For those of us who can trot out the reasons for the dramatic rise of the SNP and still remain dissatisfied with the explanations, the writer David Torrance moves us closer in the Guardian today. Torrance is an open minded unionist who declares his views but doesn’t let them get in the way, a priceless asset in a discussion of divided politics. For me his key point is that the SNP have reached beyond the basic unionist- nationalist, left right splits to take control of the entirely familiar “Scotland’s story.” Just look at how they’re muscling in at Westminster – no suggestion of abstentionism there. One day though they’ll have to choose or lose momentum, but not yet, oh Lord!. At the same time, it’s the SNP’s Westminster strategy described here by the academic Craig McAngus, that could give the cause of the Union its opening, if the Union parties play their cards right. But that’s one for another time ..
But in 21st-century Scotland – just as in the rest of the UK – labels such as “left” and “right”, and even “unionist” and “nationalist”, had long ceased to be useful. There was a tendency to depict Scotland as somehow firmly unionist until a decade or so ago, and avowedly nationalist since.
By 2003, the 50-year-old Salmond had moved even farther from his youthful flirtation with Marxism. Always more interested in tactics than policy, at the end of the 1980s he had looked across the Irish Sea and liked what he saw: a Celtic Tiger slashing corporation tax and attracting international businesses to Dublin. If Ireland could do it, why not an independent ScotlandI.
The decline of the Scottish Labour party was the third decisive factor in the rise of the SNP. In 2006 a YouGov poll found that 56% of Scots agreed that Labour had “been in power too long in Scotland” and that it was “time for a change”.
Salmond benefited from a perfect storm: continuing fallout from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Liberal Democrat turmoil (Charles Kennedy had been ousted as leader) and an ongoing battle between Blair and Brown. This was the point at which Scottish Labour lost control of Scotland’s “story”.
The SNP also cleverly co-opted aspects of the union that retained an emotional appeal; Salmond spoke of Scotland’s “six unions” – political (Westminster), monetary (sterling), regal (monarchy), defence (Nato), European (the EU) and social (family ties) – and pledged to preserve all but the first. This, as the journalist Alf Young observed, made the SNP leader “five sixths a unionist”, but the story he told was large and could therefore contain multitudes.
During the Thatcher years, Scottish Labour deployed nationalist weaponry against Conservative governments and, in doing so, unwittingly helped delegitimise aspects of the British state. More recently, having delivered a Scottish parliament in 1999, Labour lost its unique selling point to Scottish voters, and so another “strange death”, that of Labour Scotland, mirrored that of the Liberals 90 years before.
Given that historical context, the fact that independence was not endorsed by a majority of voters on 18 September 2014 was less significant than it initially appeared. As Iain Macwhirter, the political commentator for The Herald, put it in his book Disunited Kingdom: “Unionists didn’t quite win, and the yes campaign didn’t quite lose”
On 7 May, the SNP won 50% of the vote. Once distorted by first-past-the-post and up against a unionist vote split three ways, it was enough to produce a landslide. Not only did that result kill the notion of British party politics, it demonstrated that in Scotland “nation” (and its associated identity) had become the dominant axis upon which discourse, public policy and even crude party politics turned. Unionists might try to recalibrate that reality by highlighting points of detail, but for nearly a decade that had been subject to the law of diminishing returns. And for much longer than that, the substance of Scotland’s exceptionalism had not been what mattered in political terms, rather a sense of being different and therefore a desire to do things – often the same things – for itself.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London