Peter Jones: Divisions multiply SNP’s problems

Alex Salmond's independence proposals are at odds with some party members' aspirations. Picture: PAAlex Salmond's independence proposals are at odds with some party members' aspirations. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond's independence proposals are at odds with some party members' aspirations. Picture: PA
SCOTTISH Nationalism is unusual amongst political parties in having a membership which divides less over points of principle than it does over tactics.

What is developing now, however, in the run-up to the referendum is a division over dogma which spells serious trouble ahead for the party if the leadership is not able to either bridge the divide or contain it.

The problem with principles is that they are the founding aims of a party. In the SNP’s case, that principle is easy to spot – independence for Scotland. It is easy to say, and easy for people with otherwise widely differing political views to coalesce around. But defining the nuts and bolts of what actually constitutes a state of independence is a lot harder.

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History is littered with examples of parties that have torn themselves apart over such basic matters and rendered themselves unelectable as a result. Labour managed it spectacularly in the 1980s.

After defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the Labour party went into a paroxysm of self-examination. The Labour left argued, in essence, that the reason Labour was defeated was that it failed to either provide or offer enough socialism.

To a large extent, the left won that debate and the result was the 1983 election manifesto – unilateral nuclear disarmament, taxes on the rich, widespread nationalisation – all printed in vivid red ink and memorably described by moderate Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”.

Today’s Conservative party is beset by the same kind of problem. To traditional Tories, the essence of Conservativism is first to preserve, and secondly to build, a strong nation. The European Union is seen as the antithesis of that. To many Tories, it is the source of innumerable laws and regulations which are offensive in multiple ways. Whether these rules are good or bad for Britain is almost secondary. What matters is that they are believed to be foreign (and therefore bad), that they are not passed by the national parliament (in fact a lot of them are), and that they weaken Britain and the British way of life.

The counter-argument – that many of these laws are necessary for the operation of the single economic market and that, by adopting them, Britain puts itself in a stronger position to benefit from that market – is treated as ridiculous. And as for the contention that if Britain behaved in a positive and constructive way within the EU, the UK might become as economically and politically powerful as Germany, that is also ludicrous because anyone who thinks that surely does not appreciate that the EU is designed to benefit foreigners and do down the British.

The Tories have got themselves trapped within this circular argument and now an in-out referendum on the EU is their only way to break the circle. Turning politics on its head, David Cameron appears to be in the position of appealing to the electorate to resolve the Tory problem for him.

Whatever the outcome of that referendum is (should it indeed take place) – either getting out of the EU or staying in on some new Cameronesque terms – will become the Tory position on Europe.

Alex Salmond’s problem is rather different. He is the first SNP leader to have to construct a detailed model for an independent Scottish state, from the big issues of international relationships down to the nitty-gritty of whether to have a Scottish Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or not. And now quite a lot of those Nationalists with otherwise disparate political views are discovering that they don’t much like the look of the independence he proposes to offer.

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The resignation from the party of two nationalist MSPs over the conference decision that an independent Scotland should be a non-nuclear member of Nato has turned out to be only the first point of departure. Now others, while not quite manifesting themselves as resignation dramas, are appearing.

The biggest so far is currency. Mr Salmond has been quite firm in saying that he expects an independent Scotland to share sterling with the rest of the UK in a two-state currency union. The UK Treasury, or at least Chancellor George Osborne, has said that is “unlikely”. Leaving that to one side, a number of prominent nationalists – former leader Gordon Wilson, deputy leader Jim Sillars, economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert – have argued that Scotland would be better served by having its own currency. With sterling, Scotland would still be under the thumb of the UK Treasury and the Bank of England, both of which institutions are argued to be geared to the interests of City finance and the south-east of England, not Scotland.

So the chief point of objection is that this is not independence. With sterling, Scotland would not be able to do many of the good things that are argued to be the whole point of independence. Well, you could reasonably ask what, in today’s highly inter-dependent world, independence actually is? At what level does independence really exist? Britain is generally regarded as a sovereign state – it certainly has all the trappings of one – but, according to some anti-EU Tories and Ukipites, it is not independent.

Be that as it may, the appearance of this divide in SNP ranks has two effects. The first is that it causes a division which people notice even if opponents are not drawing attention to it. That then creates a question in voters’ minds – why should I vote for this independence Mr Salmond is offering if he can’t convince all of his own party that it is independence? This, I suspect, is depressing the potential Yes vote total as much as are all the problems which the UK government and the No camp are throwing up.

Should this lead, as seems likely from current opinion polling, to a referendum rejection of independence, then the second problem will appear. Some nationalists will argue, rather like the 1980s Labour left, and cheerfully ignoring their own contribution to defeat, that the reason the party lost is that it didn’t offer enough independence. Mr Wilson has already said as much. Years of internal battling will then loom.

No doubt Mr Salmond and his supporters will say this is all nonsense and, of course, they will win the referendum. But to outside observers, the writing has already begun to form on the wall, and the dissenting voices are part of it.