George Kerevan is an individual for whom I have the utmost respect. So I was immediately engaged when my attention was drawn to his recent article offering an analysis of the competing forces re-shaping both the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the broader independence movement. As one would expect from a man with George’s background his account is erudite, forthright and not a little disturbing. The picture he paints of Scotland’s political establishment is more than somewhat at odds with the Scotland of popular conceit. But then, popular conceit rarely has more than an exaggeratedly socially distanced relationship with reality.
I am not about to critique a George Kerevan essay. I would not be so presumptuous. (Not unless I thought I could get away with it.) But his analysis is nothing if not thought-provoking. So it has provoked some thoughts. Not only in my mind. I I have noted a number of comments on social media and elsewhere which seem to have a common theme of mild shock and sad agreement but with reservations. I know that feeling.
I think it would be fair to say that George Kerevan is ‘of the left’ in terms of his politics. I think of myself more as being ‘on the left’. But, while it would be ridiculous to suggest that he is ideologically hidebound, I reckon he’d allow that socialism is a part of him. Whereas for me it’s something I’m part of. These things aren’t easy to convey. They have a tendency to wriggle away when you try to clothe them in words. (Anyone who has tried to dress a fractious toddler will know what I mean.) If I’ve been clumsy in doing so I hope you’ll bear with me, but I think it important to acknowledge that George and I are coming at this from slightly – perhaps more than slightly – different perspectives.
I am not setting out to contradict or offer a counter-argument. I am not disputing George’s analysis other than in matters of small detail and degree. By my lights, he may overstate things a little here and there. But he’s making a point. And better that than those quests for even-handedness that drain a text of all colour and texture. I merely wish to put down some of my own thoughts on those forces re-shaping both the SNP and the broader independence movement. I’d be delighted if those thoughts were even half as provocative as those offered by George Kerevan.
I blame the left. Which is not to deny all that George says. But I can’t see how analysis of the situation can be complete without acknowledging all the forces in play. And it can hardly be denied that the left is a force in Scottish politics. And not entirely and always a positive force. Being on the left rather than of the left it causes me no pain to state this.
We have to take a starting point. History is a process and nothing that is happening or will happen is ever totally unconnected with what has happened. Besides, there’s already a book that opens with “In the beginning …” and I wouldn’t want to be accused of plagiarism. And you wouldn’t want me running on for 750,000 words. So, I’ll take 2014 and the referendum as my starting point.
As surely everybody knows, the SNP enjoyed a massive influx of new members in the wake of the first independence referendum. This influx was mostly made up of two elements. There were the previously unaligned individuals prompted by events to ‘do something’, even if it was only to join a political party for the first time in their lives. And there was the disaffected former members and/or supporters of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). It would be foolish to imagine this this latter group – almost certainly the largest withing the new intake – did not bring something with them. Something other than their cash and their activism.
It has to be stated that the influx to the SNP from the left of Scotland’s politics had many positive effects. The magnitude and speed of the growth in membership caused the party problems that it is wrestling with to this day. Finding venues with enough capacity may be the least of it. The radicalism of the new intake was not universally welcomed. But in general people were glad of the fresh talent as well as the foot-soldier reinforcements and the subs.
Much of what was true for the SNP was also true of the wider Yes movement. There was a tide of new engagement there as as well. But, not being an organisation, the Yes movement was affected differently by this influx. It was affected less because being less formal it was better able to absorb the newcomers. Being unstructured, it was easier for the new arrivals to fit in – there were more spaces and a greater capacity for creating spaces than can ever be the case with a political party. The SNP was (is) often unfairly compared to the movement. Many seemed to think that if others could do it then why not the party. Attending events, for example. Nicola Sturgeon is slated for not attending Yes rallies, for example. This criticism fails to take due account of the constraints of her office.
There were two things in particular that we might well regret the left bringing with them into the SNP – its aversion to power, and its factionalism. The left tends to fail to achieve the means to implement its programme because the left doesn’t trust anybody who has the power to implement those changes. An over-simplification, perhaps. But a reduction which contains a substantial truth. The left has great difficulty reconciling its policy agenda with the need to entrust that agenda to a government. Government equates with establishment and the forces of reaction. The left seeks to depose established power, but has nothing to put in its place that it doesn’t fear and assume will simply become the new boss, just like the old boss.
In large measure, it is this dilemma which leads to the other abiding characteristic of the left – its self-destructive, self-defeating factionalism. There are other factors involved, of course. Nothing is ever as simple as writing about it makes it seem. There is the tendency for the politics of the left to be more nuanced and, dare I say it, more thoughtful. Socialism is, at base, just social conscience given rein. If I can offer another pregnant simplism, the left seek the common good while the right concerns itself with avoiding the bad. That which is bad is easily defined. The good is intrinsically indefinable. There is a clear set of things that are bad – fear and insecurity being principal among them – but try to list the things that are good and you’ll run out of either words or breath before you have even a comprehensive list.
We could say a great deal about the efficacy or the right’s ‘solutions’. But that is not our concern here. What we are considering is the left’s tendency to fractious factionalism and the effect of this on a party possessed of a unity of purpose which enabled it to survive intact despite episodes of internal turmoil such as would have surely torn another party asunder. The effect has been unfortunately corrosive. The unity of purpose is weakened.
Factions beget factions. Factions beget fractions of factions. Factions lacking the cohesiveness of a common core purpose, should they acquire a critical mass of influence, can trigger runaway fission. The SNP lacked the mechanisms to effectively control this reaction. So the hierarchy has done what hierarchies always do when a storm is brewing. They take to the shelters. They barricade themselves in s defensive cocoon. The erect the barriers of bureaucracy and raise the shields of managerialism. The party apparatus becomes an entity in its own right distinct from the party and isolated from the factionalism which reacts by further fragmentation as frustration increases and with it the rise of those who would exploit this frustration for purposes all but inevitably inimical to that core purpose which some of you may still remember for its now waning power to preserve unity in adversity.
So, here we are. The situation is dire. But not irretrievable. I am persuaded that if we can gain a good enough understanding of the competing forces re-shaping both the Scottish National Party and the broader independence movement then we can bring those forces under control. The key, to my mind, is that core purpose. The factions can’t be stitched back together. If the body of the SNP and the independence movement is to be made whole again it must be by a process of cohering around that core purpose of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.
All who aspire to a better Scotland must accept that there is a great wrong that must be righted before any other wrongs can be addressed. The great wrong of the Union. If, as is evident, the contested concept of independence has not been sufficient to maintain the cohesiveness of Scotland’s cause then perhaps the quest to right a great wrong might be a purpose all can unite behind.
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