How an SNP heroine was martyred

A famous by-election winner is the victim of a deepening split in her party

The Scottish National Party celebrated the first anniversary of the Scottish Parliament by martyring one of the earliest Nationalist icons. Margo MacDonald, the winner of the 1973 Govan by-election, has been disciplined by colleagues for breaching party rules.

The plain-speaking MacDonald has transformed herself from a mascot of the past to the Mother Courage of independence. Notwithstanding her past hostility to devolution, which she saw as a distraction from the SNP's true goal, MacDonald has reconciled herself to the parliament and settled on the back benches, a woman prepared to wait.

But the SNP, a family of Sicilian closeness, does not tolerate its members speaking outside the casa. MacDonald made the mistake of criticising a group decision not to push for a debate on the medicinal use of cannabis. She is also accused of missing a vote. She was given a written warning, which carries the threat of deselection and the end of her career as a "list" MSP for Edinburgh and the Lothians.

MacDonald hit back with a television performance worthy of Clare Short or Mo Mowlam, denouncing "spin" and displaying convincing hurt. Lloyd Quinan, a front-bench spokesman and former TV weatherman, promptly resigned in sympathy.

Is this the start of Alex Salmond's long-predicted purge of SNP "fundamentalists"? The spectacle of a Nationalist heroine on the rack coincided with a row between the party leader and his treasurer, Ian Blackford. Blackford, an international banker and ardent independence supporter, threatened to sue Salmond for defamation. It is a fractious end to a year in which the SNP has had a bigger presence and a broader platform than ever before.

The party's 35 MSPs sit like a family; they cohere as a group; they thump their desks in unison. They take the parliament extremely seriously; most would not have entered public life without it. They put down questions, bury themselves in bills, attend committees assiduously. These infant legislators stand or fall with the parliament; they need to make it work.

In this new world, the distinction between "fundamentalists" and "gradualists" - those who are impatient for independence and those who want to govern a devolved Scotland - becomes fairly theoretical. It was said that the "fundis" would mount a challenge to the SNP's mild deputy leader, John Swinney, but no such challenge materialised. Perhaps they are too busy. MacDonald has taken as her specialist subject the overspending and delays afflicting the Holyrood building. As one Salmond loyalist observes: "We are all gradualists now."

So why would he move against the fundamentalists, when the fundamentalists are not fighting back?

Delayed revenge is the answer. Both MacDonald and Blackford have attacked last year's campaign for the Scottish parliamentary elections. Although MacDonald is a socialist and Blackford a free-market enterprise enthusiast, both queried the wisdom of promising to reverse Gordon Brown's 1p income-tax cut - the so-called "Penny for Scotland". MacDonald also believes that more should have been done to combat Labour's effective anti-separatist campaign, which ran under the slogan, "Divorce is an expensive business".

Their comments were all the more conspicuous because the SNP managed to evade any kind of public post-mortem on the election. There was no bloodletting, no introspection, no self-criticism sessions of the kind Labour endured in 1992. The new MSPs immersed themselves in the business of opposition.

The person who did seem affected was Salmond. It was as if Neil Kinnock had stayed on after 1992 and gone into decline. Some said he was ill, others depressed. The official explanation was that he was "taking a back seat" to give colleagues a chance to prove themselves. This has paid dividends for a few leading figures. Roseanna Cunningham, who languished at Westminster, has burst into life as an eloquent home affairs spokesperson. John Swinney, another committee chair, is sometimes referred to as "the real enterprise minister", so closely has he worked with the actual Enterprise Minister, Henry McLeish.

But there is a shortage of strong politicians. Michael Russell, Salmond's subtle lieutenant, works mainly behind the scenes as the SNP whip or "business manager". With George Reid, the party's elder statesman, absorbed by his role as deputy presiding officer, Salmond would struggle to put together a competent cabinet.

It is the SNP's good fortune that no one has noticed this yet. For the parliament's first 12 months, all the opposition had to do was to sit back and watch the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition hang itself, which it did with gratifying frequency. From genetically modified crops to the haemorrhaging of special advisers, the opposition was not short of opportunities. With the Conservatives weak and the Lib Dems compromised, the SNP has the field to itself. Why bother with a strategy?

Sporadically, the party tries to exploit tensions in the coalition, but often misses the most glaring fault lines. The problem is that the SNP is not undergoing the kind of renewal that Labour struggled towards after its 1992 defeat. Public debate about nationalism is virtually non-existent. No Scottish newspaper supports the SNP. There is no think-tank to float ideas about what foreign policy or pensions should look like in an independent Scotland. Little effort is made to mobilise chattering-class sympathy among academics, public-sector workers and media professionals.

Salmond is not the problem. The problem is that he cannot afford to advertise the shift from fundamentalism to gradualism. To do so would expose the ideological rifts in the party. Support for independence papers over the cracks between social conservatives and social liberals, tax-raisers and tax-cutters, right-wingers from the rural heartlands and left-wingers from the central belt. To govern, Salmond will have to choose.

Martyring Margo MacDonald is an easier option, but unwise. The party has never needed its icons more.

Kirsty Milne writes for the Scotsman

This article appears in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit