Political stocks can go down as well as up. Shares in Alex Salmond are hardly slumping right now but they’re off their peak and flat-lining. The market is becalmed. Perhaps the launch of the independence referendum campaign will reinvigorate the First Minister but it also carries the risk – unavoidable for sure, but still a risk – that concentrating attention on independence will remind voters that the SNP is, at heart, a single-issue party. And single-issue parties tend to run into trouble.
There is a theory that the SNP have over-extended themselves. Even though they still hold more council seats than Labour (and so could claim their local election "failure" has been exagerrated) they still contrived to lose the "expectations game" earlier this month. Some voters, who had previously cheerfully leant the SNP their votes, are likely, I think, to drift away now that independence is back at the front of the party’s agenda.
Victories can cause problems too and it may be that not having a referendum suited Alex Salmond better than having to hold a referendum. It is possible to advance too far, too fast and, in this respect anyway, the scale of the SNP’s triumph at the last Holyrood elections has caused the party some problems. There is nowhere to hide now and no turning back. The True Believers will welcome this kind of problem. The trouble is that the True Believers are a minority.
So what mattered last week? Not, I suggest, the launch of the Yes campaign. That was going to happen at some point and, in truth, it mattered little whether it began last month, this month or next month. No, more significant than that was the SNP leadership’s decision to avoid reconsidering its commitment to keeping an independent Scotland out of Nato.
Though little noticed by the London press, this was Salmond’s first real retreat since he won his Holyrood majority. Forced to choose between his party and Middle Scotland’s preferences he sided with his party. This is unusual enough to be noteworthy.
For some time now the SNP leadership has been quietly – and sometimes not so quietly – inching towards reconsidering its defence policy. The issue was due to be considered at a meeting of the party’s national council next month. That plan has been shelved. Instead, defence policy will be debated at the party conference in October. Ordinarily the SNP’s internal deliberations need not interest outsiders too much but in this instance they’re worth paying attention to. The party has declared there must be some limit set upon Salmond’s revisionism. This is why this matters.
Sure, it’s possible that the leadership thinks it might be easier to persuade the members to agree to revising - that is, dropping – the party’s hostility to joining Nato than it would be to persuade the national council to do so. But no-one, I think, has actually said this is the case or really believes it to be true.
You can’t argue with results which is why Salmond has been trusted with a long leash. Nevertheless, the SNP membership is, generally speaking, more radical than the leadership. (If you think Alex Salmond is a radical then you’re very much mistaken and there’s not much hope for you.) For years now, Salmond and his team have been urging patience. They have stressed competence rather than independence; gradualism rather than a Big Bang theory of nationalism.
Hence the party’s desire to retain Queen Elizabeth I as head of state. Hence the commitment to retain sterling. Hence too the acceptance that (personal) tax rates in an independent Scotland will not be very different (or higher) than in England. Hence too the constant stress on how many aspects of quotidian life will remain much as they presently are.
So one can understand why some of the True Believers, canvassers of many a housing estate and stuffers of many an envelope, might begin to chafe at this and wonder, just a little, Hang on, is this it? Was this what it was all for? How much more of this must we put up with? What, they might ask, is the point of a parliamentary majority if you do not use it properly? The enemy have been routed. This is a time to be bold, not timid.
If this is the case, then, as far as the activists are concerned, defence policy is one concession too far. It is not that putative membership of Nato will determine the result of the referendum. It certainly will not. Rather, it is a reminder to the leadership that even revisionism has its limits and that the First Minister, splendid, vital fellow that he is, should remember this.
Granted, Nato’s future role is a legitimate subject for debate. But defence policy is an area in which the SNP remains to the left of the Scottish centre ground. The presence of nuclear submarines on the Clyde may, indeed does, trouble many Scots. That is one thing but rejecting Nato membership just because the Americans have nuclear weapons is quite another. It is the sort of thing that strikes many non-SNP members as a trivial, even vainglorious, piece of gesture politics more befitting a Student Union than the would-be leaders of the world’s newest independent state.
Reconfiguring the SNP’s defence policy is, then, another part of the leadership’s Reassurance Offensive. It is supposed to remove another potential area of concern that might persuade some voters in Middle Scotland (a place which does exist no matter how many Byres Road scribes choose to sneer at the concept) to conclude, with regret, that independence is too uncertain, too risky a voyage to be contemplated.
Salmond is a pragmatist who long ago appreciated that Scotland is a conservative country. Not a Tory country but a small-c conservative place nonetheless. Accepting that was one of the keys to winning after many years of losing. He recognised that independence, these days, is a process more than it is an event. Furthermore, since independence must be a matter of much uncertainty and many imponderables it made sense to do everything the party can do to minimise or even eliminate these known and unknown knowns.
Trust me, he says, we’re not a bunch of tartan-clad neo-Jacobites, we’re a sober, sensible, mainstream party built on rationalism not emotion or romance. Paradoxically this has the effect of making independence sometimes seem a matter of tidying up accounts and not the rebirth of a nation. But, again, Scotland is not a bold or radical country and Salmond knows it. He must be the least revolutionary revolutionary in recent european political history.
The SNP membership? Well they view things a little differently and, I fancy, have a sharper, bigger sense of what is possible than does the party leadership. Which is why this modest check – rebuke might be putting it a little strongly – to the leadership is actually more significant than it might at first appear.
Is Salmond in trouble or on the back foot? Certainly not and one shouldn’t exagerrate his predicament. He remains the party’s greatest asset and retains the members’ confidence. He is still the most formidable operator playing this game. Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that the more independence becomes the only game in town the more it must concentrate minds on either side of the battle.
Tags: Salmond, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP