Marco Biagi: SNP must now lead as a government

Alex Salmond outside his home in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, yesterday. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond outside his home in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, yesterday. Picture: PA
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SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: The day after the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty the leader of the nationalist Parti Quebecois and premier of the province, Jacques Parizeau, resigned.

Overshadowed and outperformed by fellow nationalist Lucien Bouchard during the campaign, and accused of ­intemperate remarks in his concession speech, Parizeau had had no choice. Alex ­Salmond did.

The First Minister’s performances – for all the criticism in the first debate levelled by opponents – contributed to the dramatic narrowing of the polls across the final month of the campaign. In our referendum a panoply of articulate new pro-independence voices emerged – few of them elected politicians – but Salmond remained the pre-eminent figure on the Yes side. There are no moments detractors can point to – no great mistakes, no wrong turns or strategic errors. In short, the First Minister could have continued to be so for as long as he wanted.

Thursday’s vote was a choice for Scotland. In the coming weeks there will be a choice for the SNP. Not just about who will be leader but about what kind of a party we are. To our bones we are a party whose members each believe independence is the path to the kind of Scotland we want to live in. However, while we agree on the route there is more diversity in where we think that route leads. And for some there is less interest in what is at the destination than just getting there. In a political system that demands unity, our unifier is independence.

Thursday’s vote has however irrevocably changed the calculus. Scotland’s firm No was the product not of a small clique of bribed representatives in an eighteenth century debating chamber, but of incessant and universal discussion that left no soul unsearched. My one August Saturday evening of rest saw me in a bar where not only my table’s conversation but those of every table around us were about the referendum.

A pledge of another referendum in the next SNP manifesto is now inconceivable. For the first time since 1979 no ­direct route map to independence will be laid before voters, but nor will it be laid before members and activists.

We are without rivals as the best advocates of Scotland’s interests where they are distinct. Voters motivated mainly by constitutional change will see us as the best way of keeping the UK parties honest on devolution or the aim of eventual independence alive. But that is the platform of a party of protest rather than a party of government, and it is a platform that has notably failed to impress in recent elections to the UK Parliament. Many Scots will now want to move on, not least those who gave their support to Yes not because of independence in and of itself but because of what it was suggested we would do with it. These voters too will be interested in what can be done with new powers as much as whether they come.

A Yes campaign that openly and unashamedly spoke of tackling not just poverty but inequality briefly took a lead in opinion polls. In the end Yes won not just greater numbers of supporters at the ballot box than the SNP in our 2011 landslide but more votes than all those cast for the SNP and ­Labour combined in that election. The independence vote tally was just two thousand per constituency short of the 1997 Yes-Yes vote to create a Scottish Parliament. We must not let the greater number of Nos make us forget that there were a great number of Yeses.

One question arises – was the tendency of the Yes movement to be so open to the language and colour of the progressive left why we fell short and won the support of only 45 per cent of voters? Or was it why we won as many as 45 per cent? Glass half full or glass half empty? But also – does it matter if this is what we actually believe in?

Campaigning for a Yes vote was for me an incredibly energising experience. The prospect of changing flags above buildings – potent symbol though that may be – inspired less than being afforded a break with the past and a fresh start to imagine a better Scotland. In a diverse campaign a thousand flowers bloomed (and sadly one or two weeds).

But as light rose Scotland woke from our Nordic dream to the sad realisation that the restoration of full nationhood is now at best a long-term project. The opportunities that vote afforded to change the ­political terms of trade firmly to egalitarianism were gone.

The fresh start of Scotland’s most successful party leader stepping down is not the one I or any of us wanted, but everyone in the SNP now must use it to decide who we are in this after-the-referendum world, and how we can maintain the energy we showed before it.

Those of us who believe in independence for a purpose rather than in and of itself now must look at how best to achieve that. Perhaps we should also more openly recognise the diversity of those purposes. And our parliament, frustratingly confined though its powers are and will continue to be even on the most generous package, will remain the place where Scotland’s distinct aspirations are given life. If there is to be a ‘Scotinavia’ it must somehow be born there.

So as a party, however much we argue for more powers, it will be the coherent vision of what we intend to do with them that will decide our success in Scotland’s parliament. Together both will ­decide the kind of Scotland created in decades to come.

Marco Biagi is the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central

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