I did it again! I set out to write a comment on an article and got carried away. I was commenting on a piece on Wings Over Scotland in which Stu Campbell continues to vent his perfectly understandable frustrations with the SNP. What he says about how it looks as if the party is deliberately sabotaging its own election chances is something I hear a lot. It is an idea worthy of examination if for no other reason than that if it looks like a duck etcetera it may not be a tractor. A closer look is needed.
The theory that the SNP leadership – which is increasingly distinct from the SNP as a party – is deliberately sabotaging its ability to deliver a free and fair referendum and/or independence assumes a level of strategic thinking that is entirely absent. The reason it looks like connections are not being made between cause and effect is that connections between cause and effect are not being made.
It is not the behaviour itself that must be explained, but the explanation for the behaviour. When we see the SNP leadership behaving in ways that cannot do other than adversely affect its electoral fortunes and doing so immediately prior to an election of historic significance, this can only be explained by a near-total absence of strategic thinking. No dots were joined in the making of this plan.
It is this dearth of strategic thinking that must be explained. Especially given that we are talking about a political party which has enjoyed near-miraculous electoral success over a quite miraculously long period. How the fuck did they do that without some weapons-grade strategic thinking in their armory? And given that they must have had this weapons-grade strategic thinking, where the fuck has it gone?
One possibility is that they never actually had it. That they just got lucky. Very lucky. Improbably lucky. But not impossibly lucky. It is conceivable that fortune might have contrived to favour the SNP. It’s possible they just hit a winning streak. It could happen. Lots of seemingly disparate things could have come together to bring electoral success that was quite unplanned. Think of that 2011 election landslide that led to the 2014 referendum. An astounding victory. But not part of any plan. The SNP was not ready for a referendum. The party was bounced into it by events outwith its control. It was fortunate to have a leader at the time who was clever enough and politically agile enough to take advantage of the situation. Might that be considered an element of the party’s good fortune?
It seems likely to be a bit of both. There was a lot of luck involved. But ten years ago the SNP was a very healthy party. Very democratic. Good (not great) internal communication. Effective structures. Clever people united for a common purpose. People who talked to each other. Little in the way of factionalism. and a huge army of campaign foot-soldiers ready to do the slog work. In other words, the party was in an excellent position to take advantage of any good fortune that came its way.
In particular, the SNP was uniquely advantaged by devolution and proportional representation. Because it was not bound to an ideology it could respond quickly and cleverly to the signals sent out by the electorate. It could adapt to the will of the people. Or, at least, the SNP could do so better than other parties. And that was enough.
From all of this we get outcomes which look like the result of superb strategic planning even if in reality there was very little. Very little was good enough because luck was making up for any lack. Moderate competence was complemented by happy coincidence.
No longer! Both competence and good fortune have left the building. The mistakes that are being made are worse than the mistakes that used to be made and the luck that cushioned the party from the electoral consequences of bad decisions has departed. When I say luck I mean the factors that happened to be advantageous even though there was no intent. The SNP was not purposefully designed to take advantage of devolution. Things just came together. The factors that allowed the 2015 landslide were not contrived by the party. Member activists – supplemented by the Yes movement – worked for that victory, to be sure. But that effort was rewarded much more handsomely than even the huge amount of work warranted.
It all comes down to Nicola Sturgeon. Where Alex Salmond was flexible and agile enough to stay on his feet no matter how wild the ride, Sturgeon wants to maintain her chosen course no matter what. If the ride is wild and knocks her off her feet from time to time this doesn’t matter so long as she’s still standing when the music stops. And she is convinced she will be standing no matter what.
Strategic thinking doesn’t thrive in the conditions created by Sturgeon’s approach to leadership. Where Salmond’s style of leadership was often to say you go ahead and I’ll take my cue from that; Sturgeon says I’m going this way and you damned well better be right behind me. Salmond’s way can look like strategic planning if luck lends a hand. There are no circumstances in which Sturgeon’s brand of leadership can have any of the characteristics of strategic thinking.
There are still people at all levels in the SNP who are very capable of strategic thinking. But they cannot have effect. Either they are ‘dissuaded’ from contributing their ideas or their ideas are ignored. What was once connected is now compartmentalised. What was once flexible is now rigid. Where once there was circulation now there is stagnation.
What once looked like strategic planning for success now looks like the strategic planning of a kamikaze pilot.