Peter Jones: SNP on the horns of a polar dilemma
Alex Salmond cannot please all of the people all of the time, and the consequences for his party could yet be severe, writes Peter Jones
Listening to a couple of nationalist intellectuals last week, I heard one of them critically sum up where the SNP has got to in its drive to win the 2014 independence referendum. “The problem,” he said, “is that we are polarising not unifying.” It is an interesting comment, because it homes in on a political truth about constitutional reform and encapsulates why, if Alex Salmond stays on the current track, he is not going to win the vote.
Polarisation is rarely a good tactic. You can see why by looking at the current debate on gay marriage. This highly polarised debate between two politically astute groups – the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LBGT) lobbies and the Catholic church – looks to have no compromise that bridge a gaping divide. The details of this are discussed elsewhere on these pages today by Alex Wood, but I just want to note that pushing the issue into long grass, claiming that UK legislation on equal rights causes insuperable difficulties, won’t work as a defusing tactic for the SNP government. Sooner or later, one side or the other, or maybe both, will want to know what Mr Salmond will do should he win the independence referendum vote, putting him right back where he is now with polarised opinion. If, for example, he tells the LBGT lobby that he will legislate to allow gay marriage in an independent Scotland, he creates a strong motive for the Catholic church to campaign against independence.
Such polarities are anathema to Mr Salmond’s cause. He would much rather be a unifier. He has managed that incredibly cleverly in order to win two terms of office at Holyrood for the SNP, first as a minority and then as a majority government. By being energetic, willing to listen and engage, and quick to shell out taxpayers’ money on abolishing bridge tolls, prescription charges, and back-end student tuition fees while freezing the unpopular council tax, he and his party did not just win impressive support, but also embedded themselves firmly in Scottish society.
But the unification trick is just not working with independence. Part of the reason, I cannot help thinking, is the personal abuse that is meted out by the SNP’s more zealous supporters in anonymous cyber messages posted in response to articles which are the slightest bit critical of the SNP or independence.
I get plenty of it. Having been abused by supporters of all parties whenever they have been in government, I am unworried. But any floating voter who comes across it, I imagine, cannot help but conclude that nationalists are narrow-minded, intolerant types, about as open to rational debate as the Pope is to, well, gay marriage.
This is a symptom of a deeper problem for the SNP. Independence is unlike any other political issue because it touches everything, even, as I have suggested above, gay marriage. It isn’t just a question of laying hands on a few tax levers, everything could be affected by it.
True believers seem to believe that means everything will be better. But most people are not such zealots, and in a highly uncertain world where there are almost daily warnings of some new economic apocalypse, it isn’t hard for people to conclude that independence will be bad for their interests, however wide or narrow those interests may be. Current circumstances, therefore, rather than some set of insuperable flaws with the whole idea of independence, would seem to be responsible for creating a polarising environment which even Mr Salmond’s undoubted skills find hard to cope with.
Actually, circumstances are worsening with the even more basic problem of having to define independence in some detail, which the SNP has never had to do before. The lack of clarity has meant that people with strong single-issue politics – such as being anti-nuclear weapons – have found it easy to join because that’s what the SNP policy also is.
But now the SNP has to translate that principle into detailed policy, which isn’t easy. There has to be a practical method of removing Trident from the Clyde and now, because Mr Salmond wants to reassure the uncommitted, a practical way of staying in Nato, a nuclear-armed alliance.
That is perfectly possible in theory but the problem is that it may polarise opinion in the SNP, offending those members who believed independence would wash Scottish hands free of nuclear weapons, even those in more distant hands.
The template for achieving constitutional reform was created by the Constitutional Convention process, which over a period of six years managed to bring together Labour and the Liberal Democrats plus significant sections of Scottish society such as the trade unions and the churches. It managed to override apparently polarising issues, such as Liberal Democrat attachment (and Labour hostility) to proportional representation, to create a unifying proposition. This became so powerful that eventually the SNP, which had denounced the whole idea from the beginning, had little option but to join the consensus and advocate its adoption in the 1997 referendum.
This is just simply not the case with independence. Rather than being a rolling stone which is gathering speed and weight, it looks to be a boulder which is crumbling under the pressure of conflicting arguments and viewpoints.
Mr Salmond’s attempts to reassure wider public opinion that independence is non-threatening by tactics such as supporting the continuation of sterling as Scotland’s currency, are criticisable not just by opponents, but also by non-aligned interests such as the financial services industry.
But, rather crucially, they also seem to be creating division within nationalist ranks. This is at its most obvious with his hopes of engineering a second question on the ill-defined option of devo-max or devo-plus, now denounced by the Scottish Greens and independent nationalist Margo MacDonald. If a Constitutional Convention-type consensus was meant to coalesce around this, it appears to have dispersed. How much unease there is will become apparent at the SNP’s autumn conference. Perhaps, by then, Mr Salmond will have worked some magic to put his show back on the road. But at the moment, his tactics seem to be polarising both the country and his party, the worst possible foundation for achieving constitutional reform.