At some point last autumn, Alex Salmond hinted at the possibility of the SNP winning all Scottish seats on 7 May -panache or desperation? What the SNP leader imagined, in that enticing fantasy, was a Scottish UDI – certainly, a quicker route to independence than a second referendum.
The SNP under its revised, post-referendum leadership, however, has been operating under a more modest strategy, one of pragmatic engagement with Westminster, based on projections which would give the party only half, or fewer, of Scottish seats. This seems to me a stopgap policy: holding the UK parties to their promises to Scotland while giving Alex Salmond something to do, once he has (presumably) won a Westminster seat himself. It is a strategy for the post-referendum lull, and for the year-long gap before the Holyrood elections of 2016 which are the SNP’s direct concern.
But what use are these half-measures for hypothetical futures which may or may not come about? How do they reflect the changed atmosphere in Scotland post-referendum? Very little, I would answer in either case. Besides, we have been here before: a rootless SNP, under a charismatic leader at Westminster, undermining politics where it counts, at home in Scotland.
What we need instead is a set of fully constructive ideas transcending the short-term needs of party politics, and restating independence as a concrete prospect in Scotland – the great, abiding achievement of the referendum campaign. With this aim in mind, I have three proposals.
First is a policy of no pacts at Westminster: a principled strategy of voting issue by issue on UK-wide legislation – or not voting, as the case may be. No more trouble-making in London; instead, preparation for full withdrawal from the degraded UK political process. This is still a proposal for the SNP, since the SNP is effectively the only party representing independence for Scotland.
But the challenge spreads wider. There is a problem of identity for the SNP, partly owing to its new swollen membership; more deeply, because of the underlying question left unanswered by the referendum result: what would happen to the party if it were to succeed in its fundamental aims? What kind of social vision would there be for the first independence years if it was to dissolve itself (which still seems to be official policy), or mutate into a party of total government?
So far only a vague ‘social-democratic’ aura surrounds either of these possibilities. But it seems to me that post-1997, and certainly post-2011, Scotland and the rest of Britain have been moving so far apart in terms of laws passed (and radical change frustrated) that there is very little constructive for an SNP plenipotentiary at Westminster to do. Even blocking the upgrading of Trident would not remove the missiles from the Clyde. Opposing further NHS privatisation in England would not guarantee resources to copper-bottom public ownership of the NHS in Scotland.
Here, I’m assuming the UK parties will carry through on increased powers for Holyrood promised in the Smith Commission – recognising that any other action would be counter-productive for them (like widespread calls for another referendum). But in general, I think a parliament where the political tone is dictated by staving off UKIP (Conservatives), ‘resetting markets’ (Labour), or preserving minority hold onto power (Liberals) is unworthy of serious attention. Surely in Scotland, we have gone beyond this kind of politicking around an outdated system, in an austerity coalition which punishes the people for the sins of elites.
Second, as a nation we should prepare to take institutional and social reform fully into our own hands, through further debate of our ideal independent Scotland. We should continue and refine the process begun at grassroots level in the referendum campaign. This would cover at a minimum: the final form of the Holyrood parliament and the electoral system; demographic planning, decentralisation and infrastructural development to make all parts of our country equally inhabitable and economically-viable; EU policy, especially on the future of the EU’s own institutions; foreign policy, especially development aid; and the structure of industry and land-ownership.
Here are just three suggestions at random: i) formalise the Holyrood parliament as our highest constitutional body tout court, ruling out any ‘revising’ chamber or constitutional monarchy while retaining fixed-term parliaments. There can be no second-guessing of the people by unelected elites. ‘We the people’ are the only recall mechanism. This works perfectly in Sweden, where the monarchy has even less of a constitutional role than in Britain, and general elections take place every three years.
Combined with this ii) adopt the French model of fully-elected, budgeted and empowered local government – that is, at community (town and grouped-village) level, while abolishing political elections in the regions, where current popular participation barely attains 40%. Regional bodies should simply consist of specialist administrators in practical matters like education, roads and other essential services, while community councillors – people known and visible on a day-to-day basis – should have real powers, be accountable, and be properly elected.
Then iii) focus for the first years of independence on a national flagship project, literally: say, a fleet of Caledonian Atlantic ferries, built on the Clyde, for freight and passenger exchanges with North America. Such a home-grown service to our major destination beyond Europe could help redevelop the marine sector – and in time, enable us to impose international standards of seaworthiness and shipboard control which would exclude dangerous, under- and ill-manned vessels from our hazardous waters.
Third, for all those in the broad intellectual and cultural movements born in the referendum, largely outside parliamentary politics, think of the responsibilities of power, and the realisation of their ideals. There are many reasons why the referendum result was the wrong result. But all of them boil down to a sense of national insecurity, partly due to the novelty of the independence referendum, partly the SNP’s rigidity in not adopting an alternative currency policy or not mounting an effective intellectual challenge to the threatened EU-membership veto, partly due to outsiders, from the Pope to Barack Obama and NATO chiefs piling into our democratic process with their short-termism views and fuelling a general panic.
But partly also to the narrow, unstable political base of one predominant (and governing) party, which made it possible for critics of the referendum inside and outside Scotland to portray the whole exercise as the irresponsible ego-trip of one party leader. We cannot afford to allow that caricature of our political life again.
Had there been several, relatively-equal groups all in favour of independence presenting articulate, developed prospectuses for the referendum would have taken place under different circumstances and with a different result. That is what we in grass-roots movements have to plan for next time – the next Scottish elections, the next referendum: what kind of parties will we form, to express our particular visions of the future?
In any case, politics in Scotland from now on ought to be wholly different from anything that goes on at Westminster. We should rescue from the referendum campaign those intimations of the free, dynamic and creative society we hope to realise, and be an inspiration to movements for democratic change elsewhere.
Peter Lomas is a contributor to Common Weal