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29 May 2000

The bright young face of Nationalism Lite

New Statesman Scotland - The SNP is learning to speak to the unconverted. Tom Brown listens

By Tom Brown

Andrew Wilson is the new fresh face of the Scottish National Party. In truly trendy style, he embodies what the traditionalists call Nationalism Lite.

At 29, he is the second youngest Member of the Scottish Parliament and, after only a year in front-rank politics, has a higher profile than grizzled Bravehearts of the long guerrilla war against the British Establishment.

He is the SNP’s spokesperson on finance, which could put him in charge of the Scottish Treasury in the event of independence. And, as the anointed acolyte of Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, he is being tipped as a future successor – which might, of course, make him the prime minister of Scotland one day.

He also has a column in Scotland’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Labour-supporting Sunday Mail, which he uses for a shrewd mix of nationalist propaganda and such touching insights as being ticked off by his mum for appearing tieless alongside Sean Connery, the nearest thing to Scottish royalty.

On May Day, he was in Georgia for the swearing-in of Eduard Shevardnadze as president (“Shevvy” to the irreverent young Wilson) and to promote Scotland as the model of a “democratic and peaceful” approach to national self-government.

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Never mind the Georgians, there are people in Wilson’s own party who have still to be convinced of the “softly, softly” approach to independence.

In a speech at last month’s Political Studies Association conference in London, it was noted that Salmond talked up the Scottish Parliament, which had previously been dismissed as a halfway house. In the parliament’s first six months, he was said to have used the word “independence” only twice.

The leadership’s shift was confirmed at the party’s national council. Instead of the old demand for independence negotiations as soon as the SNP won a Scottish general election, the new strategy is for a referendum of the Scottish people after an election victory.

The tactic is an answer to Labour’s crude but effective “break-up of Britain” onslaught in last year’s Scottish Parliament election. The Scottish electorate can now safely vote SNP, knowing that they are not immediately voting to leave the United Kingdom.

Even with the SNP in power, the people could still refuse it the mandate to proceed to independence. In fact, they could teach Labour a lesson by having an SNP administration in Edinburgh fighting Scotland’s corner against the London government. Whether that would be the best or worst of both worlds, depends on your perspective.

In the upper echelons of the SNP, opposition to Salmond’s new line was remarkably muted, but in the ranks there were mutterings of “betrayal”. To them, it seemed that the very reason for the party’s existence had become a dirty word that their leaders could not bring themselves to utter.

“What happened to Salmond’s conference promise of independence, ‘heaven by 2007’?” the traditionalists asked. “Have their MSP salaries and lifestyles turned our leaders into softies? Are we going the same way as Plaid Cymru, which has dropped its demand for Welsh independence?”

The reality is that, whatever opinion polls say, the proportion of Scots casting their votes for independence has never been much more than one-third. And, as Labour learnt to its cost, the PR system for Scot- tish Parliament elections makes it more un-likely that any party will win the clear majority essential to the SNP’s new strategy.

The Salmond team respond that they are playing it clever and not for nothing is their leader known as “Smart Alex”. They have not watered down the commitment, but are using the parliament, and their performance as the official opposition, to make the case for more powers and eventual independence.

Wilson admits that the softening of the line is designed to woo Scots who are either frightened of independence or traditionally loyal to the Union, while risking the wrath of the Bravehearts: “There must come a time – it has happened to other parties, including Labour – when a party has to appeal beyond its own grass roots and speak to the unconverted.”

Far from going soft on independence, he insists that it will grow out of the Scottish Parliament: “We have to make the parliament work because people are unlikely to vote to give us more powers if they think what we have done so far is a disaster. We want them to say ‘That’s a good thing, so let’s have more of a good thing’.

“As far as we are concerned, John Smith’s ‘unfinished business’ isn’t finished. The parliament isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.”

The referendum promise, claim the Salmondistas, would make SNP success more likely. Wilson claims: “Don’t underestimate the influence the devolution referendum had. It was a terrific experience, a key moment, and it killed one of Scotland’s demons, the ‘ye canna dae that’ attitude.”

SNP strategists such as Wilson believe that new Labour has created a gap in Scotland’s left-of-centre which can be exploited, and that they have only to complete the process started by Westminster’s cession of powers to Holyrood and Brussels.

They hope to build on recent polls that show two-thirds of Scots want more constitutional change and that the SNP has a 33 to 37 per cent lead over Labour. A 21.4 per cent swing to the SNP certainly pushed Labour into third place in the Ayr by-election this March.

But wasn’t the Scottish Parliament supposed to deal with the “democratic deficit” and kill off Scottish nationalism?

“It’s all about taxation,” says Wilson. “Even though the parliament has a tax-varying power, Jack McConnell [the Scottish Finance Minister] has no real financial control. He is told what his budget is and has to spend it within the guidelines laid down in London. You can’t have arguments about high tax or low tax, fair tax or unfair tax.

“Our priorities are pretty much the same – health, education, jobs – but it’s a question of how much we want to raise and spend on them. It is a sterile debate if the budget is fixed outside of Scotland and not decided by the Scottish Parliament.”

Wilson is from Motherwell and Wishaw, one of the Labour heartlands that the Nationalists have to convert if they are going to get anywhere near power.

“The average central-belt Scot actually has goodwill to the SNP, but goodwill plus loyalty to Labour,” Wilson concedes. “They have to be persuaded that loyalty to Labour has not done them much good.

“I was never going to be Labour because, all around me, everything was in decline, and Labour was not doing anything about it. The Labour politicians in our locality were doing well out of the working class, but not putting anything back.

“I was the SNP agent for the constituency in 1992, when people were told to vote Labour and save the steel industry. They voted Labour and Ravenscraig was shut down anyway.”

Wilson was politicised at university by the nuclear issue and thought about the Greens, but he met Salmond (“he’s very good at encouraging younger people”) and ended up leading the SNP’s student wing.

After a spell in the Scottish Civil Service, he joined the SNP’s full-time staff before the 1997 election to beef up their economic argument. “It was a reasonably successful election for us, and, at the Scottish election, Labour appointed an economist from the Civil Service as well, which I suppose was a compliment,” Wilson points out.

He made it to the Scottish Parliament’s front bench thanks to the closed-list PR system and, like Wendy Alexander, Labour’s bright young Communities Minister, his introduction to front-line politics has been bruising.

He was harried at the Scottish Parliament election when the SNP’s long-awaited economic strategy for independence was found to have a multibillion-pound black hole.

And he was shaken by the violent reaction when, at last September’s SNP conference, he rashly described the Union flag as “an offensive symbol” linked with “colonialism and some of the worst things happening in Northern Ireland”. It gave rise to “We hate the Union Jack” headlines, and ridicule was heaped on the SNP’s “callow” spokesman.

Wilson had been trying to tackle the problem of Britishness, “the B-word” that more experienced Scottish Nationalists avoid, and blurted out the offensive answer in a question-and-answer session.

Now he is more guarded: “No one has a monopoly on Scottishness. We just disagree on how to express our Scottishness. Some people think they can believe in the Union and still believe in Scotland, but that is not a very ambitious belief in Scotland.

“All I am saying is that the SNP is the one party that will, always and everywhere, argue the Scottish case.”

The young MSP continues: “I couldn’t lead the SNP – you’ve got to be up too early in the morning. At the moment, the height of my ambition is to take part in and win an independence referendum.”

Young Wilson and his leader may be peddling Nationalism Lite, but no one should be fooled. It is still the same heady independence brew – too much of it and Scots will wake up with a hangover.