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What should have been learned in ‘back-to-front’ week

Those who interpret and predict Scottish politics spent last week fussing over a minor bluff while, potentially, the very structural integrity of Scottish politics may have begun to shift

You go away for four days’ break… Perhaps missing the immediate coverage of both the departure of two SNP MSPs and the Euro legal advice debacle is helpful in gaining a bit of perspective. Because it seems to me that the mainstream media and most of the commentators have got things back-to-front.

First, ‘no-legal-advice-gate’. This seems to me utter incompetence – if I’d been senior SNP, the day after I realised I was actually going to get a referendum I’d have sat down, listed the ‘danger issues’ and pulled together the most robust case I could, as quickly as I could. In exactly the same way that if I was a soldier I would take my gun to war, if I was a baker I’d make sure I had an oven and if I was Andy Murray I’d make sure I had a tennis racket for Wimbledon. I’ve spent years telling people (professionally) that picking a fight is easy, being ready to fight it is the hard part.

I still don’t really understand how this didn’t happen, other than to note that policy work on constitutional issues was being lead by the same person who was leading on persuading the SNP to do its NATO u-turn. All those months of foreign trips to talk to NATO Generals but no-one picked up the phone to get a coherent answer on the mechanisms for Scotland gaining/maintaining EU membership? This speaks to some of the most skewed strategic priorities imaginable since I think you would find that a poll on whether EU membership or NATO membership is most important to securing a Yes vote would be unlikely to score many votes for NATO. Then again, it can be difficult when ideology gets in the way of clear thinking.

It tells us two things of significance. First, the SNP seems now to be trapped in a firefighting death-spiral. This is the moment when a political party or government spends so much time trying to put out the last fire that it doesn’t notice the three fires starting just in front of it. Every politician in history knows that fighting fires that happened yesterday is the one sure way to make sure more fires get started, but every politician in history does it. It’s when everyone suddenly notices that things get bad – you feel them looking at your lack of control so you fight that fire even harder, taking your eye further off the problems approaching. It is possible to get out of this spiral, but it’s not easy.

Second, the assumption that there is a ‘grand plan’ sitting on Salmond’s desk on how to fight the referendum campaign seems to be misplaced. The SNP seems to be trapped in a purely reactive mode not only in relation to events but in relation to strategy. Every comment I’ve heard from party figures on strategy seems to be about trying to persuade us that things that have already happened were actually the plan. There isn’t much compelling sense that they know what is coming next.

But – and this is a big but – none of this is a scandal. Lacking in savvy most certainly, but the idea that hinting that you’ve had legal advice in an off-the-cuff remark on a telly programme is a great breach of trust is frankly silly. Politicians and government ministers overreach all the time. This is routine. That it has become days worth of news is nothing more than a reflection of the obsessions of the mainstream media and the commentator class. That it is seen by all as more significant than a fundamental split in the party is simply the de-politicisation of politics.

Because the departure of Jean Urqhart and John Finnie is a much, much more important event. It reflects a fundamental political division in Scotland’s party of government. A few journalists have contacted me asking if I know of anyone else who is going to leave the party. When I indicate that I am aware of quite a few but they’re not elected, interest melts away. Because in modern journo-politics parties don’t matter, only leaderships. It is settling into the political consciousness that the SNP leadership ‘won’ over NATO. Such are the snap judgements of those who tell us the future on a daily basis.

That’s not how it looks to me just now. In the SNP there is great unease at all sorts of levels. Commentators use euphemisms like ‘lost innocence’ to indicate the adoption of centre-right establishment politics and ‘principle’ to mean refusal to accept centre-right establishment politics. The first implies that left politics is a childish luxury, the latter that it’s something strange and particular about these two people. Both of these interpretations are wrong. Many people in the SNP will not stay in a centre-right establishment party if that’s what it becomes. And they will leave not because they are some sort of ‘principled’ odd-balls but because they have a political philosophy, the one thing no-one is meant to have in politics these days.

But it is not just the SNP that the mainstream is misreading. Of all the comments I’ve heard in admiration of what John and Jean have done, the strongest seem to me to have come from places like inside the trade union movement and indeed from inside parts of the Labour Party. If these two politicians are willing to resign over joining NATO, what of people who are in parties or organisations that actively support Trident? The possibility of a fightback against establishment politics is visible to all every time they look at the Scottish Parliament. This is potentially a fundamental change in how people see politics in Scotland.

People are always talking about ‘realignment’ at some point in the future. This is a big issue and last week we saw what I believe will one day be seen as the early moments of that realignment. That matters deeply in a way that a bit of bluffing over EU procedural rules will never matter.

But then, for ten years people who predict Scottish politics have been predicting wrong. The SSP/Green vote in 2003 surprised them. The SNP win in 2007 surprised them. The SNP landslide in 2012 surprised them. None of these things should have surprised them but they did. Because they look at what is happening in terms of what they believe MUST happen. When people look back in a few years’ time and ask why they didn’t understand the next thing that happens, they should look back at last week. Not because they spotted a minor lie but because they missed a major shift.

Robin McAlpine