The SNP has achieved much but troubling questions lie beneath its core aim of independence, writes Bill Jamieson
From whatever road you come or beliefs you may hold, the SNP gathering this week is no ordinary conference. This is a knocking on the door of history, a summons like no other in modern politics.
I say that as a sceptic and as one long inured to the artifice of party conferences and their instant forgetability. But this one is momentous. A party that in my youth was little more than a tiny band of irrelevant no-hopers has risen to be the government.
And it has brought Scotland to the brink of an epochal constitutional change. Whatever doubts you may have on the choice before us, this is a stunning political achievement, hewn from impossible beginnings and built over decades.
Today it portends a profound change for all who live in Scotland and the millions round the world who have Scotland in their hearts.
That is why this week’s conference, the last before the independence referendum next September, is drawing international attention. It will be attended by diplomatic representatives from some 50 countries and a formidable corps of press and media correspondents from around the world.
Drama here is in the making. Whatever the opinion polls may show, no-one can be sure how the vote will go next year, still less what the outcome will be, for a vote can be one thing and its consequences quite another. But that this is a Rubicon there can be no doubt. Of these points we can be sure. This once tiny band of believers has already wrought a transformation. Its leader Alex Salmond dominates the political stage and is a household name across the UK, a recognition few Scottish politicians have attained. For all this, little beyond next September can be predicted.
The conference can thus fairly be seen as a triumph of conviction politics in a world seldom more doubting and uncertain about big ideas. And it is inevitable that even at this conference, at the core of its unquenchable faith and resolve, lie questions that are as persistent as they are troubling.
For years the SNP has played to a national sense of entrapment and frustration. We have borne the scars of economic decline and the malign social consequences that have followed. High unemployment, poor investment, low levels of business confidence and a sense that we are doomed to endure more of the same without greater powers over our affairs have fuelled support for the SNP.
But how politically charged and sustainable is this sense of grievance? Today our prospects look materially brighter than even a year ago. There is every cause for optimism in Scotland’s workforce as latest figures, trumpeted yesterday from St Andrews House, show employment up by 0.9 per cent to 72.8 per cent, the highest level in five years. Unemployment is down by 0.2 per cent to 7.3 per cent.
Latest figures for the economy overall also released yesterday show that Scotland’s GDP grew by 0.6 per cent in the second quarter compared with the previous three months and is up by 1.8 per cent over the same period a year ago – outperforming the UK on this comparison.
The Bank of Scotland’s latest Purchasing Managers Index survey on Monday showed survey record- equalling rates of growth in both output and new business, with the pace of job creation running well above the long-run average.
And today the Scottish Chambers of Commerce Business Survey for the third quarter shows that in all sectors trends in business confidence are stronger than a year ago. There are cautious qualifications in all of this, of course. But the upward direction of travel is undeniable.
Now the SNP leadership has a difficulty here. It complains that the policies of “the London-based parties” are holding Scotland back while at the same time acknowledging the data and taking credit for the improvement in our economic fortunes. Mr Salmond, deft at the mighty organ of grievance he may be, cannot simultaneously fill the conference hall with the Funeral March and Gaudeamus Igitur.
The problem for the SNP is that an improving backcloth may blunt its critique of the economic yoke of the Union while causing voters to query how independence might actually improve matters.
No less a challenge for the party leadership this week is to bolster support, not only for a Yes vote in the independence referendum but also for the protracted period of negotiation that lies beyond. Voting Yes is not just for Christmas. Does the party – and the country – have the commitment and stamina required for a prolonged period of tough talking and uncertainty in the period after Yes?
There are also many commitments into which the SNP administration has entered, from welfare spending through abolition of the “bedroom tax”, renationalisation of the Scottish operations of Royal Mail and, of course, the establishment of not one but two oil funds. Many of these pledges may have to be put into abeyance until clarity is achieved on the division of oil revenues and a transition period completed. All this is going to take time.
As question-begging for the SNP is whether it can count on an acquiescent business community through the marathon of constitutional disengagement and the attention of the Scottish government across every department to the legal and accounting minutiae of break-up through this period. It is not inconceivable that a second reaffirming referendum may be required on the outcome of negotiations and that by then voters may have wearied of the whole business. This could plunge Scotland into a political and constitutional crisis and it is at this stage that business and financial confidence may break.
And then there is the question that this week dare not speak its name: the future of the SNP in the event of a No vote. Few attendees are likely to admit the legitimacy of such a question when the answer to the first can be nothing other than Yes. But others are certain to ask it in the months ahead. And the SNP, anxious as it will be to secure a third-term victory in the subsequent Holyrood election, will not wish its position to be pre-determined by the surmise of non-believers.
These are the troubling questions that lie just beneath the surface of this week’s conference. They do not take anything away from its historic significance, the astonishing political achievement that it marks.
Here is truly a fork in the road in Scotland’s story. But the road beyond is by no means straight. It winds, it bends, it twists, it climbs, and a dense fog threatens. And its length will test the stamina of all. Next year is no finishing line. To quote another leader whose spirit Mr Salmond may now need to summon: we are not at the end, or even the beginning of the end, but only the end of the beginning.