The SNP has performed unexpectedly well in office, it makes an independent Scotland more likelyby / September 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 will be difficult for her to find reliable allies with whom to plan a fightback. But she has conceded that the SNP victory was a “judgement” on the Labour party, which will have to leave its “comfort zone” and embrace new policies. This may involve becoming a completely separate party, having only fraternal links with the one led by Gordon Brown.
The SNP’s rivals cling to the hope that Salmond will be worn down by high office. A media-savvy separatist cannot indefinitely blame London for some of the grimmest health and crime statistics in the western world. Scotland’s educational standards are still better than England’s, but the public sector-dominated economy has low growth rates and is vulnerable to external turbulence. But expect innovative ideas for economic revival blending social democratic sensibilities with Scottish prowess in the knowledge industries and energy sector.
The SNP will, however, remain focused on independence, and will try to provoke a series of fights with London in order to show Scots that there is deep hostility to legitimate Scottish interests there. The most provocative gesture has been to exempt most Scots from paying fees at Scottish universities, leaving just English students having to pay up.
Under the annual treasury subvention, Scotland gets a fifth more to spend on education than England. It would suit the SNP nicely if this move on fees were to lead to English calls for the cancellation of the preferential funding “Barnett” formula, from which Scotland has benefited since the 1970s. Scots get an average of £1,500 more per head in public spending than the English. This dates from the discovery of oil mainly in Scottish waters in the 1970s, the last time the SNP enjoyed an electoral surge.
Will the English play the role allotted to them by Salmond? A widening gulf of sympathy has been perceptible for some time. The ties between the two peoples cemented by trade, empire, two world wars and a unified British labour movement have been steadily fraying. But so far London has not allowed itself to be provoked. Anglo-Scottish hostility would be a disastrous background against which a recently installed Scottish prime minister tried to win a mandate from British voters. A smart response from Brown might be to form a constitutional convention for Britain as a whole. He could go down in history as the prime minister who modernised an untidy political system that placed too much control in the southeast and promoted political atrophy in the English provinces and bouts of conflict with the Scots, Welsh and Irish.
But there is a less comfortable scenario. Brown, or a successor, might find it hard to resist demands to assert English interests. This might involve the Scots being given full fiscal autonomy, but along with the removal of economic subsidies and a sharp drop in seats at Westminster—as an answer to the West Lothian question. After such reforms, many Scots might feel that it would be only a short step to full independence.
In July, Salmond remarked that a sense of Britishness has gone bust in Scotland. Expect further comments along these lines, along with simultaneous encouragement of an overtly Muslim identity among Asian voters he hopes to convert to his cause. The possibility of the Scottish cabinet leading protesters to Britain’s nuclear base at Faslane should not be ruled out; nor should an attempt by Salmond to promote Scotland as an arena for middle east initiatives designed to end Hamas’s isolation. His close ties with Islamists who look to the Muslim Brotherhood for inspiration give him the leverage to play such a role. And there will be further foreign policy symbolism in bids for the European football championships in 2016 and a separate Scottish team in the Olympics.
Salmond is the most popular Scottish politician for years. He towers over his rivals and colleagues in terms of charisma and ability. Here is someone who has not in the past hidden his Scottish republican sympathies, but who can still capture a farming and commuter seat in the prosperous northeast.
Meanwhile, he is successfully wooing various sections of the corporatist Scottish elite. By demanding an independent civil service and refusing to subject a swollen bureaucracy to a performance audit, he hopes to win over not just the mandarins of the Scotland office, but local government apparatchiks and the plentiful quangos. When calling for BBC current affairs to be given a sharper Scottish focus, he reaches out to what he called Scotland’s “creative community,” broadcasters in particular, who have treated Salmond with unusual sympathy since he acquired power. He also hopes to win over more of the Scottish business class to the idea that free enterprise can flourish if the country goes it alone. It is a mark of his success that much of the business community is now agnostic about independence. Back in the 1970s, it was fiercely opposed, and an alliance of business and the Tories (still winning around 30 per cent of the vote) punctured the independence groundswell of that decade. (George Mathewson is the most prominent SNP supporter in business. He helped make the Royal Bank of Scotland the world’s fifth largest bank and gave Alex Salmond his first job.)
Salmond hopes to build an alliance that embraces social conservatives like Brian Souter, head of Stagecoach, while detaching parts of the leftist-inclined public sector from Labour. He has offered Muslims support for state-funded faith schools, and his opposition to the Trident nuclear programme has led Keith O’Brien, head of the Scottish Catholic church, to offer public backing to the party.
The SNP is not quite a one-man band. But although the party is united and self-confident, the pool of talent is not great. Salmond’s response has been to recruit ambitious and politically unaligned Scots who dominate its institutions and up to now have been unionist in outlook. They will be asked to join him in constructing a free Scotland that will take its place in the arc of rich north European nations extending from Ireland to Finland.
Only the Labour party stands in the way of the SNP becoming the dominant force in politics, possibly for a long time. The Lib Dems are in trouble and the Conservatives are still moribund. But Labour has a sickly pallor and could even implode, as David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists did after 2000. A look at the extent to which Labour’s majorities have shrunk in those 23 single-member seats it still retains shows how serious is the malaise. This insurgency in the prime minister’s own homeland may well kill any hopes he entertained for a quick election. For he is confronted by the most resourceful and popular electoral nationalist since Charles Parnell in the 1880s. The British state he confronts now lacks the deep reserves of legitimacy which it used to break the SNP challenge of the 1970s. And Salmond probably has a few more surprises up his sleeve, which he hopes will unnerve the Westminster elite and lead to the unravelling of the union.