Scottish independence: ‘SNP’s day is coming’
IN 2014, the SNP wants to use the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn as a reminder of Scottish independence and an incentive to reassert that independence.
The modern SNP was founded just a few miles away from the battlefield, in April 1934. It now aspires not to a military victory but a political victory, a victory of rhetoric and policy.
When the SNP was founded, there was a tension between the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. The former favoured independence and the latter favoured devolution. There was also tension between whether the new party, like the National Party, would be left of centre or more right wing.
It is always a problem for a party that supports independence as to whether that is its sole objective, or whether to campaign on a broad front of other issues.
In Ireland for most of the 20th century, this caused problems for Sinn Fein old and new. Of course, there remains the question of what would become of the SNP if Scotland voted for independence.
There is always the possibility of factionalism in such a party, and at times the SNP has fallen victim to such factionalism. In 1979, there was a period that led to a left-wing group – the 79 Group – being denounced and proscribed by the leadership of the party. A key member of that group was Alex Salmond, who later imposed much tighter discipline on the party.
It was in 1982 that the SNP conference banned internal factions. That helped the situation, but splits still occurred between left and right, and between independence as the sole aim or whether the party should be something more.
A key figure in that debate was Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP, who had formed the Scottish Labour Party in 1976, and then joined the SNP, before claiming that Mr Salmond had created a party that had become “intellectually dumb”. The question remains whether there is still disagreement on key issues.
One of these might relate to what independence means. Mr Sillars, for example, was the architect and very much identified with the “independence in Europe” slogan and policy. Independence in Europe was adopted by the SNP as a policy and political slogan in 1989, following publication the previous year of a pamphlet with the same title, written by Mr Sillars.
For many people in the party, this policy and slogan was an oxymoron – how could you be independent in the European Community, when there was qualified majority voting, the beginning of the single market, and maybe the beginning of a single currency?
If “independence in Europe” became a much-used phrase, another was “It’s Scotland’s oil” which was much used by SNP in the 1970s, especially in the two elections of 1974. At that time, it seems to have some success, with the SNP winning 22 per cent of the Scottish vote in February 1974 and 30 per cent in the October election, with 11 seats in the House of Commons.
This success – building upon Winnie Ewing’s famous victory in the Hamilton by-election in November 1967, and Margo MacDonald’s by-election victory in Glasgow Govan in November 1973 – really put devolution and independence on the political agenda.
Labour had already begun to move in the direction of looking to the constitution of the UK by setting up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969, which had reported in 1973 to a Conservative government under Ted Heath.
Although nothing was done, the issues did not go away. One reason for that was the arithmetic at Westminster. Rather like the old days towards the second part of the 19th century, in the 1970s governments either had a small majority or a minority in the House of Commons, forced to make deals with minor parties in order to survive.
On 28 March, 1979, the House of Commons passed a motion of no confidence in the Labour government by one vote, with the SNP voting against the government. This defeat was caused by the referendum on the Scotland Act of 1978, where although there was a majority of 32.9 per cent of the electorate, this did not meet an imposed rule that 40 per cent of the electorate had to support devolution.
Although there were many explanations of the referendum defeat, including the performance of the Scottish football team in the 1978 World Cup, the fact that the SNP had defeated a Labour government did lead to a drop in support, and to renewed claims about the “Tartan Tories”.
That was perhaps ironic, as the defeat of Labour led to the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher, and a Conservative government from 1979 to 1997. But the SNP did suffer – in some people’s eyes – from appearing to be left wing in urban Scotland, and more to the right in rural Scotland.
It took them time to establish themselves as a left-of-centre social democrat party. This has perhaps only been achieved when the SNP has been in government in a devolved Scotland.
Since 1934, or indeed since the emergence of the broader home rule movement in the 19th century, support for home rule or independence has waxed and waned. On many occasions the rise and fall in support for home rule or independence has only partially had to do with what has happened in Scotland.
More generally, it has been about the state of UK politics. But it also has had much to do the impact of personalities in Scotland.
In the past there was Dr Robert McIntyre, who scored the first electoral triumph in Motherwell in 1945, then Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald, Donald Stewart and Jim Sillars.
Donald Dewar was influential in clearing the way for the devolved Scottish Parliament, but more significant has been the emergence of Mr Salmond as the voice and strategist of the SNP.
Scottish politics is partly about issues, partly about what happens in Scotland, partly about the UK and partly about the economy. But perhaps in the next two years it could be more about personalities.
• Trevor Salmon is an emeritus professor in politics at Aberdeen University
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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