The Changing Faces of the Scottish Nationalists
The Scotsman, October 14th 2009
The SNP Annual Conference opens in Inverness on Thursday with the party in good mood: two and a half years into the first SNP administration, seen by most as competent and successful.
The party has a sense of purpose. Alex Salmond is a popular First Minister, leading a talented ministerial team – Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Fiona Hyslop, Kenny MacAskill, Mike Russell and others.
Underneath this sense of success and progress what has the SNP achieved, what has it not achieved, and what future challenges await it in office?
First and foremost, the style and perception of Scotland’s Government has fundamentally altered. Alex Salmond has made the office of First Minister into being seen at home and abroad as the unchallenged leader of Scotland. It was noteworthy during the al-Megrahi case that nearly every person who commented upon it from Scotland, UK or abroad, spoke of ‘the Scottish Government’, not ‘the Scottish Executive’. The SNP have succeeded in changing the culture of Scottish administration and how it is seen across the world.
Second, there is an impressive sense of unity around the SNP Cabinet and parliamentary group. Gone are the days of incessant off the record briefings and plotting which debilitated much of Labour’s period in office. The SNP, like Cameron’s Conservatives, have read New Labour’s book on how to be successful, namely Philip Gould’s ‘The Unfinished Revolution’, on the need for party unity.
Given this will to win what have the SNP done with this newfound dominance? It is here that the picture, while having achievements, is more mixed and ambiguous.
In the early days of the SNP administration many commentators were prepared to accept at face value the SNP as Scotland’s new social democrats. Their initial populist steps were lauded whether it was building new council houses, reintroducing student grants, abolishing prescription charges, or ending road tolls. In truth, this flurry of initial measures could be seen as straight from the book of early New Labour 1997, showcasing what difference a SNP administration could make.
This is where the conventional wisdom of Scottish politics that the SNP transformed itself in the late 1980s – on the road to the Govan by-election triumph of 1988 – into a fully fledged social democratic party, is only part of the story.
The conventional account emphasises that once upon a time there was an ‘old SNP’ which was a catch-all, endearing, but amateurish party, which when it was first elected into town halls in large numbers post-1967 Hamilton didn’t know what it was when it had to decide if it was left or right, and paid the penalty.
Then along comes the ‘new SNP’ which positions itself on the centre-left, outflanks New Labour (which is hardly that difficult to do), and appeals to traditional Labour voters from the late 1980s onwards.
Just as ‘New Labour’ created the caricature of ‘Old Labour’ to emphasise its break from the party’s past, so the same is true of the SNP’s transformation today.
The SNP in its heart and soul has a vision and utopia of Scottish statehood and independence, which carries precedence over any division of left and right.
What motivates the party in its soul is not social democracy, but a sense of being Scotland’s party. This can sometimes be articulated as an ‘I believe in Scotland’ outlook, which has seen some of the party’s opponents believe they are perceived by the Nationalists as ‘anti-Scottish’.
This infuriates Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem politicians who believe that the SNP see themselves as having exclusive ownership of ‘Scotland’, thus putting them at a significant advantage.
This brings us to the policy prospectus of the SNP in office, and the ultimate vision of independence. Across economic policy, health, education and social policy, and cultural policy, the picture has been a mixed one. In some, such as economic policy, there has been a tendency to go along with the prevailing orthodoxies of the last thirty years at least before the crash, stressing globalisation, the knowledge economy, the importance of finance and not talking about political economy or the problems of corporate power.
In most areas, the SNP have, along with Scotland’s other political parties, been unwilling to challenge professional and interest groups who are embedded in the system, this being particularly true of health, schools and further and higher education, where being ‘progressive’ has been synonymous with what groups such as the BMA and EIS promote.
In cultural policy and broadcasting, the party has inherited the mess that was the idea and reality of Creative Scotland, while creating an impressive cross-party coalition on broadcasting through the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.
In all of the above, the SNP has tried to marry going with the grain of an existing ‘Scottish consensus’, with giving shape to progressing it further and renewing it. This is a difficult task for a party which has never been in office before, not primarily driven by policy, and still faces across swathes of Scotland, a Labour-orientated public sector and quango class who see themselves as self-appointed gatekeepers.
At the other points, such as economic policy, the party has drawn from the same narrow well of ideas as New Labour and the Cameron Conservatives, with all that this entails. Thus, SNP thinking on the economy or cultural policy has been influenced by the latest in-thinking from the London think tanks and going along with the prevailing economic orthodoxies of the global classes.
The independence question remains the ultimate prize and challenge, which needs to be fleshed out not just in terms of sovereignty, but connecting it to policy development and what kind of society Scotland would be post-independence.
The SNP has made impressive progress in the last two and half years, aided by divisions between their opponents at Holyrood, Labour unpopularity and ineptitude. In the foreseeable future, a UK Tory Government may shape much of the SNP’s agenda, particularly if it imposes stringent public spending cuts, allowing the party to position itself as the defender of Scotland’s interests.
At the same time new challenges of incumbency will emerge. Can a new generation of SNP leaders emerge from under Alex Salmond’s shadow? Can the party break from the embrace of the suffocating ‘Scottish consensus’ of managerialism and accepting decline? And can it begin to put flesh on the vision and dream of independence?
If the party can address these challenges then it has the historic opportunity of shaping Scottish politics for the foreseeable future in the way Liberals, Conservatives and Labour have done before.