Why Alex Salmond is not Braveheart
The SNP’s historic win reveals disillusionment with the other parties, not a desire for Scottish independence.
‘To make this historic breakthrough, to win this election, required more than the hard work of the Scottish National Party faithful. It needed the trust of the people – all the people.’ So said Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond after he led his party to a resounding victory in the recent Scottish parliament election.
The SNP won 69 seats in the 129-seat Scottish parliament, becoming the first party to achieve an overall majority at Holyrood since devolution in 1999. Meanwhile, both Labour (37 seats; down seven) and the Liberal Democrats (five seats; down 12) suffered significant losses; the Conservatives, the largest party in Westminster, remain a minor party in Scotland (15 seats; down five). The results are made even more impressive by the fact that they occurred under the Scottish parliament’s mixed-member voting system. There are 73 members from single constituencies elected on a first-past-the-post basis, with another 56 members elected from regional party lists which ‘top up’ the other seats won to make the result more proportional to the votes cast. It was widely assumed that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a party to win an overall majority under this system.
In 2007, the SNP formed a minority government as the largest party, effectively having to govern by consensus. This latest election result leaves the SNP free to pursue its agenda unhindered by opposition parties. As a result, a referendum on Scottish independence in the next few years now appears to be a real possibility.
The reasons for the SNP’s popularity are not difficult to understand. At a time when the Lib-Con coalition at Westminster is making massive budget cuts and increasing university tuition fees, the SNP has remained committed to free higher education in Scotland and has recently abolished prescription charges. The SNP is seen to sit comfortably left-of-centre, occupying similar ground to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but without the taint of having been involved in some of the unpopular decisions made by both parties in recent years. And in Alex Salmond, the SNP has a popular and, by modern standards, eloquent and effective leader.
But while the SNP is no doubt popular, its success in this election was greatly boosted by the complete and utter failure of the other parties. Labour is still suffering the hangover of unpopularity from the Blair and Brown years at Westminster and the Liberal Democrats – who were the traditional protest vote across the UK – were demolished at the polls for their unpopular decision to enter a coalition government at Westminster with the hated Tories. With nowhere left to turn, the SNP was the only obvious way through which Scottish voters could express discontent with the major UK parties.
This helps explain why the SNP was returned with such a massive majority, despite an election campaign that was lamented for its lack of policy differences between the parties. With only uninspiring, identikit polices to choose from (a problem not solved, it should be noted by fans of electoral reform, by a more proportional voting system), the SNP’s major plus-point was Salmond himself. The lack of real choice in visions meant that the bland, ineffective no-marks leading Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats left Salmond looking like a political colossus. It is no surprise that he was the only man that many people felt they could trust to be First Minister.
However, despite all the talk now of referendums on Scottish independence, the support for the SNP should not be seen as support for an independent Scotland. Although the SNP has increased in popularity under Salmond (the party stalled in the four years between 2000 and 2004 when he was not leader), the nationalists have failed to make any real significant headway in support for independence since their breakthrough in 1974 when they had 11 MPs elected to Westminster. A YouGov poll in October 2010 put support for independence in Scotland at just 34 per cent, with 50 per cent opposed. In a BBC Scotland survey, Scottish voters ranked a referendum on independence as twenty-second out of 25 priorities – below ‘spend money insulating every home in Scotland’ and well below the top three priorities: reducing cancer treatment waiting-lists; getting more policemen out ‘on the beat’; and free university tuition.
Even the SNP has recognised this, and while no one can pretend they are unaware of the party’s support for independence, it is not an issue that Salmond chose to place at the heart of his election campaign. Even now, as he calls for the Scottish parliament to be given more powers, Salmond prefers a slow and gradual approach to the referendum, making it more likely to be conducted closer to 2015 than within the next year or so. Even then, Salmond seems willing to temper these demands by suggesting an option for further devolved powers be placed on the ballot alongside full independence. It seems clear that the widespread support for the SNP in last Thursday’s election is not as a result of a nationwide yearning for a ‘free Scotland’, but reflects support for the SNP’s relatively competent handling of day-to-day issues, in the face of a complete lack of an alternative being offered by the other parties at Holyrood.
With UK prime minister David Cameron indicating he will not attempt to stand in the way of the SNP holding a referendum, and with the opposition parties in Scotland unable to do anything to stop one, it seems inevitable that Salmond will get his referendum within the term of the next Scottish parliament. On the other hand, recent opinion polls suggest that it is far from certain that he would win it. And even if the referendum does produce a ‘Yes’ result, this doesn’t necessarily lead to an independent Scotland. As it stands, any Scottish referendum would not be legally binding and the way forward from there is far from clear.
Even if everything went according to plan for the SNP, it is far from clear what Scottish independence might mean within the European Union. After all, many of the new laws in EU member states are now being devised in Brussels, not national parliaments. The people of Ireland, Portugal and Greece will no doubt testify to just how limited independence can be when forced to bow down to the terms of an EU bailout. In the circumstances, there might be precious little difference between a devolved Scotland and an independent one.
The coming months and years will no doubt see a revival of the debate around independence, and difficult times lie ahead for the Scottish government as the Westminster coalition’s budget cuts begin to bite. Some popular policies may become unsustainable financially. However, the independence debate must not be reduced to whether the UK subsidises Scotland or vice versa, but rather must be a debate about what kind of world we want to live in and how an independent Scotland or a unified UK affects that.
Salmond may well be the most able leading politician in the UK today. But he also believes that the interests of the Scottish people can be best served by breaking the country away from the rest of the UK, implying that Scots have fundamentally different concerns from people south of the border. Unlike the SNP, I do not believe that Scots are somehow different; people have universal interests which are not altered by something as arbitrary as Hadrian’s Wall. Salmond would do himself, Scotland and the UK a service by recognising that fact.
Craig Fairnington is web editor of the Institute of Ideas.
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