Michael Kelly: SNP’s apparent calm masks divisions

Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon unveiling the referendum date. Picture: Jane Barlow
Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon unveiling the referendum date. Picture: Jane Barlow
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FIRST Minister Alex Salmond’s highly risk-averse case for independence covers a mass of conflicting visions in his party, writes Michael Kelly

It’s the vision thing that is going to do for the SNP in the end. It seems to have come as a late surprise to supporters of independence that to secure the vote they seek in next year’s referendum they need more than a campaign based on greed, grudge and grievance. These three driving forces have been enough to motivate the party’s core support for decades. However, when it comes to the mass of the electorate – especially those new, young voters slipped on to the register – more, much more in the way of spelling out an exciting new future is required.

Last week in this newspaper, George Kerevan, fearing that this golden chance to change will pass by without a whimper, called on the First Minister to provide that inspiration. There are two problems with this, the first being the type of operator Alex Salmond is. He is simply not a conviction politician. George compared him to Margaret Thatcher. I can hardly think of a more inaccurate comparison. Thatcher had a core set of beliefs – most of them wrong – that she stuck to and people eventually admired that steadfastness. Mind you, her pig-headedness could have resulted in her being a one-term prime minister. She was at the depth of her unpopularity when the Falklands crisis came along out of the blue and saved her bacon. There is a big downside to conviction politics.

Salmond, the pragmatist, knows that. He won his two terms in office by playing down the independence issue, not by majoring on it. Now he is running the referendum campaign in the same cautious way, hoping that the less fuss he makes about how independence will change Scotland, the more people will indifferently go along with it. Because as Kerevan admits – and this is one of the few times I have seen this word in print from a nationalist – there are “risks” associated with separation. I would like to hear from nationalists more analysis of these risks. But I won’t, because it would kill their campaign stone dead. Because no electorate likes risks, Salmond’s offer is as risk-averse as you can get. That is his instinct, his style, his personality. He would not be comfortable daring to project a bold, exciting, dangerous, challenging version of independence. Salmond is one reason that the SNP is not going to abandon his campaign’s reassuring blandness.

The second reason that the debate about “the most important decision Scotland is having to make in 300 years” has failed to set the heather on fire is that there is no coherent vision of a different Scotland that can be offered. Not only has the SNP no messenger, there is no message to spread. If this inspirational vision did exist, why has no one else spelled it out? If it were there, we wouldn’t be impatient that Salmond has not enunciated it. Supporters of separation would be shouting it from the rooftops. It would be, to return once again to the American independence struggle, “self-evident”. We haven’t heard it yet simply because an agreed vision doesn’t exist.

The danger for the SNP in trying to cobble one together at this late stage is that the very debate that would be involved would cause support for independence to fall even further. It would lead to the opening up of issues that Salmond has, until now, successfully closed down. The discipline of the SNP has been so tight that only Salmond’s blueprint of how things might look after a Yes vote has seen the light of day, whereas in fact across his party there are many different, often contradictory ideas of the route Scotland should follow.

And the great danger, from his point of view, of launching the vision debate is that it will bring conflicts into the open, with much damage to his cause. So far he has successfully swept these under the carpet. We had the perfect example this week of how a genuine discussion about how Scotland should look can upset Salmond’s applecart. Dennis Canavan, chair of the Yes campaign, came out in blunt disagreement with the official SNP line on the monarchy. Canavan is the epitome of the conviction politician. But he’s not a guy you necessarily want on your side if you’re trying to win a vote. In announcing his view that an independent Scotland should be a republic, he has focused attention on one of the most embarrassing of the SNP’s commitments. The main danger of Canavan’s views to the SNP is that he is right. Supporters of the monarchy are right to point out that it should be retained in the United Kingdom because, politically, it works so well. However, for the founders of a new state to commit to establish the future on the basis of the hereditary principle is anachronistic nonsense. It is certainly the opposite of any inspirational new beginning. It was only adopted because it was thought it would make the separation package less objectionable if the Queen came as part of the shabby deal.

But what Canavan’s intervention reveals much more than the divisions over policy that currently exist but which have been suppressed in the Yes camp, is the constitutional turmoil that will follow a Yes vote. There will not be delivered the settled package that voters are apparently being asked to approve – the monarchy, the pound, the EU, in Nato without nuclear weapons. All of these issues will be subject to immediate review, debate and change. Canavan and others already want a referendum on the monarchy – as if the current tedious process hasn’t held the governance of Scotland up long enough.

What Canavan’s honesty has revealed is that next year’s referendum is not the end of the process. It’s just the beginning. Smart SNP activists know that. As Canavan’s outburst has indicated, many are sitting at home polishing up their particular version of independence ready to unleash it in acrimonious debate if they stagger past the winning post next September. The desperation to win on any manifesto is why they are going along with Salmond’s low-key strategy. They know it binds nobody. Grab independence and then they will reveal what their goals really are. That’s the only vision that’s on offer.