Believing that Scots are likely to reject independence, talk in certain quarters has turned to alternative futures beyond 18 September, writes John McTernan
A CORNER was turned this week. We’re 200 days from the referendum, so the focus switched to the days, weeks and months after. In a way it was inevitable. The political classes only have so much attention. For them, the referendum is over. A done deal. It’s going down. The question is what’s next?
This may seem harsh, particularly to the voters who have yet to cast a single ballot, but it’s how all markets work – even political ones. They deal in futures, and after a certain point the future is priced and the circus moves on. That’s where we are. Independence is dead, long live Devo. The question urgently being asked is Devo Max, Devo Plus or even – dread the thought – Devo Status Quo.
Now, there’s a name for this. Not insider trading but market-rigging. There’s a cartel operating – a cartel of constitutionalists. People – journalists, advisers, academics, politicians – who want another decade or two pontificating in seminars and in print. Enough already. There’s a better way.
On 19 September there will be a reset. There will be two paths. One is more mad discussion of powers – what the elite wants, that’s where the grants and funding lie. The other is a return to purpose – what the public crave.
Scotland has one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. How about using its powers to do some good? This is the better path, imagine if it were followed.
So, accepting that separatism is rejected in the referendum, what is the post-September political trajectory? Importantly, the wheel turns. The SNP has bossed the political agenda for seven years, driving all the other parties. Suddenly the boot would be on the other foot. Remember that Alex Salmond has said that this vote is a once in a generation opportunity. Defeat puts all the pressure on to the SNP.
In response, senior SNP politicians will move in three directions. Some will conclude that they have done enough marching. They will celebrate their part in putting the referendum on the agenda and then, against the odds, calling it. But a loss is a loss and they’ll announce their retirement in 2016. Others will accept that the question is settled for a generation but will still have a desire to finish the political phase of their lives.
They will turn to thinking of how to use the parliament to change things – in line with their politics. And that’s the rub. A Fergus Ewing and an Alex Neil are in the same party for only one reason – to win independence. If that possibility is removed what holds them together? The right-wing of the SNP will start developing policies to achieve – as far as possible within its powers – a low tax, small state Scottish Government. The social democrats will turn to what could be done to reduce inequality – and they will face up to the difficult fact that they did nothing on this agenda while they subordinated their personal politics to the goal, indeed the grail, of separation.
To this powerful dynamic must be added the actions of the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour. This is their once in a generation chance too: the chance to return to politics as normal. It is a truth too little acknowledged that concentration on the constitution puts real politics in the deep freeze. Politics, that is, that use values to decide on the prioritisation and allocation of resource. Nationalism is the politics of the “magic porridge pot”. Everything can be paid for – if only you believe in Scotland enough.
The No vote brings that fantasy to a juddering halt. Into the space vacated Labour and Tories will step. This ups the pressure on the SNP coalition. As Labour offer a radical, social democratic vision of Scotland within the UK the left of the SNP face a choice. Equally, as the excellent Ruth Davidson makes her mark on the Scottish Conservatives, pragmatic centre-right policies are developed and offered to voters. The debate within the SNP has an echo outside the party which itself places a real pressure on the factions inside it. And here the third faction within the nationalists asserts itself. The core appeal of the SNP is independence. Alex Salmond promised them a date with destiny. The day came round. The world didn’t change. Normal people look for a new approach or a different activity. Not a millenarian sect. They simply recalculate the prophecy. Nostradamus wasn’t parsed properly, he didn’t mean 2014 – he meant 2016.
While debate rages within the SNP about their future direction, the 2015 general election comes round. Here is where the Liberal Democrats pay the iron price. They formed a government with Scotland’s mortal enemy – the Conservative Party. And in a bitter irony the Tories stand to be the biggest winners. In Aberdeenshire, Gordon, North East Fife and the Borders they stand to gain from Lib Dem pain.
The Tories will lose the 2015 general election, but – at least in Scotland – they may win seats, doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the size of their parliamentary group. And for those who think Labour have maxed out the number of Scottish seats they hold there will be the surprise gain of Caithness and Sutherland. A long-term Labour seat returning to the fold. Plus the outside chance that increasingly urban Inverness will drop the king of cuts – Danny Alexander – and go Labour again.
This, then, is what makes the general election of 2016 truly interesting. Resurgent Labour and Tory parties with very different views of the kind of Scotland that should be built in the 21st century. An SNP trying to manage genuine internal tension. A Labour government still in its honeymoon. One that has abolished the bedroom tax and slain the dragon of Tory government. The economic context will have changed too. Oil revenues will be down for the third year running. The pressure is all on the SNP. Do they double down and try to make the 2016 election a referendum on another referendum? Or do they become a constitutionalist nationalist party? We shall see.