The SNP Ascendancy is changing Scotland and the SNP

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, June 14th 2015

The Scottish sun is out, and summer is approaching. This is true not just of the weather but reflects the mood of the SNP, their popularity, and especially that of leader Nicola Sturgeon.

In the last week a TNS opinion poll for next year’s Scottish Parliament election put the SNP on 60% and Labour 19% in the constituency vote – a historic all-time high and low respectively. This would give the SNP a second overall majority and more seats than it won in its 2011 landslide.

Nicola Sturgeon is getting plaudits everywhere. She survived being billed as ‘a comedian’ in advance publicity for Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ in the States, and was then compared to Saddam Hussein by the host on the programme – on which she performed with humour and star quality.

The comparison with her predecessor Alex Salmond is stark. Post-May election and his re-election to Westminster, Salmond has made a number of unhelpful remarks, contradicting himself on the nature of a cross-party EU membership and co-operating with the Tories. Then there was his ‘behave yourself woman’ put down to Tory Anna Soubry that Sturgeon distanced herself from.

Scotland feels as if it has shifted to somewhere different – through the SNP victories, indyref, and the transition from Salmond to Sturgeon. But what are the consequences of this?

The SNP leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney marks a very different style of politics. It is more straight dealing, comfortable with greater policy substance and detail, and more consistent in placing the SNP firmly on the centre-left. The Salmondnomics offer of an independent Scotland, centred on an inflated oil price and corporation tax cuts, has been quickly dropped.

Yet there is a sort of stillness about much of our public debate, as if people are unsure about the new rules or wary of making mistakes. This can be seen in a palpable evasiveness in talking about some of the big issues Scotland faces – from public spending cuts, to the details and transition costs of Full Fiscal Autonomy, and the limits of centralisation and standardisation of public services seen, for example, in some of the decisions of Police Scotland.

This week the writer Kathleen Jamie talked of Scotland post-indyref experiencing ‘a bottleneck’ in how we discuss things in public which she put down to the continued dominance of the constitutional question. Others then saw it as having its roots in the sudden rise of SNP supremacy.

When further examined, people acknowledged that deeper factors were at work. These included the historic propensity to consensus, institutional groupthink in professional and establishment Scotland, and a long-term propensity at least from the early 1980s to blame the Tories for everything as the external villains of the peace. All of these contribute towards stifling an open, honest debate about the challenges we face.

The responsibility for this just doesn’t sit with the SNP. It lies with the entire political class – SNP, Labour, Lib Dems, Tories – and institutional opinion from SCVO and COSLA to ‘the business lobby’ of CBI and others.

The response of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories has been to get the tone and strategy wrong about holding the SNP to account. They have thrown away political capital on issues they should have been able to subject to serious scrutiny, such as college places, the fall in Brent Crude oil, or Full Fiscal Autonomy. A very different failing has been from the leaders of the voluntary sector, SCVO, who have chosen to act as cheerleaders for the Nationalists.

None of this aids democratic debate and maturity. Labour people tell me with glee that the SNP should be given what they want in terms of devolution in the UK. They then imagine they can watch the Nationalists twist and turn in their discomfort as they are impaled on the logic of their own argument: Full Fiscal Autonomy leading to huge cuts, and magically, the beginning of the end of SNP dominance. It isn’t going to happen like that, and this is desperate stuff.

The next twelve months will define the nature of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. Can she utilise peak SNP, her huge popularity and reputation to take difficult choices and let non-SNP Scotland know that she understands them?

So far the signals of the Sturgeon honeymoon period have been positive, but just as the SNP has changed Scotland, so the degree of electoral success the party has experienced will change the SNP. Eventually at some point in the future, the intricate balance between incumbency and insurgency, which worked so well for the pro-independence campaign in the referendum will begin to tilt against the Nationalists. Such is the dynamic of political cycles: this will require a different kind of SNP politics to emerge, and if there is a second indyref, a very different prospectus from 2014.

In the next few weeks the Scottish Government will embark on a major exercise to develop a national social justice strategy which will last for the rest of the year. This could become another holding operation of bringing out the platitudes or it could be a moment in providing leadership and vision, and making difficult choices.

This after all is what popularity is for: seizing the political initiative and facing uncomfortable truths. This is an historic opportunity for the SNP, and a challenge as well. But it also poses tough questions for the opposition parties and institutional Scotland: can they too raise their game and break from the politics of opposition for some, and incorporation for others? The maturing of Scottish public life in hard times is the responsibility of all of us.