HAVING BEEN IN POWER since 2007, the SNP is a peculiarly successful party. Historically, the last decade has been unkind to the type of centrist ideology epitomised by Nicola Sturgeon and her intellectual partner in crime Andrew Wilson. Ruling parties have tumbled amid public disenchantment with an era of stagnation.
In Scotland, the raw numbers reflect this sense of a decade in the doldrums. Satisfaction with public services hit record lows in 2019 and the numbers last year were equally dire. Only 52.6 per cent of Scottish households said that they were happy with local health services, schools and public transport last year, down from a 2011 figure of 66 percent. And within that there’s real moral tragedies: Sturgeon yesterday admitted that the SNP “took their eye off the ball” as Scotland accumulated Europe’s worst rate of drug deaths.
To all appearance, we have a ruling party of insiders, insulated from scrutiny (nobody ever resigns, no matter the calamity), accustomed to power, presiding over a perceived decline. To all appearances, a party custom made for voter punishment. Apart from outperforming Johnson on pandemic communications, Sturgeon has few concrete achievements to show for seven years of effectively unchallenged power.
Nonetheless, there remains every chance that they will secure precisely the type of majority that the parliamentary arithmetic was meant to make impossible. The SNP has an extraordinary average of 51 percent for the constituency vote across opinion polls.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that 51 percent is approximately the proportion of Scotland liable to vote for independence. And that illustrates a crucial point, easily forgotten by an obsequious public sphere: Sturgeon’s SNP needs the national question just as much as the independence movement needs them. Unlike the rest of Europe’s post-austerity centrist parties, the SNP can offer a message of hope, which excuses their underperformance on domestic issues.
For this reason, there is no prospect of the SNP taking independence off the table. If, in all likelihood, they are re-elected, mobilisation around independence will dominate the next parliament. As is custom, troops will be marched to the top of the hill twice a year, then marched down again. Ian Blackford will hector that a referendum is a matter of months away, only to find himself dropped from press appearances.
The most glaring evidence that independence is not really on the horizon lies in the field of economics. Wilson’s paradigm of independence, the Sustainable Growth Commission, cannot last Brexit and the pandemic. Its headline trade and currency commitments are mutually inconsistent. And it centres on a model of spending restraint that has been jettisoned worldwide even by the most avowedly neoliberal governments. In any referendum campaign, it would be literally indefensible.
Sturgeon is renowned for her staid, lawyerly command of briefs. Stylistically, as her supporters always contend, she is the opposite of a swashbuckling, arguably fact-impervious Salmond or Johnson. There is no prospect that she would fight a referendum on a platform as flimsy as the Growth Commission.
Still, this game can continue for some years ahead. Given the national question, there is no viable opposition that could form a government. Even internal opposition within the party has subsided, as much of the party’s traditional left made the (on current evidence, entirely self-harming) move to Alba.
This leaves two prospects. Either an extra-parliamentary movement will force the pace of constitutional change upon an otherwise lethargic SNP-Green coalition. Or we will bear witness to decadence, as it becomes apparent to core supporters that the SNP has become entirely a centrist, managerial party that governs the status quo, like its New Labour predecessor.
In fairness, the SNP has issued a flurry of progressive policy promises. But this only amplifies the question of what has been done over the last seven years. While the policies may be laudable in themselves, expecting these low cost initiatives to solve Scotland’s endemic problems of inequality and alienation is like trying to empty the sea with a sieve; and it only reinforces the question of when and if the party will exploit propitious circumstances to achieve its stated purpose.
Ultimately, like most readers of Source Direct, I will vote SNP at constituency level. But not because I have the remotest illusion in their leftist credentials. My perhaps equally delusional hope is that the SNP may be forced to engineer moves towards independence, and that remains the only plausible reason for progressives to lend the party a vote.