Salmond’s Big Leap Forward or Not: Rethinking the Case for Independence
The Guardian Comment, June 30th 2010
Alex Salmond has dominated the last few years of Scottish politics, and become the leading figure of the first decade of devolution.
Labour figures have come and gone, but it is Salmond who has transformed the SNP into a disciplined force, made what was called ‘the Scottish Executive’ into ‘the Scottish Government’, and the office of the First Minister into the undisputed leader of the Scottish nation.
He has fundamentally altered the character and nature of Scottish politics, yet while he has achieved all this he is further away than he ever has been from securing the historic mission of his political career and that of his party: namely Scottish independence.
In the last few days Salmond has explored setting out new ground on independence, acknowledging that post-bankers crash, the SNP case has weakened dramatically. Combining that with future spending cuts and public sector job losses isn’t really the ideal environment for making to voters the case for independence.
This is the background to which Salmond commented in an interview last week, ‘The centre of gravity in Scottish politics currently is clearly not independence. You must campaign for what is good for Scotland as well as campaigning for independence.’ He then went on to say, ‘It is my job to come up with some answers, along with others. If you jump up and down nihilistically saying ‘dreadful, dreadful, cuts, cuts, cuts’, then I would be failing in my duty to the people.’
These are fascinating comments, close to a Clause Four moment for the SNP, remaking the party’s entire purpose, while having a tactical and strategic subtlety which combined a sense of continuity with radical change. And then after a matter of days came Salmond’s qualification and retreat. Writing to ‘The Scotsman’, he claimed that he had been a victim of press misrepresentation stating, ‘I did not say in an interview in another paper … that independence was ‘no longer’ the centre of gravity in Scottish politics.’ Clearly he had said exactly that; so what is going on?
This does say something about Salmond’s style of politics and the case for independence. The Salmond way of doing politics has been here before. Two years ago, Salmond got himself into a rather similar mess when he made a statement in an interview about how the Scots viewed that controversial figure of recent times: Mrs. Thatcher.
He commented that ‘Scots didn’t mind the economic side’ of Thatcherism and that ‘we didn’t like the social side’. This caused a furore and he immediately had to phone into a BBC Radio Scotland morning show to stress that ‘I’m well on the record as never having approved of either Margaret Thatcher’s social or economic policies’ and that this was ‘clear if you look at the interview’ in question.
Salmond has got himself into such a state of confusion this time around, but partly because of the summer weather, the distractions of the World Cup, or that the Scottish media have grown lazy, less of a public controversy has grown. What is illuminating is that Salmond has shown recent form on moving and manoeuvring on the independence question which reflect attempts to reposition the SNP.
Weeks before his recent interview, a former Scottish banker, Ben Thomson, commented publicly on a private conversation he had with Alex Salmond in which he claimed Salmond said he was prepared to put ‘independence on the backburner’. When Thomson acted with the indiscretion he did, rather than find his remarks denied, the First Minister’s spokesperson stood by their substance. The context here is that Thomson is chair of the centre-right think tank Reform Scotland, one of the leading figures of the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility, and trying to position himself as one of the leading brokers in the Scottish political scene.
Despite all these Machiavellian manoeuvres something major is moving in Scotland and this is being aided by the immediate context of the Budget, public spending cuts and the debate around fiscal autonomy. The SNP leadership is clearly testing the waters, trying to take the temperature both across the Scottish political spectrum and within the SNP, and looking at how it can reset the agenda and its strategy.
In his letter to ‘The Scotsman’, Salmond stated the ‘official story’ that the SNP is trying to tell about Scotland’s near-past, present and future. Scottish opinion on constitutional change has evolved aided by the SNP, ‘A generation ago it was for an assembly, then for a parliament, then for Calman, now for fiscal responsibility, which is currently galvanising a range of opinion across Scottish society.’
The constitutional question of independence has posed difficulties to all of Scotland’s political parties. Scottish Labour has had a total of six different policies on independence in this term of the Scottish Parliament; that’s a new political position on average every six months. The Lib Dems have in the past supported a multi-option referendum – which would include independence as an option – but have up until now been opposed to a vote on independence. The Tories in the Scottish Parliament have had blanket opposition to any vote, which has prevented the unionist case for Britain from finding a distinct voice.
What Salmond’s remarks and his attempted qualification show is that the political environment is beginning to dramatically shift. The SNP leadership has for years been in private dramatically relaxed and flexible about the idea and form of Scottish independence, and prepared to look at all sorts of new ideas, structures and types of co-operation across the UK which could be seen as falling short of old-fashioned independence.
A post-nationalist SNP has always been implicit in senior Nationalist circles, and if it can be made explicit, articulated and developed then it has within it the prospect to remake the entire landscape of Scottish politics and carry its ripples to Westminster. This is the beginning of something historic; a major opening in the constitutional debate of Scotland. It remains to be seen if Alex Salmond and the SNP have the courage of their convictions, but if they have the consequences could be felt across the UK.