Scottish politics seem to be at a key moment, attracting interest from across the UK and internationally, even winning the accolade of an editorial from the famously Londoncentric Guardian and columns from Jackie Ashley and Martin Kettle.
The SNP, according to The Guardian, is a party which is "a far cry from the era of Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald" and "today's SNP is now a professional political party of a recognisably modern kind". If the party's metamorphosis has been noticed in the deep recesses of the Westminster village then something has shifted; Ashley pondered whether David Cameron could be the last Prime Minister of the UK, and Kettle that, despite SNP successes, support for independence has not risen, and that patriotism and nationalism are not synonymous.
All of these comments point to profound movement and uncertainty at a UK and Scottish level, and were aided by the recent SNP conference held over the last few days at Inverness. Alex Salmond, giving his leader's address (his third as First Minister), gave a fascinating and nuanced speech, which although low-key in tone and different from his usual deliveries, rewards greater examination.
Salmond attempted to address at least three explicitly different areas in his speech. First, there was the presentation of the achievements of the SNP in office from micro-policy to big achievements, ranging from protecting apprenticeships to 1,000 new police officers. In Harold Wilsonesque style, Salmond claimed the Nationalists had delivered 63 out of 94 promises, attempting to refute the opposition charge of ‘broken promises' on council tax reform and other pledges.
Second, he did a small amount of grandstanding and crowd pleasing on Trident weapons in the Clyde, and al-Megrahi, winning sustained applause for the latter, invoking Gandhi's grandson as an example of compassion and reconciliation. Third, he set out the conditions of an SNP Westminster voting wedge post-2010 UK election, attempting to talk up the relevance of the party to prevent it being squeezed by Labour and Conservative. Nationalist aspirations of twenty seats have no prospect of being met, with Electoral Calculus currently predicting a maximum ten SNP gains which itself would be breathtaking. As crucially what the party is attempting to do is counter the new Labour slogan, 'Vote SNP, Get Tory'.
Salmond was responding to the new age of seriousness, which has seen all the UK political party leaders adapting their tone and content to match the challenges of the times and the interconnected economic and political crisis. Salmond did so, stripping back the knockabout and articulating a moral language and outlook which he has previously resisted (see Kenny Farquharson, 'Salmond enters the Moral Maze', Scotland on Sunday, October 18th 2009).
Across the whole conference there was a different feel to recent gatherings, with much less of a buzz than the previous two years. There was still an element of confidence, but also a sense that the Nationalists are sitting in their comfort zone, which could become complacency. The party after the elation of Glasgow East and disappointment of Glenrothes, seems to have become accepting that it will not win Glasgow North East, not aided by a poor candidate in David Kerr, who has right-wing views across a range of economic and social policy.
The Forward March of the Nationalist Movement
Getting a sense of where the SNP is, how its members feel and the relationship between the party and its parliamentary leaders, the ethos of the nationalist movement is similar to the state and mindset of the earlier British socialist movement in the early decades of the 20th century. Both were defined by a trust of the parliamentary leadership, and a sense that ‘the big picture' was what mattered, rather than policy detail, and that a sense of patience was required for the benefits of incremental gradualism to reap their full reward.
This approach, as the early socialists illustrated, is all fine, as long as things are on an upward trajectory such as the forward march of Labour. It does not survive major reverses which throw the whole strategy into question as happened with Labour from the 1920s and 1930s when Ramsay MacDonald's first two minority Labour Governments led to 1931 and his betrayal and going over to the Tories.
No one would expect such a bitter and perfidious set of experiences to befall the Scottish Nationalists, but it underlines that the strength and consensus behind the leadership is predicated on recent successes and lack of significant reverses. If the party suffers a powerful defeat or reverse, the consensus in the party behind the leadership could disappear quickly.
A number of future points could provide those occasions. For a start there is the opportunity of the 2010 UK election and the possible election of a Conservative Government with little to no Scottish mandate. The SNP are counting on this as allowing them to position themselves as the unchallenged defenders of Scotland's interests; yet quite a lot of this will depend on how the Tories govern and how Labour responds in opposition.
And there is the issue of an SNP banking on a Tory victory when the electoral system is so stacked against the Tories it might just not deliver it. Current polls put the Tories 10-11% ahead of Labour, when they need a minimum 9% lead to achieve a majority of just one. A hung parliament, particularly one not susceptible to a second quick election, could throw down challenges to all the parties and remove the easy target of a Tory majority government. This of course could offer major opportunities to the SNP, and it might not depend on the election and post-election arrangements.
Then there are the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. The SNP leadership are operating on two assumptions, that the election of the UK Tories and the voting down of the independence referendum in Holyrood, will enhance the SNP's prospects. However, Scottish voter preferences in 2011 will be shaped by a whole host of issues, most importantly, the economy, education and health, with independence and a referendum far down the list of voter priorities.
While the state of Scottish Labour is not exactly positive and Scotland is the one part of the UK to be immune to a ‘Cameron bounce' there has been since 2007 no evidence of a realignment of Scottish politics, or a sense that 2007 was a ‘watershed election' in the political science meaning. Scottish politics post-2007 have seen a slow gentle upwards swing towards the SNP and gradual decline of Scottish Labour, but no dramatic shift, certainly none worthy of the media consensus that the 2011 election is a shoo-in for the Nationalists.
Developing A New Phase of Scottish Nationalism
The SNP in its first two and a half years in office has established a reputation for competence, while also transforming the nature of Scotland's Government and the office of First Minister. Iain Macwhirter has written immediately post-SNP Conference:
The success of the Nationalist Government in the Scottish Parliament has transformed Scottish politics and put independence on the agenda as never before in modern history.
This phase has continuities with many of the historic characteristics of the SNP: in it being policy-lite, and about identity and headline populist measures which position the party. This sort of politics has got the party far, but for the next phase it will need to begin across a range of areas, thinking about how it can develop policies and ideas to change Scotland which inform the vision of independence.
This set of issues were evident in the launch of my book, The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power at the SNP Annual Conference. At a packed meeting, Mike Russell, Minister for Culture, External Relations and the Constitution, with contributors from the book - Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, Colin Mackay and myself - chaired by the impressive Joan McAlpine of the Sunday Times, explored some of this.
Jim and Margaret Cuthbert addressed themselves to the economic neo-liberalism which was at the heart of the party pre-crash, while Colin Mackay explored the creeping complacency in the party. Mike Russell in a tour de force of a response showed what a serious and coming force he is in the Nationalist movement, graciously dismissing the Cuthbert's critique, while recognising the need for the SNP to embrace ‘a politics of ideas' and the power of inertia in parts of institutional Scotland.
What flows from this discussion is who are the friends of the SNP and where do new ideas come from, not just for the Nationalists, but for the wider cause of self-government? Firstly, while the SNP administration has had a relatively good to benign press, this ignores the fact that the Nationalists have very few real friends in the media. The two main tabloids, ‘The Daily Record' and ‘The Sun' are not pro-SNP, the latter having gone through a Nationalist phase in the early 1990s. Most of the commentariat are of a unionist or anti-nationalist persuasion, the exception being Iain Macwhirter of The Herald and Sunday Herald. What this underlines is how significant have been the achievements of the SNP in office and before in gaining a fair hearing and then a decent press.
However, for the party to progress it will have to embrace and nurture new ideas and policy thinking. This will entail taking on and deconstructing the parallel Labour state which sits embedded in the network of quangos and extended local state networks, and which act as gatekeepers and guardians of the former people's party.
At the same time the ecology of institutions which inhabit the Scots policy community needs to be reviewed to aid new ways of developing dialogue, discussion and capacity. This has to at some point involve nurturing new institutions, whether they are think tanks, research agencies, or academic-policy institutes.
Here in lies one of the central paradoxes evident in the Scottish experience of self-government, namely that while Scotland has grown more distinctive and different, its ability to support this across a range of institutions has not grown in capacity to reflect this aspiration. The next phase of both the Scottish Nationalists and the journey of self-government has to rise to this challenge, and recognise that the making of a new nation requires new institutions to emerge and sustain it.
The current terrain of Scottish politics and its wider UK environment means that The Guardian and others are going to have to keep their attention northwards for the next few years. It also requires that Scottish nationalists and radicals embark on a medium to long-term project to inhabit the distinctive political space evolving north of the border which will require a more ambitious politics if we are to permanently break free from the ossifying reach of the British political system.
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst. He is author and editor of over a dozen books on Scottish and UK politics and editor of 'The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power' published by Edinburgh University Press this week at £19.99. Gerry can be contacted on gerryhassan.com