Mike Russell demands of Alex Salmond that he act in a way that best suits – or least inconveniences – the SNP. A faintly ridiculous demand but, hey-ho! this is Scottish politics. What Mike Russell doesn’t do is spend so much as a single fleeting moment reflecting on how the SNP has acted and is acting. At no point do we see him even hint at the possibility of the SNP responding flexibly to a changing situation. Nowhere in his column is there any sign that the SNP leadership is capable of looking at a fresh development – such as the launch of the Alba Party – and asking what this development says about and to his own party.
Nobody in the SNP leadership appears to be asking that most obvious of questions: Why is this happening? Or, if they are, they’re answering that question in the shallow, petty manner evidenced by Angus Robertson’s initial response. Nobody, so far as can be determined from public statements and private rumours, is asking that question in a serious, thoughtful way. Not even Mike Russell.
Which is singularly odd, when you come to think about it. If you step back from the rhetoric and the political posturing for a moment and look at what is happening as if seeing it for the first time, the very first thought to spring to mind must surely be to wonder how the hell this could be happening. How did it come to pass that the SNP – the previously undisputed party of independence – is being challenged for that tagline by a proliferation of new parties including one fronted by the man who as leader of the SNP brought the party and Scotland’s cause its greatest success to date? This is not normal. This is not to be expected. Surely one would feel irresistibly compelled to ask the question: Why is this happening?
Not merely to ask the question as a phatic token of one’s surprise at such surprising developments. A person of normal intelligence would surely have a genuine desire to seek meaningful answers. The best answers he or she could come up with. Surely they would want a credible, logical explanation that fits all the known facts. A full explanation. A satisfactory explanation; rather than one which is merely immediately gratifying.
Where is Mike Russell’s quest for such an explanation? His response to the launch of the Alba Party may be more mature than Angus Robertson’s – no great feat – but it is still suffused with the same sense of entitlement. It makes the SNP the sun and all else subject to its gravity. Which may be the reality. The SNP is by every relevant measure relatively gigantic in the firmament of Scottish politics. But that being the case only bids us wonder why the SNP is having this effect. Planetary systems are mechanical. They behave according to the dictates of immutable laws. Politics is organic. It is subject to the choices of all the players. The parts do not move in a mechanical and therefore predictable fashion. An observed effect – such as the emergence of these alternative independence parties – may have a multitude of causes interconnected in ways so complex as to be incomprehensible in its entirety. But it is generally possible to discover the more immediate and thus most relevant connections. This is what the inquiring mind would seek. You’d think.
The inquiring mind would ask why these alternative independence parties have come into existence. If the inquiry is genuine and serious it cannot possibly discount the SNP as a causal factor. The inquiring mind is bound to want to know what it is that the SNP has done which caused or contributed to the emergence of the Alba Party. Mike Russell and his colleagues should be asking what they did to make this happen. There is no sign that they are. Which is worrying. This is the party of government and, for the time being at least, the political arm of the independence movement. You’d like to suppose that those with a leadership role in the SNP were politically astute enough to recognise the importance of developing a good understanding of the political environment in which they operate. I’m seeing nothing that tells me this is the case.
I anticipate that well-worn retort from SNP loyalists and apologists which is commonly couched in terms replete with clichés such ‘playing cards close to their chest’. Like the ‘Great Secret Plan’ for independence that Nicola Sturgeon is said to have locked away somewhere. But if it’s important that our political leaders are astute and capable then it is just as important that they be seen to be astute and capable by those who they ask to entrust them with power. As a rule, politicians don’t try to look stupid. Some have to try not to look stupid. Many fail. But nobody puts looking stupid front and centre of their appeal to voters. George Galloway being a notable exception.
Now, I’m not saying Mike Russell looks stupid. I’m not sure he could if he wanted to. But at the same time he’s not looking particularly astute and capable if his column in the Sunday National is any evidence. From what we see there the reasoning seems to be either that the emergence of the Alba Party is ’nuffink to do wiv me, guv’, or that the sensible way to respond is by digging deeper trenches.
All of which tells us nothing flattering about the current SNP leadership. Which is unsurprising given that there has long been a dearth of flattering things to say about them. But it also hints at something significant relating to the Alba Party. As regular readers will be aware, one of the questions I’ve persistently asked about these self-styled alternative independence parties is what can they actually do to bring about the restoration of Scotland’s independence. I’ve never had a satisfactory answer to that question. Among the waffle I get by way of a response is yet another well-worn cliché about ‘holding the SNP’s feet to the fire’. Which, of course prompts further questions about how they might do this and if it is even possible. What we’re hearing from the SNP leadership so far is that they are not for turning. That they need do nothing. That their approach to the constitutional issue is right and effective and needs no revision in light of the fact that it has occasioned the emergence of contenders for the title ‘party of independence’.
It’s early days. But my sense of the SNP leadership is that their feet are fireproof. Or, more likely, that neither the Alba Party nor any of the other alternative independence parties has the power to hold those feet close enough to the fire to be anything other than comfortably cosy. Which, come to think of it, is quite an apt phrase to describe the attitude evinced by Mike Russell et al. It allows us to avoid words such as ‘complacent’ and ‘smug’.
Alex Salmond is looking to be a disruptive force in Scottish politics. We have to wonder what form that disruption might take.