Euan McColm: The SNP's central control is under threat from within

Written by Euan McColm on 23 August 2016 in Opinion

A deputy leadership victory for Tommy Sheppard should send a shiver up the spine of Nicola Sturgeon.

One of the smartest things a political leader can do is to let party members believe they have power without actually allowing them to exercise any.

A loyal, energetic membership that can be depended upon not to make any sudden moves is a perfect membership. Senior SNP figures understand this very well, indeed.

Under Alex Salmond’s leadership, party members were a choir, to be given songs to learn and then to be firmly conducted in their performance. Salmond’s successor as SNP leader - and, thus, as First Minister of Scotland - Nicola Sturgeon is equally adept at keeping the faithful on-message. This is no small achievement, given that the SNP now has around 130,000 members - more than four times the number Salmond had to keep in line.

Sturgeon's leadership chops are truly impressive. She has the ability to make SNP members believe that they think exactly what she thinks.

Thus, when the First Minister tells them that a second referendum on Scottish independence is not for now, they agree that slow and steady wins the race, and when she tells them another vote is just around they corner, they nod and reply “yes, it’s time”.

Sturgeon is brilliantly supported in her leadership of the SNP by senior colleagues who see things as she does. Her deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson are both fully on-board the train to central control.

The same could also be said of the departing deputy leader of the SNP, Stewart Hosie, who is stepping down after a year in the role. Hosie - not, even the most charitable would admit, a brilliant political thinker - was happy to take his lead from the actions of senior colleagues. He did not indulge in much thinking and so did not make political waves.

But what’s this? Could things be about to change? Could a senior SNP politician be about to give members ideas above their station? Indeed one could.

The front-runners in the race to replace Hosie are deputy leader of the nationalists are the aforementioned Angus Robertson - who has had a very good year at Westminster, turning in some fine performances at Prime Minister’s Question Time - and the lesser known MP, Tommy Sheppard.

A victory for Roberston would mean business as usual, with the members kept in their place. A Sheppard victory, on the other hand, well…

Sheppard has, perfectly wisely, painted himself as the voice of the membership. He promises to engage with and connect pro-independence campaigners and to exploit the talents of the SNP’s foot-soldiers.

This, doubtless, sounds hugely appealing to members who, until now, have loyally pay their subs and done what they were told, but it should send a shiver up Sturgeon’s spine.

The SNP’s success is sustained, in part, because of the rigid discipline imposed from on high. What good can come of allowing a range of different, perhaps contradictory, voices to be heard?

The Labour Party’s current misery illustrates, in vivid, blood-red technicolor, the dangers inherent in encouraging party members to have a say.

Sheppard, a former deputy general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party is, say SNP insiders, running favourite Robertson close in the contest to succeed Hosie. Of course he is: he’s making the members feel important. He’s convincing them that what they say matters. He’s encouraging the sort of wider debate that’s never helped any political party.

We’ll find out in October who’s to be deputy leader of the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon, of course, has kept out of this contest. 

But be sure she’ll breathe a sigh of relief if steady Angus Robertson beats gobby Tommy Sheppard.


About the author

Euan McColm is a columnist and leader writer who has held senior editorial positions on The Scotsman, The Daily Record and News of the World.

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