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11 October 1999

The union is shaken, but not stirred

New Statesman Scotland - The SNP was ecstatic at its near-win in Hamilton South. Tom Brownw

By Tom Brown

The opening line of the Scottish National Party’s new theme song, Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia”, is: “I don’t know if you can see the changes that have come over me.”

At Inverness last month it seemed that no change had come over the SNP – until about midnight on the second day of its conference. The news that its candidate Annabelle Ewing had come within 556 votes of sensationally winning the Hamilton South by-election had an electrifying effect.

It galvanised Nats numbed in the aftermath of the Scottish Parliament election debacle. A nervous and near-apologetic leadership was suddenly cock-a-hoop.

The party’s leader, Alex Salmond, who seemed to have lost much of his famous self-confidence in the face of the personal battering he took in that defeat, was suddenly the cocky “Smart Alex” of old. Perhaps too cocky. In the euphoria, the party leader made the rash, brash prediction that the United Kingdom “will not see its 300th anniversary”.

In other words, the Nationalists will sweep to power in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, First Minister Salmond and his government will hold – and win – an independence referendum and the Act of Union will be torn up by 2007.

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To my personal discredit, I linked this with the SNP’s patron, the James Bond impersonator Sean Connery, and translated it as: “Nationalist heaven by ‘007”. I thought it was too good to keep to myself and made the mistake of sharing the joke with the SNP’s hyperactive media director Kevin Pringle.

Thus a slogan was born – and appeared throughout the Scottish media. But will it be any more true than the last catchphrase coined by an over-enthusiastic Nat: “Scotland free by ’93”, only to be followed by the jibe “On the floor in ’94”?

Salmond is a part-time racing tipster for the Herald newspaper and should know better than to put his political shirt on such a long shot. He has probably calculated the odds and reckons that if he loses another election his leadership will be over anyway.

Salmond’s gleeful equation that the Hamilton South swing of 22.5 per cent would mean only eight Labour seats and an independent Scotland is political pie in the sky.

The SNP has a history of winning startling successes in by-elections yet failing to hold the seats at general elections – not least in Hamilton, scene of Winnie Ewing’s famous victory in 1967, which was overturned by a new boy named George Robertson, starting on the unpredictable career path to Nato and the title Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.

In 1988 the Nats took Glasgow Govan when the Labour vote nose-dived by 27.8 per cent, almost exactly the Labour loss of votes in Hamilton last week. But Govan was won back and, despite frenetic Nationalist efforts and Labour scandals, has remained Labour.

Winnie’s daughter, Annabelle Ewing, may have given her party a much-needed excuse to celebrate, but closer examination shows it was not so much a Scot Nat surge as a Labour bellyflop.

Her 6,616 votes were only 785 more than the SNP’s figure in 1997. In a 41 per cent turnout, her 34.01 per cent is in line with the one-third “glass ceiling” against which the SNP has been bumping its head across Scotland for years.

Then there is the unchanged nature of the SNP beast, which frightens off two-thirds of the Scottish electorate.

Post-devolution, the party is no longer Alexander’s One-Man Band. Where before he could select, virtually without consultation, his own “cabinet” and run the SNP through a close-knit coterie, there are new MSPs and challengers queueing up to question his authority.

Things are being said in public that would only have been muttered before. In an article designed to do most damage at the conference, the party treasurer, Ian Blackford, used Salmond’s own words on Britain’s Kosovo intervention to accuse him of “gross and unpardonable errors of leadership”. His “softly, softly, catchee monkey” approach to a separate Scotland is scorned by the “one big push and Scotland will be free” hard-liners.

The Braveheart tendency’s narrow-minded nationalism is a certain vote-loser, but any attempt by the “Salmondistas” to soften the line is howled down. When the rising star and shadow Scottish finance minister, Andrew Wilson, tried to reassure Scots that after independence it would be OK for them to feel British, he was forced to recant.

He went to the other extreme of describing the Union Jack as “an offensive symbol which does not refer to anything other than colonialism and some of the worst things happening in Northern Ireland”. Wilson may have appeased the freedom-fighters but caused damage with the broader electorate.

One of few meaningful conference decisions was to reaffirm the SNP as a tax-and-spend party. Right-wingers had hoped to rectify the election folly of the “Penny for Scotland” plan to reject Gordon Brown’s tax cut; now they are left wondering how many more pennies independence would cost Scottish tax-payers.

Despite all that, Labour must learn the real lesson of Hamilton South: the Nats may not win the independence struggle, but Labour can lose it. The attempt at cynical manipulation of the Hamilton South voters for Downing Street’s convenience – despite advice from Scotland not to rush the by-election to clash with the SNP conference – backfired.

The choice of Bill Tynan, a 58-year-old trade union fixer rejected as a candidate for the Scottish Parliament and given the Westminster seat as consolation, was seen as taking the constituency for granted. Such candidates only get an easy ride on the coat-tails of a general election, but they struggle in by-elections.

A new Labour campaign was fought in what is still an old Labour seat, but what wins Middle England does not appeal to traditional central Scotland. Personal appearances by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and an all-star cast of UK cabinet ministers, not to mention over 100 MPs and MSPs, made no difference.

The twin by-elections of Wigan and Hamilton South demonstrated the difference between Scotland and England. Disaffected or impatient Labour voters in England have nowhere else to go, but in Scotland they do: the SNP or, for a significant tenth, the charismatic Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party.

The Scottish Secretary, John Reid, tried to salvage something from near-defeat by claiming that Labour had halted the “SNP onslaught”. The point is, though, that there was no onslaught; the SNP leadership engrossed in their conference nearly 200 miles away had virtually conceded defeat.

Alex Salmond was carried away when he told his members: “Our hour, Scotland’s hour, is at hand.” Scots are not rushing to take the leap in the dark with the SNP to separation. But unless Labour learns the lessons of Hamilton South, they could be inching towards the edge of the abyss.

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