There is no SNP wrecking strategy
As David Cameron arrives in Scotland on the day Andy Coulson’s trial for #perjury he’s supposed to have committed while at Downing Street begins, Jamie Maxwell explores some of the myth making about the SNP.
As a press officer and strategist, my late dad Stephen Maxwell helped guide the SNP to what was, until last week, the party’s best ever result at a UK general election.
Forty-one years ago, in October 1974, the nationalists won 11 seats and 30 percent of the Scottish vote.
It was a seismic moment in British politics. “There is a hint of Weimar in the English Autumn,” an editorial in The Times remarked, quoting a line from the manifesto my dad himself had written.
The SNP has always had an awkward relationship with the Westminster parliament. How do you contribute positively to an institution you want to destroy?
In the run-up to 7 May, this question was posed repeatedly by the Tories and their supporters in the right-wing press.
As part of a campaign to delegitimise any minority Labour administration reliant on nationalist votes, David Cameron argued that SNP MPs would make Britain ungovernable – and thus advance their long-term goal of independence – by “holding Ed Miliband to ransom”.
There are two reasons I never found this theory persuasive (although it became the consensus view among English commentators).
The first is simple: wrecking strategies tend to backfire. The public don’t like them.
In 1979, after the failure of the first devolution referendum, the SNP – along with other minority parties – voted against James Callaghan’s Labour government in a motion of no confidence in the Commons. Callaghan lost the vote, sparking an election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
The SNP wasn’t responsible for England’s decision to elect Thatcher (Scotland, of course, backed Labour). But the party was seen as having put its own short-term interests first, before those of the country.
As a result, the nationalists were relegated to the margins at Westminster, where they remained for nearly two decades. Only the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 revived the SNP’s fortunes.
The lesson here is clear. Unthinking obstructionism – opposition for opposition’s sake – is counter-productive. The electorate expects politicians to behave “responsibly”, not just howl from the sidelines.
So SNP MPs need to play a constructive role in London. Where possible, they should work with Labour, Green and Plaid Cymru MPs as part of a left-leaning alliance, tabling progressive amendments and scrutinising legislation, in good faith, at the committee level.
This won’t be easy. The Tories have a majority – albeit a slender one – and Cameron plans to impose a series of sweeping, reactionary reforms, including slicing another £12bn from the welfare budget and (idiotically) outlawing tax rises. Over the next five years, Britain is going to become a harder, colder place to live, especially for the poor.
But there is scope for a robust, centre-left parliamentary alternative. And, as Labour turns inwards over the summer in its search for a new leader, the job of providing that alternative may well fall to the SNP.
Which brings me to my second point.
Nationalists are not the crude constitutional vandals their opponents routinely depict them as. The SNP’s project is more sophisticated than that. Rightly or wrongly, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon view themselves as nation-builders. They think Scotland will only embrace independence when it has the self-confidence to do so.
This has been the guiding principle of the Scottish government for the past eight years: manage the limited responsibilities of devolution competently and Scots will soon come to realise that they are ready for the deeper challenge of independence.
The gradualism of SNP leadership is, I suspect, shared by the SNP membership. Despite the party’s extraordinary success last week, grassroots demands for a second referendum remain relatively muted. There has been no heady rush for the exit door; no frantic calls for a re-run of the September vote.
And neither should there be.
At least three conditions need to be met before the SNP considers another poll: support for independence will have to register well above the 50 per cent mark for a sustained period; the economy should be growing (and the benefits of that growth widely felt); and the Yes campaign must have a clear programme for independence, including a water-tight account of Scotland’s post-UK currency arrangements.
All these things require time and careful planning. Lose twice and the game is up. Just ask Parti Quebecois. It makes sense, then, for the SNP to demonstrate that it is the same credible force at Westminster it is at Holyrood – even if that means playing the role of Her Majesty’s dutiful opposition.
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