Sturgeon under siege

Decider or Separatist Spoiler? Social Media Chauvinist or Reluctant Reformer? In this essay for the Scottish Daily Mail, Stephen Daisley explores the tribes that make up Scotland’s New Establishment — and why they could spell doom for Nicola Sturgeon’s political future. 


This is how it ends, not with a bang but a bust-up. Angry and despondent that 11 years in government has not brought them independence, Scottish Nationalists are starting to turn on themselves.

All that righteous fury has flamed out and left the furious burned, as it was always going to. More than that, they are coming to the realisation that they have thrown every myth, ruse, promise and threat at the Scottish people and still they refuse to budge on independence.

The Cause is stuck in a rut and, it fears, may have flunked its best chance in 300 years. Recriminations are sought and blame apportioned. A nationalist movement convinced it was on the brink of a second chance at independence a mere 12 months ago now recalls an embittered monologue from Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted.

At first the titular priest is elated to win the Golden Cleric award for his pastoral efforts; but his acceptance speech quickly descends into a score-settling harangue of all who have wronged him. ‘And now we move on to liars…’ Father Ted girns as his remarks enter their umpteenth hour.

‘And now we move on to Quislings…’ is where the SNP finds itself today. The hardliners are turning on the acceptable faces and are, finally, being told in return how unacceptable they are. MPs and MSPs now criticise Nicola Sturgeon semi-openly and sensible players lament the squandering of time and energy when the party’s record in government is dire.

These tensions spilled over into uncivil war last weekend, when diehards turned on an independence-supporting Sunday newspaper and provoked an internecine spat within the movement.

Fractiousness is nothing new in Scottish Nationalism. For most of its history, the only thing SNP members could agree on was the merit of a good rammy. Gradualists declared sovereignty would come in increments; while fundamentalists insisted independence yesterday would still be independence too late. Conference was an annual pitched battle where each faction schemed, cajoled and manoeuvred against the other. The gradualists came to dominate the leadership and party machine, but the fundies consoled themselves that the members were really with them.

After 11 years in government, a lost independence referendum and an explosion in membership, the battle lines in Scottish nationalism have been redrawn into five main camps. These are the Deciders, the New Establishment, the Separatist Spoilers, the Social Media Chauvinists and the Reluctant Reformers.

At the top sit the Deciders – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, husband Peter Murrell and select advisers. This is the most exclusive club and it runs the party (and the country) almost singlehandedly. Consultation outwith the clique is rare and once a course of action has been decided, the chances of an outsider successfully challenging it are next to none. The Deciders decide; everyone else exists to nod along and applaud as instructed.

The New Establishment is the nomenklatura of SNP Scotland; dutiful courtiers, stenographers and political enforcers for the Nationalist elite. Among them are financially canny third sector executives, on-message opinion formers and the professional class who were conscientious Labour until the polls told their conscience to back the other horse.

The New Establishment rates itself highly and bristles when shown insufficient deference – a daily hazard when the rest of the movement sees them as useful idiots.

One such impatient class is the Separatist Spoilers. Many have arrived at the doors of the SNP megachurch after September 2014, emptying their pockets into the collection box and singing the hymns one syllable behind everyone else.

Others will be regular attendees and even elders, who are heartened by the new congregants and their fervour, even if they are a little brash, a bit Central Belt, a touch too socially and culturally Labour.

What unites the Separatist Spoilers is unwavering devotion to the catechism of independence. Separation is their chiefest joy. Nothing – no biased BBC reporting, no Unionist-infiltrated GERS office, no ‘facts’ from the London-based IFS – will dissuade them from the path of righteousness.

They are spoilers insofar as the ruination of Scotland’s schools, hospitals, and economy are deemed a price worth paying for her freedom.

Beyond these lie the Social Media Chauvinists, who combine belligerent nationalism with online invective and intimidation. The category is not limited to obscure keyboard warriors; it includes elected Nationalists for whom abusing the enemy – they do not see mere opponents – is intrinsic to their politics.

Social Media Chauvinists whip up cybernat pile-ons, keep the worst of the grassroots ginned up and target journalists and critics sceptical of the regime. They have constructed their own reality from an echo chamber of antagonistic bloggers and unhinged conspiracy theorists. Their indoor voice is a howl and paranoia their idea of equanimity; they are often to be found in a tizz over British-branded foodstuffs and unpatriotic weather maps.

An accident of birth denied them their destiny as UKIP councillors forced to resign over a Facebook post about golliwogs.

Most pitiful of all are the Reluctant Reformers. They are no less committed to independence but accept the constraints of economics and public opinion. They are willing to make a go of devolution but alarmed by how quickly colleagues tire of discussing the attainment gap and NHS performance. Opponents are to be engaged with and compromise found in the common interest. Reluctant Reformers are in tune with SNP voters but treacherously off-key to the rest of the movement.

Separatist Spoilers hate the New Establishment; Reluctant Reformers hate the Social Media Chauvinists; everybody hates the Deciders.

These fissures are traceable to long before Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership; but her tenure at the top has widened and deepened the cracks. Her coronation, in the raw weeks of post-referendum grief, started the fightback; and the history-rewriting election of 2015 seemed to vindicate her. Since then, however, she has cost the party its Holyrood majority and watched as 21 of her MPs were decommissioned by voters.

Sturgeon has not lost control of her party – yet. Her position is secured by the fact there is no obvious replacement. But she is coming in for ever more friendly fire. Trenches are being dug. Minor skirmishes presage wider conflicts to come. The unmistakeable whiff of mutiny is in the air.

It is an ill wind that blows for the disciplined, on-message party she needs if she is to recover her standing. And her standing has been bracingly reduced in the past two years, not least confidence in her ability to run the country.

Her Health Secretary Shona Robison has presided over chaos in NHS Tayside, continued failure to meet A&E waiting times, cancelled operations and vulnerable people failed by mental health and support services. Cancer waiting times have been missed so badly they are simply being rewritten.

Police Scotland is looking for its third chief constable in five years, has come under sustained criticism for call-handling errors and stands accused of trying to ‘suppress’ a critical internal report.

The Government’s claims to have ‘banned’ fracking have been undermined in court by a QC – its own, who said: ‘The concept of an effective ban is a gloss. It is the language of a press statement.’ Once again, the SNP had been caught playing fast and loose with the truth.

Combined with the continued failure to close the attainment gap in education, a faltering attempt to make political hay out of Brexit while managing her own internal split on the matter and damning figures on Scotland’s lagging productivity, these challenges point to a government nearing meltdown and a First Minister approaching the end of her credibility.

The vacuum this has created is being filled with the ugliest aspects of nationalism. Earlier this month, a pro-independence march through Glasgow pencilled an arresting sketch. Police say 35,000 took to the streets, organisers say 80,000. The event was not run by the SNP and most observers expected Sturgeon to steer clear. Instead, she tweeted a link to a BBC story about the demonstration, complete with a thumbs-up symbol. An emoji is as good as an appearance to a fanatic.

Sturgeon’s coy endorsement came despite the event being a heaving shriek of the kind of prejudices we were assured had been displaced by ‘civic’ nationalism. Where the language was veiled, it was only thinly so; placards screamed ‘End London rule’ and ‘London is attacking our parliament’.

A giant banner bawled: ‘TORY SCUM OUT’. In the corner was the emblem of Siol nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gaels). This notorious organisation pledges itself to ‘the essential survival of our people as an ethnic and cultural community’ and preaches that ‘every English incomer at present is suspect’.

Siol nan Gaidheal warns it will not ‘stand idly by and watch our country being used, abused or betrayed by enemies both internal and external’.

It was banned from the SNP in 1982 after then party leader Gordon Wilson called it ‘protofascist’. Blood and soil nationalists are wheedling their way back into the mainstream.

It’s hardly surprising Siol nan Gaidheal feels confident to come out of the woodwork. To the dismay of the Reluctant Reformers, Nicola Sturgeon apes the rhetoric of the Social Media Chauvinists and repeatedly questions the patriotism of her opponents. An FMQs session earlier this month, in which she deployed the ‘rape clause’ as a punchline, was the lowest she has gone so far. The First Minister has not only failed to set an example of civility and pluralism in public life – she has allowed those values to be eroded on her watch.

Moderate members are growing nervous about attempts by organised obsessives to exert influence and divert efforts and resources solely to Indyref 2. A party source said: ‘It’s terrifying how powerful the zoomers are becoming. Being shoved around by a party within a party might work for Labour but Tartan Trotskyism isn’t for us, thanks very much.’

Fears of the SNP being hijacked by a Momentum-style group are understandable, not least because of the difference in loyalty. Momentum exists to keep Jeremy Corbyn in charge of Labour. The new SNP fundamentalists owe their allegiance to separation, not Sturgeon.

Pete Wishart, an implausible but apparently sincere new voice of reason, has called for calm reflection and a reining in of rhetoric. To the Social Media Chauvinists, it’s as if dad has walked out and doesn’t even want to see them every second Saturday. Their response has been that of all frustrated teenagers: they have thrown a strop and screamed ‘I hate you’.

After 11 years of defying political gravity, the SNP has hit the ground with an almighty thud. Internal skirmishes are manageable but not when they are accompanied by a spectrum of policy headaches. Nicola Sturgeon is sinking in quicksand but all around her are even more perilous pockets of it.

The First Minister is in an impossible position. If she caves in to the Separatist Spoilers, she will return to the second referendum the country is exhausted hearing about. If she stands her ground, she risks provoking open conflict within the movement and may not be able to rely on the loyalty of some on her own benches.

Sturgeon has painted herself into a corner inhabited by a majority of her card-carrying members – but only a fringe of the broader population. Whichever way she moves, messiness is guaranteed.

Alex Salmond’s blue-sky thinker in chief Alex Bell concludes that ‘the SNP’s grip is slipping’ and it can ‘no longer control the hardcore thousands who are prepared to march’. Sturgeon, he assesses, has blundered on Indyref 2 and Brexit and ginned up the ideologues who now torment her.

Bell judges her ‘a good politician with a genuine concern for Scotland’s excluded and a feel for our moderate ways. If Nicola had been a great politician, she wouldn’t be in this mess. She’s in a bad place – and it won’t end well.’

Even in the most dire political circumstances, though, it is possible to turn things round, especially in this volatile moment where public opinion swings so quickly. But the First Minister isn’t turning things around. MSPs who expected a fightback after the 2016 election instead got a year of distraction over Indyref 2; the Tories were allowed to get their feet under the table at Holyrood. Those who expected a rethink after 2017 are still waiting for a sign the First Minister knows there is a problem, let alone how to fix it.

In the face of pressure on all fronts and a narrowing path of opportunity, Sturgeon has retreated to the bunker and surrounded herself with the Deciders – head-nodders and positive reinforcers, every one of them.

She is more like Theresa May than she cares to imagine. But Mrs May has one advantage over her. Where the Prime Minister’s opposite number is a Marxist demagogue who alienates voters the more they get to know him, the First Minister faces Ruth Davidson, of whom voters, including some Nationalists, are rather fond.

The only way she can take on Davidson and prevent another Tory surge at the next Holyrood election is by emerging from her political cocoon and facing the facts, however harsh. She needs to take a clear position on a future referendum and stick to it.

Then she must declare all-out war on the Social Media Chauvinists, expelling significant numbers whose behaviour and rhetoric has done so much to put ordinary voters off the SNP. The Separatist Spoilers she should point in the direction of their fellow travellers and warn them they will be next if they don’t toe the line.

She has to expand the circle of power beyond the biddable Deciders. The Reluctant Reformers think in terms of fixes and solutions rather than ‘firefighting’ and ‘wargaming’. The only chance the SNP has of getting back on course and regaining public trust is if the Reluctant Reformers become the most prominent voice in the party.

Sturgeon should give them a megaphone to drown out the loudmouths. It might just save her party – and her position.

Agree? Disagree? Want to have your say? Email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government (cc-by-nc/2.0).

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