It’s how you play the cards

Kevin Williamson argues that the SNP holds some aces – if it can play them properly

As the electoral dust settled over the new look ConDem Nation almost every political commentator agreed upon one thing: Alex Salmond and the SNP had been dealt the best possible hand given the circumstances. The UK’s coalition government – with just one Tory MP and 11 LibDems out of a possible 59 – have no democratic mandate north of the border. Throw into the mix a much-trumpeted budget deficit “crisis” – and a ConDem austerity programme consisting of the most savage public sector and benefits cuts in living memory – and the ingredients are there for a potentially bruising constitutional battle between Scotland and London. Taking into account the Independence Referendum Bill – due to go before the Scottish Parliament sometime between now and May 2011 – you’d be forgiven for thinking that Alex Salmond and the SNP simply have to play the cards they’ve been dealt, at the right time, in the right order.

The most obvious winning strategy for the SNP is not exactly rocket science. Oppose both the savagery and democratic legitimacy of the ConDem cuts; explain they are an ideological choice rather than an economic necessity; and rally a Scottish public around the only viable alternative on offer: Scottish independence via a democratic referendum. But thus far it hasn’t happened. The independence card hasn’t been played. And, perhaps, more tellingly, neither the First Minister nor any of his closest colleagues have questioned the validity of London’s neoliberal agenda nor its democratic legitimacy in Scotland. This is baffling and alarm bells are ringing. Many independence supporters are wondering what on earth is holding back the leadership of the SNP? Why the hesitancy at a time when clarity, boldness, and even good old fashioned Scottish radicalism are called for to defend Scottish interests? The independence movement is currently stuck in a frustrating Beckett-esque anti-drama of Waiting For Alex. Conservatism and cautiousness within the SNP leadership could lead us to another possibility which is slowly rearing its ugly head. The SNP could surrender power back to a New Labour-led coalition in May 2011. Not only would this remove independence, a referendum, and even fiscal autonomy from the legislative political agenda for at least the next four years but it may also mean that Alex Salmond – perhaps the most effective and articulate voice of independence – could very soon be staring into a personal political abyss. Where would defeat in 2011 leave the SNP, the morale of its activists, and the wider independence movement? None of these outcomes is pre-determined. As any student of poker will tell you, it’s not always the best hand that wins the pot, its how you play the cards.

Scottish independence is a long game. The Holyrood Parliament, the current SNP administration, the referendum bill, and the ongoing discussions on fiscal autonomy prove we’ve come along way since the “five and forty” were “bought and sold for English gold”, as Robert Burns so eloquently put it. Scottish politics – like the hopes, loyalties, fears and aspirations of its people – are in a state of deep flux and great intellectual fluidity. Opinion polls cannot be trusted to give us the bigger picture. North of the border they’re politically loaded. For example, with a straight face The Times newspaper (on 18 Feb 2010) ran a headline: ‘TORIES COULD OVERTAKE SNP AT GENERAL ELECTION.” The article began: “Tory optimism that they are on course to win more seats in Scotland than the SNP in this years’s General Election was strengthened yesterday by a new opinion poll which showed them neck-and-neck with the Nationalists.” Quite. It must be embarrassing for an army of professional political pundits – I won’t name names but we know who you are – to be reminded that near the start of the UK election campaign they bought into the idea of a “LibDem surge” signifying “a fundamental switch from two party politics”. Aye, right. This was even more bizarre when you consider it was based on nothing more substantial that an overnight reaction to a telly programme!

More astute observers are drawing the conclusion that the purpose of opinion polls – with their carefully-constructed wordings – are primarily used to try and influence public opinion rather than reflect it. For the purposes of political extrapolations I’ll steer clear of fly-by-night opinion polls on Scottish independence and the prospects for the SNP in May 2011 and try to get to the underlying realities.

Even in the world of manipulative opinion polls there are four remarkable constants which consistently emerge and which underpin the Scottish political landscape. None of these will ever be emphasised in the pages of The Scotsman so perhaps it is worth reiterating them before considering the immediate prospects for the SNP:

  1. The vast majority of people in Scotland increasingly consider themselves Scottish first rather than British. This is a major sea-change in thinking.
  2. The vast majority of people in Scotland support the basic democratic principle of a referendum on Scottish independence. This has never wavered, not even during turbulent periods of banking collapse and recession.
  3. The vast majority of people support the transfer of more powers from London to Holyrood. Champions of the status quo are a silent diminishing minority.
  4. There is an unflinching solid bedrock of support for Scottish independence that rarely dips below 25-30 per cent of the population. This in itself is the most remarkable aspect of Scottish politics and which bears down heavily on everything else.

These are not only undisputed facts but the starting positions in the 2011 election campaign, as well as any referendum campaign. How these are configured into the SNP’s calculations will play a large part in determining the possible outcomes.

The SNP could do worse than pause to reflect upon the many differences between fiscal autonomy and full independence. These differences may well be the easiest part of independence to sell to a restless nation desperate for substantive change.

Even the most curmudgeonly of opponents would have to admit that the SNP’s minority Government has been competent and professional in office. Given the depth of the cesspool recently uncovered at Westminster, it is to their credit that the Scottish government and the SNP have not got themselves embroiled in the sort of sleaze and scandal which have brought shame to the two main unionist parties and helped bring down the last two UK governments. Scottish ministers have, in general, been open about their plans, made themselves accessible, and have put their hands up when things haven’t worked out. This isn’t in question. What is in question is whether competent management of a devolved parliament progresses the cause of independence. To return to May 2007. Alex Salmond and the SNP were playing a blinder while their unionist (and leftist) opponents were at sixes and sevens. Whether it was standing firm against the British war in Iraq, or against a new generation of London-imposed nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations, the SNP stuck to their guns. In addition, A&E services facing closure were going to be saved. The sell-off of public housing would be brought to a halt. PFI to pay for new schools would be ended. Student top up fees and prescription charges would be abolished. More police on the beat. A freeze on council tax. This was all good populist stuff and absolutely necessary if the soft neoliberal belly of New Labour was to be successfully challenged in its traditional heartlands.

Yet despite this progressive manifesto of ambitious pledges, and the feel-good factor it helped generate, the SNP was elected by the very slimmest of majorities. It was the last List seat called in the Highlands which tipped the SNP over the winning line. Therein lies the problem. How can the SNP, now scrutinised and judged as a party of government rather than opposition, inspire the same sort of positive engagement from the Scottish electorate that only just got them elected in 2007? In the months following May 2007 everything the SNP did struck a chord, support grew steadily, and an overall SNP majority in 2011 was considered a very real possibility. But this is no longer the case. The feelgood factor of 2007 has evaporated as the clouds of recession make their presence felt. What remains is widespread respect for significant progressive legislation and governmental competence in adversity. But is this enough? The all-important first-time SNP voters who felt inspired by the SNP’s message in 2007, and sought fundamental constitutional change, have been drifting off from the periphery with that familiar weary sense of disappointment and disillusionment. “Promises are being broken.” “Scotland is no closer to independence.” “No one is taking a stand on Scotland’s behalf against the ConDems cuts.” Over the next few months Scottish Labour will opportunistically try to blame the cuts on the SNP. With the SNP government on the back foot, having to defend its backtracking on a number of key manifesto pledges such as classroom sizes, its going to be a tough uphill election battle ahead.

However, the SNP does have one ace in its hand if it chooses to play it. A constitutional crisis is slowly, angrily, haphazardly, but inexorably developing as the brutal reality of ConDem cuts begin to sink in. David Cameron has gone on record stating that “Britain is broken”. This could come back to haunt him north of the Tweed. The ConDems are selling us ten years of austerity and hardship. Perhaps even longer. Jobs will be decimated. Essential services axed. Benefits slashed. The ConDem Nation are preparing for a long term offensive against not just the poorest in our society plus those who work in or need public services, but against the very principles of an inclusive social democracy. In this potentially explosive situation Alex Salmond and the SNP have one last potentially game-winning card they can play. They need to drive home to the Scottish people at every opportunity that it is Decision Time:

Do you want to be crucified for the next decade as part of a bankrupt broken Britain? Or are you prepared to embrace a new beginning as citizens in a prosperous independent Scotland?

The Independence Referendum Bill is perfectly positioned for the SNP to make its move. The beauty of this is that the SNP has nothing to lose and everything to gain. While the Referendum Bill may well be lost in parliament – this time round – it’s more important to go on the offensive. Challenge the democratic deficit. Challenge the union itself. Who dares wins. But there is another possibility. Alex Salmond and the SNP may fumble the ball between now and May 2011. They could accept the flawed logic of the London neoliberals. Instead of countering The Big Economic Lie, through galvanising support for independence, they may instead concentrate on talking up “the coming pain” thereby sending out a predominantly negative message. John Swinney has already begun down this road. This could be disastrous.

There are also worries over a long-term strategic switch to emphasise – in campaigning terms – fiscal autonomy over full blown independence. Fiscal autonomy is absolutely necessary for Scots to develop Scottish solutions to specifically Scottish problems. A recent GERS Report spells out that the Scottish economy was in surplus in 2008/09 by £1.3bn while the British budget was in deficit to the tune of £48.9bn. The economic arguments against fiscal autonomy hold little water. But to accept the logic that full fiscal autonomy is a necessary stepping stone to full independence is an argument fraught with danger. Catalonia and the Basque Country for example have had fiscal autonomy for over twenty years but it is questionable whether this has been a “stepping stone” to independence. SNP members should pay particular heed to the way that the Spanish state has used fiscal autonomy to incorporate the main Basque and Catalan nationalist parties – the PNV and CiU – into being toothless agents of an anti-independence federalist agenda. The SNP could do worse than pause to reflect upon the many differences between fiscal autonomy and full independence. These differences may well be the easiest part of independence to sell to a restless nation desperate for substantive change. For it is these currently ‘reserved’ issues which would give us control over our own constitutional arrangements, as well as democratic control over energy policy, civil rights, nuclear weapons, nuclear power, military spending, foreign wars and sovereign territory. These are areas where the UK government tends to be out of sync with the Scottish electorate. To prioritise campaigning for fiscal autonomy could be a serious error of judgement.

The natives are getting restless. Bankrupt Britain is going down the tubes. It may well be that Alex Salmond and the SNP government are boxing clever, taking a good look at the lay of the land, before making their next move. Let’s hope so. The stakes are high.