Jim Sillars: Why SNP's small thinking is a very big mistake

HOW would one describe the SNP election campaign so far? Anaemic. The party seems lethargic, unable to create any sense of a Great Purpose in voting for it.

On top of lacking energy and drive, its campaign is narrow and parochial, and based on a falsehood. "More Nats fewer cuts" (the correct grammar) has all the inspiration of a flat pancake.

In a pamphlet I published last November, I described the SNP leadership as having fallen into the trap of managerialism, into which they walked deliberately in 2007 when forming the "government" at Holyrood. We were to travel ever upwards towards the political heights as our ministers proved themselves so much more articulate and competent than Labour and the Lib Dems who had gone before them. This managerial skill would build an unassailable credibility for which the people would reward them, whenever called to the ballot box.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It was always a stupid idea, because the administration at Holyrood is not a government. It is, as described in the Scotland Act, merely an executive. An executive whose function it is to allocate a block grant over the size of which it has no influence. But that reality was to submit to the political fiction of a "government" capable, as the boast was, you may recall, of getting Scotland's growth rate above that of the UK.

Unfortunately, the Scots bought the fiction. If people keep proclaiming themselves a government, who can blame the people for believing them and, logically, expecting more from them than from a more modest executive.

The collapse of RBS and HBOS is a good example of an executive getting blame that should attach only to a government. Alex Salmond took a hammering on the financial crisis, from which the SNP has not yet fully recovered; yet his administration had no hand in the monetary and regulatory policies that led to the shambles.

It was predictable that once the Barnett bonanza had passed its peak, the SNP government would be forced to make unpopular choices over expenditure. So, we had the bizarre situation in the last Glasgow by-election of the SNP taking a drubbing at the hands of Labour, the real government and guilty party, over an alleged anti-Glasgow bias in its spending plans. Those early managerialists were blind to a truth – that when a government starts to make what the public perceive as mistakes, it doesn't gain, but loses, credibility and support.

One might have thought, after Glasgow, that there would be a reconsideration of the managerialism strategy. But no, the General Election campaign is proof that the leadership is still in its grip. The idea of hanging Westminster by a rope – more Nats fewer cuts – is pure managerialism. A game of arithmetic and draught board manoeuvre.

There are two obvious, indeed glaring, factors that make more Nats fewer cuts a dangerous nonsense for the SNP. First, it implies what we all know is not true – that it will be possible to shelter Scotland from the action necessary to reduce the level of UK debt now heading towards 1.4 trillion in 2014.

No part of a unitary state can be excused the pain of fiscal adjustment, and deep cuts in public spending are inevitable in every part of the state. whatever government is elected on 6 May, in order to persuade our real masters, the financial markets, to keep lending, and keep lending at reasonable rates of interest.

The party members may not have noticed, but in this election, as in a string of past ones, the SNP is not seeking a vote for independence. It is campaigning within the context of the British state, has done nothing to challenge the legitimacy of that state in Scotland, and so must face the cuts to be imposed by those who control that state.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The world as we knew it, of the public services awash with great oceans of cash, is no more. It died in 2008. We are now in the age of European austerity at a time when economic power is shifting from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific region. This presents immense challenges to find, for Scotland, a place in the new global economy. "More Nats fewer cuts" is a sad exposure of small thinking when faced with such big issues.

The second factor is that as soon as Westminster is settled in, we enter the year of the Holyrood elections. That election becomes a political priority for all three unionist parties. It is in their combined interests to marginalise the SNP at Westminster, and thus diminish the standing of Alex Salmond and the party as a whole. For them to bend to any SNP demand in a hung parliament would enhance his and the party's reputation. That they will never do.

Alex claims he is just about the one person in the whole of the UK with experience of minority government. Not so. My generation went through the 1974-79 experience. Even if arithmetically, the SNP appear the swing votes in London in 2010, it is easily dealt with. I recall many occasions when there was an agreement between the whips of all big parties, to fix numbers, through abstentions or MPs just going missing, to frustrate a small party, or save a government.

The SNP can never be good at fashioning policies within the context of the British state. It is a contradiction in basic politics for a party whose main purpose is independence to try to do so. There is no fire in the SNP belly, because campaigning to inject a parochial bargaining tactic into a British election is an enervating experience, not an energising one.

It could have been so different. Within the party, and the media, people like me who argue that every election be seized as an opportunity to build the case, and vote, for independence are dismissed as "fundamentalists" – the crazy gang faction.

It is, however, true that if the SNP had used the past three years to develop policies for independence in this new world, and fought this election to divorce an independent Scotland from a bankrupt British state, it would be a very big issue, a very different SNP campaign and a very different election in Scotland.

We fundamentalists must hope that Holyrood 2011 will be produce that kind of difference.