The SNP risks a great loss in putting Independence on the back-burner. They have the huge energy of the street Yes campaign behind them. Shifting from fifth gear to reverse risks not only loss of momentum, but damage. “Go out and work for Independence!” is what 80,000 new members want to hear. “Go out and work for Devo-Max and a supply and confidence agreement with Labour at Westminster”, is not.
I was not too concerned at reports that Alex Salmond had said that Independence may not feature in the SNP’s coming Westminster manifesto, and it would be up to Nicola Sturgeon. It was just one interview, and the great man was possibly just musing, I thought. But then we had Nicola Sturgeon’s message to all members, repeated as adverts in the newspapers, setting out the stall for the General Election. This makes no mention of Independence at all.
I think there are two major mistakes here. The first is that rather than state its fundamental beliefs, the SNP is tailoring its message to be appropriate to a specific tactical situation – a hung parliament with the SNP able to sustain a Labour-led government, in return for certain demands. Tailoring the message to this circumstance is a mistake because it is a scenario which is entirely beyond the power of the SNP, or even Scotland, to bring about. And my very firm prediction is that it will not happen.
Labour and the Tories are neck and neck in recent polls, but I fully expect the Tories will make ground, as the incumbent government always does in the final months before a UK general election. They have the opportunity of a populist budget to boost them. UKIP support will dip, disproportionately returning to the Tories. Murdoch will back Cameron, along with the Mail, Express and Telegraph. The Tories have over twice the campaign funds of Labour. The LibDem vote will plummet but they will hold on to more of their own seats UK wide than a uniform swing would indicate. I am willing to bet that the Conservatives remain in power, probably still as the ConDems, after the General Election.
In this scenario, what happens in Scotland is irrelevant to who forms the UK government – as so often. Whether there are more Labour or more SNP on the opposition benches will make little difference to Cameron and Osborne. What will happen, however, is an increasingly urgent demand for Scottish Independence in the face of five more years of unwanted Tory rule in Scotland.
It is tactically essential that, in this scenario, the SNP MP’s can claim to have been elected on a clear mandate for Independence. The SNP may have a majority of Scottish MP’s after May. There will be a vote on whether the UK leaves the EU. Should the UK vote to leave the EU (which is not improbable), the demand for Scottish Independence may become overwhelming. If at that stage we have a majority of Scottish MP’s clearly elected for Independence, there are a number of possible options for achieving Independence. If however those MPs were elected only on a platform that prioritised Devo-Max, the arguments look very different.
The second major mistake is that Devo-Max is unobtainable. Whitehall and Westminster will never agree to hand over to Scotland its full oil or whisky revenues. It is in any event not possible for Scotland to run an expansive fiscal policy within the overall control of the Treasury and Bank of England. It is possible to get limited extra powers for the Scottish parliament. The Smith Commission is very close to the limit of what Westminster will ever agree within the Union. Even were Smith to be fully implemented (which like Calman it won’t) it is no substitute for Independence.
And as I have frequently stated, so long as our foreign and defence policy is still controlled by Westminster, so long as they can still send Scots to fight and die in illegal wars, so long as they can involve us in hideous torture and permanent conflict in the Middle East, we have not obtained ethical responsibility, and the rest means little.
Many No voters already regret their vote. The SNP does not need to pitch its message to appeal to continuing unionists. As the Independence vote is heavily behind the SNP, while the Unionist vote has more significant diversions between Labour, Tory, Liberal and UKIP, under first past the post the Yes voters alone will sweep the board – which is precisely what opinion polls show as happening.
The other thing we know from the Referendum is that a significant number of SNP voters, voted No. The truth is that not every supporter of the SNP is a fervent supporter of Independence. Certainly a great many members do not relate to the social radicalism and desire for sweeping societal change that motivated so much of the astonishing street Yes campaign.
The SNP has now a substantial professional class. It has MSP’s, Scottish ministers, MP’s and MEP’s, and all their research assistants, secretaries, constituency secretaries and SPADs. It has paid councillors, committee chairs, leaders of councils. It has a Chief Executive and HQ staff. If the process of gradualism has brought you a good income and a comfy living, it is a natural temptation to see the accretion of a few more powers, and the addition of a lot more jobs for MP’s and their staff, as all part of useful progress, without wanting to risk anything too radical. Independence can become a misty aspiration, lost in the day to day concerns of genuinely ultra-important stuff like running the NHS or schools or local transport.
The SNP is not the small band of noble rebellious souls it once was. It is now a major institution in itself, and part of the fabric of the British state. Institutions, even composed of the nicest people, always develop and protect their corporate interest.
I worry that the downplaying of the Independence goal for the General Election may drain the fire from those 80,000 Yes-oriented new members. I worry even more that this may not be an accident.