Scotland’s SNP revolution terrifies the main parties

Scotland’s SNP revolution terrifies the main parties
The Guardian, By Kevin McKenna


The SNP is gathering support from people long neglected by Labour and the Tories.


In Glasgow’s conference centre last weekend, it was curious to witness the extent to which the new nationalist legions have unnerved those privileged few of us who inhabit Scotland’s media and political bubble. One of my more sclerotic media chums said last Sunday, rather pithily I thought, that if Alex Salmond blew his nose the 3,000 SNP supporters in the main auditorium for the party’s election campaign conference would cheer him to the rafters. Others deployed the disdainful term “cult” to describe what they were seeing.


The implications of such terminology are clear: politics ought only to be conducted and analysed by the professionals – either the politicians and their advisers or we who are paid to scrutinise and report their words and ideas. We become uncomfortable when the franchise is extended to too many people and especially those whom we deem not to be sufficiently sophisticated in their words and thoughts.


Certainly, many of those who thronged the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre last Saturday and Sunday were gloriously unsophisticated. At one stage in the proceedings, Michael Russell, the SNP’s former education and culture minister, conducted a rudimentary head count from the stage, which revealed that the majority of those in front of him were first-time conference-goers. Not for them clipboards, iPads and a rolled-up copy of the New Statesman peeping out of their pockets. Instead, it was packed lunches, leisurewear and idiosyncratic millinery. There were lots of babies in buggies and friendly ladies doing that selfie thing all over the shop. You’d have to have been as cynical as a hedge fund manager or a member of Her Majesty’s political lobby, scowling in your curmudgeon-hood, not to have been a little affected by it all.


We saw something similar as the independence referendum campaign unfolded. How to explain and contextualise the experience of observing tens of thousands of people weekly being drawn into the struggle, and usually on the nationalist side? When words failed to express what was happening, many on the unionist side and in the media chose to denigrate it. They scorned these people’s untutored grasp of the currency question and their perceived failure to understand the Barnett formula or the predictions of the Office for Budget Responsibility.


It’s valid in the gladiatorial arena of politics to attempt to sully that which you have tried and failed to control. The difficulties begin when you are dealing with something you don’t understand. Something adjacent to fear materialises and this leads to hostility. It was then that we encountered an assortment of reputable commentators in the English broadsheets depart from the norms of rectitude and integrity that characterise their writing. Their attempts to smear this new, popular nationalism and depict it as something spiteful and divisive have lodged in the memories of those engaged in it. It is one of the major reasons why those who rejected the Labour party’s position and conduct in the independence referendum have so far refused to return to the mother ship.


Many of us have attempted to analyse and interpret this vast migration from Labour to the SNP, which shows no signs of abating. Some of us say it is a form of punishment that is being meted out to Labour for standing too close to the Tories during the independence campaign. Others, that it is a mass protest against the coalition’s austerity measures and Labour’s failure adequately to distance itself from them.


Underpinning these analyses is a barely concealed narrative of contempt, which says they will all come to their senses when they realise there will be no land of milk and honey in a Scotland under the absolute control of the SNP.


But what if something else is happening here? What if those who are impelling the SNP to a Scottish landslide on 7 May understand only too well that some of the sums don’t add up and are fully aware of the implications of a long-term depression in the price of a barrel of oil? What if, alive to the pitfalls and uncertainties that lie ahead, they are happy to sustain a measure of deficit in their own finances for several years to come, trusting that, in return, an investment is made in the economic future of the country by delivering policies that will lift their neighbours out of poverty?


If this were so, then we are indeed living through a revolution. For these people will be declaring that, if there is to be austerity, it will be conducted on their own terms and will require all sections of society to make proportionately equal sacrifices. It will be a rebuke to the Thatcherite economic consensus that has prevailed in the UK political establishment for the last 40 years or so. This holds people and communities to be mere commodities, of use only insofar as they can deliver a profit. And it is fuelled by a suspicion that the Conservative party and the Labour party are mere instruments of social control. In this dance to the music of time in Britain, the Tories are sworn to maintain the hegemony of the free market and Labour to ensure that the idiot punters don’t become too truculent.


The tragedy for the Labour party in Scotland in this scenario is that, for the first time since its formation, its usefulness as the preferred vehicle for social change will have been deemed to be obsolete by its own people. In the face of such a profound shift in a people’s social and political consciousness, slogans such as “Vote SNP, get Tory” or “The biggest party always forms the government” are as worthless as two blows on a ragman’s trumpet.


The SNP have yet to prove, in eight years of government in Scotland, that they are a radicalising force. Their promise to create a more socially progressive society is being taken on trust. A heavy toll will be exacted if, in five years’ time, the landscape of Scotland’s society hasn’t altered significantly.


In Scotland, an era when people, lazy and acquiescent, were happy to have their politics handed down to them pre-packaged in manageable chunks is coming to a close. How long will it be until England’s great and neglected northern regions too awaken from their slumbers?