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View from the Street: lessons to draw from the SNP leadership contest

Kevin Pringle

Kevin Pringle

Senior partner

Secrets of succession

Are there lessons for other organisations to draw from the current SNP leadership contest? Is there a wider read-across from the world of politics to, say, business?

I think the answer must be ‘yes’. First and foremost, the experience the SNP is going through should underline the importance of succession planning for any company, charity, or public sector body.

It’s never too early to start nurturing up-and-coming talent. Leaving it too late can cause severe internal dislocation and external confusion about the way forward.

For more than 30 years, the SNP has been led by only three people – Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and John Swinney – with a relatively small corps of people close to the centre of power in the party and (since 2007) the Scottish government.

At one level, this stability speaks to an admirable consensus about objectives – and ways and means of getting there – among a tight-knit group at the top.

At another level, for any organisation with long-term ambitions, there is an inherent risk in such a management culture that the development of new generations of potential leaders is much more limited than should ideally be the case.

With Nicola Sturgeon leaving no standout replacement – in the way that she was the natural successor to Alex Salmond as the SNP’s next leader and Scotland’s first minister in 2014 – the party finds itself in the uncharted position of having to debate core aspects of its identity and purpose.

A 1930 quote from the prison notebooks of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci seems apposite: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Whether or not the SNP is displaying ‘morbid symptoms’ during this interregnum of leadership, the party’s members find themselves in the discombobulating position of there being no agreed route map for the future.

The membership – as they consider how to vote in a 1,2,3 preferential system among Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf – are having to think about profound questions of independence strategy and key policy issues for themselves. Ultimately, that may be no bad thing.

I suspect that few will identify a candidate who ticks all their boxes. Many will go with the prospective leader who ticks most of them; or ticks the ones they regard as most important, which will vary from member to member.

I’m reminded of a story I once heard from an academic who was recalling the dilemma he had faced over how to vote in Scotland’s devolution referendum on 1 March 1979 (44 years ago this week).

He wanted to vote for the Scottish assembly on offer at that time, largely out of loyalty to the then Labour government, but there were major aspects of the scheme he didn’t like.

Amusingly, he resolved his conundrum by putting only a “wee cross” in the Yes box.

Less certainty and more criticism. That may reflect the thinking of many SNP members as they approach this leadership election.

More generally – when there are more questions than answers about a whole range of problems at home and abroad – we may be entering an era of people casting doubtful “wee crosses” on ballot papers.


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