Takeover: Explaining the Extraordinary Rise of the SNP, by Rob Johns and James Mitchell (Biteback Publishing)
All books are inevitably overtaken by events but there’s a certain brutality about the pace of change in Scottish politics at the moment. A book published just two years ago, for example, would not cover the outcome of the independence referendum, the Smith Commission and Scotland Bill, the SNP’s eclipse of other parties at the 2015 general election, the Scottish Parliament elections earlier this year or the EU referendum. As it is, Rob Johns and James Mitchell will have to contend with readers approaching their recently published book with the knowledge of the SNP’s lost majority and the UK’s vote in favour of leaving the EU, despite a majority in Scotland opposing this outcome.
The emphasis is very much on the SNP’s recent history, with the book focusing extensively on the period since the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Despite what might be considered its revolutionary core objective and the swirling anti-establishment sentiments of the wider nationalist movement, the SNP is depicted as being a highly typical political party concerned about the achievement and then retention of power. Its strategies are characterised by a high level of central control, reliance on focus-group analysis and an aversion to risk in an attempt to capture the broadest possible swathe of support.
Its successes were built by stressing competency and by downplaying the most controversial aspect of its policy platform. Independence was side-lined as an issue before the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections with the result that some of those who were opposed to the policy voted for the SNP on the basis of its record as a minority government since 2007. As a result, its share of the vote was higher than support for independence. The irony, and its one the authors are alert to, is that this approach resulted in the SNP securing an unexpected majority and with it the mandate to demand a referendum from the UK Parliament.
The SNP has developed a reputation for strict discipline and authoritative leadership but the roots of this can be traced back to the otherwise underwhelming leadership of John Swinney. The authors note his main contribution as leader was to transform the party’s constitution, with a special conference in 2004 ‘streamlining’ the NEC, reducing the number of national office bearers, introducing a central membership system and stricter requirements for those wanting to stand for the election, and creating a formal party leader position. The party’s stated aims, as listed in its constitution, were also rewritten to replace references to self-government with independence.
The SNP is also shown to have benefited from factors largely outside its control such as the fading of party loyalties, particularly among those from families rooted in Conservative and Labour traditions. It further benefited from Alex Salmond becoming the most recognisable figure in Scottish politics in an era when voters often use leaders as proxies for parties they know little about. Interestingly, the authors note that even at the peak of his appeal, Salmond never reached the levels of popularity among Scots recorded by Tony Blair in 1997 because the Labour leader did not provoke hostile reactions to the same extent.
The souring of this popularity contributed to Labour's recent difficulties which are a vital factor in explaining the SNP’s successes. Labour, the authors explain, has been slipping in relative rather than absolute terms, being viewed as ‘less competent, less in touch with ordinary people and less ready to fight for Scotland’s interests than the SNP’. This dynamic had previously worked in Labour's favour, allowing it to regularly triumph over the Conservatives at Westminster elections as a result of the very same assessments.
With hindsight, it now seems apparent that the change of terrain ushered in by devolution would lead to more serious comparisons with the SNP, but this was poorly understood at the time. Given the criteria by which people are judging Labour against the SNP, it’s difficult to see how measures like the creation of an independent Scottish organisation or offers of more devolution will win back the support of those who have abandoned the party and now enjoy kicking it with a convert’s zeal.
Relatedly, the authors detail the SNP’s work to woo Scotland’s Catholic community which had so steadfastly supported Labour from the early 1920s. They write of a ‘series of initiatives’ initiated during Alex Salmond’s first stint as leader, including a group chaired by Mike Russell – recently returned to the ministerial fold – that was tasked with considering 'how best to advance its cause among Catholics’. George Galloway is one of the few still arguing that the spirit of Andrew Dewar Gibb is yet to depart from the SNP but other prominent commentators such as Tom Devine, Tom Gallagher and James MacMillan would contend, albeit with different degrees of emphasis, that the Catholic community and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Scotland are now very well disposed to the nationalist cause. Cardinal Winning, here described as 'very sympathetic to the SNP’, might now be considered something of a pioneer.
Crunching census and election data, the authors reveal a 'small but discernible skew towards younger and more working class voters’, although the party is judged 'to poll fairly uniformly across Scottish society’. This shift was accelerated by the independence referendum, they conclude, but strikingly the boom in party membership after the defeat was driven by those from a professional background. The average age of a member, contrary to what might be expected, is still over 50 and the membership of the party 'could still be mistaken for that of a golf club’. One area where the SNP’s membership was found to be relatively unusual was in its near parity of male and female members, with the authors considering this to be even more unusual because men were more favourable to independence than women ahead of the referendum.
The book relies heavily on primary data drawn from Scottish Election Surveys, British Election Studies, Scottish Social Attitude Surveys and the census. This information, which is presumably more reliable than your average opinion poll, is presented at regular intervals in the form of tables and graphs. In their arguments, the authors are cautious about advancing decisively beyond the boundaries of what the data sources are telling them. This is a commendable adherence to academic rigour in a book from a non-academic publisher but there are times when it makes it cracker-dry and some readers might find their tolerance abused by the invitation to scrutinise yet another set of figures, even as they marvel at the sheer number of forms graphs can assume. Flights of fancy were clearly grounded prior to publication and if there are subjective judgements they are so thoroughly disguised as to be for the authors alone to recognise. Predictions are generally cautious but seemingly based on sound judgement, as when the authors note that the increase in support for independence following the EU referendum might be small and fleeting.
There are inevitably exceptions to these observations, with the rare statement that pries up the eyebrow to such an extent that people might think you’re impersonating SNP deputy leader candidate Alyn Smith. For example, the authors matter-of-factly state: 'the Scottish government immediately accepted the result of the referendum. At no point has the SNP advocated Sinn Fein’s tactics of parliamentary abstention, let alone its association with violence'. These seem like rather artificially low bars for judging acceptance. For those who hold a different opinion on the constitution the SNP's attitude has often seemed grudging or even implicitly contemptuous.
'Takeover' confirms the impression that the SNP is the most formidable party in Scotland, possibly even the UK. Circumstances seem unlikely to threaten that position in the near future but it remains unclear how the SNP will win over those still resisting its professional charms when its every action seems to drive them that little bit further out of reach.