The SNP’s Neoliberal Cartel is Breaking Up
Nicola Sturgeon’s winning formula of economic brutality and sugar-water progressivism will not survive the SNP leadership race
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, we witness the unwinding of the charismatic leadership of Don Vito Corleone through his sons. Each of his three boys – who he confesses to raising indulgently – embody only a portion of his strength, offset by weakness.
Sonny, the heir apparent, is forceful and strong but without his father’s sense of strategy. Fredo is warm and sociable, but weak and needy of affection. Michael is shrewd and decisive, but cold – fatefully incapable of forgiveness.
The literary theme of the epigone – the offspring who cannot live up to the example of the forbear, is ancient. It was perhaps smuggled into Coppola’s films via psychoanalysis, with its appreciation of how crisis afflicted personalities can split into their component parts.
Social formations and organisations too can unwind in this way. Aspects of a whole which worked together in a given historical moment can be torn apart in the next. The Godfather charts the collapse of a Sicilian patriarchy in the inclement weather of 20th century North America. Vito Corleone manages the balance of respect and fear, love and authority which is the patriarchal ideal. But it breaks like light through a prism in a society that can no longer accommodate this old social form.
I won’t abuse this analogy by individually comparing Vito’s sons and the three SNP candidates (Humza Yousaf is Fredo by the way). Suffice it to say the package of attributes that carried the SNP hegemon this far has suddenly shattered.
Kate Forbes indicates this most clearly. She seems absolutely determined to present the most unacceptable faces of Scotland’s capitalist settlement to the public. Her fealty to liberal market economics is hardly shocking – she shares this with Nicola Sturgeon and her rivals. Forbes’ problem is that she flaunts it brazenly. For Decades neoliberalism has found success with a ‘slap and tickle’ combination of economic brutality and sugar-paper social liberalism. Forbes was already getting away with militant attacks on the Scottish public sector, and drawing less heat than might be expected were the programme not covered by Sturgeon’s aura of progressivism.
In place of the former FM’s saccharine claims to be placing the interests of “women and children” first, Forbes has asserted the special rights of business. Having learned nothing from the Truss debacle of just weeks ago, she apparently believes the animal spirits of capitalism can lift Scotland out of its stupor. Forget for a moment that the programme of senile neoliberalism is a broken mechanism. As stated, it remains common ground for most SNP politicians. What’s Forbes seeking from her noisy adherence? An attempt to find a way out the SNP’s financial problems by aligning it more explicitly with the ideas of big donors (the party suffers for a lack of them)? Are some of the party’s former beneficiaries – activist capitalists with conservative leanings – moving in the background?
Or perhaps the explanation is simple incompetence. Forbes hails from rural and small business parts where her combination of market banalities and social Kirkishness wash, and she imagines this will arrive as a pleasant surprise in the central belt. Whatever the thinking, her self-presentation means a Forbes FM would likely mutilate the SNP’s existing voting bloc. Forbes represents the economic liberalism of her party – but snarling, with none of the necessary apologies.
She does at least seem to have a faction. Though her campaign quickly alienated parliamentary supporters, one can imagine a network of activists (perchance some with similar religious convictions) treading the pavements in the northeast. Ash Reagan’s people, meanwhile, have already quit the party. We don’t know how many thousands of SNP members, some of them old party veterans, others from the post 2014 influx, have given up since 2018-19, when internal tensions began to mount. Alex Salmond did the SNP machine a grand favour when he drained the party of dissenting material two years ago. If Regan represents the campaigning zeal of the nationalist foot soldiers, she may find she’s representing a rump.
And then there’s Yousaf. Never meant to be the Don, but he was available, and Angus Robertson was not. He’s left with the friendly façade of the SNP. Happy, clappy, and still promising the good times of a centre left Scotland that never quite arrives. Sturgeon’s reputation famously rode through every policy failure and public relations embarrassment – and there were plenty of them. Yousaf’s reputation as a bungler, and the absence of his predecessor’s media friendliness, means the favourite represents a continuity of the failures without the aura of invincibility.
Frankly, none of the candidates look capable of holding the SNP’s formidable alliance together. Let’s remind ourselves of what that alliance was. Off the back of 2014, it drew a large portion of former Labour Scotland. We can add to this a traditional nationalist constituency in the North East and a small private army of true believers.
In power the SNP used Holyrood to cement a patronage network around itself, handing out money and access in return for good relations. This strategy (which the SNP merely mastered – the building of patronage in this way is a structural imperative of the devolution mode of government) had welded campaigning outfits and corporate Scotland into protective beige blob around power. Finally, the riff-raff of Scottish public life swarmed in after the 2015 General Election. I remember reporting from the SNP conference of that year and being struck by the familiar faces. They were the old Labour Students cadres, having traded in their skinny red ties for the SNP’s trademark pastel power-suits.
None of the candidates can appeal to all these constituencies. None of them even seem to be trying. Most are now firmly associated with an element of the Sturgeon’s old camarilla (Forbes with business and the North East, Regan with the independence hardcore, Yousaf with ‘civic Scotland’). One can imagine, for example, the stampede in the event of a Forbes victory. You can practically hear the third sector marching in unison to Anas Sarwar.
Slowly or quickly, this is all coming off the rails. As it does so, many in the extended court of Nicola Sturgeon (by which I mean the court that extended across much of the liberal and leftern hemisphere of Scottish public life) will plead that the magic went with her. They will say what departed with her was a very real progressive virtue, and this merely exposed the ugliness of the party – even the country – she had been covering for all this time.
The truth is Sturgeon is the architect of this dysfunctional family. The signs of her abuses are everywhere in her inheritors’ half-baked worldviews, patronage politics, sharp elbows, missing constituencies and total lack of a plan for the national question. Time will reveal just how much damage was done in an environment where privileges were assumed, meaningful debate forbidden, and dissenters tossed aside. The appalling choice presented to us by the candidates is simply the inarticulate version of the programme Sturgeon enforced. Now it is turning against itself in the twilight of SNP hegemony.
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