There is no SNP wrecking strategy

SNP conference 2013As David Cameron arrives in Scotland on the day Andy Coulson’s trial for 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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  1. Big Jock says:

    Yes beware Quebec syndrome!

    They went into the second referendum ahead in the polls and lost by 1%. Incredible how damaging this was to the Quebec cause. However Scotland is not Quebec. Indeed Quebec has never been a nation.

    Scotland as an ancient European nation is not directly comparible, with a semi autonomous region of a new nation such as Canada. I agree we need to be ahead in the polls. But don’t forget if they don’t put the option into the Holyrood manifesto. It leaves 4 years of opportunity that may arise in that period without the option.

    I think they need to put it in for that reason. People will back it. Or at least 45% will. People don’t want another 5 years of Tory rule. I think Scots want a way out of this mess!

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      You can get into a lot of trouble trying to define what is and isn’t a nation, especially in the case of Quebec. I speak from experience here!

      1. enda clarke says:

        It is astonishing, and completely outwith the predictions of Canadian public opinion ‘experts’, how quickly and how far the wish for Quebec independence faded after the second rebuff, even though the margin was wafer-thin. There was no popular will for ‘one more heave’ or obstructionism.

        Quebec has a different religion from most of Canada, speaks a different tongue and is more rural and socially conservative. The fissures between the Dominion majority and minority are deeper than between Scotland and rUK.

        The writer is right: a second referendum defeat after another gruelling argument would exhaust Scots’ patience for an indefinite length of time.

        Polls since September 18 indicate no great change in the anti-independence majority were the indyref to be rerun. No doubt Nicola Sturgeon remembers how the one moment she lost goodwill during the GE campaign was in a leaders’ debate: when she refused to rule out a second go, the audience groaned.

        The SNP was wise to keep Indyref 2 out of the latter phase of its latest election campaign. It would be mad not to play a long game.

        1. dennis mclaughlin says:

          I would not put any faith in a ‘cherry picked’ TV DEBATE audience…too many plants were in evidence throughout the election.
          Nicola Sturgeon’s performance really frightened the Westminster mandarins!.

  2. Drew Campbell says:

    I have a friend in Quebec who has followed every punch and counterpunch of Scottish politics over the past three years. He is desperate for Quebec to gain independence but believes it could be another decade at least before the electorate would even contemplate a referendum. “The second referendum was our biggest tactical mistake ever – we might never recover from it,” he wrote to me on Facebook just a few weeks ago.

    Excellent analysis, Jamie. Things can change rapidly, as we know, but a positive nation-building strategy is the most intelligent way to proceed.

  3. Doug Daniel says:

    “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.”

    Agree with this 100%, particularly the last point – you wonder if those who do think we should have a quick second referendum have ever stopped to consider what happens if we lose two in quick succession. I suspect this is exactly why the mainstream media is so keen to try and box the SNP into a corner over whether a referendum commitment should be included in the 2016 manifesto, and some people would do well to bear that in mind.

    One thing I’ve heard from many No voters during canvassing the past few weeks is that they aren’t actually opposed to the idea of independence, they simply weren’t convinced by the prospectus put in front of them last year. People can argue whether these voters were being unduly influenced by the media’s eagerness to parrot the No campaign’s fearmongering about “uncertainty” and so on, but the fact remains that what was put in front of folk was not enough to convince a majority to vote Yes. I don’t think it’s particularly outrageous to suggest that the 2011 majority took people by surprise somewhat, and as a result there was an awful lot of preparatory groundwork which had not been done, which is why some things like currency had a slight feeling of on-the-hoof policy-making about them.

    As independence supporters, we can either choose to dismiss such messages from people as timidity, idiocy or excuse-making, or we can recognise that there were weaknesses in our case, or at the very least weaknesses in making the case. Luckily, I’m pretty confident the latter will prevail, certainly amongst the leading lights of the movement – I’m guessing Salmond being made Foreign Affairs spokesperson is a sign we’ll be trying to make sure we don’t have the weight of the world (and particularly the EU) on the UK’s side next time, for instance.

    Incidentally, something people should perhaps bear in mind in case anyone thinks last week indicates some significant movement in the public’s mood for independence – fewer people voted SNP last week than voted Yes in September. We shouldn’t even think about a second referendum until we’ve seen a poll with 60% support for independence.

    1. Lonely Wife says:

      @Big Jock There were no 16 and 17 year olds eligible to vote in the general election hence the lower number of the voting SNP. I do agree in overall caution though.

      1. MBC says:

        Neither could EU nationals vote. Plus there was a lower turn out anyway. There must have been a certain percentage of casual Yes voters at the referendum. Maybe these low motivation folks didn’t feel the same compulsion to vote in GE. The point is though that 50% voter SNP, not 45%.

    2. ECOSSELADY says:

      Nobody seems to be taking into account that there were two largish demographics missing from this election: The 16 to 18 year olds, and the EU citizens. There was also not as big a turnout, so to say that ‘fewer people voted for the SNP than Yes ‘, is really not an argument when fewer and ‘different’ people voted. Probably also missing were all the non-resident ‘cheaters’ who voted from their parents or holiday home addresses during the referendum . And there were Green voters and socialist and even ‘legalise cannabis’ voters who would have been pro independence. As well a few people , on principle, don’t vote in Westminster elections. I agree losing a second referendum would be terrible, but not that you can compare numbers

      1. Doug Daniel says:

        If you can’t compare the number of folk who voted for the SNP with the number of folk who voted Yes, then we also can’t take last week as any kind of evidence that the public are one iota closer to wanting independence than they were in September, which was my overriding point anyway. However, some of the stuff I’ve seen from folk since the election suggests people are doing exactly that.

        I think there are people looking at the SNP’s 50% figure and thinking that once you add in all the Green and SSP voters, as well as all those who couldn’t/didn’t vote, we’re already over the line, especially as most/all of the polls since the referendum have suggested a (small) rise in support. Such folk would do well to remember that a great many No-voters voted SNP last week, and that includes folk who would vote No again if the referendum was held any time soon.

        We need to ca’ canny is all I’m saying.

  4. Big Jock says:

    Agree about the polls. We need to be 55% plus before considering it.

    However please bear in mind, there were 15 years between referendums in Quebec and they still lost! Sometimes waiting too long doesn’t work. They also lost the first referendum 40/60. We lost 45/55. So we are effectively a 6% swing away from winning.

    4 years from 2016 to build a case, and get the referendum in when the polls are good. Seems perfectly logical to me. Bear in mind the polls have shifted post referendum and are running at about 48/52 in favour of no.

    We went into the referendum campaign with 32% the last time! I think we can win easily next time.

    1. MBC says:

      There’s also the fact of the demographics, as various studies including a fairly large one undertaken by Edinburgh University showed that a majority of those under 55 had actually voted Yes and 75% of those aged over 65 voted No. And there were 1 million in that group, though if 85% voted, that would be 75% of 850,000. Not wishing to be bleak about it, but an older No voting demographic is gradually being replaced by a younger Yes voting one.

      1. Strategist says:

        That may be true. But there’s a similarity with the argument that young people vote left and old people vote right, so all we have to do is wait for the old people to die and we will get a left majority. Which falls on the unfortunate fact that whilst we are waiting for this to happen, the young people get old and turn into conservatives themselves. Over time, as the proportion of the population that is old gets higher, the centre of gravity get more conservative, not less.
        I’m not sure I believe that this flaw in the argument holds with respect to national identity, which is not a left/right issue, but it’s maybe worth thinking about.

  5. Alan Weir says:

    Excellent piece and I agree with the three conditions. However I’m not sure that means we should be content with tinkering at the edges of Westminster legislation for the next five years, to put a perhaps somewhat harsh spin on what you say. The confidence-building strategy is definitely the right one, but the key way to do that is to expand powers and then show that we can make use of them as well as any other small West European nation, e.g. that we can run our own pension system. (What’s more by expanding tax and welfare powers we will have to define clearly what a Scottish tax-payer is, whose pensions are the responsibility of the Scottish govt. whose UK, etc. etc. and create or move up to Scotland the bureaucracy to deal with this, thus greatly reducing the amount of work to be done post a second successful referendum to set up an independent government, with luck, not long after 2020).

    Perhaps Cameron will be prepared to concede something much stronger than Smith (he says, I see, he’ll look at further powers). I thought it was a terrible mistake, by the way, for the SNP to sign up for that by the way, it’s just a mechanism, via indexed deduction from the block grant, for reducing Scottish per capita expenditure to the UK average, let’s hope we don’t pay too heavy a price for in. Cameron might agree in return for some EVEL-like move. E.g. the SNP promising to withdraw steadily from Westminster voting in areas which are being steadily handed over to Edinburgh through the next parliament.

    Of course Cameron would also have to be held to just and fair fiscal arrangements underpinning any extensive further powers- I’d suggest at a minimum ‘counterfactual Barnett’, a transfer equal to what was promised Scotland ‘the union dividend’ in the referendum debates calculated as what we would have had under the status quo (or Calman). More ambitiously the SNP could push for an end to devolution in the sense of making the Scottish parliament autonomous, not one which can be overridden or abolished by an essentially English parliament in London. That might require repatriating all of Scots Law and it might be impossible to get Cameron to agree to that, but we should try.

  6. Donald Mitchell says:

    I agree with Jamie, especially about currency. That said there’s no need to rule out a second ref at this stage, a little wriggle room might prove useful in future negotiations and election campaigns.
    My concern about the SNP in the Scottish elections next year is a lack of detailed policy, while Nicola has shown herself to be an outstanding communicator there is a danger that the party could take it’s eye off the ball.

  7. HiltonTongs says:

    Nae sure the 3 conditions can ever be met because if condition 2 is met then it’s humble union pie all round.

    Unless your suggesting that some sort of federalism or major powers had been in place that resulted in condition 2 being met?

  8. Big Jock says:

    I think none of us have a crystal ball.

    So we are relying on personal feeling and opinion. I think if we drag this out too long people will just get scunnered and drift away. Momentum is with Yes, and the SNP. The tide changed when the Tories got back in. Everyone is talking about independence again. But it’s people I knew were no voters that surprised me. There has been a 5% swing since September to yes. We need some polls to come out soon.

    However I stand by my point! Get the referendum into the manifesto 2016. It’s all to play for. People get bored with tinkering with a broken UK.

  9. tartanfever says:

    ‘How do you contribute positively to an institution you want to destroy?’

    Is destroy really the correct phrase ? As far as I’m concerned, a more accurate phrase would be to say ‘withdraw from’

  10. Shuggy says:

    Oh for heaven’s sake. Let’s finally nail this myth that 11 SNP MPs were responsible for bringing Margaret Thatcher to power.

    The motion of no confidence which Callaghan lost in 1979 following the failure of the first devolution referendum was brought about by 34 Labour MPs (including the likes of Dennis Skinner) rebelling against their own Prime Minister.

    In Callaghan’s own words:
    “I have since wondered whether those thirty-four Labour Members would have voted as they did if they had been able to foresee that their votes on that evening would precipitate a General Election in 1979, at the least favourable time for their Government.”

    Do some research will you?

  11. Dan Huil says:

    A Tory government in Westminster will, by its very nature and action, contribute much to the independence cause in Scotland. Cameron will, of course, reject any proposal sent by the Scottish government for him to consider. The condescension he showed today towards Scotland will be on show again as he gives his reasons for refusal – along the lines that he knows best what’s best for Scotland. People in Scotland will take note. Over time Cameron and the Tories will, no doubt, cause more displeasure and anger in Scotland.
    It’s very early days and its right that the SNP should stay cool and be patient.

    1. Steve says:

      nicola sturgeons comment made many people vote conservative in England.
      The arrogant statement about keeping the Tories out, swayed people along with the continual anti English rhetoric(not in the thread though) it is making more people identify themselves as English.
      Scottish independence will come from English people wanting to get rid, we get fed up hearing how wonderful everything Scottish is and how all the ills of Scotland are down to the “English” and Westminster.
      The SNP want another pro Indy ref for Scotland but don’t want Indy ref for the EU membership for the UK. (I don’t think people would vote to leave the EU buts that Is Not the point). Kinda funny in a hypocritical way.

  12. MBC says:

    There was something that Patrick Harvie said, at a Yes meeting after the Smith Commission, that he felt it was important what ‘conditions’ Smith delivered. I didn’t quite follow him on that. But I thought he might mean the mechanics of how it was delivered, the actual machinery.

    To get back to the No voters who were not against independence, just unconvinced that it would work, I think a major gap was the fact of us not having such machinery, such institutions in Scotland. The most obvious being a central bank, given that the Unionists made it abundantly clear they would not let us use the Bank of England.

    Another such machine would be PAYE office in Scotland. The fiscal nachinery. I think the more of that kind of practical stuff we can get set up in Scotland then the better we will convince those No voters.

    1. Miss Behaviour says:

      Agree with you, MBC. We need a central bank and more administrative machinery. It then becomes less of a new ‘start up’ operation, and more like the continuance of an existing operation.
      Additionally, having a Scottish retail bank where people could actually keep their money with a wholly Scottish-owned bank, perhaps 51% or more owned by the Scottish Government, would also be successful. At least the tax receipts would be rightfully Scottish.

  13. James Dow says:

    Scotland’s magnificent young adults the true inheritors, will unfortunately have to wait for a sad event to realise their goal.
    About fifteen years, the death of their Grandparents.

  14. James Morris says:

    Would it be enough for the SNP to put in their 2016 Manifesto “the Scottish Government reserves the right during the next Parliament to ask the people of Scotland if they would prefer another referendum to be held on Independence.”?

  15. Douglas says:

    There is no wrecking strategy, Jamie, I agree…but Salmond as spokesman for foreign affairs….now that is interesting…an excellent decision by the SNP…few outsiders will have any doubts about the substantial differences in the way Edinburgh and London see the world after four years of Salmond at the top of his game. An inspired move.

  16. Taranaich says:

    “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;”

    This will only happen soon if and when Scotland has control over its own media. For as long as our very culture is dominated outside of our borders, support for autonomy will be fighting against its own media.

    “the economy should be growing (and the benefits of that growth widely felt)”

    This depends entirely upon the fortunes of Westminster, yet the entire point of independence is to do things differently from Westminster. If the economy does indeed grow, and said benefits are felt widely, then why would you even need to consider independence?

    “and the Yes campaign must have a clear programme for independence, including a water-tight account of Scotland’s post-UK currency arrangements.”

    But they *did.* Scotland’s Future was comprehensive and clear, while none of the parties offered anything remotely clear or binding on Scotland’s place in the UK. Scotland’s post-UK currency arrangements *were* watertight, as the unnamed minister acknowledged and the Bank of England themselves admitted shortly after the referendum. The currency was a complete bluff on the part of the UK parties, and even presenting the possibility of any ambiguity is basically arguing that the UK government would be perfectly happy to slash the value of the pound by 10% overnight and cause a banking crash that would make the 2008 collapse pale into insignificance.

    The referendum may be over, but we can’t keep perpetuating misconceptions that have long been discredited.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      “Scotland’s Future was comprehensive and clear, while none of the parties offered anything remotely clear or binding on Scotland’s place in the UK. Scotland’s post-UK currency arrangements *were* watertight, as the unnamed minister acknowledged and the Bank of England themselves admitted shortly after the referendum. The currency was a complete bluff on the part of the UK parties, and even presenting the possibility of any ambiguity is basically arguing that the UK government would be perfectly happy to slash the value of the pound by 10% overnight and cause a banking crash that would make the 2008 collapse pale into insignificance.

      The referendum may be over, but we can’t keep perpetuating misconceptions that have long been discredited.”

      Misconceptions or not, they’re still the reasons that come up when you ask people why they didn’t vote for independence. And these aren’t unionists trying to kid on – these are people who vote SNP and who genuinely do like the idea of independence, but we didn’t convince them to vote Yes this time.

      It’s not good enough for us to keep saying “but we were right!” because sometimes being right isn’t enough, unfortunately. “There’ll be a currency union because we say so and some unidentified person from the government says so” was dodgy, and if we can’t admit that, then we won’t have learned anything. It was a strange idea from the start – we should have just said from the start that we’d use Sterling without a currency union, like we ended up having to do anyway. And if we’d done it early enough, we could have spent two years selling the benefits of having our own currency, rather than spending two years extolling the benefits of remaining in a currency union with England and inviting folk to think “well why change anything…?”.

      The thing is it doesn’t really matter how comprehensive and clear the white paper was if people didn’t read it. We should perhaps have had a WBB-like version and given one to every home in Scotland, rather than expecting people to order a 670-page tome off their own bat.

      If we can’t admit that there were flaws in how we made our case, we won’t win next time either.

      1. douglas clark says:

        I agree with much of what you have to say. It would be pretty poor if we adopted a Labour lite “We will listen to the people” and then comprehensively didn’t.

        IMHO, the weakest part of the independence case was fiscal. A re-run on the same basis would see us lose again.

        Is anyone aware of developments in SNP policy in that area, ’cause I’m not reading anything, anywhere that suggests that options, such as a fully independent currency, are even being discussed?

        1. Doug Daniel says:

          “Is anyone aware of developments in SNP policy in that area, ’cause I’m not reading anything, anywhere that suggests that options, such as a fully independent currency, are even being discussed?”

          Hopefully that’s just because everyone’s been focussing on the election up until now. I definitely think we need to get our weaker points nailed in advance of the next one – maybe something for folk to bring up at branch meetings, to get them then brought up at conferences?

  17. revjimbob says:

    I agree fully with the 3 conditions for another referendum, particularly:
    ‘the Yes campaign must have a clear programme for independence, including a water-tight account of Scotland’s post-UK currency arrangements’
    I think that is what did for last year.

  18. douglas clark says:

    Interesting article. I’m not sure if this is true, but the negative approach that Labour has taken at Hollyrood, the so-called ‘Bain’ principle, may have had a small effect on turning some voters against Labour. Just another example of party self interest being a boomerang perhaps.

  19. Patrick Hogg, Biographer of Robert Burns says:

    A good piece but the Boolean logic of the following para I disagree with: ‘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’.

    This all seems so logical, yet it misses a few crucial factors. First, were these conditions met before the Referendum of 2014? Aye, such logic applied would have stopped us from holding a referendum at all and might prevent us from ever doing it again. What about events changing that trigger a crisis? ie Cameron decides we only get the limited watered down powers of the Smith Commission? Nothing more. Are we to be quiet little kids and accept this second rate package of so-called powers as the deal made in the Vow, agreed by Cameron? How long is the sustained period for which the polls (done by whom) register a yes vote above 50%? And the condition that we must be experiencing sustained and beneficial economic growth? Mmmm. When the blood is sucked out of the patient on the anaesthetic bed of Neo-Liberal economics, who is here so naive as to believe Mr Osborne will allow us such funds as to create such sustained and beneficial growth? I agree we need a central bank and plans to switch to a Scots pound currency rapidly, using the pound we have in our pockets now seems the most sensible approach. Although your piece is excellent, Jamie, there will always be trigger events in history,like a constitutional hiatus etc that may trigger a second referendum sooner rather than later. In my view, if Cameron and co dont meet the conditions of the Vow, then it is incumbent on the SG and our MP’s to bang the drum for full Devo Max. FFR will do fine as a starter.

    We are in an ideological war and I don’t see our team blinking first faced by the Landed elites of the Neo-Feudal order. Given we do not control the media, the likelihood we will see a sustained period of polls showing support for well over 50% for yes is surely unlikely? So virtually none of your conditions are ever likely to be met. But my crystal ball might be blurry. Your key point that we Scots need the confidence to take the step is kernel, since Project Fear scared off so many people who were likely to vote yes. Galvanising minds with confidence next time will be essential. Those who were fooled before might not be fooled again.

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