My dad, Joe, was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1954. He has been a supporter of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since 1970, the same year they gained their first Member of Parliament in a general election.
Donald Stewart: one of the SNP's first MP's
Back then he was just 16 years old and the SNP was still a marginal party, not taken seriously on the major political stage in Britain. This was due in part to the fact that their principal policy was a far flung, romantic vision of an independent Scotland that they themselves described as their “revolutionary aim” But four decades on and things have changed drastically. Scotland now has its own devolved parliament, and last week the SNP won an unprecedented majority in the Scottish elections, which for the first time will allow them to set a referendum on independence. The SNP’s dream, finally, has become a tangible reality that appears almost within their grasp.
The outcome of the referendum – which will be held within the next five years – is of course unpredictable at this point. However, the SNP’s astonishing victory last week was a historic moment in itself which deserves pause for discussion and reflection.
In an attempt to make sense of it all, I could not think of a better person to turn to than my father – who was of course in an elated mood over the SNP’s victory. From London I called him in Scotland to discuss the context of the result and to hear his thoughts on what it might mean for the country’s future.
I began by explaining that to me the result was surprising. Like most people, I expected that the SNP would make large gains – but I didn’t expect the out and out rout that we witnessed across the country. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were all overturned in constituencies they previously took for granted, forcing the leader of each respective party to resign. Not even SNP leader Alex Salmond had predicted it. So my first question was about the timing. Why now for the SNP’s landslide?
“I knew there was going to be a tipping point. Lots of things conspired to make it happen this time; it wasn’t really that the SNP did anything special – it was the fact that the other parties were so inept.
“There’s a feeling in Scotland that [Scottish] Labour are too much in the hands of London Labour, because it’s happened before at elections . . . you see candidates running round, and they all import advisers from London to help run their campaigns, and everybody notices that; it rankles a wee bit that it’s London Labour calling the shots. Labour have taken people for granted for years and years and years. It’s like a mafia up here: they thought, ‘put a red rose on a monkey and it’ll get elected.’ That’s what they used to say. But not any longer – that’s all finished.
“And you know what the story is with the Lib Dems: they’ve been tainted by what’s gone on with the coalition, so people have lost trust in them. Plus the Tories are just toxic up here. If you mention the Tories in Scotland, people get an overwhelming urge to spit. And you can quote me on that – because it’s true!”
But it’s important to note that many in Scotland are voting SNP not because of their nationalist tendencies per se, he tells me. Part of their popularity has been the job they have done. The SNP was largely untainted by the expenses scandal and, he says, their principled stance on the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was looked upon favourably by many in Scotland.
“People aren’t voting nationalist; the SNP done a good job. Everybody said they would be a disaster, that they’d be a one trick pony, but actually they’ve proved themselves to be quite competent in power, even though it was a minority government … They’ve come out looking good almost every way you look.
“So I wouldn’t take it as a vote for independence, or for nationalism per se. Although I think they’ll do their best to foster that now that they’ve got power.”
Looking to the future
Now that the SNP have finally got a full grip on the Scottish Parliament, what will come next? I ask. Where is Alex Salmond going to lead Scotland?
“I see a future where Scotland is independent and able to make its own choices. Because for the last 30 to 40 years, all the choices have been made by London for Scotland – and most of them have not been good for Scotland.
“If we get to the point where we’re independent, we make our own choices about our own economy, and then we can’t blame England all the time – which is what we’ve done. It’s like a wee baby who’s not getting a sweetie, and just starts crying for it – that’s all Scotland has been doing for years and years. We need to stop doing it and we need to grow up. The only way to grow up is to give us control of ourselves. It’s like a teenage boy having to leave home and realise what it is: the seriousness of living and paying all your own bills and being responsible for yourself. Scotland will need to do that as a country.”
You clearly favour independence – and always have done, I say. But polls show uncertainty, with many illustrating that a large portion of Scottish voters are currently opposed to a fully independent Scotland. So how will Salmond – who also craves independence – respond to this?
“Salmond’s going to wait until the last year and a half of the five years. And tactically what he’ll do up until then is pick fights with England. Because that’s what you would do yourself; if you want to make your opposition look bad – pick fights with them. So he’s going to ask for things from London that people up here think are only fair. And London will say, ‘no and no and no’. Or they’ll backslide and dig their heels in. And we’ll get more and more rankled by that. That’s Salmond’s plan – that we become more and more upset.”
He tells me he believes Prime Minister David Cameron’s vocal opposition to Scottish independence could in fact play in to the hands of the SNP. And the more Cameron lurches to the political right, the more he pushes his privatisation agenda, the more Scottish people may soften to the idea of independence.
“The more right wing they go, the more we’ll turn against them,” he says. “Salmond couldn’t have asked for a better perfect storm than this.”