On Wednesday two front pages summed up the uncanny effect that the Scottish National Party, now gathering for its party conference in Aberdeen, has had on Scottish public life. The Spectator ran with a feature by aspiring Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins casting Nicola Sturgeon as the sinister ruler of a ‘one party state.’ Meanwhile the National, the pro-SNP paper that launched shortly after last year’s referendum, offered readers a colouring-in page featuring Scotland’s 56 SNP MPs.
The absurdity of both these visions of a party at the height of its powers – the fanzine glee and hysterical caricature – is a reminder that Scottish public life is often self-consciously immature. Then again, Scottish politics has had a lot of growing up to do in a very short space of time.
The most basic fact that any student of contemporary Scotland needs to understand is that Scottish politics has been moving at an astonishing pace over the last decade. Only five years ago Scotland inhabited a different political epoch – the SNP’s position as the insurgent party was far from secure. Indeed, until the final weeks of the 2011 Scottish Parliament election campaign it seemed possible that the party’s time at the helm of devolved government would be a brief footnote. The notion that Holyrood would serve primarily as an expression of the country’s unshakable loyalty to Labour rule was still widespread.
The SNP played a marginal role in the 2010 general election, failing to make any gains and running a lacklustre campaign that betrayed a lack of confidence and vision. Jim Murphy (who would later fail so lamentably to revive Labour’s fortunes in May 2015) suggested on election night, ‘This is the day that the Scottish public have said “No more”, to the SNP, “we’ve had you in power for these years, you’re a novelty that’s worn off.”’ Within a year, all of that had changed.
Premised on a solid record of delivering populist universalism in health and education, the SNP’s success in 2011 was based on a pitch that the party was the most solid and competent potential administration on offer. After four precarious years as a nimble minority government this offer seemed both credible and appealing. It was seen to enshrine the kind of politics ‘middle Scotland’ was prepared to lap up, consensus driven, centre-left, pro-business. It also played well with the bastions of power in the Scottish establishment too. Those capable of kicking up a fuss in Scotland’s mighty public sector unions and civic institutions were, on the whole, placated.
What no one predicted was the astonishing scale of the SNP’s triumph in 2011. Its success at totally eviscerating Labour’s heartlands seemed so sudden and thorough, its victory so total, that the election represented a pivotal moment of release. It was, in an entirely unforeseen manner, a profoundly radical event. Those unconvinced by the party’s offer have consistently failed to offer up any form of credible opposition ever since.
With the transformative experience of last year’s independence referendum now the subject of wildly divergent histories, the present role of the SNP is becoming weighed down by the pressures of its own contradictions. To think of these tensions purely in ideological terms is to miss the point. Instead, the problem relates to the dual role the party has set for itself. On the one hand, as by far the most powerful organisation within the loosely defined ‘Yes movement’ it can lay claim to the kind of broad based insurgent status of anti-austerity parties in southern Europe. On the other – it remains a moderate, awkwardly centrist, party of devolved government – coping with the inevitable scandals of office and trading performance stats about public services and economic growth with its rivals.
The SNP’s success at the ballot box has, perhaps perversely, hobbled its ability to push at the boundaries of devolved government through radical reform. This problem is familiar to many parties with a strong mandate. As David Runciman observed of majority governments, ‘They are not more decisive. They are just more biddable.’
Of course, the remarkable discipline that the SNP has shown for the best part of a decade is made possible due to its ultimate goal of independence. Thus far, this has allowed the not insignificant ideological differences within its ranks to only rarely make a public appearance. Yet as the party’s record becomes the subject of more scrutiny this serene picture seems somewhat less tenable.
How, we might ask, does a party representing the country’s mega-rich in Aberdeenshire square its priorities with the dire need for radical change in the former mining towns of Fife and North Lanarkshire? Uniformly, the referendum result saw a Yes vote align with areas of notoriously low life expectancy. In these communities a generation has grown up knowing only the bitter legacy of deindustrialization – taxpayer funded prescription charges and university education can only do so much. Without massive structural economic changes the collapse of British social democracy in central Scotland will remain a far more relevant feature of people’s lives than any fledgling Scottish alternative.
This then is the ultimate choice facing the current party of government in Scotland. Can it take the creativity and radicalism marshaled during the referendum and put it to work in transforming those areas that cried out the loudest for independence? Or will the promise of independence actually become a means to defer any form of radical change?
The nature of devolution is crucial to understanding the ambiguity that frames this choice. With no macroeconomic powers available to the Scottish Government, ideology operates at a remove from party politics. Essentially, the SNP’s triangulation is embedded in the constitutional set up itself. The party’s political reflex is to contrast any failings with the loathed, nuke-toting, overlords in London. But if the radicalism within its ranks is primarily expressed through ultimately futile oppositional efforts at Westminster (against Osborne’s budgets and Trident renewal) it risks repeating the mistakes of Scottish Labour in its anti-Thatcher heyday.
However, the blatant fiscal trap that has been set by the Conservative government, primarily through the devolution of income tax rates, suggests that next year’s Scottish Parliament election will be fought along more traditional left/right lines. With current polls showing only a marginal difference between Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives, it seems likely that the latter party will become the de facto opposition. The issue of whether the SNP decides to use those additional tax powers to fund its progressive aspirations will become definitive.
The pursuit of social justice must always involve complex political choices. That much is inescapable. On progressive issues recently highlighted by the SNP such as land reform, housing and local government taxation, there is still the possibility of radical change. Yet in a small country even the most powerful of governments must constantly navigate a packed field of lobbyists and vested interests. The watered down proposals within the party’s Land Reform Bill, which have now been so clearly and vociferously rejected on the conference floor, offers a clear demonstration that the party cannot take its radicalised activist base for granted.
So there still remains a glimmer of promise that the SNP’s massive new membership could focus its attention on achieving a combination of radical measures internal to Scotland. If the party was bold enough to devolve more powers from Holyrood, and reverse its instinctive desire to centralise, it could demonstrate it is serious about the business of transformation. It might do so by responding to widespread calls to significantly expand Scotland’s tiny number of local authorities. The average Scottish local authority contains 165,000 citizens compared with around 5,000 in the EU. This remains one of the most glaring anomalies about the way the country is governed and it is entirely within the SNP’s power to change it. If such a move was combined with the implementation of a progressive outcome from the Scottish Government’s Commission on Local Tax Reform, the ideal of a far more autonomous and democratic country could start to be realised in practice.
It still seems possible that the SNP might attempt to transcend the iniquities present at a UK level by resolving to use its unprecedented mandate to change Scotland from below. The party clearly knows how to harness the energy of mass democratic participation to win elections, that much is self-evident. The more prescient question is whether it can channel this energy into the work of transforming Scotland, now.