Scotland: the "fundies" keep quiet

As the election campaign starts, it looks like a scrap between social democrats. We'll hear from SNP

The Provost of Clackmannanshire suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder. A week of rain and he yearns for the Mediterranean sun. "I get very depressed and my wife can hardly put up with it," he told the local press, who were inquiring why he spent so much time on holidays abroad.

Rain is common in Clackmannanshire. It sluices in sheets off the brown Ochil Hills, sending old ladies scurrying for shelter. But George Reid, the Scottish National Party candidate for Ochil, spurns a coat when he is out campaigning. The odd downpour is an opportunity to nip into the delicatessen in Dollar, the florist's in Tillicoultry, the all-purpose store in Menstrie.

Ochil matters to the SNP. It is third on their list of target seats, and a constituency that they hoped to take from Labour's Martin O'Neill at the last election. Ochil also matters to Reid, 60 this year and an SNP elder statesman. Once a Westminster MP - for roughly the same constituency, from 1974 until after the referendum of 1979 - he left Scotland for a decade as director of the International Red Cross in Geneva. He speaks Russian and holds the SNP brief for constitutional and "external" affairs, covering relations with other countries (including England) after independence.

The seat is a map of his life. Born in Tullibody, he was brought up in Alloa, Clackmannanshire's main town, and educated at Dollar Academy. He now lives in affluent Bridge of Allan, a few doors down from the Labour candidate Richard Simpson, an articulate 56-year-old local GP.

The constituency has suffered in the past 30 years. Jobs have been lost in textiles, brewing, coal mining and heavy engineering. The area has poor road and rail links. Villages are losing their sense of community as they turn into dormitory suburbs for commuters working in Perth, Stirling or Glasgow.

Unemployment in Scotland is rising, bucking the national trend. The risk for Labour is that in some of its traditional heartlands the party will get the blame. The Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, was advised to cancel a visit to Alloa with Simpson last month after news that a Coats Viyella factory was to close with the loss of 200 jobs. It has just been announced that the Norwegian company Kvaerner is pulling out of Govan, one of the last remaining Glasgow shipyards, putting 1,200 jobs at risk and starting a race to find a buyer for the yard. Govan is the SNP's top target seat. In Ochil, Labour's Richard Simpson insists that jobs are being created at the same time as they are being lost. There is talk of call centres. A new "designer outlet" shopping mall, Sterling Mills, will bring 500 jobs. In the long run, both Labour and the SNP see education as the key to employment. The SNP is pushing hi-tech "hot spots" - a policy similar to the "clusters" idea beloved of the former trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson.

Simpson's main interest is in health, which will take up one-third of the Scottish Parliament's budget. A GP for 30 years, he has campaigned for community hospitals and helped set up a local hospice. He is particularly keen on the government's plans for public health. Labour included in its manifesto launch plans for a network of "healthy living centres" - though, like several manifesto promises, this is a policy already announced for the UK as a whole.

It is not the best morning for canvassing in Ochil, what with the rugby and the football and the Grand National. But a knot of SNP workers,with yellow balloons and "pledge cards" (an idea borrowed from Labour), patrol the main streets gamely.

In Dollar, Tillicoultry and Alva, the shopkeepers complain bitterly that the big supermarkets damage their trade. A butcher observes that his business "has never recovered from BSE". Reid points out that the SNP is committed to lifting the ban on beef on the bone. With the teenage shopworkers, he highlights the SNP's plan to scrap tuition fees and restore grants for 20,000 poorer students.

"I don't like to ram politics down people's throats," says Reid, a moderate who knows more about consensus-seeking than most of his colleagues. He sat on the consultative steering group, where politicians of all parties thrashed out the practical details of how the parliament should work: what committees it should have, how journalists will operate, what technology the new "MSPs" will use.

His party has had a nasty fortnight. The SNP's poll ratings were already slipping at the time of the Budget. They took a risk with Alex Salmond's "Penny for Scotland" pledge to reverse Gordon Brown's 1p tax cut and spend the money on public services. Then came Salmond's opposition to Nato's bombing of Serbia, a position he has held valiantly against a tide of unparliamentary abuse from Labour.

But campaigning on two potentially unpopular policies has caused strains in the SNP, with press reports of tensions between Salmond and his chief executive, Mike Russell. An ICM poll in last Monday's Scotsman showed the proportion of Scots choosing Salmond as the best First Minister at 25 per cent, down from 43 per cent last summer. It also had Labour winning 60 seats to the SNP's 42, leaving Labour five seats short of an overall majority - unthinkable a few months ago.

In Ochil, no one mentions Kosovo, but one SNP supporter complains that the "Penny for Scotland" will hurt small businesses like hers. Isn't it worth it, says Reid, to tackle the shocking overcrowding at the local school? He believes the SNP's position on both Kosovo and tax could play to his advantage among traditional Labour voters in Alloa.

Watching the SNP take up a position to the left of Labour is all the more fascinating because the party has simultaneously been downplaying its commitment to independence. The manifesto, which Salmond described as "social democracy with a Scottish face", is designed for governing in a devolved Scotland. It makes Labour, with its alarmist anti-independence campaigning, look silly.

The SNP leader is also showing signs of flexibility on the timetable for a referendum on independence, which has so far been the SNP's precondition for any partnership with other parties at Holyrood. This insistence has alienated Liberal Democrats who might otherwise have favoured a pact. Jim Wallace, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, opposes a referendum.

Take away independence and it is impossible to escape the sensation that you are simply watching two social democratic parties slug it out. In Ochil, for instance, Simpson was once in the SDP, and Reid is an ex-member of the Labour Party.

With no effective Tory party in Scotland, it could be very healthy to have a gradualist SNP operating as a check on Labour at Holyrood. But for those among Salmond's MSPs who want to forge ahead to independence, it will not be enough. Dubbed the "fundies" (fundamentalists, like the German Greens) they are keeping quiet for now. After the election, they may make their presence felt.

This article appears in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world