The SNP: playing the anti-politics card to gain power
Sturgeon is bashing 'Westminster insiders' in the hope of becoming one.
Condemn the Westminster elite at an election rally and you are assured of a standing ovation. In these anti-political times, every opportunistic candidate is likely to present himself, or indeed herself, as an outsider – a genuine anti-establishment individual who is not tainted by the goings-on at Westminster.
The politicisation of anti-political sentiments is not new, of course. It was turned into an artform in the US during the 1970s and 1980s, with Ronald Reagan in particular making a special effort to let the world know he was not a ‘professional politician’. Since then, American presidential candidates routinely distance themselves from the Beltway and accuse their opponents of being ‘Washington insiders’.
In recent decades, European election candidates have appropriated the anti-politics card. One of the most successful practitioners of this approach was media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who has more or less dominated Italian politics from 1994 onwards.
The politicisation of anti-politics is fuelled by a body politic that has been emptied of meaning. Whatever the problems afflicting public life, the politicisation of the cynicism and passivity that feeds the anti-politics mood makes a bad situation even worse. Anti-politics is not, as it sometimes appears, merely the rejection of a particular party or the Westminster establishment: it is an expression of a deeper conviction that politics is futile.
For all its establishment bashing and ‘us and them’ rhetoric, anti-political posing provides party oligarchs with a means to maintain their power. That is what it accomplished in Italy, and that is what it may achieve in the UK after the General Election. Consider the case of the SNP.
The SNP: performing ‘the outsider’ role
Once upon a time, the Scottish National Party was a genuine nationalist organisation. It took its nationalism seriously, and its objective of putting Scotland first meant that it had a pragmatic approach towards other social and political issues. During the past two decades, however, the slow death of the Scottish Labour Party and the disenchanted mood gripping the electorate have provided the SNP with an opportunity to become a major force in Scotland. The SNP has seized the moment and reinvented itself as the inheritor of old Labourite traditions, tailoring its nationalist aspirations accordingly.
Over the past two years – as shown by its near victory in the independence referendum last year – the SNP has succeeded in politicising the mood of anti-politics in Scotland to the point that it is likely to strip Labour of many of its Scottish MPs. The SNP’s momentum has been generated by opportunistically exploiting the Scottish people’s sense of alienation and estrangement from the UK government. That’s why the SNP has put its nationalism on the back-burner. Its main electoral strategy is to appeal to the public’s mood of alienation from the Westminster establishment.
Leading SNP voices insist that the election is not about independence. Indeed, the SNP manifesto could easily be mistaken for an unedited draft of Labour’s programme. The SNP has suddenly increased its appetite for power, and is insisting that it wants to deliver ‘progressive politics for the whole UK’. The metamorphosis of Scottish nationalists into the saviours of the UK is testimony to the power of opportunistic reinvention. Imagine an Irish nationalist movement like Sinn Fein adopting a manifesto for directing the future of the UK – it would cease to be Sinn Fein as we know it.
Sadly, the SNP’s outsider role-playing appears to have won it significant support – particularly among young people. Sections of the left who have lost faith in Labour have invested their hope in the seeming alternative offered by SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and her party. However, the objective of the SNP is to gain influence through the cobbling together of a coalition with other parties. The next step on the SNP’s agenda is horse-trading and jockeying for influence within the UK’s political oligarchy. Cynicism abounds in the SNP. It is mobilising anti-political hostility to the Westminster establishment to become a player in, well, the Westminster establishment.
The rise of the SNP, which coincides with the crisis of traditional party politics, has created a situation that is likely to intensify the oligarchical tendencies of contemporary political life. This is the first UK General Election in which the question of who will be in what coalition has dominated the debate. Consequently, even parties that used to take their principles relatively seriously – such as the Green Party or the SNP – now present themselves as likely coalition partners or as seekers of influence in the next parliament. Berlusconi would approve.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, First World War: Still No End in Sight, is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)