Right now, I’d say Labour’s best bet looks like assassination. With Alex Salmond leading by a ridiculous 75% over his Labour rival, Wendy Alexander, in a weekend poll, Labour’s only immediate chance of getting back in the race would be to eliminate the SNP leader altogether.
Super-Salmond’s party isn’t doing nearly so well. In the same mruk poll, the SNP is only eight points ahead of Labour, even at the dizzying height of its electoral love affair with the Scottish voters. This would translate into 57 SNP seats to Labour’s 44 in any election. Given Labour’s abysmal performance recently, you might have expected the SNP’s lead to be greater still. And, of course, if you were to ask Scots straight out if they wanted to leave the UK, then fewer than one-third would probably say they support independence.
So, the success of the SNP right now is overwhelmingly down to the character of its leader, Alex Salmond. He has matured as a politician just at the right historical moment to become Scotland’s first truly national political leader, arguably, in three centuries. Salmond speaks for a broad range of Scots from all political backgrounds and none. That is his enormous strength and the reason why he speaks with such authority in a parliament of minorities. Politicians of other parties realise it, too, even if they don’t admit it.
Does that mean it is all down to personality? If Salmond were to fall under one of Brian Souter’s buses would Scotland go back to its docile, default Unionism? No, of course not. History has a knack of finding the right person at the right time. Scotland was clearly in the mood for a new kind of politics and Salmond simply answered the call. Like all great politicians, he is first of all a gifted opportunist.
But the SNP’s fortunes certainly rest on Salmond for the moment. Right now he can do no wrong. Even with the local income tax plans disintegrating, with criticism of his dealings with Donald Trump and Aviemore developers, and with all those broken manifesto promises on student debt, new police and housing grants – Salmond remains above it all. He would loathe the comparison, but the SNP leader is enjoying the kind of unquestioning popularity that Tony Blair had in his first 18 months in office.
It’s not just about leadership, of course, but what you do with it that counts. In the next few weeks Scotland will experience the results of Salmond’s policy whirlwind last summer. Prescription charges are cut from April 1, the graduate endowment disappears, the council tax freeze comes into force, business rates start to fall. These are tangible benefits which will bolster the SNP’s position in Scotland. The irony is that, overall, the SNP has been pursuing a broadly social-democratic agenda, even though it has been kept in power by Conservative votes. Many of its policies are ones Labour MSPs would dearly have liked to implement themselves but couldn’t because of the London veto. The SNP is not a party of the left, but it seems to be taking over from Labour as Scotland’s natural party of government So far, so good. But the fact remains that the SNP is not Labour, but a nationalist party dedicated to creating an independent Scotland with all the appurtenances of a separate state: currency, army, revenue, health service, etc . . . The question is whether the SNP under Salmond will be able to go on to fulfil its mission statement. Following his sensational political coup, could Salmond, by force of character alone, persuade Scots to go all the way and seek statehood?
It’s a subject I found myself debating at this year’s Changin’ Scotland – a political and cultural “boutique” conference in the celebrated Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. Somewhere with room to think. Mind you, every time I opened my mouth I disagreed with myself.
No, I don’t see the remotest prospect of the SNP winning an independence referendum in 2010 as planned. There is no majority for it in parliament or in the country. But, yes, Scotland might well be functionally independent within a decade or so, in which case a referendum might be an anachronism. If you ask Scots whether they want to separate from Britain, they will say “no” for a variety of reasons – filial obligations, economic and sentimental ties, geography and history. Above all, because Scots just don’t go in for “revolutionary moments”, for epic historical upsets, and will opt for stability whenever possible. We talk a lot, but we don’t like conflict – we’ve had a bellyful of it.
However, if there were an election tomorrow, I’m certain the SNP would be back in office with a much increased majority. And there is no sign that the Scottish voters are losing their enthusiasm for gaining ever-greater powers for their parliament. Devolution is a process, and an unstoppable one. The other Scottish parties, and even the Tories, accept this now – which is why they have set up the Constitutional Commission – or rather the commission-that- dare-not-speak-its-name because Gordon Brown doesn’t like the “c” word.
It’s our old friend the Caledonian Paradox again: Scots don’t want separation but they do want self-government. And while Salmond may not be able to win Scots to independence on the strength of his personality alone, he is clearly in a position to help Scotland explore the outer limits of home rule.
Salmond is a constitutional gradualist, after all. It was he who brought the SNP kicking and screaming to acceptance of devolution. He has shown the SNP that half-way houses can be quite comfortable places. And his job now will be to show that it can be more comfortable still with a few extensions and a roof conversion.
My view is that this constitutional expansionism will continue until Scotland has full economic powers short of its own currency, and full political control of domestic policy – broadcasting, firearms, drugs, energy, etc. Holyrood will not have a fully independent foreign policy, but it may lose Trident and have a veto on Scottish regiments participating in American military adventures.
The SNP may cock it up, of course, by getting carried away and trying to impose formal independence on a reluctant electorate. Westminster might equally take a wobbly and force Scotland out, just as the Czechs pushed Slovakia down the independence road in 1993. We are apparently entering an economic crisis which could cause relations to sour rapidly. But, in the end, I think the Scots are committed to home rule by stealth. And I think Alex Salmond’s strength is that he knows it.