Half the country thinks it’s a cult, the other half is chugging down the Kool-Aid.
The SNP is a political and cultural phenomenon sweeping away the old certainties of British politics, enthusing and enraging in equal measure as it goes along.
As things stand, the Nationalists are the majority government at Holyrood, the third party at Westminster, and run 11 councils across Scotland. They have 64 MSPs, 56 MPs, more than 400 councillors, 105,000 members, and opinion polls rate their leader Nicola Sturgeon as the most popular politician across the UK. Few political parties in the democratic world can claim to dominate a country so completely.
The political commentator and Nicola Sturgeon biographer David Torrance has explored the historical themes underpinning the rise of the SNP. His is a sober and insightful take but one that tells only part of the story. Just as important, and in some ways more so, are the ideological, emotional, and attitudinal forces at work in the movement that has seized the country.
What is the SNP? What does it want for us? What, in short, is Scottish nationalism?
The SNP is an ideological chameleon. Formed in a merger of the left-wing National Party of Scotland and the right-wing Scottish Party, it was for many years a small-c conservative outfit. Prominent elements dallied with more reactionary ideologies in the 1930s and 1940s but the party has remained firmly within the democratic nationalist tradition. In recent times, it has identified itself with social democracy and egalitarianism.
For much of its existence, the SNP was the party of strange little men with names like Hector and Drummond and spinster Home Economics teachers austerely swathed in tartan shawls. Their alpha and omega was “the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty”; there were about five smiles between them. The epithet “Tartan Tories” described their social profile as much as their political inclinations. Beginning in the 1980s, the party underwent a quiet modernisation, adopting leftish language and poses to define itself against Thatcherism and an increasingly moderate Labour Party. Policy shifted from absolute sovereignty to “independence in Europe” and the vestiges of Anglophobia were superseded by opposition to “Westminster” and “London”.
There are any number of SNPs. It is a party of the sensible centre in the rural fringes and of the political fringe in the urban centre. There’s the Fergus Ewing SNP, low-tax and pro-business, and there’s the 45er SNP, the tens of thousands of new members convinced they have joined a radical party. There’s the tattie-peelings fundies and the Glasgow solicitor gradualists. The SNP unites the entrepreneur with the artist, the public sector worker with the welfare claimant, as distinctions of income and class are blurred in pursuit of national advancement.
In the middle of this unconscious coalition of sharply opposed interests, there is to be found a standard European party of the centre-left: Pro-public services and pro-business, pro-growth and pro-environment(ish). On fiscal and economic policy, they are not radically different from the “Red Tories” they excoriate. The 2015 manifesto echoed Labour’s major pledges on tax and for all its anti-austerity bombast the party merely advocated “a more moderate approach to deficit reduction”.
Analysis of its spending plans by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies found the SNP would cut borrowing by as much as Labour, though it would do so more slowly. While raising spending in real terms, the proposals could have seen a cut of 4.3% on everything except the NHS and foreign aid. “The SNP’s stated plans do not necessarily match their anti-austerity rhetoric,” the think tank noted, adding that “the implication of the plans they have spelt out in their manifesto is that the period of austerity would be longer than under the other three parties”.
Even without the IFS’s commentary, we could conclude that the SNP’s electoral prospectus, committed in rhetoric if not in reality to ending austerity, was far from a transformative programme. Their newfound fondness for Brown-era public spending levels is amusingly ironic but doesn’t suggest a party in the grips of economic radicalism. This moderate Labourism can also be seen in their exercise of power at Holyrood, where the first two SNP governments have abolished the graduate endowment, funded 1000 more police officers, abolished prescription charges, and delivered a council tax freeze.
As with all centre-left parties, it has learned the limitations of government. Its council tax policy “disproportionally benefits the wealthy”, according to Unison, and means “those on lower incomes face new or increased charges for the services they rely on”. It continues to miss its own targets on A&E waiting times and climate change, has presided over drops in literacy rates, and seen college places fall by 140,000 and college staff numbers by more than 1000.
Where the SNP stands apart is in trigger areas like nuclear deterrence, immigration, and Europe, where the party feels it can differentiate Scotland from the rest of the UK. The Nationalists are anti-Trident, though whether this is motivated by genuine internationalism or an insular reaction against the complexities of global politics is up for debate. They are pro-immigration and put their rivals to shame with calm, rational, evidence-led policymaking. When the latest quarterly migration statistics showed a spike in immigration, the Conservatives and Labour duelled over who would tighten the borders more; the Scottish Government released a statement welcoming the figures.
For a party that organises its politics around national identity, the Nationalists’ vocabulary on asylum, refugees, and humanitarian crises is commendable even if their queasiness about British military power can render their compassion impotent. They back Britain’s (and a future independent Scotland’s) membership of the European Union, though this is one constitutional question on which they do not wish to give Scots a referendum.
And of course there is independence, or rather interdependence. For the SNP does not envision a truly independent Scotland but one that pools sovereignty and resources across the EU. Its dictum that “decisions about Scotland should be made by people in Scotland” would be more accurately rendered as “decisions about Scotland should not be made by people in London”. Yet despite its antipathy for all things Westminster, the party went into last September’s referendum proposing that a separate Scotland share a monarchy, currency, central bank, monetary policy, financial regulation, and (temporarily) a welfare infrastructure with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Former leader Gordon Wilson fears his party is drifting away from independence and towards federalism; a casual perusal of the Scottish Government’s 2013 White Paper suggests the drift began some time ago.
Qualified sovereignty aside, there is no discernible ideology of any coherence but the Nationalists’ mode of governing is notably authoritarian. The SNP doesn’t seek to manage economic outcomes but it is obsessed with controlling social behaviour. Nationalist parties are often more attached to the ideal of a given country than to the country itself. With the SNP there is a near-missionary zeal to improve us all and to this end ministers now determine what kind of songs we may sing at football matches and what products shopkeepers can put out on display. Every child in the land will soon be assigned a state-approved guardian who will, at their own discretion, “promote, support or safeguard the wellbeing of the child or young person”.
A centralised police force roams the streets armed and searches people, including children, at rates that would make the NYPD blanch. A plan to scrap the ancient safeguard of corroboration was only latterly shelved after much condemnation. And yet the party is sexually tolerant and is a wellspring of measures to increase gender equality, even ones which are meritocratically dubious.
The enduring paradox of Scottish politics is that the country tells itself it is left-wing while what it tells pollsters can be startlingly right-wing. The political theorist Stephen Maxwell, instrumental in the left-nationalism project, once lamented “the myth that the Scottish working class has an instinct for radical if not revolutionary socialism lacking in its Sassenach counterpart”. This national myth is perhaps the only common ground remaining in a politically divided land. In championing national identity over ideological struggle, the Nationalists have managed to square this circle. Scotland now has a party that speaks to its socialist sentimentalism and a party that appeals to its economic pragmatism, only they are both the same party. The SNP’s greatest achievement is not turning Scotland nationalist but deploying the rhetoric of Clement Attlee while accepting many of the economic assumptions of Margaret Thatcher. When his political perceptiveness was at its height, Alex Salmond remarked that Scotland “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism – “but we didn’t like the social side at all”.
The long march of the Nationalists, towing along a colourful caravan of Trots and cultural establishment luvvies, vindicates that analysis. The SNP is not a socialist party and it requires a generous interpretation to accept its claims to be a social democratic one. There is a strong egalitarian instinct at work but it emerges in checklist progressivism rather than a coherent radical programme. Hate the Tories? Tick. No student fees? Tick. Ban the bomb? Tick. Reshape the fundamentals of the economy? Ummm… Indeed, it can seem a party in denial of its own pragmatism, even though technocratic centrism has been largely responsible for its electoral success.
Shettleston and Salford
Into the vacuum left by Labour’s forsaking of class, the SNP has inserted the nation as the organising principle of political action. “Stronger for Scotland” ran its election campaign slogan. This is of a piece with the endless charge that opponents are “talking down Scotland”. Unionists protest, with some justification, the sinister conflation of the country with the governing party but far more telling is the apparent belief that a nation is something that can be wounded by words. Poor little Scotland’s ears must be shielded from these big, bad self-loathers lest it get itself in a guddle.
The fragility of the nation and the enervating influence of those who do not cheer for it are common themes in nationalist thought. It is also a tacit admission that national strength takes priority over social solidarity and economic justice. Those principles are important to the SNP but only sovereignty is precious.
Depending on whom you believe, Alastair Darling either did or didn’t describe the Nationalist ideological impulse as “blood and soil”. (Some Unionists will never forgive the SNP for not being the party they desperately want it to be.) There is a drop of blood to Scottish nationalism but it has been diluted over the years. Above all else, to accept the SNP as a nativist outfit requires us to believe that its many first-generation Scots supporters are victims to a mass Stockholm Syndrome. No, blood is of little help to us here.
What, though, of soil? There I think we are on more solid ground. The charge to which the SNP has offered no coherent answer is that of parochialism; that by choosing nationalism we forgo what used to be called international solidarity but might now be termed cosmopolitanism. At root, the Nationalist contention is that a bus driver in Shettleston has more in common with Sir Brian Souter than with a bus driver in Salford. The connection, though, is not genetic but geographic; it matters to the SNP which side of the Tweed the bus is being driven on.
The risk for the SNP is not advancing the bigotry of race but the bigotry of place, a danger only underscored by lofty campaign talk about a “progressive alliance” across the UK. A meaningful alliance, if it is to be more than warm words, must involve the redistribution of resources and the safeguarding of equal public provision of services. The SNP has yet to set out how such a pact would function after a vote for Scottish independence.
If the SNP lacks an ideological backbone, this doesn’t seem to trouble the new members. A majority of supporters report that they experience criticism of the party as a “personal insult”, a phenomenon unique in British politics. To Nationalists, this is not evidence of an unhealthy emotionalism – the SNP as the Princess Di party – but proof that there is finally a party that people trust. Throughout the campaign, they would share pictures on social media of adulating crowds surrounding Nicola Sturgeon and demand: “Could you imagine this happening for Cameron, Miliband or Clegg?” Of course no one could because those are men, not icons.
This unyielding devotion can be a blessing and a curse. One of the side effects of mass re-engagement in politics is a Miranda tendency whereby 45ers, still dazzled by the shiny new club they’ve joined, puzzle at fusty, unfamiliar conventions and bristle at the discovery of opposing points of view. In the good-natured and inquisitive, this dramatises the awkward joys of political self-discovery. In the drudgingly humourless and Pentecostally literal, it manifests as innocence enraged. O brave new world, that has such quislings in it!
Ask any political journalist in Scotland and all but the most committed adherents of The Cause will tell you that criticism or even insufficiently flattering reporting of the SNP attracts a brand of backlash peculiar to that party. Into your Twitter feed and email inbox rush reservoirs of invective, some of which is creatively paranoid (“…but your MI5 paymasters won’t let you report that, will they?!”) though much of which is prating victimology, whataboutery, and the Salmond Subjunctive (“If Alex Salmond had said that…”). The patriotism police will arraign you for bias, treason, and assorted crimes against the nation. Try as you might to maintain a professional distance, reminding yourself that Unionists can write in green ink too, you know the preponderance of zoomers is very much with the SNP. What kind of party, you find yourself asking, consistently attracts people like this?
Most political parties are a broad tent. In the case of the SNP, there is no tent. As long as you believe independence is the answer, the question can be anything you like. Believe in a Scotland of lightly-regulated small businesses, low-taxed nuclear families, and the Queen on the money? That’s why we need independence. Long for a demilitarised socialist republic? You’re going to need independence for that.Supporters are fiercely loyal to their conception of the SNP more than to the party itself. Once we appreciate this, the fervency becomes a little less impenetrable and a lot less unnerving.
The SNP has been compared to a megachurch, a cult, a collective madness but while there is a palpable post-rational strain to contemporary Scottish politics none of these descriptions is satisfactory.
Emotionally, the party can function as a political self-help group, providing meaning and a feeling of belonging for those hitherto excluded from the democratic process. “See me, I’m SNP” declared a popular badge at the party conference, and you always know you’re in the presence of an SNP member because they proudly tell you so within about a minute. The gradual eclipse of economics by identity politics across the Western world has found expression in a number of parties and platforms. In Scotland, the SNP operates at the intersection of national and personal selfhood.
But if the personal is political, so too is the social. The enlarged SNP is a source of new friends, new pastimes, and a sense of community. In the former industrial towns of the west and central belt, where working men’s clubs and Co-operative societies were once landmarks in the social topography, communal spaces lie empty, or in disrepair, or have become bookmakers and charity shops. A spectre haunts these towns, the ghost of Labour Scotland receding into memory just as manufacturing and municipal socialism did.
The SNP offers civic rejuvenation and participatory politics on a scale not seen since the peak of trade unionism. Public meetings are back in vogue and rallies, once organised around occasional flashpoints, are regular events. Members feel like their views matter, that they are shaping a movement and through it changing a nation. Labour reduced politics to a four-yearly transaction between a remote governing class and the public; the Nationalists seem open to a crowdsourced democracy, though the test will come when civil society turns its guns on Scottish Government policy failures.
Nationalisms, civic and cultural
Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University laments as “drearily familiar” the British’s left’s “misconceptions” about the Scottish national movement, which he characterises, sunnily, as “liberal nationalism” and, heroically, as “a child of the Enlightenment”. The attempt to write the nationalism out of the Nationalist project is no doubt appealing to liberal sympathisers but it deprives us of a genuine understanding of the party’s purpose and its role in a changing Europe.
In this regard, Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s analysis of the new nationalism is more enlightening, even if his close comparison of the SNP and Ukip contains important flaws. The constitutional expert contends that the Nationalists, like other anti-consensus parties across Europe, appeal to those left behind by globalisation and the austerity measures imposed in the wake of the global recession. Despite the economic roots of the crisis, parties like the SNP offer a national rather than social democratic solution.
Professor Bogdanor asserts: “They seek to replace the politics of ideology with the politics of identity. They are not easy to place on the left-right spectrum of politics… You can be a left-wing Nationalist or a right-wing Nationalist and the Scottish Nationalists aren’t saying that the other parties aren’t too left-wing or too right-wing but that they’re not Scottish enough.
“These parties are concerned not primarily with the distribution of income and resources – the economic matters which constitute the main elements on the political agenda for the other parties – they’re concerned about questions on where we belong.”
Where the esteemed academic loses his footing is in garbling SNP and Ukip nationalisms. Both are dissenters from the Fukuyama school of history (a dubiously accredited institution from which even Dr Fukuyama has since graduated) and the liberal internationalism project of the 1990s. Both too are populist insurgencies against remote and sneering elites, champions of the democratic emboldening of their respective nations. The root of their difference lies in identity, how they answer the “questions on where we belong”.
For the SNP, identity is a choice rather than an accident of birth, an interior dialogue between people who find themselves living in Scotland and the Scotland they find around them. For Ukip, identity is external, it lies out there in the modern, multicultural world which is Not England and therefore threatening. Ukip blames immigrants for our social and economic maladies while the SNP proposes them as a partial solution to demographic decline and a monochromatic culture. Reduced to its simplest terms, Ukip wants fewer people to be English while the SNP wants more people to be Scottish.
The fault line in traditional national movements lies between civic and ethnic nationalism. The SNP has comprehensively rejected the latter, though it might be the case that a small minority of its supporters still view independence through an anti-English prism. However, there is a midway point between the civic and ethnic strains, which might be called cultural nationalism. By this I mean the proposition that Scots and English people are not racially separate but socially, culturally, and even morally so.
The cultural nationalist can be an elusive creature but usually conforms to certain behaviours. Such people are readily identified by the five-foot Saltire on their car and ten-foot chip on their shoulder. Their case for independence is rooted in historical claim and cultural distinction as much as or more than democratic self-determination. They imagine Scotland as an oppressed nation, classify (English) incomers as settlers or colonists, diagnose self-loathing in non-nationalists and fear their morale-sapping influence, and spout mystical cant about “hidden poo’ers”. Much havering about the differences between Scottish and English society will shoot from their lips, regardless of the evidence from social attitudes research. And never, ever pass critical comment on their project to subsidise Gaelic into relevance in the 21st century. They don’t like that.
The sterile fetish of flags and heritage that makes a culture out of rewritten history will always be backward-looking. Nationalism is not, contra Orwell, the belief that the past can be altered; it is the fear that the past, or at least a political rendering of it, might be forgotten. Adherents protest loudly that theirs is nothing like other and earlier nationalisms all the while replicating the same tropes of division, grievance, and victimhood. Sometimes, a cultural nationalist is just an ethnic nationalist with a humanities degree.
Cultural nationalism does not characterise Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership but it remains a force within the wider movement. For a party that talks left and governs centre, the SNP’s nationalism in places bears the hallmarks of old-right chauvinism.
Alex Salmond charges Scottish Labour under Jim Murphy with being “neither Scottish nor Labour” and accuses the Unionist parties in general of being a “parcel of rogues”, while his political mentee Joan McAlpine denounces them as “anti-Scottish”. Stewart Maxwell, ordinarily a thoughtful and considered parliamentarian, tweeted a picture of a man in Ku Klux Klan garb and asked if he was marching in favour of a No vote in the referendum. During the election campaign Dr Lisa Cameron, the new Nationalist MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow, enjoined Scots to “vote for your country, not against it”.
Edinburgh South candidate Neil Hay tweeted about the “disproportionate number of non-Scots accents” in the audience of STV’s Scotland Debates programme, chivalrously attributing the observation to his “non-Scots wife”. He will have more time to monitor television’s Sassanach cadences after the ignominy of being the only SNP candidate to lose to Labour on election night.
The Edinburgh Western branch had to be reproved by HQ after it told people to take pictures of Labour activists and post them online. Nationalist campaigners in Glasgow East evidently took their advice and went “hunting” for Margaret Curran, filming the former Labour MP as she spoke to constituents on their doorsteps. (Her SNP opponent objected because it “obstruct[ed] the access to democracy” of the voters but allowed that politicians were “fair target for community justice”. She is now MP for Glasgow East.)
One of Curran’s pursuers was later suspended from the party after ugly scenes at a Jim Murphy event. But in contempt for alternative points of view, none could surpass the four Renfrewshire SNP councillors who publicly burned the Smith Commission report on further powers for Scotland.
The real tension that runs through the party is no longer left versus right; that battle has resolved in a score draw. The dividing line is now civic versus cultural nationalism.
The Salmond problem
These incidents seem at odds with Nicola Sturgeon’s optimistic vision for Scotland. It is hard to imagine the First Minister believes her opponents are sell-outs earning a hireling traitor’s wages. This sinister mood music belongs to the tenure of her predecessor.
Alex Salmond was, until Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s greatest electoral asset but as defeat in the referendum loomed Mr Salmond’s tone grew more belligerent. In the six months since he stood down as First Minister, his behaviour has become even more erratic, including a new hobby of penning logically tortured bon mots to the editor of The Herald. Someone encouraged Mr Salmond to write at greater length and he produced The Dream Shall Never Die, a triumph of third-rate style and first-rate self-regard. Score-settling books customarily trade in low blows but Mr Salmond’s scribblings are just plain low, that infamous swagger translated onto the page.
When not engaged in literary vulgarism, he has raised the spectre of a unilateral declaration of independence, opened a discount supermarket as a political statement, and picked a fight with a headteacher over which plays she allows to be taught in her school. Mr Salmond is now the poor soul on the night bus who tries to convince you the driver and the little man on the EXIT sign are conspiring against him. The comedown from high office is seldom easy.
The Gordon MP’s political abilities and achievements on behalf of his party cannot be denied. His blokeish bonhomie forged with national sentiment and economic populism was central to bringing the SNP out of its seven decades of opposition and into power. He ran and won two presidential-style election campaigns and without him Scotland would almost certainly have Anonymous Labourbot 2.0 as First Minister today. It would be a less confident country, a less dynamic economy. And it would be a nation that had not glimpsed the possibility of independence, though his vexatious personality and dubious currency proposals played some part in it remaining a mere glimpse.
I understand why Nationalists hold him in such affection but he is a figure of and for the 45%. What the SNP needs is a leader who can take it to 60%, a clear and decisive victory for independence. The old politics must give way to the new politics.
The Sturgeon opportunity
The herald of that new politics is Nicola Sturgeon. Mr Salmond’s departure from the leadership and inevitable declining influence on the party is an opportunity for the SNP. The Salmond era saw a change in Scotland’s electoral behaviour; the Sturgeon era could witness the transformation of the nation’s political imagination. The First Minister has a strength of character and force of personality that no one in Scottish politics can match. She is a politician capable of recalibrating the debate from whether Scotland should be independent to what kind of independent country it should be.
Sturgeon was responsible for arguably the most effective front in the Yes campaign, the pitch to Labour voters that an independent Scotland could more practically achieve the just society they longed to see. Those voters, the ones who came on the journey and the ones who stayed behind, remain key to a Yes vote next time round. They like Nicola Sturgeon, they trust her, they think she’s one of them.
Too often in pursuit of their votes, she has charged Scottish Labour with “talking down Scotland”. That, however, is a nationalist response and what she needs is a social democratic one; not that Labour is not Scottish enough but that it is not Labour enough. To advance this line, the SNP has to become more like the Labour Party instead of just aping its rhetoric. If it can reconcile an assertive national identity with authentically social democratic politics, there is potential for the SNP to be more than a nationalist party. Not just stronger for Scotland, but fairer for Scotland, more prosperous for Scotland, more outward-looking for Scotland – and recognising that other people and institutions can be for Scotland too.
That will take a change in what the SNP stands for and how it expresses it. It means redefining the SNP as a left-of-centre party that happens to believe in independence rather than a nationalist party that sees left-populist policies as a means to achieving independence. (It would also be helpful if it could live up to this.) Cultural nationalism should be shunned in the process and the abrasive machismo of the Salmond years too. If she relies on the current toxic brew of anger, blind optimism, and flag-waving, Sturgeon should know that sentiment passes and when it does the public deflects its embarrassment by turning on the object of their affection. Just ask Tony Blair.
That the SNP leader does not approach independence with the impatience of her members signals an openness to such changes. In an interview in April, she told the BBC’s Evan Davis she’d be “disappointed” but “philosophical” if Scotland was still part of the UK at the end of her political career. That is not the response of a doctrinaire nationalist but is consistent with the party’s “democracy and constitutionalism” tradition. As Neil MacCormick observed: “Gradualism is an all but inevitable corollary of constitutionalism, but also of a commitment to democracy, for we should seek to go at the speed of the greatest majority in promoting constitutional change.”
Gradualism can be arid and formalistic or it can be purposive; waiting for the nation to realise the wickedness of the British state or working constructively within the Union to improve people’s lives and by doing so give them hope that things can be even better. The opportunity of devolution was only ever partially exploited by Alex Salmond, for whom the allure of populism was often too great.
If Sturgeon is sincere about progressive politics-and I think she is-she could amend her party’s constitution to enshrine those values. The SNP swear left-wing motives but turn to their constitution and the only aims listed are independence and “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”, a helpfully vague if ideologically suspect phrase.
Such a change might be largely symbolic but as Blair’s reform of clause four of the Labour constitution proved, symbolism can be powerful. By 1995, no one seriously believed Labour was still committed to “common ownership of the means of production” but by replacing this with a paean to “the strength of our common endeavour”, the party signalled that a shift had taken place in its psyche and its designs on government.
The Nationalists’ mission statement could be reworded thus: “The SNP is a social democratic party that believes the people of Scotland, from wherever they may come and whenever they may have arrived here, are sovereign and entitled by their democratic will to the same rights of self-determination as every other people on earth. To this end, the SNP seeks to realise an independent Scotland based on the principles of social equality, economic justice, and personal freedom.”
A union lost
And the charge of parochialism is a substantive one; it warrants a substantive answer. How would an independent Scotland, no longer pooling and sharing resources, maintain socioeconomic solidarity with people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? I don’t know the answer but the SNP’s promise to work in the interests of people across the British Isles, while not sufficient, hints at a way forward. In selling their vision for an independent Scotland, the Nationalists should be honest about the effects on England and Wales and articulate a post-UK progressive relationship that goes beyond bromides about a “social union”. This would entail breaking new ground in intergovernmental relations but the United Kingdom is a unique proposition and its unravelling was never going to be straightforward. If the SNP can settle for a federal Britain in the short term, it should recognise its interest in fashioning a post-independence social and economic community between the countries of the former UK.
None of this is incumbent upon Sturgeon. Her position in the party and the country is secure. Her approval ratings are of the sort that usually originate from the Pyongyang politburo. She could take a nail gun to the nation’s pets and the electorate would agree Fluffy had it coming. But victory is not power and nor is adulation. Power, real power, is about making choices and challenging people.
It matters what Sturgeon chooses. The Scottish Labour Party is in existential crisis and the Scottish Tories are too marginal to offer anything but intermittent resistance. There is no opposition to the SNP in Scotland. With strong leadership, a policy overhaul, organisational restructuring, a lot of hard work and even more luck, Labour may one day return as a force in Scottish politics but the scale of the challenge is dizzying. The greatest obstacle is not the referendum alliance with the Tories – on balance, probably a mistake – but how a party selling economics can trade with a country where identity is now the primary currency. As Tony Blair counsels: “Nationalism is a powerful sentiment; let that genie out of the bottle and it is a Herculean task to put it back in.”
Scotland is independent in all but the numbers. YouGov polling now shows the over-60s are the only age group still opposed, and excepting an unforeseen catastrophe or a painful taster of full fiscal autonomy, it is hard to imagine that trend reversing. We are approaching the Columbo moment in the long-running psychodrama that is the British constitution; “just one more thing” the voters will say and suddenly Westminster will know it’s all over. Less than a year after we rejected independence, it seems more likely than ever. Every impossible height reached by the SNP turns out to be a false summit. Nothing is impossible in Scottish politics anymore.
Unionists have no one to blame but themselves. Ten words saved their hide on September 18, 2014: “Nothing else than a modern form of Scottish Home Rule”. Ten words they had to redeem, ten words they reneged on. The Union was lost for ten words.
For much of his tenancy of Bute House, Alex Salmond showed spirit but lacked the temperament to coax a sceptical people into the history books. He was an undeniably successful political demagogue but never an instinctive statesman. That is not the case with Nicola Sturgeon. Day by day, she shows that she has what it takes to lead an independent country out into the world. Day by day, I grow more convinced that she will.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.