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Sunday, 24 June 2012

Do SNP Policies Matter?

At first glance that would seem to be an odd question to ask, given that the party is the largest party in Holyrood and is therefore, the Scottish government. According to its supporters, it is also the largest party committed to Scottish independence or at least to its version of independence, more of which below. Even its strongest critics, of which I am considered to be one, have to concede that in terms of members, organisation and money, it is by far and away the largest, best organised and wealthiest party currently campaigning for a "Yes" vote in the coming referendum on Scottish independence. For all of those reasons, one would assume that what the party says, the policies it promotes, must be of major importance. In fact, to many of its supporters, they are the only policies that matter. They matter to such an extent, that woe betide anyone who questions them, never mind disagrees with them. That particular brand of supporter demands total obedience to the party hierarchy, will countenance no criticism or disagreement, on the grounds that to criticise the SNP is to undermine the campaign for independence, as the party is the most realistic vehicle to achieve it.

On the other hand, there is another brand of supporter, which argues just as vehemently that any criticism of the SNP or its policies, will undermine the campaign for independence and is to be condemned, but because the SNP's policies do not really matter. This is a relatively new line of argument and might have found favour with older Nationalists in the days when party members hoped they could appeal to Scots of all political persuasions, to vote for independence first and sort out the policy differences after. Obviously, no one was suggesting that policies were irrelevant, but the hope was that a majority of Scots could be persuaded to set aside their personal commitment to "right" or "left" or whatever, vote for the principle of independence and the policies would be determined in the first elections to be held after independence. One prominent party member at the time, the 1960s, argued that he was not prepared to stand on the hustings "naked", and as a political party seeking power, rather than a pressure group merely seeking to create political change, it was inevitable that the party develop policies.

The second group makes the perfectly valid point that the current campaign is a Referendum and not an election, therefore to argue against the SNP on its policies is rather pointless as there will be no vote on policies and all that the electorate is being asked to do, is to vote "Yes" or "No" on the principle of independence. The second part of their argument is that once Scotland is independent, Scots can change any policy to which they object, The SNP may not be the government in an independent Scotland and policies which they currently promote, may be totally inappropriate and in any case, the SNP may not exist in an independent Scotland. As a hard line, uncompromising and unconditional nationalist, I have some sympathy with the theory of that line of argument but am forced to reject it for several reasons. The first is that only about 30% to 35% of Scots are in favour of independence and not all of them would vote for independence unconditionally. The logical conclusion to this line of argument is that the SNP should have no need of policies, should have no need to say what kind of country Scotland will be when it becomes independent. Of the 70% of Scots who are not committed to independence, approximately 50% of them are equally committed to Scotland remaining part of the UK, although a section of that number is also in favour of greater powers being transferred to Ediniburgh. The remaining 50% want to know what they are voting for.

The Scots who need to be persuaded to vote "Yes" have demanded to know what independence will mean, hence the policy statements that have been produced by the SNP, some of which have caused considerable controversy and opposition. It was inevitable that any policy statement would run into some opposition, therefore it is something that SNP supporters will have to tolerate. Not everyone who opposes SNP policies is a Unionist and to label any and all opposition in that way, will be counterproductive. The problem that many nationalists (many of them party members) have with recent SNP policy statements, is that they are seen as diluting independence to the point where the term is almost meaningless. That aside, the other points raised by SNP supporters deserve to be examined in more detail.

The referendum is to take place in June 2014 but it is said, it will take anothet two years for negotiations to be complete before independence can become effective. What is not clear is what it is that is going to be negotiated. If a big enough majority of Scots was in favour of independence unconditionally, negotiation would involve the mechanics of transferring power to Holyrood and little else, as there would be little disagreement in Scotland about independence per se. However, we know that is not going to be the case and there will have to be some prior agreement on what it is that Scots are voting for. If there is a "Yes" vote, Scots are bound to expect the negotiations will simply cement what has already been agreed. For example, the SNP is making considerable effort to convince Scots that sterling will still be the currency and that the Bank of England will control the banking system in an independent Scotland. What happens if the rUK decides that is not acceptable, what happens if any changes that may have to be made, are found to be unacceptable to a majority of Scots?

The arguments being put forward by SNP supporters, that after independence Scots can change any policy they don't like, suggest a degree of naivete I find difficult to accept as genuine, particulary coming from people whose answer to every criticism is "independence is a process not an event". They have had such a commitment to gradualism that every dilution of independence, such as the retention of sterling, is dismissed as of no importance as it will all work out in the end. Political change does not happen overnight, as the 300 years it has taken Scots to come to this point would amply demonstrate and we have to give some thought to the likely make-up of the first parliament in an independent Scotland.

After Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in 1967, she came to the first National Council of the SNP, after the victory, to be greeted with a thunderous ovation from delegates as soon as she entered the room. Some of them were in tears, such was the emotion created by winning a single parliamentary seat, the first since 1946 when Robert McIntyre won Motherwell. The following year, the party won 100 seats at the local elections, quickly followed by winning 19 of the 21 council seats in the first ever election in the new town of Cumbernauld. The next day I discussed the situation with a friend in the party who was quite confident we would be independent within 15 years. The victories of 1974 were followed by the massive disappointment of 1979, the doldrums of the 1980s, the belief we would be "Free by '93" followed by the current success in the Scottish Parliament. People who have gone through most if not all those various stages in the party, are not going to walk away as soon as Scotland votes to be independent. Friendships and rivalries have been formed and survived and few will walk away to leave Scotland under the control of people in the Unionist parties, who have spent their political lives doing everything they could to deny Scotland independence.

The SNP is not going to break up and the party most likely to be the main rival is the Labour Party. It will take some years for the Tories to shake off the legacy of the Thatcher Years and the Lib/Dems will still have to suffer for having gone into coalition with Cameron et al, in the last parl;iament of the UK. If the first parliament in an independent Scotland returns a SNP majority, the party is not going to change its policy on keeping sterling immediately or even within the short term. John Swinney has said it will take at least a decade before the SNP would consider joing the euro - "if the economic conditions are right" - which means the party is still in favour of joining the currency in principle, despite the fact we have been told that the EU elite now recognises that full fiscal union will be inevitable if the euro is to succeed. In other words, the SNP is still in favour of joining a currency - the euro- which will shortly be part of a full fiscal union, or it will not survive. At the same time, it is arguing that Scotland needs fiscal autonomy in the UK because Scotland needs to control its tax revenues. This places the party in a policy position which is as contradictory as the original "Independence in Europe".

The first parliament in an independent Scotland is very likely to be the same as or very similar to, the present Holyrood parliament in its make-up. For that reason, any changes to major policy positions such as the retention of sterling and Bank of England control, is unlikely to happen quickly. None of the erstwhile Unionist parties is likely to want to make changes that will cement Scottish independence, they will be more likely to retain as much as possible, any of the instituions that had been part of the previous UK. The SNP will keep those institutions such as the Bank of England or the monarchy, which they feel are necessary to cement the "social union" it has promised. This is where the arguments of SNP supporters fall down, particularly the claim that Scots can change any policies they do not like. The SNP cannot expect to be given free reign when it comes to policy formation, particulary when those policies undermine independence. Anyone who gives any thought to the political situation as it is likely to develop, both in the run up to independence and in the aftermath of a "Yes" vote, is unlikely to be as sanguine as SNP supporters, on the question of changing policies. For that reason, opposition to the SNP is unlikely to diminish, the closer we get to the vote. Patrick Harvie and the Greens have already made their position clear and, if the SNP is serious about making the campaign as inclusive as possible, it had better give some serious thought to how it proceeds from here on in.

1 comment:

  1. Lots of problems with this, as we'd expect. Not the least of these problems is in the last paragraph. It doesn't seem to have occurred to Jim Fairlie that if the scenario he envisages plays out then the SNP would be elected on the basis of the policies to which he objects. His dislike of these policies does not trump the democratic will of the people of Scotland any more than his bitter resentment of the SNP and its leadership.

    But I find the scenario itself unrealistic. Independence will occasion major realignments in party politics in Scotland. It is simple not credible that things would proceed as if nothing had happened. For a start, it wouldn't be the pretendy "Scottish" Labour that the SNP would be facing at the polls. It would be a whole new political force. And one which in the process of its becoming would perforce seek to appeal to that huge swathe of the left for which the SNP has been nothing more than the vehicle by which independence might be attained.

    This new, genuine Scottish Labour Party would in turn face pressure from the Greens as well as resurgent small socialist parties. Given all this, the post-independence SNP will either have to rethink some policies or seek compromise and consensus in a parliament where it holds no overall majority.

    I put my faith in the democratic process and the people of Scotland. Which is why, despite having significant disagreements with the current stance of the SNP on a number of issues, I'm pretty relaxed about the implications of independence.