The SNP hold the future of British politics in their hands
In your packed diary for last week you may just have missed the conference of the Scottish National Party (SNP) taking place in Inverness. Scotland’s governing party may hold their conferences north of the Cairngorms, but their influence over British politics as a whole will surpass anything coming from London. The future electoral map of the UK will be determined by how successful the Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, is in charming the Scottish populace, and how forceful he is with the mandate given to him. David Cameron may wish to start preparing his defences.
Some background for those of you who think Durham counts as the north of Britain: since the SNP had themselves declared the ruling power at Holyrood, installing Alex Salmond as First Minister, they have not missed a beat. While nationwide political parties experience grinding apathy and widespread cynicism, support for the SNP grows. In Inverness, Salmond realistically proposed upping the party’s tally of MPs from seven to twenty at the next Westminster elections, a bump not traditionally given to an incumbent party.
How has this come about? Most commentaries lead back to Salmond himself. Charming, heavyweight in every sense of the word, and the intellectual and oratorical equal of any politician in Britain; frankly, I like him. He has sidestepped the collapse of major Scottish financial institutions, despite them being his supposed main source of prosperity for when Scotland achieves economic autonomy. In the al-Megrahi mess, he somehow managed to signal his party as flag-bearers of a compassionate, morally aware Scots tradition.
Added to this quickstep, the SNP offer a direct vision of Scotland’s future distinct from the relativist sludge of the three main Westminster parties. Labour is, for perhaps another five years, unelectable for vast swathes of the nation. The Liberal Democrats come across as wishy-washy members of the bourgeoisie. The Conservatives in Scotland are a running joke where – if anyone dares to stop laughing – they will quite rightly have a fist put through their mouth. The SNP, slightly to the right of the left-wing Scots consensus but still at most a solidly centre-left party, remain. David Cameron looks set to win a majority in Westminster, forged largely on English (southern English at that) seats. The last Tory government was toxic enough for Scotland, but this next one, with the SNP pulling the strings in Edinburgh, would be difficult to sustain.
Salmond has made clear in his own mischievous manner that he plans on antagonising a future Conservative government. Constant questioning of the legitimacy of any UK-wide policy would be the start, hoping to show Westminster bills as being incompatible with Scottish needs. Any military deployment would be walking propaganda for the Nationalists, asking how this man from Notting Hill can decide where our brave lads and lassies fight. With the SNP broadly supporting increased investment, a crisis point may be reached as George Osborne implements his budget cuts. In this situation all devolved powers will be grasped onto; constitutional wrangling and hostility across the Tweed will result.
But there is an extra factor at play. The Scottish people have not yet followed Salmond in his wish to entirely liberate Scotland from the Union’s yoke. Here will come the SNP’s ‘make or break’ moment. Nationalism is not becoming any less popular, and the government in Holyrood is soon to launch an early stage parliamentary bill, the first stage in a largely public relations-focused tsunami pushing independence. Ultimately this is an effort to sway voters before Salmond (for the sake of his grassroots and for his party’s legitimacy) is forced to pop the question in a referendum of the Scottish people.
Along with a straightforward independence bill (which will possibly keep the Queen as monarch and the borders open), will be the watered down compromise of an increase in devolutionary powers. In a referendum, while most Scots are still opposed to leaving the Union, polls point to a majority wish for Holyrood to have the power to draw in wealth, as well as to spend it. With such a vote Salmond would at once pacify the more neurotic unionists, while also give the “we’re on our way” wink to those desiring a clean break.
This path seems the most likely, as the hope that the Tories and the SNP will just ‘rub along’ is difficult to accept. The SNP, while Salmond leads and they continue to govern prudently, should not collapse even if they were to lose an independence referendum. But however much it may help the future of the Conservative Party (a non-Scots parliamentary map means Tory rule at Westminster for the foreseeable future), David Cameron will not want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who broke up Britain. Prepare for a fight, but expect, in the British manner of resolving conflict, evolution and not revolution.