A spectre is haunting Scotland - the spectre of nationalism. As Labour falters north of the Border, the SNP is rising in opinion polls. The latest, by Scottish Opinion, putx Alex Salmond’s party four points ahead.
All of which suggests that the best way to achieve success in the Scottish Parliament is to leave it. For, the SNP leader has, of course, spent the last five years in the Imperial Parliament in London, as a matter of his own free choice. Whatever, the SNP are on the march again.
The party everyone had written off three years ago, when it lost badly in the last Scottish parliamentary elections, is making progress again. With Scotland’s oil soaring in price, and with the Westminster government mired in sleaze and division, the Scottish Nationalists think their time may have finally come.
Suddenly, old arguments are being dusted down about whether or not Scotland could secede from the UK as a result of a vote in the Scottish Parliament, or whether Westminster would have to give its say so. The formal answer is that Westminster would have to endorse independence because constitutional matters are reserved. But in practice it seems unlikely that a Scottish Parliament, dominated by nationalists, would take a blind bit of notice of what Westminster said. The Scottish Parliament represents the people's will, and so it would likely pass an Enabling Act giving itself sovereign powers to dissolve the union.
However, it’s never going to happen like that - not in a parliament of minorities elected under proportional representation. The prospects for the SNP gaining an absolute majority in next May's Scottish parliamentary elections are practically zero. Nothing short of a Lebanon style invasion by an English army would cause Scots to vote in sufficient numbers to give the SNP more than fifty percent of the popular vote.
Labour insiders used to say that this was precisely the point. Stuck in a proportional Scottish parliament with limited powers, the SNP would never be able to break out of the limits imposed by the Additional Member electoral system. That the Scottish nationalists would be condemned to impotent fulmination on the backbenches of Holyrood, a secessionists faction permanently deprived of power. Ha! fiendish cunning, that Donald Dewar.
This belief that the parliament was “sorted” led Jack McConnell and his predecessors as First Minister to believe that Labour was likely to be in government indefinitely. Ten year plans abound. Jack McConnell ruminated in public a year ago about whether or not he should linger in office for a decade, or step down to give another Labour figure a chance.
However, the Scottish voters show no signs of being content to have Labour in office for eternity. Indeed, there are signs that the Scottish voter is heartily sick of its indifferent and unimaginative leadership and its connexion to the party of the same name in Westminster.
We saw in Dunfermline and Moray by-elections earlier this year just how ruthless the Scottish electorate can be. In Dunfermline and West Fife, the Chancellor’s home seat, Labour lost an 11,500 majority to the Liberal Democrats, and in Moray Labour was pushed into fourth place. The voters seem to want to punish Labour for being Labour. MSPs in the Scottish Parliament tell of voters hurling abuse at Labour politicians . Some complain that there is such a shortage of party workers on the ground that elected politicians are having to rely on heir extended families to get the message across.
It’s not just Iraq, but cash-for-peerages, privatisation, Trident replacement, nuclear power civil liberties, and of course Cherie’s #7,000 hairdressing bill, which may turn out to be the most expensive hairdo in history. So Labour can be beaten. The question is whether the opposition parties can get their act together.
If Labour is to be removed from office, the opposition parties will have to unite to lever it out. The SNP will have to lure the Scottish Liberal Democrats into some kind of coalition with themselves and the Greens if there is to be a chance of removing Labour from power.
At present, the Liberal Democrats are relatively happy partners of Labour in the Scottish Executive. Though the new LibDem leader, Nicol Stephen, is saying that Labour can’t take them for granted, it’s clear that most of his MSPs would prefer a stable arrangement with Labour than an unstable one with Alex Salmond and the Greens.
They don’t want to break up the union with England for a start, and both the SNP and the Greens want an independent Scotland. Moreover the LibDems have got a lot out of their eight year partnership with Labour - tuition fees, free personal care, reform of local government. It will take a lot to prize the LibDems apart from this embrace with.
Nothing is impossible of course. But the SNP would effectively have to give up on independence to enter government. Nationalism seems set to remain a ghostly apparition rather than a concrete reality.