Scottish politics are on the verge of their biggest shakeup for decades. A linked debate on the Calman commission, fiscal autonomy and the implications of the Budget and forthcoming cuts, will now be shaped by Alex Salmond’s repositioning of the SNP on the call for independence. Not since the early years of the Thatcher Government has Scotland politically faced the prospects of such fundamental and irreversible change.
Salmond shows the scale of his ambition and intent in an interview in Friday’s edition of the Scottish version of The Times with Magnus Linklater and Angus Macleod, the paper’s seasoned and respected Scottish Political Editor (1). In it the leader of the SNP has bowed to the inevitable on independence; the Nationalists don’t have the support in the Parliament, let along the country to win a ‘yes’ vote.
Salmond reflects on this, “The centre of gravity in Scottish politics currently is clearly not independence. You must campaign for what is good for Scotland as well as campaigning for independence.”
This is pretty big stuff. It is a major moment in the political lifetime of modern Scotland, which will carry ripples and consequences for years to come. It could prove to be the beginning of a new political era in Scotland, equivalent to the emergence of the SNP in the mid-1960s, or the early years of Thatcher and their cuts, which led to the ‘no mandate’ argument of the 1980s. It is that significant.
Salmond has surveyed both the political landscape of Scotland and the storm clouds gathering, and decided it is time to remake the political weather and even, if he can, reshape the geography as well. In the interview he restates the case for full fiscal autonomy, “It is really important, in my view, to be able to say to people how we can change the circumstances and increase revenue as well as decreasing expenditure.”
He then, in a fascinating passage, shows the degree to which he has become a national leader, stating, “It is my job to come up with some answers, along with others. If you jump up and down nihilistically saying ‘dreadful dreadful, dreadful, cuts, cuts, cuts’, then I would be failing in my duty to the people.”
This is the sound of a statesman emerging and growing up, challenging his opponents including those in his own party (some of whom are his most deadly adversaries). This is a view of the importance of Salmond’s remarks shared by Alex Massie on The Spectator online.
Salmond explicitly makes the comparison between the historic dimensions of now and how Thatcher unwittingly changed Scotland commenting:
I always like to think that Margaret Thatcher quite unwittingly turned what many people regarded as quite nice ideas – romantic even – about the Scottish Parliament, via the poll tax and other intrusive legislation, into a necessity. It ceased to be a nice idea, a good wheeze, into ‘Well, we’d better have that, otherwise the worst will happen’.
He then goes on to make the link between then and now and the campaign for fiscal autonomy:
People are saying ‘Are we just going to have the debate about how much spending we can cut, with the minimum damage to the fabric of society, or are we going to have a debate which also says, ‘Here’s a way to change the circumstances’ and I just wonder if what we’re seeing now is some of the pragmatic people saying ‘Well, this [is] more than a nice thing to have. It might be really rather than an important thing.
It will prove to be a huge moment in Scottish politics if the SNP has made explicit what can be termed its post-nationalism. If this is the case it changes everything in politics north of the border.
Many of the more thoughtful voices in Scottish Labour such as Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon, have reflected on how Scottish politics would gain from the SNP evolving on the constitutional question. Alexander has previously talked of in the language of ending ‘Scotland’s 40 year walk in the park’, meaning its never-ending debate on the status of Scotland. Moving beyond this would allow us to focus on the economic and social issues which face the nation.
Salmond’s repositioning has the potential to throw down difficulties for Labour. An SNP which embraces a post-nationalist politics would be one that Labour – along with the likes of Vernon Bogdanor – could not name call as ‘separatists’. This might not matter much to Bogdanor, but it would to Scottish Labour, whose main uniting vision is its gut hatred of all things Scottish Nationalist. Deprived of this Scottish Labour – which may win next year’s Scottish Parliament elections and be back in office – may have to work out what it is about.
Salmond’s remarks have flung open a debate about the future of Scotland which carries with it the prospect of asking people to rethink the purpose and point of devolution, the Scottish Parliament, and the experience and record of the last decade.
That’s an exciting and overdue prospect. Scotland wasn’t able to address tough choices, issues or engage in new thinking during the good times when the monies flowed. Now this potentially exhilarating opportunity has been thrust upon us in hard times.
1. Magnus Linklater and Angus Macleod, ‘Do people realise how bad things are? No. Can we get out of it? Yes’, The Times (Scottish edition), June 25th 2010, pp. 8-9 (closed by a paywall).