The SNP, the leadership and indyref 2: A conversation with Gerry Hassan

At a time of unprecedented political turmoil for Scotland and the UK, CommonSpace speaks to Gerry Hassan, editor of a new volume on SNP leadership about the party, its leaders and the historic decisions they face

WHEN First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stood on the steps of Bute House on the morning of 23 June and told Scotland, the UK and the world that a second independence referendum was “highly likely”, she presented a stark profile against her chaotic background.

With Prime Minister David Cameron soon resigning, an uncertain road to Brexit opening up and a coup attempt unleashed against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP stood aloof and seemingly beyond effective challenge by its political rivals.

Leadership has become one of the attractions of the SNP. Party chiefs have become legends among their own supporters in a way unthinkable in past Scottish political history, with their images and words prominent in party literature and campaigning.

How is this new culture of leadership in Scottish public life explained? That is the subject of a new volume edited by writer and commentator Gerry Hassan, titled ‘Scottish National Party Leaders’, with chapters on historic and contemporary nationalist leaders from a range of public intellectuals including James Mitchell and Murray Ritchie on Alex Salmond, Mandy Rhodes on Nicola Sturgeon, Isobel Lindsay on Margo MacDonald and Douglas Fraser on John Swinney, among many others.

In all, the volume includes 22 essays covering party leaders over nine decades, and weaves their distinctive leadership qualities into the twin tapestries of their political times and the party which they animated.

The SNP’s new leadership style is genuinely new to Scotland, Hassan believes, with leadership in Scotland being traditionally quiet.

“Alex Salmond fundamentally changed the nature of public leadership politically and with the Scottish Government.” Gerry Hassan

“Until recently it’s been a phenomenally restrained leadership,” Hassan says. “It’s been mostly behind the scenes.”

This is partially a hangover from straightforward Westminster rule, when leadership was naturally “invisible” on a national stage.

This all began to change with the example of Alex Salmond, who had led the SNP from relative obscurity to government in 2007.

Hassan says: “Salmond changed things quite a bit.

“He fundamentally changed the nature of public leadership politically, and with the Scottish Government, he upped the ante on that.”

On Friday 6 May 2011, in an earlier flourish of leadership élan which was echoed on the morning of the Brexit vote, Salmond landed in Edinburgh in a helicopter to receive the press after his second election victory. It felt like the 21st century had landed with him.

“When Salmond landed in that helicopter and claimed victory, he seized control of the news agenda and the public mood in Scotland, and in a way it’s never been the same since.”

“When Salmond landed in that helicopter and claimed victory, he seized control of the news agenda and the public mood in Scotland, and in a way it’s never been the same since.” Gerry Hassan

All parties have a political culture, Hassan believes, related to but distinct from their institutions and policies. The central ethos of SNP and its leadership is its belief in its own anti-establishment credentials.

“The SNP see themselves as the anti-establishment, and they will likely see themselves in that way until after independence,” he says.

The anti-establishment self-consciousness was born of long history for the SNP, dating back to the 1930s, as a party on the far-flung fringes of national political life.

Writer, commentator and editor of ‘Scottish National Party Leaders’, Gerry Hassan 

“[For] the interesting mix of eccentrics, mavericks and idealists that led the SNP, what meant success was keeping the show on the road. You don’t assess William Power or Douglas Young in remotely the same way you would a modern leader.”

It was this longer journey, initially piloted by a more low profile leadership, of cultural and intellectual figures that inculcated the SNP with the feeling that it was a close “family”, ranged against the establishment.

In recent years this has been the SNP’s strength, of course, but Hassan believes it could also be its weakness.

“There are successful examples like Reagan and Thatcher, but you can’t continue indefinitely being an insurgent in office, it eventually becomes implausible.”

“There are successful examples like Reagan and Thatcher, but you can’t continue indefinitely being an insurgent in office, it eventually becomes implausible.” Gerry Hassan

The SNP has been in power in Scotland since 2007, and has recorded two improbable Scottish electoral victories since, as well as the party’s stunning capture of 57 out of 59 seats in the 2015 UK General Election.

Some leading nationalist thinkers, including former advisor to Salmond, Alex Bell, and celebrated historian Tom Devine, have put four and five years on the SNP ‘peak’ respectively.

“I wouldn’t put it in Alex Bell’s colourful way. But all political seasons have their time and place, beginning and end.

“In their omnipotence they should understand that fragility as well.

“Given how deference and authority have declined, I think it’s more fragile and contingent than previous dominant parties, much more so than the Labour 50-year arc.”

An important part of inoculation against decline might be to reach beyond the “family”, to a wider intellectual universe in pro-independence Scotland. But the party’s current leadership style seems peculiarly averse to this, Hassan believes, and Sturgeon unusually isolated.

“The Salmond leadership was both presidential and collective, there was a team Salmond behind him. It was a group of seasoned people, some of them working there 20 years. He knew how to make collective decisions, even if he was inclined to risk-taking.”

“I don’t see that in Nicola at all, and indeed the Mandy Rhodes chapter in the book points to this in quite subtle ways; there isn’t really a team sturgeon. Decisions are taken in the narrowest ways - Nicola on her own, or with her husband, Peter Murrell.”

This perceived narrowness of leadership comes at a time of momentous decisions for Scotland’s leadership. Brexit led sturgeon to embark on an unprecedented diplomatic tour of Europe to defend Scotland’s place in the EU. It also raised the prospect of another independence referendum.

And yet the timing of that referendum is an open and very public battleground in the independence movement and even within the SNP. Salmond has said one could take place as early as 2018, while Joan McAlpine MSP has said that it is on the “back burner”. Divergences like this makes drawing from extra-party expertise vital, Hassan believes.

“While things are on the up, you can get away with murder. What happens when the wheels come off?” Gerry Hassan

“There’s an absence of substance at the heart of the nats, not just on independence, what to do and how to do it,” he says.

“Leaving aside Common Weal, which is a sort of think-and-do hybrid, there isn’t an independent minded, independence supporting thinktank.

“The interesting thing is, the SNP leadership have got no interest in that, and have had no interest historically, because they aren’t interested in building institutions outside of the party. The Labour Party, incidentally, had the exact same view.”

However, the Scottish Government has embarked on a nationwide listening campaign, asking Scots about Brexit and the political choices facing the country. The SNP’s national conference this month (October) will feature a new digital system to give members more say over resolutions.

The ultimate test of leadership still lies ahead for the SNP, and times when the party isn’t held in such high esteem, Hassan says: “While things are on the up, you can get away with murder. What happens when the wheels come off?”

The book ‘Scottish National Party Leaders’ is published by Biteback Publishing and can be purchased here.

Pictures: Gerry Hassan, the SNP

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