Humza Yousaf’s leadership is in total disarray; Labour smells blood and is expecting to make big gains. Scott Evans believes we should respond with a culture of openness and pre-emptive socialism
Another week, another chapter in the crisis of the Scottish National Party. We have already seen the globally broadcasted images of the home of former leader Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, turned into a crime scene, the seizure of a party ‘luxury campervan’ parked outside the house of Murrell’s mother and new leader Humza Yousaf’s snub of an independence demonstration to attend the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. Then came the arrest and release of SNP treasurer Colin Beattie - who has since “stepped down with immediate effect”. In the midst of all this Yousaf attempted something approximating a policy rollout.
The Labour Party smells blood, and the British unionist press have been popping champagne and gloating for some number of weeks now. Meanwhile, many SNP loyalists and wishful thinkers continue to insist all of this is merely a flesh wound.
The reason the SNP managed to dodge this blow-up for so long and the reason the blow-up has been so messy are due to the same cause: the level of secrecy and bureaucratic centralisation in the party. Yousaf recently found out at his first national executive committee meeting that the finance auditors hired by the party resigned six months ago. Losing 30,000 members is a lot of lost funds, of course, and Beattie has said they have been having difficulty balancing the books (played down by Yousaf), so losing even more members could be a serious threat to the party as it currently operates.
This comes alongside a leaked video of Sturgeon at a Zoom meeting of the national executive committee imploring its members to not question the state of party finances, and - amusingly - to help ensure there are no more leaks. She is also not attending the Holyrood parliament while the police investigate emails in which she rejected the idea of hiring a fundraising manager in June 2021, and an SNP spokesperson has denied that her absence has anything to do with the idea that she will be leaving politics.
Sturgeon has stated that the party does not keep separate accounts - presumably implying that tracking ‘the money’ which was ring-fenced for independence campaigning is not trivial. Moreover, I suspect that she and other SNP leaders draw something of an equals-sign between ‘what the SNP does’ and ‘independence campaigning’, which is probably quite different from what those who donated expected. Ultimately, however, it is not the amount of money unaccounted for, but the issues around transparency - both in the messaging around the raising of those funds and the subsequent handling of them, as well as transparency issues on a number of other cases - which is the real driver of the outrage.
The arrests and ongoing Police Scotland investigations have been followed by opposition leaders calling on Yousaf to suspend Sturgeon, Murrell and Beattie from the party. Sturgeon is so far the only top official implicated with the accounts who has not been arrested, though one assumes she will be eventually. Yousaf refused to suspend anyone on the basis that neither being implicated in an investigation nor an arrest imply guilt. But his statements on this now commit him to either suspending from the party anybody who has charges brought against them, or dealing with the accusations of backsliding and circling the wagons.
Obliquely, this is reminiscent, at least to me, of the way the executive committee of the Scottish Socialist Party tied themselves in knots as a result of prior posturing on issues around sex work and their collaboration with the legal system in the scandal surrounding Tommy Sheridan.1 We should be very careful around this stuff, when it comes to our own organisation: we should treat as irrelevant the state’s legal position on the conduct of party members and officials and leave it up to the membership to decide if someone is to be recalled from their position. Innocent until proven guilty, yes, but ‘guilty’ according to party rules and according to the judgement of the membership.
Additionally, leaving these decisions around suspension and other such powers entirely in the hands of top party officials provides the state with a small surface area to apply pressure. All it has to do is find enough party officials with skeletons in their closet. We should assume all minutes and recorded meetings are or will be made public, and try not to become complacent on it. We should always try to minimise the surface area where that kind of coercion (or even infiltration) can have an effect.
This continues to be a developing situation for the SNP, but we are long enough into the saga to be able to get some sense for the direction of travel in the opinion polling in Scotland, and, with that, perhaps we can do some reading of the tea leaves. Over-concluding from polling is always a danger, but how things shake out in Scotland may be key for the Labour mothership, so to speak, in Westminster.
It has been projected that Labour may be likely to pick up as many as 10 to 15 additional seats in Scotland at the next UK general election. The official opposition in the Scottish parliament is currently the Tories, with 31 seats to the SNP’s 64 and Labour’s 22. Labour has one singular Westminster MP in the Edinburgh South constituency, Ian Murray. If Labour manages to snatch up some of the seats currently going to the SNP or the Tories in Holyrood and again becomes the official opposition, it could use this as a foothold to become the permanent challenger to SNP hegemony and further solidify seat gains in both Holyrood and Westminster in future elections.
This has nothing to do with Anas Sarwar, the current leader of Scottish Labour, as is evident enough from the fact that his approval ratings have barely shifted. No, this has everything to do with the turn towards Labour UK-wide alongside also this SNP calamity. Had the SNP not fallen into such a crisis before the coming election, it could have resisted this shift to Starmer’s Labour, but it seems certain to lose at least a handful of seats, as things stand. However, Tory-lite Labour under Starmer is unlikely to hold on to voters in Scotland unless the deliverance of promises around greater devolution materialise, helping to win more lasting support from non-unionists.
Also evident is a potential trend towards the disconnection between the support for independence and support for the SNP.2 There is evidence that some number of supporters for independence will be voting for Labour at the upcoming election. Of those who voted ‘yes’ for Scottish independence in 2014, 15% would currently vote Labour, compared to 9% in late 2021. One also wonders if voters loyal to the SNP who are sufficiently put off (or disgusted) by recent events will simply stay home. Plus there are those unionist voters who voted Conservative who will be switching to Labour this time. True, the shadow of Brexit continues to loom: with Labour committed to not overturning Brexit, the obvious party for ardent remainers in Scotland who wish to rejoin the European Union is still the SNP.
I may be stretching things to say that there are fairly direct lessons for the left here, but I do think there are: on transparency and republicanism, democracy, broad frontism, and so on. Both nationalists and socialists share a commitment to some sort of radical break with the existing constitutional order. Both are able to rally anti-systemic sentiment to their banner, and thus are directly competing for the support of disaffected members of the working class looking for a substantial change with the status quo. National independence is, of course, not nearly as significant a break as a Marxist understanding of what socialism involves, but elements of the appeal are similar, and the contours of the internals of the movements can be too.
I was particularly struck by the question of broad frontism while, of all things, reading the responses of SNP loyalists and independence supporters under a Twitter post on Yousaf’s snub of an independence rally hosted by the pro-independence ‘All Under One Banner’ (AUOB).3 Yousaf has dubbed himself ‘First Activist’, presumably as one of the ways of distinguishing himself from former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who tended to shy away from associations with the activist base of the independence movement. AUOB, in criticising Yousaf for going back on his promise to speak at the rally and mocking his title of ‘First Activist’, has been said to be “threatening unity” and “shit-stirring”. So, if you are a supporter of independence, it is you who has to hold your nose with this stuff. Maintaining broad frontism, as Mike Macnair has argued,4 requires top-down, bureaucratic controls and a pandering to the right.
This level of bureaucracy and attendant media-management inevitably leads to radical non-transparency, and if one ends up with a crisis in the highest layers of the party bureaucracy, as is occurring in the SNP, the subsequent succession crisis and turnover in bureaucracy is inevitably going to cause any number of leaks and threaten the cohesion of the broad front. Re-establishing the same level of bureaucratic centralism is going to be very difficult without someone who is up to such a monumental task, which Yousaf certainly is not. The trouble for SNPism is that broad-frontism is an inherent part of the strategy for independence, and the party is completely out of options for forcing another referendum in the near future. For communists, it is absolutely key to the success of our movement that we reject broad-frontism and that is not something we need to do ‘after building up sufficient forces’, but now.
I also personally think that the left has something to learn about transparency here. The mid-to-long-term build-up of information, tacit knowledge and skills are themselves issues of transparency, and must be taken account of in our understanding of radical republicanism, which stands against the indefinite subordination of people to individuals or small groups in all spheres of society. Term limits are thus, I think, an important tool in the republican communist’s arsenal, and principles of meritocracy must be subordinated to principles of democracy and republicanism.
This kind of radical transparency has to be a feature of a communist society as a mode of production. It may require something like citizen overseers, akin to jury duty, of important meetings of public bodies, reporting to oversight committees - which in turn report to both the public at large and the representative institutions of society. Whatever the case, we need to prefigure this kind of thing in our organisations now.
The abolition of private property will allow us to open the books of every organisation of the whole society. The abolition of intellectual property and the complete opening up of production and distribution and governance to scrutiny would enable all kinds of innovations, which could only take place under communism: there would no longer be ‘business secrets’, where firms cannot learn from each other in order to protect private profit - anyone would be free to benefit from an invention and learn from an organisation’s practice, and citizen data analysts (ie, not just state planners) would be able to let loose their models and tools on the whole society.
Extreme transparency and planning will help drive increases to productivity - and modern technology will allow us to open up society in a way that was not possible in the early 20th century.
. See ‘Sheridan wins first round’ Weekly Worker August 10 2006: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/637/sheridan-wins-first-round.↩︎