THE SNP are in a strange place. They are still the dominant, leading party but underneath, there is unease, anxiety and nervousness.

Many SNP members know that things are amiss. Lesley, an ­Edinburgh SNP member, observes that: “I think there is a false sense of ‘we’re back on track’, there’s a feeling if we just get the police thing over, we’ve got a position to take forward and we need to roll up our sleeves and get campaigning.”

Doug Gay, an academic at Glasgow University, a Church of Scotland minister and an SNP member, ­summarises the mood of the party. “There is a mix of a ‘denial and defiance’ crowd who are ­advocating a double down and go hard for independence ­strategy and a more chastened element who realise that we are likely to lose electoral ground and have to ­enter a ­rebuilding phase where we work to win back ­credibility and trust.”

Robert is an SNP member who has put his name ­forward to stand for Westminster and lives ­outside Glasgow. He thinks that the party has many ­challenges but has to champion what it stands for – beyond independence observing: “Sturgeon dragged the party into the modern age. She very much made the SNP the party of the young. She astutely ­identified the new generation gap and picked a side. There were risks in doing so but the risks in not doing so were much worse.”

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Much of this is to be expected. Political dominance comes at a cost. Periods of political ascendancy ­always come to an end. The laws of political gravity – and of governments being held to account – always eventually kick in.

Something more is going on than the usual ebb and flow of political party popularity. Rather we are at the end of one era of Scottish politics – filled with huge challenges, but also major opportunities, that need to be fully understood for the politics of ­independence to prosper.

The First and Second Waves of the SNP

THE modern-day SNP came of age when Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in 1967. This was the beginning of the first-wave SNP – which after exploding onto the political scene, turned Scottish politics upside down, forced Labour and the Tories to both address devolution, and culminated in the twin peaks of the SNP in the two UK general elections of 1974.

This period of SNP advance reached its ­plateau in 1977 and slowly began to subside the ­following year after Labour put the 1978 Scotland Act on the statute book and in three by-elections where ­Labour repulsed the nationalist bandwagon (­Garscadden, ­Hamilton, Berwick and East Lothian). This ­concluded in the 1979 devolution referendum and subsequent UK general election which saw SNP ­parliamentary ­representation decimated and the ­election of ­Margaret Thatcher as UK prime minister.

The second wave of the SNP began with the ­devolution era of the Scottish Parliament starting in 1999. It saw its zenith with the transformative ­moments of the SNP winning office in 2007 and the ­independence referendum of 2014. A critical moment in this was the SNP decoupling voting for the party from the issue of independence via a referendum in 2000 – a move which consciously mirrored Labour’s move on devolution committing to a referendum in 1996 held and won the following year.

After “the Big Bang” of 2014 ALL political eras come to an end and the long tail of political energy, enthusiasm and momentum that was the “Big Bang” of 2014 has now been significantly dissipated. This is what happens in the aftermath of heightened moments of political engagement – one which was an unprecedented explosion of political education and citizenship which reached into parts of society previously untouched.

The comedown has been both camouflaged and aided by the endless promise of the next ­indyref being just around the ­corner which was the dominant mantra of ­Nicola Sturgeon (below) following the 2016 ­Brexit vote. In this high-octane environment, for all this talk, little substantive work was done on the substance of independence, in learning the lessons of the 2014 defeat, and trying to capture and nurture the democratic spirit of 2014.

The National: Nicola Sturgeon has announced her intention to resign as First Minister of Scotland (Jane Barlow/PA)

It stands as an indication of the ­overall conservatism of the SNP ­leadership that from that historic moment of 2014, not one example of democratic ­innovation was advanced by the Scottish ­Government with no official initiatives for further democratisation of public institutions, with a similar situation evident in public policy.

The end of second-wave SNP sees a ­party unsure of what direction to go in. There is a Groundhog Day aspect to much of what passes for the independence debate. Take Humza Yousaf’s keynote speech at the recent SNP conference. On independence, he used the language of “moving from how to why” and asked the question about our future: “Why Not Scotland?”

This speech broke no new ground. The language just cited is exactly as used by Sturgeon when she was First ­Minister. This is a holding pattern in politics ­of going around in circles and not saying anything new.

Pray for some small mercies. The ­Sturgeon “de facto referendum” has been ditched. In its place, there is now an ­approach saying that a majority of seats at the next Westminster election is now a mandate for negotiations on ­independence. A party that won 48 out of 59 seats are going to claim that ­winning 29 out of 57 seats is a mandate. This ­instead is a party preparing for significant reverses and the spin that they put on it.

There is a missing element which is a direct result of the SNP post-2014. This is the political void which emerged in the SNP and independence from the nature of the Sturgeon leadership – constantly giving the impression an indyref was ­imminent, while denying a wider debate on detail, strategy and direction.

Into this political space has come a series of toxic divisions, faultlines and embittered attitudes which help no-one. There is a host of antagonisms based on personality with some ­pathologically hating Sturgeon; the Salmondite wing of independence extending out of Alba into part of the SNP, and a broader ­constituency that will have nothing to do with Alex Salmond.

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Examples of the party struggling to hit the right note abound. Keith Brown, ­depute leader of the SNP, quoted ­Thatcher as justification for winning a majority of Westminster seats being a mandate for independence, saying that she had agreed that a parliamentary ­majority was a threshold for independence.

This isn’t true. Some independence ­supporters even said wrongly that ­Thatcher came to some agreement on the above as PM. She did not. All she did was write in her post-premier ­memoirs ­published three years after she left ­Downing Street that the Scots had “an undoubted right to national ­self-determination” and “should they ­determine on independence, no ­English party or politician would stand in their way.”

There is the constant equivalence made about Labour and Tories – which ­admittedly does have some logic given the cautious, minimalist Keir ­Starmer agenda. But Scots see Labour and ­Tories as fundamentally different and last ­voted Tory in 1959. Subsequently, Scotland ­experienced decades of Tory ­government that it did not vote for. A recent poll showed that two-thirds of 2019 SNP ­voters wanted a Labour government (67%) at the next election, compared to 10% who said a Tory government.

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Add to the mix the increasing ­frustration some feel about having won multiple mandates for an indyref. This misses that ­mandates are based on ­popular demand, not legal formalities, and there is little of the former as a groundswell in Scotland for an independence referendum now; a fact both Scottish and UK Governments know reading the same polls.

Some independence supporters tip over seeing a powerless Scotland held captive against its will in the Union. This can result in such comments as made by ­political commentator Richard ­Murphy on BBC Scotland Debate Night last week: “Independence isn’t going to happen yet. Because Labour and the Tories are ­united in their desire to retain Scotland as a colony.”

SNP MP Pete Wishart (below) retorted: “Could you imagine going out Yes canvassing and asking normal people how they feel about their ‘colonial status’?”

Using such language as “Scotland is a colony” or talking of Labour and ­Tories as being interchangeable is proof of an absence of political acumen in the ­independence constituency. These judgements have always existed but have gained traction due to the absence of a leadership post-2014 confronting ­strategic choices and welcoming debate. The result has been people believing in a politics of caricature and even simplistic solutions, and a disconnection between that and the kind of politics needed to ­engage, inspire and change Scotland.

The National: All Under Banner march for independence, Perth. Pictured are Pete Wishart MP, left and John Swinney MSP.

  Photograph by Colin Mearns
7 September 2019

One further strand illustrates the lack of SNP strategy on self-government. In the 1970s’ SNP first wave, there were widespread discussions about how the cause of self-determination could be most tangibly and practically advanced. ­Eventually, the answer was provided not by the SNP but by the British state.

The 1975 European and 1979 ­Scottish and Welsh devolution ­referendums showed the principle of popular ­sovereignty in action and how it could be expressed which weakened ­parliamentary sovereignty.

Academic Ben Jackson of Oxford ­University, author of a study on Scottish independence, observes that this shift provided “a new understanding of democratic self-government that was highly consequential for Scottish nationalism”.

This momentous break is what ­provided the Scottish practical ­expression of our tradition of popular sovereignty and the backdrop to a Claim of Right for ­Scotland, the 1997 devolution and 2014 independence referendums.

Despite this, the current trajectory of the SNP, first under Sturgeon and now Yousaf, has taken the party away from this position and back towards the ­politics of parliamentary incrementalism.

This is a retrograde, regressive step that has to be understood historically and contemporaneously in such a light. ­Scottish independence must be rooted in popular sovereignty and mechanisms which express that.

Third-Wave SNP

ALL endings are also beginnings and opportunities. The end of second-wave SNP offers the prospect of a new wave of politics – a third-wave SNP. This will probably only begin to emerge fully after the difficult elections of 2024 and 2026 and will in all likelihood require not just new ideas, but new cultures, ways of working and personnel.

Gavin, a life-long Kirkcudbright SNP member, believes that “the SNP’s core message must remain independence for Scotland”.

“I don’t think any amount of ­evolving, changing, renewing can change this. The SNP must regain their reputation for ­competence in government but the party need to adapt and not stay still.”

A third-wave SNP would see a decisive break with what has come before and ­defined much of the past two decades. Here are seven suggestions for what that third wave would involve in practice.

First, the SNP need to take back and renew party governance and ­democracy. This needs to call time on the era of ­imperial leadership which increasingly saw power and decision-making concentrated in a narrow circle of people.

This was the direction and problem in the Sturgeon era, and so far Yousaf has not had the courage to end it. One example is the council tax freeze ­announced at the SNP conference with no consultation, which Doug Gay describes as “tired machine reflex politics, trying to respond to Labour cynicism”.

Second, the centralising tendencies of the Scottish Government and ­Parliament would be curbed. This has become the ­default agenda of ministers and does Scottish policy and public services no favours, and does not produce better policy and services. One SNP member of 30 years from Dumfries told me: “I don’t want a Scottish Parliament which is a mini version of Westminster.”

Third, the lessons of 2014 have to be learnt and acted upon. There was no post-mortem after the referendum on why Yes lost and this still matters and hinders independence. This is not just about the past, but how you build for the future.

As pro-independence campaigner ­Lesley Riddoch put it, without ­understanding why Yes lost, this leads to “the building of the foundations of a house which is not strong and secure”.

Fourth, post-2014 there has been much talk of the independence movement, but beyond marches and rallies little ­genuine movement building. This requires the creation of infrastructure, resources, ­research capacity, and think tanks – none of which has happened since 2014. This was not seen as a priority by the SNP, and indeed by the leadership, as in all probability, they felt that they would not be able to control such initiatives.

Fifth, cross-party forums such as a Campaign for Self-Determination should be considered, modelled on the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly which created the 1988 Claim of Right for Scotland and laid the groundwork for a Scottish Parliament.

Sixth, this campaign should be about the principle and practice of ­self-determination which reaches ­further than ­independence. The latter is a ­political project; the former is a societal one. ­Self-determination addresses not just the constitution, but questions of how we run society, institutions and who has power. This makes the independence issue not just about formal political power, but about wider authority and decisions.

Finally, all the above needs to feed into a vision and detail of independence which looks and feels different from 2014. It would put self-determination and dispersing power throughout Scotland at its centre, stop seeing accruing power to the Scottish Government and Parliament as the way of doing politics, and put ­honesty – reflecting in trade-offs – and choices centre stage, alongside acknowledging risk and ambiguity, and the need for economic and environmental literacy.

“Dependence is not a good state and independence is about empowerment, ­responsibility and engaging with the world as an equal,” notes Richard ­Finlay of Strathclyde University who has studied the SNP from their earliest days.

Simon Barrow, director of the ­independent think tank Ekklesia and SNP member says that: “For trade ­unionists and the left in the SNP, the ­issue is who owns Scotland ­economically, as well as who decides politically” and that “the key question will always be about where power needs to lie to make that possible, and in whose ownership.”

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The SNP need to recognise that a ­political era is passing. A new one needs to be encouraged that will entail fresh initiatives, new ways of doing things, and different ideas. And it will require a new generation – not defined by the past and previous battles, as one long-time SNP member put it: “We need some other stars to emerge – and we need signs of culture change in terms of openness to debate internally as well as some high-profile civic initiatives which catch public imagination.”

The different stages of the modern SNP have contributed much to ­Scotland. There was Breakthrough SNP of the first wave; then Devolution SNP of the ­second. Each came, made an impact, and then ­subsided. Now is the moment to start thinking of the future and its ­politics – the third wave of change – of Self-Determination and Empowerment SNP.