THIS is a big year for Scottish and UK politics, with a General Election likely in October or November. It looks certain that the Tories will lose and Labour win, while the long election campaign will ask big questions about the state of democracy and society.

It will, if held then, not only be the first time a UK election and US presidential election have been in the same year since 1992 but will also be the first time they have been back-to-back since 1964 – when the UK went to the polls in October and US in November.

Labour won in 1964 under Harold Wilson, ending 13 years of tired Tory rule, while the Democrats retained the White House under Lyndon B Johnson.

This brings us to the state of Scotland and the contest for votes and seats between SNP and Labour. For the past 17 years since the first SNP victory at Holyrood, and even more post-2014 and the 2015 Westminster “tsunami” election, the nationalists have held the upper hand and Labour have looked lost. No longer is this the case.

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The SNP have struggled to adapt to this changed political environment and so too – it seems – have many SNP members and independence supporters. This is what happens when a period of dominance by one party ends.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of their offer, Labour have a spring in their steps and the prospect of defeating the Tories. Whatever the Scottish numbers, the argument “vote Labour for a Labour government” has an eye-catching simplicity.

After years of momentum, the SNP have no clear positive message about the state of government, independence and Scotland. With the ongoing host of internal problems in the background, they are unsurprisingly on the back foot and defensive.

For too long, a large swathe of SNP and independence supporters have taken comfort in the moral descent of Westminster and used it as an argument for why independence is needed as soon as possible.

The National: Humza Yousaf

However, at the same time this perspective has been more than content to ignore our own home-grown democratic shortcomings. Increasingly, that has become our own “democratic deficit” – a denial of the challenges and problems we face and need to seriously address.

There is an unhelpful naivety in large swathes of the Scottish debate. The “SNP good/SNP bad” binary is just a trap and much of the hyperbole, from wherever it comes, does nothing for anyone. One Herald pro-independence commentator wrote in the past week that the SNP were “finished” – a view not based on any fact and hugely overstating the party’s current problems.

The SNP are in trouble. They lack direction, strategy, messaging and any new credo or ideas on independence.

But while these are difficult times, the party is not going away and if it faces up to its challenges could come back again in popularity and credibility. However, to change its fortunes, it must acknowledge and face up to the mess that it is in.

Two dimensions are at work. The nature of the SNP in office and the dynamics of devolution and political power. On the first, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has revealed the unhealthy state at the core of the Scottish Government between ministers, advisers and senior civil servants. It revealed that the Government was, across a range of issues, often publicly economical with the truth, and at times blatantly dishonest.

Not only this but the boundaries between party and state broke down, with civil servants and public health professionals crossing the line and becoming advocates and agents of the interests of the SNP and ministers.

Party/Government, Government/Party

This is not just about Covid. A dangerous pattern under the SNP in office has been the constant desire to blur the lines between party and government.

It was there under Alex Salmond and emerged in a very different way under Nicola Sturgeon. Ultimately this does not make for good government, policymaking and law, and is a disservice to our democracy.

There needs to be a recognition that in 17 years in office, the SNP and Salmond and Sturgeon hoarded power at the institutional centre. There were pronounced personal differences, with Salmond running a more ecumenical central team, while Sturgeon’s closed shop eventually became an echo chamber reduced to herself and Peter Murrell.

After this lengthy period of SNP government, political power has become held in fewer and fewer hands. There has been no decentralisation, no meaningful community empowerment and no renaissance of local government.

Indeed, the SNP’s record on the latter is indefensible, presiding over a decade plus of savage cuts, with SNP leaders in places such as Glasgow acting as apologists for their party.

It is not an accident that Labour are now ahead of the SNP in Westminster voting intentions in Scotland, and neither is it a surprise that no senior pro-independence politician has positive ratings. Salmond’s poll ratings are toxic, on a par with the most unpopular Tory, and Alba are going nowhere.

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Sturgeon’s ratings were impressive during her years in office but have now begun to decline.

She is now trusted by 32% of voters and not trusted by 51%, minus 19% – ahead of Humza Yousaf (25% trusted, 50% untrusted, minus 25%) but behind (in net terms) Anas Sarwar (21% trusted, 38% untrusted, minus 17%). This is an age of unpopular politicians and none really impress in Scotland or Westminster.

After 25 years of the Scottish Parliament, we need to reflect on a longer-term story. The SNP have become the party of the devolution class and political establishment, shifting from being outsiders to insiders, and as a result have lost their political touch and edge.

The SNP have not just adopted the manner and political ways by which Scottish Labour once ran Scotland, something more is at play. Beyond the shortcomings of devolution, Scotland has traditionally been a managed society with a limited, manipulated democracy.

The National: Donald Dewar (Chris Ison/PA)

The dominant Labour version of devolution – of Donald Dewar (above) and George Robertson – was to use devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament as a fig leaf to legitimise Labour rule. It was never about transforming democracy and society. And the SNP have ended up taking on root and branch the Labour way of governing.

The SNP, like Labour and the Tories before them, have effectively become a “Court Party” dispensing power, patronage and favours with the minimum of debate and scrutiny.

This is traditionally how Scottish elites have done political power. It is how pre-devolution secretaries of state for Scotland who saw themselves as “big beasts” – such as Tom Johnston and Willie Ross – acted, and before them Henry Dundas, who was happy to be proclaimed unofficially “King of Scotland”.

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Before that, the Scottish Parliament pre-Union was dominated by the actions of a faction which assumed the name of the Court Party.

Those who want the SNP to renew need to understand the state the party is now in. It is financially broke; its members disillusioned, and it lacks a convincing set of messages. It is about to face difficult 2024 and 2026 elections that might make things even worse.

Much of this is the SNP’s making. There was a wilful refusal post-2014 to harness the energy and hope of democratisation and engagement which ran through independence and public life.

Rather, it was controlled and discouraged, with the party’s leadership unable to see a politics past the limitations of that managed society and manipulated democracy – the SNP as a “Court Party” clinging to that ordered, hierarchical world of elites.

Yet even more is at play now.

The SNP’s core credos, along with a narrow version of independence, has been an undefined version of civic Scottish nationalism and pragmatic defensive social democracy. These were never going to be enough to keep the SNP fresh in office or make the prospectus for independence.

The SNP is at the end of an era of safe, cautious, managerial politics which tried to emphasise its progressive nature while trying to make no enemies – including of those with vested interests. Such politics can only go so far.

A new approach must emerge from the impending difficulties that the SNP and independence face, centred on self-government and a decentralised version of power, that takes on vested interests – and sees SNP members take back their party.