Monday, November 27, 2006

The nationalist advance continues

The extraordinary revival of the Scottish National Party continues. The SNP has been marching up the opinion polls for the last six months and in the latest MORI/Scotsman poll is ahead of Labour by 32 to 30. More significantly, a majority of Scots - 51% - told the polling organisation that they support independence.

It’s back to the future. Back to the arguments about whether an independent Scotland would get automatic entry to the EU; about the future of Scotland’s Oil. There’s even been a row over nuclear waste and independence, with the First Minister, Jack McConnell, warning that if Scotland went its own way, England might refuse to take the waste form Scottish nuclear power stations to the proposed national repository at Sellafield. A kind of “Waste Lothian Question”.

The Scottish press is going through one of its nationalistic phases. You can hardly open a paper without reading of some prominent figure talking up independence - from the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholic community, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, to Tom Farmer, boss of Kwikfit, who has gifted the SNP £100,000.

Prominent businessmen like Sir Ian Vallance, the former head of BT and Crawford Beveridge, former chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, have been calling for the Scottish parliament to be given greater financial autonomy. The argument is that by having to raise, through taxation, the money they spend, Scottish politicians might become more responsible legislators. At present, the Scottish Executive gets an annual block grant from Westminster, currently worth £25bn.

It’s all very lively, and given the blogs plenty to post about. The only people who don’t seem to be getting carried away with all this is the Scottish National Party itself. It’s response has been muted. The SNP leader Alex Salmond isn’t measuring the curtains in Bute House, and nor is the party booking its seat at the UN. MSPs aren’t predicting national liberation from the English yoke. Most of them are reluctant to talk of the possibility of an imminent breakrhough. This is a far cry from the over-the-top, “cry freedom” character of previous SNP upswings.

So, what’s going on? Well, for one thing, the SNP has to recognise that, if the polls are right, it has not been promoting the independence message very effectively. If 51% of Scots want it, why do only 32% say they’ll vote for the Scottish National Party?

The SNP know from bitter experience that people mean different things by “independence” when they talk to opinion pollsters. Some people think Scotland is already effectively independent because of the existence of the Scottish parliament in Holyrood. Others say they they support independence because they are Scottish patriots - but not all small “n” nationalists want to set up customs posts at the border or set up a separate Scottish central bank.

The other reason the SNP are not counting any constitutional chickens is that the political debate hasn’t really been engaged yet. Labour in Scotland is preocupied with internal matters: the leadership row, Iraq and the loss of its activists.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has yet to open his account. In 1999, the last time the SNP was scoring this high in the polls, ~Brown wieghed in with a devastating campaign assault on the economics of independence under the slogan “Divorce is an expensive business”.

Labour picked apart the SNP budget for independence, claiming that there would be a four billion budget deficit, deep spending cuts, flight of businesses, and general economic chaos if Scotland went off on its own. Scots got the message.
IN 1999 the Scottish press was militantly pro-unionists and savaged the SNP at every turn. The coverage was so malign that the chief executive of the SNP, Mike Russell, in desperation, set up a rival newspaper financed by campaign funds to try to get a word in. To little avail.

So, it’s hardly surprising that the SNP are cautious. Indeed, we are in a situation where the Scottish press, eight years on, seems rather more optimistic about the prospects for independence than the Scottish National Party. Papers like the Scotsman - which was militantly unionist under its previous publisher, the Thatcherite Andrew Neill - is now much more relaxed about nationalism, and seems genuinely enthusiastic about winning greater powers for the parliament. The Sunday Times, also, has turned out to be pro-autonomy, and mass papers like the Sun actually support the SNP.

The whole debate about the constitution has changed in the last eight years. It could be that voters in Scotland no longer fear independence in the way they did. They realise that, in a parliament of minorities, the SNP is never going to be in a position to rule alone. It will only ever be in coalition with other parties like the Liberal Democrats, who support federalism, but not independence.

If the SNP manages not to get too caught up in the metaphysics of independence, it could do very well in the forthcoming elections in May. It will be Labour’s job to keep the focus on the destructive dynamics of separatism. They are expert at doing precisely that. But with less than six months to go, they’re leaving it very late.

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