The SNP will survive their crisis, and so they should

This week’s (26th April) BBC Debate Night (Scotland’s version of Question Time) discussed the question “Will the SNP survive the crisis they are in at the moment?”. With the panel made up of Labour, SNP, and Conservative MSPs, SNP supporter Aamer Anwar, and former Labour Special Adviser, Ayesha Hazarika, it lacked a liberal position on the issue. A position I hope I can articulate here.

So in my opinion, will they survive? Yes.

As a follow up question, should they survive? Yes.

This is a crisis for the SNP, undoubtedly, but it risks becoming a crisis for Scottish democracy in the medium-long term. The SNP have made a name for themselves in claiming to stand up for democracy, and for change in Scotland. A party which can take the moral high-ground over the Westminster establishment.

What happens now that they have been subject to two high profile arrests, infighting over party finances, a fridge-freezer, and a motorhome?

Polls so far have shown that SNP support is declining, but support for Labour, Greens, and Lib Dems has not risen enough to compensate. Furthermore, the latest YouGov poll, 16% of 2019 SNP voters said they don’t know who they would vote for in the next UK election. For Panelbase and Redfield & Wilton the figure was 10%, Survation 9%, and Savanta 7%.

This is especially significant when you consider that support for independence has remained stable in the aftermath of the resignation and leadership election. While the number of undecideds has also gone up, but this has always been volatile on the Indyref question.

Going forward, there is a risk that those moving from SNP to “don’t know” then decide simply to not vote at all. With new voter ID laws disenfranchising thousands of people, this creates a serious risk at the next general election of people not exercising their democratic right. I have heard this first-hand. Someone I work with, a former SNP activist, has said they feel disenfranchised and don’t know what to do now, and may not vote. SNP voters support the party because they want change, and the scandal bakes in the idea (and this could apply to the wider electorate as well) that all politicians are the same, no matter the party.

Overall, this will not lead to the downfall of the SNP, and nor should it. The Conservatives survived the sleaze of the 1990s and are showing green shoots of recovery following the Johnson and Truss eras. They, Labour, and the Lib Dems all came through the expenses scandal of 2009/10, so there is reason to believe the SNP will survive this.

If we want the SNP to lose support in a meaningful and democratic way, the focus should be on governance failures, rather than the scandals of late. Figures out this week show Scotland’s public services are losing public satisfaction. While the issues with the health service, education, drug and alcohol abuse, and ferries continue to rumble on.

As an opposition, we can offer not only solutions to these problems, but real change. This same colleague also told me that if Starmer offered a decentralised and federal UK, independence would lose all meaning. SNP voters want change. The party has turned a constitutional issue into an opportunity for things to be radically different in all areas of life.

While the Scottish National Party will survive this crisis, and so they should if you look at historical precedent, it opens up a huge risk, and a huge opportunity. Risk in the shape of voters feeling disenfranchised to the point of pure apathy, but opportunity for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to not only be part of what’s next, but to lead the conversation.

* Jack Clark is the former Chair of Scottish Young Liberals, and was candidate for Paisley & Renfrewshire South in 2019.

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  • There’s a long way to go until any of our theories on the SNP are tested in a meaningful election, but I broadly agree with your assessment Jack.

    I won’t blame the SNP’s opponents for enjoying seeing a very slick spin machine stumble, and having a chuckle as Humza appears to be recreating The Thick Of It out-takes, but it would be foolish to take it too seriously.

    The polarised nature of Scottish politics means that a large chunk of those who have supported the SNP have invested as much emotional energy in actively disliking ‘unionist’ parties. Many of those who are disillusioned with the SNP will vote for them anyway, albeit with less enthusiasm than before. That disillusionment is more likely to be seen in reduced turn-out, and less energy from activists. Some will be temporarily emboldened, but they’ll tire and a lot more of their energy will be spent on in-fighting.

  • Mel Borthwaite 28th Apr '23 - 5:11pm

    Good article. I would add that I think that a lot will depend on whether the police investigation establishes criminality – if not, the SNP may well bounce back quiet quickly because support for independence is well ahead of current SNP support and those voters have to go somewhere.

  • Chris Moore 28th Apr '23 - 9:04pm

    I agree strongly with the undeclared liberal assumption that I think underlies this interesting article: political competition and diversity are essential goods in a liberal democracy.

  • David Langshaw 29th Apr '23 - 10:09am

    Interesting. Please could Jack (or someone else with local knowledge) tell us what they think is happening with Alex Salmond’s Alba Party? Could disenchanted ex-SNP voters support Alba or the Greens, particularly in the List element of the next elections, and thus continue to show support for independence and avoid the need to vote for a unionist party?

  • @davidlangshaw

    Alba will not be a natural home for SNP voters. It is a right wing illiberal party. Independence supporters have the choice of the Scottish Green Party which currently has three times more MSPs than the Lib Dems.

    And it is fanciful to think, given his u-turn on PR, that Starmer will support any further devolution especially as the Brown Report only suggested the devolution of the management of the DWP offfice network to Scotland. The Lib Dems have no concreter proposals on their idea of federalism and no chance of being in a position to implement them.
    The only game in town for those who want Scotland to be able to choose its own political path is independence.

  • richard malim 29th Apr '23 - 8:24pm

    In the long run the SNP will suffer the worst damage from the Ferries financing debacle, where their political and financial incompetence should make any member involved unelectable, and put the party in the doldrums for the next, say, ten years. Then they will recover as each new ignorant generation comes on song. That seems to be the rule the whole democratic world over

  • The drama with the party finances means a lot of people have forgotten the drama of the leadership campaign, which some in the SNP will consider a silver lining, but while the latest chaos may be a distraction from the factionalism, the cat is very much out of the bag. There is and always has been a solid tranche of small C conservatives in the SNP, even if they were encouraged to keep quiet about it in recent years.

    Those who remain convinced independence is the only way to ‘ditch the Tories’ may hold their nose to keep voting SNP, especially at Westminster elections, but the reduced enthusiasm will hit their ability to campaign as effectively.

    The true damage is the reduced trust in the SNP party leadership, and the knock-on effect that has for the trust in the SNP government, and the logical end-point for their moderate supporters is an increased scepticism in the nationalist slogans. In some ways this is a continuation of the fall-out from their “Growth Commission” report.

  • @ Fiona, “There is and always has been a solid tranche of small C conservatives in the SNP”.

    And not just in the SNP, Fiona.

  • Very true David. Those who claim that there are ‘no Tories in Scotland’ based purely on the number of Scottish Tory MPs have been deluded. The SNP have tried to distance themselves from the Tory party, but many of their traditional voters wanted independence either as a means to leave the EU or simply to avoid the redistribution of the money from oil. Few admit to the former these days, but a lot still complain about “Westminster” stealing our resources, and even if some people have a strange understanding of what resources are being stolen, being against the redistribution of wealth – even if it is to English people – is a right-wing mentality.

    If the SNP were simply another political party operating under FPTP then being a broad church wouldn’t be a big deal, but when your number one policy objective is to separate from the rest of the UK, and one of the most persistent reasons for needing to do this is to get away from Tories, then it’s a constant reminder that most nationalists are in fact ideological nationalists who, just like Brexiteers, will say whatever it takes to get over the line with no serious consideration to the consequences.

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