Monday, 16 July 2012

Is the SNP Just Too Timid - Has Gradualism Run Its Course?

Political commentators and pundits once divided the SNP activists into Fundamentalists and Gradualists, without many of them really understanding what the terms meant. The debate inside the SNP was about tactics and strategy, not about the enventual aim of independence. I have said on more than one occasion in recent years that I now suspect that a number of SNP activists, including some of the leadership, would quite happily settle for less than independence and base that assessment on the various political positions adopted by the party, all of which have been deemed to be "independence". Setting that aside for the moment, if we assume that the party leadership, from the First Minister down to the most junior functionary, has as their aim, the restoration of sovereignty to the Scottish people, I think we are now entitled to ask if the strategy that has been adopted for the past twenty odd years, has taken us any nearer that ultimate goal. I would contend that it hasn't but as someone who was dubbed "the Godfather of fundamenalism" by Ian McWhirter, my critics, of whom there are a few, would argue, "well he would say that wouldn't he?"

To understand why I think that gradualism has failed to fulfil the promises made by its adherents, it is necessary to look at a very brief summary of the history of the campaign for independence/devolution since the early 1960s, which is really a brief history of the SNP. The real watershed in the fortunes of the party was the by-election in Hamilton in 1967, when Winnie Ewing won the party's first seat in Westminster since Dr Robert McIntyre won Motherwell in 1945. There had been a number of other by-elections throughout the 1960s, beginning with Glasgow Bridgeton in 1961, when the SNP polled 18.7% of the vote. That was followed by West Lothian in June1962, when the party polled 23.3%, Glasgow Woodside, November 1962 -11.2%, Kinross & West Perthshire October 1963 - 7.3%; and Dundee West in November 1963 when the party polled 7.4%. Those last two results were deeply disappointing and the leadership were divided on whether they should contest Dumfries in Decmber of that year. The decision to fight gained an increased vote of 9.7%. The party was seen as no more than a protest party but the idea of Scottish independence was being heard, despite the lack of media coverage, through the work done on the doorsteps in those parts of the country where the SNP had an organisation. That work continued throughout the 1960s and the Pollok by-election in March 1967 drew 28.3% of the vote, leading to Hamilton in November, 46% of the vote and victory.

The pressure from the SNP persuaded Ted Heath to address the obvious discontent of Scots and at the Conservative Party conference in Perth in 1968, he promised a Scottish Assembly in what became known as The Declaration of Perth. Douglas-Home chaired a committe which produced a report in 1970 called Scotland's Government, which promised an Assembly of 125 representatives but with the powers to only propose legislation, the final decisions to be taken at Westminster. In the interim, Harold Wilson set up a Commission under Lord Crowther in 1969, later taken over by Lord Kilbrandon in 1972 and which reported in 1973. It proposed a directly elected Assembly for both Scotland and Wales. The general elections of 1974, first in February when the SNP won seven seats and then October when the party won eleven seats, meant the Labour Party needed SNP support in Westminster until the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977 kept Labour in office until 1979. Unfortunately, the weak showing of the SNP in the general election of 1970, meant that the Tories could forget about devolution when Heath won an outright majority. The defeat of the Referendum in 1979, the subsequent defeat of Labour in the general election and the election of Margaret Thatcher, led to any notion of devolution being shelved for the next decade.

The October 1974 Westminster general election saw 11 SNP MPs returned but perhaps just as important, there were 52 second places and a total of 30.4% of the vote. I do not think the party did anything during that period to undermine its credibility but the general mood in the UK had swung against the Labour Party and when the party instructed the MPs to vote against the Labour Government in the vote of confidence in March 1979, it felt completely justified in doing so. We now know that Callaghan was prepared to suffer electoral defeat rather than see Scotland have a directly elected assembly but the voters in Scotland were prepared to sacrifice the SNP, and swing behind Labour in the hope that would keep the Tories out. We also know that the same mindset has been present in several general elections in Scotland and on no occasion has a Labour vote in Scotland, been able to keep the Tories out, if Engalnd made up its mind to vote Tory. The loss of the 9 out of 11 seats in 1979, was bad enough but the SNP had fought much harder for the promised devolved assembly than Labour had, despite it being Labour's policy. Many Labour activists refused to even deliver their party's leaflets, which were delivered by SNP activists. The sense of betrayal inside the SNP was enormous, particularly among those  of us who had warned the party to beware Labour Party treachery.

Thatcher was not interested in Scottish devolution but the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly attempted to organise opposition to her government through the combined afforts of the opposition parties in Scotland, the TUs, the churches and other Scottish organisations. As Deputy Leader of the SNP, I led the party's delegation to the first of the meetings and requested that a discussion on the "Sovereignty of the Scottish People" be placed on the agenda for the next meeting. Despite that being agreed, when we turned up at the next meeting, the issue was not on the agenda. On my insistence, there was a head count of each of those present, on whether the delegates agreed that the people of Scotland was sovereign because I believed we needed to establish that in order to strengthen our negotiating position with the Westminster Government. None of those present, with the exception of the SNP delegates, believed in the sovereignty of the Scottish people, preferring the English concept of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament.

Despite that being reported to the NEC, Gordon Wilson attempted to persuade the party to adopt his notion of a Scottish Convention. in which all positions from independence to devolution would be on the table, at the annual conference in September that year, 1983. I successfully moved the direct negative but the issue came up again at annual conference in Inverness the following year. Jim Sillars moved adoption of the motion and again, I moved the direct negative, which was defeated by 7 votes in a total of almost 500 delegates. My opposition was based on my belief that while the SNP should do nothing to oppose devolution if it was offered, we should not campaign for it because we would be fighting on our opponent's ground and it would weaken our own message of independence. Without the threat of independence, there would be no pressure on Westminster to even think about devolution for Scotland. I also believed we could not trust the Unionist parties to deliver. The Convention existed in name only as far as SNP involvement was concerned for the next four years, but when the party's delegation of Gordon Wilson, Jim Sillars and Margaret Ewuing, attended the first meeting, they were told they would need to drop any notion of independence. On that information being made known to the party's next National Council, it was decided by an overwhelming majority and on the advice of the delegation which had attended the Convention meeting, that the SNP would take no part.

The rest is history as they say but it is still my belief that unless Westminster had had the possibility of independence becoming more attractive for the Scottish people, there would have been no Scottish Parliament. It is also my belief that the SNP has wasted the opportunity that the Parliament has given it, to push the notion of independence much harder than they have done. Some SNP supporters believe we have come a long way and that has only been possible by taking the "gradualist" approach, persuading the Scottish people that they are not only capable of looking after their own affairs but that they can improve their country beyond the level of anything a Westminster Government could do. There are many who still believe that devolution and independence are different degrees of the same thing and that the more devolution is granted, the closer the country comes to being independent, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The SNP's policy on the EU and the euro, was devised to offer the Scottish people another comfort blanket to take the place of the "stability" provided by Westminster. Every surrender of sovereignty to the EU has been denied and no matter how many times centralised control has been tightened in the EU, the SNP has insisted it did not affect independence. There is organised opposition to EU centralisation in every member country of the EU, opposition which is increasing every year, particularly in the newer member states. Despite this, SNP supporters prefer to accept the word of the EU political elites, as the party continues to accept every increase in EU control.

The collapse of the euro provided the SNP leadership with an opportunity to push the idea of a Scottish currency but instead, it chose to adopt its current policy of a full monetary union with the rUK, with the Bank of England determing monetary policy and acting as lender of last resort. There have been several commentators who have pointed out the disadvantages of such a policy and the severe limitations it would place on Scottish independence. The collapse of the banks in the UK, the very obvious lack of effective regulation and the latest scandal of manipulation of Libor bank rates, with the possible involvement of the Bank of England, has again provided an opportunity for the SNP to persuade the Scottish people that their own Scottish currency with our own central bank, offers us the chance to make a clean break from the disasters of the past, from the institutionalised corruption that exists in the financial service industry in the UK, and to re-establish the probity of Scottish banking that gave us such a world-wide reputation for handling finance. Unfortunately the party still insists that a seat on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the bank of England, will somehow shield the Scottish people from all of that. Unfortunately, the party leadership has been forced to admit there has been no contact made with the Bank of England, to ascertain if a seat on the MPC would even be on offer.

What the party leadership, many of the party supporters and a number of political commentators have all called "gradualism" have in effect, been policies which undermined and restricted Scottish independence. Membership of the EU was sold as "internationalism" when in fact, it was creating a closely centralised "bloc" which restricts international trade and commerce and increasingly restricts the sovereignty of the Scottish people. The currency union with rUK, to take the place of the euro, will restrict the freedom of any Scottish government to develop the Scottish economy, the main aim of the economic nationalists who currently lead the SNP. Each opportunity to further the notion of "independence" and the unlimited potential that independence would offer, has been spurned in favour of policies which do no more than restrict the very end to which the SNP claims to be committed - independence. Instead of showing leadership and instilling confidence in the Scottish people, the SNP leadership has pandered to every indication of insecurity and nervousness. Thus the very word "independence" is off message, according to the latest party guru, an American psychologist who thinks "independence" causes nervousness and is therefore not to be used.

Has any of this been successful in increasing support for independence? The SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliamentary elections of 2011 but it was not on a platform of independence, it was as an alternative to a deeply unpopular Labour Party and the promise of a referendum. Successive opinion polls show support for independence has actually gone down to around 30%, the level which has been recorded regularly over the past twenty years. This is despite the fact that Alex Salmond enjoys very high levels of personal support and the SNP has shown a fair degree of competence in government. This personal popularity is in danger of being eroded, the longer Salmond remains in office, and if he continues to make some of the kind of policy errors of which he has been guilty recently, on the currency for example. His performances at First Minister's Questions in Parliament have also shown some of the worst aspects of his personality. As the Westminster cuts begin to bite, the SNP is in danger of being blamed for them, whether or not they are to blame but, instead of pushing the idea of independence even harder and pointing out that until we get independence, many of the policies we would like to implement, will be impossible, the SNP continues to dilute the independence message.

That is no more evident than in the very obvious attempt of the party leadership, to have a second question on the ballot paper for the referendum. This would offer Devo-Plus or Devo-Max as an alternative to independence but every day, brings another opponent to the whole idea of a second or fall-back question being on the ballot paper. At least 50% of the committee of the Yes Campaign, including its chairman Blair Jenkins, are known to be opposed, Margo McDonald, Gordon Wilson, and several other well known nationalists, including some SNP MPs and MSPs are all opposed. They all argue that not only is it better that Scots are asked to answer a straightforward question, but that any increase in Devolution needs the permission of Westminster and cannopt be decided by the Scots alone. The attempt by the SNP leadership to have the second questions leads quite naturally, to the accusation that they fear a single question that they think they will lose. If that perception is allowed to gather pace among Scots, the whole position of the Yes Campaign will be undermined.

Gradualists have always argued that independence is "a process not an event" and that their method of persuading Scots "gradually" is best because it has already borne fruit. Devolution can be increased but independence cannot, a country is either independent or it is not, therefore the mantra of it being "a process not an event" is a nonsense. Nor is there any evidence that "gradualism" has been successful in increasing the numbers in favour of independence, if anything the opposite is true. As people are offered more and more "comfort blankets" and independence is presented as meaning "no change", the less likely they are to support even the much reduced version of independence offered by the SNP.

We have two years until the referendum, two years in which to persuade Scots that independence is not only desireable and preferable, but it is vital if Scotland is to prosper, not just economically but as a nation and as a society. We are not going to achieve that aim by continuing to adopt the gradualism that has prevailed for over twenty years.

1 comment:

  1. Good piece Jim, as always.
    Hope yer well.
    Patrick Wight