SNP leadership race: The wrong choice risks betraying the party's achievements in turning Scottish independence into a real possibility – Joyce McMillan

As a stateless nation, Scotland is always something of a once and future country; but as SNP members may be about to learn to their cost, the balance between past and future is critical, in campaigning for any kind of 21st-century independence.

As a child of the 1950s, I am old enough to remember those post-war decades when the future seemed to belong unequivocally to a reborn postwar Britain, divesting itself of Empire, and reinventing itself as a late 20th-century welfare state that nurtured its citizens from cradle to grave.

By the 1960s, that postwar culture had begun to bear tremendous fruit in the shape of a youth-led cultural revolution that was briefly the envy of the world, as The Beatles took Europe and America by storm, and swinging London became the centre of a world where old class distinctions seemed gone out for good, and the possibilities for change seemed limitless. That all of this had negative psychological consequences for Scotland, and Scottish culture, was obvious; in that, for most of the time it simply seemed – from the perspective of a west of Scotland council house – as if all the action was elsewhere. And as a teenager, I knew that if I wanted a life that was glamorous, powerful, sexy and international – rather than provincial, dowdy, couthy and boring, like the White Heather Club on telly – then I would not be having it in Scotland, but in London, and beyond.

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The story of the rise of the SNP is intimately connected with the story of how that changed, and of how a people brought up to see Scotland as a country of the past began instead to see it as a country of the future; a place not less capable than the UK of embracing a liberal, international, prosperous and sustainable future, but actually, in many ways, more capable – richer, smaller and more agile.

The staging-posts of that journey are well known, beginning with the 1970s discovery of North Sea oil, and continuing through the coming of Margaret Thatcher, the huge 1980s counter-explosion of cultural vitality in Scotland, and the long campaign for a Scottish Parliament, which formulated plans for a 21st-century parliament that we hoped would be world-leading in areas such as equal representation for women, and a fairer electoral system.

The SNP, meanwhile, was modernising its own vision of independence, embracing the idea of “independence in Europe”; and as the shine gradually wore off the New Labour project, Alex Salmond added to that sense of the SNP as a party of social progress by positioning himself always slightly to the left of UK Labour, winning his reward in 2007, when the SNP scooped up thousands of disillusioned Labour voters across central Scotland to emerge as the country’s largest party. And throughout Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, the party has – to all outward appearances – remained absolutely committed to that progressive agenda.

Absolutely committed, that is, until now; for bizarrely, after Nicola Sturgeon’s sudden resignation, the current leadership contest has thrown up two out of three candidates who seem at best unenthusiastic about the political positioning that has brought the party so much electoral success. Ash Regan, with her constant emphasis on electoral strategies for independence, clearly belongs to that section of the Yes movement which simply has no clue how little most voters care about independence as an issue in itself.

And following Kate Forbes’s campaign so far, I find myself increasingly baffled as to why she felt able to serve in Nicola Sturgeon’s government at all, given her views on social issues such as equal marriage, and her clear aspiration to a supposedly “business friendly” Tory-style economic policy that puts conventional economic growth first, and always leaves desirable social and environmental ends until later.

Ash Regan, left, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are vying to be the next SNP leader (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/AFP via Getty Images)Ash Regan, left, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are vying to be the next SNP leader (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Ash Regan, left, Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are vying to be the next SNP leader (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not only that these positions depart widely from the policies on which Forbes and every other SNP MSP were elected less than two years ago. It’s that, in embracing some of these positions, particularly on social policy, she is also reviving and feeding the old, deeply disempowering unionist notion that Scotland is some kind of traditionalist backwater, by definition less capable than the UK as a whole of surviving and thriving in the modern world. A poll released by yesterday by Ipsos Mori tells a story, of which SNP members should beware; in that it suggests that Forbes is twice as popular with voters over 55 as with those under 34, and therefore risks losing the SNP one of its greatest assets, in the votes and support of Scotland’s younger generation.

It is of course unfortunate, for those SNP members unhappy with the current organisation of the party, that the two candidates who offer a “new broom” both also offer policies that would deeply damage the party at the ballot box. Nonetheless, the raw politics of the situation suggest that their best choice, for now, is to stick with “continuity candidate” Humza Yousaf, who is at least willing to defend the record of Scotland’s recent elected governments.

That choppy waters lie ahead for the SNP is certain, after 16 years in government, and in the face of a resurgent Labour party. A retreat to the fundamentalist margins of Scottish politics, though, or a wild-goose chase after indy-curious centre-right voters, who are far less numerous in Scotland than the critical mass of centre-left voters, would be a huge error of judgment.

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For it would be a betrayal – not only of the SNP’s huge achievements of the last 16 years, in advancing Scottish independence from the status of a pipe-dream to that of a real political possibility – but far more importantly, also of the very spirit of the outward-looking, modern nation for whose interests the SNP claims to speak, and which Nicola Sturgeon, as national leader, often embodied with such effortless eloquence and warmth, both at home, and on the global stage.



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