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The SNP are due for an upswing.

5/11/06 The SNP are top o’ the polls. A nation once again! Scotland is echoing to the cries of jubilant nationalists, eagerly anticipating liberation from the English yoke.

Except that it isn’t. The nationalist aren’t crying freedom. There has been a marked absence of triumphalism in SNP ranks over the recent opinion polls, despite their showing a steadily growth in support for independence – 51% according to Mori last week . According to the same poll, the SNP is pulling ahead of Labour – now 32% to 30% – in the race for the 2007 Scottish elections.

But it’s not so much Scots wha’ hae’ as the silence of the lambs. Speaking to nationalist MSPs recently, I have not detected any great surge of emotion or anticipation. They talk up their prospects to us hacks, of course, but they certainly aren’t counting their chickens.

Call it maturity, call it realism, call it , even, defeatism, but my impression is that the nationalists don’t believe they are on the brink of an historic breakthrough. Which, paradoxically, means that, for the first time, they could be. Perhaps the SNP has finally come of age.

Certainly, this is very unlike 1998/9, the last time the SNP had a comparable election year lead. In the hectic months running up to the first Scottish parliamentary elections, the nationalists really thought they were on their way. That there was a chance of turning the devolved Scottish parliament into a national legislature in one go.

The opinion polls – similar to today’s – were supported by a widespread feeling of excitement among Scots, especially younger voters. There seemed like an unstoppable momentum building behind the SNP.

Came to nothing, of course. 1999 was a terrible experience for the nationalists, a shock from which they have yet to recover. It wasn’t so much the result – they won 35 seats on nearly 30% of the vote – as the character of the campaign. The Scottish press, on its very worst behaviour, displayed a ruthless and undemocratic bias against the SNP. It led the nationalists to blow much of their campaign cash on producing an alternative newspaper for the duration.

That savage demolition made many SNP activists wonder if it was possible for the party to win any election when the “unionist press” were so agin them. Even today, there is a caution, bordering on paranoia, about the state of the nation’s media. This has led to the curious spectacle of the Scottish press actually sounding more bullish about independence than the nationalists themselves.

You can’t open a paper without seeing some prominent figure talking up independence, like Cardinal Keith O”brien., or calling for more financial autonomy, like Crawford Beveridge the former boss of Scottish Enterprise. More power to Holyrood is a good story – and the Scottish press is keen to tell it. The Scotsman has changed dramatically following the departure of its devosceptic publisher Andrew Neill and is now politically neutral.

Much else has changed since 1998/99 – the Labour government for a start. Eight years ago, Labour was very much in command in Westminster, with Tony Blair dominating the political landscape. Now, the same Labour administration looks tired, divided, sleazy. The Iraq war is a running sore; cash-for-peerages a deepening scandal. The war of succession, between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has not only damaged Labour politically, it has made the government look stupid.

And Gordon Brown isn’t the force he was. Of course, the Chancellor, remains a formidable operator, and his lieutenants in Scotland fully expect him to wade into the nationalists again, as he did in 1999, scattering all before him as he demolishes the SNP economic policy with a barrage of statistics. “Divorce is an expensive business” as his amanuensis, the Labour MP Douglas Alexander, put it.

Will history repeat itself? Do nationalist economics make any more sense now than they did in 1999. Well, in absolute terms, perhaps not. Since independence is hypothetical, it is very hard to be precise about the numbers. It’s anyone’s guess what Scotland’s share of the national debt would be, for example.

But it may not be so easy for Labour to scare people with separatism this time round. The Scottish voters have moved on. The debates about autonomy, about fiscal powers, have had an impact on public opinion, have made autonomy respectable.

As has the very existence of the Scottish Parliament. People can see that self-government is not such a daft idea, after all. That it can make a difference – whether on free care or the smoking ban. It is easier to sell the idea of progressing, as it were, to the next stage.

Moreover, voters understand better now than in 1999 that a vote for the SNP doesn’t mean independence tomorrow. This is a parliament of minorities and there is zero prospect of the SNP winning absolute control. Even if they come out top, they would have to form a coalition, and even then there would be a referendum before Scotland sued for separation.

I also think the Scots may be looking for a bit of excitement in their politics. The sheer dullness of the Scottish Executive has been a profound disappointment. When he’s on form, Jack McConnell can just about rise to the job, but he is surrounded by the most dismal crowd of faceless nonentities in a nation . At least the SNP have a leader, in Alex Salmond, and a few lively characters, like Nicola Sturgeon.

I’m not saying that the SNP are going to make a breakthrough in May. But there is every possibility of them doing well, of even surprising themselves. Scottish nationalism, as veteran Jim Sillars always said, comes in ten year cycles. By my watch, they are due an upswing.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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