ONLY a major calamity or unforeseen scandal can now prevent Nicola Sturgeon from seizing a second term. Only a significant revival in Scottish Labour’s fortunes can deprive her government of its majority in Holyrood, and Labour stands a snowball’s chance in hell of securing that revival. Sitting pretty on an overwhelming lead, under a popular leader, eight years since Jack McConnell lost power by a single seat, the nationalists have never looked stronger, or their opponents weaker.
I’ve yet to meet the Labour activist who has any stomach for this fight. The Tories are chipper but resigned to modest achievements. The Greens are buoyant but aware of their limitations. The capitulation is general. Yet while the politics seem all sewn up, awkward policy questions are beginning to mount up for Sturgeon’s administration in health, education, and policing. Now more than ever, the triumphant SNP needs to cultivate its critical friends. Now more than ever, the party needs to look frankly at its record and stop obsessing about its opponents.
Going on and on about the ancien regime after the guilty heads have taken their tumbril ride to the Place de la Révolution may have its psychological compensations, but it is a blind political alley. Too many nationalists behave like cheated partners who, having taken their unfaithful spouses to task, continue to bring up the dalliance constantly, obsessively. Enough. Scottish Labour has been obliterated.
It was a progressive demolition rather than a big bang, the culmination of decades of alienating choices, bad alliances, and the electorate’s ever more provisional political loyalties. Proportionality in local government gutted the party’s local government base. More P45s for the payroll vote followed in 2007 and 2011. And 2015 leaves behind it the smouldering shell of the once dominant party machine, axle bust, wheels looted. Devolution has, ironically, killed the party stone dead.
But this dead horse will take no more flogging. The party is invertebrate. What more do you want? Even the most tribal nationalist must now understand that the snake has been defanged. And its fate is a lesson in the dangers of becoming pickled into a backward-looking preoccupation with your opponents. Time to turn that critical attention inwards.
The SNP at its best has been open-hearted but hard-headed, up-beat, a party for tall poppies. But UK politics has entered a darker phase. Anger, frustration and minority status under a majority Tory regime has infused nationalist rhetoric with an altogether sourer tone. For some time, it has far more clearly articulated what it is against rather than what it is for. Politically, this has been perfectly effective, but it is thin gruel as a recipe for government.
The book has already been written on Sturgeon’s politics. And 2016 will be a critical test of those predictions. When she acceded to the leadership, the newspaper columns spoke with one voice. Raised in a working class family in small-town Ayrshire, tempered in the Thatcherite politics of the 1980s, here was a leader who would move the SNP decisively to the left. Under her influence, Scottish nationalism would retreat from its traditional bastions of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire, and extend its influence across the populous and social democratic central belt.
But eight months on, the First Minister’s agenda in government remains curiously opaque. In truth, left-Sturgeonism always rested on shaky foundations. One interviewer described the First Minister as an “enamelled” presence, capturing something of her now familiar polite, direct, but guarded personal style. Her first programme for government bore the stamp of her predecessor: an odds-and-sods exercise at the tail end of a long term, long on talk, but also long on political caution. We haven’t yet seen Nicola politically unchained. We don’t know if Nicola wants to be unchained.
The Sturgeon persona and rhetoric have been driven into the heart of British politics. The Sturgeon programme and the policy, by contrast, continues to prove more elusive. The 2016 manifesto will speak volumes. Can we expect a powerful SNP government, given an unprecedented democratic mandate to reshape Scotland, fizzing with ideas, to attack a political mission with zeal? Or will we see a re-run of 2011’s slick but policy-lite “team, record, vision” campaign?
More Tory bashing. More soft social democratic rhetoric. More cuts. More “social partnership”, keeping the third sector on side. More conservative, conflict-averse, incremental and technocratic policy-making. Scottish politics reduced to small-scale budgetary squabbles about how resources should be allocated in a tight spending round.
Time will tell. But independence cannot be the only light on the hill. Government is about coming down to brass tacks. Passion and engagement is important, but noble sentiments feed no children, change no lives, and warm no pensioners. Scottish politics must happen in the Holyrood chamber, and not on the green benches of the Commons.
Its old habits of discipline, and its pachyderm skin, have held the party together through all the hostile years of opposition. But the lessons which sustain you as an embattled minority are not always those you should take to heart when your positions are reversed. So 2016 should be an easy win for the SNP, but the year will also try the party’s soul: what is it for? «