The Scottish National Party annual conference in Aberdeen just ended was the last big gathering of the party before elections for a new Scottish parliament next May. The SNP has been in power in Scotland since 2007 and the polls put them on course to win a third straight term next spring. This is extraordinary.
The SNP exists for only one reason: to seek the break-up of Britain and independence for Scotland. It won the right to put that issue to the Scottish people in an historic referendum in September 2014, but Scots voted against independence by 55.3% to 44.7%, so Scotland remains – with England, Wales and Northern Ireland – one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom.
The SNP’s defeat in the referendum ought to have caused it traumatic shock. But the referendum losers have emerged victorious in the year since. The 45% who voted Yes to independence rallied to the SNP’s cause, whereas the 55% who voted No are otherwise divided between those on the left (who support Labour), those on the centre-right (who support the Conservatives) and those few who remain in the middle (who used to support the Liberal Democrats).
A vote of 45% per cent is enough only to come second in a two-horse race – but in the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system it is enough for a landslide. Thus, in the May 2015 general election the SNP won an astonishing 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the House of Commons, reducing the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties to one Scottish seat each.
That the SNP has managed to consolidate the support of close to half the Scottish population is a remarkable feat. For years support for independence was stubbornly stuck at about 30%. That the referendum result was 55%/45% rather than 65%/35% owed a great deal to the Yes movement taking on the character of a mass protest movement.
Harnessing the same energy and, indeed, using much of the same rhetoric, as has fired Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the argument for independence became ever more stridently left-wing and anti-austerity as the referendum campaign wore on. The “45” is really the conjoining of two groups: a “30” who are ideologically committed to independence and would vote for it come what may and a “15” many of whom had never previously voted for the SNP and who embraced “the idea of Yes” as an act of protest.
The SNP has managed to hang on not only to its natural 30% but to the full 45% by pulling off the trick of being, in fact, the party of power in Scotland while at the same time taking on the appearance of a party of opposition. The nationalists are expert in mining the rich seam of Scottish grievance politics, which holds that everything is someone else’s fault, pointing the finger of blame at the Tories, the English, or Westminster. Its tactic in the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary election will doubtless be more of the same, for all the bombast we have heard in Aberdeen this week about the party being happy to stand on its record in government.
The SNP’s record in government is precisely the terrain the opposition parties in Scotland want to fight the election on, because that record is dismal. It is dismal, in large measure, because the SNP has spent so long on the blame game and on its constitutional obsession with independence that they have governed too little. The devolved arrangements in Scotland were created and are in the process of being further developed by unionists, not nationalists, seeking a way of giving Scots the home rule they crave without breaking up the state.
Plainly, it does not suit the SNP to use their devolved powers to the full. Rather, it suits them to play those powers down, as if the only way in which Scotland could enjoy real autonomy is if Scotland were to leave the UK to become an independent state. In the core devolved areas of health and education, SNP administrations have done as little as possible.
The result is that investment in health has declined relative to investment in England, that hospital waiting times are growing longer, alarmingly so in accident and emergency, that Scottish schools are struggling to maintain even the most basic standards in key skills such as numeracy, and that further education has been cut horrifically (with 140,000 college places slashed in Scotland in recent years).
None of these outcomes is the fault of Westminster: health and education are fully devolved to Edinburgh, and have been since the inception of devolution in 1999.
When the SNP government does exercise its powers, two tendencies are striking. For all its talk of progressive politics, the SNP is a markedly illiberal party in practice. Whether it be bureaucratic interference with family life, the covert arming of police officers, or extensive use of coercive powers such as stop and search, Scottish nationalism in power betrays that trend so often seen in national liberators: that the freedom of the nation matters much more than the freedom of the people who inhabit it.
A second tendency is a control-freakish centralisation. Power is hoarded in Edinburgh, not disbursed to the cities and regions of Scotland – there is no equivalent here of George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” in Manchester and Sheffield. On the contrary, powers are removed from local communities and centralised in the capital. Take policing: when the SNP came to power in 2007 Scotland had eight police forces; now we have just the one, accountable to a board appointed directly by Scottish ministers.
A similar move is underway with regard to Scotland’s universities, where SNP ministers are seeking to exert unprecedented controls. Wither academic freedom in Scotland? With angry mobs descending on the BBC when the broadcaster dares to run news stories critical of the SNP administration, political freedom in Scotland can feel precarious. SNP ministers may say they oppose any attempt to alter the UK’s human rights laws but, at the same time, the human rights of Scots are repeatedly jeopardised by SNP policy.
Very little of this is understood outside of Scotland. From elsewhere in the UK, the SNP leader, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, looks the consummate social democrat. Poised, elegant and polished – and passionate in her rhetoric and commitment to social justice – Sturgeon is indeed a great performer. But underneath the act lies an altogether different reality, of an illiberal and centralising government that would rather sit on its hands than use its powers to transform Scotland for the better.