On the 19th September 2014, Alex Salmond resigned as Scotland’s First Minister and as leader of the Scottish National Party, following the ‘No’ campaign’s victory in the Scottish independence referendum. Achieving over 1.6 million ‘Yes’ votes and a record turn-out of 85 per cent was no small achievement. His resignation should have been a day of despair, but in truth the opposite happened.
After 7 years of an SNP government, Scotland had been transformed for the better. A transformational policy agenda brought free tuition to Scottish students, protected long-term care for the elderly, scrapped bridge tolls, froze council tax and much more. Salmond’s legacy will be ‘free tuition’ and the famous quote that “rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students”. Indeed, the 19th September 2014, would have been a day of despair, had it not been for Salmond’s successful succession planning.
“Nicola Sturgeon…a formidable politician by any standard”
The appointment of Nicola Sturgeon as Alex Salmond’s successor brought comfort to many in the ‘Yes’ movement. A formidable politician by any standard, with the experience and popularity to take Scotland forward.
In 2015, the SNP surge broke the BBC swingometer in Glasgow, on a night where the party returned 56 MPs to Westminster. A freak victory that would be impossible to repeat. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon had achieved the unachievable and with it, carried the hopes and aspirations of many in the ‘Yes’ movement. Fast forward to 2017 and a vastly different picture has started to emerge.
The snap election on 8th June 2017, returned the UK to the binary politics of old. The Tories and Labour fought it out, UKIP were wiped from the map and the Lib Dem’s struggled to make any meaningful gains; winning seats in Scotland, but on a reduced share of the vote. Despite this, it was the SNP that received the bloodiest nose. So, what happened?
The SNP were never going to repeat their victory of 2015. The question was not whether or not the SNP would lose seats, but rather how many. The reality was worse than even the most pessimistic commentators could have imagined and far better than most Tories could ever have dreamed. The election in Scotland was fought on two issues; education and independence. Neither issue had much to do with the General Election, but the media compliantly regurgitated the dishonest Unionist complaint that our education system was on the brink of collapse and that Nicola Sturgeon was conspiring to inflict an imminent, unwanted, referendum on weary Scots.
In fairness, there are challenges with our ‘devolved’ education system. None of which can be fixed by MPs at Westminster; or a ‘No to IndyRef2’ policy for that matter. Conversely, there are many positive things to say about education too. Nonetheless, the reality is that this was never going to be an easy election for the SNP.
“messaging coming out of SNP HQ has been ineffective and tired… the electorate have been left wanting”
The bad news is that the result was not inevitable. Let’s start with marketing and communications. The messaging coming out of SNP HQ has been ineffective and tired. The ‘Stronger for Scotland’ slogan has had its day. In asking some colleagues and friends about the result, some argue that the SNP were too negative and spent too much time criticising the Tories; the electorate have been left wanting.
Were any of the campaign messages even tested on focus groups to gauge how successful they might be? I highly doubt it. It’s time to hire a professional and experienced marketing and communications team, who will conduct meaningful research, sample messaging and frame the arguments correctly. To compliment this, we should utilise our talented politicians more frequently to handle media rebuttals, participate in political TV programmes, radio interviews etc. When we talk about the ‘messaging’ during the campaign, there was something more important that was evidently missing – differentiating public policy proposals.
“The SNP leadership… do not have a ‘monopoly of wisdom’ – they need to listen”
Corbyn emerged the real winner of the election by emulating what the SNP delivered in 2007 and offered in 2014; transformational policies and hope. I’ve been thoroughly disappointed in the SNP’s public policy agenda, where they have been too feart to rock the boat. Let’s take raising the top rate of tax to 50p as an example. It’s morally the right thing to do, yet the SNP’s argument for inaction, whether backed up by evidence or not, is weak. Policies on Land Reform should have been transformational, but didn’t go anywhere near far enough. Then there’s the popular policy of a Scottish National Investment Bank, where the SNP refused to even discuss the prospect with Common Weal’s Robin McAlpine. It’s quite simply not good enough. The SNP leadership, to quote Alex Salmond, do not have a ‘monopoly of wisdom’ – they need to listen.
The fear is that things will not change, as there is little internal pressure to force the SNP into action. Lesley Riddoch, a critical friend of the SNP, has in the past shared her frustration at our largely compliant membership. Indeed, I was in attendance at an SNP meeting in Edinburgh where Lesley had articulated as much – if only we had listened…
Much of the influential youth wing, who have many successes to be proud of (not least their support for inclusive education), rarely speak out in fear of damaging their future prospects within the party, with a few admirable exceptions. This has to change.
Here’s a thought, why not reach out to the 100,000+ membership and identify their skills and experience; take the most talented and revered in their respective careers and draw upon the experience of these high-quality focus groups.
“Failing to succession plan can be as disastrous in business, as it can be fatal in politics”
Finally, there are many faces in today’s SNP cabinet who have been there for the past decade. The party seems to be tightly controlled by a few in the centre; our very own ‘establishment’. Yet – who takes over from Nicola? Failing to succession plan can be as disastrous in business, as it can be fatal in politics. Salmond understood this.
“bright, capable, experienced women… our party is bursting with talent”
We have many talented new faces at Holyrood who should be given the opportunity to serve in the cabinet or at ministerial level. Take for example, the criminally underutilised Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, a fluent Gaelic speaker and Cambridge graduate; or Jenny Gilruth, MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes, a former Modern Studies Teacher (wouldn’t it be good to hear what the SNP are doing on education, from someone who actually knows a thing or two about it?); and then there is our SNP MSP for South Scotland, Emma Harper – a trained nurse. These are bright, capable, experienced women and they are not alone. Our party is bursting with talent. It also wouldn’t hurt to improve our geographical spread – we have one cabinet minister north of Dundee (the right-leaning Fergus Ewing) and none in the South of Scotland. Is it any wonder we are losing ground in rural communities?
We can despair about the disappointing result or we can see it for what it is: an opportunity; a wake-up call of sorts. I’m privileged to have met SNP members who have campaigned for independence their whole lives; many now in their 70s and 80s. It might be harder for them to climb tenements to deliver leaflets or to spend hours in the wind and rain canvassing (albeit some still put the younger activists to shame), but they are remarkable people. It struck me after the election, that those members fought to make the SNP stronger, because they understood that the people needed a party who would speak up for Scotland. Truly – how can the Labour party, Lib Dems or Conservatives ever have Scotland’s best interests at heart, when they are dancing to the tune of their leaders in London? Those SNP members fought for the next generation, they fought for us, and having faced many setbacks they have never lost their enthusiasm or fight; and nor should we.
Colin Alexander Storrier is a Chartered Fellow of the London Institute of Banking & Finance. He has studied an MA Politics (Hons), completing research on ‘Public Policy in Scotland, post Devolution’. More recently, Colin has completed in MSc Banking Practice and Management, completing research into the use of ‘Wholesale Funding’ and its impact on economic growth in the UK, US, France and Germany. Colin is currently employed by a top tier UK bank. The views in this article are his own.
The Butterfly Rebellion
Colin Alexander Storrier