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Winter is Coming
Why exactly are the three contenders for SNP leadership seemingly so bad at politics?
“Oh, my sweet summer child," Old Nan said quietly, "what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little lord, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods”
I’ve been thinking of these lines from A Game of Thrones over the last few days as I’ve been watching the clown show of the SNP leadership campaign.
Kate Forbes has awful, regressive political views; Humza Yousaf, who has the worst record of the devolution era is as assured as a candidate as he is as a Minister; and Ash Regan has been unexpectedly thrust from obscurity to national status. None of these things made the many misanters of the last week inevitable. Why is it so bad?
I think it is because they are all summer children.
For most of my life, the SNP has been run by the same, small group of people. Salmond, Sturgeon and a handful of supporting cast members spent their lives working to shift the dominant frame of Scottish politics from Labour socialism to SNP nationalism. As much as I would criticise their divisive politics, their single-minded determination and relentless effort paid off with 15 years of SNP hegemony.
But it wasn’t easy for them.
Salmond went from being expelled from the SNP to becoming its leader. He was a failure leading his first election, winning just three MPs. Back when he was a gradualist, he had to fight the fundamentalists to get them to drop their opposition to devolution. In that first Holyrood election, he badly misjudged the public mood around Labour’s support for NATO action to stop ethnic cleansing by Milosevic. Eventually, he resigned after party figures started to move against him, including Iain Blackford.
Sturgeon failed to get elected in the 1987 General Election, again in the 1992 district elections, again in the regional elections in 1994, and again in the elections for Glasgow City Council in 1995. Then she lost in Govan in 1997 and 1999 and 2003. She launched a leadership campaign in 2004 only to pull out three weeks later after Salmond judged she was going to lose to Roseanna Cunningham. She ran and lost the 2014 referendum and then, when her time finally came to lead, she ended up in a bitter fight to the political death with her former friend and mentor.
When their success finally came, it was built on the experience of painful failures.
Compare their stories to the political journeys of the three contenders. At 26 years old Yousaf stood for the first time and was elected in an SNP landslide. Forbes was also elected at 26 in another landslide, in her first election. Regan was elected, in her first go at politics in the same landslide.
This is a group of candidates who have never had to struggle to achieve anything in politics. I’m sure they all have personal hardships that have been character-building. Yousaf has certainly faced appalling racism and the others have had to put up with awful misogyny. However, their political success is not their own. It was handed down to them by Salmond and Sturgeon.
Without failures to teach them hard lessons, they seemingly haven’t learned the basics of how political campaigns work. That’s why Yousaf can’t arrange a launch event or close down questions about his own voting record. It’s why Forbes clearly doesn’t know how to develop a difficult line-to-take or prepare for a tough interview. It’s why Regan is happy to act as a vessel for those who seek Salmond’s revenge, leaving her unable to think two or three questions ahead on the central offer of her campaign.
Nor do these candidates have a clear set of values, or uniting ideology to fall back on. If this week has exposed anything it is that, for all the pretence of being a centre-left party, the only thing that holds the SNP together is a belief in breaking up the UK.
Now that summer is over and winter is coming for their party, these candidates are ill-equipped to deal with the political mess that Nicola Sturgeon’s impending absence has uncovered. I’m beginning to wonder if the SNP can be led. Whoever is crowned might find their reign as short and unhappy as those who sat on the Iron Throne.
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On the anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I found this report incredibly moving. I know from my own work with democrats and human rights activists in Ukraine and Belarus over the last year; and from the resolve of the Ukrainian refugees we have welcomed into our home, that those countries will never choose his path over the opportunity to develop as European democracies.