This article first appeared in the New Statesman on 18th April 2023.
There’s a particular type of English progressive that I’ve never fully understood. It’s those, including some friends, who have spent the past decade or more fetishising the SNP as an embodiment of Athenian enlightenment in an otherwise moribund Britain.
I’ve always encouraged my political friends to travel north to enjoy all that Scotland has to offer. Many did, and they found a country of remarkable character and beauty but also the rising poverty, secrecy and polarisation that no progressive should ever countenance, let alone celebrate.
By my reckoning there are, broadly, three drivers of such friends’ eccentric affection for this progressive Potemkin. For some it was a sense of despair: after successive Conservative victories they wanted to believe that progressive ideas lived on somewhere in the UK. Gradually, Scotland supplanted Sweden in the progressive lexicon. It’s little surprise that the Conservatives enthusiastically embraced this conceit. Why wouldn’t they? It suited their electoral framing of a distant Scottish tail wagging an English dog in a future hung parliament.
Secondly, Brexit had a distorting impact on some progressives’ politics. So unsettled were they by leaving a decades-old continental union that they seemed indifferent to a centuries-old island union. But anti-expert othering, which conflates country with cause, is unattractive whether it’s from Nicola Sturgeon or Nigel Farage.
Thirdly, too many of my left-leaning friends in England succumbed to the maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. I’ve never enjoyed “enemising”my political opponents. But in searching for allies against a common Tory “enemy”, they attached themselves to the SNP’s narrative of Scottish exceptionalism. And before too long, they drifted into a defence of the SNP government – a defence founded on little more than myopic whataboutism. Some were willing to forgive any failing and pardon all foibles because Scotland was led by someone other than a Tory.
Never have so many progressive op-eds been written in praise of such a superficial government. Not even stats revealing that Scots live shorter lives than people in any other UK nation, or that Scotland suffered the greatest fall in wellbeing out of any OECD country, seemed to trouble these new converts to the SNP’s faux radicalism.
As Scotland plummeted down the global education tables, the government responded in a way that no progressive force ever would – rather than addressing educational inequality, it simply stopped sending data and withdrew from international indexes. As Scotland was scarred by the highest drug death rate in Europe, Sturgeon responded by merely picking at a constitutional scab over devolution. And what did these progressive warriors make of it all? I lost count of the times they fell back on “but the Tories are even worse, Jim”, as if that was the limit of our ambition.
And none of this flirtation even made sense on a purely partisan basis. The world is cluttered with countries in which the politics of national identity has devoured the politics of social solidarity, including here in the UK. In Northern Ireland, identity has helped defenestrate the two moderate parties which led the Good Friday negotiations and in northern England it toppled Labour’s Red Wall. In Scotland, English progressive affection was seized on by the SNP, making it more difficult for non-nationalist progressives to make their case. And in England, the Conservative’s “Vote Labour, get SNP” message only added to progressive electoral woes.
But there are three lessons that progressives should heed from the SNP’s victories. As the party unravels, it now appears that Sturgeon’s single biggest achievement was to keep such a philosophically heterogeneous group together, committed to a single political project. Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, eventually controlled the government and party with a deeply unhealthy zeal. But 16 years ago, the SNP’s cohesion helped it defeat a divided Scottish Labour.
A second lesson for progressives is Sturgeon’s Tony Blair-like attachment to consistency of communication. During the SNP’s years in government, I have counted no more than four core messages within a single strategic narrative.
The final lesson that progressives should take from the SNP is that we should campaign with a ferocity that we rarely succeed in summoning. I fought five general elections and five referendums, winning four of each. I learned too little in victory and mercifully more in defeat. And being self-critical, I probably campaigned more on a single occasion – the 2014 independence referendum – when my name wasn’t even on the ballot than on the five occasions when it was. The Scottish nationalists’ successive election wins should encourage us to campaign with a values-based hunger; elections aren’t a lifestyle choice.
A reappraisal of the SNP is now under way which recognises that it has been a formidable electoral machine running a sub-optimal government. I’d encourage more of my left-leaning friends to come to Scotland and join that conversation.