Are we witnessing the unravelling of the SNP’s well-rehearsed act?

The long-present divisions in the SNP are finally surfacing for all to see

August 14, 2020
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Last week the SNP took the unwise decision to downgrade 125,000 Scottish Qualifications Authority exam results, in order to maintain the “credibility” of the system from over-inflated teacher estimates. The policy, never destined to be popular, proved so controversial because it relied on assessing the past performance of individual schools. This meant that pupils appeared to be assessed on where they were from, not necessarily on their own demonstrable academic record.

As students took to the streets and the non-loyalist press latched on to stories of medical careers in tatters, Scottish Labour decided to be proactive for the first time in years and called a vote of no confidence in John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Holyrood Education Secretary. Ruth Davidson, who has taken up the mantle of First Minister’s Questions for the Scottish Conservatives again, claimed that Swinney is the “common denominator” for a series of failures in education since taking up the post in 2016.

Although easily defeated on Thursday, the vote did force a remarkable U-turn out of the SNP. The Scottish Greens agreed to support the SNP against Labour, the Scottish Tories and Lib Dems as long as teacher estimated results were restored to the effected pupils.

The stage curtain to this drama is the looming 2021 Holyrood elections. Nicola Sturgeon has rightfully pointed out that the opposition parties are exploiting the exam results debacle for political advantage. It remains to be seen why this surprises her. In fact, this is a textbook SNP move, Sturgeon has schooled her opposition in the art of the blame game, and provided them with the bait. Having scraped through the furore, Sturgeon’s next priority ought to be smoothing the ruffled feathers of thousands of school-leavers and their enraged parents who will be taking to the ballot box next May.

However, the SNP’s greatest threat comes from within. Sturgeon and the SNP have surged in the polls, yet voices from within the party continue to criticise her approach to the question of independence. A leading critic and potential rival, Joanna Cherry QC, was recently delivered a blow when the party’s NEC passed a motion stating that SNP MPs that wish to run for Holyrood in 2021 must give up their Westminster seats. The NEC’s decision was not popular with SNP MPs who enjoy their life at Westminster whilst appearing to stand against everything it represents. Cherry, who enjoys a solid reputation in Westminster after her challenge to the government over prorogation in the Scottish courts last year, will not give up her seat. This is a short-lived victory for Sturgeon, whilst her rival is held at arm’s length, alienating influential figures in the party is a dangerous game.

After a brief hiatus, taken up by focus on the coronavirus response, there are further grumblings about Plan A and Plan B resurfacing. Plan A, Sturgeon’s approach, is to achieve a strong mandate in Holyrood next year in order to justify requesting a second legally-sanctioned referendum on independence from Westminster. However, Boris Johnson has made it clear that under no circumstances will he grant this referendum. The prime minister is not under any pressure to either, his cabinet understand that it would be a disaster to be in power at the moment the Union goes under, nor is there pressure from the party at large who are blanket pro-Union. At the prospect of a constitutional stalemate next summer and tired of 13 years in power without the end result, a branch of the SNP including popular figures are calling for a Plan B. The notion of Plan B is to seek the approval of the Scottish courts or an EU court to hold a non-binding advisory referendum and then to use the result to force Westminster’s hand. Since neither the Scottish or EU courts are likely to entertain such a hazardous notion, all that Plan B is doing is to demonstrate a split between the radicals and the moderates in the SNP.

This split could have far-reaching consequences before the next election. Alex Salmond is slowly ebbing back into public discourse after having been acquitted of all 13 of the charges made against him. There have been reports of a possible break-off from the SNP into an Independence Party and Salmond’s great revenge may be to lead it. Such a party would spell the end of the SNP as we know it, split the vote and take independence off the table.