More Repeats. It's Time to Change the Channel.
The SNP's party political broadcast fails because it comes from an entrenched establishment that is still pretending to be a powerless insurgency.
It is a relief to political campaigners that Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs) are far less important than they used to be. There was a time when party strategists would agonise over their precious few minutes of programming, knowing they would briefly hold the attention of an audience made up of millions of voters who couldn’t find the remote control fast enough when the woman with the velvety voice warned, “there now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of…”
In the age of on-demand telly, the audience is far smaller. Still, PPBs still act as the punctuation marks of campaigns. They remain important, not least because they serve as uninterrupted moments when parties get to tell us “this is who we are.”
Given all of that, what did last night’s really weird broadcast from the SNP tell us about them?
Throughout this campaign, the SNP has struggled with a contradictory message: how can you reassure voters that you share their priority of getting over the pandemic while simultaneously arguing that we need a referendum on leaving the UK in the next two years.
That tension was obvious from the very start of the broadcast.
It opens on our nationalist narrator, a young woman, deep in sombre introspection:
“It’s been tough this last year. The covid pandemic. The worry, the fear. It’s made us all look again at what matters the most. What we care about and the things we hold close.”
What has she been dwelling on for the last year? What has she spent lockdown reflecting on? She takes a beat, an image of the House of Commons appears, and she shares the existential question that has been playing on her mind during the pandemic:
The pandemic gets 15 seconds then it’s back to the old argument. It’s a choice that reveals the SNP’s priorities. They don’t see the pandemic as an inflexion point, a moment that changed their perspective. We’ve all been changed, but for them, it was just an interruption to normal programming. If you had tuned into the SNP wanting to watch something new, all they have to offer is repeats.
The narrative quickly returns to the old story of English othering and Scottish exceptionalism. Instead of a positive vision to fit the moment we find ourselves in, we get a list of grievances. It offers examples of “philosophies and policies we can only abhor”:
“Disability benefit cuts. Food poverty. Tax cuts for the wealthy. And for the rest of us? Austerity. Where’s the care there? Then there’s Brexit a forced exit.”
We should be angry at a government that allowed all these things. Here’s the issue though: that government is the SNP.
As was pointed out in the leader’s debate last week, the SNP has repeatedly delayed the devolution of the welfare powers. The income tax rates of the wealthy in Scotland are set by Nicola Sturgeon who fought bitterly against asking the country’s top earners to pay more. On austerity, on Friday the Financial Times looked again at the SNP’s spending plans and concluded they “would involve annual tax rises or spending cuts equivalent to £1,765 per person.” And on Brexit, we know that Scexit would impact far more trade, and cost many more jobs.
The SNP are an all-powerful party of the new Scottish establishment posing as a powerless insurgency.
Every grievance they seek to exploit in this election is either a problem they have created, a problem they could fix but decided not to, or a problem they would choose to make worse.
Countless columns have been written about the SNP’s disdain for being held accountable. This PPB is a reminder of how they view themselves: in office but not responsible. There is not a single mention of the SNP’s record in government. Their appeal is based on a belief in the politics of grievance rather than the possibilities of government.
The PPB then wildly misjudges its visual language, borrowing from 1984 a vision of a world where Nicola Sturgeon’s face stares out from every TV screen. I wonder what dystopian fantasy will inspire their next PPB. I hope we get Iain Blackford driving a war rig across the wasteland with his half-life war boys. Maybe Snake Plissken will be sent to rescue Pete Wishart from maximum-security Perth? Could Alex Salmond be cast as a post-covid Randall Flagg?
Anway…alongside this weird imagery, they make a very Brexit-sounding core argument for leaving the UK: that we should not share decision making with our nearest neighbours. It is ‘take back control’ all over again, and is no less wrong-headed for being spoken in a Scottish accent.
The script-writer, presumably looking over their shoulder at Alba, then finishes with some angry-sounding language about how Scotland cannot be denied a referendum.
It all feels argumentative rather than persuasive. They’re trying to sell the voters on why they need something they don’t want: a referendum during the recovery. They are resorting to crude reverse psychology. Never mind that you don’t want it, be angry because *they* say you can’t have it! It’s up there with trying out “you probably won’t be able to eat all that broccoli” on your kids.
Nicola Sturgeon could challenge her base, tell them that a referendum will have to wait, and use that show of strength to appeal to the swing voters. Instead, perhaps consumed by the prospect of having to rely on the support of a vengeful Alex Salmond in parliament, she has chosen to retreat into indulgent referendum rhetoric.
In strategic terms, she’s gone from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn.
Her lead might be big enough to risk this, but she might yet regret it as she did in 2017 when voters used the election to remind her that they weren’t as enthusiastic about leaving the UK as she is.
With the Conservatives retreating further into the pro-Union core vote and the SNP fighting Alba, the centre-ground of Scottish politics (sceptical of Brexit and Scexit, social-democratic) is open. He is improving Labour’s polling after just a few weeks in charge, but can Anas Sarwar cut through enough in the next month to claim some of that ground? After a clear win in the BBC leaders debate, the STV debate next week will be a key moment.
The SNP normally look assured and confident in election campaigns. But despite having record poll leads, there’s no sense of them enjoying themselves. They are toiling their way through to polling day with worn-out arguments and reheated announcements.
Overall the SNP broadcast felt a lot like the rest of their campaign: tired, confused and self-obsessed. It can’t be long before voters think about switching over.
In Case You Missed it…
Nicola Sturgeon, not for the first time has cited her record handling Covid-19 in support of her argument for leaving the UK. I shared this series of videos in response:
Alex Salmond truly terrible interview this morning where he repeatedly refused to say that the Russian Government (who pay the former First Minister to make a TV show for them) were behind the chemical weapon attack in Salisbury. Listen from 2hrs 46min.
The SNP government’s claim that there are only 11 people sleeping rough in Scotland has been ridiculed by homeless charities. Even without their intervention would be clear to anyone who walks around one of our cities the SNP claim was untrue.
There was yet another completely innocent lapse in memory from the First Minister. This time she reportedly forgot to declare a meeting with a major party donor. It’s also completely innocent that several other meetings between the donor and senior SNP ministers were also not recorded.
Scotland in Union published this warning about flirting with fringe parties. My advice is obviously to vote Labour with both your votes, but if you are thinking of voting tactically please read their article so you make your decisions based on a proper understanding of the voting system.
The myth that Sturgeon is a strong leader has persisted for far too long. The reality is that she is extraordinarily weak and like all weak leaders her actions are dictated by a visceral fear of being found out. Her aggressiveness when challenged is the embodiment of weakness. Her paper-thin knee-jerk policies rushed out in response to opinion polls and focus groups, absence of vision or strategy, avoidance of detail that could be questioned, evasion from being held to account or even debated, constant flip-flopping depending on how the land lies, parrotting decisions taken elsewhere and her intolerance of anyone in her coterie that could hold a contrary viewpoint all point to a person crippled by imposter syndrome. Her only refuge is to lash out at Westminster and vaguely promise that independence would be the salvation for all of Scotland's ills. But don't ask her how.