Allan Massie: Unionists must face SNP ambitions

Post-referendum SNP surge is mirrored by its growing army of opponents. Picture: Getty
Post-referendum SNP surge is mirrored by its growing army of opponents. Picture: Getty
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Denying Sturgeon’s troops the balance of power is vital to all the other Westminster political parties, writes Allan Massie

Three months on from Scotland’s Day of Destiny and five months to go to the general election, and everything is as clear as one of these end-of-year days when it is never truly light, and there is fog on the hills, mist in the valleys and a haar hanging heavily over Scotland’s capital.

This is partly, of course, because, in the eyes of the defeated, 18 September was only Destiny Postponed. Despite the rousing talk of it being a “once-in-a-generation” or “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to choose independence, it’s clear that the SNP never believed this. It will go for another referendum as soon as it can.

Meanwhile, everything is confused. In England you have an unpopular coalition government, an unpopular official opposition, and an unpopular third party, Ukip. I call Ukip “unpopular” because, though it has been attracting support and is registering around 15 per cent in most polls, the obverse of that figure is that some 80-85 per cent of voters won’t have it at any price.

Here in Scotland, only two things are clear. First, boosted by a surge in membership and riding high in the polls, the SNP is more popular than it has ever been. Second, the SNP is more unpopular than it has ever been; many who once looked on it with a certain tolerance now loathe it. That is the consequence of the manner in which it conducted its referendum campaign. So the referendum has strengthened nationalism, fortified unionism and divided the nation deeply.

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The first question is whether the SNP surge, which in some polls has it registering several points more than the Yes vote on 18 September, will continue. The answer to this may depend mostly on the ability of Jim Murphy, the newly elected leader of Scottish Labour, to arouse some enthusiasm and win back defectors. In the recent past, Labour in Glasgow and west-central Scotland has benefited from the absence of enthusiasm for any party, and won constituencies on a very low poll. But this may no longer be possible. There is of course a possibility that the natural Labour vote is seeping away just as the old Tory working-class vote did 40 or 50 years ago. Nevertheless, given the choice between a Labour government and a Tory one, it would be strange if a significant number of straying sheep didn’t return to the Labour fold.

Of course, Nicola Sturgeon has given them a reason not to do so. She has made it clear that if there is a hung parliament, as is quite probable, she will do a deal with Labour but on no account with the Tories. Some may regard this as arrant hypocrisy, because Ms Sturgeon was Deputy First Minister in the minority SNP government which survived for the four years of the 2007 parliament by making repeated deals with the Scottish Tories, but there it is; that’s politics, a tough and often unscrupulous game.

The SNP has one clear advantage at elections now. It represents by far the largest part of the pro-independence vote. In contrast, the unionist vote is divided between three parties, which are competing against each other as well as against the SNP. This means that the SNP benefits from the first-past-the-post electoral system. Even in those parts of the country where there was a large No majority, the SNP may well win seats such as Gordon, where Alex Salmond will be their candidate, with 30-35 per cent of the vote. Bizarrely, if the Conservatives had been true to the spirit, rather than merely the letter, of their coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, and campaigned successfully for the AV vote in the referendum on electoral reform, the SNP’s prospects over the greater part of Scotland would be much poorer than they are now, for one can be sure that very few unionists would have given their alternative vote to the SNP candidate. The Westminster system is serving the SNP well.

So what can the unionist parties do? Jim Murphy’s task is clear: he has to woo back the Labour voters who are apparently abandoning , or are ready to abandon, the party. But what of the Scottish Tories and Liberal Democrats? The sensible course for the unionists is to vote tactically to keep the SNP out. One can’t expect Labour voters to do this, but it would be reasonable for Tory and Lib-Dem ones to vote for the candidate of whichever of these parties seems best placed to win.

Then both should attack the SNP on two fronts. First, since Ms Sturgeon has said she could do a deal with Labour but not with the Tories, they should say: “Vote SNP; get Ed Miliband as prime minister.”

Second, even though this is a Westminster, not Holyrood, election, they should concentrate their fire on the SNP’s record in government, because this is where it is vulnerable. Its record on education and the NHS is poor, and they should hammer this home. Even if this doesn’t check the SNP now, it will prepare the ground for the Scottish election next year.

Most of all they should attack its “named person” legislation as a usurpation of the rights of parents. This law is an abomination. It implies that it is the state which has the primary responsibility for the care and wellbeing of children. It is an attack on family life, the right to which is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Elevating the state over the family is characteristic of fascist and communist regimes, and has no place in a liberal democracy. I cannot see how any parent can happily vote for a party which has brought in such a measure. Only a few days ago we learned that a teacher who suspects that a child has been engaged in underage sexual activity should report this to the “named person” – the state-appointed guardian – but not the parents.

In short, the unionist parties should address the SNP’s record. For years the SNP has been making the running by stirring up a sense of national grievance. It is time to put it on the defensive by directing attention to what it has done, and has failed to do, in government.

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