The SNP has performed unexpectedly well in office, it makes an independent Scotland more likelyby Tom Gallagher / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
When the Scottish National party scraped into office in May with just one more seat than Labour, it was assumed that its period running Scotland’s devolved government would be short and inglorious. But under Alex Salmond, in the space of 100 days it has established its mastery over all its rivals, who now fear voting it out of office in case fresh elections confirm the huge lead the SNP has built up in the polls.
The culmination of the SNP’s 100 days was the publication of a white paper proposing a “national conversation” on Scotland’s future to be followed by a referendum on independence in 2010. The opposition parties were caught unprepared. Bold spirits like Michael Forsyth, Margaret Thatcher’s chief adjutant in Scotland in the 1980s, have urged the case for a referendum now. Forsyth thinks, probably correctly, that most Scots would reject the severing of the British link and that Salmond would have to stop grandstanding. But with the tide of opinion on its side, the SNP could get a respectable vote for separation now which would enable it to consult the voters again at the end of their term in office.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives not only officially oppose a referendum, they have refused to engage in the national conversation, which they rightly suspect will be on SNP terms. Nor are they, yet, offering proposals for a new devolution settlement that would revise relations between Edinburgh and London. Giving Holyrood more fiscal autonomy is increasingly seen as the only way of stopping the SNP.
Labour was leaderless throughout the summer, as Salmond introduced a range of popular measures designed to ease the lot of the chronically sick, people on low incomes and those living in peripheral areas. He also floated various ideas, including a more independent civil service, a more Scottish BBC Scotland, and a local income tax to replace the unpopular council tax. By the time it became clear, in mid-August, that the new Labour leader was going to be Wendy Alexander—the intelligent and combative elder sister of Douglas, secretary of state for international development—the party’s long period of ascendancy, stretching back to the mid-1950s, appeared to be in jeopardy. This 44-year-old economist leads a party dominated by lacklustre public sector and trade union officials whose political machine is falling apart outside its remaining heartlands. Alexander is distrusted for her intellect, and it…