Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP manifesto and the dangers of repeated landslides
The Herald Scotland, by Iain Macwhirter
I’m sure it is just my macabre sense of humour, but I couldn’t help finding the headline policy in the SNP manifesto about a baby box for every child slightly disturbing. The newspaper images of babies lying in the SNP ‘s box didn’t help. We’ve heard of cradle to grave, but this was carrying social care just a little too far.
However, it is apparently a very popular policy in Finland, and I’m sure charities are right that many Scots are too poor or too stupid to get the right stuff for their newborns. So why shouldn’t the state come along with a bit of extra help? No reason. But the baby box, which was heavily trailed in the run-up to yesterday’s SNP 2016 manifesto launch, seemed to be a measure of just how far the Scottish Government has come in a year: From independence and a better nation, to child-care products.
However, you should never underestimate SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. She may have laid the referendum to rest – this was the first manifesto in many years that failed to include any firm commitment to one – but this was still a radical programme. She called it, with suitable humility, her “job application” indicating she was not, as her manifesto suggested, up for “re-election” but had to win her own mandate.
And this was very much the manifesto of a utilitarian (ie non-ideological) nationalist. There were big commitments here to above-inflation health spending, bold climate change targets, a firm commitment to improving social care and tackling the attainment gap in schools and university. She said she “expected to be judged” on her success in improving educational standards of children from less well off families .
The SNP leader also said increased child care was the “best form of infrastructure investment” which was a good line. There was a big cheer also for her promise that there would “no fracking” – at least until its impact on the environment is proven to be benign. She promised the new Scottish Social Security Agency would abolish the bedroom tax and abandon the language of “skiver s and shirkers”.
It was a very Labour-sounding agenda and Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, will have trouble opposing a lot of it – except of course on tax. No 50p rate and instead a cut in Air Passenger Duty, which might appear to conflict with SNP environmental targets. Labour insisted “the central issue is how we use the powers of the parliament to stop the cuts”, but the Scottish Government appears to be increasing spending on health, education and social care. It will be hard to argue this is an austerity manifesto.
Labour also claimed: “People are desperate to move on from the arguments of the past [about independence]." But that is precisely what Nicola Sturgeon has done – moved on. The SNP leader doesn’t want another referendum, we are told, until it is clear 60 per cent of Scots will vote Yes. And there was a time when some nationalists would have regarded that vagueness as a failure of will.
Support for independence has, after all, been rising, according to Professor John Curtice. (Though he has been cast into outer darkness along with the Sunday Herald for suggesting a vote for SNP on the list might be wasted in most regions) But so complete is the SNP leader’s authority, the SNP membership appear to have accepted independence is not a priority right now – social services are.
I’d have to say I agree with her. Indeed, this column was arguing this in the aftermath of the General Election landslide when the “45s” on social media were furiously demanding a repeat referendum or even UDI. (Where have the ultra nationalists all gone?) Indeed another referendum might be quite a long way off. Seeing the rebirth of Project Fear in the EU referendum campaign you can understand why Ms Sturgeon is reluctant to go through all that again.
Such is the fear among ordinary voters of “going it alone” that opponents of independence – whether it be Brexit or Scoxit – are able to fill the future full of anxieties about trade, currency, mortgages, jobs. That Treasury report this week about how each Briton would be “permanently poorer” outside EU was bizarre replay of the case the Treasury made against Scottish independence. It was similarly ill founded – Treasury projections are invariably wrong. But combined with the Bank of England, big business, the IMF, President Obama and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it makes leaving the EU or the UK look, as Ms Sturgeon might have said, just “daft”.
Looking back, it was indeed astonishing that, against the advice of all these authority figures, 1.6 million Scots decided to vote Yes. Ignorant London commentators tried to present the Yes campaign as an English-hating band of cultural nationalists and semi-racist, but it was nothing of the sort. It was a social movement challenging austerity economics and the conservatism of the Westminster establishment. Nationalism was a vehicle for this movement – a means not an end.
It was precisely because the Yes campaign not just an SNP vehicle, that it was so successful. Of course, the SNP cleared up in the aftermath as its membership quadrupled, and it gained the most sensational General Election result in British history in May 2015 – all but wiping out the Labour Party and anyone associated with the Better Together campaign.
The Yes Scotland campaign itself was folded into the SNP, the wider movement fragmented and the SNP became the only game in town. And like all political parties it is primarily in the business of gaining and holding power, maximising its representation and marginalising political opposition. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just what happens to politicians when they get power – and the SNP has almost unchallenged power in Holyrood.
Perhaps we should be grateful it is Ms Sturgeon who has been handed this power because she remains a responsible and level-headed politician and still, in theory at least, committed to social justice and social democracy. Yesterday’s event looked triumphalist, but there was no playing to the emotional gallery of nationalist sentiment. Ms Sturgeon is undoubtedly the best political leader in Holyrood right now and her government has been remarkably sure-footed, even if it has been following safety first agenda. I’m not surprised people are voting for her.
Nevertheless, we should always ask questions – and keep asking them – about a government, however competent, that gains too much power. I don’t actually believe it is in the SNP’s own best interest to continue to utterly dominate Holyrood. Those #bothvotesSNP enthusiasts who argue the SNP must pile up more and more votes and bigger and bigger landslides don’t seem to know why they should want this.
You can’t go on getting landslides for ever. Getting an even bigger one in May would only make sense if the Scottish election were a referendum on independence, but that, as this SNP manifesto makes clear, is not the case. And it is Ms Sturgeon herself who has put Scotland’s destiny on hold.