WILLIAM McIlvanney’s comments about the SNP, quoted in these pages today, are a timely reminder of the biggest question in Scottish politics at the moment.
The man with a strong claim to be the nation’s most celebrated living novelist was weighing up his feelings about party political choices, as he surveyed the Scottish landscape in the aftermath of the independence referendum.
McIlvanney was one of the most cogent voices in the campaign, articulating the case for Yes in a way that was acknowledged – even by many No voters – as having very real moral authority. The 78-year-old saw independence as Scotland’s best chance of honouring the socialist values instilled in him in his Ayrshire upbringing.
McIlvanney now says that although Nicola Sturgeon’s start as First Minister makes him optimistic about the immediate future for Scotland, he is “a hung jury” on the SNP.
His disaffection with the Labour Party is very real, and is a powerful indictment of that party’s inability to convince people that it has stayed true to its founding principles.
And yet there is still this question mark in McIlvanney’s mind about embracing the Nationalists.
The result of the general election in May, north of the Border at least, will rest on how the “hung jury” in the rest of Scotland resolves this dilemma. In particular, attention is focused on around 190,000 voters who have been identified by Labour as having voted for Gordon Brown in 2010 and then voted Yes in the referendum last year.
The big question is whether these voters’ commitment to independence now takes precedence over their other political instincts. Will they vote Labour again on 7 May, seeing their priority as the election of a Labour government at Westminster? Or will they continue to see politics through the prism of the referendum, and instead back the party still fighting for a fully autonomous Scottish state, the SNP?
The polls suggest the latter, with the new Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, still struggling to make an impact, and the SNP on course to win a large majority of Scottish seats at Westminster.
There is a question mark over whether Labour, after alienating even its own supporters during the referendum campaign, has re-established its entitlement to be taken seriously in the debate about Scotland’s future. In the east end of Glasgow yesterday, Murphy held a carefully-staged discussion with both Yes and No voters in an attempt to project the message that after the referendum, both sides of the constitutional divide could now unite to help Labour kick the Tories out of Downing Street.
This should, on paper, be an easier sell than it is proving for Murphy. After all, the received wisdom about Scottish politics is that it is overwhelmingly anti-Tory, and the only alternative to David Cameron as prime minister is Ed Miliband. But Murphy is having trouble leading Scots to what he argues is the only logical position for a general election voter whose priority is to oust Cameron.
His message is facing political interference from an SNP that is keen to suggest that voters can have it both ways – Miliband in Downing Street and a big delegation of Nationalist MPs.
True, most voters have yet to tune in properly to the general election debate, and it is doubtful many have given much thought at all to the practicalities of the various hung parliament scenarios.
So it is still too early to tell whether the defining feature of the general election in Scotland will be a hard-headed examination of how to ditch the Tories, or a sense that 7 May is round two of the closely fought bout on 18 September. All will no doubt become clear in the next ten and a bit weeks.
Questions for Sturgeon on no-strike deal
The right to strike is held to be one of the fundamentals of a pluralist, democratic society. In the UK, an individual cannot be sacked for going on strike if the industrial action in question was organised in the proper lawful manner. And trades unions are protected by law from being sued by employers over loss of revenue that might occur during strike action. A strike – or even the threat of a strike – remains a powerful weapon in workers’ armoury in any confrontation with bosses over pay, conditions and entitlements.
The decision by Michael Matheson, the new justice secretary, to authorise a no-strike deal with the prison officers’ union, POA, in exchange for a hefty pay rise, is therefore unusual, to say the very least.
The Scottish Prison Service will no doubt be pleased at the removal of a possibility that could be seriously disruptive to an essential public service.
But should the Scottish Government really be in the business of effectively buying off workers’ industrial rights?
The fact that the prison officers were one of the few trades unions to back a Yes vote in the independence referendum will inevitably heighten the scrutiny of this arrangement.
The question will be asked whether this was a sweetheart deal that rewarded the POA for its support last year. The absence of a similar arrangement with any other public sector union will make this question all the more searching.
At the very least it is now beholden on the SNP government to make clear whether it will now seek similar deals elsewhere in the public sector. Will ministers seek to ban strikes by ambulance drivers, firefighters or nurses?
More broadly, how does First Minister Nicola Sturgeon square this no-strike deal with her party’s much-trumpeted credentials as the true party of the social democratic left in Scotland?
Much of the Nationalists’ current campaigning rests on the assertion that Labour are actually “Red Tories” who are indistinguishable from the Conservatives on key aspects of economic policy.
And yet this move would seem to place the SNP to the right of Scottish Labour, which yesterday expressed concern at the no-strike arrangement.