The coming coup against Nicola Sturgeon

Political parties, when they go unchallenged long enough, end up challenging themselves. The events of the past seven days signal that the SNP is entering this phase of its long sojourn in power. 

Elections to the party’s National Executive Committee tend not to capture headlines but last week’s results were an exception. In what looked like a trial run for a leadership coup, key Nicola Sturgeon allies such as Alyn Smith were ejected from the NEC, while the First Minister’s arch-nemesis Joanna Cherry won a seat — along with others sympathetic to Alex Salmond or critical of the direction the SNP has taken under the current leader. 

The election was also a case of out with the woke and in with the new, in the form of unreconstructed Lefties, gender-critical feminists and advocates of a harder line on independence. All of a sudden, democracy has come to the SNP. 

Factionalism is rife in politics, but most parties tend to enter office with already established tribes rather than acquiring them after more than a decade in power. Margaret Thatcher knew the Dries were devoted to her while the Wets disdained her. The Blairites and Brownites were in hostilities before their figureheads made it to Number 10 and Number 11, respectively. The SNP is different in that, under Salmond’s leadership, the party presented a united front to get itself into power and, under Sturgeon, has more or less kept it up — until now. 

It is tempting to see the Salmond/Sturgeon fault line as a revival of the old fundamentalist/gradualist debate but it is more complicated than that. Yes, Salmondites generally want to press ahead on a second referendum or even contemplate a unilateral declaration of independence, while the Sturgeonistas prefer to ca’ canny until they can be sure these new majorities for independence are solid. 

Personalities, however, play at least as big a role as questions of timing. Salmond is supported by the likes of Joanna Cherry and Kenny MacAskill, temperamentally abrasive politicians at their best in a fight, and by veteran members with long, bitter memories of hopes dashed and chances wasted. The Salmond forces are impatient but they are also dismayed by what they see as excessive timidity from the current leadership. Their nationalism doesn’t come with hand-wringing apologies attached. 

Their rivals are ideologically diverse but typically espouse a more technocratic approach to government. These are people like Angus Robertson and John Swinney, and while some may have been agitators in the past, most have come to represent a nationalism that aims not to scare Middle Scotland. Naturally, they want independence, too, but while some Salmondites seem to be interested only in 50 per cent of votes cast plus one, Sturgeonistas regard maximising support for a breakaway as vital for a smoother, less rancorous and more successful separation. 

Younger members broadly sympathetic to the First Minister also bring with them modern mores and believe these should be as intrinsic to the SNP as the national question. This is new. The SNP has always had Left and Right, and camps who wanted either independence in Europe or full sovereignty, but the 2014-15 influx introduced waves of members whose priorities are different. 

While Salmond believes in independence for its own sake and Sturgeon in independence as a shortcut (to scrapping Trident, strengthening the welfare system and creating a more equal Scotland), these late entrants believe in ‘independence plus’. Independence is a primary goal but not the only one. They believe it must go hand-in-hand with fundamental changes in how Scotland thinks about economics, social policy, race, the monarchy and much else. 

The fear is not that the NEC has become a nationalist incarnation of Labour’s far-Left Momentum but that it is home to an array of what one party old hand branded ‘mini-Momentums’, each with its own pet issue that equals independence in fervour, trumps party unity and pays little heed to the concerns of voters. 

These mini-Momentums, as described to me, comprise: the Wokes (who cross over with the Sturgeonistas and were largely defeated in the elections); the Salmondistas (who made important gains); the anti-GRA reformers (who oppose changing the Gender Recognition Act); the Plan B-ers (who want alternative routes to independence other than a Westminster-sanctioned referendum); and the Common Weal Group (who are, broadly, Leftist, republican and off-message on currency). 

An SNP source said: ‘It’s obvious that the Salmond camp asserted itself in the NEC elections but the truth is the party’s far more fractured than external observers realise. That is what is concerning the leadership and senior MSPs. They know how to win elections and they know divided parties tend not to.

‘The NEC results are a product of this factionalism but they’re a headache in themselves. The sense of entitlement is almost as palpable as the cluelessness about voters’ priorities. If voters had the first clue about what some of these people believe, they’d run a mile.

‘In a way, it’s a testament to how dominant the party is. The Tories and Labour are hopeless. The real opposition party is on the NEC.’

I understand a particular concern is the Common Weal Group, whose radical ideas about swiftly ditching the pound in favour of a separate Scottish currency are perceived by the party establishment to be electorally toxic. The NEC’s power isn’t what it once was and while a more colourful slate could cause some public embarrassment and internal friction, the policy and strategic direction will continue to be set by Nicola Sturgeon. 

Oddly enough, though, that makes further division more rather than less likely. Because the leader has concentrated so much power in her own hands (and that of her husband), events like the NEC elections can only ever be proxy battles. Sturgeon’s iron grip on the party means that changing the NEC is not enough. If you want to change the party, you have to change the leader. 

This is where the pro-Salmond forces hit their most stubborn obstacle: they have no one who can match Sturgeon in media savvy, public appeal or governing experience. No one except the man himself, and it is not at all clear that the former First Minister, now a pensioner, wishes to return to the daily grind of running a country. His proxies have their abilities but none is cut from a steel of the same tensile strength. 

Her enemies may not have an alternative leader and may suffer from a credibility gap but that will not matter if Sturgeon cannot do the only thing SNP leaders are elected to do: make Scotland independent. If she wins a majority next May but still can’t deliver a referendum, the factions will likely come for her as the Tory factions did for Maggie. Like Mrs T, Sturgeon can’t be beaten at the ballot box but she can be brought down by her own.

*****

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Sir Keir Starmer is set to outline a new devolution settlement while Richard Leonard says any independence referendum should include a ‘home rule’ option. 

More powers for Holyrood. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? The Nationalists are done for now. 

Setting up Holyrood was supposed to see off the separatists. They’ve been running it for 13 years now. Devolving additional powers in 2012 and 2016 was meant to strengthen the Union. Support for independence has never been higher. The 2014 referendum was sold as the way to settle the matter. Scottish politics is now about little else, even during a pandemic. 

After two decades of ripping out the Union’s wiring, the lightbulb still isn’t clicking on for Unionist politicians. They think a bit more constitutional DIY will fix it. This myopic self-harm scunners pro-UK voters, who look at the frightened, clueless leaders of Unionism and think, in the gravelly lilt of Peggy Lee, ‘Is that all there is?’

*****

Holyrood presiding officer Ken Macintosh says it would be ‘wholly inappropriate’ for MSPs, currently on £64,470 a year, to take a 5.1 per cent salary increase. No doubt some will tut, ‘I should hope so’, while others may grudgingly acknowledge: ‘They did the right thing for once.’ Me? My first thought was: ‘We’re paying them?’

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

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