Joyce McMillan: SNP being outflanked by electable Labour party

A timely paradigm of the Tories' defiant Unionism as the Queen Elizabeth begins her sea trials in the North Sea.
A timely paradigm of the Tories' defiant Unionism as the Queen Elizabeth begins her sea trials in the North Sea.
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Nationalists are being outflanked on the left by a party with a chance of winning a general election writes Joyce McMillan

On Tuesday morning, the UK’s huge new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, eased its way out of its dock at Rosyth, and into the Firth of Forth. Throughout a long day, with thousands lining the shores, it waited for a tide low enough to allow it to pass, mast lowered, under the three Forth Bridges; then just before midnight, it began to move out to sea.

And in many ways, the vessel looked like a pretty apt symbol of the UK, at this point in its history; one of the world’s wealthy nations, still capable of great technological achievements, but arming itself against what it perceives as an increasingly hostile world, in a way that is both defiant, and a little old-fashioned. In that sense, the Queen Elizabeth’s stately progress down the Forth seemed to fit the mood of gung-ho, slightly retro Unionism that has gripped some parts of the Scottish electorate in recent months, since Nicola Sturgeon made her famous post-Brexit call for a second independence referendum; and when the First Minister stood up in the Scottish Parliament that same afternoon, to make a statement about the future of her referendum policy following her party’s losses in the recent general election, the image of that big, well-funded battleship of reinvigorated Unionism doubtless loomed large in her mind.

There was, of course, little she could do to change her policy on giving the Scottish people another choice about their future, once the outcome of the Brexit process becomes clear. Even leaving party considerations aside, the implications of Brexit for Scotland’s economy, and for the future of its people, are so grave that it would simply be wrong, in democratic terms, not to keep the option on the table; and the First Minister has gone as far as she reasonably could, in recognising the current lack of appetite for another vote, by delaying the timetable for the referendum bill in the Scottish Parliament, and making it clear that there will be no referendum before the end of Brexit negotiations, in 2019.

If all the SNP currently had to deal with, in other words, was a policy-light, flag-waving Tory opposition noisily suggesting that Scotland should submit without question to whatever Brexit deal Theresa May’s government chooses to negotiate, they would be in a relatively strong position. There are two other factors, though, that are now seriously troubling the SNP, and causing the party to look more ill-at-ease with itself than at any time in the last decade.

The first is the sheer pressure of incumbency, and the deterioration in the SNP’s responsiveness and openness that comes with the bunker mentality of a long-serving and much-criticised government. In truth, the SNP’s record of competence in office is not that hard to defend. Yet being constantly on the defensive is an exhausting and unattractive position; and not one from which it is easy to lead the kind of inspiring quest for Scotland’s independent future that the First Minister mentioned towards the end of Tuesday’s speech.

And then even more significantly, the SNP is now facing an unexpected and massive strategic challenge, in that since the appearance of the Corbyn Labour manifesto back in May, and Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in the general election, it has been outflanked on the left, for the first time in 25 years, by a major UK political party with a chance of winning a general election. As the SNP discovered on 8 June, for many Scottish voters this changes everything; in their quest for a social-democratic party to support, they will switch from Labour to the SNP when Labour moves too far to the right, but also from the SNP to Labour, if they believe a centre-left Labour Party has a chance of winning power at Westminster.

And it is this challenge, I suspect - and not the reactionary Unionism of the Tories - that is truly wrong-footing the SNP, and taking the ideological spring out of its step. Back in the glory days of 2015, the SNP was effectively leading the anti-austerity movement in the UK, and reaping the electoral benefits in that year’s general election. Now, Jeremy Corbyn is leading that movement; and doing it in a relaxed, open-necked-shirt style, with little spin and plenty of principle, that is hugely appealing to younger voters, and that makes the SNP look just that little bit last-decade, even a little bit Blairite, both in style, and in their political attempt to be all things to all people.

The First Minister is no-one’s fool, of course; and there are signs that she is beginning to understand the scale of the challenge she now faces, in finding a place for the SNP in this changed landscape. As she suggested in her speech on Tuesday, this is a time for her party - controlled for the past few years by far too small a group around the First Minister - to open up to the wider debate within the pro-independence movement about Scotland’s possible futures; and also, perhaps, to the current thoughts of some of the brilliant strategists who helped steer it to its recent success.

And meanwhile, the surrounding political circumstances remain so subject to rapid change that it is difficult to predict what the lie of the land will be next spring, never mind by the summer of 2019. We may be entering a period when Brexit could be derailed or reversed altogether; or the Tory government may survive, with DUP support, and press on towards a disastrous hard Brexit.

And if this minority UK government falls any time soon, then another general election may bring an era of Labour government more left-wing than anything we have seen since Attlee. If that happens, then every existing bet in British and Scottish politics will be off. And the SNP, like every other party, will be sailing in uncharted waters; in search of brand new ways of framing the idea of Scottish self-government for an age beyond austerity, when the neoliberal consensus that has dominated our western world since the late 1970s is finally broken, and the great political pendulum swings again.