The SNP leadership contest has not exactly been edifying. The contenders – Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan – are struggling to adjust to the emerging post-Sturgeon era and scrutiny within a febrile atmosphere of bile, bigotry and hatred. This is comprised of a motley crew – Sturgeon haters, people who have lost all sense of proportion and conspiracy theorists – many of whom think that this is now their time.
Scotland has always had a dark side. Like nearly everywhere in the developed world, a toxic element exists in our public life and conversation – happy to pollute and debase discourse, and spread mistrust and disinformation. Increasingly, this comes at a wider cost which has to be addressed and called out.
This is true of all shades of Scottish political life. But in the past decade, a particularly virulent strand has grown on the pro-independence side. In more innocent times, pre-2014, this phenomena were called 'cybernats' – a phrase people of this persuasion detested and which a sizeable element of the SNP tried to contest.
Post-2014, this tendency exploded into overdrive, aided by a culture of silence and collusion from senior SNP figures and leadership. Party bigwigs were ineffective at calling out 'cybernats', and a new world of social media opinion was then spawned which consistently overstepped the mark but on which the SNP did not call time.
Alex Salmond and the Gender Recognition Reform Bill
This dark side of independence has grown in recent years amplified by two public events: the Alex Salmond scandal and the controversy over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
The former saw a significant number of pro-independence supporters believe that the great man who had led the SNP for a total of 20 years had been the victim of an elaborate plot. This alleged that the Scottish Government's changing of guidelines on sexual harassment, and then the subsequent Crown case against him and trial, were expressions of orchestrated actions to destroy him.
The 'reasoning' behind this was that, post-2014, Nicola Sturgeon believed that Alex Salmond posed a threat to her power and leadership, and therefore had to be minimised. The actions against Salmond were in some accounts allegedly masterminded by Sturgeon, or by Sturgeon and senior figures in the party and civil service.
This sad episode did not end when Salmond went on trial and was found not guilty of all charges (and one not proven) in March 2020; this after he had won a judicial review against the Scottish Government on how it had initially acted in January 2019. This was then followed by a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the fallout which found against Nicola Sturgeon, splitting narrowly on party lines in March 2021.
Even this was not the end, but merely the latest phase in an ongoing, festering split. Salmond launched his Alba Party in March 2021 ahead of the May elections and until now has won a derisory number of votes in every election contested.
But Alba has had a wider impact. Not only did it take a swathe of former SNP members as paid-up supporters but Salmond and his cause has been able to count on a bigger constituency of SNP members and independence supporters who have sympathy and solidarity with him. For some, this is merely an acknowledgement of Salmond's past contribution, but others believe he has been unfairly treated. And for others there is support for an Alba-esque politics on independence that is defiant, disruptive and impatient – one disproportionally found on social media.
The Gender Recognition Reform Bill has been one of the most bitter, divisive experiences in the history of the devolved Scottish Parliament and its legislation. This produced an environment and legacy where many who felt passionately – from those pro-trans to those championing women's rights and trans rights – felt disrespected and not listened to. And alongside this, the most vociferous and emphatic opinion on both sides have engaged in brutal exchanges, charges and counter-charges.
This 'debate' has run for the past two to three years and in that time has radicalised opinion on both sides. Relevant to this has been the increasingly pronounced language used by feminist campaigners who opposed the bill. Some but not all of them support independence, and some have become more sympathetic to Alex Salmond and Alba because of this – including SNP MP Joanna Cherry. Other feminist organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women's Aid and Scottish Women's Convention supported the reforms.
This has even led in polite circles to a host of feminists including author JK Rowling proudly wearing T-shirts stating 'Nicola Sturgeon: Destroyer of Women's Rights'. On social media blogs and sites, dramatic comments are made including the regular charge that the advancement of trans rights and allowing 'men into women's spaces' (via transwomen) is about 'the eradication of women'. And in places the language is incendiary – from both pro-women and pro-trans perspectives.
The cumulative effect of these two controversies has been to destabilise political discourse in Scotland. It has injected a degree of poison, hatred and abuse into debate to a degree that would have been unimaginable and not tolerated before. There have always been angry and opposing voices in Scotland as much as anywhere, but these two issues brought such practices significantly in from the margins and radicalised many people who would have previously remained immune to such perspectives.
The effect on the SNP and its leadership contest
Without this backdrop, it is impossible to fully understand the nature of the SNP leadership contest, its fraught nature, fissures, disagreements and infighting. One important factor in this was the increasingly presidential style of Nicola Sturgeon's leadership, controlling a whole host of government decisions and management of the party, and refusing to share thinking or responsibility with colleagues.
Government and party were increasingly defined by Sturgeon's centralised hoarding of power at the apex of both, her total belief in her own judgement and inability to completely trust and empower others including senior Cabinet ministers. This meant party management, aided by Sturgeon's husband, Peter Murrell (appointed SNP CEO in 1999 and who remained in post for her entire tenure as First Minister), increasingly became about manipulating and controlling the party, suffocating debate and marginalising opponents (changing the rules, for example, to stop Joanna Cherry MP standing as an MSP).
This way of doing politics slowly built up a whole series of problems, operating as it saw fit, and doing what it wanted with party processes and finances. A significant amount, £600,000, was raised by the party for an indyref; but then disappeared in the party accounts, and is now the subject of a police investigation. Murrell gave the party a loan of £107,000 and never declared it to the Electoral Commission until over a year later; and in the version presented by Sturgeon, never told her about this.
Similarly, the saga concerning SNP membership is about the consequences of keeping secrets and not truth telling. Party membership peaked at 125,691 in 2019 – up from 25,642 in September 2014. Since this peak, membership fell to 103,884 in December 2021 – the last public figures until last week when the party was forced to acknowledge it had 72,186 members.
The party until then had been denying it had 'lost 30,000 members' which, when the truth came out, led to the resignation of comms head Murray Foote and, a few days later, Murrell. Yet still the party hierarchy could not fully fess up, with Murrell and Sturgeon both denying knowledge of the true level of membership. Which begs the question – why would they not know and in saying they didn't, do they really think people are so stupid? Both had to know the true level of membership being CEO and leader of the SNP respectively.
This above culture of not telling the truth comes at a cost. It tarnishes the reputation of Sturgeon and Murrell. It reduces trust in people in public life, and relevant to this discussion, it legitimises and gives the toxic wing of independence a sense of justification. It makes them feel that outlandish, crackpot ideas about Sturgeon have been proven correct. They feel that the 'House of Sturgeon and Murrell' was built on their long-running pursuit of them has been vindicated.
And so a host of strident and problematic pro-independence voices feel that tomorrow belongs to them. They feel empowered and emboldened at the moment, and that they have been completely right.
None of this will go away post-Sturgeon, or after a new SNP leader is elected. We have to ask a wider constituency – what do we do about these haters? What is their ultimate aim? Is it to destroy all sense of trust and respect in public life and reduce Scottish politics to our own version of Trumpian US Republican demagoguery?
In their long war of attrition on the state of Scottish politics, they have inflicted human damage on the body politic and numerous individuals – turning people away from politics and forcing others into silence.
Two responses are needed. The first is to encourage a public culture of conversation which has respect, dialogue, exchange and trust at its heart. This has to happen not just on social media, but across public life, mainstream print, broadcast media and other public platforms. In too many areas there is a drawing of lines, tribalism, name-calling and disrespect. For a start, the language of right-wing papers and the UK Government on areas such as asylum seekers is of xenophobia, with the current UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman talking of an 'invasion' and 'billions' wanting to come to the UK.
The second is as difficult. There has to be a concerted attempt to make politics about real things that affect real people in their lives: the economy, public services, the cost of living crisis, climate change, and Scotland's constitutional future. This will not stop some on the right who want to stoke culture wars and sow division, but it would partly silence the misguided and cynical ideological warriors of the right with their 'war on woke'.
Politics is about disagreement but does not have to be toxic and leave people feeling disempowered and diminished. Part of the backdrop to the SNP contest is that too many folk have decided until now to turn the other cheek, and pretend they do not see what is being done in their name. This has cost the SNP and independence dear – and done both no favours. This has to be recognised, challenged and a different way of political engagement advanced.
A Scotland where the forces of hate feel emboldened, vindicated and continue unchecked would be a toxic landscape and contribute to a politics which does not answer the big questions which need addressing.