That’s a good question. Once we get past the number disagreement – ‘SNP’ is singular! – it’s a very good question. It was asked by Mark Mair on a Facebook thread about the SNP’s appointment of Ricky Taylor as party’s new complaints officer. The first tranche of complaints this young person will have to deal with pertain to himself and various remarks he’s made about certain individuals whose names don’t feature prominently on Nicola Sturgeon’s Christmas card list. Names such as Joanna Cherry MP and Craig Murray. Taylor’s appointment is controversial. It’s not something that’s going to hog the headlines for a week. But among the more politically aware in Scotland it is safe to say that more than a few eyebrows were raised when he got the job. It was almost as if the party was courting controversy.
Ricky Taylor is trivial. What is significant is the fact that there have been so many things that might have prompted Mark Mair’s question. Of those who were perplexed by Taylor’s appointment I’m certain there are few for whom this was a novel experience. We’ve seen it all so many times before over the past few years. Decisions that make no discernible sense. Choices that are simply inexplicable. Things said that would have been better left unsaid. Things unsaid that desperately needed to be said. The impression that the SNP is intent on self-harm is strong.
The party leadership’s treatment of Ms Cherry is an illustrative example. Given her background and qualifications and experience and reputation, Joanna Cherry QC was an obvious choice for the SNP Westminster group’s justice remit. Rather less obvious are the reasons for her being unceremoniously dumped from that position. Then there’s my own personal favourite in the catalogue of oddities, Nicola Sturgeon’s letter to SNP members and, rather presumptuously, the entire Yes movement, ordering the indefinite suspension of all independence campaigning while she dealt with the Covid pandemic. The posturing, virtue-signalling, pointless stupidity of this still sets my head spinning whenever I think of it.
I’m sure everyone reading this will be able to think of a few examples of incomprehensible behaviour on the part of the SNP leadership in the past six or seven years. I’m betting the 2017 Westminster election campaign makes it onto most if not all lists. The decision to back off from the constitutional issue at that election is widely held to have cost the party dearly. Although I would insist the result wasn’t nearly as disastrous for the party as the British media and many in the Yes movement made it out to be, there is hardy any doubt that it was a peculiar strategy to adopt. One that was bound to alienate or at least disappoint, a significant part of the party’s voter base. One that might have caused folk to wonder if the party was determined to self-harm. Who hasn’t watched the SNP since Nicola Sturgeon became without wondering what the hell is going on?
I asked that question myself this morning when I read in The National that Nicola Sturgeon has invited Boris Johnson to face-to-face talks in Bute House. My immediate reaction was to ask why. Which is what I always ask about anything, of course. Why or when or who or WTF! I always have questions. But on this occasion I was asking why with an inflection suggesting irked puzzlement. It immediately struck me as a less than self-evidently wise move. And given that the First Minister was under no obligation to extend this invitation, even the slightest dubiety might be reason enough not to do it.
Of course, there might not be a reason. It would certainly be a mistake to always assume that there must be a clear motive and purpose for any action. The actor will generally suppose that they have a reason for doing whatever it is that they are doing. But it is far from certain that it will be a reason that everybody understands or thinks sufficient. One person’s considered action is another’s random act of utter folly. But sometimes even with our prejudices set as far to the side as possible we still can’t figure out what was going on in the actor’s head. Sometimes the motive is just too obscure and the rationale too arcane.
For me, it is beyond comprehension that, faced with what is admittedly a serious public health crisis, the de facto leader of Scotland’s independence movement’s first and only thought was to bring that movement to a complete stop, slap a disabled sticker on it and abandon it until further notice. There was nothing to suggest that so much as a moment’s thought had been given to the possibility of a more productive course of action. Or at least a less destructive one. To my mind, lockdown presented the Yes movement with an ideal opportunity to develop and hone its online campaigning capacity. With thousands of people on lockdown, there was a massive ‘captive audience’ ready to click on any link that could be made a bit interesting. For sure, the scammers recognised this solid gold lining to the Covid cloud. It didn’t seem to occur to Sturgeon or any of the of people who have her ear.
But she must have had her reasons. Mustn’t she? Her loyal followers were quick to offer rationalisations that were often even more contrived than they needed to be. The one about it being part of some great secret plan was among the least credible. More believable was the argument that her parking of the constitutional issue was intended to impress the ‘international community’. Sturgeon wanted to be able to say “See how statesmanlike [stateswomanlike? statespersonlike?] I am! See how I put the health and safety of my people before my political agenda!”. This seems plausible. Except that when we weigh this hope of winning the respect of the ‘international community’ against the potential harm to Scotland’s cause – and to Scotland – of indefinite delay, the favourable opinion of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats in other countries doesn’t tip the scales. Unless, that is, you are the person set to benefit most from their good offices. Hmmm…!
Who does Nicola Sturgeon think she’s impressing by inviting the British Prime Minister to visit her at her official residence for ‘talks’? The same people? Perhaps. Maybe the invitation was issued without much thought at all. It is unfortunately easy to think of every move a politician makes as the product of Machiavellian calculation. It ain’t necessarily so! Sometimes politicians just do stuff. The same as the rest of us. A higher intelligence peering at humanity through a microscope would see something similar to what we see when we train our microscopes on pond-life. Being a higher intelligence it might be able to discern patterns in our twitchings and squirmings. But it wouldn’t be easy to make out any motive or purpose.
Maybe Sturgeon is planning on using this opportunity to beg Boris’s blessing for a new referendum. That would be just one more incomprehensible act of folly. But at least it would be a reason, no matter how unreasonable. I think we can discount the possibility that she craves his company. But the idea that she wants to discuss next moves in the game of chess both are playing against viral pandemics is hardly more credible. It is far too complex a subject to be dealt with meaningfully at a brief, semi-impromptu meeting. And if the idea is to try and agree broad principles, what would be the point? Boris would probably have reneged on any such agreement before he’d snuck out the back door of Bute House.
Is the invitation inviting a snub? In other words, is it an act of self-harm – witting or unwitting or witless? Such a snub would certainly fit the long since emerged pattern of behaviour of Boris and his gang. It has long been evident that the British political elite has been seizing on every opportunity to belittle and demean and delegitimise Scotland’s democratic institutions. Why would Boris not just tell Nicola to f*** off? That’s not how it would be worded, of course. But it’s how it would be heard by the audience he is playing to.
For that matter, what audience is Sturgeon playing to? If we reject the conspiracy theory that she is a British sleeper agent tasked with sabotaging Scotland’s independence movement along with our Parliament and much besides, then we have to suppose she is playing to some audience. She’s a politician! It’s what politicians do! What message is she trying to send and to whom?
Could the invitation to Boris Johnson have something to do with recent efforts to appear busy on the constitutional issue? If so, why was this not made explicit as the reason for the invitation? Superficially at least it looks more like something intended to persuade whoever she thinks she needs to persuade that she is focused on the pandemic and not being distracted by mere threats to Scotland’s democracy.
I think I may have found the answer to Mark Mair’s question. So long as he doesn’t mind me responding to a question with another question. Because I think he may be asking the wrong question. Rather than asking why the SNP seems determined to self-harm it might be more illuminating to ask how the party might avoid self-harm. When there is as much polarisation and tribalism as exists in the realm of Scottish politics then it’s impossible to do or say anything without offending at least one camp. If offending that camp is seen to be detrimental to the interests or reputation of the party then it inevitably looks very much an act of self-harm.
The great irony is that while Nicola Sturgeon can be said to be a main cause of the factionalism and polarisation – inasmuch as it has happened on her watch – it is the kind of situation she is least well equipped to deal with. A temperament tuned for conciliation and conversation and consensus is ill-suited to the fraught environment of polarised politics and tribal conflict. But I have to wonder if Nicola Sturgeon is even aware of this environment. She’s bound to know about it. But is she aware? Is she conscious of the fact that pretty much anything she does can be viewed from one perspective or another as an act of self-harm? Is she making calculated choices about which camp to alienate? Or is she lost in the belief that she can get by without confrontation and conflict?
Is that why the SNP appears determined to self-harm?
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