After years of tight top down control SNP members finally get their say over the party’s future…

This afternoon SNP members will finally decide who they want to succeed the long duopoly shared over time between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s dominance over Scottish politics. Their first leadership election in 20 years has been chaotic.

The Economist this week writes on the current chaos within the SNP after sixteen years in government. Its analysis rests on the  work of Professor Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American political scientist, who coined the phrase “preference falsification”.

Which, when it is at home, is…

…the tendency of people to pretend to be content with the status quo when there is no viable opposition, only to air their grievances at the first flicker of change.

The piece continues:

The extent of the party’s disarray is stunning. The scale of preference falsification during the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon is now on full display; a party whose main strength seemed to be iron discipline is letting rip.

Ms Sturgeon ran a highly centralised operation with Peter Murrell, her husband and long the SNP’s CEO. MPs and members resented this centralisation, but tolerated it as a precondition for electoral success and as a useful contrast with more chaotic opponents.

Murrell resigned on March 18th along with head of media Murray Foote over accusations about lying re the number of SNP members (it still has the biggest membership in Scotland by some considerable distance). But as the piece notes:

The careful control Ms Sturgeon exerted over the SNP’s independence strategy has been replaced by confusion and more radical talk from the candidates to succeed her.

That’s because the SNP is a massive coalition that runs from the far left to the far right. After the UK Supreme Court blocked the legal route to a second referendum by ruling the power to call one lay with Westminster. IndyRef2 was dead for the foreseeable.

As a result…

Without a clear path to independence, the snp is discovering it agrees on little else. There are wildly different views on tax incentives and the size of the state. Mr Yousaf says he is proud of the party’s record in government; Ms Forbes says “more of the same” would be “an acceptance of mediocrity”.

Ms Sturgeon wrapped nationalism up with progressive causes such as gender self-identification; Ms Forbes, an evangelical Christian, disagrees with same-sex marriage, abortion and bringing up children outside marriage. No preference is being falsified these days.

The “upgrade effect” Sturgeon brought to Scottish politics in 2015 is over. The overheated hyperbole with which even the moderate Yousaf described Westminster as “a foreign government” seems calculated to placate an increasingly baffled base.

Polling results haven’t reacted hugely to the chaos of the leadership election. The SNP is still clearly top Scottish dog, but the longer trend is down since September 2021 with a slow but steady increase for Scottish Labour over the last 16 months.

So, the future lies with a membership which is remarkably under polled and therefore hard for pundits to predict. The favourite remains Yousaf. If it’s the Free Kirk member Forbes the Greens will walk from the coalition over her conservative views.

Neither Forbes (who has argued public services don’t need more money) nor the other contender in the contest Ash Regan (who’s been recommending an extrajudicial route to secession) sit easily on the centre left. The calm unruffled exterior is gone.

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