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Post-No Scotland: should the SNP have made a more radical offer?

The failure to bring a greater number of affluent Scots on board raises questions about the SNP’s “de-risking” strategy.

By Jamie Maxwell

“I’ve seen this happen so many times before”, one veteran left-wing activist told me in the early hours of Friday morning, as we stood in the lobby of the Emirates Arena in the east end of Glasgow. “The Labour vote descends like a mist from nowhere and disperses just as quickly.”

In the end, of course, it was only one section of the Labour vote – the public sector “salatariat”, as Paul Mason, another of my companions at the Glasgow count, describes it – that turned out for the Union. The poorest parts of Scotland – those areas in which Westminster’s failure is most conspicuous – went with the nationalists.

Disastrously for Labour, the Yes campaign took every one of Glasgow’s eight Holyrood constituencies. In Maryhill, where Labour MP Willie Bain has a majority of 15,000, Yes won by 6,000 votes. In Shettleston, home to the shadow secretary of state for Scotland Margaret Curran, the Yes majority was 1200. North Lanarkshire, where Labour once weighed rather than counted its vote, split 51/49 for Yes.

These victories wouldn’t have been possible without the emergence, over the last two years, of a new coalition in Scottish politics. It is a coalition of young, well-educated leftists, progressive nationalists and the “forgotten fifth” of Scots who have felt the rough edge of Westminster’s free market restructuring. Organisationally, it depends on a relatively small number of people, Cat Boyd, Johnathon Shafi and Liam O’Hare of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and Robin McAlpine of Common Weal, foremost among them. But its broad and urgent message – “Britain is for the rich. Scotland can be ours” – has resonated with a large, dispossessed chunk of Scottish society. As austerity intensifies and the debate over Scotland’s constitutional status thunders on (and trust me, it will – it barely paused for breath over the weekend), this coalition has the potential to radicalise Scottish political life.

And yet, there is no disguising the fact that the No campaign won on Friday, and by a more substantial margin than many, myself included, predicted. Middle and professional Scotland came out in force. In Edinburgh, in affluent East Renfrewshire and in the Tory and Liberal voting Borders, support for the Union was overwhelming. According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum analysis, the two issues that mattered most to No voters were pensions and the pound. The prospect of economic uncertainty (already a reality of life for, and therefore hardly a threat to, the residents of Maryhill) was enough to galvanise Alistair Darling’s “silent majority” against independence.

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That said, I was born and brought up in south Edinburgh – the cultural heart of middle Scotland – and have never doubted the strength of unionist sentiment there. For the people of Marchmont, Newington and the Grange, unionism is practically a reflex. They have done very well out of current arrangements. Why on earth would they want to change them?

The failure to bring a greater number of affluent Scots on board raises questions about the SNP’s “de-risking” strategy. Did it go too far enough or not far enough? Should the nationalists have dropped the centre-left rhetoric over welfare, wages and defence? Or should they have offered a more radical prospectus, with the aim of winning a bigger slice of the Labour base?

There is a good case to be made for the latter. The ten per cent difference between Yes and No wasn’t insurmountable. One of the things which supressed Yes support was the relatively low turn-out in working class districts. 90 per cent of the electorate in East Renfrewshire voted, compared to 75 per cent in Glasgow and 79 per cent in Dundee, the two Yes strongholds. Had the SNP presented a more coherent social and economic vision, rather than mangling it with ill-conceived plans to cut corporation tax, it’s possible more low-income Scots would have cast a ballot.

Conversely, so emphatic was their rejection of independence, I doubt any amount of reassurance would have persuaded middle and upper class Scots to abandon the Union. Nor could the SNP have stopped the co-ordinated business assault against the Yes campaign the week before the referendum. When it comes to low-wages and light-touch regulation, Westminster will always win the race to the bottom.

The irony here is that Alex Salmond, nationalism’s triangulator-in-chief, launched his career with a pledge to break Labour’s grip of the Scottish political landscape. “The role of the SNP”, he said in 1990, when he first stood for the position of party leader, “is to replace Labour as the dominant force in Scottish politics. Our strategic role is to open up the divide between the Labour Party’s supporters and its leadership”.

In this, Salmond has been spectacularly successful. Labour is getting weaker and weaker at Holyrood. Johann Lamont was anonymous for much of the campaign. The party’s standing in its former heartlands has never been lower. More significantly, Salmond’s successor, Nicola Sturgeon, is a product of Scotland’s post-industrial west coast and has a more robust set of social democratic credentials than her boss. If there is anyone in the SNP capable of compounding Labour’s decline, it is the deputy first minister.

As for Salmond himself, it is almost impossible to imagine the SNP without its talisman. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Salmond helped consolidate the party’s shift from rural traditionalism to modern, soft-left pragmatism. In the noughties, he took the SNP into government and governed creditably. On Friday, he destroyed the notion that nationalism was the preserve of a small, bullying minority and established a solid grounding – 45 per cent of the electorate – for a second referendum in ten or 15 years’ time. He is a hugely divisive figure, but then effective leaders always are.

Yet, with Salmond on the way out, the focus of British politics (and of the London media, much of which, in my view, behaved disgracefully during the campaign) is now shifting south, to the explosive question of England’s constitutional future. Scotland may have voted No last week, but the referendum has exposed huge political and economic fissures across the United Kingdom. “There is a hint of Weimar in the English Autumn”, the SNP once irreverently claimed. Post September 18, that sounds less like a gallus jibe and more like a statement of fact. 

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