In 1975, Christopher Hitchens travelled to Perth to write about the Scottish National Party’s annual conference for the New Statesman. His report contains much that will be familiar to contemporary readers: a European referendum, opposition parties in “disarray” at the Nationalist advance and, inevitably, ideological divisions. On the final point, Hitchens was withering. “Of course they [the SNP] are wildly opportunist,” he wrote, “with a ‘something for everyone’ strategy that reminds one of a chameleon trying to blend itself into a tartan rug.” He observed, however, that disagreements were “carefully handled and concealed”. If he were covering this year’s conference, which began on Thursday, he might have reached the same conclusion, because the “Chameleon on a tartan rug” (the headline of his piece for the NS) is alive and well.
Most political parties are broad churches but the SNP’s congregation is more diverse than most. It includes traditionalists, socialists, liberals and neoliberals, most of whom possess a feeling of moral superiority. But what binds them even more closely is the “National Question”. Since the 1980s the SNP has classified itself as “centre-left” or “social-democratic” – terminology that used to provoke furious debates at conference – but seldom examines what it means to any coherent degree. “No one talks about it,” says Alex Bell, who was head of policy for the SNP government between 2010 and 2013. “The first rule of the SNP is don’t talk policy. There’s a silent pact.”
That is slightly unfair: the SNP does talk policy – as a party of government for more than eight years it has had little choice – but what Bell meant is that any differences are masked by the shared pursuit of independence. The various factions are prepared to compromise (and bite their lip) to an extent that isn’t true of most other parties. “If the left is always destined to split,” Bell says, “then the SNP isn’t left-wing at all.”
Discipline has helped bring unprecedented electoral success in Scotland and at Westminster, but it has also created a very confused party. Delve beneath the left-wing and anti-austerity rhetoric and you’ll find a bit of everything: centre-right economics, centre-left social policy, populism, authoritarian law and order, as well as libertarian stances on sexual and gender politics. Bell calls it “the Mhairi Black paradox”: “How exactly does her left-wing vision of Scotland become a reality via the SNP?”
Black is the 21-year-old from Paisley who defeated Douglas Alexander, the then shadow foreign secretary, at the general election in May. In her celebrated maiden speech to the Commons, Black spoke of her “traditional socialist, Labour family” and how it was “the Labour Party that left me, not the other way about”. Nationalism, she said, had “nothing to do” with the SNP’s advance in Scotland. Rather, it had triumphed on a “wave of hope”: the SNP showed there was an alternative to “the Thatcherite neoliberal policies” propagated by Westminster.
That broadly has been the SNP’s pitch since last year’s independence referendum, and central to which has been a disavowal of overt nationalism. In an influential speech in late 2012, Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy first minister, made a distinction between the “existentialist” and “utilitarian” strands of the national movement; that is between those who based their support on “the fact of nationhood” (she reckoned the majority) and those who viewed independence as a means to “deliver a better society”.
Sturgeon believed most independence supporters were an “amalgam” of the two strands, yet it has been interesting to watch the existentialist tendency return to the fore since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. He presents an unexpected challenge to contemporary Nationalist thinking.
Certainly Mhairi Black has recalibrated her approach. In a recent article in the independence-supporting National newspaper, she now said that the “main reason” she supported independence was the “democratic deficit” (Scotland having to accept UK governments for which it hasn’t voted), an argument based on nationhood rather than utilitarian goals. Black also criticised Labour’s “shift” to the right over the past two decades, even though the SNP embarked on much the same journey during the same period, embracing free-market economics and wooing Middle Scotland just as Tony Blair did Middle England. Yet even though Labour is attacked for having ditched its “principles”, the SNP presents a “seamless flow of arguments”, as the economist John McLaren put it, explaining away any inconsistencies “as part of a grand strategy”.
Hitchens called this political dexterity “opportunism”, and the Scottish National Party is certainly nimble in its response to changing events. As a marginal force for much of its eight-decade existence, the party had little choice.
The SNP grew out of a split in the old Scottish Unionist Party. The resulting Scottish Party – imperialist and right-wing but in favour of home rule – merged with the more radical National Party of Scotland to form the SNP in 1934.
The party’s first leader, Sir Alexander MacEwen, an Anglo-Catholic, took care to link his constitutional aims with a utilitarian programme of economic and social reform. Yet he generally despaired that his fellow-travellers lacked a “creed” or “philosophy”, and, indeed, for decades the SNP debated whether it should adopt policies at all. Only in the 1960s did it start to develop comprehensive policy positions, with Billy Wolfe, who became leader in 1969, arguing that the party’s philosophical outlook “had no counterpart in existing British politics”, being “more a question of inspiring confidence” than “conforming to some established ideological doctrine”.
To an extent, that has remained the case until the present, amounting to an appeal above party politics to a “national” interest that has necessarily incorporated elements of left and right. In his 1975 conference report, Hitchens described how an MP called Douglas Crawford leaked a document, “drawn up by merchant bankers and businessmen”, which depicted “an independent Scotland as a tax haven tied to the English pound”. “This overt affirmation of petty-bourgeois aspirations,” Hitchens remarked, “was too much for delegates who roundly condemned such frankness.”
As an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews (a hotbed of nascent Thatcherism, rather than Scottish nationalism) in the 1970s, the young Alex Salmond railed against this tendency in the party. By the end of the decade he had joined the 79 Group, an internal pressure group committed to making the often petit bourgeois SNP adopt a more ostentatiously left-wing agenda. He and others subscribed to a straightforward analysis of the 1979 election result: nationalism alone was not enough, and the SNP had to displace Labour as Scotland’s largest party.
Although the 79 Group fizzled out by 1982, its analysis proved more enduring, with the “left-wing case for Scottish nationalism”, as articulated by the late nationalist thinker and politician Stephen Maxwell, reaching full fruition – at least in rhetorical terms – during last year’s referendum campaign. Over time, however, Salmond’s self-avowed “socialism” softened to become “social democracy”. And then, in the late 1980s, he gazed across the Irish Sea and liked what he saw: a “Celtic Tiger” slashing corporation tax and attracting international businesses to Dublin. If Ireland could do it, why not also an independent Scotland?
Interviewed just months after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, Salmond envisaged “independence in Europe”. His aim would be to slash interest rates, as he made clear his commitment to the marketplace and a “competitive and productive” Scottish economy. In effect, Salmond was Blairite before Tony Blair, jettisoning commitments to nationalisation, higher income-tax rates and opposition to Right to Buy (recently reversed) during his first period as leader from 1990 to 2000.
Unlike Blair, however, Salmond took care to mask all the resulting policy shifts with a heavy dose of social-democratic rhetoric. In doing so, the SNP gradually became all things to all men and women, courting the business community with a liberal fiscal regime (Salmond promised less regulatory “red tape”) while Scotland’s public sector was promised protection from privatisation and falling wages. It was a delicate balancing act his successor performs to this day.
In the run-up to the 2007 Scottish election from which the SNP emerged as the governing party, Sturgeon conceded in an interview that as Labour had shifted to the right, the SNP had perhaps become rather “centralist and statist” in its outlook. Governments, she added, “should not go around getting in people’s way when they don’t need to”. Thus, eradicating student debt (a pledge unfulfilled in office), lessening the burden of local taxation and encouraging small businesses, she argued, were intended “to give individuals a fair crack of the whip . . . aspirational policies about people progressing and making the most of themselves”. Such an agenda, the party hoped, would “strike a chord with people in the middle classes”.
This, of course, was before the financial crash, to which the SNP struggled to articulate a coherent response: so central was the cultivation of high finance and business to the Salmond project that he was reluctant to criticise bankers when things went wrong. This, however, was not how he or his party liked to see themselves. (I once put it to Salmond that his economic views were small “c” conservative; he wasn’t happy.) After 2007, the SNP did not control the Scottish economy in any meaningful sense. The opportunity to slash corporation tax or cut VAT didn’t arise, but as Nationalists came under greater scrutiny so, too, did their ideological contradictions. This was crystallised in Scotland’s Future, the Scottish government’s white paper published in November 2013. It is a sprawling document full of detail but a curious mixture of 1980s left-wing rhetoric and orthodox neoliberal economics. To many, it simply wasn’t credible, and analysis suggests that lack of credibility helped lose the Yes camp the referendum.
Clearly the strategy was to aim for the centre ground, and many on the Scottish left were prepared to go along with this cautious pro-independence agenda during the referendum campaign. But since last year various parties (such as the Scottish Greens), think tanks (such as Common Weal) and movements (most recently Rise – short for Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism) have asserted a more ostentatiously left-wing agenda in favour of independence and in which Scotland’s lively arts scene plays an important part. This highlights an obvious point: if the SNP were truly a “radical” left-wing force, none of the other parties would need to exist. Even so, such is the SNP’s dominance that only the Greens have a chance of gaining seats in next May’s Holyrood elections.
During the long referendum campaign, Alex Salmond once said that he welcomed “voices to the left of the SNP’s social-democratic position speaking up in favour of independence”, as well as support “from the entrepreneurial and more free-market perspective”. It highlighted, he said, how, “post-independence, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to choose from a range of political perspectives and parties”. Which rather undermined the point of predicating a Yes vote on a specific policy agenda outlined in the white paper.
In November 2014, Nicola Sturgeon succeeded Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP. It was assumed that she would be Gordon Brown to his Tony Blair – a more authentic left-winger. But, as in 2007, it turned out to be a change more of style than of substance. As an SNP insider put it, although there has been a “tonal change from Alex to Nicola” it isn’t fundamental. “She kept all the same economic ministers in place, John Swinney, Fergus Ewing et al,” the source said. “It’s just about articulating a more considered business position than Alex did.”
Although few doubt the First Minister’s heart beats on the left (as does that of her closest adviser, Noel Dolan), pragmatism has got the SNP this far and Sturgeon has no intention of altering a successful strategy. Alex Salmond was indisputably popular, but his protégée combines that with a more measured style that gives her greater authority on the Scottish and UK stage. If Sturgeon has a weakness it is strategic: she lacks her mentor’s ability to play a multidimensional game of political chess. This crystallises around the question of a second independence referendum. Salmond leads the impatient wing of the party, worried that the moment is about to pass. Sturgeon heads the cautious contingent, talking of another plebiscite in five or ten years’ time, but only if the SNP wins another overall majority in Edinburgh (which seems likely) and if there is a “material change”, such as the UK voting to leave the European Union (more likely than it was a year ago).
The central tension of the Salmond era – a high-spend/low-tax agenda – remains unresolved and, when challenged, the First Minister simply offers the Blairite mantra that “economic growth and equality are two sides of the same coin”. Her most recent legislative agenda promised both a specifically Scottish welfare system and also a commitment to halving air passenger duty: a tax cut, it is argued, that will pay for itself.
One long-standing Nationalist describes the SNP as “social-democratic in its instincts but with a large ambitious chip in terms of Scotland’s position and performance from an economic perspective”, another obvious attempt to square the circle.
Alex Bell, Salmond’s former policy adviser, however believes that “most of the SNP is to the right”. “Scratch the surface of Salmond, Stephen Noon [who was chief strategist to Yes Scotland] or John Swinney,” Bell says, “and it comes down to classic conservative values of self-sufficiency, standing on your own two feet, moral and individual responsibility.
“In any other country, the SNP would be on the right: it’s just that the peculiarities of Scottish politics mean they’re viewed as being on the left,” Bell says.
This is an important observation, because opposition to Thatcher during the 1980s encouraged an equation of Scottish interests with left-wing politics. Constitutional preferences, national identity and party choice became conflated in voters’ minds. Indeed, an academic analysis of the SNP grass roots conducted shortly after the 2007 election found party leadership and membership closely aligned at “just” left of centre. Members who joined in the 1980s were most likely to see themselves and the party as left-wing; newer members usually leaned more to the right. And while clear majorities supported redistribution of wealth, half also agreed that it wasn’t the role of the state to provide jobs for everyone.
Is this ambiguity sustainable, or will the SNP end up collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions before it achieves its goal of independence? There is a danger for nationalists that the party will become a version of what it claims to hate: New Labour, endlessly triangulating, spinning its way out of tricky situations and attempting to reconcile free-market economics with the maintenance of universal benefits. Scottish Labour hopes this will open up space for it to stage a comeback, while groupings such as Rise and the Scottish Greens envisage a scenario in which it will compel the SNP – potentially dependent on their support to form an administration at Holyrood – to ditch the centre ground in favour of a more left-wing policy agenda.
Perhaps, like other insurgent parties and movements throughout Europe, the modern SNP is an example of post-ideological politics, in which the distinction between left and right has become blurred, not to mention distorted, by identity politics and the National Question. “There has been a whole lot of triangulation going on in Scotland over the last decade,” says Peter Lynch, a historian of the SNP, “with the four main parties adopting not dissimilar positions.”
Nevertheless, one senior insider believes the “tension” between the SNP’s old Labour corporatists and more pragmatic factions will have to be resolved. “Is the big state the answer to everything,” Lynch asks rhetorically, “or is independence about arguing a different way of doing the state?” This will soon manifest itself over such issues as fracking and, in the longer term, how the Scottish government chooses to use its new tax-raising and welfare powers.
In “Chameleon on a tartan rug”, Christopher Hitchens reckoned the “clear hope” of unionists was that “the political differences among Nationalists [would] make themselves felt before independence can be achieved, rather than after, as the SNP envisage”. Again, history repeats itself, but as the SNP – in spite of its ideological contradictions – goes from strength to strength, perhaps this no longer matters. Blairites used to talk about “whatever works”, and it has certainly worked for the SNP.
David Torrance’s most recent book is “Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life” (Birlinn)
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy