In the past week, Nicola Sturgeon made a couple of important statements about politics and power in Scotland. Speaking with the political comedian Matt Forde at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Sturgeon was revealing in a way she seldom is, and not perhaps in the way she intended to be.
Firstly, Sturgeon said that she was 'obsessed' with keeping the SNP in office and not ending up in an 'existential crisis' like Scottish Labour. Secondly, she said that the decline of Labour in Scotland – from being 'seemingly impregnable' to, at best, Scotland's third political force – and a humiliating fifth place in the recent European elections with 9% of the vote, profoundly influenced how she saw politics and acted as a leader.
Let's take Sturgeon's self-stated modus operandi of politics first: that she is 'obsessed' above all else with retaining power. This is a charge often made about her and the SNP by critics, and in particular pro-independence critics inside and outside the party. It draws from evidence of 12 years of the SNP in office and five years of Sturgeon leadership. The latter has been defined by a lack of any clear direction or strategy beyond managing events, expectations, the party and independence supporters.
Sturgeon's remarks show the critics are right. What, after all, is the SNP's mission in office? It is supposedly to make a fairer country and to advance towards independence. Yet, on both counts, progress has become (putting it mildly) questionable, with no strategic moves on either front. Instead, in Sturgeon's own words, the self-evident rationale of the SNP over a decade into office is to keep the whole show on the road and to remain in office. And in this her remarks echo the mindset of the Labour party in Scotland in its later days, just before it experienced decline and defeat.
This interpretation is underlined by Sturgeon's further comments about how she sees what happened to Labour as a forewarning and lesson in what not to do. At the same event, she commented about a time when she would joke about how Labour would weigh rather than count its vote at elections and went on: 'It’s kind of hard-wired into me, it's in my DNA to avoid making the mistakes that I saw them make at every turn.'
Scottish Labour's example illuminates a political truism: that what goes up must come down and nothing – in terms of political dominance – lasts forever. Not only should Labour's decline be a warning to Sturgeon, so should the many and growing similarities between Labour and the SNP which don't augur well for the latter.
Both Labour and SNP have placed themselves on the centre-left – as parties of social democracy – but have, for most of their history, been of the pragmatic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, type. Both have become parties of the system and the political and insider classes; parties which have paraded their anti-establishment credentials for years only to become, by electoral success and lack of radicalism and ideas, the embodiment of the Scottish political establishment.
The SNP will tell you to this day that it is still the anti-establishment facing the British state and elites, and aiming to disrupt the status quo through independence. But this is similar to the empty rhetoric that Labour dinosaurs such as the Jimmy Wrays and Jimmy Hoods of the world used to deflect their own unimaginative, unappealing politics: by talking about a far-removed political abstract 'socialism' unrelated to their rotten burgh politics.
Both parties have had powerful clarion calls at their peak – 'socialism' in Labour and 'independence' in the SNP. Revealingly, both parties have chosen for most of their histories to leave this bright new dawn undefined (the exception being the SNP's 2013 White Paper). 'Socialism' and 'independence' have been used in both parties to mobilise and mesmerise the troops to prevent them realising the mostly drab, unimaginative politics their leaders are fronting, and to minimise them asking too many difficult questions such as what is the content of this 'socialism' or 'independence' frequently cited, but seldom pinned down?
Such balancing acts are only possible for so long. This deliberate kind of illusionary politics, with its art of deception, eventually falls apart. Long before Labour's vote fell off the cliff, the gap between official rhetoric and reality had become a chasm. Increasingly in the SNP, more and more people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current state.
The SNP's political dispensation at a senior level has become that of a political class telling us that everything is fine, that we are heading in the right direction, and that the only main hindrances are the usual bogeys: Tories, Westminster, Brexit, and, of course, Scots who don't yet buy into the project.
Justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, recently said: 'The Scottish Parliament has been utterly transformative.' This seems to be over-stating things, unless he was talking about his own personal experience as an elected politician and minister. Similarly, the continual SNP mantra of progressing towards a 'fairer, better Scotland' has become their equivalent of New Labour spin. It has little connection to the reality of modern day Scotland, but is what the insider class likes to tell themselves of their mission, and to somehow convince us of, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary.
Something even more serious is at work than the respective fates of Labour and SNP in office. This is, namely, how Scotland has historically done political power and patronage. It is germane to note that how Scotland years ago did politics and power – pre-union – was through what was called the Court party. This was self-descriptive in how it acted and saw itself: it was the party of patronage, privilege and preferment around the King or Queen's Court, dispensing favours, jockeying for position, and managing all sorts of elite access and advancement.
The Court party of its day was a looser, more fluid set of arrangements than today's political parties, but it is true that Labour and SNP at their peak embody the modern day equivalent of much of what the Court party stood for. They became forces about patronage, insiderness, and dispensing favours, access and various titles.
This similarity can even be seen at the top of both parties in their peak periods. Labour under Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook et al
saw itself as a party of 'big beasts' who viewed Scotland as their fiefdom and heartland; eventually the country rebelled against such a description. The Salmond-Sturgeon SNP has, as its dominance has endured, lapsed further and further into court politics – more porous and open under Salmond, reflecting his emollient style; more narrow and closed under Sturgeon, reflecting her personality.
Scotland now is a nation divided on independence, but strangely there is an absence of talking about the substance of it where it should
be discussed. Five years on from the indyref, the SNP have just announced again that their autumn conference will not include any discussion on independence. This is something the party leadership has managed to avoid at every spring and autumn SNP conference since 2014 to growing disquiet. This illustrates the limits of court politics and their unsustainability: it is not permanently possible to micro-manage and control everything; and a party of independence should at some point be having substantive discussions about the issue that goes to its core.
Warning signs are everywhere about the state of politics. We many not have reached the debased state of Boris Johnson's government, which has already taken levels of deception and dogma to new lows in the pursuit of a no deal Brexit, but the crises we are facing show that we need to have no illusions about politics north of the border.
No political party or tradition is in good health in Scotland. This includes the SNP, who for all their current dominance in the polls, are fragile and anxious, and whose lead is, for the most part, based on the weakness of their opponents. Inside the SNP these signs of unease are everywhere. People are talking quietly and mostly privately about such big questions as how can the SNP renew while remaining in office; how could it manage to lose an election given the weakness of its opponents; and what can it do about the obvious limits of the current leadership.
There is even soft discussion beyond the 'usual suspects' and troublemakers of the leadership succession after Sturgeon, and how any new leader could be a different, more collegiate figure: one who grows the next generation of talent and encourages the debates the party has systematically avoided since 2014. Party insiders know that the next leader has to emerge from an open contest, and ultimately, coronations never do their leaders and parties any favours (think Gordon Brown and Theresa May – and maybe soon, Boris Johnson). Add to this mix the unknown factor of the looming Alex Salmond trial in the new year, and the SNP is going to face huge challenges which will change it fundamentally.
Much of the above invokes a feeling of déjà vu. This is the kind of internal debate which political parties have with themselves after they have been dominant for a period, begin to take it for granted, and become a bit listless and unsatisfied. We have been here before. Many of the above questions were asked at the tail-end of Scottish Labour dominance under Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell as first ministers. People constantly talked about the internal dispensation and balance of forces in Labour to the exclusion of external forces, thinking it possible they could go on winning elections on a declining vote because of the shortcoming of their opponents.
The SNP is at the beginning of entering such a mindset. It still has lots of advantages, such as a mass membership and a habit of winning elections at every level. But underneath that something deep-seated is shifting: for what is all this dominance for – beyond Nicola Sturgeon's revelation that she has an 'obsession' with holding on, come what may, to office? This is what happens to one-party dominant systems: they eventually end as voters turn elsewhere. We aren't at that stage yet, but combine that with the fact that court politics always eventually experience fissure, rebellion and challenges to the central authority, and dramatic pressures for change are building.
This is going to be messy, difficult, and will happen at some cost to certain senior leadership figures in the SNP, but as many in the party recognise, out of this something positive may emerge: a SNP more pluralist, democratic, focused on substance, and utilising the energies of its membership. It might not be an easy path getting there from here, but the current status quo isn't going to be sustainable for very long and doesn't seem capable at the moment of having the honesty and courage to begin confronting the difficult questions that the SNP – and beyond that Scotland – has to if we are to thrive and prosper as a country.