Is the SNP a vanguard for Scottish independence?

The crisis around the Scottish National Party leadership centred on the party's position as a vanguard for Scottish independence, writes Ruairidh Brown. It could subsequently mark a watershed moment in the independence movement

The vanguard

Karl Marx provided an acutely detailed critique of capitalism. But Marx offered little instruction on how the capitalist State could be overthrown. Such concrete planning was left to professional revolutionaries.

In the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the Menshevik faction advocated for an all-inclusive mass democratic movement for change. Their movement incorporated as many opponents to the Tsarist regime as possible.

Vladimir Lenin zealously opposed their approach.

Lenin had no confidence in the fickle masses and regarded such a large heterogeneous movement as ineffective. Change could only happen if spearheaded by a small elite. This group would be tightly controlled and highly disciplined, with a uniform interpretation of the 'most advanced' Marxist theory.

In his essay What is to be Done, Lenin termed this disciplined political spearhead the 'vanguard' of the revolutionary movement.

The vanguard of Scottish independence

The movement for Scottish independence shares similar tensions to those in the Russian Marxists' movement over a century ago.

The Scottish independence movement was originally celebrated for being an incredibly broad, all-inclusive mass movement. But there are increasing fears that such a big tent is tearing at the sides.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), meanwhile, has taken the leading role in organising and envisaging the direction of the movement. At the same time, it argues that independence can only be achieved through its electoral success.

The movement for Scottish independence shares similar tensions to those in the Russian Marxists' movement over a century ago

To win these elections, the party has become tightly organised and professional, with a top-down centralisation of power and dedication to its leader. The SNP has also become more ideologically uniform, notably adopting a progressive ideology. This stands in contrast with the increasingly right-wing Conservative Party ruling in London.

Spearheading the movement with a tightly disciplined and ideologically coherent political elite, the SNP thus became the vanguard for Scottish independence.

Elitist, closed, alienated

Nonetheless, despite unprecedented electoral successes, the increasingly centralised and elitist nature of the SNP has created friction. Portions of the broader independence movement now regard it as a closed political class, alienated from the wider public.

Wings over Scotland is one of the most popular blogs on Scottish politics. In 2020, it was the most-read website by Scottish government staff. The blog site has been particularly critical of the SNP's failure to progress the cause of independence while alienating the wider movement through its 'progressive politics', particularly Sturgeon’s proposed gender recognition laws. Indeed, Wings has claimed that the SNP elite is no longer concerned with achieving independence, preferring rather to stay in power while 'feathering its own nest with British money.'

Some portions of the broader Scottish independence movement now regard the SNP as a closed, elitist political class, alienated from the general public

And although Wings has been linked to conspiracy theories, its readership doubtless gives it influence. Wings is said to represent a significant proportion of the pro-independence demographic. These people are dedicated to the cause but remain frustrated by the SNP’s current direction.

In 2021, Alex Salmond also launched the Alba Party to advocate more aggressively for independence. His strategy was to capitalise on these frustrations and sense of alienation from the SNP.

The candidates

Candidates in the 2023 SNP leadership campaign represented different ends of this divide between wider movement and vanguard.

Kate Forbes and Ash Regan both criticised party leadership and direction. Regan is a key SNP rebel against the gender recognition bill and a notable critic of Sturgeon’s 'progressive politics'. Forbes called for a 'reset' of the Party, criticising many of Sturgeon’s centre-left policies and the concentration of decision-making power in too few hands.

Humza Yousaf, by contrast, presented himself as the vanguard candidate, stressing continuity with current SNP ideology. Not only did Yousaf make 'progressive politics' central to his leadership bid, he stressed that it is a necessary political vision to maintain party confidence.

The vanguard momentum

In March, the contest took a bitter turn. A conspiracy emerged that the party leadership had 'rigged' the contest in Yousaf's favour. This gained credence when Regan and Forbes wrote to the chief executive demanding 'current membership status and voting procedures within the SNP, which is necessary for ensuring a fair and transparent leadership election.'

Their move was likely to trash Yousaf's reputation and his time in government. Its revelation of exaggerated membership numbers has, however, called into question the SNP's position as the independence vanguard.

SNP leadership has disclosed that membership currently stands at 72,186: a decrease of 32,000 in two years, and significantly down from its 2019 peak of 125,000.

These numbers matter. It was the membership surge following defeat in the 2014 independence referendum that bestowed upon the SNP the movement's largely undisputed vanguard position. That so many joined the SNP after the broad coalition fell short emboldened the party to take its cause forward.

Moreover, it demonstrated that momentum was with the party. Momentum is the currency of legitimacy for vanguards because it shows how they are making progress towards their intended goal.

A loosening of the SNP's 'iron grip'

The significant drop in membership since 2019, by contrast, signals a dramatic slowing of momentum. Indeed, some consider it a watershed in the history of the independence movement. It marks an end to SNP 'imperial control' over the cause, and a chance for the movement to reinvigorate itself, free from the party's iron grip.

The significant drop in SNP membership since 2019 signals an end to the party's 'imperial control' over the Scottish independence movement

Figures such as Salmond and Wings have asserted that dissatisfaction with progress towards independence is undoubtedly a factor in this haemorrhaging of members.

To regain momentum, newly elected SNP leader Humza Yousaf will need to regain the movement's confidence and once more demonstrate progress towards independence.

If not, the SNP position as undisputed vanguard of the movement may have come to an end with the departure of Sturgeon.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
Head of Politics and International Relations, Forward College, Lisbon

Ruairidh currently teaches International Political Theory and International Relations at Forward’s Lisbon Campus.

Before teaching at Forward, Ruairidh taught International Studies in mainland China, where he received the University of Nottingham’s Lord Dearing Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and learning in 2019.

He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017.

Ruairidh has researched and published on such topics as hermeneutics, political obligation, and the philosophy of friendship.

Political Encounters: A Hermeneutic Inquiry Into the Situation of Political Obligation
Springer, 2019

Covid-19 and International Political Theory by Ruairidh Brown

COVID-19 and International Political Theory: Assessing the Potential for Normative Shift
Springer, 2022

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