The SNP paradox

They campaign as national populists, but govern as cosmopolitan technocrats. It can’t last.

Stuart Waiton

Topics Brexit Politics UK

The rise of the Scottish National Party has been remarkable. In the recent UK General Election, it won 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland (albeit with only 45 per cent of the vote). Back in 2010, the SNP won just six seats, compared to the Labour Party’s 41. In 2019, Labour won only one seat. In this respect, we can see that the SNP has replaced Labour as the dominant party in Scotland – no mean feat for a group of politicians who not so long ago were known as the Tartan Tories.

In part, the SNP’s rise can be explained by the collapse of the once distinct political outlooks of left and right. The Labour Party no longer represents labouring people and there is no labour movement, as such, for Labour to represent. In many respects, the Labour Party is past its sell-by date (as are the Tories) and this has provided the space for an alternative to emerge.

In Scotland, unfortunately, this alternative came in the form of the SNP. At a time when there are few big ideas in politics, the SNP has one defining idea – that Scotland could genuinely be different by going for independence from the UK.

The SNP now presents itself in a more social-democratic, leftist way than it once did. It has also harnessed the anti-Tory sentiment that is common up north through the relentless condemnation of all things ‘Westminster’. The political chasm between the voters and the almost alien world occupied by politicians is reframed as a purely geographical problem, as something stemming from the toffs down south.

As a Brexiteer and a democrat who lives in Scotland, I found the success of the SNP in the last election frustrating. Boris Johnson’s Tories won in England and Wales under a pro-Brexit, pro-democracy banner. But in Scotland, the SNP won with an overtly anti-democratic ‘Stop Brexit’ campaign.

But despite their recent successes, the Scot Nats should be wary of resting on their laurels. There are many contradictions within the SNP project, which, if they were to properly come to the surface, could be the party’s undoing.

Writers examining the rise of populism and the new divisions in contemporary politics have identified three new areas of conflict. First, the rise of technocratic governance, which clashes with demands for popular democracy. Secondly, the rise of the supranational, as opposed to the nation. And lastly, the clash between cosmopolitanism and community. To a great extent, the SNP presents itself as being on the side of popular democracy, the nation and the community. But in reality, it is far more representative of the global, cosmopolitan, technocratic new elite.

The SNP represents the new technocratic elite as much as – if not more than – any other UK political party. You see this in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, where the SNP has been in government since 2007. The SNP MSP’s comfort zone is the committee room, sitting with like-minded lawyers, heads of charities, academics and experts, formulating policies in an echo chamber, at a distance from the electorate.

But at the same time as being part of this aloof class of technocrats, the SNP claims to be the voice of the people, defending popular democracy against those in ‘Westminster’ who suffocate the voice of Scotland. The SNP tries to promote the idea of nationhood, and to engage with a national desire for more control over the country. It pretends to represent democracy and freedom, promising a vision of a new nation built upon the sovereignty of the Scottish people, breaking from the shackles of Tory England.

This is all totally unconvincing – not least because the SNP is wedded to the European Union, a supranational bureaucracy that undermines national sovereignty. Indeed, leading SNP figures, such as MEP Alyn Smith, portray the EU in the most remarkable, Disneyfied way imaginable, in which the EU is responsible for everything from world peace to workers’ rights. The SNP is among the most pro-EU political parties in the UK. This is strange considering the party is meant to be about nationhood and taking back national control for the Scottish people. With its craven love of all things Brussels, the SNP is the least convincing national independence movement in the history of national independence movements.

Similarly, the SNP is able to tap into a sense of community, of tradition and commonality, between people. David Goodhart’s idea of the ‘Somewheres’ captures this sentiment well. Many SNP supporters want a sense of belonging, of groundedness to a certain place, and of Scottishness. But at the same time, SNP MPs, MEPs and MSPs seem deeply uncomfortable and suspicious of the people of Scotland – a fear and loathing of ordinary people that is shared across the global cosmopolitan elite.

SNP politicians are chronically politically correct, prone to looking down their noses at ordinary people, and always on the lookout for new laws and regulations to control people’s speech and personal lives and relationships (see the now-defunct Named Person legislation or the recent smacking ban).

These contradictions are yet to play out properly, but there is a growing sense of confusion about what the party is for. For example, many SNP supporters and voters hate the politically correct, nanny-state dimension of the SNP. The party has a tendency to patronise the public and to interfere in their daily lives (their drinking, eating and parenting habits and use of language), and this aggravates many people. There is also a sense of frustration among Scotland’s voters about the poor state of many public services that the SNP is responsible for, from education to health and policing.

At the moment, the SNP has managed to avoid confronting these contradictions. SNP politicians stand for election as populists shouting ‘power to the people’, while running Scotland through committees and experts. The party campaigns for an ‘independent’ Scotland, but one that will be subsumed into the European Union. And it stands as a defender of democracy, while pushing the anti-democratic policy of stopping Brexit.

The SNP has benefited from the collapse of both the Tories and Labour in Scotland. It acts as a kind of anti-matter, feeding off the end of class politics and masquerading as the people’s party. Logically, the many contradictions of the SNP should result in a split, or the emergence of new political parties. For the people of Scotland, let’s hope so.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee.

Picture by: Getty.

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Gerard Barry

29th January 2020 at 2:29 pm

As an Irishman, I can confirm that the Irish attitude to the EU is almost as perplexing as the Scottish one. We fought for centuries for our independence from the British, yet see nothing contradictory about kowtowing to Brussels (or should that be Berlin?).

Dominic Straiton

28th January 2020 at 3:12 pm

A bankrupt Scotland begged to join the Union. They became the greatest champions of Empire and many renamed themselves North Britons. And just as we set off once again as a free nation many want to become a forgotten backwater of a German Empire. What a bunch of losers. And im mainly Scots.


29th January 2020 at 1:05 pm

Scotland was demeaned by its participation in the English imperial project. Scots were used as cannon fodder in pointless foreign wars. Scotland has declined drastically in economic terms over the last century precisely because it is part of this superannuated political union. Scottish oil funded southern English tax cuts under Thatcher. What precisely is the point of Scotland remaining in the union? Why should Scotland continue to subsist on handouts from the British state? Time for Scots to grow some b**lls and fight.

Jane 70

28th January 2020 at 2:41 pm

The Nats’ enduring love affair with the EU in all its technocratic power hungry glory is beyond me.
As a Leave supporter living up here, I cannot comprehend the wish to abandon the ties which have stood the test of time and to sacrifice autonomy and the Barnett formula to Brussels.
The Nats seem to be stuck between the rock of ‘progressive pc-speak’ and the hard place of begging the likes of Junker and Verhofstadt for readmission to the EU club.
Furthermore, the sentiments displayed on recent flag-waving marched reveal an irrational degree of rancour and bigotry.
So, all Leave voters- one million of us here, remember- and the English in general, are derided and denounced as bigots, ‘little englanders’ and ignoramuses, while the more extreme Nats wave placards emblazoned with ‘ out tory scum’.
This has become so divisive and so distorted and, as previous comments have shown, the pc posturing is tiresome, to put it mildly.
The sense I get in my small town is that most people are quietly weary of the rants and demands and would probably like to give Brexit a chance and accept the democratic vote.


29th January 2020 at 1:46 pm

The Barnett Formula is precisely why Scotland must leave the UK. Why should London and the southeast of England continue to subsidise Scotland? The situation is entirely hypocritical. It is time Scotland stood on its own two feet. Scotland was an independent nation for over 700 years before the union was ever thought of. It is time for Scotland to return to its pre-union state of autonomy.


Ed Turnbull

28th January 2020 at 10:29 am

This article is a reasonable summary of the contradictory nature of the SNP. It’s probably been fifty, or more, years since they fitted the soubriquet of ‘tartan Tories’, and maybe not even then. These days they’re intolerably woke, and insufferably authoritarian. They pose as woad-daubed inheritors of Wallace – determined to throw off the English yoke and usher in ‘FREEEEEEDOM!’ – and at the same time never miss an opportunity to attempt to micromanage the existence of the citizens of Scotland.

I’ve a number of friends you passionately support the SNP (I live in Scotland), friends who embody many of the stereotypes – eating habits, alcohol consumption, smoking, etc – of the Scottish lifestyle. I frequently point out the obvious: the SNP are a clear threat to many of the activities my friends enjoy, given that how can they possibly support them? The answer I always get is that the SNP are a means to an end: Scottish independence. It’s an argument, I suppose, though not one that’s particularly well thought out. So, I never fail to remind my friends that the tools you choose for tactical reasons are not always biddable. And I caution them to remember the old maxim about minding the length of one’s cutlery when dining with Old Nick.


28th January 2020 at 9:03 am

How is it ‘anti-democratic’ for the SNP to campaign to stop Brexit when a clear majority of Scots voted to remain? The SNP are considerably more in touch with the opinions of the people of Scotland than the author of this article.

David McAdam

28th January 2020 at 9:36 am

We Scots took part in what was a UK wide referendum just as we did in 1975 when we voted to continue membership of the EU without any gripe from the losing side.

Jim Lawrie

28th January 2020 at 12:19 pm

Remainers are locked into forever repermutating the electorate, mandate and outcome to give themselves a win. They cannot mask their contempt for us.
Their spiritual home is the committee room, not the hustings, where they are like vampires cast into daylight.

Jonnie Henly

29th January 2020 at 1:08 pm

“without any gripe from the losing side.”

Hilarious nonsense of course, as the following 40 years of Eurosceptic politics demonstrated.

The losing side never accepted the result in 1975.

Jonnie Henly

29th January 2020 at 1:11 pm

Meanwhilst Brexiters are forever talking of the “silent majority” who agrees with them, an elitist term in the extreme and a clear attempt to swerve around the fact that actual people don’t like them one bit. So they invent the “silent majority” who apparently are so meek and downtrodden they need stuck up Leave commentors to speak for them at every turn.

Ed Turnbull

28th January 2020 at 10:13 am

As David McAdam has just explained to you, the Brexit referendum was a *UK-wide* plebiscite. Thus none of the UK nations – Scotland included – has any locus to complain the outcome is unrepresentative or ‘unfair’. If Scotland ever finds itself an independent nation state then it can hold it’s own referendum on EU membership, or on any issue it pleases. ZP, when are you going to accept the simple fact that, in the referendum, *your side lost*? Or are you going to be like a six-year-old perpetually whining that it’s not fair?

I do wonder ZP, do you actually live in Scotland? If not why so defensive of the SNP? Other, perhaps, than your usual poorly executed contrarian trolling. I *do* live in Scotland, and have for nigh on 40 years, and I can tell the SNP are appalling – woke authoritarians of the very worst sort. And they can’t run effective public services to save themselves.

Eliot Jordan

29th January 2020 at 7:55 am

Because in 2014 we had a referendum which convincingly stated that we want to remain in the UK.

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