Here are two pieces that I wrote on the fortunes of the SNP for Holyrood Magazine.
While the SNP Government has now returned from its remarkably-long honeymoon, it is still enjoying a fairly happy marriage with the Scottish electorate and non-threatening relations with its in-laws, the UK Government and Scottish Parliament. This may be a surprising summary given the rise in media stories regarding the SNP’s ‘broken promises’ to the electorate, tense territorial disputes and partisan opposition. So how do we justify this account and explain these three developments?
First, the SNP is enjoying something that most mid-term governments would envy: the ability to present a convincing narrative of continuous popularity. For example, polls throughout 2008 suggested that the SNP had maintained the level of popular support that won it the election in 2007, while Alex Salmond is still by far the most popular leader within the Scottish Parliament. This firm foundation of support has allowed it to weather the short-term storms of temporary unpopularity that any government would expect to face. For example, its polling fortunes appeared to suffer in March, signalling (for some) the prospect of a Labour win in 2011. Yet, in the same month, the SNP commanded the headlines by taking control of Dundee council for the first time in its history and, more importantly, producing another blow to the image of endless Labour dominance in certain parts of Scotland. Similarly, the quick establishment of the SNP as an effective government has softened the blow of an economic crisis that has often made Scottish political issues appear parochial and inconsequential, exposed some weaknesses of the independence argument and reignited the fortunes of Gordon Brown. The credit crunch initially allowed Brown to appear as a safe pair of hands during a period of crisis, to capitalise on the value of the Union and to accentuate the power of the Prime Minister to broker mergers and bail-out the big banks. It also allowed Brown to play a leading role in the world stage, particularly during the latest G20 summit in London. While the SNP has its own narrative of the economic crisis – stressing that Scotland needs its own fiscal measures to deal with its own problems, that Scottish ministers would not have left the banks unregulated, and that a combination of corporation-tax plus oil-tax surpluses would have put an independent Scottish Government in a position to bail out the RBS – this has struggled for media attention. Instead, the crisis often shifted Salmond’s image from a statesman on the world stage towards a parochial figure unable to command powerful policy levers in Scotland. On the other hand, the Scottish Government has shown a much greater ability to focus and not be overwhelmed by events. This contrasts with a UK government that appears to lurch from one crisis (e.g. ministerial expenses) to another (e.g. the planned smear campaign by a special adviser), exposing Brown to sporadic shifts in popularity and undermining his ability to focus consistently on Scottish politics in any meaningful way.
In some respects this void has been filled by Jim Murphy as the first full-time Secretary of State for Scotland since 2003. Murphy has also quickly become a figurehead for the UK Government’s more abrasive relationship with the SNP despite initial assurances that he represented ‘Scotland’s man in the cabinet rather than the cabinet’s man in Scotland’. This has produced publicity for a series of niggles between both governments (ranging from Linda Fabiani’s rebuffed phone calls to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarding the Mumbai massacre, to the China delegation nonsense and even John Swinney’s humiliating trip to London to discuss the funding of the Forth bridge) that Murphy may have exacerbated rather than smoothed over. Murphy’s role has also been to minimise the kinds of meetings between Salmond and Brown that establish the former as the latter’s equal. Yet, overall, the governments have enjoyed a smoother-than-expected relationship. This can be explained by three main factors. First, the big debate – on constitutional change – has still to take place and so the governments are effectively shadow boxing until at least 2010. Second, there is a strong logic to informality, consultation and negotiation. While some issues bubble up to the surface and enter the highly charged world of intergovernmental politics, most are resolved quietly between civil servants at a relatively low level of the Scottish and UK governments. Third, many debates that could have taken place between the governments have in fact been played out in the Scottish Parliament.
Yet, the rub is that the installation of a high profile, full-time Secretary of State for Scotland has undermined the image of effective Labour opposition in the Scottish Parliament. For example, the decision by John Swinney to drop local income tax proposals, combined with clear SNP difficulties in finding a coherent and effective alternative to public-private partnerships, could have represented a big win for the opposition in Scotland. Instead, both issues have been plagued by UK interference, allowing the SNP to produce a story of partisanship and intergovernmental constraint to compete very well with Labour’s account of ideological incoherence and the lack of popular and elite support for its measures. This is on top of an opposition party still struggling to provide useful opposition to the SNP. While Labour contributes to the theatre of parliamentary debate, its leader has yet to expose the SNP’s deficiencies in any effective way (the lack of publicity regarding the falling number of teachers in Scotland is a good example). In part, the reason that the SNP is still doing remarkably well in this regard is that it does not have an opposition with a coherent message. While the stories of broken promises may be on the rise, they are not accompanied by an alternative vision for Scottish politics. Therefore, the implicit opposition promises to do better with free swimming lessons, more police officers, cleaner hospitals and a clearer school curriculum on their own do not get many people excited. Further, it is too early to say whether or not the climb-down by the SNP towards the need for legislation to restrict alcohol consumption marks the beginning of an effective and assertive opposition in the Scottish Parliament.
Overall, the SNP has still to be tested. The interesting aspect in all of this is that it will not take much of a shift to produce a Labour win at the polls in 2011. Wouldn’t it be ironic if this occurred because the SNP was not given a chance to show its mettle in the face of effective opposition?
The SNP is still enjoying a prolonged honeymoon that few marriages can boast. It is popular in the polls, effective in Parliament and finding that minority government can be much more productive than it expected. So how do we explain these three developments? Ironically, its prolonged popularity can be linked most usefully to the unpopularity of the UK Labour government. For this to work, the nature of Scottish Politics has to remain ‘second order’, in which most attention is still paid to the UK and the decisions of the Scottish Government are generally seen within that context (in other words, we may not expect this level of ‘cover’ following independence). Therefore, if Scots are suffering the effects of the ‘credit crunch’ and economic difficulties, we still blame the Treasury and pay more attention to its role in the collapse of Northern Rock, the HBOS/ Lloyds TSB merger and various gaffes (such as the 10 pence income tax row) that not only deflect attention from any SNP difficulties, but also taint a Labour Party in Scotland already uncomfortable with many policies pursued by the Blair and Brown governments. The novelty of different parties in government also shifts the Scotland-UK dynamic. Although from 1999 to 2007 we saw generous financial settlements for Scotland, the post-2007 settlement has been tight. If Scottish Labour had made it to a third term, these issues would have been embarrassing but dealt with in-house. Under the SNP, they give further grist to the independence mill, highlighting UK fiscal constraints (particularly when linked to North Sea Oil) and allowing Scottish ministers to blame the UK for any failure to meet its manifesto commitments (such as on student debt and the recruitment of police officers).
The spectre of UK Labour partly explains the SNP’s effectiveness in Parliament. Although much credit must go to Alex Salmond’s assured style (and the self confident style of ministers-with-a-cause such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kenny MacAskill), he has been helped by a faltering Labour leadership tainted yet again by developments in the UK. While the pressure from the party donations saga may have been enough to topple Wendy Alexander, the embarrassing lack of support from Gordon Brown for her position on the independence referendum sealed her fate and undermined her position when going against Salmond in FMQs (can anyone remember a single question asked by Alexander during this period?). This left the job of opposition to two figures with different fortunes. For the sake of a soundbite (‘smell of sleaze’), the Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen played into Salmond’s hands, allowing him to appear offended and to do little else but insult Stephen rather than answer his questions. Only new leadership under Tavish Scott will allow a fresh start and more scope for public negotiations. In this regard, Annabel Goldie has played a more clever game, asking Salmond politely to provide the details of the policies he supports in plenary, while negotiating common goals (e.g. on small business rates and drugs) in private. No party has shown much interest in scrutinising the government through committee work.
The final success story has been minority government. Many senior SNP figures, including Salmond, preferred the idea of a more comfortable coalition. However, the decision by the Liberal Democrats not to negotiate (unless the SNP dropped its agenda on independence!) proved to be a blessing. SNP ministers soon found that most public policy decisions can be made faster and most effectively without recourse to legislation. Or, when legislation is required, it can continue its win-win game, taking the credit for populist bills (such as the abolition of tolls) and blaming the opposition for obstinate partisanship when things go wrong (such as when Labour MSPs contributed to the farcical demise of the Creative Scotland bill). The UK Labour hangover is still working. The SNP government can take a lot of credit for its appearance of governing competence (a key plank of the long term independence strategy) during a range of crisis situations – such as the terrorist attempt on Glasgow Airport, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and the strike at the Grangemouth refinery. Its lack of association with the crisis at Aberdeen City Council also followed the canny move to give local authorities the autonomy they want in exchange for a shift in accountability. However, had it been Jack McConnell and not Alex Salmond linked to questionable discussions with Donald Trump, the call for his head would have been much louder.
Overall, the SNP strategy is sound. If things go well, it can claim the credit as the elected government in Scotland. If they go badly, it can blame the UK (and ‘stand up for Scotland’) or the opposition in Parliament. The next test will be the local income tax. While I was surprised by the decision to pursue this so soon (in negotiation with Tavish Scott and the Greens), I have been convinced that it makes sense if the implementation is put off to coincide with a change in the mood of the UK government. If this follows the election of the Conservatives, then David Cameron may be unwilling to risk the union further by appearing to hold back ‘Scotland’s money’. Or, a new, non-Scottish Labour Prime Minister should be enough to deflect from an English perception of Scotland’s ‘advantage’ and Brown’s need to appear strong both at home and in government. Even Brown’s new stance towards fiscal autonomy may provide room for negotiation.
All that is left is the SNP’s end-game. The chances are that the Conservatives will win in 2010 and the independence referendum will have more Thatcher-inspired spice. However, the vote will be for greater devolved powers, not independence. Therefore, to avoid a drastic fall in popularity (in line with its fate in 1979), Salmond has to go into overdrive and take the credit for SNP success rather than become tainted with a once-in-a-generation failure.