Thursday, 20 November 2014

A wee role in the SNP's remarkable turnaround

Last Thursday (November 13), I switched-on the BBC’s Politics Channel and watched the last First Minister’s Questions taken by Alex Salmond.

As usual, he wiped the floor with opponents: in addition, he set-out the SNP’s actions in government and explained why only independence delivers the full powers needed to meet the aspirations of the people of Scotland.  Alex Salmond showed why he is, by far, the best leader our country has ever had.

A day later the Scottish National Party annual conference began in Perth, with delegates ‘officially’ accepting Alex Salmond’s resignation as National Convener, after his second ten-year spell in the job.  The conference also elected Nicola Sturgeon to succeed Salmond.  Next Wednesday (November 19), the Scottish Parliament will elect a new First Minister and will make history when Nicola Sturgeon becomes the first woman to hold the nation’s top political job.

Nicola will assume leadership of a buoyant political party, with membership having soared to a remarkable 82,000 since September’s Independence Referendum.  She will also lead an SNP Government that is even more popular now than when it first took office in 2007.  There are few, if any, comparable situations anywhere else in the world, where support for a political party has not only grown but has taken-off like a rocket after 7 years of being in government.

What is even more remarkable is that just 10 years ago the SNP was on a downward spiral that, had it not been stopped, could have proved fatal.

In April 2004 the National Executive Committee of the SNP suspended my membership of the party.  Three-months later the same committee expelled me.  At the time, I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament and so became the first parliamentarian to be expelled by the SNP in the party’s history (the first from any party in the Scottish Parliament).

My crime, according to the charge against me, had been “actions inimical to the party”, which translates as acting against the interests of the party or even of damaging the party.  Needless to say, I disagreed with the charge and the ‘guilty’ verdicts that led to my suspension and expulsion.

Volumes could be filled explaining why the specific charges laid against me by the then National Secretary Alasdair Allan (now an MSP) were unfounded – and why the party broke its own constitution and rules in taking disciplinary action against me – but, 10 years on, no constructive purpose would be served in restaging those particular arguments.  What is not disputed, nor was it ever, is that I acted to end John Swinney’s leadership of the SNP. 

Today, Mr Swinney has found his perfect niche and, by all accounts, is an effective Cabinet Secretary for Finance in the Scottish Government.  However, from 2000 to 2004, John Swinney’s ‘leadership’ of the SNP almost killed the party.

Swinney was never a leader: his skill-set did not include the ability to inspire and encourage, nor was his political antennae tuned to the needs and aspirations of ordinary Scots.  Under the Swinney leadership, the SNP drifted to the centre-ground of the political spectrum, away from its long-term position as a moderate centre-left party.  This movement – a New Labourisation of the SNP – saw the party lose support from a large swathe of the electorate that had been drawn to the SNP as a centre-left alternative to the Tory-clone New Labour Party created by Tony Blair.  There was also a feeling that independence had become more a long-term aspiration than the core principle of the party.

Ten-years ago I argued that the ‘actions inimical to the party’ were not mine, but were those of John Swinney and a small leadership clique.  The hard facts show that under the Swinney leadership the SNP lost hundreds-of-thousands of votes, one Westminster seat, eight Scottish Parliament seats, twenty council seats and thousands of members.  I acted, with others, to bring to an end the party’s declining fortunes by removing a leader who couldn’t see that he, and the political direction he had taken, were the problem.

In an interview for STV (on the Politics Now programme) I became the first MSP to publicly call on John Swinney to resign as leader.  However, far from being simply a demand that ‘Swinney must go,’ I also set-out my belief that Alex Salmond had to return to lead the party.  Salmond had, of course, stood down from the leadership in 2000.

In the STV interview I made clear my position, saying of a Salmond return, “I think it would be good for the SNP if he came back and I think he could unite the party,” adding, “I think it would be in the greater interests of the Scottish National Party and the independence movement if we could have a new leader who could re-invigorate the party and the independence movement and take this country on to independence.”

I believed it was imperative that John Swinney’s leadership was ended at the earliest opportunity to stem the damage to the party, and to give a returning Alex Salmond sufficient time to turn-around the SNP’s fortunes.  I should also stress that Alex Salmond at no time supported my call for Swinney to resign.

The reason for my urgency was the impending European Elections (June 10 2004).  I believed that John Swinney would attempt to remain as leader, even if the party again performed badly under his leadership, which is exactly what happened.  The SNP polled just 19.7%, the party’s worst performance in 20 years.  Swinney did try to cling onto the leadership, but by then the momentum for him to go was too strong.  He finally resigned on July 22, just 12 days after he had chaired the meeting of the National Executive Committee that expelled me from the party.

Had John Swinney been able to remain as leader of the SNP following the European Election, it was my contention that he would then have led the party into the 2005 Westminster Election, where, in all likelihood given the downward spiral of party fortunes, more seats would have been lost – with the possibility of only Alex Salmond holding his constituency.  If that had happened there would have been serious barriers to Salmond being able to return to the Scottish Parliament in 2007, an intention he had already stated.

Another electoral reverse in 2005 would have been the end for Swinney, but would have meant a new leader had one year less to turn-around the party’s fortunes before the 2007 Scottish Parliament Election (compared with him actually going after the 2004 European Election).

That the SNP has been in government for 7 years; has guided Scotland to a referendum on independence, supported by 45% of the people; has seen party membership and support for independence soar since the referendum; and stands on the brink of a massive success at the 2015 UK General Election, all stems from Alex Salmond’s return to leadership on September 3 2004 and to the SNP re-establishing itself as a centre-left, social democratic party.  Salmond is the most able politician of his generation: he was the only person who could have united the SNP back in 2004 and he has gone on to build a successful government team, including John Swinney in a role more suited to his abilities.

Clearly, Nicola Sturgeon has a very hard act to follow as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, but she is more than capable of succeeding in those roles.  I’ve known Nicola for a long time: she was always a very able politician, but in the last few years she has grown way beyond that status. 

In Nicola Sturgeon Scotland will have a leader to match and possibly even surpass Alex Salmond, and he’s the best we’ve had.

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