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The Great Caledonian Paradox

It’s the great Caledonian paradox: why is this SNP government so popular when the vast majority of Scots appear to reject its defining policy of Scottish independence? Opinion polls last week confirmed that opposition to formal independence is as strong as ever, even as Alex Salmond’s personal ratings have soared.

The SNP registered its highest ever score, 48% in the PSO poll in the Daily Mail, while independence was down to 31% Other polls have put support for independence as low as 22%. Indeed, a recent ICM/Daily Telegraph poll, suggested that there is more support for Scottish independence in England than in Scotland.

Not, you might think, fertile ground for the launch tomorrow of the SNP’s long-awaited White Paper on Independence, the climax to the nationalist government’s 100 days. But that isn’t going to stop Alex Salmond. The Nationalists realise that they have an uphill struggle persuading the Scots of the merits of independence, but they are resolved to push the boulder all the way to the top and are prepared to enlist anyone who wants to go at least part of the way with them. And as long as Labour and the other parties exclude themselves from the constitutional process, the SNP will have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

For, there is of course no real contradiction between SNP popularity and opposition to independence, not if you look at it from the point of view of the Scottish electorate, one of the most educated and sophisticated in the world. Scottish voters don’t see why they should be put in any particular political box. They tell pollsters they’re agin separatism because, well, everyone is against it; it’s a bit like being against racism or sectarianism. No one wants to appear narrow-minded or chauvinist or interested in cutting Scotland off. Registering opposition to independence is also done out of courtesy to England. Very few Scots harbour any animosity towards the English anymore, and saying you don’t want to break up Britain is a polite way of saying that you respect your neighbours.

But Scots want a proper parliament and political autonomy, and opinion polls on that have never wavered. This bedrock of progressive home rule sentiment is the one constant in Scottish politics of the last thirty years. Devolution is a process not an event, as Donald Dewar wisely observed. Voters have called repeatedly for more powers for that parliament, though there is understandable vagueness about what those powers should actually be.

What Scots did not call for was a devolved government which didn’t even have the self-confidence to call itself a government, and which hid behind the bureaucratic gobbledegook of “Scottish executive”. They didn’t want a leadership which was lacked the courage of its own convictions, was constantly looking over its shoulder at Westminster, and forever wondering whether it was getting above itself, overstepping the mark, sounding too ‘nationalist’.

Above all they didn’t want a leadership which was incapable of articulating any vision, and lacked the language skills to express Scottish aspirations and celebrate Scottish culture. But unfortunately, that was precisely the leadership it got. An administration whose constribution to Scottish political discourse were the phrases: “do less better” and “the best small country”. History doesn’t award statues for that kind of rhetoric.

Seizing the opportunity, Alex Salmond has delivered a virtuoso performance as the kind of First Minister Scotland really, really wants. He has used the existing powers of the Scottish parliament to launch a blizzard of announcements and initiatives, cutting class sizes, abolishing bridge tolls, tuition fees, nuclear power…showing by example just how unimaginative and unambitious the previous lot were, even within the confines of the devolution settlemement.

Emboldened, Salmond has gone on to challenge big institutions like the BBC, demand a new role for Scotland in Europe and to push the envelope of devolution by arguing for more powers for Holyrood. All this frenetic activity has been to one end: to show that Scots really can and should expect better, and that under independence, anything is possible. If you think this is good, Salmond is saying, just imagine what it would be like if Scotland were a truly self-governing country.

The Scots aren’t convinced yet, but they are clearly minded to humour Salmond some more – find out just where it is that this political dynamo is going. It’s fun. What they don’t need are patronising warnings from Labour politicians that behind the mask of consensus the SNP are still determined to break up Britain. They can see that perfectly well themselves. But they are using the nationalists to secure a better deal with Westminster and may continue to do so even as many vote for Gordon Brown as UK prime minister at the next general election.

In this game, it isn’t at all clear who is using whom. So, when the SNP unveil their independence white paper tommorrow, there will be a constitutional double bluff: the SNP are using devolution to promote independence, while the voters are using nationalists to promote home rule. Seems a sensible bargain. The SNP realise there is no point in pushing for an independence referendum which will never get past the Scottish parliament, where the nationalists are in a minority. So, instead, they will open a “national conversation” on the constitution, inviting all and sundry to attend, and offer their tuppence-worth.

Broadcasting is the model on which the white paper process will be based. The SNP won widespread support last week for setting up a cross party Scottish Broadcasting Commission – building the case for Holyrood to have power over the media. A few years ago it would likely have been attacked as a nationalist coup, an assault on the independence of the BBC. But Alex Salmond presented the case intelligently and constructively, exposing the shortcomings of the existing arrangements, and inviting all the interested parties to put their case. Expect a similar process to be used over firearms, marine policy, Europe, asylum and immigration, oil and taxation.

If there is a referendum, it will be a multi-option one, in which voters will be able to choose an enhanced Holyrood if they don’t want formal independence. The SNP will offer a review of constitutional arrangements, a decade after the devolution referendum. Labour remain doggedly opposed to this, saying it is a waste of civil service time and money. Well, in that cast, the biggest time-waster of all is the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who has launched a constitutional review in Westminster. This really is a defining moment in Scottish history, comparable to 1997. Labour needs to get its act together if it doesn’t wand to be left in the dustbin with the Scottish Tories.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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