession with giving it another trial-by-combat is not favourable either to Scotland or the continued polarisation of British politics. The issues surrounding Scottish politics such as the ongoing drugs crisis, child poverty and climate change will not be solved by making a pantomime villain out of Westminster. The unnuanced rhetoric of leading SNP representatives would have us believe that this is a choice between ‘the past and the future’: like a first-year architecture student’s dismal attempt to pit the hallowed halls of the Palace of Westminster against the modern, bright and turf-covered Holyrood.
Yet the party are in fact more split than they seem on their constitutional position. Joanna Cherry QC, of recent prorogation case fame, will be likely to dig her heels in against any less than a legally well-grounded referendum approved by Westminster. However, Mhairi Black MP and many others have shown their recent support for a ‘Plan B’ or ‘wildcard’ referendum to demonstrate to Westminster the size of support for independence in Scotland. This is a hazardous course, not only is it legally questionable, but it is obvious that the word ‘advisory’ will be swept up in the rhetoric of ‘the will of the people’ just as we have seen from the supposedly ‘advisory’ 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
The Brexit debacle has garnered the SNP a great deal of support, it has provided a clear point of contention between the English and Scottish electorate and provided Nicola Sturgeon with the catchphrase ‘Scotland will be dragged out of the EU against our will.’ Yet it seems to have escaped popular notice that the SNP are more fickle than they seem. In fact, they were previously a staunch anti-Europe party and it took until the previous leader Alex Salmond to slowly coax them round to seeing Europe as part of the game plan. The SNP stage manages its villains and its protagonists in accordance to well-timed strategy. It’s time we provided a real critique of this performance between two centre-stage stars.
Photo: via Alice Wright