THE SNP’s popularity has nothing to do with zealotry and plenty to do with masterly political positioning, writes Joyce McMillan
Another day in the 2015 general election campaign, and another column in which a senior UK commentator takes a look at the opinion poll figures, and concludes that Scotland has gone mad. This time it’s Alex Massie of The Spectator, opining that it is impossible for Unionist parties to complete with the SNP, because it is “a faith-based party whose supporters are animated by quasi-religious zealotry”.
For long-term observers of the British political scene, there is, of course, something altogether satisfying about the sight of the Westminster establishment, and its attendant media, being so thoroughly rattled in Scotland by the logic of their own beloved first-past-the-post system. As one wise observer pointed out some months ago, 45 per cent is an interesting figure in electoral politics. In a straight yes-no poll it delivers a decisive defeat, and in a proportional parliament like the Scottish one it may edge a tiny overall majority; but in the “intentionally lethal” and highly adversarial first-past-the-post system that is Westminster’s pride, it delivers a landslide victory, of the kind the SNP now seems likely to score in Scotland on 7 May.
Hence the panic-button being hit by the advocates of pure reason at Westminster. Self-styled Unionists who have succeeded for 35 years in ignoring the reservations of Scottish voters about the UK’s economic and social direction of travel, they now find themselves, after five more years of dogmatic Tory-led government at Westminster, assailed by a fairly predictable threat of secession; and they respond, rational statesmen that they are, with a mixture of rage, bluster, insult and condescension that often succeeds in explaining in a single sentence exactly why so many in Scotland have simply had enough.
There are plenty of people in England, though, who do not share the blustering response of their political elites and who would like to understand more; and for them, an excellent starting point might be the speech made by Nicola Sturgeon in December 2012, when, as Deputy First Minister, she laid out her own political credo. For the truth is that the SNP’s current popularity has nothing to do with quasi-religious madness, and everything to do with masterly political positioning. In that speech, Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that while she certainly believes Scotland to be a nation, with a full right of self-determination – and even David Cameron would not disagree with her about that – her reason for supporting full political independence has more to do with the cause of social justice.
“For me,” she said, “the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice.” And she went on to explain her conviction that those goals would be easier to deliver in an independent Scotland, than in a UK that had apparently lost its ability to reinvent itself, or even to defend its own best achievements, such as the NHS.
Now of course, it’s possible to argue bitterly and long about whether the SNP’s performance in government measures up to the centre-left principles Nicola Sturgeon so clearly enunciates; and in the run-up to next year’s Scottish election, that argument will rage. Those who want to understand current Scottish politics, though, need to grasp the significance of the position Nicola Sturgeon’s speech reflects. Essentially, the SNP is now a nationalist party which has grasped the fact that most voters are not dogmatic nationalists. Most people care first about their own families, their jobs, their communities; and they judge the state they live in by its ability to support those top human priorities.
In framing herself as a pragmatic social democratic leader of a practical party of independence, Nicola Sturgeon therefore speaks a language with which most voters can immediately identify; she says that nationhood matters, but only as a means to greater and more universal human ends. And in that respect, this 21st-century SNP contrasts sharply with the dogmatic Unionism of the three – or four – main UK parties, which have simply failed to keep pace with the evolution of nationalist politics in Scotland, and often seem to think they can still score points by dismissing the SNP as crypto-Nazis in kilts.
In truth, though, to many observers in Scotland, it now seems as though it’s the parties of the Union who are the unthinking patriots, banging the drum of Britain’s historic glories while refusing to answer the substantive question about the UK’s direction of travel since the 1970s, and dismissing all opponents of the Union as intrinsically malign and evil. The Labour Party, in particular, seems caught in a time warp, apparently convinced that a vote for Ed Miliband at No 10 will magically restore to the UK government all the powers it has willingly ceded, in the past 40 years, to an ever more mighty and ill-governed financial sector.
In the face of these realities, tub-thumping about Britain as a caring, sharing mother of parliaments will cut little ice; just as emotive talk for or against the European Union finally matters far less to voters than its impact on jobs and living standards. All political states are constructed, in other words, and none will last for ever. And if the SNP is currently riding high in Scotland, it’s because the party has understood, for now, that a national community can only flourish, and command respect, if its apparent primary aim is to support and enhance the life of its people, which for most Scots means some form of social democracy.
Otherwise – if the state seems more interested in its own past glories, or the protection of its elites, or the promotion of a global system that often exploits and humiliates people and communities – then the people will begin to look for alternatives. And sooner or later, the old appeals to patriotism will no longer be enough; and will begin to sound hollow, compared with the briskly pragmatic tone of new political structures that are smaller, less tradition-bound, and finally more confident of the support of the people they claim to represent.
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