All week, I have been trying to puzzle out how the SNP got itself into this mess. It goes with the territory of being a history graduate, a Virgo and a nosy blighter. I like to know how something happened and for the life of me, I cannot pin it down. There are lots of possibilities but none of them quite add up.
So it took a friend to point out that why it happened matters less than the fact it happened at all and that the Scottish Government needs to prevent it happening again. It also has to admit to itself that this firestorm matters: it cannot be glibly explained away, nor kicked into the long grass of a Ministerial Code investigation, nor glossed over by picking up the pieces next week and pretending it never happened.
As Euan McColm’s opinion piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday sets out, the events of the past week have served to illuminate some of the weaknesses and flaws in the First Minister’s political character. What is important is what everyone – including him – does from here.
Last week was the political hothouse at boiling point, bearing very little relation to the reality of life for most people in Scotland. This much we know. Only the anoraks and the politicians care about who said what to whom and when and what was said and not said on the issue of legal advice relating to independent Scotland’s EU membership. Ask your next door neighbour, your pal in the pub, your fellow traveller on the bus and they will shrug their shoulders and be able to tell you nothing. But what they do pick up is the vibes.
And the vibes are that the Scottish Government in whom they have placed remarkable trust as voters, weighing up the options and finding the SNP to be potentially much more competent than any of the rest, is fallible. It’s not the issue of legal advice being sought or not on EU membership by itself, but the cumulative impact of a series of such small-beer events. It is the chipping away of a reputation for competence which is damaging.
The mistake the SNP and the Scottish Government has made has been in setting the bar too high. It has equated its reputation for competence with a need to be infallible and to always have all the answers. No one expected this and actually, using bluff and bluster to create and maintain a sense of omnipotence is a weakness, not a strength. What the Scottish people have trusted the SNP to do is to stand up for and act in Scotland’s interests with the powers we currently have. They trust the party less on independence, fearing that it will do and say anything to encourage people to vote yes.
So the party needs to stop feeding this vicious circle. Every time it tries to infer it knows the answers to unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, it will get found out. Far better to hold its hands up on occasion and admit that it does not have the answers, but will do its very best to find out all the options and present them openly and honestly to the Scottish people so that they can make up their own minds when they come to vote in the referendum. That will garner respect and box the Unionists into a corner, because they too will have to change their tactics. And their inability to answer why we should stick rather than twist will be found out.
Key to such an approach is the Scottish Government giving up its obsession with framing everything that it does within the prism of good or bad for the referendum. It needs to get on with the day job. Can anyone remember anything of any meaning or substance in terms of government announcements on any matter relating to current devolved powers in the last few weeks? Only if we think hard. So first up, Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers need to re-focus and reclaim their turf for trust and competence on the stuff they can do something about.
Also, there needs to be one singer and one song on all matters referendum. With the appointment of Nicola Sturgeon as the putative Yes Minister, a shift was signalled in who would lead for the Scottish Government on the referendum. Having appointed her, the First Minister needs to let her get on with fashioning the brief in her own image and go and find something more useful to do instead.
Moreover, the Scottish Government and the SNP has to cede control of the referendum narrative to the Yes Scotland campaign. Currently, there is no space for Yes Scotland to even begin to think out how it wants to build the campaign for a yes vote. At heart, the party and the leadership (or at least, most of it) get this: what it hasn’t quite worked out is how to achieve that. Letting go is hard, particularly when electoral success has been won through a remarkable ability to exercise self-control and apply self-discipline across and through its ranks. Yes Scotland is and has to be a messy, grassroots, organic movement, something which is rather alien to the SNP way of doing things. The sooner the SNP relinquishes control, the sooner Yes Scotland can get on with doing what it was set up to achieve.
One immediate challenge for Yes Scotland is how to prevent the already stretched fabric of its big tent from ripping beyond repair. Some months ago, at the start of the long Great NATO Debate, Robin McAlpine warned that “if the SNP walks away from the left now, it may look behind it during the referendum campaign and wonder why it is standing on its own.” T his week, two SNP MSPs resigned the whip; others were probably persuaded not to follow. Many in the rank and file have torn up their memberships; others will simply fade away by not renewing. There is no point winning support from other demographics if it results in those on the left of the party walking away. And the movement needs to enthuse activists and foot soldiers, not give the longstanding faithful reasons not to get out there and work for a yes vote. Yes Scotland needs to agree a strategy which keeps current yes voters on side, as well as targets sufficient persuadables. And stick to it. No matter what the SNP might say and do.
Finally, the SNP needs to get out of the trenches with the Scottish press. We all knew it would get dirty and the referendum battle would involve close hand to hand combat, but not all destinies have to be pre-ordained. The Scottish press is on its knees with circulations spiralling downwards. Commentators proclaim with certainty that one or other of our broadsheet stables will fold next year. Weekly local newspapers are disappearing fast and no one has found the key to arresting these developments.
And while there is little love lost between the Scottish press and the SNP, the fact remains that a healthy democracy cannot thrive without a free press. In the next two years, we need a strong and confident press operating at national, regional and local levels contributing to and scrutinising the debate. So a change of tactics is in order.
The First Minister could use his New Year address to signal a rapprochement, to make a call to us all, as our patriotic duty, to go out and buy or subscribe electronically to Scottish newspapers. To buy one broadsheet and one tabloid on a weekday, same on a Sunday and also buy a regional title at least once a week, and a weekly local title too. The only way we are going to achieve better quality of product and output is if newspapers have increased revenue and readerships. They cannot do this alone. And newspapers should have the same access as other businesses to innovation funds which enable them to diversify their platforms and reach new audiences.
Last week has been widely acknowledged as the worst week ever for this SNP Government and in particular, the First Minister, with significant erosion of people’s trust and competence in his and their capabilities. If it and he want to avoid more worst weeks ever, they must heed this wake up call and spend the dog days of winter working out not only how they got into this mess, but how to prevent it happening again. At stake is not just the SNP’s credibility as an electoral force, but the possibility of winning independence for Scotland. The stakes are too high to do nothing.