Political wilderness looms for SNP

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em>

At the 1997 general election, Martin Bell showed the benefits of a classical education. Fighting the Tatton constituency in his trademark white suit, he clearly understood the derivation of the word "candidate". It comes from the Latin candidatus meaning a "person clothed in white", and it refers to the process of consular election in ancient Rome. Those who sought high office wore a white toga to symbolise purity, fidelity and humility, and made sure that it was loose so that, when sceptics questioned his fitness for office, a candidate could show the scars he had gained in battle in the service of the republic.

After recent events, Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, might want to invest in a Scottish equivalent, a white kilt perhaps. In the service of his party, he has been on the receiving end of dirks in the back, claymores in the front and Lochaber axes to the head. The problem with these wounds is that, when the time comes for consular elections, the sceptics are unlikely to be impressed by Salmond's scars. The reason? Most of them have been inflicted by his own party.

Most bad weeks in politics fade quickly into fish-and-chip paper. But the SNP's bad week was very bad indeed, and one that will not fade away. First and most importantly, the party is broke. The disappointing election campaign of 1999 went soaring over budget when - in the face of a hostile press - the party decided to stop dealing with the media and go over their heads to the people, in pursuit of which it spent a great deal in producing an SNP newspaper, Scotland's Voice. An extraordinarily naive initiative, Scotland's Voice spent most of its short life talking to itself in Scotland's waste bins. As a result of that, among other things, the SNP's overdraft climbed to £600,000, at which point the bank threatened to close the account. An interest-free loan of £250,000 was raised from the membership, and the bank insisted that the Edinburgh headquarters were put on the market at £300,000. The loan now looks like turning into a gift, and the party treasurer, Ian Blackford, has been suspended. Blackford threatened to sue Salmond for defamation, but then withdrew, and he now plans to seek re-election as party treasurer.

While that combustible mix continues to simmer, another one boiled over, and yet another backfired. The heroine of the Govan by-election in the 1970s, Margo MacDonald, was carpeted for alleged indiscipline and all sorts of dire punishments loomed. But after pressure from the back benches, she got a severe censure. This climbdown by the leadership did not prevent an SNP front-bench MSP from resigning it in disgust at MacDonald's treatment. But dafter things were to come. In a poorly researched attempt to deflect the stream of negativity, the SNP wheeled out a photogenic new recruit. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh defected from the Scottish Tories, but it turned out that not only had she said some nasty things about Salmond, but she had also been a member of the Labour Party five years before. As the Daily Record observed, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh had been to more parties than Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

A very bad week, no doubt, but one which raised questions that will not go away. The basic problem is that, in the context of the Scottish Parliament, the voters are becoming unclear about what the SNP stands for. Having been part of the achievement of Scottish home rule, an independence party is in danger of looking like the Japanese soldiers found in the Polynesian jungle ten years after the end of the Second World War, still fighting old battles long after the debate has moved on. The overwhelming likelihood is that, in the Scottish Parliament, the electorate has as much independence as it wants and, historically, about as much as it is likely to get. The Ruritanian vision of Edinburgh embassies, Scottish armies and frontier guards on the Tweed sits very uneasily with the pace of the globalisation of the world economy and the movement towards European political union. History is travelling in the opposite direction to the SNP. Independence for Scotland is no longer the viscerally appealing absolute it used to be, and the old picture of the SNP is clouded and confused. Crucially, a new one is yet to emerge. Between now and the next Scottish election, the party needs to find a clear position on the political spectrum without alienating its core support.

A more immediate difficulty is the impending Westminster general election. Not only is there next to no money to fight it, but also there are rumours that candidates are proving difficult to find.

Standing back from the weekly vicissitudes of party politics, the future of the SNP looks problematic. Perhaps Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh is a good example of the party unfaithful. If the SNP's ideological position remains uncertain - in contrast with the certainties of its past - and voters begin to desert it at Westminster and Holyrood elections, perhaps it will simply shrink or disappear, having done its historical job in helping to create Scottish home rule. The SNP as a voice crying in the political wilderness has some appeal - the appeal of clarity.

Alistair Moffat