Time for the SNP to loosen its stays

Never blog in anger is a lesson I learned early in this enterprise.

And while I was sorely tempted to hit the keyboard immediately after the “great NATO debate”, it would have been a foolish move.  I’d already formed the headline, after all, before I’d even left the hall: “the leadership won the vote but lost respect/the argument/the party/delete as appropriate”.  Any of them would have been unfair and untrue.

Had I done so, I would have missed out on hearing others’ reactions – important reactions too, like that of one seasoned political observer I spoke to in the aftermath.  What did I think of it all, he asked?  I bristled and fulminated and gnashed and wailed.  What did you think, I asked?  I thought it was wonderful, he said.  It has been years since I had the privilege to witness such passion, such heat, such quality in a political debate.  This is what politics has been missing and this is the sort of politics people want, he opined.  He has never, knowingly, voted SNP in his life but is coming close to voting yes in the referendum now.

That stopped me in my tracks.  Burns has been misquoted twice already in dispatches at conference, so allow me to do so a third time.  “O wad some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as ithers see us“.  For Friday’s debate won the SNP many admirers and a not insignificant number of new friends.

There is no doubt that the outcome of the great NATO debate is still filtering through.  Many are still angry and fretting over what it actually means;  some of the anti-protagonists are still processing, still too sore to talk about it, but have not taken their ba’ away completely.  The fact that so many of them are still here at conference says a lot about the mettle of folk who collectively make up the SNP.  They’ve learned a lot over the years.  And to prove it, this is what Jamie Hepburn MSP, one of the leaders of the parliamentary rebel gang, had to say to me – exclusively, I might add.

“Of course I’m disappointed that we didn’t carry the vote.  But at the end of the day, we held the debate and outsiders looking in thought it was good we had that type of debate.  And it was good.  We shouldn’t be downhearted.  It’s time to respect the party’s decision and we’ll move on from here.  I’m not surprised how close it was.  I could tell in the build up that it was going to be close.  And it’s not unhealthy for there to be a balance of different opinions in the party. 

“To anyone thinking of resigning from the SNP over this, I’d say, remember why you joined, remember why we’re here.  Those reasons still stand.  The SNP is still, the best and most appropriate vehicle for achieving independence and social justice for Scotland.

Wise words everyone in the party should reflect on.  Including the leadership.

But let me scotch a myth.  The leadership did not support this debate.  It did not call for it nor sanction it, nor expect to find itself practising some long-forgotten dark arts.  This update on party defence policy was exclusively the work of the Westminster MPs.  It was touted to party and briefed to the media that it had leadership support.  At the start of the summer, that wasn’t remotely true.  And as someone who has been around some of this stuff, albeit a long time ago, I sensed then from what was being said and what wasn’t, that this wasn’t a leadership move.  Which is why I blogged as I did way back then (a post, which even to me, seems uncannily prescient), mentioning both Anguses in dispatches but not the leadership.  I also tweeted my doubts that this was stamped Made by Salmond and was rounded upon.

Well, now we know.  The reason the leadership ended up bossing this debate in the finishing straight was because it was all unravelling.  Despite assurances they’d been given that it was all under control, that the party membership was ready to take this step and that the vote was a shoo-in.  Which is why the speakers in favour of the resolution were some of the party’s biggest hitters.  And it is why many voted for the resolution and against what they actually believed.

Because at this stage in the referendum campaign – so near and yet still so far – they did not want to deliver a defeat to the leadership.  And while it was uncomfortable being reminded of the reasons for my withdrawal from front line, active politics by seeing some manoeuvres dusted down and brought back into action, frankly I cannot blame the leadership at all.  The leadership did what it had to do to save the day.  And the point is that it – and the party and its members, supporters and activists – should never have been put in this position in the first place.

But a few days’ reflection suggests that the great NATO debate was not so unhelpful.  In this debate, the SNP showed what it offers the people of Scotland.  Indeed, it reminded itself of where it came from.  Here was a party charged with passion, belief and commitment.  People stamped and cheered and boo-ed and tutted in equal measure because they cared, because this was something that mattered.  Folk in the hall were applauding speakers and speeches even though they were on opposing sides.  Indeed, it was impossible to tell from the clap-o-meter which way the vote might go.

The great NATO debate might have left everyone feeling somewhat bruised – not least the leadership – but has surely taught a few lessons.  Not least that something with meat on the bones on the conference agenda brings about a full delegate complement and a thronging and thriving atmosphere.

But the biggest lesson?  That debate is nothing to be scared of.  Indeed, by showing what it is made of, the SNP will have gained a few yes votes.  A party capable of hosting debates replete with purpose and principle is likely to curry favour with an electorate – and indeed, a media – fed up with a whitewashed political discourse.  Spin and its misuse over the last decade has made people mistrustful of politicians.  No one respects what they have to say; few believe any utterance they make without suspecting a hidden agenda.  With the great NATO debate, the SNP has given people at least, pause for thought.

For it showed that actually, the SNP has at its core, a different DNA, one with a range of beliefs in its membranes, that amounts to more than a single cause.  That the party is thinking and working out what independence means, not just for its members and activists, but for Scotland.  The SNP demonstrated that the people’s trust in it is not misplaced, that those of us trying to persuade more to vote yes to independence do so from a position of more than self-preservation.

And having dabbled with the concept of allowing real debate once, it is time for the party to loosen its stays.  For too long, the SNP has behaved like a buttoned up matron.  Stiff and unbending, brooking no dissent, wrapping those who stray from the line over the knuckles with a ruler, fixing others who dare speak unwelcome thoughts with a reproving stare.

Enough.  We have all grown up a lot in the last twelve years.  The SNP has moved from protest to power; the transition, by necessity, required supreme discipline.  But now? Allowing more excellent debates within its membership – on issues which people really are asking us about on the doorsteps – would mark the SNP as a properly mature movement.  At ease with itself, confident in its beliefs, comfortable with who it is and what it offers the people of Scotland.

If the SNP learned nothing else from the great NATO debate, it is surely that there is much to be gained and little to be lost from allowing debate to flourish.  After all, who dares wins.



20 thoughts on “Time for the SNP to loosen its stays

  1. I am a lilfe long SNP member (since I left school in 1959). I would urge all those who would leave the party over this democratically arrived at decision to do so as soon as possible.
    Let the rest of us get on with winning the vote in 2014 for independence strengthened by the knowledge that the continuous attack we would have been facing over the next two years about how Scotland would,defend itself has been effectively kicked into the long grass. The only difference that would have resulted from the vote going the other way would have been damage to the SNP and it would have made no difference whatsover to the make-up or the behaviour of NATO.
    Political history is littered with examples of principled people unable to think things through and who have failed to achieve their main objectives because of this.
    A fat lot of good it would have done us to vote to leave NATO and lose the referendum because of it (and lose the actual power to really leave NATO if that is what
    Scotland wants – though there is scant evidence that that is what Scotland wants).
    I am too old to bother with the niceties. We nearly did something very stupid on Friday.

  2. Gordon Johnston and Dave Dempsey – both of you are making a point which many people seem to think is some sort of uncomfortable truth about the SNP, but in reality is just a simple fact of life.

    The SNP is a party that was formed with one goal in mind – to get independence for Scotland. There’s nothing sensational about that. Labour were formed with the sole intention of improving life for the working classes. The Greens were formed with the sole intention of saving the environment. Political parties tend to arise from a single issue or tenet, and attract members for whom that issue or tenet is their main concern. That’s the whole point of party politics – to provide organisation for politically-minded individuals.

    Once independence is achieved, people will consider whether the SNP still fulfils their needs. With independence removed as a the defining tenet of the party, the SNP will probably try to continue straddling the centre ground and will doubtless become the first “establishment” party of indy Scotland – just as the parties who were the main protagonists in independence movements in other countries tend to live on as establishment parties. But while all (major) parties tend to have right and left wings, the most right- and left-leaning members will probably find the SNP doesn’t go as far as they’d like to on either side. Perhaps we’ll see those whose natural home would once have been Labour joining whatever version of Scottish Labour we see arise, and maybe those who, removing the constitutional issue, would otherwise have found a home in the Tory party would now find themselves in Murdo Fraser’s new party. Maybe some will join the SGP and others will join the SSP. We don’t know what will happen, and this sort of stuff is partly what makes independence such an exciting prospect.

    The thing is, if anyone thinks SNP members give even a second-thought as to what independence will mean to the party, then they’re seriously failing to understand the motives behind those of us who have joined the SNP. I don’t give two hoots if the party continues in it’s current form in some way, or if it completely implodes, splitting into two, three or four smaller parties – it’ll have achieved what it was set up to do, so it will have fulfilled its purpose and will enjoy a glorious write up in future history books of Scotland. If the SNP goes to the right post-indy, then I’ll just follow folk like Jamie Hepburn and Humza Yousaf, who I imagine will be future big hitters on the left in an independent Scotland.

    • Agreed. I was merely addressing the question posed in the main blog post. One could be unkind and paraphrase this as “we don’t know what independence will be but we know it’ll be better”. If you believe that then you vote yes – simple. If you don’t believe it then what do you do?

    • And yet Humza voted for NATO despite volunteering to me an hour before that he was voting against. And Jamie Hepburn has made an arse of himself on Scotland tonight defending the EU lies and being seriously uncomfortable defending party unity. That is long gone now.

      • I thought Jamie Hepburn was very good on STV and underlined the absolute requirement for discipline from members who join a political party. This includes the requirement to live with decisions taken democratically by the party whether you agree with them or not. Political parties cannot exist otherwise.
        In particular it requires elected members to recognise the debt they owe to the party and its activists in effecting their election and should preclude high profile self indulgent TV staged resignations without checking first with the failthful who put them there in the first place.

      • Yes, you keep on telling yourself that and in the end, like the deluded Smith – whose speech and attitude were disgraceful – you will rationalise this unecessary and divisive action. Could ot be that those who have resigned did so on long held principles? Could the ongoing damage to the party, giving succour to our enemies, gave been avoided? Yes and yes again. Was this move necessary has it strengtjened the party? No and once again no. You and the rest of the pros gained nothing by indulting those who disagreed with you and you will go on reaping no reward if you continue.

      • Didn’t notice myself insulting anyone who disagreed with me.
        If I was to resign from the SNP (of which I have been a member for over fifty years) in respect for the thousands of good friends and colleagues I wouldn’t take part in a self indulgent televised resignation designed to do as much damage to the party as possible.
        I would hand in my resignation and say “no comment” to the unionist press
        Spare us the tears,Jean, that was vengeance against those who disagree with you.

      • Take the opportunity to spell my name correctly I am a man… You might then reflect upon the non- sequiturs and dissembling of your camp. As for self lndulgent and, now self jutifying behaviour, well Angus Robertson remains irritatingly constant in this area as for Smith? Well runnlng around veering between an attutude of bullish certitude and asking people if they are still talking to him, speaks for itself.

        Ask yourself whether the NATO debate benefi tsxthe party.

      • The “Jean” I was addressing my remarks to ,as any half sensible person will have noted, was Jean Urquart.
        I have not read anything in your posts that would promote me to serious response except to say that the Nato debate benefitted the party hugely. The behaviour of Urquart and Finnie did not.
        Quite a lot of people think they should now stand down from Parliament if their principles are up to it.

  3. Excellent article and an excellent debate indeed. I blogged my own thoughts after the event which can be found here:


    The fact that the Party was prepared to have such an open and extended debate at the party conference on such an issue and with the eyes of the World on it speaks volumes for it. Whether people are happy with the decision or not it was the democratic decision of the party and that should be supported by us all. I didn’t have a vote myself but, sitting in the balcony, watching the debate I was very proud of the SNP, of our party.

  4. An independent Scotland will find it much easier to leave NASTO in the future than a Scotland tied within the UK. In the meantime, NASTO might prove useful in defending against possible English aggression following 2014.

  5. Great article – ultimately, what’s at stake is independence. Al other matters can come back for discussion.

  6. What will independence mean for the SNP? Basically, the end because its activists hold such a disparate set of beliefs on almost everything else. Having closely watched them in action at local government level, the discipline is awesome but it’s not clear what will maintain that discipline if the common cause disappears.

  7. I have been anti-Nato/nuclear since my mid-teens over 40 years ago. I argued long and hard for the party to retain its ‘No Nato’ stance. In the end and in the best political debate I have taken part in since 1979, my view did not prevail and I accept this; it’s called dmocracy. Actually the only person that I have heard of who is threatening to resign and doing do in a wholly self pubkicising manner, is a person whom I think should not be in the party in the first place. His motivation being, in my view not the love of Scotland but the detestation of all things ‘British’.

    We lost the argument, one which I believe should have been left for discussion in a post-indrpendence Scotland, neverthless guys, eyes on the prize. We march on towards our goal of a truly independent Scotland…without nuclear weapons…

    • Read my earlier comment. I’m not the person you talk about (my girlfriend is from London, aside from anything else) so I’m afraid there are perhaps more people than you think considering resigning membership.

      • I don’t beleive I kbow who you are, as I doubt we have ever met. I do know the person to whom I refer in my original post. He is not you.

        I do not think this change should have taken place and certainly not in the manner it was executed. I firmly beleive the ‘justification’ we were all fed is nonsense.

        If people choose to resign their membership that is their choice. I prefer to be inside the tent…

  8. I find this article very contradictory. In what way would sticking to party policy have damaged the leadership or the YES campaign? Your original analysis was spot on. Surely the party would have won more friends if the delegates had voted with their conscience instead of some giving in to bullying and other underhanded practices.

    I understand those who now just want to get on with it as elected representatives. I don’t want to do that though so have resigned and I’m not alone. I believe you may have heard me girning outside the hall incidently, I’d just listened to an Asian delegate tell me he had voted foe NATO because of bombs falling on Pakistan. I’d informed him that those bombs were NATO bombs. I reckon he made more sense than the pro-NATO speakers right enough who veered from insulting to the intelligence to just plain insulting.

  9. Pingback: Time for the SNP to loosen its stays | Politics Scotland | Scoop.it

  10. A very interesting take as always. But there is a large contradiction in your article.

    You portray a party divided on this issue as a good thing because the debate was principled. Yet you also state that many voted against what they actually believed in for what could be called pragmatic reasons. Now, given the closeness of the crucial vote, this could mean that a decision was reached that was not the belief of the majority.

    The dichotomy at the heart of the SNP is that it is both a single issue campaign and a political party. It brings together all those who believe in independence, which inevitably makes political divisions on other key issues likely. For me this raises a big question (for another day) – what would the purpose of the SNP be in a theoretical independent Scotland? What role could it play as a political party when its central purpose was achieved? And could it stay together as a party without the common purpose that keeps those with differing views together?

  11. I’m one of the life-long party members who feels betrayed by the decision. I joined when I was 16, 30 years ago. I’ve had two guiding principles in my life: self-determination for Scotland (and more broadly a multi-level governance in Europe where we recognise the value of the EU institutions, the member states but also the regional and local levels); and that nuclear weapons and and a military alliance that promotes a first strike policy are morally indefensible.

    I was on mission last week (trying to help the Greek economy get back on its feet, so perhaps I’m a sucker for difficult causes) so could not make conference. I hear lots of good things about the quality of the debate but the pro-NATO arguments suffered so many weaknesses that I can only assume that the party leadership swung behind it for political expediency.

    I’ve written to Nicola Sturgeon in reply to a request to renew my SNP membership asking her to explain to me how she expects me to square my guiding political principles with this decision to be part of a nuclear defence alliance.

    I was angry and very sad on Friday. I’m still feeling similar today. I recognise what Jamie Hepburn is saying but I’m still inclined not to renew my membership.

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