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The Scottish National Party (SNP) has emerged from generations on the periphery to make a substantial imprint on mainstream British politics. Polls in early 2023 even suggested the SNP might supplant the Conservative Party as the UK’s official parliamentary opposition. However, in only a matter of months, the foundations of that success have crumbled and, by the admission of its leaders, the SNP is experiencing its greatest crisis in five decades.
The roots of this crisis are not well understood, since most recent research has sought to explain the SNP’s post-2014 successes. However, these successes have always hinged upon a prior moment of politicisation in 2014 on the one hand, and annual cycles of mobilisation and demobilisation on the other.
We draw attention to the SNP’s governing strategy of stabilising itself through a process of strategic depoliticisation on independence, which supplanted activist mobilisation with a politics of spectatorship.
The 2014 referendum transformed the SNP as an organisation into a mass membership party. It opened previously closed channels for debating accumulated inequalities of wealth and power. The influx triggered a centralising reflex, ossified internal power relations and paradoxically depoliticised social questions of inequality within Scotland. The resulting accumulation of frustrations and grievances injected destructive new energies into Scottish politics, which prefigure the SNP’s legitimacy crisis.
Its success was, in part, a consequence of this link to disruptive social movements, but it remained inescapably structured by pressures comparable to all parties with serious investment in government.
Strategy, sovereignty and sociology
The SNP would retain characteristics of an extra-parliamentary movement which generated peculiar tensions between party members, parliamentarians and central office. Strategically, the SNP has a longstanding division between gradualists and fundamentalists. These camps had largely fused during the Salmond-Sturgeon era but have reopened.
Questions of strategy, sovereignty and sociology highlight a dilemma, between the party’s face in public office and its face to the party grassroots. Long prior to the Sturgeon era, the SNP saw bursts of professionalisation and modernisation contrasting with being a party of protest.
The SNP of that era had been hardened by long opposition and robust ideological debates on the party’s internal fault-lines. It therefore possessed a resilience that separated it from the mainstream of Scottish governance. It was not encumbered by the baggage of having held government; it retained its sense of separateness from the state; and it was structured around a concept of loyalty to a common cause.
2014: Scotland’s moment of politicisation
Electoral outcomes post-referendum, gave a lingering impression of a smooth transition from mass Labourism to mass nationalism but there was a crucial mediating moment of politicisation.
As conceptualised by Rancière, politicisation involves a challenge and disruption to the existing distribution of power and authority in society. These politicising energies flowed through the 2014 Yes campaign. The referendum was occasion for the final collapse of the Scottish Labour Party’s claims to a mass social base.
During the referendum itself, the relationship between movement and governing party was complex. Party intellectuals themselves admitted that a successful prosecution of their case for independence rested on a booming world economy, which would form the precondition for a new ‘take-off’ in Scottish economic growth. In these respects, the SNP’s superior adaptation to the post-2008 era of endemic crises cannot be explained on grounds of intellectual or programmatic consistency alone.
Whereas Better Together was a party-political alliance centred on mobilising elite consensus, its pro-independence counterpart, Yes Scotland, was fronted by a range of Scottish celebrities, campaigners and civic figures. The image of independence politics would emerge younger, more female and less middle class than before.
Sturgeonism: centralisation, consolidation, depoliticisation
How did this disruptive, extra-parliamentary politicisation find accommodation so easily within a centralised party?
Research by Mitchell, et al., suggests that, while most new members had been much energised by the referendum campaigning, many had not participated directly and only a minority had any desire to continue the referendum’s mood of mass participation. For these reasons, a culture of a sometimes-spontaneous activist mobilisation was easily supplanted by a politics of spectatorship in which activists adopted an increasingly passive role.
The SNP leadership remained, nonetheless, wary about the potential autonomy of the independence movement. SNP apparatus circumscribed its new parliamentarians, both in Westminster and in Holyrood. Controls over parliamentarians by the party central office would form part of a raft of reforms towards administrative centralisation.
The party’s income grew substantially as it emerged from outsider status to devolved leadership; but members became financially central. The effect was to lock the party into annual cycles of mobilisation and demobilisation for proposed independence referendums.
Some interpretations would thus contrast an enthused membership with a disengaged, apathetic or ambivalent public. However, this is a misleading contrast. The actual impact of this constitutional polarisation was precisely to depoliticise the disruptive and unruly social energies unleashed during the 2014 referendum. The ambient sense of imminent rupture allowed the party to pursue everyday governance with little scrutiny.
Freed from ordinary electoral pressures by a climate of emergency, Scotland’s governing party would preside over, at best, limited successes in a succession of core policy promises. Constitutional polarisation possessed a circular logic: roughly half of voters preferred to blame the UK leadership for their hardships; and the promise of a future independence, a breach with Westminster’s failures, served to offset and channel grievances.
The SNP itself would act as both an agent and a symptom of depoliticisation. Even disciplinary breaches with Sturgeon’s party reinforced the logic. Where populist elements of the Yes movement breached discipline, they rarely criticised the policy agenda of Sturgeon’s government.
Sturgeon’s resignation, which prefigured the party’s crisis, emerged against the backdrop of three pressures. Firstly, the exhaustion of efforts at constitutional conflict with the UK state, symbolised by defeat in the Supreme Court and internal SNP divisions over Sturgeon’s (now abandoned) strategy of using a general election as a ‘de facto referendum’. Secondly, the acceleration of police investigations into the party’s financial affairs. Thirdly, divisions over the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) (Scotland) Bill, which had formed part of the SNP’s coalition agreement with the Scottish Greens.
All three reflect the limits of the SNP’s peculiar combination of politicisation and depoliticisation—and, relatedly, of mobilisation and demobilisation—that issued from the 2014 referendum and its aftermath.
Layers of civic society and media opinion, in Scotland and beyond, accommodated to the SNP as the natural governing party. However, that success always hinged upon that prior moment of politicisation in 2014 on the one hand, and annual cycles of mobilisation and demobilisation on the other. Routine party operations thus depended on a paradox of crisis in the British state and being a governing party of the British state a contradiction that would eventually reach its logical end.