For many in England, it could be said that the threat posed by the SNP is deemed to be over. Independence was defeated last year, the Union was saved. Since then, Russia, Syria, tax credits and Paris have dominated the headlines with newspapers now having far more interesting things to fill column inches with rather than dry discussion of constitutional matters and rehashing the same arguments for and against. Add to this the loss of the voice of Corbyn’s PLP in the argument against independence, who are now almost silent on the matter in comparison to the last opposition’s prominent place in the fight, and it results in a feeling of all quiet on the northern front.
People have become comfortable with the idea of a SNP government in Scotland and it now widely accepted that this is the new normal. They also seem to think that now the SNP are a bit quieter, the threat is gone. However, no-one realistically expects Kezia Dugdale to regain Scotland for Labour come May, and the odds of Jeremy Corbyn being the one to claw back Clydesdale in 2020 are getting slimmer by the day. At the same time there are only three seats in Scotland that didn’t elect a SNP MP (although this may switch to four if a by election is triggered by Michelle Thompson, leading to a Lib Dem swing). The SNP are now free to legislate on every subject they want without any credible opposition (with the notable exception of the Scottish Tories, who although still small in comparison to the ruling party, are increasingly being seen as the main voice of dissent in the form of new leader, Ruth Davidson). The fact it has got this bad shows the utter failure of devolution and the problems of what is often seen as a second XI of parliaments. A system that was designed not only to sake nationalists’ thirst for separation but also prevent the formation of a SNP government has led to a rout across the board for the very parties who created it.
Support for independence has not diminished, in fact it has never been stronger. 2014 will be seen as a lucky pass for UK, the year the unionists just clinched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, the UK’s reaction has seemed to be that we can return to the normal routine; Anglo-centric issues can be addressed again and that there is a mind-set that the matter is settled. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Nationalism is now not just a matter of political differences, it is a way of thinking, a way of digesting things in a manner that does not ask for logic, or questioning, but instead on blind faith. The Yes vote’s loss last year has only made the rift between unionists and nationalists wider and made divisions more bitter.
There is however a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. Now that the proposals of the Smith Commission are becoming reality and Scotland’s parliament has the power to run all but a few reserved matters the SNP are finding their main weakness is coming to the fore. Accountability, previously not a problem for this government, is now a serious issue for them. In the past the SNP could blame problems on Westminster. ‘If the Scottish Government had more powers, we wouldn’t have these issues’ was the logic here. Not enough funding was being supplied by the UK, legal complications were blamed on the UK’s decisions, not Holyrood. Their own mistakes could be covered up by pointing at their favourite bogeyman, that evil Tory government so far away in London, who cares nothing for Scotland (so the argument goes, despite Scots, particularly in the coalition, having very strong representation in the cabinet).
We are at a tipping point, a watershed moment for the SNP. For the first time there is enough evidence to paint an accurate picture of the SNP’s competence to govern. A record stretching back to 2008 which contains many flaws. Policies that were too young to accurately question are now bearing their rotten fruit and the SNP strategy of misdirection and denial is starting to look a bit frayed around the edges. Take for example tuition fees at university. Sure, this sounded great at the time, free education for all, improved social mobility, closing the hated attainment gap. What has happened instead is that Scottish universities now have to lure in lucrative business from overseas and from England (who pay more than those from eastern Europe to study north of the border) to cover the loss barely made up by the SNP subsidy. Teaching in schools too has reached a new low, with many teachers resenting government involvement, a worrying politicisation happening in schools where the staff back independence and the attainment gap still where it is because despite the intentions behind the scheme, the policy actually benefits the middle classes instead. Now they can afford to leave university considerably better off than their poorer counterparts, who will struggle to afford to maintain themselves while studying. Edinburgh and Glasgow have a huge population of privately educated people who can clearly afford tuition fees, instead they get a free ride through university and will not struggle to find a place. When you take into consideration the SNP’s dislike of private schools you begin to wonder what planet they are on. Further moves against these schools will only remove part of the education system that provides some of the best undergraduates, and at no cost to the Scottish taxpayer, but also contribute to local communities and form an integral part of Scottish history. The whole debacle once again demonstrates the SNP’s embrace of ‘the cause’ over serious political philosophy or pragmatic thought.
These failings have begun to be noticed. One only has to look at the furore caused by merging the police forces and their stop and search tactics (an incident which triggered the resignation of the Police Scotland chief, Sir Stephen House) to see that. This is just a small victory though, and if the UK wants to stay together then it must not take its eye off the ball. Strong politicians are required in Holyrood, big hitting names. It has been said that shortly before he passed away Charles Kennedy suggested to Alistair Campbell such a scheme might work. That is something I would endorse. Politicians of all sides must put aside their differences to combat the SNP. Kezia Dugdale does not have the clout to take on Nicola Sturgeon, nor does Willie Rennie. Where I ask are the Scottish Lib Dem heavyweights who lost their seats? Michael Moore and Danny Alexander should be running for election in May. Labour’s Douglas Alexander too. Gordon Brown, who at least last time leapt in at the last moment (albeit rewriting the constitution on the back of a fag packet in the process) and delivered some trademark barnstorming speeches for the union. Now he spends his time promoting books and lecturing in America. Surely he would be better placed in the Scottish Parliament? What happened to that tub thumping passion Brown displayed in September? The same goes for Alistair Darling, he began his career in Edinburgh and still lives there. Does he not feel he has unfinished business with SNP or feel shame at the current state of the Scottish Labour Party? One thing I would dearly like to see would be for an English politician to stand for Holyrood elections. Ed Miliband, perhaps, or Nick Clegg. Not only could they salvage their broken careers it would send a strong message of actual unity. Jim Murphy had the right idea when he left his post in London to come north. However his bravery, and subsequent humiliation could be factors dissuading others from following. The fact still remains though that it is the SNP top brass debating points in Edinburgh, one look at the opposition benches reveals lists of nameless representatives who are barely known in their constituencies, let alone across the UK. This must change if nationalism is going to be defeated.
A hitherto unseen liveliness has entered Scottish politics but we should not be distracted by this. For those who thought the war was won last September, you are very wrong. There are years of hard graft to come, but if Westminster is serious about defending the union, they still need to convince their supporters in Scotland.
words by Graham Wilson