Scottish Special 1: SNP gamble on independence

Malcolm Harvey says Alex Salmond has abandoned a strong hand for a weaker one by holding back the referendum

The Scottish Government’s decision not to bring forward its long-touted Referendum Bill has opened the SNP up to criticism from both internal and external sources. Opposition parties queued up to admonish the Scottish Government for “another” broken manifesto promise, for running scared of the bill being defeated and, perhaps most pertinently given the economic situation, for wasting tax-payers money on a three-year consultation on the issue which did not deliver any substantive policy at its end.

Scottish Special 2

Tomorrow: Mike Small, co-editor of the blog Bella Caledonia, reports on a campaign to get a vote on Scottish independence by the back door next May.

As far as the politics goes, the decision not the bring forward the bill seems to have been influenced by several factors. The parliamentary arithmetic meant it never stood any chance of passing undiluted, and a parliamentary defeat for the bill would have hamstrung the SNP’s ability to make a fresh case for it in the election campaign. Practical matters weighed in too, with the bill having been delayed for so long that the tight legislative programme for 2010-11 made it difficult to slot the bill into a specific timeframe. Support for independence in opinion polls – which had fallen to 27 per cent by March 2010 – perhaps also had an influence.

Whatever the reasons for dropping the referendum, the SNP can cope with the external criticism. Alex Salmond and his ministers have – rightly – pointed out that the bill would not have succeeded in carrying a majority in the Scottish Parliament (given Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were united in their opposition) and they saw no point in wasting Parliamentary time with a bill that was sure to fall. They point out that they are not afraid of public opinion – the SNP are to make independence the centre piece of their election campaign in 2011 – and that they still intend to deliver upon their 2007 manifesto commitment. However, they recognise that, as a minority government, they cannot do so during this Parliamentary term. Whatever the opposition threw at him on this issue, the First Minister had an answer.

Where the SNP may encounter difficulty however, is internally. In public, of course, the party will present a united front, with all prominent elected representatives toeing the party line. In public they accept the wisdom of the First Minister and trust his judgement that the party will have a better chance to deliver on the referendum, and independence, in the following Parliamentary term. And many do believe it, for several reasons.

Some, who have known Alex Salmond since before he first became leader in 1990, have trusted his instincts, and have watched as the party developed, professionalised and rose to office under his direction. Some follow his leadership unquestioningly, trusting his political acumen and nous, accepting that his knowledge is greater than theirs when it comes to political machinations.  Others are just pragmatic. They knew the parliamentary arithmetic was against them and thought it better to walk away and fight another day.

But there are those – perhaps a sizeable minority, it is difficult to be sure – who think that the First Minister’s penchant for gambling has backfired in this instance. The party celebrated its 75th birthday in 2009 and had to wait 73 of those years to become a party of government. That was nearly three-quarters of a century before it had an opportunity to act upon its raison d’être – Scottish independence.

Concerns abound that the party will not be in a position to deliver after May. All the opinion polls suggest that it will be Labour, and not the SNP, that will be returned to government after 6 May, and likely to be running a minority administration. For many within the party – and others outside who support independence – the SNP’s inability to even bring forward a bill on an independence referendum is a betrayal of the work of activists who have, in some cases, devoted more than 50 years to the cause.

There is a perception among those who are not predisposed to trust Salmond’s decision that had the bill been laid before Parliament and been defeated, the SNP would have been in a much stronger position going into May’s election. At many stages during their National Conversation the party were at pains to point out that it should be up to the public to decide Scotland’s constitutional future. If Salmond had brought forward his Bill, and not withstanding it being voted down, he could have gone into the election saying he had tried to give the electorate the chance to vote on independence, but had been thwarted by the opposition parties.

Had that indeed been the case, the SNP could have gone into the election standing on this democratic platform – that they wanted to let the people have their say but the opposition would not allow it.  Now however, by not giving the Parliament the opportunity to back or block the referendum, it is the SNP who can be painted as obstructing the Scottish electorate’s chance to decide upon their constitutional future.

A strong hand – empowering the electorate to decide for themselves – has been abandoned for a weaker one, namely asking the public to back the SNP with more MSPs to deliver on a policy which they failed to deliver in their four year term of office.

If it backfires – and the SNP find themselves in opposition, with no way of moving their constitutional goal forward – then the opportunity of four years of government will have passed the party by. In practical terms, they will be no closer to independence than when the party took office in 2007. On the other hand, if the party do return to office – and finally pass a referendum bill – then Alex Salmond will be lauded once again for his political instincts and his gamble will have paid off.

While a lot can happen in the five months before the election, the smart money is on Labour to prevail. Where that then leaves Alex Salmond, the SNP and the independence referendum is anyone’s guess.

Malcolm Harvey is a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Stirling, and is co-editor of the blog

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