A member of the current SNP leadership once said that they “would live in a cave” if it meant Scotland could be independent. This somewhat extreme position, still shared on the party’s more eccentric fringes, is one of the reasons it has failed to persuade normal, house-dwelling, centrally heated Scots to back its ultimate ambition.
The analysis, backed by most credible economists, that an independent Scotland’s economy would face a pretty dismal first decade or so is another – and perhaps the main – reason the nation remains part of the Union. It was interesting, therefore, to hear the SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes say in a debate this week that she would not “trade poverty for independence”.
In presentational terms at least, the nationalist movement has come a long way from its early image as a chest-beating, symbol-and-myth idolising tribe. These days the case for independence is supported by policy papers, arguments about progressiveness and the Scandinavian model, and a commitment to the democratic route. The SNP is a party of government, limousines and big salaries.
But even this has not proved enough to flip the switch, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as SNP leader and first minister. If there was a chance that independence was imminent – as the SNP’s leaders still like to pretend in public – you wouldn’t have prised her out of Bute House with a crowbar.
[See also: Could Kate Forbes yet defy the SNP machine and win the leadership?]
Sturgeon’s time in office spanned a febrile global era. Brexit upended the traditional view of Britain as a reliable team player. The Conservative Party engaged in a wrestling match over ownership of its tattered soul. Reckless, solipsistic populists rose to power in Western capitals, including London. The First Minister decried this instability but also surfed its wave, with great electoral success.
Her replacement will probably face a changed climate. The time of the populists is passing, if it has not already passed. The war in Ukraine has reunited the West in a spirit of moral solidarity. The Conservatives have finally – though probably too late – alighted on a leader who is sober, hard-working and unshowy, and who is beginning to produce results on Europe and the economy. Keir Starmer, likely to replace Rishi Sunak after the general election expected next year, is similarly low key but focused, and will surely put an end to those remaining Tory policies that are an affront to basic human decency.
Boring, it seems, is in fashion. Populations have had enough of turbulence, of swagger in place of action, of politics as endless guerrilla warfare. It has got us nowhere, and it has led to dangerous neglect of the things that should preoccupy government.
Scots are not immune to this ebb and flow. Pitched warfare between Edinburgh and London is, in the end, no answer at all if you want to run, or live in, a successful country. Avoiding complex policy choices because you don’t want to fall out with anyone in your own party is a strategy with a shelf life – it lasts precisely until the moment that the public services are transparently unfit for purpose. If you show unlimited passion for the public sphere and big-state action, but something close to contempt for individual liberty, wealth creation and the private sector, your economy will underperform, even as others soar ahead.
Good politics is, in the end, quite simple, and about balance. It is about identifying what the mainstream need from you if they are to live fulfilled lives, and helping those who have been dealt a less fortunate hand towards the same end. If you’re only about the former, you have no heart. If the latter, you lack a brain.
Whoever wins this SNP leadership election will lead a movement that wants to be anything but boring. The revolutionary spirit drives the pro-independence hardcore and basic good governance is not near the top of their priority list.
My instinct, though, is that we are entering a period where voters, exhausted by a stormy and conspiracy-driven decade, are looking to their leaders for calm competence, and effectiveness in the basics of government. It shouldn’t be all that much to ask, should it? Do Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan have anything at all to say on the matter?
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