Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Post-SNP Scotland

In the 2011 Holyrood election, the SNP won 69 seats on 45% of the vote, and were able to establish the first majority government under a system that was designed to make that difficult. In the 2014 independence referendum the SNP-led "YES" campaign won 44.7% of the total vote. At the 2015 General Election the Scottish National Party gained just under 50% of the vote and won all but three of the 59 Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament. There is little doubt that the Nationalist tide has been riding high in Scotland for several years now. The party maintains impressive, some might say oppressive, discipline, and in all things- personal and well as policy- the SNP never loses sight of their goal of a separate Scotland. The Nats see the failure of the first referendum as merely a way-station on the road to ultimate independence.

Yet the Nationalist voters are a lot more heterogeneous than the party, and detailed analysis suggests that quite a few voters support the SNP, not because they genuinely believe in separation, but because they see the party as "standing up for Scotland". There are left wing and right wing Nationalists and not always do they see eye-to-eye, indeed only a couple of decades ago the party seemed on a downward trajectory precisely because of these internal splits.

Even despite this it may seem foolhardy to predict the fall of the SNP, for the fact is that not only is the party united and disciplined, but that its main opponent, Scottish Labour, is not. The Labour Party in Scotland has been hollowed out by complacency and corruption, indeed one could argue that the major story of the past ten years is not Nationalist advance, but Labour collapse. Away from such former Westminster heavyweights such as Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, the Scottish party fell into the hands of third rate hacks, whose complacency and incompetence ran the party into the ground. Neither does 2016 look like Scottish Labour can make a comeback. The SNP control over Holyrood seems set to continue by default.

Yet there are other aspects which are not being considered. The first is that the electoral system will not deliver the same collapse of Labour in Holyrood as it has in Westminster, so although Scottish Labour may grow much weaker, they will not disappear. The second is that both the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives are likely to do a whole lot better than they did in 2011. For the Scottish Lib Dems it would be hard to do worse than the 5 seats that they held in 2011, but there are real chances for them to make a modest advance back into their former heartlands, with several mainland constituency seats now in play, beyond the two island seats they managed to salvage from the 2011 disaster. Because the Scottish polls are only taken irregularly, the data for voting intention in the Scottish Lib Dems can be very volatile, especially because it is so concentrated in only a few parts of the country, but even despite this, there are signs of a tentative recovery, and even, in the North East and Edinburgh, the chance of some surprise constituency gains, as well as a much improved list vote.

The Conservatives too have reasons for optimism, and although to a degree they may cannibalize some of the Lib Dem votes, especially in the borders, they are also making inroads in the central belt- the ebbing of the Labour tide is not seeing run it all the Nationalists way. Indeed, despite the caution we should show to Scottish polls, one has shown the Tories breathing down Labour's neck for second place. Of course many would say-rightly- that this only underlines the weakness of Labour.

Yet the fact is that the case made by the SNP for Scottish Independence is intellectually bankrupt. The party has not only failed to use the new powers granted to the Scottish government, it has failed to efficiently administer the powers that it has long had- the result has been the debacle of the Forth Road Bridge closure, a scandal long predicted, and an emerging crisis both in the Scottish healthcare system and in education. After 8 years of SNP government, the litany of mistakes is now quite a long one. However it is not this that has undermined the case for independence, albeit that it does the SNP political brand no favours.

The fall in the price of oil has been a catastophe for the North East of Scotland and an emerging crisis for Scotland as a whole. OK, so the Nats got it spectacularly wrong when they based their economic forecasts on a rock solid price for Brent crude of $100/bbl, with good contingencies down to $75/bbl, and OK so it is now trading at below $30/bbl with no long term recovery in sight. It was not just that the Nats forecasts were so wrong that had we in fact voted to separate in 2014 the Scottish economy would be on its knees- it was that the entire economic prospectus that was offered in the so-called "white paper" was bullshit and pixie-dust. "A wish is not a claim upon reality", yet as I read the document I was struck by how small the SNP vision was, how old fashioned and how wrong. 

In fact, beyond the fact of separation there was in fact very little vision of a future Scotland that was rooted in the realities that small nations need to face. There were occasional nods to Estonia, "if they can do it so can we",  but no acknowledgment of the difficulties that had to be faced and the wrenching, painful changes that would be required. This wish fulfillment came to a head in the absurd argument about whether Scotland would keep Sterling as its currency. When George Osborne said that any rUK would not permit a currency union without effective veto rights on Scottish spending it was greeted as some kind of neo-colonialism. "It is our currency, how dare Osborne think he can take it away from us" was a much muttered Nat response. Yet the point was that it Scotland left the UK, Sterling would not have been Scotland's currency, by definition. There was almost no clear thinking on the real practical problems that would have to be dealt with before any potential opportunities of separation might ever be unlocked. The SNP put forward dangerous, emotional and increasingly brainless arguments- setting braying mobs on the BBC and many others. It was a disgrace and it made many in Scotland wonder what kind of horror story the SNP was preparing for its enemies.       

In the end, as we know, the YES-ers lost by a near 10 point margin. 

The question of Scotland's future remains as yet unresolved, and a second referendum may even yet take place. To be honest, although I loath the divisive and poisonous atmosphere that the SNP as set on Scottish politics, I am almost tempted to say "bring it on". The economic arguments that were questionable at $100/bbl, are indefensible after such a period of volatility in the oil price. The political arguments are less and less easy to make as the UK slowly transforms itself into a Federation and the administrative superiority complex of the SNP is being undermined on a daily basis by their own mistakes, incompetence and complacency.

There is of course one fly in the ointment- the EU referendum. The conventional wisdom suggests that it will be close and that it may even be that Scotland votes to stay while the rUK votes to leave- which very likely would lead to an immediate second Scottish referendum and the breakup of the UK that the SNP so desires. However in my view this is to underestimate the planning that David Cameron has made to keep his party mostly onside and his country within the EU. Although Brexit is still a high risk, the betting is firmly on a solid endorsement of continued British membership of the EU. Indeed, given that Scotland elected a UKIP MEP at the last European Parliamentary election, it is even possible that the conventional wisdom is wrong that the the Leave vote could actually be marginally higher in Scotland than elsewhere.

For the the fact is that the commentators could well be reading the runes wrongly- the swing back from Left dominance in Scotland was delayed by the collapse of the Tories, but with even a slight recovery, the votes that were really only lent to the SNP may now return to their natural home, and that over the course of the next two Parliaments the SNP, firstly slowly, then ever more quickly begins to decline as a real threat to the unity of the UK.

Intellectually independence is a dead duck. Surely future belongs to those, like the Liberal Democrats and even some Conservatives, who are prepared to offer creative solutions using the ever stronger powers that Holyrood is gaining not to support the separation agenda but to support a practical agenda of restructuring, investment and growth. 

Surely it is time to start to reclaim Scottish politics from those who "won't change their minds and won't change the subject" and offer a positive, proactive agenda inside an increasingly Federal UK and a continuing and reforming EU. Labour weakness may not allow this to happen in 2016, but I truly believe that eventually, and possibly sooner than 2020, the Nationalist tide will turn. 

Indeed, the tide is already beginning to turn.

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