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20 March 2000

Does the SNP know what it wants?

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

In the Gaelic language, there is a phrase that is useful to the observer of current affairs who wants to discern pattern and underlying trend. He or she should listen for “the music of the thing as it happens”. At the SNP’s national council later this month, the deputy leader, John Swinney, will propose a resolution that rings a clear note: “Scotland is in the process of becoming independent” and that means “seeking to expand on the powers of the Scottish Parliament in crucial areas such as finance, broadcasting, European and international relations and social security matters.” These are muffled drumbeats compared to the promised fanfare in the old SNP policy of treating for independence with Westminster on the day after a majority of Scottish seats was won at Holyrood or the London parliament. The key word in the Swinney resolution is “process” and its substitution for the “event” of a Scottish breakaway.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru is also softening the drama of independence. In the campaign for the Welsh Assembly last year, the Plaid AM Dafydd Wigley even went so far as to make the historically outrageous claim that his party had never sought independence. Many members bit their tongues in the drive to make PC even more PC. Instead, the Cardiff assembly has seen Plaid enthusiastically take up the role of obstructive opposition. Its clear aim is to make as much trouble as possible for the coalition government and to seek to accrue more powers to Cardiff by punching holes in the constitutional settlement. Certainly, Plaid’s general strategy has been helped by the assembly’s insistence on rejecting the Blairite Alun Michael as First Secretary and replacing him with the more popular Rhodri Morgan. And the Nationalists have made life difficult for the coalition by enthusiastically supporting the no-confidence motion against Christine Gwyther, the vegetarian Secretary for Agriculture. In short, they have found a role beyond their traditional political ground – that of an opposition seeking power in an institution where it has a powerful voice.

The SNP understands that the climate in Scotland is different but also that its movement faces the same external forces understood by Plaid’s strategists. It knows that, in the increasingly homogenous economy of western Europe, old-fashioned ideas of independence with uniforms, passports and embassies are unlikely to appeal to the majority of the Scottish electorate. As Brussels assumes more influence over our economy, and Nato over our defence policies, the SNP has come to realise that its best hope is to work through the Scottish Parliament as it exists, just as Plaid Cymru is doing in Cardiff.

Added to this is the likelihood that, in Holyrood, the Scottish voters have about as much independence as they want. While there is no shortage of complaints about the activities of MSPs, no polls show anything near a majority for a breakaway, whatever that might mean. The reality is that the SNP is in transition from being an independence movement to becoming a political party. Holyrood has provided it with a stage, status, regular supplies of the oxygen of publicity and, most importantly, salaried jobs with reasonable prospects. The people running the SNP are, above all, politicians, and they will not allow the out-dated principles that founded their party to get in the way of a real chance for power. It is conceivable that the SNP could form a Scottish government in the next ten years, and that is why the Swinney resolution will be adopted at the SNP National Council this month. A step-by-step inflation of the powers of the Scottish Parliament will be judged to be a more practical and less voter-alarming programme than marching down the Royal Mile to bang on the door of Holyrood Palace and claim the keys of the kingdom.

This new pragmatic approach does, however, beg another, larger question. If SNP members shift in their seats, cough and explain that, yes, they are indeed an independence party, but, no, there is unlikely to be an actual Independence Day or indeed any fixed point at which Scotland might claim that status, it being a process and all, then what is the party? Voters will want to know, and soon, what exactly the SNP positively represents if it is not full-blown independence for Scotland. Is it left, right, red, white, blue or green? Or simply a collection of positions on different issues?

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And yet the passing of the old SNP into history is not an entirely unmixed blessing. At the 1978 by-election at Glasgow Garscadden, which saw Donald Dewar return to Westminster, the Nationalist candidate was Keith Bovey. A member of CND and a man of some weight and principle, he was supported by the SNP’s tartan army of by-election volunteers. During the campaign, a Dormobile plastered with Bovey posters parked at the top of a cul-de-sac in the Drumchapel council estate. Out of the loudspeakers on the roof blared “Flower of Scotland”, but out of its doors appeared no candidate or canvassers. Only when the music stopped did they slide open the doors and start working the street. Perhaps they were singing along inside.

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As it dances to the music of time, it is somehow sad to see a viscerally nationalist movement quirky enough to nominate a left-wing candidate in favour of disarmament, in a vital by-election, changing itself into another political party like so many others in Europe. However unattractive some of its old messages sounded, they were at least principled, clear, honest and sincere.

Alistair Moffat