James Mitchell is the Professor of Politics in the University of Strathclyde; his two colleagues are Senior Lecturers in the same subject, Lynn Bennie in the University of Aberdeen and Robert Jones in that of Essex. There have been similar research projects of other parties in the past (theirs was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council), but this is the first for the SNP. The authors do not explain why the SNP had been excluded in the past, but probably these projects have been confined to parties which aspired to form a government. The SNP had no such aspiration for Westminster, but the restoration of a Scottish Parliament, even with very limited powers, created a new situation.
There have, of course, been very many other books about the SNP. Our present authors include a list of them in an appendix of 11 pages and they make brief references to many of them in their book. This is only a small part of their research. They conducted interviews with 87 prominent members of the SNP, each lasting for between 40 minutes and four hours. With the help of the SNP HQ, they sent 64 questionnaires to the 13,200 members of the party. They had 7102 replies which they have summarised in an appendix.
This research was conducted between November 2007 and March 2008 following the success of the SNP in the 2007 election, when it became the governing party with a majority of one vote over Labour. It was this period in office which demonstrated the ability of the SNP ministers to make satisfactory progress in the business of the House.
Before the establishment of the Holyrood Parliament in 1997, the SNP have been a very different organisation. As this book says, the establishment of the new Parliament obliged the SNP to transform itself from "what was essentially an amateur-activist model to an electoral-professional model". In other words, as long as the SNP had no reasonable expectation of forming the government, it was able to conduct its discussion of policy much more openly. For the most part this was by public debate at the National Conferences. Now in the Holyrood Parliament it had to adopt the more discreet methods of the other parliamentary parties.
When the Labour Government drafted the legislation for Scottish Devolution, one of their ministers, George Robertson, famously remarked that a Scottish Parliament "would kill the SNP and Scottish independence stone dead". That was presumably why the Labour party approved the legislation. Both of them were of course quite wrong.
The research for this book was during the period when the SNP was in office without an overall majority. This is a difficult challenge for any government but it emerged unscathed. Perhaps partly for this reason and from their evidence from the membership, the authors seemed to have reached a favourable view of the party. They say, for example, "The politics of the SNP are amongst the most liberal of any mainstream party in the UK on citizenship, emigration and multiculturalism." And "Anti-English sentiment was almost nowhere to be seen."
This book is short and lucid and deserves to be widely read; but it should have a paperback edition at a lower price.
Party's not over