The rise of the SNP has not led to a renaissance of Scotland's political cultureby Tom Gallagher / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
After snatching Glasgow East in a late July by-election, the third safest Scottish Labour seat, the SNP raced into a 19 per cent opinion poll lead over Labour in August. Gleeful nationalists predicted that the three colourless candidates for the vacant Scottish Labour party leadership would lose their seats at the next Holyrood election. London commentators predicted that Scotland would exit the union and concluded that devolution was a giant miscalculation by Labour.
But what is really remarkable is that the humdrum Labour party maintained such a tight hold on Scottish loyalties for as long as 50 years, a period during which it suffered several catastrophic defeats elsewhere in Britain. It was probably inevitable that the SNP would eventually seize a time when Labour was in trouble, and project itself as a dynamic force to remake Scotland.
So it is striking to note what a New Labour template the SNP is following. A wilful leader, more wrapped up in the presentation of policy than its substance, has centralised policy and suborned the civil service, relying on a compliant media and influence over strategic voting blocs to strengthen his ascendancy. Courtiers play up to an Alex Salmond cult of personality much in the way they once did to Tony Blair.
In the past, Scottish voters have displayed a healthy scepticism towards celebrity politics. But in July, when Salmond turned up at bingo halls and supermarkets in Glasgow East, he was treated as a star. Perhaps the cautious lowland mentality is being supplanted by an older Celtic set of values, based around the tribal chieftain.
But is the SNP really proving a dynamic and transformative force? If Scotland is edging towards independence, it appears to be doing so without any great excitement. Election turnouts are no higher than the British norm. Participation in politics is as low as most other countries in the democratic west. In March the SNP had just over 14,000 members—hardly an impressive base in a nation of over 5m.
Simon Jenkins, writing after the Glasgow East triumph, detected a heady cultural atmosphere in Scotland that was fuelling separatism. But there is no Scottish Left Bank; no political reviews, summer schools and ongoing debates among intellectuals. Universities are conformist. The print media is in crisis, even as cost-cutting foreign owners permit it to lean towards nationalism. And the Christian faiths have declining influence. In other words, the SNP…