The Depute: Important, artificial and ad-hoc (part 1)
This is the first of a 2-part blog post by Marco Biagi on the SNP Depute Leader contest. The second part will be published after the close of nominations.
The American vice-presidency is most often described as a post not worth a bucket of warm spit, a saying widely attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first VP, John Nance Garner. The only bucket that can be associated to the post of Scottish National Party number two meanwhile is the one of ice water that was thrown over Nicola Sturgeon as part of 2014’s summer charity challenge craze. One wonders whether it was then-leader Alex Salmond who perhaps decided that the duties of his depute included joining him in the ordeal, which as a result of public challenge he himself could not easily turn down. If so, he illustrated a truth about being SNP Depute Leader – that what you do is decided by the actual Leader.
The party’s constitution today gives no clear remit to the second-in-command. That is unless the Leader is at Westminster and the Depute Leader is at Holyrood, in which case the latter leads the MSPs there. The reverse is not true. Indeed, the last Depute Leader of the SNP, Stewart Hosie, was also only deputy leader of the Westminster MPs as well. Somehow he was simultaneously both more senior and more junior than his colleague Angus Robertson. The rulebook, adopted in 2004, is rather due a re-examination on this (and many other) points.
Over time, Depute Leaders (and formerly Senior Vice-Conveners) have served different and shifting roles. Some have been manifesto co-ordinators; others campaign directors; others jacks-of-all-trades. The relationship between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon at the top of the SNP was perhaps closest of all, built on mutual respect and able to shape the party’s fortunes and Scottish politics for almost a decade. In that it was also very different to what followed, what came before, and what was evident in other parties – like Harriet Harman’s relative invisibility under Ed Miliband.
Many major figures in Scottish politics have nonetheless been the SNP number two. Every person to ascend to be SNP leader since 1969 had previously at some point held the deputy post. The reverse is not true – not all Depute Leaders became Leader. But those who didn’t take the top job have almost all made waves in their eras regardless – like Douglas Henderson, Margo MacDonald, Margaret Ewing, Jim Sillars and Roseanna Cunningham.
Being deputy intrinsically provides status and therefore grants a public profile the incumbent can use as they choose. In the enviably well-coordinated SNP almost all media opportunities are managed and distributed centrally. Team players are highly regarded by press officers, and informal A-lists maintained. Backbenchers who cannot be depended on to argue strongly for the collectively agreed party position are seldom seen on Newsnight. Certain frontbenchers are chosen for slots representing the party as a whole while others remain politely confined to their portfolios.
Propriety however demands that the party’s titular second-in-command is a front-line communicator by right of position. This affords a moderate space to influence not so much the content of the party’s message, but certainly its weave and texture. Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney in their Scottish Government roles promote the same record and programme, but do so in subtly different ways they know complement each other. The First Minister party deputy – now extremely unlikely to be a government office-holder – will have far less direct portfolio responsibility than the Deputy First Minister, but they will have a place in the spotlight nonetheless.
Indeed, a deputy who sought a more direct policy rather than public relations role would run into difficulties. None of the declared candidates is an MSP, and SNP policy emanates from its Cabinet in Edinburgh. While subject to scrutiny privately from the backbenches and more openly from the wider party membership this is where decisions are taken. Little irks some MSPs more than media reporting Westminster spokespeople with greater respect than the Cabinet Secretaries who are in practical terms much more truly the leaders of the party.
The Depute Leader election itself though is a chance to debate policy, with all declared contenders so far exploiting this. Discussion of how and when to approach a second independence referendum, especially in the world after the Brexit vote, is on everyone’s lips. It dominates this election, and in October it will dominate the fringe meetings, coffee stops and bars that are the real party conference – and it is also bigger than this election. The number two role is important, artificial, ad-hoc – what the post involves will be decided more than anything else by who the winner is, and their pre-existing relationship with Number One. What will interest all shrewd observers now is what the choice of Depute Leader says about the SNP membership’s willingness to accept particular strategies on the constitution – not least because the Leader, with the real power, will be watching that very closely too.