Do not be fooled by the SNP’s Mr Nice Guy routine

THE art of ‘gentle persuasion’ sounds like a sinister euphemism – possibly a technique that might have been employed by the Spanish Inquisition.

But it’s also the SNP’s latest rather vague plan for the tricky task of winning over more than half the electorate to the prospect of Scottish independence.

Or at least it’s one idea, from Pete Wishart, re-elected on December 12 as MP for Perth and North Perthshire, who has re-cast himself as a ‘moderate’ voice within the separatist movement.

In a festive blog, he mused that the Tories are ‘hoping beyond hope that we now blow it through impatience and alienate this new support that is coming our way’, and recommended that it ‘should now be all about gentle persuasion, about convincing and understanding’.

Mr Wishart, you might recall, once referred to supporters of Tony Blair as ‘your embarrassing incontinent old relatives’, and isn’t well-known for his ‘understanding’ attitude, particularly when he referred to Unionists as ‘nawbags’.

Meanwhile, independence-supporting group Forward As One has set up a crowd-funder to take the UK Government to court if Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a Section 30 order – seeking permission from Westminster for another independence referendum – is officially rejected.

Not everyone, it seems, has ‘gentle persuasion’ in mind, as Joanna Cherry QC, SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, found when she offered tentative backing to Mr Wishart (‘respectful debate is paramount’) – some of her fans strongly objected to her conciliatory tone. One asked her: ‘Have you any idea just how demoralising these messages are to us?’

But then only a week after the General Election, Miss Cherry had vented her disgust with the ‘truly repellent’ atmosphere in the Commons, claiming that she felt ‘trapped in the parliament of another country whose concerns and obsessions are utterly alien to me and my constituents and where doublespeak is rife’.

Set aside for a moment your initial surprise at finding a committed Nationalist condemning other people’s ‘obsessions’ (or indeed ‘doublespeak’): what’s really going on here is a public debate – historically a rare phenomenon in the SNP – on tactics.

It’s also the sound of the stable door banging shut, some time after the departure of the horse; but perhaps the real shock is that anyone involved believes those who haven’t bought into the separatist argument might be swayed by the belated ‘Mr Nice Guy’ routine of Mr Wishart and some of his cohorts.

Mike Russell, the SNP’s Brexit Minister, stirred from his post-Christmas torpor to berate Boris Johnson for encouraging the ‘worst of instincts in [his] extremist supporters’ – not something the SNP would ever do, of course (if you discount Miss Sturgeon’s foam-flecked, rabble-rousing address at a recent independence rally in Glasgow).

Nothing ‘extremist’, either, about the idea of holding an illegal Catalan-style referendum (an option which Stewart Hosie, the SNP’s Dundee East MP, recently refused to rule out).

In a newspaper article yesterday, Mr Russell wrote: ‘At the start of this new decade we need to put into the hands of every single member, adherent and supporter the material that will allow them to convince their family, friends, neighbours and workmates of the case for independence and the threadbare nature of the opposing arguments.’

(Moderate? Pete Wishart wants to woo No voters)

You can guess how prominent any mention of the SNP’s currency proposals might be in that ‘material’ – somewhere close to non-existent.

After all, ditching the pound, the party’s long-term masterplan, isn’t the easiest sell on the doorstep.

Stirling SNP MP Alyn Smith heaped praise on Mr Russell’s ‘important’ comments, which he said took the ‘long view’ on ‘what we all need to do to win the big prize’.

To be fair to him, he gave us due warning of his next move: ‘I’ve some thoughts for my column next week too as the SNP policy development convener’. Everyone wants to have their say.

But not everyone, it seems, has been copied into the memo on adopting a less abrasive approach: in the days after the election, there was much shrill rhetoric from the SNP leadership about Scotland’s status as a supposed captive of the UK Government.

Miss Sturgeon advised Mr Johnson that he must not ‘lock Scotland in a cupboard’, and claimed that we have been ‘imprisoned in the United Kingdom’ against our wishes – while Mr Hosie said the PM would be a ‘despot’ unless he consented to another referendum.

For a movement that once prided itself on ‘message discipline’, the highly public nature of this introspective discourse is notable, and telling: Miss Cherry is seen as a possible successor to Miss Sturgeon.

The thinking aloud about how to win the case for another referendum is an illustration of the growing tension between rival camps.

Miss Sturgeon has been stung by criticism of her failure to push ahead more forcefully with another Scexit vote, and is now ramping up her barmy talk of an imprisoned Scotland.

Elsewhere, as Miss Cherry’s intervention shows, there is evidence of some disarray in how best to proceed.

But the overriding impression is of a party which only days ago was toasting its electoral success slowly realising that in a practical sense it is meaningless – because Mr Johnson isn’t likely to cave in on the section 30 demand.

Mr Russell, in his column, railed against the propensity of the SNP’s opponents to ‘viciously attack our actions at all times’: the key, he said, was for the SNP to keep on ‘delivering in government for the. people of Scotland’.

This claim echoes the paranoia at the heart of Nationalism – criticism is ‘vicious’ and unwarranted, and driven by an inherently hostile media; there’s rarely if ever any recognition that it might be merited.

That’s why the narrative of Scotland under the thumb of a malign UK state that is run by the ‘extremists’ of Mr Russell’s imagination is so appealing – it’s a valuable distraction from the SNP Government’s abject record.

(‘Gentle persuasion’: a Spanish Inquisition technique?)

The areas most visibly blighted by chaotic attempts at ‘reform’ and endemic mismanagement – health, education and justice – have been devolved since 1999, and yet, facing a new decade, the Nationalists’ only recourse is to lay the blame at Westminster’s door.

We’re really imprisoned not by the Tories (without whom the 2014 referendum wouldn’t have happened), but by the failures of a Nationalist hegemony that is incapable of admitting its mistakes, far less learning from them.

In the meantime, no-one beyond the ideological hard core of the party will be fooled for a second by the supposed Damascene conversion of senior figures such as Mr Wishart – who at last acknowledges the need for taking a less confrontational tack (or so he tells us).

It’s simply too little, too late; and all the ‘gentle persuasion’ in the world won’t cover up the deficiencies of the SNP’s plans for splitting apart the Union – or the grotesque mess it has made of public services in its 12 years in office.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 31, 2019.

*Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper