James McEnaney: Why we shouldn’t rely on the SNP to deliver Scottish independence

11/12/2015
CommonWeal

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says Scotland’s pro-independence movement must be wary of placing all hope in one political party

IT wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Even in the wake of a devastating defeat, the ‘independence movement’ was going to continue; the broad church of the Yes campaign would keep working in pursuit of what felt like an inevitable, if delayed, triumph; there was (fleeting) talk of a pro-Yes electoral alliance.

Even amid the storm of continued union the sun seemed to shine, but a little over a year on it is starting to feel like the darkness is closing in.

Publicly challenge the policies or, worse, the conduct of the SNP? You’ve joined the foaming ranks of the ‘SNPBad’ hordes and the evil mainstream media.

Agree with a ‘unionist’ on any matter, or have the apparent misfortune to have them agree with you? Your views are no longer valid.

Publicly challenge the policies or, worse, the conduct of the SNP? You’ve joined the foaming ranks of the ‘SNPBad’ hordes and the evil mainstream media.

Planning to vote for Rise or the Greens on the list because they represent your beliefs? You’re endangering independence by splitting the vote.

BothVotesSNP. Wheest for indy.

Strength through unity, unity through faith.

At the heart of the malaise lies an assumption which is rarely if ever challenged: that an SNP majority in 2016 is absolutely necessary to keep the dream of Scottish independence alive.

For many, the insistence upon a dichotic view of all issues and individuals, the refusal to countenance any substantive criticism of the government or the aggressive rejection of list votes for other pro-independence parties is rooted in the belief that doing otherwise endangers that SNP victory next year.

This desperation for yellow hegemony may seem understandable, but what if it is also dangerous? What if, contrary to the received wisdom of the pro-indy commentariat, an overwhelming SNP victory next year will not make independence more likely? What if – whisper it – what is good for the SNP is not necessarily good for the goal of independence?

Planning to vote for Rise or the Greens on the list because they represent your beliefs? You’re endangering independence by splitting the vote. BothVotesSNP. Wheest for indy.

It is, of course, beyond dispute that the SNP election success in 2011 – which handed them Holyrood’s first ever single-party majority – enabled, even forced, the nationalists to call a referendum on Scottish independence. As supporters of the party are always so quick to point out, there would have been no indyref without the SNP.

We know this, but we also know that the same circumstances will not repeat themselves this time, that a second SNP majority will not lead to a second referendum. Even if the SNP does win every single constituency alongside a handful of list seats there is no serious suggestion that this will constitute the sort of ‘material change’ which would lead to Nicola Sturgeon calling a second referendum.

So in the absence of indyref2, a Yes vote at the second time of asking and the prize of Scottish independence before 2021, what is likely to happen over the next five years if, as expected, the SNP emerges from the 2016 Holyrood elections with an increased parliamentary majority? The answer may be an uncomfortable one for supporters of the SNP (and everyone else who still believes in independence).

The party may be something of an electoral phenomenon, but they are not immune from the laws of politics. The SNP has now been in office for nearly nine years and, with another victory on the way, will extend that to 14. At the end of the next parliament the SNP will have held power for as long as New Labour.

At the heart of the malaise lies an assumption which is rarely if ever challenged: that an SNP majority in 2016 is absolutely necessary to keep the dream of Scottish independence alive.

It is all but inconceivable that any government could survive so long without beginning to lose support, and there are a number of specific issues hovering menacingly on the horizon.

The council tax freeze – justifiable at its inception but increasingly damaging – cannot be sustained, but implementing a ‘fairer’ replacement (such as a land value tax or Scottish service tax) will necessarily require those on higher incomes to pay more.

Government policy on education also looks increasingly ill-conceived, with ‘regressive’, Thatcherite plans for standardised testing criticised by everyone except Scottish Labour, the Tories and a handful of centre-right journalists.

The government is also considering applications for the creation of free schools, is engaged in an ongoing dispute with several local authorities over school staffing and faces the prospect of industrial action by both college lecturers and teachers.

Despite the formation of Police Scotland receiving cross-party support at the time, it is the SNP which will inevitably reap the increasingly destructive whirlwind of the organisation’s very obvious shortcomings.

Since its formation, the single force has lurched shambolically from one crisis to the next, coming under fire for the use of ‘consensual’ stop-and-search tactics on children, the unnecessary deployment of armed officers, the disgraceful (and dangerously counter-productive) treatment of The Arches nightclub and, worst of all, the deaths of Lamara Bell, John Yuill and Sheku Bayoh .

With great power will come ultimate responsibility, unmanageable expectations and, in the end, the wrong side of a bell curve.

On top of all this, further cuts to Scotland’s budget are on the way from Westminster, leaving the SNP desperately looking for ways to mitigate the effects of Tory austerity without having to resort to tax rises which they fear will alienate their middle-class supporters.

Those are the obvious challenges, but there is another, somewhat counter-intuitive, pitfall which could be far more damaging not just for the SNP, but also the independence ‘movement’ and Scotland as a whole.

In 2017 the country will go to the polls yet again, this time to elect local councillors. As things stand another victory for Sturgeon’s party looks all but certain, although the nature of the voting system should ensure that the triumph is not so sweeping.

Nonetheless, we face the very real possibility of the SNP controlling not just a unicameral parliament in Edinburgh but also a majority of Scottish local authorities.

This may look like a dream come true for the nationalists, their supporters and those who conflate the fortunes of the SNP with the chances of independence; in reality a swathe of compliant local authorities, a governing party often inclined towards centralisation and the ongoing battle against ever-increasing financial pressures could well stretch the remarkable resilience of the SNP to breaking point.

With great power will come ultimate responsibility, unmanageable expectations and, in the end, the wrong side of a bell curve.

By 2021 we are likely to see a governing party under increasing pressure, desperate to maintain its broad centre-ground support and, in its efforts to appeal to ‘all of Scotland’, making increasingly damaging mistakes.

Unshakeable defence of the SNP in the belief carries with it a huge risk: when the wave currently ridden by the SNP finally breaks (and it will) the aftermath could deliver the final, fatal blow to this incarnation of the independence campaign.

Unshakeable defence of the SNP in the belief that it will somehow ‘deliver’ independence carries with it a huge risk: when the wave currently ridden by the SNP finally breaks (and it will) the aftermath could deliver the final, fatal blow to this incarnation of the independence campaign.

Binding independence to the fortunes of the SNP may make sense in monochrome, but in the real world, with all its shades of grey, it risks pushing independence permanently out of reach. Why? Because as time goes on the SNP will likely become more, not less, of a polarising influence and their dominance will serve only to further entrench opposition to separation.

In the hysteria of the last year or so it has often been forgotten that if we really want independence then we need to win over a significant percentage of those who voted No, many of whom will never be convinced to back separation so long as the campaign looks (with increasing justification) like a vehicle for SNP political dominance.

If the indy campaign is ever to be successful it must learn once more to find its strength in debate, dissent and, above all, diversity.

Picture: CommonSpace