Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start: Scotland is going to be independent in our lifetime.
I know it seemed like we said No in last year’s referendum but it was actually “not right now”. The timing wasn’t right, key questions remained unanswered, and Alex Salmond just rubbed some people up the wrong way.
One year on, independence is still on the agenda and growing in strength.
If you doubt that, you only need cast your eye over the findings of a new poll conducted by Ipsos-MORI for STV News. It shows the SNP on 55% in first past the post votes for next year’s Scottish Parliament poll, a chasmal 35% lead over Scottish Labour. On list votes, the regional top-ups designed to make Holyrood elections more proportional, the Nationalists enjoy a more modest 30% advantage over Labour. Nicola Sturgeon’s job approval rating is a Pyongyangesque 71%.
Asked which party has the best policies for Scotland, the SNP comes a distant first on the NHS (48%), education (49%), and crime (40%), three areas where the Scottish Government has suffered significant and well-publicised difficulties in policy and delivery. Support for independence now sits at 53% — even with “don’t knows” included — and backing for keeping the UK together has tumbled to 44%.
Look at those numbers. Does that look like a country that will still be in the UK ten years from now? Twenty?
The Labour left holds out the promise of Jeremy Corbyn as a route to winning back Scotland. Scotland’s left-wing, Jeremy’s left-wing — it just stands to reason, comrade.The new poll confirms this to be the folly it always was. Just 23% of Scots would be more likely to vote for a Labour Party led by the socialist firebrand while 34% would be less likely to do so. Thirty-eight per cent say it would make no difference.
To the detached commentator or activist, peering at Scotland from afar, the SNP’s progressive rhetoric and the enthusiastic political engagement looks like a leftwards shift. The reality is more prosaic: The Nationalists talk left but govern from the dead centre and while Scots are fond of telling themselves how much more caring and compassionate than the English they are, there are only modest distinctions in public opinion on taxation, public expenditure, immigration and welfare.
What is happening in Scotland is about nationalism. To the extent social democracy has anything to do with it, it is a social democracy defined in nationalist terms. The Nationalists campaign on social justice but the only redistribution they have carried out in eight years is of Labour policies into the SNP manifesto. Like Labour, the SNP is a party of the managerial centre but unlike Labour the Nationalists venerate national strength over pan-UK egalitarianism. Of course there would be cuts after independence but they would be Scottish cuts carried out by Scottish politicians with Scottish values at heart.
This is why nothing can put a dent in the SNP’s popularity; not their sketchy record on health, nor dismal education outcomes, nor the disaster zone that is their national police force. They are not just another political party; they are Scotland’s Party. “Only one party has Scotland at its heart” as they brand themselves. Starting in the 1960s, Labour successfully framed Scottish Tories as an alien force in the body politic, colonial officers imposing foreign rule on the natives.
This narrative was brutally effective and did for the Conservatives north of the border as much as Thatcherism or the Poll Tax. The danger for all populists is that eventually someone will come along who is prepared to out-demagogue you and that is what has happened to Labour. Now it is the Westminster interloper, representing Westminster’s interests, and working to Westminster’s agenda. (“Westminster” is the euphemism du jour in Scotland.)
The Labour leadership candidates promise to fight nationalism tooth and claw. Nationalism is “a dead-end towards division, separation and conflict,” Andy Burnhamtold the Royal United Services Institute yesterday. It’s a noble sentiment and will find an echo in Britain’s ever-diminishing ranks of internationalists and cosmopolitans but it is far too late. Labour responded to nationalism by building it a parliament and hoping it would go away or be content to run schools and hospitals. But nationalism is a movement of stages; it takes strength from each concession and stirs grievance and resentment to force another and another.
The next stage for Scottish nationalism is independence. Despite the findings of this poll, were a referendum to be held in the next few years, Yes would probably lose again. A second referendum means a second campaign and a second campaign means another raking over of uncomfortable facts for the pro-independence side. The harsh realities on currency, EU and Nato membership, and the fiscal blackhole have not gone away. On the global oil market, the realities have got harsher. Still, if half the country can be sold on independence under these conditions, the nationalists are strongly placed for better days. That is why Nicola Sturgeon should resist the impatient people in her ranks who want another referendum right away. She will likely win next time but only if it’s the right time.
Of course in politics, as in life, nothing is inevitable. Something has to give and bring to an end the SNP’s eight-year honeymoon.
Even then, it might not be enough to stop a break-up. There is a sense out there in the pubs and workplaces, coffee shops and doctors’ surgeries, an ineffable mood lingering in the air. It’s there in conversations with friends and even strangers hint at it when they accost you in their cups on the last train home on a Friday night. In its heart, if not yet in its head, Scotland has moved on.