Support for an independent Scotland is at its lowest for years. But Alex Salmond is riding high in the polls. The Scottish National Party which he leads stands an excellent chance of winning more seats than its lacklustre Labour opponent in the fourth election for the Scottish parliament being held on 5 May. This means that it will be entitled to form the next government, in all probability continuing to rule alone as it has done since 2007.
A blizzard of carefully-timed concessions have been made ranging from medical prescriptions to student fees. The aim is to convince Scots attracted by Labour’s paternalist message that the SNP can look after them just as well. Reliant on a block grant from Westminster which is due to shrink from this year, the SNP knows that it will be unable to implement some of its tempting promises.
Perhaps it has a double aim. It will widen the sense of grievance that many Scots have towards London and it will wind up English voters who already regard Scotland as a land of milk and honey paid for by them. England is now increasingly resembling Scotland – a small neurotic nation, insecure and resentful about issues it would have laughed off in more confident times.
The SNP is a humdrum party that has the good fortune to be run by a first-rate political talent. ‘Re-elect Alex Salmond as First Minister’ will appear on the ballot paper and it is likely to sway many Scots averse to going it alone. He has become a semi-regal figure who towers over the leaders of the opposing parties, each of which currently faces major difficulties.
A recent biography showed that Salmond pinned his hopes on becoming a BBC journalist before getting a job with the Royal bank of Scotland. Arguably, he remains obsessed by the media and its 24/7 news agenda. He has surrounded himself with people possessing media skills who increasingly dominate the ranks of the SNP at Holyrood, home of the Scottish parliament. He has built a mutually reinforcing relationship with the serious end of the Scottish media, particularly print titles like the Scotsman and the Herald.
They deliver regular criticism of the party’s failure to implement its 2007 manifesto and with spending time and money on preparing for an independence referendum, only to withdraw the idea at the last minute. But they help to sustain what has become the first personality cult in Scottish political history.
Without Salmond, Scottish politics are likely to be drab and predictable, his party becalmed at no more than 25% of the vote. By goading Westminster, antagonizing the USA over the release of the Libyan convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, and seeking investment deals with the Gulf states and China that will reduce the hold of the Treasury, Salmond is a constant provider of news. His acolytes and sympathisers dominate the opinion pages in a way that would be viewed as unsettling in the press on both sides of the Irish border.
His low-key challenger, Labour’s Iain Gray has been savaged across the Scottish media for failing to measure up to the buccaneering Salmond. Labour and the SNP are both left-leaning and, to differing degrees, pro-self-government, but the degree of animosity between them is unusual in any country yet to experience a civil-war.
Both of them place their hopes in a managerial state and those capitalists who interact with it. Citizens and local communities are to be kept away from real power and managed by an army of bureaucrats.
Alex Salmond is uncharacteristically silent about the architecture of a sovereign Scotland. His attachment to the EU, increasingly an entity dominated by France and Germany, suggests that he is inclined to swop an increasingly benevolent British overlordship with a European one that towards Ireland has been Cromwellian in its fiscal severity. But however much growing numbers of Scots enjoy the Alex Salmond cabaret show, they are unlikely to cut the umbilical cord with the rest of the UK.
It is in England that the largest body of Scottish separatists are now to be found and if Salmond can sufficiently infuriate these Little Englanders, maybe they will enable General Alex and his motley army to be the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ who control the fate of Scotland in the decades to come.
The SNP’s first stint in office has revealed a populist party keen to align with business and keep the unions and local government quiescent. Fianna Fail may have crashed to earth in the Republic but the SNP looks to be a Scottish reincarnation, averse to warnings about the fate cronyism and cute ‘hoorism’ reserved for Ireland with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.
Tom Gallagher’s book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism was published by Hurst and Co in 2009 and an expanded North American edition is due to be published shortly by Columbia University Press.