JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 24.6.11
EARLIER THIS week, The Scotsman published the results of a poll which offered a pretty powerful account of just why, at last month’s Scottish Parliament elections, such a high proportion of those taking part decided to vote for the Scottish National Party, in many cases for the first time. “Competence not constitution,” ran the headline across the page; and every chart tells a similar story, of the SNP scoring more highly – or less negatively – than all other parties on measure after measure of overall performance and competence. The SNP was seen as more united than any other major party, more capable of strong government, more in touch with ordinary people, and more likely to keep its promises; and an astonishing 42% of those surveyed also believed that the return of an SNP minority government would “not make much difference” to the likelihood of Scotland actually becoming independent, an outcome supported by less than a quarter of those polled.
If the typical Scottish voter believed, though, that he or she was simply voting for the most competent centre-left party on offer, and for another four years of pragmatic SNP government with constitutional issues on the back-burner, then all of those calculations were blown out of the water by the unexpected scale of the SNP victory. On 6 May, the SNP became the final, decisive beneficiary of a series of historic failures by the UK parties; of the continuing Scottish rejection of free-market Conservatism, of the collapse of faith in the Scottish Liberal Democrats following the party’s decision to join a right-wing coalition at Westminster, and of the complete failure of Scottish Labour to pick up even a few of the votes lost by their old coalition partners. And although thei SNP’s final overall majority of parliamentary seats slightly flattered their 45% proportion of the vote, the result nonetheless told a larger and slightly alarming truth, about the widespread perception of the party as the only really credible players on the current Scottish political scene.
All of which, of course, has caused much well-deserved rejoicing among long-term SNP supporters. What is becoming clear, though, is the extent to which this startling victory has changed the whole agenda of Scottish politics, shifting it subtly away from what – if the polls are to be believed – most voters really want. Given a majority at Holyrood, after all, an SNP Government simply cannot keep the constitutional issue under wraps; its proposed referendum on independence has been transformed, in the space of hours, from a pious nationalist pipe-dream, to an unavoidable political reality, whose possible wording and timing is likely to obsess Scotland’s political class until the whole event is done and dusted. At the same time, the much more immediate possibility of Scottish independence has sent low-level shock-waves through what is left of traditional Scottish unionism, subtly raising the temperature in what was already a fraught debate about football, sectarianism, and identity.
And even beyond the referendum and sectarianism issues, the election result has placed the First Minister under far more pressure to respond to the impulses of his own rank and file, and far less pressure to respond to the views of others. It is difficult not to sense the consequences of that shift in the sudden “wha-daur” tone of the First Minister’s language, notably in the conflict over the role of the UK Supreme Court – which, whatever one makes of the real issues at stake, has been framed by the Scottish Government in distinctly unpleasant and over-personalised terms. As for the rush towards new anti-sectarian legislation – framed in a hurry, and disturbing in its implications for freedom of expression – it is noticeable that it took the combined voices of both Rangers and Celtic Football Clubs, who joined forces in expressing concern about its possible consequences, to persuade the First Minister into yesterday’s announcement of a six-month delay for further consultation; mere protests from assorted civic groups, and from Scotland’s weakened opposition parties, would not have done the trick.
And if we add to this changed political scene the shamefully destructive and petulant attitudes of some Unionist politicians, faced with the “affront” of an SNP majority at Holyrood, then we have a situation which could fast deteriorate into a miserable five-year slanging-match of reactionary identity politics, painfully irrelevant to the real current needs of the Scottish people, and desperately damaging to Scotland’s image beyond its own shores. This week’s astonishing outburst by the Labour MP Ian Davidson, in which he referred to the SNP as a “neo-fascist” party, is perhaps just a taste of how spiteful, inflammatory and ill-informed this debate may become, as the current Scotland Bill proceeds through the House of Commons.
In these circumstances, Alex Salmond therefore has no option but to shoulder a heavy burden of responsibility, in trying to moderate the tone of the debate, to avoid raising the emotional ante when inevitable disputes arise between Edinburgh and London, and to refocus Scottish politics onto vital issues of education, economy, and a sustainable future. His decision to delay the ati-sectarianism bill represents a good start in this process; and if, through a sustained effort to implement policies which really serve the practical interests of Scotland, he can fially persuade Scottish voters that independence is essential, then that will be fair enough.
If he fails that tough test of statesmanship, though – if he loses the place, if he becomes arrogant in victory, if he cannot resist stooping to brawl and bicker with the old Labour enemy, or if he succumbs to his own party’s ingrained obsession with matters constitutiona, and perceived insults to Scotland’s dignity- then the game will be over, for most Scottish voters. In what may be the terminal phase of British social democracy, we will have bet our last few chips on a national party that promised to deliver something much more than mere nationalism. And if they do not live up to that promise, then we will truly be a nation with nowhere left to turn; in a world increasingly run by people whose politics we despise, but whose dominance we feel powerless to resist.