Scandal alone can't explain the crisis facing the Scottish National Party, according to a new report.
While the Scottish National Party (SNP) faces its greatest crisis in five decades, the roots of it are not well understood, says the study by the University of Stirling and Glasgow Caledonian University.
Beneath the arrests, resignations, police investigations and slide in polling numbers are deeper questions - about the party's legitimacy, how it is governed, and its route to power, says the report.
The party’s success in recent years has been heavily dependent on the promise of a second referendum and its leadership under former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon drew upon the energy surrounding the 2014 independence referendum – described in the report as "a case study in successful social movement rebranding".
In the years following the referendum there was a sharp strengthening in politicisation in Scotland, which can only be compared to the historic miners' strike and poll tax movement.
The report also claims that a "sense of imminent rupture" - caused by the trial of former First Minister Alex Salmond and his formation of the Alba Party - allowed the party to pursue everyday governance with little scrutiny.
Its authors - experts in social movement and politics - point out that the SNP was transformed almost overnight from a relatively small organisation into a mass membership party. The result was a hardening of internal power relations, they argue. And while the party's income grew substantially and reached new peaks during the 2014 referendum period, there was a decline in large donations and more dependence on membership fees.
The authors argue that that "few policy advancements have been attributed to the Sturgeon years". While polls during Sturgeon’s time in power show a waning confidence in Scotland's devolved public services, these rarely affected her, or the party's popularity. Instead, voters preferred to blame the UK leadership for their hardships, and the promise of an independent Scotland served to offset and channel grievances.
The study, published in The Political Quarterly, comes on the eve of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, a constituency which has flipped between SNP and Labour. After voters go the polls next Thursday, the results will be closely eyed as a signifier for both SNP fortunes north of the border and Labour nationally.
Tom Montgomery of Stirling Management School, a co-author of the report, explained: "SNP leadership under Sturgeon was keen to capture the symbolism and energy of the 2014 Yes campaign, which transformed Scottish politics. At the same time it was able to draw upon the constitutional situation in Scotland to avoid questions about its performance in government. This all has significant implications for any efforts to ‘re-energise’ the independence movement.”
This is the first article in a planned series of papers to conceptualise the trajectory of Scotland’s independence movement since 2014, and the role of the SNP as a governing party. The authors have already begun work on their next study.
* The Antinomies of Insurgency: The Case of the Scottish National Party by James Foley, Tom Montgomery and Ewan Kerr is published in The Political Quarterly.