Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is this the end for Scottish Nationalism?

So is that the end of the nationalist dream? Have hopes of an independent Scotland crashed to the ground, like Pan Am 103, following he fiasco over the release of Al Megrahi? Well, nationalism has seen better days. Megrahi’s triumphant return to Libya outraged many Scots and, for the first time, a credibility gulf has opened up between Alex Salmond and the Scottish voters, many of whom refuse to believe that economic motives did not play a part in the Lockerbie bomber’s compassionate release.

The Scottish government suffered a humiliating defeat in the Scottish parliament on Megrahi last week, and it didn’t stop there. The SNP’s third legislative programme, featuring that referendum on independence, has been greeted by howls of derision. In the midst of a financial crisis and with the government accused of double dealing over oil and compassion, what point is there in publishing a referendum bill that will almost certainly not be passed by parliament and, even if it were, would likely return a decisive rejection of independence. Has Alex finally lost it?

The Diageo affair has been another awkward moment for the Nationalists. The Scottish government has managed to appear opportunist, even as ministers tried to defend jobs in Kilmarnock. The drinks company contemptuously rejected their plan to save the plant, as economically illiterate. The sub-text was that the SNP were playing for votes in a target seat by attempting to demonise one of Scotland's most important and successful firms. The SNP has been very successful in its double strategy of being the government and the opposition in one party, but there are limits - a government has to accept that it is there to govern not campaign. And as the novelty of nationalism wears off, the voters are beginning to regard the SNP as just like any government: deeply fallible and morally unreliable.

This is clearly a defining moment for Scotland’s first ever nationalist government. From here on Alex Salmond either consolidates his position as a national leader, or things fall apart and the government collapses into one of those ignominious troughs that the SNP experiences every decade or so. The odds against that happening, but the danger is very real, and is apparent on the faces of the party leaders. Alex Salmond has been going non stop for the last three years and he should remember that exhaustion is a greater enemy for a radical administration than any opposition party.

However, it’s worth recalling just how popular this administration had been until the Lockerbie issue broke. Alex Salmond’s personal popularity has remained unnaturally high over the last two and a half years of government, despite the banking collapse, local income tax and more broken promises than Amy Winehouse made in rehab. In June, an ICM poll asked how good or bad a job the UK party leaders were doing. Salmond was rated plus 34, Gordon Brown, plus 4 and David Cameron minus 15 - and this poll wasn’t commissioned by the SNP but by the BBC. In the only poll that mattered in June, the European elections, the SNP surged ahead of Labour and delivered 29% to Labour’s 21% - a 7.5% swing to the SNP. .

Mind you that was against the background of the expenses scandal in Westminster, which didn’t engulf the SNP, and followed a period of six months in which Labour had been in the lead in voting intentions for Westminster. Following the Lockerbie row, it seems most unlikely that Alex Salmond will gain his 20 seats and hold the balance of power in Westminster. But the SNP can’t be written off yet. The SNP have published opinion polls suggesting that more people are coming round to their side on Megrahi, thanks to the support of Nelson Mandela and the Scottish churches.

No one came out of the Megrahi affair smelling of roses, but at least the SNP managed to prevent Gordon Brown escaping the ordure. The Prime Minister’s refusal to comment on the repatriation of Megrahi left him looking ridiculous, especially after it emerged that his own ministers had been telling the Libyans that they didn’t want the Lockerbie bomber to die in jail. Labour are now insisting that the SNP administration was under pressure from the Arab oil state of Qatar to release Megrahi in exchange for investment in Scotland. This may or may not be true, but the UK government was clearly in the same game over oil projects in Libya. A sceptical public, many of whom believe that we haven’t been told the whole story about Lockerbie, have been left doubting the integrity of either Brown or Salmond on this. But at least this has prevented the SNP being landed with all the blame.

Lockerbie aside, the next couple of years were never going to be easy for the SNP. The policy on restricting alcohol sales has been unravelling and there is still no clear funding mechanism for the new Forth road bridge as public spending is axed. Unemployment will be growing fast in Scotland even as the financial crisis abates. Labour will be quick to blame the Scottish government for being unprepared at the same time as arguing that the case for independence has been ruined by the credit crunch and the UK bail out that saved the Scottish banks. Moreover, the Calman Commission has unexpectedly produced a rather compelling case for a form of federalism. Though Calman’s tax-splitting mechanism is defective, his arguments for a transfer of fiscal responsibility to Holyrood have been almost universally accepted. The SNP however, is not making the mistake of disowning Calman as it disowned the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1988. Indeed, Salmond is making clear that there should be a third ‘Calman’ question in the referendum on independence - if the opposition parties can come up with one.

The likelihood is that the opposition parties will unite to defeat the referendum bill in parliament in order to show, as they did over local income tax and Megrahi, that the Scottish government is faltering. However, the collapse of the bill needn’t be a crisis for the SNP. Everyone assumes that Alex Salmond really wants a referendum in November 2011, but tactically the failure of the bill might suit the SNP rather well. Remember, the SNP only gained power in Holyrood by factoring out independence, and promising to govern within the constitutional terms of devolution. The referendum gave Scottish voters confidence that a vote for the SNP wasn’t an immediate vote for the break up of Britain. If the referendum bill is rejected by the Scottish parliament, as expected, it can provide the top line for the 2011 manifesto, and will again allow the Scottish voters to vote SNP without registering a direct vote for separation.

Will the SNP win in 2011? Yes. I think they probably will. With a Conservative government in Westminster pushing through deep public spending cuts, the SNP will be in a strong position to go into the 2011 election campaign defending Scottish jobs and services, especially if Labour is in disarray following a serious electoral defeat. In two years time, Lockerbie will be a distant memory, and most people will remember Gordon Brown’s evasion as much as Kenny MacAskill’s questionable compassion. The election is likely to be all about jobs and cuts. It will be up to the SNP to persuade worried voters that they, and they alone, can stand up for Scotland.


ratzo said...

Not bad. But you overstate the long-term significance of the Megrahi issue. Try reading this:

The issue here is basically whether Unionists can sustain their campaigns of misdirection, bluster and diversion such that it is eventually assumed that they must have been correct.

But the appropriateness and consistency of Macaskill's position suggests that time is on his side, in the medium-to-long term.

In the meantime to ought to be pointed out just how opportunistic, cheap, and cowardly the Unionist attack on Macaskill really was.

brownlie said...

Surprised that a journalist of your experience and political acumen refer to last week's vote as a humiliating defeat. Given that the opposition parties would have voted against the government even if Megrahi had been retained in prison it should be regarded more as a predictable defeat and will be regarded by voters as nothing more than that. On top of that the indecision between Gray and Brown will not have been lost on the public.

The "howls of derision" over the legislative programme, again, predictably, were from opposition parties and did anyone really expect anything else?

It would appear that the referendum is deliberately being put before parliament precisely to let the opposition vote it down and the SNP will claim that the will of the people, the majority of whom want a referendum one way or the other, is being ignored.

Andrew BOD said...


You hit the right notes on some things here, but your summation betrays your headline. I'll forgive you in the knowledge it had to look controversial to attract attention!

On gut reactions to Megrahi, Diageo & Calman, it looks as though the SNP are taking the biggest hit.

However, on Megrahi, colourful figures such as Mandela, Galloway, McLeish and even Tony Blair have come out in favour of MacAskill. Add to that suspicions over Brown's intentions, and the latest poll on the matter, and things look much better than is portrayed in the media.

On Diageo, this was very much a joint approach - a cross-party 'Taskforce', and it seems Diageo, certainly amongst the Scottish public, are the ones being classed as the villains. Courting with the politicians and then sticking with their plan was always going to make them look strong in the finance world. I'd be surprised if their share price didn't increase as a result.

On Calman, the SNP is certainly not disowning Calman, but it appears from Jim Murphy's recent meeting on Calman, that it could be tossed into the long grass by the co-founders themselves. And the compelling case for Federalism may well be compelling in Scotland, but 91% of the population in the rest of the UK would have to be compelled as well.

So I don't think it's too bad for a minority Government in mid-term. The SNP will be hoping for the economic recovery to be well under way before they bring the Referendum to Parliament. And with Wendy Alexander still sitting in the opposition benches, they won't have far to look for ammunition.

Yes, the SNP is not infallible, and might not always be perceived as morally reliable, but they have changed Scottish Politics forever. There may well be continuing cycles of support for nationalism, but I don't believe they will ever hit the lows of the past.

Just take a look at the alternatives, and it doesn't take you long to realise that they have a really good chance of retaining power in 2011.

Anonymous said...

Well the only possible alternative is Labour, and with Iain Gray in charge surely that's never going to happen.

sm753 said...

"Remember, the SNP only gained power in Holyrood by factoring out independence, and promising to govern within the constitutional terms of devolution. "

Indeed, and that was a lie.

Both LIT and SFT were unworkable within the existing legal framework.

The Nats were either too stupid to work that out, or they knew and chose to lie.

This cannot be emphasised enough.

gus said...

Specifically the Megrahi issue, I detect a lot of hot air aimed at short term party political ponts scoring which is unfortunate.

Will someone please focus on the validity of the original court verdict. Scottish journalists have a duty there, I think.

Did the CIA pull the wool over the Scottish Justice system in a desparate attempt to find a scapegoat for the bomb and discredit Libya? and is that why the US is currently keen for a line to be drawn under the matter?

Of course Tony Brair did a deal in the dessert, not unreasonably, to bring the Libyans back into the international fold and benefit British trade and that is why Gordon Brown is quietly heaving sigh of relief that he did not have to make the decision to release Magrahi.

Letting Magrahi go home was the right thing to do on humanitarian grounds, probably on justice grounds, and certainly on UK trade interest grounds. (Libya is by now firmly establishe back in the international fold, anyway).

The only people who stand to loose from Megrahis' release are the Americans, as the truth may eventually come out as to their role in events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing and subsequent investigations and also in the fact that UK firms may pick up business in Libya that might well, otherwise, go to the US.

Anybody who thinks there is a still a special relationship between the US and the UK probably still thinks there is a British Empire.

The USA does what it thinks is good for the USA as number one.

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