Saturday 11 February 2023

The SNP is in the wilderness


A recent poll suggests that if a General Election were to be held now the Conservatives would slump to third place and the SNP would form the opposition. It would be an odd situation indeed.

How could the SNP legitimately oppose Government policy on UK wide issues when its primary goal in life is to leave the UK? More importantly the SNP would be opposing issues that are devolved in Scotland. Apart from UK wide issues Westminster acts partly as the English equivalent of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments. This means that that the Health Secretary, for example, is only responsible for the NHS in England. But how could the SNP legitimately oppose legislation on an English issue, when the Labour Government could not oppose the Scottish Government on the self-same issue?

Perhaps stranger still would be the fact that an SNP opposition would oppose a Labour Government on only one issue. Labour and the SNP have almost identical views on everything except Scottish independence. If Labour suggested we should spend more, the only SNP opposition would be that we should spend even more than that. If Labour gave in to strikers, the SNP would oppose by telling it to give in quicker and more generously.

But despite being perhaps in a position to oppose the British Government, the SNP would still be no closer to the promised land of Scottish independence and maybe further away.

The British electorate may feel inclined to kick the Conservatives when they are down so hard that they are in danger of going the way of the Whigs or the Liberal Democrats. There may be so many Labour MPs that there won’t be room on the Government benches. But support for Scottish independence is slipping and support for the SNP too.

There is little chance that the SNP will turn the next General Election into a de facto referendum, whatever that is. No one thinks it is a legitimate strategy and the SNP is looking ever less likely to get more than 50%. Labour can put in its manifesto that it won’t allow a second referendum and that will be it for another five years.

Sturgeon will be 53 this year. If she wants to do anything else than fail to lead Scotland to independence, she will have to do it soon. But that would surely mean that neither Moses Salmond, aged 68, nor Aaron Sturgeon will get out of the wilderness into the land of milk and honey.

Salmond correctly pointed out that thirty years of effort has been wasted over a policy that has nothing whatsoever to do with the SNP’s primary goal. The independence movement like the Israelites is quarrelling, divided and is frankly wandering and lost waiting for something to turn up like manna from heaven. Soon it will be leaderless too.

Salmond achieved the impossible when he guided the SNP from a fringe party to ruling Scotland and then obtaining a legal referendum. It was a historical achievement though marred by his involvement in a court case.

Sturgeon at one point was adored by Scottish nationalists perhaps even more than Salmond and approached the absurd position of being thought worthy of hagiography. But beyond the achievement of winning all but three of the seats in the 2015 General Election, Sturgeon has achieved nothing at all.

Scotland is run poorly. Education is worse than it was when I was a child. Healthcare is worse too. Sturgeon kept promising that next year there would be a referendum, but it is clear now that she will be long gone before this happens, if indeed it does.

The problem for the SNP is that there is no one obvious to replace Sturgeon. Angus Robertson is favourite, but we already know he is mediocre at best and will struggle to increase SNP support. Kate Forbes is clever and very nice, but I rather wonder if she might face the same problems as former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron when question as to whether homosexuality is a sin. Humza Yousaf might struggle with such questions too if anyone dared to ask them, but anyway his performance as a minister has hardly justified promotion to leader.

But in the end what matters in politics is the fundamentals. The Conservatives have failed because they have not taken advantage of Brexit and because Boris Johnson did not follow his initial instinct on lockdown. The economy is worse now than it was in 2019. What else matters?

Labour will fail because it still wants socialism to work, but socialism will never work. High taxes and high public spending will make any country poorer. So, by all means try again because the voters want more free things and to work less. But eventually the voters will vote for free markets and low taxes and low spending because they also want to be richer.

The SNP’s failure is that the model for independence that it put to us in 2014 became impossible after the UK left the EU. The close relationship between the former UK and Scotland only worked if both were in the EU, because then there would be no issue with trade, borders and standards. Scotland would have been like Austria to the former UK’s Germany. You hardly notice the border. Same money, same language, slightly different accent.

But Brexit changed everything. Sturgeon responded with anger, but she did not respond with convincing ideas and solutions. If Scots rejected a model of independence where the relationship between the former UK and Scotland was close, we would be still more likely to reject one that involved borders, trade barriers and the promise of a separate currency and in time the Euro.

Neither Sturgeon nor the independence movement have even addressed beyond wishful thinking how to solve the problem of your largest trading partner being in a different trading bloc. The only good solution is to reject EU membership and stick close to the former UK like Irish Free State did after independence. But this would depend on the former UK agreeing to maximum convergence and in the short term at least would make independence pointless as Scotland would have to follow the former UK on everything.

Joining the EU is a pointless activity if you believe in achieving sovereignty, because Scotland would be in the position of gallant little Belgium defying the Germans if it tried to really assert its independence in the EU like it frequently does in the UK. Scotland would be on a path to becoming a region governed by a Parliament in which it was outnumbered, which is just what the SNP object to now.

Around 45% support Scottish independence, but only if everything is exactly as they want it. The number would fall if it became clear we would lose the pound, fall further if it became clear that there would be a hard border between Gretna and Berwick and fall through the floor if a British Government ever told Scots you will have no right to live and work in the former UK if you choose to separate.

Sturgeon and the SNP are a bit less popular because of putting rapists in women’s prisons, but this will pass. But the fundamental failure to address the challenge of Brexit to Scottish independence will not pass. It is this failure that keeps the SNP in the wilderness, and it may take them rather more than 40 years to cross Sinai. It may take them forever. Neither Salmond nor Sturgeon will live to see an independent Scotland.