Usually in a major political campaign the losers divide and dwindle, turning on each other in an atmosphere of blame and recrimination. Meanwhile, the victors, strengthened and united, call the shots and write history. Six weeks after the referendum, it’s as if the reverse is happening. The unionist parties may have won the vote but they don’t seem to be enjoying their victory. Meanwhile, independence groups have difficulty finding rooms big enough to meet in as their membership surges.
Politics in Scotland emerges from the aftermath of the referendum in better shape than it ever was. A record number of people are demanding both a change in the way we are governed and in the social and economic conditions they are prepared to tolerate. Crucially, awareness of the link between the two has never been greater. People understand that autonomy and change are two sides of the same agenda.
The challenge for the SNP is to provide political expression of that new awareness; to ride the political momentum which led to almost half the population voting to secede from the fifth most powerful state on earth. It is well placed for the task. Sixty thousand people have joined the SNP because they believe independence offers a better world. They believe that progress on these islands can be asymmetric and for too long we have been held back by those who want to go at the slowest pace.
So what strategy does the party offer to keep that prospect alive after it has just been turned down in a democratic ballot? Independence was – is – a means to an end. The means is off the table for now. But the end remains the same. Change this rich country full of poor people. Take control. If you can’t do it all, do what you can.
1.6m people voted for absolute change: ‘devo-ultimate’. Many who voted against – including the ‘vow’ believers – demanded change too but believed independence was not the best route to it. Between them they constitute a clear majority for substantial reform in this country; polls show upwards of 70% favouring full fiscal autonomy with Scotland levying all its own taxes and controlling all domestic spending. In the short term, this is the new cleavage in Scottish politics – between those who want real change and those content with the status quo.
The Smith Commission is not an exercise in thought-through constitutional reform – it’s a quick fix to get unionism off the independence hook. That said, it needs to be engaged with. Independence supporters have rightly argued for all powers to be transferred to Scotland short of defence, monetary and foreign policy. Smith’s conclusions are unlikely to amount to anything that comes close to the reforms that were promised in the heat of the referendum campaign but they will, hopefully, at least clarify exactly what the unionist parties can agree upon. Those members of the commission arguing for ‘devo-max’ should plan to publish their own minority report when the majority against that proposition gets its way.
With a White Paper promised in January, the SNP needs to be ready to publish its own proposals covering the parts Smith does not reach. Each must relate a proposed new competence for the Scottish Government with a specific policy to improve people’s lives – powers for a purpose, indeed. This will be the terrain on which the 2015 general election will be fought and, in effect, the party’s response to the white paper will be its draft manifesto.
Post-referendum and with the prospect of a hung parliament at Westminster, Scottish representatives will have real leverage. This is no time for abstentionism – sleeves up, hands dirty. Bizarrely, the SNP needs a programme for government in the UK, a state it does not think should exist, and in most of which it does not organise. Welcome to federalism. 89% of current Scottish MPs voted ‘no’. Just as this created an alternative pole of political authority which undermined the actions of a Scottish government, so a large group of pro-autonomy members will condition the future. This is one major part of the equation that needs to change before we ask the independence question again.
And the biggest change of all must be in the central belt of Scotland. The SNP is by any measure the largest political party in the country. And, it has succeeded in becoming a broad-based organisation capable of speaking for all parts of Scotland. But to this, it must now add another, specific, mandate. In the next eighteen months, it needs to emerge as the undisputed champion of working class communities in post-industrial Scotland. This means that it needs a policy platform fine-tuned to appeal to that former Labour supporting electorate. It needs to explain how powers will be executed to create jobs, tackle inequality, promote fairness.
The narrative is vital. Yes only a vote for the SNP will hold unionism to account –holding their feet to the fire in Alex Salmond’s medieval allusion. But we need to be more than feet burners. Front and centre must be a focus on getting rid of the Tories – not just in Scotland, but in Britain. The SNP needs to be seen to be more enthusiastic about this than anyone else. The recent alliance that Labour has just had with the Tories in Better Together and the haunting images of red rosettes celebrating at counts with their conservative counterparts has not done that party any favours. Tempting though the arithmetic of a hung parliament might be the SNP needs to rule out any accommodation with the Tories.
The SNP should seek a mandate which goes beyond the prospectus offered by Smith – even assuming that is supported by Westminster parties post-May 2015. This is a not the same question as should Scotland be an independent country but it is one that needs to be answered before that question can be asked again. One of two things will happen. Either real, substantial powers will be given to the Scottish Parliament allowing it to chart a different set of social and economic policies in Scotland. Or they won’t.
If they arrive then these powers can be used to take control of the Scottish economy. Show the difference that can make and several barriers to independence are removed. Many of the economic scare stories used this time will be moot as time passes – hard to get people to believe their pension is in danger if it is already being paid by the Scottish Government. Independence then becomes a debate about moving to the final phase of self-government – more than ever it’ll be an expression of collective self-respect. Alternatively additional powers are scuppered – status quo ante. If so, the cycle begins again. Double or quits. And, in the words of Roger Daltry: ‘we won’t get fooled again’.
So can a revolution in Scotland’s representation at Westminster be achieved? That depends on whether the broad alliance that voted ‘yes’ in September be translated into an electoral force able to negotiate the archaic Westminster electoral system. Forty five percent wins first past the post elections – most of the time. That does depend though on most of them voting for one candidate. There needs to be some smart thinking about how to win.
The 59 Westminster seats should be ranked according to how easy or hard they are to win. It’s not a difficult task. A simple calculation should take into account current majorities in unionist held seats, the level of the Yes vote in September, the strength of a second place challenger, and the number of Lib-Dem votes that will be available to switch elsewhere.
In the top 30 seats, the pro-change parties should decide which of their number would be able to present the most effective challenge to the incumbent. It will never be the SSP – they should simply agree to not contest these seats, a gesture of political decency which others will remember a year hence. In a few cases there may be an argument that a Green candidate stands the best chance of winning. Typically, these will be seats where there is a slim Labour majority over a Liberal Democrat and the latter’s vote is more likely to transfer in far greater numbers to a Green than to an SNP candidate. If this is combined with some historical presence of the Green party and a poorly placed SNP then the argument is convincing.
There will be other places where a high profile independent may have a better chance of victory than an official candidate. In most of these target seats, though, the SNP will be the most effective challenger and success will be enhanced with a clear run at the parties of the status quo. In many ways it will be the Greens who will find this the hardest – remember there was a Green ‘no’ campaign as well as a Green ‘yes’ campaign. It would, though, be an act of sectarian folly not to at least consider thoroughly the prospects of such a tactical arrangement.
This is not a ‘yes alliance’ as some have argued. Yes is not an answer to any question being asked in May 2015. It is a short term electoral arrangement designed not only to maximise the representation of those who voted for change in September but to mobilise additional layers of people. It’s about providing a focus for those scunnered by the Westminster elite and yearning for better. It’s about continuing the change unleashed on 18 September 2014.
Tommy Sheppard was a member of the Labour Party for 21 years (including eight as a councillor and three as Assistant General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party) and joined the SNP in September 2014.