The rise of the SNP is based on emotion, not reason
Nicola Sturgeon is by any measure the most successful politician in British politics. The SNP's landslide victory in this year's general election turned Scotland into a one-party state. When it comes to Westminster elections, the SNP now face less political opposition than some African dictatorships. At next year's Holyrood elections, Sturgeon looks set not only to win a third term for her party but to actually increase her majority.
Yet anyone watching events in Aberdeen this week might think they were watching the conference of an embattled opposition party.
At conference fringe events, delegates rail against the Tories, Labour, the BBC, and even the Met Office. The constant refrain among Sturgeon's followers is that there is a 'bias' against them. In this world view, everyone from the media, to the civil service, to Westminster think tanks are, in the words of one delegate today: "agents of the [UK] government" in some imagined conspiracy against the SNP and Scotland.
This outsider resentment, incubated during last year's referendum campaign, clashes weirdly with the success of the party. Here we are in a huge conference centre, at the party's biggest ever conference, after a general election victory that made the SNP the overwhelming majority in Scottish politics, and yet they are acting like a put-upon minority.
It also clashes oddly with Sturgeon's own success. Early in her speech today she referenced the Daily Mail headline describing her as "the most dangerous woman in Britain." The impression given is that she is somehow an anti-establishment figure. Yet there is very little that is ant-establishment about Sturgeon or her party. In recent years the SNP have posed as a radical anti-austerity movement. Yet they have won three elections partly on a pro-business, low tax agenda that is in some ways closer to the Tories than to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party.
And after years of criticising Labour for not being left-wing enough, the SNP now attack them for being dangerously divided. The conference slogan "Stronger for Scotland" seems designed to target the same fears of Corbyn's Labour as that the Tories' conference slogan "Security. Stability. Opportunity". The SNP have largely shaken off their old reputation as "Tartan Tories" but there is a remarkable similarity in the two party's lines of attack.
This was made clear in her speech today, as she claimed that "Labour's incoherent position on Trident shows how unfit they are to govern," adding that they "don't deserve support – not from those who oppose Trident and not from those who support it either." It takes a remarkable level of chutzpah to try to win votes both from those who agree with Corbyn's position on Trident and those who oppose it. But in many ways, the success of the SNP has little to do either with policy positions or ideology. There is ultimately no intellectual coherence to the SNP agenda. In recent years they have posed as anti-austerity warriors, yet they have also imposed an eight-year freeze on local authority tax revenues, at the same time as cutting taxes for business.
The fluidity of the SNP's ideology has allowed them to be in a state of permanent opposition to both the Conservative government and the Labour party nationally, while simultaneously seeking credit as a governing party at home. No other party could hope to achieve such a feat. That the SNP have succeeded so spectacularly, has very little to do with ideology and policy and everything to do with the power of nationalism.
What are the SNP really for?
The SNP's brilliance at harnessing Scots' natural patriotism and nationalism was captured perfectly in Sturgeon's speech today. Appealing to voters to back the SNP for a third term at Holyrood, Sturgeon told them "I want the motto of our country to be "Can Do Scotland". Labour and the Tories – Scotland's can't do parties – will hate it."
In just two sentences, Sturgeon encapsulated both the appeal of the SNP and the sense of resentment and national pride that has spurred it on. Sturgeon labelled The SNP as the natural optimistic party of Scotland while labelling her opponents as pessimistic and anti-Scottish. Like all good rhetorical tricks, it works because there is an element of truth to it. In last year's referendum campaign, the unionist parties spent an entire campaign telling Scots that they simply couldn't cope on their own. In the end the No campaign was victorious, but it left a lasting resentment among Scots about the patronising nature of the campaign. Last year Labour and the Tories were quite literally the "can't do" parties. The negativity of their campaign ultimately won out, but the side effect of the victory was that it cemented the idea in Scottish minds that the SNP are the only real party of Scotland. When Sturgeon claimed today that "the SNP's heartland is Scotland" it rang true, both in message and in electoral reality.
It is for this reason that Labour's recent shift to the left is unlikely to restore their fortunes north of the border and indeed the early signs are that is has made basically no impact on Labour's support in Scottish polls.
Of course we shouldn't dismiss policy entirely. The SNP's policies such as free prescriptions and university education are hugely popular. They have also proven adept at securing support with an almost Tony Blair-like triangulation of both the left and right in Scottish politics.
But the key to understanding the rise of the SNP is to realise that their support is primarily based on emotion rather than ideology. Here the words of George Orwell remain as relevant as ever.
As Orwell put it: "one cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it."
Today Sturgeon harnessed that power perfectly, ending her speech with a call for Scots to continue to trust her and the SNP.
"To the people of Scotland I ask this," she began.
"Trust us – trust me – to always do the best for you, for your family and for your community. And trust the SNP to always be stronger for Scotland," adding "let's get out there. Let's win for Scotland."
Here Sturgeon claims electoral victory not for either her, or for her party, but 'for Scotland'. There are few politicians who could get away with such a trick. Today Sturgeon did so quite brilliantly.