"Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838)" by Reading Tom from Reading, UK - IMG_3994. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
In the final part of his survey of the SNP, Dr Phil Larkin looks at the party's future and concludes by emphasising the importance of Scotland to the rest of the UK.
The SNP’s Future?
As any military manual will tell you, a salient, or bulge, into enemy territory is a dangerous position for an army to be in, since it can be attacked from three sides. The 56 seats won by the SNP in May constitute just such a salient. Had they won, say, 30-40 seats, it might actually have been better for them, since they could continue to enthuse their core support with the cry that there “is still more work to be done.” A victory of such a resounding nature means that there is only one direction for the SNP’s electoral fortunes to head, namely, southwards. The present UK Government, with its small but workable majority, is not beholden in any way to the SNP, does not require their support, and is unlikely to offer any further devolution measures to Scotland beyond the ones presently being worked out. After that, there will be increasing calls for the Scottish Parliament and Executive to use the tax raising powers they already have if they hate austerity as much as they claim to. Indeed, for a Party who have persistently called for equality of citizenship, and railed so vociferously against austerity, the SNP Administration in Scotland has been curiously loathe to raise income tax: they realise instinctively, as a populist organisation, that this would cost them middle-class support. I suspect that the SNP will also be reluctant to use any future revenue raising power which they may be given by Westminster, for the same reason. So where does this leave the block of 56 SNP MPs? It is true that they can make a lot of noise, and strike plenty of agitated poses, but behind the flummery and hot air, they are essentially impotent. Unlike the Labour opposition, they do not even have the comfort of being able to form a Shadow Cabinet. The SNP would probably prefer Conservative government in Westminster, to demonstrate just how different Scotland is from England, and this is why Salmond helped to shatter Miliband’s chances of victory before the May election by talking up the prospects of a Labour/SNP coalition and asserting that he “would be writing Miliband’s budget for him.” It also explains why Sturgeon has endorsed Corbyn as Labour leader: in effect she is giving him the kiss of death before the English electorate (not that he needs this). However, how long will it be before the slogan “Vote SNP to ensure Tory Victory” gains currency in Labour circles north of the border?
Only by keeping the prospect of a future second referendum “around the next corner” can the Party keep its faithful enthused, and this is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to do by sketching out nebulous conditions which would, in her opinion, “trigger” another referendum. The reality is, however, that the prospect of another referendum in the short to medium term terrifies the SNP, since they would be bound to lose it, and their chances of retaining political hegemony after that would plummet. In a perceptive FT article, Janan Ganesh argued that the UK would not leave the EU unless the exit campaign could show that the population would be demonstrably better off outside, a case that they simply cannot make. Ganesh drew parallels between this and the reasons why the Scottish electorate ultimately rejected independence: the majority of Scots were unconvinced that secession from the Union would make their lives any more prosperous or happy. They still remain unconvinced, especially with the example of Greece fresh in peoples’ minds. Yet how long can that core of diehard Scottish nationalists, the backbone of SNP support, who are itching for round two of the independence battle, be assuaged? There is plenty of scope for internal conflict within the SNP, and these splits are bound to come to the fore before too long.
This is why the SNP’s bluff now needs to be called on a number of different levels by the unionist parties. Far from resisting the idea of another independence referendum, unionists should, perhaps in the aftermath of next year’s Holyrood elections, should be saying with one voice, “bring it on!” My guess is that the SNP hierarchy would blanch with fear at such calls, while the more fiery party foot soldiers would be spoiling for the second round. Sturgeon will have a tremendous job on her hands reconciling realism with fervent enthusiasm. Whether she is capable of holding the Party together in these circumstances is anyone’s guess.
It is this author’s unwavering belief that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will be disastrous for the Party in electoral terms, yet even disasters can be mitigated. His leadership will allow Labour to call the bluff of the SNP’s left wing. Mhairi Black, the Party’s youngest MP, made an impassioned Bernadette Devlin-type maiden speech in the House of Commons, in which she excoriated the policy of austerity, and explained that she had parted company with the Labour Party because it had ceased to adhere to the ideas of figures like Tony Benn, whose memory she specifically invoked. While this speech was lauded at the time (the House of Commons being a sentimental institution), it left Miss Black open to attack on a number of different fronts. The point that an independent Scotland would be forced to adopt fierce austerity measures has been made above. In addition, she laid out no viable alternative to austerity in the speech, and has not done so since. However, the main charge her speech laid her open to is, with Corbyn (a disciple of Tony Benn) as Labour Leader, and John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, why does she not simply return to the Labour fold? This author is surprised that the argument has not already been made by any of the unionist parties. Furthermore, Ms Black’s far left credentials are difficult to reconcile with the actions of certain of her SNP colleagues. It was recently disclosed that Michelle Thomson, the SNP’s frontbench business spokeswoman, built up a buy-to-let property portfolio with her husband by buying homes at knocked down prices from families struggling to pay their mortgages. Some of the properties targeted and purchased were local authority homes bought by tenants under the right-to-buy scheme, which is to be banned in Scotland by the SNP next year. While this article does not suggest that Thomson has done anything illegal, her actions stink of hypocrisy: a senior SNP MP who had campaigned against social deprivation looks to have profited handsomely from those who suffered from it. Is Mhairi Black going to condemn Thomson publicly for these actions? I doubt it. The revelations also underscore the reality that the SNP is scarcely a genuinely left-wing party, but rather a catch-all confederacy of different personalities and views bound together with one solitary aim, to end the Union.
As Alan Massie has argued, there may, ironically, be an opportunity now for the Tories to revive in Scotland. They have a very capable leader in the form of Ruth Davidson, whose stature was actually enhanced by the Referendum campaign. She is far too young to be tainted by the nastiness which characterised previous Tory government attitudes towards Scotland, and whether one agrees with her or not, she comes across as an ebullient and engaging personality, just the sort of person the Conservatives need to detoxify their image north of the border. She has spoken convincingly of the chronic need for technical education and an expansion of industrial apprenticeships in Scotland, and suggested creative ways in which a Scottish Parliament might lower income tax to entice wealthy English and other professionals to settle and invest their skills and cash in Scotland, a policy likely to find at least some favour among canny Scots. None of this is to minimise the task that lies ahead of her and her Party. One thing in her favour is that she can characterise the Tories as a Party passionately dedicated to preserving the union, something that Labour under Corbyn will find it much more difficult to do.
The main aim of this article has been to set out the case that there is really much less to the SNP than meets the eye, and that the unionist parties should be more vociferous in declaring that this emperor really does have no clothes. While I do not intend to speculate on how long Corbyn will remain as Labour leader, if he does survive for any length of time in office the Conservatives look set to win the 2020 election. Therefore the task of preserving the Union will fall to them. This will require a level of tact, sympathy, and understanding which Tories have not always demonstrated in the past towards Scotland. There is definitely some truth in the criticism that the “No” campaign during the 2014 Referendum was overly negative (although one can see why they chose to focus on the reality that the SNP could not formulate anything like a convincing economic case for independence). The unionist parties could have formulated a much more positive case for the status quo, demonstrating just to what extent Scotland and the Scots are a huge part of the fabric of life and history in the entire United Kingdom. For instance, Scotland gave birth to the father of modern economic theory, Adam Smith, while James Watt, another Scot, made possible the rapid advancement of the Industrial Revolution with his improvements in steam engine design. William Patterson was the prime mover behind the creation of that most British of institutions, the Bank of England, while Scottish inventions from television, to the telephone, to the ATM, have improved and enriched the lives of millions around the world. More mention could have been made of the political contribution which Scottish statesmen and women have made to the entire nation: one need only consider the number of Scottish Prime Ministers and PMs of Scottish extraction (including Cameron himself) there have been for this to be proved. Scots like Keir Hardie and Ramsay McDonald were instrumental in the creation of the Labour Party. The poems of Robbie Burns, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott are justifiably world famous because, like the plays of Shakespeare, they deal with eternal themes which touch the whole of mankind, and are not confined to the confines of Scotland. Scotland is too precious the rest of the UK for them to be separated from us. It is high time that this was stated more vociferously.