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AS I write, seven sitting SNP MSPs, including two current ministers, have announced they are standing down at the Holyrood election in May 2021. For the record, they are Michael Russell, James Dornan, Bruce Crawford, Richard Lyle, Stewart Stevenson, Gail Ross and Aileen Campbell.
Now seven (so far) out of the 63 SNP candidates elected last time is not a huge number. In fact, at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, eight SNP members retired. So, it’s very much par for the course.
Or is it? Actually, I think there are reasons to be worried. For starters, the Scottish Parliament passed an SNP Government motion only on January 29 (by 64 votes to 54) calling for a second independence referendum to be held in this calendar year.
Two days later, in a highly trailed speech, the First Minister reiterated that she wanted a second referendum as soon as possible, preferably in 2020.
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She was not alone. The retiring Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution no less – Michael Russell – has been vocal in defending 2020 as a possible date for indyref2, even as he was mulling over his resignation announcement.
If we really were facing a second referendum within a matter of months, then any thoughts of resignation by the man most likely to front the ensuing independence negotiations with Boris Johnson would seem strange.
More realistically, if the SNP expect to secure yet another referendum mandate next year, and if they really believe Boris Johnson will then grant a Section 30 order to hold it, one assumes Russell’s well-honed negotiating skills would be even more in demand. What does Michael know that we don’t?
Russell has been doing sterling work in the national movement and SNP for a generation. He and Alex Salmond virtually rebuilt the party from the bottom up, starting in the early 1990s. Without Russell as chief exec and fixer, the SNP would be a historical afterthought.
He has served as a safe pair of ministerial hands in a variety of posts, covering education, culture, environment, Gaelic and latterly, Europe. At the same time, Russell has a personal hinterland that is the antithesis of the clone-like, robotic special advisers who end up as politicians these days. He is a talented film-maker and writer who would find plenty to occupy him if he left Holyrood.
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But why quit frontline politics just when the nation you have fought to create all your political life is just about to be born? Assuming, of course, that you think the Saltire is about to be raised over Edinburgh Castle. Russell has been quick to point out that life does not end just because you quit being an MSP and that he intends to remain active. He also points out that he will be 67 in August.
But I’m still not convinced. These days, three score and seven is still a mite early for retiring from frontline politics. Bernie Sanders is 78, Joe Biden is 77 and Donald Trump is a youthful 73. Vladimir Putin is 67 and (sadly) seems bent on retaining power for a while yet. Ditto China’s Xi Jinping, who is 66. I reiterate – losing Michael Russell from the Scottish Government seems a bit careless if you truly expect tough independence negotiations to start anytime soon.
But that’s just my point. Perhaps there are those in the SNP hierarchy who privately think that all talk of an imminent referendum is so much baloney designed to keep the members quiet.
That securing a Section 30 order from Boris and his English Nationalist Party by using gentle persuasion alone could take a very long time, if not forever. That there is more to life than banging your head against a political brick wall or trying to run a Scottish administration whose fiscal hands are always tied by the UK Treasury.
Or having Labour blame you for Tory austerity when Scottish Labour would never say boo to a goose if they were accidentally in power.
FOR the record, I don’t grudge Michael Russell his escape from the rigours of office. I’m also mindful of the heartfelt reasons offered by Gail Ross for giving up her beautiful but vast Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency. She prefers seeing her young son grow up to facing the enervating 250-mile commute to Edinburgh.
Plus she is sick of the online abuse that goes with being a female representative these days.
Something of the same lies behind the early exit of Clydesdale MSP Aileen Campbell, who has the added burden of ministerial office as Communities Secretary.
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There are solutions. We should note that the modern SNP has drifted far away from the party’s 1970s passion for local democracy, which sought to pass most decision-making down to the communities where it matters.
Can I suggest that the problem of combining family life with participation in grassroots politics lies not merely in family-friendly parliamentary hours, but rather in radically decentralising decision-making away from the Holyrood bubble.
That includes the SNP reinstating their long-time demand for a Scandinavian-style, local income tax to fairly fund town councils. But such reforms require the SNP at Holyrood to recover some of their radical, youthful fire.
It would also mean the party trusting their grassroots membership to a greater extent. Which, by the way, includes being honest about the impossibility of any independence referendum this year.
I am not the only one who views the cutting of the annual spring conference to a single day in Aviemore as a suspiciously convenient method of curtailing debate over tactics and strategy.
We are a democratic movement and our political line of march cannot be handed down simply from on high. Especially when we see respected and trusted leaders announcing their “retirement” from Holyrood.
There is already much discussion in the wider Yes movement regarding the creation of an umbrella body to co-ordinate grassroots campaigning and provide a wider forum for democratic debate about the shape of a future independent Scotland.
Such discussion is not a threat to the hegemonic political role of the SNP within the movement – nobody seriously believes we will secure independence from the British state without the SNP winning a majority at Holyrood.
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But equally, there is space for a parallel, grassroots body, on the lines of the Catalan National Assembly, to give consistent direction to national campaigning. Perhaps some of our retiring MSPs still with fire in their belly might find a home there?
Yet who will fill their vacant places at Holyrood? Until we win freedom for our people, and until we right the wrongs imposed on Scottish society, Holyrood must be more than a sedentary debating chamber.
Instead, it has to be the cockpit for radical change – to challenge the UK Treasury on spending, to end the power of the landed oligarchy by returning our land to the people, to face down Big Oil at Mossmorran.
And ultimately to force – not beg – Westminster to accept Scotland’s right to self-determination. If there’s an upside to the loss of so many weel-kent faces at Holyrood in 2021, it is the possibility we will elect a new generation of MSPs ready to realise this urgent agenda.