The End of An Era: Goodbye to the 1980s and the Age of the Imperial SNP

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, May 8th 2016

Last week’s election marked the end of a historic era –  a Scotland defined by the explosion and aftermath of the independence referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have been given a mandate of sorts – not the kind they were looking for or expecting. It is much more conditional, while still tinged with respect.

The SNP won but their expectations about a landslide got the better of them. Sturgeon tried to play it both ways on the indyref (not as chaotically as Labour’s Kezia Dugdale) but given her position as First Minister did so in a way that caused some doubt and even confusion.

There were several winners. The Tories and Greens are on the up, and outflanking the SNP on the right and left. Both were ‘winners’ in the indyref, but have managed to move on to new terrain.

The SNP were also ‘winners’ in the referendum, but they both won and lost the election. The party stood on a safety first manifesto, trying to be all things to all people, and so inclusive that it became difficult to pin down what its core priorities were – independence apart.

No such qualifications can be said about Labour. The party’s vote of 22.6% in the constituency vote and 19.1% on the regional list – third place in that vote and seats – is its worst result since 1910. There is no Labour heartland anywhere left: only a few stranded outposts where the party held out against the SNP FPTP tsunami.

The Lib Dems were a masterclass in resilience on a small scale, holding on to Orkney and Shetland and coming back in a few previous redoubts. The least said about UKIP, fighting against the ideal backdrop of a Europe vote, and the fragments of the left – in RISE and Tommy Sheridan – the better.

SNP majority government proved ill-suited to Scotland and the SNP – indyref apart. How quickly some SNP politicians began to look and sound like, at their worst, automatons who were shiny, overconfident and convinced of their own virtue – reminiscent of New Labour at its worst.

This is the end of the age of the imperial SNP: a party which thought it could do numerous contradictory things at the same time, while indefinitely suspending the normal laws of political gravity.

The SNP were once an outsider, insurgent party and still have that deep in their DNA, soul and collective sense of themselves. But the party leadership have stopped feeling like that or acting like it after nine years of office.

There was something of a ‘bubble’ nationalism to the SNP campaign – of Nicola Sturgeon walking around adoring crowds taking endless selfies, and replaying the greatest hits of the referendum, such as addressing the masses at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall steps close to polling day.

The worrying signs are there for the SNP – and Nicola Sturgeon – in this strange victory. She has had eighteen months of plain sailing as First Minister. Now she has to show her mettle, her feistiness and ability to govern, and make choices, communicate them and lead a nation in difficult times through choppy waters. There hasn’t been enough of that so far. She now has a second opportunity to reinvent herself and her government.

The notion of an independence referendum anytime soon is off the agenda. That means the SNP have to offer more definition about who they are and what they champion. They are going to have to be more honest about public services and public spending, and not blame everything on the Tories or Westminster.

The appeal of anti-Tory Scotland has been invoked to near exhaustion. It is no use continually going on about the perfidy of Tories and Margaret Thatcher and trying to tar everyone with the same toxic tartan Tory brand – from Tony Blair and New Labour to the ‘Red Tories’ of today. Eventually, everything becomes history, and so the 1980s, the poll tax and Ravenscraig, have to go the same way as the 1920s and 1930s once did.

The election shows the appeal and limits of Scottish nationalism. People want more than trusting a ‘Big Tent’ SNP with a soft, sort of centre-leftism. They also want more than a debate between two nationalisms: one Scottish and ‘out’, and one British and mostly not ‘out’. There in lies the perils of a politics defined by the SNP versus a revived Tories, but either of them if they are to prosper further in the future are going to have to offer a deeper, more substantial choice. New faultlines are there to be explored: Nationalist West v. more Tory East, young and old, working class and middle class.

Scotland has to be about more than two competing claims of nationhood: one Scottish and the other Scottish and British. It has to be about more than big ticket notions which don’t offer relevance to most people making their everyday choices, worrying about much more practical things. Scotland needs a politics which is more human and humane, and about things both mundane and fundamental.