Tuesday, 31 March 2015

What Impact Will Putting Labour In Office Have On Independence? Is SNP In Danger Of Missing The Boat?

The events of the past week; with the most successful SNP conference ever, the TV "debate" between Cameron and Milliband and various statements from senior figures in politics and, of course the dissolution of parliament, set the likely tone for the general election in May. The SNP reiterated their determination to refuse to support a Tory government in Westminster "under any circumstances" and challenged Labour to commit itself, in the event of a "hung parliament", to work with the SNP to deny the Tories office. Miliband, for his part, assured Labour MPs and supporters that he would not agree to any deal with the SNP, that he and Ed Balls would be writing the Labour budget - not Alex Salmond - and both Miliband and Cameron assured us they were both expecting to win a "majority" in May. A couple of polls on Sunday suggested the result may be leaning in Labour's favour but on Monday, another poll suggested the exact opposite. We have a long way and many polls to go before we know who will be PM for the next five years.

So, what are the prospects for independence if the SNP helps to put Labour in power? Will it hinder or help the cause, or will it make no difference either way? Of course Labour will not be the only factor at play as the position and performance of the SNP will obviously play vital parts as events unfold. Immediately after the Referendum, Salmond proclaimed that May's election would not be about independence, nor would it be about another Referendum: it would be about "Home Rule" as promised by Gordon Brown during the Referendum campaign. Nicola Sturgeon, Stewart Hosie, Angus Robertson and several other SNP office bearers have all confirmed Salmond's claim, so we know that a vote for the SNP in May is not a vote for independence or even the possibility of promoting the concept of independence. At this election, a vote for the SNP is more about electing a Labour Government and making sure the Tories are denied office. It is about, according to Nicola Sturgeon, "being Labour's backbone and guts" and about "reforming Westminster" and "ending austerity" and "abolishing the House of Lords". She could have told her audience that the only certain way of ending austerity in Scotland was to get independence and that Scots would then no longer need to concern themselves about reforming Westminster and abolishing the Lords. But she didn't.

When I joined the SNP in 1955 at the age of fifteen, there were no more than a few hundred of us but it did not prevent us believing in and campaigning for, independence. The SNP was the only party that stood for Scottish independence and that was the reason I joined. Since then I have been  a hard-line, uncompromising and unapologetic Scottish Nationalist. My critics inside the modern SNP call me a "fundamentalist", an "absolutist" and an "isolationist", although they fail to explain what their terms mean. So for the benefit of them and others, my Nationalism is not expressed as a desire to annex anyone else's territory (imperialism), it is concerned only to see the nation of Scotland restored as an independent nation/state and the restoration of sovereignty to where it belongs - with the Scottish people. It extends no further than that; however, I will seek to protect the interests of Scotland and the Scottish people as we re-establish ourselves on the world stage, participating in those alliances which seek to protect and nurture the interests of other people and nations throughout the world. At the same time, creating a decent society within our own borders, a society which will seek the best outcome in all things for the Scottish people, is of paramount importance. During thirty-five years in the SNP and in literally thousands of conversations with friends and colleagues in the party, I found my aspirations mirrored those of other traditional Nationalists.. But the party changed so that now, a number of the SNP leaders, and members, reject Nationalism and prefer to see the need for independence in terms of class rather than the restoration of the nation/state. This will obviously have consequences for the fight for independence in the Westminster environment and the determination to promote a Labour government.

The SNP, in their eagerness to attack Labour "from the left", created two hostages to fortune which have already come home to roost, as well as making it very difficult for the 400,000 or so Scots who regularly vote Tory, to be persuaded that independence has much to offer them. The first "hostage" was in Nicola Sturgeon's first speech as leader, to party members in Perth on 15th November 2014, when she said, in reference to propping up a Labour government, "Conference, hear me loud and clear when I say this - they (Labour) would have to think again about putting a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the river Clyde". On 7th January 2015 she said "...the SNP would never do a political deal with any party that supported nuclear weapons" and reiterated that on 9th February 2015 by saying, "It's a fundamental for me and the SNP-there wouldn't be any Labour/SNP coalition if Trident was part of it". She said a "formal coalition was "unlikely" but we could work on a "case by case basis. I'm not ruling it (a coalition) out completely, let's wait and see how people vote". There is no ambiguity there BUT on 6th March in an interview with The Guardian, Nicola Sturgeon pulled the plug on a political stance which would have stopped any kind of deal with Labour when she confirmed SNP's opposition to Trident but stated that would not prevent a deal on a "vote by vote basis".

Support for NATO at last year's conference, reversed years of SNP opposition to membership of an international organisation with a "first strike" nuclear policy at its heart. It is a short step to be prepared to prop up a party in government, which believes in keeping Trident nuclear weapons but the SNP sees that as real/politic. The second hostage is the oft-repeated commitment to refuse to deal with the Tories "under any circumstances". Angus Robertson MP and leader of the SNP in Westminster, fell prey to the logical consequences of that stance when questioned by Gordon Brewer on Sunday Politics on Sunday 28th of this month. When asked by Brewer, "Are there any circumstances in which you envisage being unable to support Labour?" Robertson was unable to give an example. Pushed by Brewer and given several opportunities to provide any example when the SNP could vote against Labour, Robertson could not give a single instance, even when Brewer suggested that Labour could more or less do as they pleased and challenge the SNP to do its worst. Robertson could at least have said Trident, but the reality is that although the SNP has said it would not support a single penny being spent on Trident, Labour's Budget will obviously involve defense spending. And that will involve spending on Trident. Will the SNP vote down a Labour Budget because of Trident or, will real/politic again dictate? Given the political postures they have struck, the language they have used, how much real influence, let alone power, will the SNP really have by propping up a Labour government?

Of far greater importance, what will keeping a Labour government in power for the next five years do for independence, particularly as the party of independence has insisted this election is not about independence? Alex Salmond was right when he said the Referendum had changed the politics of Scotland, but I suspect the change has been far, far greater than anyone in the SNP or Yes Campaign had envisaged or even hoped for in their wildest dreams.The quadrupling of SNP membership to over 100,000 since last September, the street activity of Yes supporters, the pressure and demands for change are all unprecedented. There is a mood in the streets, in places of work, in families and households that I have yearned for, for sixty years. It surpasses the excitement and demands for change that were there in the 1970's and just as then, it has caught the SNP by surprise. In light of all of this, why are the SNP not pushing for independence or at least giving Scots some hope of a reasonably short period of consolidation, instead of repeating the mantra, "The people will tell us when". Angus Brown told Gordon Brewer he did not envisage another Referendum within the next parliament. Is the SNP not listening or is it just not hearing?

I covered this in a previous blog but the point is worth repeating. The SNP is not going to be the only political party available to do deals with Labour and the Tories, whichever of the two major parties is in a position to realistically consider government. Little or no speculation has been made about the prospects of deals with the other smaller parties, and while the polls suggest the SNP could well be the largest of that group, polls have been wrong before. In any case, the concern for the majority of Scots is, or should be, the prospects for independence. The number of possible scenarious is almost endless and speculation at this juncture is pointless but there is one absolute certainty in all the speculation, if Labour ever has to choose between the Union and Scottish independence, it will choose the Union every time. For that reason, nothing will be done, no political powers granted to Scotland, that will enhance in any way, shape or form, the prospects for independence. What also must be remembered is that both Labour and the SNP have their eyes firmly fixed on the elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016, a mere twelve months from now. Realistically, they are the only two parties with any prospect of forming a Scottish Government, although Labour would likely have to seek support from another smaller party.

Anything that is done in Westminster over the next twelve months, any votes for or against change, for good or ill as far as Scotland is concerned, will be used by both SNP and Labour either to bolster their case in Scotland or to attack the other party. This should benefit the SNP because despite Nicola Sturgeon's appeal to English voters that the SNP will be their "friends", the party does not have to concern itself too much about the reaction of English voters, unlike Labour. The English electors are more likely to take the view, "beware Greeks bearing gifts" than feel reassurance that the SNP propping up a UK government could work to their advantage. A UK Labour government, propped up by SNP support, will obviously try to avoid alienating Scots before May 2016 and, both parties will claim the accolades and credit, for any benefits that come our way. The SNP will not want to see popular changes that benefit Scotland, increase the popularity of Labour but that is always a possibility, although they will claim it is only the presence of a "strong SNP group in Westminster" that made the changes possible. Their new mantra is "the majority of Scots' preferred outcome is a Labour/SNP government" although the possibility of that arrangiement also being preferred for the Scottish Parliament, seems to have passed them by. Beware what you wish for.

If it is true that "Fortune favours the brave" is the SNP brave enough to change the language and therefore the direction of their strategy? There are two fairly recent lessons from history which are perhaps worth remembering. Throughout 1978 the Callaghan government toiled not only with economic problems but an increasingly restless Trade Union movement, which had seen the standard of living of many of its members cut severely, while rises in incomes had been controlled. Despite this, the TUs were still prepared to support the Labour government in the expectation of a general election before the end of the year. I still remember Callaghan standing at the rostrum singing, "There was I waiting at the church", as he announced on the 7th September that there would be no election that year. It is an election that almost every commentator and pundit expected Labour to win. That decision angered the TUs and almost ensured the massive strike action that ocurred in the Winter of Discontent which followed. In November 1978 Labour still had a lead of 5% in the polls but by January the Tories had a lead of 7.9% and by February that lead had grown to 20%. The general election in March saw the return of the Tories and Margaret Thatcher. The demise of Gordon Brown was perhaps less dramatic but is said to have been equally unnecessary, had he gone to the country in autumn 2007 rather than wait until 2010.

The inability of two Labour Prime Ministers to read the political runes, led to no more than the loss of office for the Labour Party, which was well past its sell-by date in any case. If the SNP does likewise, it stands to lose a great deal more than political office, it stands to lose Scotland.