Don't be a Cult
The SNP's unshakeable faith in the inevitability of their triumph has left them with nothing substantial to offer while Labour sets out an alternative to economic crisis.
Back in the 1950s a couple of psychologists secretly joined a doomsday group to study the reactions of their leaders and followers' when the promised apocalypse didn’t arrive. The prophet of this group claimed to have received messages from extra-terrestrials, that only he could communicate with, warning that the Earth would be destroyed by a new great flood.
When the day of the long-foretold deluge came and went, without so much as a drop of rain, the followers were initially distraught. What luck then that the prophet immediately received another message from the alien gods. Humanity had been spared only because of the belief of his followers, but the day of reckoning had only been delayed, not averted. The researchers observing this noted that the failure of one prophecy didn’t make the faithful re-evaluate their belief in the coming cataclysm - in fact, they had become so addicted to prophesizing that they were even more convinced that they simply had to wait for the moment of disaster and deliverance.
I think of those disappointed disciples every time I see the SNP reverting to their favourite political framing: the inevitability of the victory of nationalism. Over the last few years, we have been told that the post-financial crisis austerity would make nationalists out of Scots; that the election of a Tory government would edge us towards the door; that the Brexit vote was the last straw; that the Premiership of Boris Johnson was the final nail in the coffin of the Union; that the handling of Covid-19 was really going to finish off the UK; that Partygate was going to give people that last push…
It hasn’t happened but they continue to believe.
The SNP have a cult-like belief that Scotland leaving the UK is a historical certainty. That encourages an intellectual laziness which leaves them with a deficit of real policy solutions. They offer communications answer to what are huge policy questions. They never seem to realise that it isn’t that voters aren’t angry about the problems of the last decade, it is that they don’t believe nationalism is the solution. Voters doubt nationalism because nationalists haven’t offered any answers. That goes a long way to explaining why, despite the most advantageous political environment imaginable for the SNP, not a single pollster currently records a lead for leaving the UK.
Populism and Pessimism.
When one prophesy doesn’t materialise, you just move on to the next one. Take the latest iteration of the SNP’s universal framing from the SNP’s Minister for Scexit:
Robertson rightly bemoans the impact on Sterling of the Tory budget this week. However, the SNP policy is that for a decade or more Scotland would operate under Sterlingisation. That means we would have literally no say over monetary policy. When eventually we would shift to a new currency, the SNP policy is then that that currency would be pegged to the value of Sterling. So in no way is leaving the UK a policy solution to the impact of the drop in the value of the Pound. Worse, by withdrawing all political representation from the Parliament that oversees monetary policy, Scexit would leave us with less control over our currency.
Robertson also rightly criticises predicted rises in interest rates. Again: SNP policy is that interest rates would continue to be set, for years to come, by the central bank of what would then be a foreign country. Leaving the UK then is not a solution to that problem.
He rightly complains about adding to public debt, but his proposal is that we double our deficit overnight by giving up our share of UK funding.
He rightly criticises lifting restrictions on City bonuses. A separate Scottish Government would have no more power over the bonuses paid in the City of London than they would over those paid in New York or Hong Kong.
And finally, he rightly criticises the cutting of the top rate of income tax - but the top rate of income tax is devolved. There would be literally no change to that through leaving the UK.
People may not follow the technicalities of all of this, but they remember the SNP being unable to answer the most basic questions around currency, borders or the funding of public services. Economic incompetence doesn’t become more appealing because it is defended by people who speak in a more familiar accent. John Ferry’s latest expands on this:
There is so little substance to the SNP’s position. Little wonder so many nationalists feel their leadership has squandered the political opportunity of successive crises. It may well be that this Black Wednesday moment for Truss does push Scottish voters to consider inflicting even greater economic harm on ourselves. As Kenny Farquarson wrote today, a serious economic crisis might:
“lead Scottish voters to a beguiling question about independence: ‘Surely it can’t be any worse than this?’”
But the nihilistic feeling that the SNP’s populism rests on only works in an environment of hopelessness. Unfortunately for them, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Things Can Only Get Better
With Labour registering the largest ever Yougov poll lead this week, there is an alternative, less risky route to change on offer. As the SNP rely on populist anger and grievance, they risk surrendering the sense of optimism they worked so hard to own in 2014.
While the SNP’s unshakeable belief in their own prophecies has left them without any real policy response to the current crisis, Labour are entering the phase of the electoral cycle where they announce out radical policies: reforming the UK, delivering on the state-run energy company Sturgeon failed to deliver on, racing to net zero by the end of the decade, a new package of modern workplace rights….
An opportunity has opened for Labour to contrast:
a hopeful vision of the future against the pessimism that the nationalist strategy now relies on;
a credible policy agenda against shallow grievance politics;
and a new left-of-centre government, full of promise, against an SNP Government whose record filled with broken promises.
In this, the SNP seem determined to help Labour. Their response to Keir Starmer’s speech was to dust off the attack they used last time Labour were a party of government: there is, they say, no difference between a Labour Government and a Tory Government. After this week, continue to say they can’t see a difference between Starmer and Truss, Reeves and Kwarteng just looks detached from reality.
Labour should shout from the rooftops: Nicola Sturgeon does not think it matters if the Tories win the next election. If my Twitter timeline is anything to go by, there are tens of thousands of SNP activists who will amplify her error.
Add to this Starmers’s unequivocal rejection of a post-election deal with the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration that she sees the general election as a de facto referendum rather than a choice of governments and Labour could achieve what the party has failed to do since 2015: make this a change election in Scotland. Things can’t get any worse or things can only get better?
Nicola Sturgeon might not be able to pick a side in the electoral fight ahead, but I think the Scottish people can.