Allan Massie: We need young voices speaking up for the Union

Despite SNP success, there is no clamour for independence. But the tide is moving in that direction, and its opponents have to prepare

THE SNP has a mandate to govern Scotland for the next five years. In May, the party achieved what the system had been devised to prevent, or at least make very unlikely: an overall majority in the parliament. The electoral system wasn't actually adopted to thwart the Nationalists. On the contrary, its purpose was to prevent one-party rule by Labour. Without the PR element laid out in the green paper Scotland's Parliament, Labour would not have secured the wholehearted support of the Liberal Democrats and the SNP in the 1997 referendum. Neither party would have backed an electoral system that would then have been likely to give Labour an overall majority in the new parliament. The SNP has, however, achieved that, and can therefore govern as it chooses, within the limits set by the Scotland Act. No-one can dispute this. Alex Salmond has power, and also authority.

Yet it's instructive to compare two elections: this year's for the Scottish Parliament, and last year's for Westminster. Which did the Scottish people think the more important? Clearly, Westminster. The turnout last year was 63.8 per cent. That figure was matched in only one Holyrood constituency and the overall turnout was just over 50 per cent. More people voted for a parliament in which the 59 Scottish MPs make up less than 10 per cent of members than for one charged with the internal government of Scotland.

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The 20010 general election showed no clamour for Scottish independence. The SNP got 20 per cent of the vote, in contrast to its 45 per cent in the Holyrood election. The three unionist parties got 77 per cent of the Westminster vote, as against just over 50 per cent of the Holyrood one.

Nationalists may object that the comparison is unfair. They may say it is natural people should vote for parties capable of forming the UK government as long as Scotland remains in the Union, because the decisions of that government will have an effect on their prosperity. The Holyrood result, they may argue, offers a fairer reflection of opinion.

There is something in this argument. It shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. There is, however, an interesting historical comparison. In the 19th century, as the demand for Irish home rule intensified, the unionist parties - Liberals and Conservatives - were swept aside in much of Ireland. The 1885 general election, for instance, saw 86 Irish home rulers returned to Westminster where, as it happened, they held the balance of power. The SNP has never come close to matching this. Its best general election result was achieved in October 1974, when it won 11 out of the then 72 Scottish seats.It is reasonable to conclude that, up to now at least, we have shown ourselves fairly well-disposed to devolution (home rule) but, by a considerable majority, opposed to independence; that we are happy to have a SNP government at Holyrood ("Alex Salmond for First Minister"), but no more than that

This may change, as Mr Salmond is convinced it will. Admittedly, the demand for independence was not prominent in he SNP's election campaign, which concentrated, first, on the party's ability to offer good government, and, second, on the need to take devolution forward by securing further powers for the Scottish government and parliament. Of course, everybody who voted SNP knows the party's ultimate aim is independence, but the increase in its vote doesn't necessarily mean support for independence has risen accordingly. The SNP benefited from the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (from 16.2 to 7.9 per cent in the constituencies) and the more modest fall in the Tory one (from 16.6 to 13.9 per cent). In contrast, though Labour lost seats everywhere, its constituency vote actually held firm, falling only by 0.4 per cent since 2007. One may fairly judge that many who voted SNP were voting against Labour - and against the coalition government at Westminster. The unpopularity of the coalition here in Scotland may well boost support for independence.

Yet one wonders just how many people, outside the political class and the media (which must now include those who make their opinions known by way of the internet) are greatly interested in the question. How many, indeed, are interested in politics at all? After all, almost half the electorate didn't trouble themselves to vote last month. So one may conclude that they don't much care. Apathy is at least as common as enthusiasm, perhaps a good deal more common. The SNP is in power thanks to the votes of one Scot in four - 25 per cent of the electorate. My own guess is the independence question isn't often aired in pubs or around the kitchen table. People may be stirred by political issues - the Iraq war was one, climate change has been another - but interest in what happens at Holyrood, and at Westminster, too, is at a low ebb. We have many of us contracted out. Even the 1997 referendum was ignored by almost four Scots in ten. When, a year or so after devolution became a reality, Donald Dewar complained to a newspaper editor about what he considered inadequate coverage of the new parliament, he got the reply: "Whenever I put it on the front page, I sell fewer papers".

None of this means Mr Salmond won't achieve his aim, and do so by advancing cautiously step by step until the final leap to independence is a very small one. Things are certainly going his way, and nothing shows this more clearly than the inability of the unionist parties to offer a convincing - and positive - defence of the Union.Suggestions that a pro-Union movement should be led by former cabinet ministers such as John Reid or Michael Forsyth show just how bare the cupboard is. With all due respect, these are yesterday's men - or, in the case of Lord Forsyth, quite a bit before yesterday's man. So, to put them or their likes at the head of a pro-Union campaign would make the Union look like yesterday's cause.

To be effective, any unionist movement must be led by men and women of a younger generation, people who are seen to belong to the future, rather than politicians whose careers, however distinguished they may have been, are now history. But who are such leaders? Where are they to be found? There is no sign of them either in Holyrood or Westminster.