Duck! Here comes another year.
Five things from 2023 that will haunt the SNP in 2024.
Happy New Year to you all. This is a time for setting resolutions about how 2024 will be different from the past. In a few weeks’ time we will all realise that the bad habits of 2023 are not so easily changed. What is true of personal goals is doubly so of political strategy. The past shapes the future. Here are five themes from 2023 that I reckon the SNP will struggle to escape in the year ahead.
1. A Crisis of Trust
In 2023 Michael Matheson’s iPad expense claim was one of those stories about which was bigger precisely because it was small enough for people to understand. The billions lost to COVID fraud or hundreds of millions lost to the ferries fiasco are incomprehensible figures, but we all understand an attempt to stiff us all for £12,000 so he could watch the football from his sun lounger.
What mattered about this story was that the Health Secretary, one of the most senior members of the SNP Government, supported by the entire SNP communications apparatus, lied to the media. That is irrefutable, undeniable and verifiable yet he has remained in position. The SNP’s judgement seems to be that the lie was about a relatively trivial matter and so didn’t matter. However, they have forfeited the right to be given the benefit of the doubt ahead of a year when questions of trust and judgment will dominate.
With two Covid Inquiries continuing into 2024, the story about deleted WhatsApp messages will return accompanied by dozens of stories about judgements made during that crisis. Ministers will be giving evidence under oath under questioning from KC. Lie to them and it’s not just a breach of trust, it’s breaking the law.
2. The Transition from Opposition to Incumbency
The story of the SNP’s crisis is told through the personal dramas of Sturgeon and Yousaf so we risk missing the structural changes that have taken place in Scottish politics.
For so long the nationalists were experts at remaining in opposition despite being in power. In 2023 it became clear that, finally, they were suffering from incumbency. Polling suggests that on almost every area of their responsibility, voters believe the numbers believing they are doing a bad job outnumber those satisfied with their performance by two-to-one.
Robison’s disastrous budget will only deepen the public’s understanding that the party who claimed to be utterly powerless for so long actually possesses lots of power - but isn’t very good at wielding it.
The budget wasn’t a one-day story, it is countless stories where the SNP will be on the defensive for decisions they have made. Redundancies and industrial action as public sector jobs are lost. The extreme pressure on local authorities tipping over into localised financial crises. The countless protests and campaigns by a third sector shifting from a client relationship with government to one of challenge. The drug deaths and mental health crises that will deepen as funding is slashed. The pre-election tax hike in April.
Each time the SNP defends unpopular choices made in Scotland it reminds voters of their incumbency and deepens a feeling that it may be time for change.
3. Kate Forbes’ Shadow Leadership
In 2024 the unpopular decisions of the SNP Government in 2023 will be viewed through the prism of the General Election but also in terms of the SNP leadership campaign that may follow it. Since her narrow defeat to Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes had been described as being “on manoeuvres.” She is now using live ammunition.
Forbes ended 2023 opposing the SNP’s tax rises, in open warfare with the SNP’s coalition partners, criticising current policy on the NHS and calling for public service reform, calling on Yousaf to drop his gender reform legal battle, and going out of her way to answer questions on WhatsApp messages that the current and previous leader of the SNP had tried to avoid.
Anyone who has worked in politics will recognise this activity as a campaign. She has a message calendar and is filling it with stories that say to an unhappy party that there is an alternative to failure.
I’m of the view that a panic switch to socially and economically conservative leadership would only deepen the SNP’s problems, but it is clear that Forbes no longer feels she has to disguise her intentions. Yousaf’s slow destruction of his party means that offering an alternative to him can be framed as loyalty to the cause rather than disloyalty to the party.
4. The Loss of the Narrative
The SNP’s only real story is one of momentum. Their narrative about politics, party and the people is one of inevitable progression towards to dissolution of the United Kingdom. It is a story that survived the defeat of their purpose in a referendum because they were able to tell a tale of forward momentum. In 2024 the SNP will go backwards.
At the moment the media discussion is about how far backwards they slip: will they lose a handful of seats to Labour or will whole swathes of the General Election map turn red? The margins between these scenarios are not large: just 14 thousand votes switching in the ten most marginal SNP-held seats would see them fall. Another 43 thousand switchers in the next fifteen seats and it becomes a catastrophic result for the nationalists.
The loss of narrative is as damaging as the loss of seats.
The SNP are like a great white shark: if they stop moving forward they die. They know this, will fight like hell to avoid it, and so cannot be as easily discounted as much of the commentary looking forward to 2024 does.
Whoever leads the SNP out of any election losses, it may be that they not only have to deal with the consequences of a failing government and a divided movement but that they have to develop a new master narrative for the SNP and the nationalism that, absent any evidence of momentum, makes sense of their decline.
We have no idea how the long-running police investigation into SNP finances will end but we can be sure it won’t be pretty.
So far none of the SNP politicians and officials who have been arrested have been charged - and they may never be. If they aren’t, we know from dark commentary by SNP figures that they believe a cost must be exacted from the authorities for even daring to investigate them.
Little wonder party officials are sounding so vengeful. They have learned the lesson from the last former SNP Leader to be arrested, Alex Salmond. Bad behaviour that doesn’t meet the threshold of criminality can still be fatal to your credibility. They know that the images of the blue forensic tent on Sturgeon’s lawn, the campervan being towed away or the Jag in the driveway have stuck in people’s minds and that no legal resolution will erase them.
Culture Corner: Ogden Nash
I borrowed the title of this edition from Good Riddance, But Now What?, a poem about the New Year by the brilliant Ogden Nash:
Come, children, gather round my knee;
Something is about to be.
Tonight’s December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark! It’s midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year.