Robin McAlpine – The SNP must choose Forbes

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is in crisis and independence politics is turning into a mess. We are miles past holding out for our preferred outcomes – we need change immediately, and there is only one option on the table.

Robin McAlpine is Head of Strategic Development at the Common Weal think-tank in Scotland.

Cross-posted from Robin McAlpine’s blog

Kate Forbes (centre) Photo: gdsteam/Creative Commons

The SNP must change. Surely that much is clear now? It has developed the Reverse Midas touch. If it doesn’t change course, its immediate future is in jeopardy. The rate of decay in the party over the last decade has stripped it of options. Had you told me a few years ago I was going to write what I’m about to write I’d have been sceptical. But I can see no option; the SNP must elect Kate Forbes as leader.

The independence side of the political spectrum is turning into a laughing stock and we have lost the luxury of first choices. If the SNP can’t stabilise itself it is at genuine risk of losing power. This isn’t a case of ‘my heart tells me that…’, it’s a case of ‘my survival instinct is screaming blue murder’.

A Forbes succession is the only feasible choice the SNP has. There isn’t really another credible candidate. Let me put it this simply; I took soundings for five years on who was going to replace Sturgeon and literally no-one out of dozens of people I spoke to thought Yousaf was a serious contender.

The reality is that he was the least non-credible continuity-Sturgeon option. If the party seriously thinks it can now hunt for the second-least non-credible continuity-Sturgeon option it has lost its mind. What is the Dragon’s Den pitch for Jenny Gilruth – that Humza would have been fine if it wasn’t for all that charisma? Jenny/John/Neil/Mairi – if the SNP puts forward yet another ‘fuck it, this will do‘ candidate it deserves to lose.

They could look beyond Holyrood, but bringing Stephen Flynn or any other candidate up from Westminster leaves at least an extended period of time with an interim First Minister until a way can be found to get them to the parliament. And, more importantly, none of those candidates have so much as five minutes of actual Ministerial experience. These are both very risky moves and extend the current instability.

This has to be a last roll of the dice before the Holyrood elections, and it is time for the SNP to get its eyes off its own navel and remember that there are voters who must be treated with some respect. Offering a downgrade from Humza is disrespectful – and John/Neil/Jenny/Mairi are all downgrades. (This isn’t a personal attack, it’s a sober reflection of their public standing, ministerial record and presentational skills.)

All the polling tells us that the only candidate that the SNP has that the general public will see as an upgrade is Forbes. The opinion rife among the SNP bureaucrat class is that the indy-supporting public have a duty to vote SNP so leaders are chosen to please the staff. This is why the party is being viewed with increasing contempt.

Even if this wasn’t all true, how could the SNP consider continuity after the year it has had? How is that even a consideration? The same team, the same policies, the same hap-hazard approach but with Jenny Gilruth or John Swinney doing the press conferences? On what planet is that credible plan? One way or another, Sturgeon is about to be consumed in a very serious criminal trial. Selecting someone closely associated with her makes less sense than no sense.

Last year the SNP prioritised the interests of its own paid staff over the interests of the cause or the party. It all-but rigged the election so that a load of staffers you’ve never heard off could keep their jobs and their empires. To try that again would truly be a betrayal.

The SNP not only needs a leader who can exude calm, can demonstrate basic managerial competence and isn’t umbilically tied to the existing mess, it needs a brand new team

The SNP needs a leader who has half a chance of bringing rapid stability to government. Right now nothing is more important. That not only means a leader who can exude calm, can demonstrate basic managerial competence and isn’t umbilically tied to the existing mess, it means a brand new team. Kate Forbes is the only option that brings all these things.

Yes, she’s younger than many realise and less experienced than some assume, but she has demonstrated a steady hand and a reassuring media presence and she recognises the need to bring in new talent and a new team. That is crucial.

It is easy to come up with reasons to hesitate (always remembering we’re way past first choices at this stage). For me personally, you can list Freeports, Growth Commission, some comments made on oil and gas and pretty out-there social views on the negative list. Then again, all but one of these factors is formal party policy as establish by Nicola Sturgeon and continued by Humza Yousaf.

So if you can’t find me a candidate who opposed all of this (because there isn’t one), let’s focus on what there is and how to make the most of it. Here I am more positive than you might imagine. I’ve been staying in close touch with Team Forbes precisely because I have been able to see no alternative for quite a while and because I believe there remains real opportunity in change.

My first reason for supporting Kate despite some political differences is that I am genuinely committed to Scotland and I want this embarrassing governmental omnicrisis to go away. I think Forbes is our best bet to achieve that and I promise you that if there was a credible left option who could achieve the same I’d be talking to that team right now.

My second is this willingness to engage and listen. When I met Kate she told me the magic words I want to hear from a politician, words you’d be surprised how rarely you hear. She told me that she wants people to tell her when she’s wrong. Inevitably that desire decreases the longer you are in power, but it offers a promising starting point, suggesting an administration that might listen to sources other than itself for a change.

My third reason is that from what is now a fairly long period of engagement, I don’t really believe Forbes is the reactionary figure some paint her. Her social views are a function of her Christianity, not her politics. Her economics are not particularly right wing – I’d describe them more as ‘thoroughly orthodox’. There isn’t really anything in her economic agenda to the right of what the SNP is already doing.

And in some ways I find her refreshing on poverty and public services. I really do not believe that she is any less sincere about tackling poverty than any of the rest of them and more sincere than many of them. The difference is that when she talks about this issue she wants to know how it could actually be tackled, not just what kind of rhetoric to use.

In the end, Team Forbes is also very aware that it is vulnerable from the left and from the environmental side. This means they are paying attention to making sure that they get their left/green credentials right. I hope that this proves a more fruitful and constructive opportunity for engagement and debate than the top-down certainty of the last ten years.

That the party is left with (to my eyes) only one credible candidate speaks volumes in itself

Indeed, as someone who’s career has been in influencing politics, I can see much more scope for political leverage with a Forbes administration precisely because it will have at all times to avoid giving the party the impression it is lurching to the right. The SNP cannot be dragged that far to the right.

And then there are some areas where I can welcome Forbe’s likely approach wholeheartedly. Coming from the north she is not a centraliser. In fact she is not a centraliser by character as she doesn’t seem to have the control-freak tendencies the party has displayed in recent years. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll finally have a leader who takes local government seriously.

She is as sceptical as I am of Scotland’s ruling bureaucracies and equally as keen as I am to see less money being wasted on process and management gibberish and more making it to the front line. Team Forbes tends to believe that government should make policy, not external consultants. That is also very welcome.

But there are two crowning reasons why I’m on board. Reason one is that Kate will bring in fresh talent – a lot of it. She is well aware that, if she becomes First Minister, she needs a helluva lot better advice than has been provided to recent leaders. A real, fresh injection of talent in the team could be pretty transformative.

The second is that she and her team recognise the need to knuckle down and sort out government and the party – and that this means there must be a new, movement-centric approach to independence. That still leaves a lot of detail to flesh out, but nothing would invigorate the cause of independence more than opening it up and letting momentum come from somewhere other than the top of a political party. That could be really significant.

So here we are. My enemies sometimes portray me as some kind of wild, unrelenting ideologue who is difficult to work with. Nothing could be further from the truth. In life you must have clear, non-negotiable goals and values, but then, to get as close to them as you possibly can, you need pragmatic compromise (and the will to oppose effectively where compromise isn’t good enough).

My dream candidate for First Minister isn’t there. My top-choice leftie isn’t there. My ‘this person knows what they’re doing so I’ll take some time off’ candidate isn’t there. What is there is what is there.

I spent the end of last week and the weekend out of the country at a political conference. I don’t know what Scotland looked like from where you are, but when queues of bemused continental Europeans are asking me what the hell is going on in Scotland and why is it melting down, you know you’ve got a problem.

We do have a problem, and every problem in history has been solved by people working with what is in front of them. The SNP needs stability, calm, some self-confidence, a plan for getting government back on track, a new approach to independence, an injection of new talent, an agenda that is speaking to the public again. Put simply, it needs a fresh start.

That the party is left with (to my eyes) only one credible candidate speaks volumes in itself. Still, here we are. The SNP must choose life. To choose life it must choose change. To achieve change it needs to vote for a change candidate. You have a total of one of those. I humbly suggest that makes your decision for you – and then the work begins…

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