Scottish independence: Why SNP may need to ditch its ‘one more heave’ approach – Stewart McDonald

Constructive engagement with a new Labour government would not be at odds with efforts to achieve independence

For most people, birthdays are a time to reflect, to gaze wistfully into the past. As the SNP marks its 90th anniversary this week, it has little time for this sort of reminiscing. We, in the SNP, in Scotland, and in the West, are standing on the precipice of a world-historical, political and economic realignment, and my party must be ready to move with it and shape Scotland’s part of it. We must ask ourselves: what do we want the SNP to look like at 100?

The party’s ability to adapt and evolve has long been one of our strengths. As Kenny Farquharson noted in The Times this week, three big changes – the embrace of Europe in the 1980s, of devolution in the 1990s, and of Nato in the 2010s – have shown the party’s ability to navigate shifts in public opinion and the political landscape. These strategic changes, where we elevated the national interest over the party’s interest, proved essential to the making of the modern SNP. We chose to be effective over being comfortable. We chose to move forward over standing still.

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Today we are at a similar turning point, where we must again get out of our comfort zone and make the independence argument more relevant to the new age and seek a way forward that’s in tune with the public, not one that talks over them.

As the SNP marks its 90th anniversary, it may need to rethink strategies that have frustrated many in the independence movement (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)As the SNP marks its 90th anniversary, it may need to rethink strategies that have frustrated many in the independence movement (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
As the SNP marks its 90th anniversary, it may need to rethink strategies that have frustrated many in the independence movement (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Ghost at our feast

As we hurtle towards 100, we must all think seriously about the kind of changes needed to ready Scotland for the challenges to come. Brexit, populism, a global pandemic, and the tearing at the seams of globalisation necessarily means our arguments must change. That’s before we consider the impact of new technologies, climate change, ageing populations and the insecure world we want Scotland to enter. Constitutional reform which doesn’t answer the new global age results in kailyard politics. We can’t address the challenges of the next ten years by offering solutions to the challenges of the last 50 years.

The 2022 Supreme Court decision made clear that a second referendum cannot take place without the UK Government's consent. This is the ghost at our feast. Historically this has not been the disadvantage to the SNP that it could have been: inertia and a certain disinterest in Scotland from past Conservative governments have largely allowed the SNP and others to set the terms of the constitutional debate.

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That will change after the general election. Gordon Brown’s 155-page Commission on the UK's Future may well set alarm bells ringing in the SNP (if also the Labour party), but we must have a plan to engage with it. Whilst it’s certainly the case that the commission offers little for my party to make common cause with, if it is to be a Labour government’s starting point in one way or another, we will need to be prepared to shape the legislation that follows. The days when constitutional change could be framed in the old 2014 terms – which was, in some ways, an old-fashioned debate about nationhood – are rapidly eroding. A new political reality is here for the making.

A third way

Let me first still the beating hearts of the fundamentalists in our movement because this is not to say that we dilute our desire for independence – far from it – but we will need a strategy that’s fit for the terms of the future. That is, for the first time in modern history, a government in Westminster with the power and mandate to engage in constitutional reform across the UK outwith the yes/no binary. A third way, if you will.

I don’t expect Labour to be radical change makers; we already know Starmer isn’t shining on everything Brown is proposing, and even what he is proposing isn’t enough. So, although we go into this election arguing again for the right to a referendum, we should also consider how we would codify the circumstances under which such a vote could be held, by amending the Scotland Act. This would have the advantage of allowing us to advance the national question by enshrining the right of Scots to choose independence in law, which would also allow the Scottish Government to focus on the business of the day: driving down poverty, modernising our public services and tackling the economic insecurity felt up and down the country.

There is also something to be said for moving beyond the psychology of 2014 and birthing a fresh intellectual space. We would see an end to the ‘one more heave’ for independence approach that is rolled out at each election, which has frustrated too many in our movement and exhausted the very voters across the country that we need to convince. I readily accept that this won’t be an easy message for some in my party and the wider independence movement to hear.

Self-imposed orthodoxy

It’s a process that, if taken up, will necessarily be difficult. But it boils down to the choice of being effective or staying in an old comfort zone. Constructive engagement with any Labour government demonstrates a willingness to move Scotland forward: there is no contradiction between pragmatic attempts to work with the UK Government and go well beyond cosmetic change, and a continued commitment to achieving independence.

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Turning 90 is an important milestone for my party and, as much as I am wont to believe every moment we spend looking backwards is a moment wasted, the desire to learn from our history is understandable and healthy. But let’s not misread that history, which demonstrates we’re at our best when we challenge ourselves, push our own boundaries and upend self-imposed orthodoxies.

“More of the same” has never worked for the SNP in the past. Instead, that trinity – of political acuity, adaptability, and the occasional dash of iconoclasm – has been the formula for our modern political success. Let us confidently face the next decade with that lesson in mind.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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