Why is it difficult to remain nice in the SNP?

Why is it difficult to remain nice in the SNP?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 23, October, 2018

IN ELEVEN YEARS of rule the Scottish National party has become arguably the most ruthless political outfit in these islands, excluding Sinn Fein.  It has exploited a grievance mentality present in perhaps one-fifth of Scots and been electorally successful.  But strategists know that rhetorical aggression and bids to place much of public life fully within its orbit, are unlikely to gain it a majority in any future independence referendum.

A parallel strategy of sounding reassuring is needed in order to entice enough of the Scottish majority who vote on pragmatic  grounds to their side.

So if you are outwardly pleasant and endowed with professional expertise and you embrace nationalism, you are likely to rise quite fast. But the SNP has been unable to entice enough clean-cut moderate figures able to cast a spell over voters who doubt the party's core goals work for them.  One who joined early and stuck it out is Andrew Wilson (pictured with Nicola Sturgeon and the Growth Commission Report_.

Still only 48, he was an MSP at the age of 28 but has mainly operated as an influential fringe figure since 2003.  A fairly undemanding job in the Royal Bank of Scotland, where he was head of group communications, enabled him to make the case for fiscal autonomy.

He left RBS and became a founder of the strategic communications firm, Charlotte Street Partners. There he has worked with Kevin Pringle, previously the SNP's most capable spin-doctor, whom even opponents ruefully acknowledged showed the artistry enabling the party to establish huge influence over the print and broadcasting media. 

In 2016 Wilson appeared to have a very difficult assignment to fulfil when he agreed to his party's request to head 'the Sustained Growth Commission'.   He was widely expected  to draw up a  report  that would make the economic case for independence. But the report was slow in appearing and its publication was postponed at least once.  To me the question was whether Andrew Wilson would emerge as the sober economist or the artful spin-doctor. 

What was surprising was that he adopted neither stance and did his best to kill off interest in his handiwork. Along with his fellow authors, he was less evangelical than the architects of the White paper on Scottish independence. The 2013 document used wildly optimistic oil revenue forecasts  to claim that Scotland could leave Britain and continue to have British-level state services.  That document was a report of the devolved administration while Wilson & Co's report was a publication generated by the SNP.

For a party seen by some as addicted to conversations about independence, the SNP  was reluctant to make the Growth Report the starting-point for a nationwide debate.  Party notables have rarely mentioned the 353-word document since its appearance in late July. Crucially, at the autumn 2018 SNP conference, there was no discussion of it

It is not hard to see why. Wilson is unable to offer a practical economic vision for self-government that can shift votes. The report admits that a decade of austerity would be required (involving £60 billion of spending cuts) before one of the world's highest deficits could be reduced to 3%. This would be a far more drastic level of austerity than had occurred under any previous British government. 

On the currency of the new state, Wilson advocated a Scottish coinage but with a policy of sterlingisation in the interim until the new state was built up. Of course, retention of the pound would mean that a post-British Scotland would have no influence over the Bank of England's monetary policy. 

Kevin Hague, a businessman and economic commentator long dismayed by the  SNP's dilatory planning for independence, questioned the methodology used in order for Wilson to be able to  claim that Scotland could exceed the growth rate of a carefully-selected cohort of small countries over a 15-year period. He argued that the report was flawed because it contained too many unsubstantiated assertions. He also stated that it implicitly strengthened the case for the Union, showing how, as part of the UK, Scotland enjoys  'the advantages of a shared currency and large domestic market whilst avoiding the fiscal constraints that would inevitably apply were Scotland a stand-alone economy.' 

Other pro-Union commentators with an economic bent, such as Brian Wilson and Brian Monteith, weighed in with their own criticisms. Murdo Fraser MSP, the main opposition spokesman on finance, pointed out the SNP government  already had 'substantial powers to grow the economy by using a range of tax-levers and that Wilson could have produced  a more significant report by staying within the devolution framework. 

Critics from within the Scottish Nationalist family were often less cerebral. The Growth Commission report was seen as providing the legitimacy for moving the party in a right-wing economic direction

Wilson must have expected that his report would face stiff headwinds. His  singular response  was to rush into the deepest holds of the 'Good Ship SNP' and refuse to debate until interest in his report subsided. In the words of Kevin Hague:  "When faced with criticism, he has tended to either dismiss those who offer challenge as not being 'serious' or simply ignored them."

Wilson's colleague and friend, the journalist Chris Deerin, blocked Hague on twitter as he had done with others whom he had worked with on the pro-Union side in the 2014 referendum. It was a sign of how networks of well-placed figures try to influence the direction of debate and muffle criticism.

As a response, Wilson's silence appears to be an ineffective one. Instead of being an opportunity to show that the SNP could hold its own in senior-level economic debate, the report has been cast into outer darkness as speedily as possible. 

The continuing drama over Brexit soon eclipsed Wilson's report. On 22 July Michael Russell, the minister for Exiting the EU in Sturgeon's government, tweeted: 'there is no such thing as a good Brexit...degrees of badness  is all we are talking about’. Both the minister and I have duelled several times on twitter and I wrote in response: ‘This SNP Euro-Unionist has the accent and outlook of a British-governor general of the 1770s, 1850s, or 1930s who could never imagine circumstances in which the American colonies, Australia or India could ever be independent.’ 

Russell responded: ‘Tom Gallagher now completely confused - espousing independence whilst also condemning it. A sad ending for a once distinguished scholar - reduced to irrelevance by adopting irrational & irreconcilable extremes.’ 

I had received similarly worded tweets from him in the past and was not offended. But what surprised me was a swift intervention from Andrew Wilson, just a week after the release of his report. On 23 July he tweeted to his SNP colleague: ‘Michael ignoratherapy needed. He is not a scholar and not a serious person. His words have been nasty, cruel and disgraceful this last while. He is the worst of prejudice and has long lost the right to be considered.’ 

Stung by his remark I responded: ‘Mr Wilson let me tell you this; I haven't been disgraceful enough: from 2007 I underestimated how far the SNP would throw aside the normal democratic rule-book & also the degree to which it would persuade Scots with good PR images to champion a ruinous project.’

What had riled him? I am none the wiser.  As a Catholic I had been critical of the decision of another influential SNP spin doctor Stephen Noon to train for the Catholic priesthood despite being Gay. I  had also recently published a political thriller set in Scotland in which some of the characters were thinly disguised political figures whom an insider like Wilson might easily recognise.   Political satire has never flourished in Scotland due to the prevalence of thin skins. 

I can only conclude that Mr Wilson finds my views so objectionable that he is ready to use his heft to deny them oxygen. He is not the first leading nationalist to act in this way. Nor will he probably be the last.

Three months later I was one of the many who commented about the arrival at the Daily Record newspaper as a regular columnist of Loki Darren McGarvey, a talented commentator who had started out as a rap artist and had gone on to win the 2018 Orwell prize for literature with his book Poverty Safari. One of his early columns consisted of a fierce broadside against the young Scottish Conservative MP Ross Thomson who (like him) had recently appeared on the much-viewed BBC Question Time programme. 

I had been encouraged by Loki’s post-2014  criticism of the tight grip the SNP held over the pro-separation ‘Yes’ movement and  I had contributed to the crowd funding appeal which enabled him to write his book.  But my enthusiasm dimmed as he appealed to the anti-Tory gallery in Scotland with personalised attacks, ultimately challenging the MP (who had kept silent) to publicly debate him.  

I tweeted on 18 October: ‘In a land where an atrocious ruling party demands conformity from the media, Loki has a golden chance to be an independent and educative voice. Instead, in his first mass circulation column, he tries to take down a Tory MP and shows the extent of his own limitations.’ 

Loki and I have followed each other for several years and he overlooked my remark.  But once again Andrew Wilson intervened on 18 October (in what almost seemed like a command), when he tweeted to Loki: ‘Ignore Tom altogether. He is disregarded by all serious people.’ 

Among others Jill Stephenson, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, sprang to my defence when she tweeted: ‘I find Wilson’s bile about @cultfree54 not only inappropriate and inaccurate but also personally demeaning of Wilson himself. He betrays a cowardly and unpleasant personality...’ 

It was ironic that a banker who was widely seen as taking the SNP to the right was advising a self-proclaimed radical leftist with whom to have online communications with. 

It is hardly a secret that at public events there is at least one respected economist (one of the Growth Commission’s critics) whom Wilson turns his back on  rather than even exchange superficial courtesies. 

Andrew Wilson is a ‘nice guy’ who sheds his niceness when he is required to undertake an assignment that he finds it impossible to sell in the public forum.  A recent former leader of the SNP who has been entangled in the disastrous Named Person Act has also caused a reassessment to be made about his political character thanks to the fierceness that he has displayed in defending a wildly unpopular approach to the state’s monitoring of children’s well-being. 

One strength of the SNP is that it functions as an extended family in which the all-consuming nature of the independence struggle enables unlikely bedfellows to make common cause. But the continuing inability of the SNP to convince Scots that Separation benefits them economically more than the Union, requires unconventional strategies to be made to advance independence. Not only is capturing the commanding media heights one of them but shutting out dissident voices is another. When ‘nice guys’ who write regularly in the media and influence its tenor, get involved in censoring others, it  does little for their own long-term reputations. It may also intensify well-established suspicions about how compatible modern Scottish nationalism is with democracy.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford where he taught courses on how to manage conflicts of identity over many years. His latest book is the novel, Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue, (Scotview Publications 2018).  

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