I note with barely a flicker of interest the SNP has released the agenda for the party’s 88th annual conference due to take place in Aberdeen next month ─ strikebound public transport permitting. I don’t think anybody with even the most tenuous grasp of political reality supposes that the event will be anything more than ‘The Nicola Sturgeon Show’ back bigger and more rigidly stage-managed than ever. Everything that isn’t a standing ovation for the leader will be building towards a standing ovation for the leader. No dissenting voices will be heard. No alternative perspectives will be offered. The big message will be that Nicola has it covered. Whatever it is, she has it covered. All we need is faith.
Expect to hear one word more than any other. No! Not ‘independence’! Don’t be silly! You were told! Nicola has that covered. You and I don’t need to think about the constitutional issue any more. In fact, it would be far better if we didn’t think about the constitutional issue. Not aloud, at least. No! The word that will be on the lips of every one of those permitted to speak for the party will be ‘unity’. But it will be a very particular form of unity that is being urged. It will be unity strictly on the SNP’s terms. On Nicola Sturgeon’s terms. It will be a call for exclusive unity. Unity achieved not by pulling the entire independence movement together for the common purpose of restoring Scotland’s independence, but by excluding all who decline to subscribe to the Surgeon doctrine.
The sub-text to all these calls to create the outward appearance of unity will be the cretinous dogma of ‘with us or against us’. This subtext will be unspoken by Sturgeon or her supporting cast of drooling sycophants. The party bosses know that they can rely on the mass of lowly devotees to make that message quite explicit through the medium of social and alternative media. This is already happening, of course. But the conference will signal the start of a renewed effort to sideline and other anyone who asks awkward questions about the Sturgeon doctrine or who points out facts inconvenient to the party line or who expresses concerns about the effectiveness or wisdom of Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue. Division in the Yes movement will be eliminated by the simple expedient of defining the Yes movement as being only those who march in time with the SNP. If you are not participating in those dutiful standing ovations, you are not signalling dissent within the membership of SNP-Yes. You are demonstrating that you are not really part of that club. You are the enemy.
Central to this formalised othering of dissenting voices within what used to be the Yes movement is the proposed code of conduct.
A motion put forward by president Michael Russell – among others – will call for conference to support the adoption of a code of conduct which would be adhered to by all organisations involved in the Yes movement in all campaigning.SNP release ‘jam-packed’ agenda for Aberdeen conference
This code of conduct will provide the means to clearly label dissenting voices as coming from outside the ‘real’ Yes movement. The ‘real’ Yes movement is totally united. There are no dissenting voices within the ‘real’ Yes movement. Therefore, by definition, any dissenting voice must be as separate from the ‘real’ Yes movement as the voice of British nationalism. The code of conduct will be enforced by proxy organisations so that the disciplinary authority of the SNP is effectively extended to non-members of the party.
The SNP conference and the adoption of the code of conduct will be the final stage of a process which has been ongoing since Nicola Sturgeon became SNP leader. That process is all about control. Firstly, control of the party and all the internal levers of power. Something that was achieved with an ease which must have delighted Sturgeon. An ease which shames the party membership of the time ─ most assuredly not excepting myself. Having seized control of the party, it was necessary to extend that control to the Yes movement in order to ensure its utility as a tool of the SNP’s election campaigning machine.
As a political commentator, I cannot help but admire the cold efficiency with which Sturgeon has gone about the task of imposing her control on both party and movement. She has created a new entity ─ SNP-Yes ─ that is entirely at her disposal. As a life-long supporter of Scotland’s cause, I might even accept this exceptional degree of control as an unfortunate necessity in present circumstances. In fact, I have often said that in order to successfully confront the British state we will be obliged to make some unprecedented concessions to the party providing the effective political power that the independence cause requires. I always envisaged the ideal as being the entire Yes movement united in support of a (SNP) Scottish Government pursuing a clear manifesto commitment to the restoration of Scotland’s independence by whatever means necessary. What Nicola Sturgeon has created is not what I hoped for. Not in any way.
I am not to be counted among the daft conspiracy theorists who suppose Sturgeon to be some kind of agent of the British state. Although I do have some sympathy for the view that she is now more inclined to devolution than independence. What I reject is the notion that Sturgeon is against independence. I simply don’t find it credible that she might have abandoned entirely her commitment to Scotland’s cause. Everything she is doing is better explained by a reordering of her priorities rather than anything so fundamental as changing sides in the great Yes/No divide. If I could see Sturgeon’s control-freakery as having the sole or main purpose of bringing about the restoration of Scotland’s independence, I might be able to grit my teeth and thole it. But given that nothing she has done, is doing or proposes to do actually connects to that aim, I have to assume there to be some other purpose.
Or should I say purposes? Understanding politics is almost entirely a matter of identifying imperatives and options. If you recognise the imperatives informing choices made by politicians then you can also identify the options which best serve those imperatives. Conversely, if you look closely at the options chosen you will discern the priorities which inform their selection. When I look at Nicola Sturgeon’s behaviour I see two main priorities. The first is the SNP’s electoral imperative. This is neither new nor surprising. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. After all, Scotland’s cause absolutely requires the effective political power that only a party of government can provide. And at present, the SNP is the sole candidate for that role. That’s just realpolitik. It only becomes a bad thing when the electoral imperative looms so large as to overshadow the constitutional imperative. When serving the electoral imperative comes to involve compromising the pursuit of independence then it is a very bad thing indeed. In various ways, Nicola Sturgeon has demonstrated her willingness to sacrifice in some measure the progress of Scotland’s cause for what she regards as best serving her party’s electoral chances. The most obvious example might be the hyper-cautious procrastination that has characterised her approach to the constitutional question over the last eight years.
Another clear indication of the extent to which Sturgeon is prepared to compromise Scotland’s cause for perceived electoral benefit is the reluctance to seriously rock the boat exhibited by SNP MSPs and MPs. The blustering of Ian Blackford, for instance, appears carefully calculated to send out all the right signs while having no actual impact.
But the damning evidence of Sturgeon’s readiness to sacrifice independence for election is the proposal for a referendum and/or plebiscitary election. The proposal does absolutely nothing to progress Scottland’s cause and is entirely designed to position Sturgeon and her party for the next UK general election and the Holyrood election after that. It is yet another can-kicking exercise that takes no account whatever of what the British state might do with the time and space so generously gifted by our First Minister.
The second imperative driving Sturgeon’s choices isn’t new either. Any successful politician must be concerned about their image. They have to be electable, after all. They are the face and voice of the party. They embody the party’s aims. What is novel is the importance attached to protecting Sturgeon’s image and the amount of effort being expended on keeping that image blemish-free. And doing so regardless of any practical implications for Scotland’s cause.
The SNP conference will be ‘The Nicola Sturgeon Show!’ in a manner and to an extent not seen previously. None of it will have anything to do with restoring Scotland’s independence. But you better get used to it. Soon, it will be the only show there is.
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