IT IS MUCH too soon to predict the demise of Ms Sturgeon’s SNP and the malign regime that it currently exerts over Scotland. But the signs are that all is not well in the separatist camp.
The party that was once noted for its iron discipline, with the requirement in its standing orders, from 30 March 2015, that ‘no member shall within or outwith the parliament publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group’, is perhaps not yet fissiparous, but it has certainly been fraying around the edges.
Two issues have contributed to this. One is the ‘jam tomorrow’ approach of the current SNP leadership to its core issue – breaking up the UK. Every year since 2015, Ms Sturgeon has promised a second referendum the following year or soon thereafter. Now, even some of the dimmer separatists are beginning to notice that this promise is annually dangled before them like a carrot before a donkey, but that, by the end of the relevant period, they are no closer to a referendum and Scexit than they had been when the promise was made.
The other contentious issue is both separate and related: the Alex Salmond issue. Salmond has for some time called for a strong push towards another referendum, in the face of Ms Sturgeon’s caution – or evasion, take your pick. That generated friction between the leader and her predecessor, and her irritation with him and his attempts to stir up separatist activism in the party no doubt were a large contributor to the manufacturing of retrospective charges that would lead to the court case in 2020, in which Salmond was exonerated.
The defection of some activists to Salmond’s new Alba party, created in 2021, amounts to fraying at the edges. The numbers are not statistically significant, and only two SNP MPs defected – Kenny MacAskill (now Alba’s deputy leader) and Neale Hanvey. The failure of Alba at the ballot box in May has condemned the new party to be the fringe separatist outfit that the SNP hoped it would be, like others before it. Nevertheless, there may be larger numbers of Alba supporters at local level, and it will be interesting to see whether Alba candidates can win any seats in the local elections in May 2022 – or whether all they do is compete for the same votes as the SNP. That in itself would be notable. Hitherto, it is the pro-union parties that have (suicidally) competed with each other for votes on their own side of the constitutional divide. The SNP has had only token or shadow competition from the Greens. Now there is the possibility of splitting the vote on their side, too.
A third issue has become entangled in intra-nationalist factionalism. The major furore ignited by the Gender Recognition Bill has left a number of separatists on the other side of that divide from Ms Sturgeon and her loyalists in the SNP, who strongly support a fast track to ‘self-identification’ without medical checks or intervention. The differences between those in favour of a less restrictive procedure for gender self-identification and those ‘gender critical feminists’ who oppose this may not quite map onto the different positions of the SNP and Alba regarding the timing of a secession referendum, but it is clear that some gender critical nationalists have defected from the SNP to Alba. The most notable exception is Joanna Cherry MP, an outspoken gender critical feminist and ally of Salmond. She has remained a member of the SNP tribe while nurturing grudges against Sturgeon (the hostility is reciprocated).
One forthright social media nationalist, Denise Findlay (@GraceBrodie), has complained on twitter that Salmond ‘left Sturgeon a united Yes movement and dominance in Scotland ready to take advantage of any WM slip up… And Sturgeon did NOTHING’. Ms Findlay’s gender critical allegiance has led her to ask: ‘And the age of consent is 16. Or don’t the SNP agree with that anymore?’ Having broken with the SNP to support Alba, she now says that she deletes all her tweets ‘to avoid misrepresentation and worse by the TRAs and now SNP supporters’. No love lost there.
There are other straws in the wind. A number of long-time nationalists have despaired of their cause succeeding to the extent that they have gone public with their frustrations. Denise Findlay’s cri de coeur from December 2020 is echoed by many: ‘So when is the SNP holding an indyref? What date? How are we going to hold an indyref if WM says No to a s30 [Section 30 order]?’ Another social media nationalist activist, ‘Jeggit’, aka Jason Michael McCann, who is based in Dublin, pronounced in March 2021 ‘I do not trust Nicola Sturgeon’ (Random Public Journal, 19 March 2021). He adds: ‘the leadership of the SNP has mounted a campaign to both vilify and marginalise those who have worked tirelessly over the past decade to make the case for independence’. Jeggit is, of course, a Salmondite. In December 2021, he issued a short video message in which his despondency was palpable, throwing in the towel – there was no point now in expecting a referendum, he said.
Among the first to come out openly against Sturgeon’s MO was Robin McAlpine of Common Weal, a secessionist think tank. He concluded in late 2015, so he says on his own website, robinmcalpine.org, that the chances of Sturgeon’s administration,
‘not creating a string of failures and serious errors was slim to non-existent. I wasn’t wrong. No administration in the devolution era has achieved so little by way of concrete outcomes and yet has made so many obvious errors in the process’ (‘Why is everything going wrong?’, 8 October 2021).
McAlpine wrote in detail in October 2020 about his opposition to Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission Report (GCR) of 2018 in general and, in particular, its damaging proposal to use sterlingisation to try to solve the SNP’s currency conundrum. McAlpine said in so many words that the GCR’s prescriptions would lead Scotland into a liquidity crisis and prolonged austerity, as well as exclusion from EU membership (‘Sterlingisation is a terrible idea and a massive liability’, Source, 22 October 2020). McAlpine, as an astute commentator, was spot on with this analysis. His defeatism and despondency were evident in a TV panel discussion a couple of months ago, which even Lesley Riddoch’s attempts to be upbeat could not alleviate. On the same programme, Michelle Thomson, SNP MSP, refused to claim that a referendum would be held imminently.
The question of the currency of some future separate Scotland, which was a major bugbear of the separatist campaign in 2014, has become once again a huge issue for the secessionist cause. Yet whereas in 2014 pretty much the entire ‘yes movement’ accepted Salmond’s lead on this, which depended on a currency union with the rUK that was never going to happen, there is now major opposition within the SNP to Sturgeon’s insistence that sterlingisation is the only choice. She accepts GCR orthodoxy on this, that sterlingisation would be for a transition period (of what length is not vouchsafed) before the introduction of a new Scottish currency, after six tests had been passed which, in truth, would be either impossible or very painful – in terms of the austerity required – to pass.
The currency issue has been discussed at the last two SNP conferences, and the membership has voted in favour of moving to a new currency as soon as possible. This is after lobbying within the party by the group that follows the prescriptions of Tim Rideout, mapmaker extraordinaire. Dr Rideout is a devotee of the financial school known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). It is also known as the Magic Money Tree, since it involves the state ‘creating’ (for which read ‘printing’) money to spend at will. He is confident that his method would create a £50 billion cushion for the new Scottish Reserve Bank that he proposes. I have written further about this on Think Scotland, 10 November 2020:
Well, I suppose it seems more attractive than former SNP MP George Kerevan’s plan to use Scots’ bank deposits as collateral to underwrite a new central bank. Dr Rideout may be the darling of SNP conferences, but Ms Sturgeon’s leadership grimly adheres to Andrew Wilson’s GCR prescriptions. All of this means that, on currency, there is nowhere for the SNP to go, but the issue has the bonus for pro-union people of driving a wedge into the SNP.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the withdrawal, in 2021, of the major freelance nationalist propagandist from the fray. Wings Over Scotland (aka Stuart Campbell) had been the most prominent and one of the earliest nationalist websites, building up a substantial following of nationalists who hung on his every word. From 2011, Wings posted a vast amount of (alleged) information from a Scottish separatist point of view. Campbell clashed with various people on the pro-union side, most notably Kevin Hague, who patiently and systematically dismantled the claims in Campbell’s Wee Blue Book, the vademecum for devout nationalists in 2014. This gave a detailed account of the alleged (and generally fictitious) ills Scots suffered at the hands of the English/UK. Much, if not more, of it was invention from Campbell’s fertile mind. But back in 2013, Campbell published on the Wings website the claims of a nationalist whose moniker is Wee Ginger Dug about how the English steal our whisky export tax. It did not, of course, occur to the bog standard non-numerate nationalists who avidly believed this nonsense that no country in its right mind would levy ‘export taxes’, and the nationalist hordes dutifully parroted the Dug’s invention.
I have not followed Campbell sufficiently closely to be aware of exactly when he became disenchanted with Nicola Sturgeon and her leadership, but the occasion for his major break with her was the Salmond trial and the subsequent arrest, trial and imprisonment of the maverick former ambassador, Craig Murray. Thereafter, Campbell worked closely with Salmond, helping to launch Alba in early 2021. In return, Salmond is planning to reissue Campbell’s ‘Wee Blue Book’ as ‘The Wee Alba Book’, to be delivered to 100,000 households before the local elections in 2022. In truth, the ‘Wee Blue Book’ has long since been debunked and will in any case be well out of date. But Campbell’s own disenchantment with the SNP and its leader is clear. He wrote copiously about it on the Wings blog until abruptly terminating it in May 2021. On 23 November 2021, after he had finally closed down his blog because the ‘independence’ cause was going nowhere, he posted this: ‘I am willing to bet anyone in the UK any amount of money of their choosing that there will NOT be a second independence referendum in Scotland while Nicola Sturgeon is first minister’.
Other nationalist bloggers have either fallen out with the SNP or simply given up the unequal struggle. James Kelly, of the blog ‘Scotland goes pop!’, founded in 2008, in his address seeking votes to Alba’s National Executive Committee in 2021, clearly indicated his disenchantment with the SNP:
‘A lot of the things I believe in would be quite radical and daring if I was standing for the SNP’s NEC, but are very much mainstream views within Alba. Nevertheless, they’re still worth emphasising because we’ve all seen how quickly parties can lose touch with their founding values if members are not vigilant.’
But perhaps the most interesting of the genre is Peter A. Bell, a veteran nationalist self-styled ‘Thinker. Listener. Talker. Reader. Writer’. On 12 December 2021 he wrote a valedictory blog:
‘For years I’ve written about little else but Scottish politics and more specifically the constitutional issue. Of late, I have become increasingly persuaded that this is now a pointless exercise. I have nothing new to say and nobody is listening anyway… I remain totally persuaded that Scotland’s independence must be restored as a matter of urgency and for reasons of constitutional justice which are perfectly sufficient without any further trappings. But there is no independence campaign to be part of anymore. It has disintegrated and been replaced with a plethora of factional squabbles that do nothing for Scotland’s cause and which I want no part of.’
The SNP has not taken Alba’s machinations entirely calmly. On 14 December 2021, The Herald published an astonishing article under the heading ‘SNP MP declares Alba “burden to independence” after being goaded with carrots’. Yes, you read that correctly. Pete Wishart, the dyspeptic SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, claimed that carrots adorned with small union jack flags were left outside his constituency office (photo below) in an attempt, it was said, to ‘taunt’ Wishart ‘in a bizarre political feud’.
James Kelly, featured above, tweeted ‘Bah humbug, you absolute menaces! No referendums!’, while Denise Findlay, featured above, tweeted ‘Hahahaha there’s been some fun in Perth today’. Among the motley crew apparently sending the message that the SNP simply dangle the carrot of a promised referendum before their devoted followers (as mentioned above) was Dave Llewelyn (pictured above), formerly organiser of ‘bridges4indy’, a gang of separatists who used to spend their weekends waving saltires from bridges across motorways, at the high-water mark of nationalist enthusiasm. These Alba activists were apparently targeting Wishart, a long serving SNP MP who, they allege, has become too comfortable at Westminster to campaign for Scottish secession.
Straws in the wind even include Fergus Ewing, scion of nationalist royalty and a long-time SNP minister until sacked this year by Ms Sturgeon, publicly disagreeing with Sturgeon’s anathematisation of the Cambo oilfield. Even the National – the SNP’s ‘newspaper’ – is showing signs of capitulation, telling us on 13 December 2021 that Covid restrictions may mean that there will not be a referendum before 2025. I knew Ms Sturgeon had kicked indyref into the long grass, but hadn’t anticipated how long the grass was going to be. 2025 would not really be a suitable year, with Scottish elections due in 2026, and so it looks more like 2027, or 2028…. Not quite a generation, but certainly half-way there.
The nationalist activists on social media cut rather sorry figures now. They have been accustomed to campaigning in regular elections, to weekends stravaiging about the towns of Scotland, disrupting traffic and waving their flags, and to SNP propaganda geeing them up for one last heave. But there will (barring accidents) be no election in 2022, or probably in 2023, either, and no Scottish election until 2026. The last ‘march’, in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, attracted about 70 persons and three dogs, a far cry from the 200,000 Joanna Cherry (completely delusionally) claimed for an event in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. It was more like 10,000. Even the SNP autumn conference in 2021, held virtually, was poorly attended, with small numbers watching the speeches. Ms Sturgeon’s line remains there will be a referendum in 2023, but few believe that now: at least some preparations would have had to be made by now.
The ‘movement’ held together by the glue of faith and optimism in 2014 is fracturing and losing its leading lights, those who disseminated to the rank and file their misleading (to be polite) propaganda and acted as bulwarks of the faith. The message that these opinion-formers in the nationalist camp have become so disillusioned that they have withdrawn from the battle may not have percolated down to the anarchic grassroots, but it will. Increasing numbers of nationalists are realising that Ms Sturgeon – paid more than the Prime Minister and on a pension pot that started in 1999 and increased when she became a Minister from 2007 – and MPs such as Pete Wishart, on their fat (3x the average) salaries are enjoying the high life while failing to further the cause.
Not only are the edges fraying, but the ‘movement’ as a whole has had some stuffing knocked out of it. As I said once before, ‘Never glad confident morning again’.