Lord Ashcroft’s polling in Scottish seats was released today and makes for more happy reading for the SNP. It confirms what many have been predicting since the Referendum, that Nicola Sturgeon’s party will make sweeping gains in the General Election and push Labour and their Unionist colleagues to the periphery of Scottish politics. If this is indeed replicated in May then it establishes a fascinating situation where most Scots have chosen to vote for a Nationalist party, only months after overwhelmingly rejecting the idea of self-government.
It should be strongly emphasised that Lord Ashcroft’s poll focused on constituencies, albeit mostly comfortably held by Labour in 2010, which voted ‘Yes’ in the Referendum. However, it is widely assumed that the pattern of SNP gains will spread toward areas that voted ‘No,’ which was the vast majority of the country. The suggestion that No voters could also vote Nationalist is creating an identity crisis for the SNP in my opinion.
In the past, the SNP were only seen as a party for independence. They were not taken seriously as one that could do anything else, and to be an open supporter of them automatically qualified you as an advocate of breaking ties with Westminster. However, it is becoming clearer that the post devolution SNP is a different party, one that Scots are happy to vote for but does not necessarily mean that they buy into the overarching party belief of nationalism.
While it may seem absurd, the rationale behind this is actually very simple when you think about it. Alex Salmond moved the party away from their radical independence stance, attempting to position them as a ‘party for Scotland,’ one that would represent the nation’s views at Westminster and be able to govern in the country’s best interests at Holyrood. Of course, the idea was that this would win the party enough support to eventually convince the majority of people that Scotland could go it alone. It still might. But currently, the SNP have been caught in this limbo that Salmond created and Sturgeon has adopted, where Scots want to be a part of the UK but like the thought of the Nationalists representing them within it.
This was the fear of hard core SNP members prior to devolution (the Fundamentalists), who warned that the softer Nationalists (the Gradualists) who supported a Scottish Parliament were risking the opportunity for independence. They felt that Devolution would establish a ‘best of both worlds’ situation where Scots felt that they would never need to leave the UK. In many ways, this has played out, but with the SNP fulfilling a central part within it. In contrast, the Gradualists maintained that Holyrood would be a platform to breaking up the UK; and again this might still happen, but it is not looking clear.
The identity crisis that the SNP find themselves in revolves around the theory of valence politics, where voters choose the party or candidate that they wish to support based on their perceived level of competence, ability and image. Needless to say, the SNP under Salmond has built up a strong perception of Government competence amongst Scots since 2007; so they win votes based on this aspect rather than their core beliefs. This is certainly not a bad thing, since it means that the SNP have built up a reputation that is popular with the electorate. However, it also means that they are potentially trapped within a cycle where they will always have an apparent mandate for an independence referendum, without the real support to win it.
So who are the SNP if they are not a Nationalist party? Well, let’s be clear; they are still a Nationalist party. Their members, activists and politicians want nothing less. But their supporters at election time are very different, they see the SNP as the party to represent Scotland in the UK; much like the title that Scottish Labour boasted for years. The problem that Labour had was that it became a part of the Westminster establishment that Scots wanted a voice against. During the Thatcher era, Labour was the Scottish voice that stood up to the Poll Tax and other unpopular right wing Tory policies. Yet, the Blair era saw too many Labour mistakes in Government and gradually the party drifted from its representation north of the border, despite a Scot becoming Prime Minister. Therefore, the SNP has taken the mantra of the anti-establishment party that will stand up to London on behalf of Scotland.
They may be the Scottish National Party on the inside, but from the outside they are a Scottish Home Rule Party. One that the majority of Scots trust and can relate to better than the London based parties, based on a track record at Holyrood that includes a range of popular policies from maintaining no tuition fees, to the Council Tax Freeze and opposition to Trident. Despite the attempts of the Unionist parties, it is the SNP who are seen to be winning more powers for Scotland because they frightened Westminster into a reaction in the first place. So the SNP are a likable party because of these factors, rather than the burning desire for independence.
The real test will be whether the SNP can solve this identity crisis and find a way to translate their electoral support into the constitutional support that they crave. If not, then they could become the SNP but without the Nationalist element. Or maybe I am wrong and there is no identity crisis; this is simply a long term process of converting new electoral supporters into proponents for independence, all a part of the Gradualist plan. If this is the case, then 2014 was just too soon for Salmond’s plan to come to fruition.
By Jonathan Adamson, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.