Wednesday 11 November 2009

Is the SNP an obstacle to independence?

This may seem a rather strange and perhaps impertinent question. Especially to any SNP supporter reading this. However it is a serious question. Never more so now that we have the experience of an SNP government in action and the prospect of a referendum on independence, if not next year, within the next few years.

The first question that needs to be answered is has the SNP as a government significantly furthered the likelihood of independence? The answer seems to be a very clear no. Recent opinion polling has shown no significant or growing support for independence. If anything support for independence has at best stalled. This is at first sight surprising as the SNP remains enormously popular as a party and as a government. The latest poll from TNS-BMRB in the Herald shows the following breakdown of voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament:


SNP - 40%

Labour - 32%


SNP - 37%

Labour - 29%

This is quite a remarkable lead for a governing party. However when it comes to voting intentions for the UK Parliament, a completely different picture emerges. The Westminster voting intentions are:

Labour - 39%

SNP - 25%

Tories - 18%

Lib Dems - 12%

So what might explain this substantial difference between the support for the SNP for Scottish and UK elections? To some extent the very success of the SNP in government may well work against them in a UK election. After all the majority of Scots still support the Union and with their own Parliament and an SNP run government may not see the need for a bigger SNP contingent at Westminster. Clearly an SNP government in Edinburgh is much more powerful than a few extra MPs at Westminster. This pattern of voting is quite common in other parts of the world. In Catalunya for example, the nationalist parties do much much better in Catalan elections than in Spanish elections. It is a similar story in the Basque country. So at one level we should not be surprised by these poll findings. The SNP may be transforming itself into a mainstream party which dominates in its own territory and may win additional powers every so often, but does not threaten the constitutional status-quo.

However for the SNP this is a bit of a double edged sword. While governing in Edinburgh is a very attractive proposition the purpose of the SNP is bring about an independent Scotland. What if becoming the party of government in Scotland threatens the achievement of independence? The better the SNP performs in government the more it demonstrates the validity of the current devolution settlement. And if the SNP can win the odd additional powers for the Parliament the more it consolidates itself as the party best placed to govern and represent Scotland - but within the UK. What the SNP seems to be unable to do is to convince enough Scots that independence is an even better way forward. This of course is very different from Spain, where the nationalist parties in Catalunya and the Basque country do not advocate independence. In Catalunya for example only one small party campaigns for independence. The main nationalist parties there are quite content with running the Regional governments. Is this the future that awaits the SNP?

The answer in part depends on just how strong the potential support for independence may be. If the current polling is an accurate reflection of the deep seated views of Scots then the prospect of independence is most unlikely to ever happen. Most Scots do seem to be content to remain within the UK. There is no obvious oppression and now that we have our own Parliament and government many if not most of the key decisions are taken in Scotland anyway. Independence will not suddenly transform Scotland into some fabulous wealthy paradise. If a majority of Scots are to be persuaded of the more subtle benefits of independence then this will need a very broad based campaign. Independence is not a narrow party political issue. People from all and no political background can be in favour of independence. It is a constitutional issue and not dependent on party specific policies for running the economy, the health service, education etc.

However in Scotland independence has become a party political issue. For most Scots independence is seen as synonymous with the SNP. While this is quite good for the SNP in electoral terms in Scottish elections, it doesn’t seem to be such a good deal for achieving independence. All political parties carry some baggage and all political parties generate hostility from other political parties. And this is what it seems to me is damaging to the cause of independence. For it is very clear that for many Scots the SNP is persona non grata. There is an enormous hostility shown to the SNP by many sections of Scottish society. The other political parties resent the SNP in a way they do not resent other parties. All their venom is directed against the very idea of independence. And as long as independence is primarily associated with the SNP this venom does great damage.

To move forward the campaign for independence needs to move away from the SNP. We need to see groups in favour of independence within all political parties - why is there no Labour for an Independent Scotland group? Or a Tories for a fiscally responsible and independent Scotland? And so on. Part of the reason of course is that many of those in the other political parties who do favour independence have already left and either joined the SNP or just opted out of political activity. However the end result has been a short term gain for the SNP as a political party, but a major blow to the cause of independence. The other political parties, shorn of their pro-independence activists have become ever more hostile to both the SNP and independence. With the result that anyone remaining in the Labour, Tory or LibDem parties who are in favour of independence are most likely to keep it very quiet. They could of course join the SNP, but this is unlikely. Some people will never join the SNP - for a variety of reasons. It’s not left wing enough, it’s not right wing enough etc or they just don’t like nationalist parties - I fall into this group. So in my view the SNP will never become a large enough party to bring about independence on its own. And its existence as a successful party will engender greater and greater hostility from all its opponents.

Things are not looking too great from the perspective of achieving independence. In Scotland we seem to be living in a kind of political impasse. The hostility that now exists means that the other parties are most unlikely to tolerate any pro-independence group while the SNP as a political party will not want to compromise its electoral prospects by encouraging other pro-independence parties. The one thing that might change the current impasse is the arrival of a Tory government at Westminster with little or no MPs from Scotland. The prospect of another decade or so out of power in London might just persuade some Labour politicians and Trade Unionists that an independent Scotland might not be such a bad idea after all.

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