Joyce McMillan: SNP needs new allies for fightback
WITH unionist parties attacking and support fading Alex Salmond must find other friends, writes Joyce McMillan
SCOTLAND’S First Minister is not a very frequent tweeter, but here he is on my laptop screen, as I sit down to write, offering up a breezy black-and-white image of himself and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon, posing by the river in Perth, as they arrive there for the SNP conference.
Alex Salmond will, I am sure, be his usual upbeat and confident self, as he takes his place in the conference hall. Accentuating the positive has become his political trademark.
Yet there’s no denying that Scotland’s governing party has suffered a series of sharp and unexpected reversals in recent weeks, culminating in a batch of opinion polls which show support for independence down to 30 per cent, from a high of almost 40 per cent just nine month ago.
Up to a point, of course, these kinds of fluctuations in the polls are to be expected; the SNP is an incumbent party struggling with an intractable recession, and this autumn was always likely to mark a low point in support for independence, following Britain’s triumphant Olympic summer.
Yet there’s a sense, this autumn, that the tectonic plates of Scottish politics have shifted in a way that is not to the SNP’s advantage.
For many years, the SNP has been in the comfortable position of appearing to be the “middle” party in Scottish politics, not as right-wing as the Tories, not as wedded to old working-class interests as Scottish Labour. It has been able to present itself as all things to all people, business friendly on one hand, strongly social-democratic on the other.
Now, though, Johann Lamont’s sharp shift to the right – in moving to question the culture of universal benefits, and to subject Scotland to the cold shower of “austerity” thinking – has placed the SNP in an entirely different position, well to the left of all the other mainstream parties.
For those of us who assumed that the Labour party was moving slightly leftward again, after the end of Blairism, the shock of this strategic Scottish Labour swerve to the centre-right has been difficult to absorb.
Now, though, for the first time since the mid-1970s, all three Unionist parties are attacking the SNP on the same flank, denouncing its policies as unrealistic, extravagant and unsustainable and the poll evidence suggests that, however debatable its substance, this concerted Unionist attack on the SNP position is already having an impact on Scottish public opinion.
All of which would be serious enough, for the SNP, if it simply meant a likely short-term decline in their own electoral support. This time around, though, the isolation of the SNP also means the isolation of the “yes” campaign for independence.
For if there is one signal difference between the constitutional debate today, and the devolution debate of the 1990s, it is that the argument for constitutional change now belongs solely to one party, and lacks a broad range of support in Scottish civil society.
A few weeks ago, for example, at New College in Edinburgh, I attended the launch of the late Stephen Maxwell’s fine book Arguing For Independence, which makes the case for an independent Scotland as the best arena in which to continue the good fight for peace, democracy and human rights, to which Maxwell dedicated his life.
It was an excellent event, and a warm tribute to a life well lived but as I listened to the First Minister’s short speech, and looked around the room, I couldn’t help remembering the varied, multi-party quality of the many civic meetings at which Stephen Maxwell spoke in the 1990s, and the range of groups that were involved.
By comparison, this 2012 event seemed like a single-party rally, instinctively hostile to all those not in the SNP fold and it struck me then that the SNP has not a hope of winning a referendum “yes” to such a mighty change in Scotland’s constitutional status, on the basis of such a narrow single-party campaign.
The unanswered question that hangs over the Scottish politics this weekend is therefore whether there is any force in Scottish society, outside the SNP, which is likely to come to the party’s aid over the next two years, in making the progressive case for an independent Scotland.
The SNP certainly needs to find new international allies, to counter the tired arguments against social democracy now being fielded by all three unionist parties.
If the Better Together campaign wants to portray the SNP as a lonely advocate of mad fiscal extravagance, the party needs to marshal the evidence from across northern Europe that its policies are in fact normal, and eminently sustainable. And the Scottish Green Party is already there, of course, within the “yes” campaign.
The list of other possible supporters within Scotland is short, though, as civil society groups – conscious of the deep divisions among their members – remain reluctant to take sides. There is a small but infliuential SNP-supporting business lobby. There are some local environmental groups, convinced that Scotland has a better chance than the UK of moving to a sustainable post-carbon future. There are Scotland’s writers, painters, poets, musicians, theatremakers, currently fighting a briliant campaign for the kind of national arts agency they want, and increasingly inclined to support independence as the best choice for a creative future.
And – most intriguingly – there is what is left of Scotland’s labour and trade union movement, once the heart and soul of the devolution campaign, now increasingly dismayed by the behaviour of Labour leaders, and inclined to look kindly on the independence option.
For the moment, in other words, it looks as if the SNP has been outmanoeuvred by the forces of unionism.
Yet two years is a long time in politics and many of Scotland’s most articulate and active citizens – inside and outside the SNP – continue to yearn for a more just and enlightened society than the current British state seems able to offer.
The question is whether they will be silenced and alienated by the arid party battle that has dominated the independence debate over the past 18 months or will begin – between now and 2014 – to make themselves heard, and to shift the debate away from the sterile party battle at Holyrood, into the heart of Scottish society itself.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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