THE received wisdom is that the SNP arrived as a political party on 2 November, 1967, when Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election and famously declared: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”
I disagree. Momentous though that event was, I date the Nats’ arrival as a modern political force to a far more low-key event – the adoption in 1988 of the SNP’s policy on Independence in Europe.
This was the moment Scottish Nationalism turned from a hairy sect into a credible political movement, in large part due to the thinking of the party’s deputy leader at the time, Jim Sillars. He recognised that European economic and political union could destroy key unionist arguments against a sovereign Scotland. In a single market without trade tariffs, there would be no need for customs posts at Gretna Green. With shared European citizenship, no need for passport controls either. Who needed to deal with London when the emerging centre of power was Brussels? And why shouldn’t Scotland have “a seat at the top table”, where, increasingly, the big decisions were being taken?
Sillars recognised that an independent Scotland within the EU would not be the closed, isolationist, introspective kailyard caricatured by the SNP’s opponents. Embracing Europe was, by its very nature, internationalist. This was radical stuff for the hairier members of the SNP, but Sillars’ challenge to them was head-on. “Those narrow minds that weep for lost sovereignty should remember the vale of tears that narrow nationalism dragged Europe’s people through in two wars,” he wrote in a pamphlet. Faced with the possibility of a united Europe, he said, “no nation with a modicum of self-respect and sense of responsibility can stand aside”.
Those words, with their idealism and vision, make interesting reading today, with the continent in chaos, the single currency close to destruction and dark warnings about “the end of Europe”. The SNP’s European dividend has now evaporated. It was good while it lasted – for decades the Nats polled higher in European elections than in any other parliamentary contest. But even before the euro meltdown the shine was coming off. EU fishing quotas were deeply unpopular in the SNP’s Doric heartland. And SNP supporters were not immune to the growing anti-European sentiment among the British public.
The truth for the SNP is that Europe has turned from a shiny badge of modernity into an albatross around the party’s neck. In September this year, SNP cabinet secretary Fiona Hyslop even went so far as to suggest to a Holyrood committee that an independent Scotland might not want to be part of the European Union after all, and might prefer to join Iceland and Liechtenstein in the European Free Trade Association. Has the SNP’s golden European dream really come to this? Apparently so.
And that’s before we factor in the policy implications of the current crisis. Let’s ask ourselves a question: what is the most obvious lesson from the euro shambles? The answer is simple: you cannot have a common currency without a common fiscal policy. That’s why the Eurozone is now headed for an arrangement that one German banker recently described, with evident satisfaction, as “Europe with a German accent”. For most of Europe, national sovereignty is to be sacrificed on the altar of economic stability. How d’you like them apples? Not a lot, is the understandable reply from the SNP.
Any SNP enthusiasm for joining the euro – once a lodestar of party orthodoxy – is increasingly hard to find. Until recently, the Nat leadership would parrot the bland and unconvincing formulation that Scotland would join the euro “when the circumstances were right”. But in a 36-page “guide to independence” published by the SNP this weekend – half a million copies of which will be pushed through Scottish letterboxes in the next few weeks – there is not one single mention of the euro. It is the subject that dare not speak its name.
All of this goes some way to explain the SNP’s new-found enthusiasm for “the social union” within the UK. Nationalist politicians such as Angus Robertson and Pete Wishart assert that we would still be “British”, even after independence. This attempt at recasting relationships within the British Isles is the 2011 equivalent of “Independence in Europe”. With Europe a quagmire of perilously shifting political sands, the SNP needs an alternative way of demonstrating it is not isolationist, introspective and what Sillars used to call “narrowly nationalist”. Embracing the monarchy – and quietly ditching plans for a referendum on becoming a Scottish republic – is part of the same narrative.
Rethinking Britishness leads us to the biggest headache a disintegrating Europe poses for the Nats. To say the very least, a changing Europe changes the script on how Scottish independence would actually work, particularly on what currency it would use. The assumption now is that a “free” Scotland would continue to use sterling, with interest rates determined – irony of ironies – by the Bank of England.
But would this single currency within the UK be sustainable without some German-style central control? Remember – the lesson is that you can’t have a common currency without a common fiscal regime. What prospect is there, therefore, for meaningful financial independence for Scotland if it keeps the pound? Is the SNP’s new-found love of Britishness part of a ploy to play down expectations of what financial independence might entail? And if so, what is the actual difference between this new-style Indy Lite and a stronger form of devolution, such as Devo Max? In the debris of Europe, the shape of a new Scotland is beginning to emerge.