The SNP dimension

To the extent that the SNP’s current electoral popularity is due to pro-SNP (rather than anti-Labour) effects, it must be remembered that there is much more than independence at play. Does an SNP success in an election mean that Scotland has suddenly converted to the cause of independence? Of course not.

Firstly, support for independence is pretty low at the moment. According to the 2007 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (which I believe asks a question about independence every year), support for independence (PDF link) was lower than it had been since May 1997. Asked to choose between independence, devolution or getting rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether, just 23% plumped for independence.

The peak of support for independence was actually in September 1997 — ironically, also roughly when Labour were also at the height of their powers. Then, independence was favoured over devolution for, as far as I can tell, the only time in history. Over the preceding decade support for independence has flitted up and down but has been in a pronounced decline since 2005.

Another point to note is that this, the SNP’s most successful period ever, has come at a time when the SNP has played down its support for independence. Take the slogan it has used since last year’s election campaign. Instead of things like “Michty me, we’ll soon be free” and all that sort of thing, their slogan was: “It’s time.” Time for what? Time for bed? The SNP don’t say.

You have to admit, it is a fiendishly clever slogan. Classic dog whistle stuff. So SNP activists and hardened advocates for independence think it’s time for independence. Anti-Labour voters see it and think it’s time for a change, time to kick Labour out. In fact, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Crucially, the independence issue was not rammed down people’s throats by the SNP. Given the closeness of last year’s election, that could well have been what swung it for them.

You should also bear in mind that the SNP are very far away from being a single-issue party. A vote for the SNP is not necessarily a vote for independence, and often an SNP activist will be the first person to tell you this. For instance, Richard Leyton got this line from no less a person than Nicola Sturgeon.

Don’t want an independent Scotland? It doesn’t matter. The SNP have made it very clear that independence will only come after a referendum victory. In the meantime, there is a “national conversation” about independence where you can express your views if you so wish. In effect, the SNP have tried as hard as possible to divorce the independence issue from Scottish Parliament and Westminster elections. The debate over independence now runs separately.

So what explains the SNP’s success? It’s the policies stupid. It is conceivable that Fifers who voted for the SNP did so because they were enticed by their promise to abolish the bridge tolls. Students may have been attracted to their promise to “dump student debt”. And of course, the people who felt that there should be a change in government were always likely to vote SNP because they are the second largest party in Scotland, and the only party in a position to stand up to Labour.

It must also be said that Alex Salmond’s leadership has a lot to do with the SNP’s current success. Yes, he splits opinion. But like him or loathe him, you have to admit that he is a great politician. He is good orator and has the charisma and leadership qualities necessary. The only other Scottish leader that can compare to him in my book is Annabel Goldie, and even she is pretty colourless compared to Alex Salmond.

Particularly when you compare him to the likes of Nicol Stephen and Jack McConnell, who both look permanently nervous, Alex Salmond towers above everyone else in the Scottish Parliament. Wendy Alexander was no match for him either, particularly given the state of disarray Labour are in at the moment. With Alex Salmond at the helm, the SNP should expect an upswing in fortunes, especially since their leader at the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary election was the dull and ineffective John Swinney.

Back in Glasgow East, from what I gather, the issue of independence was not completely ignored, but it certainly did not form a major part of the campaign. Instead, it was presented as a contest where the electorate would pass judgement on the records of the Labour Government in Westminster and the SNP Government in Holyrood.

The SNP were also hugely advantaged by the fact that they were already in 2nd place in the constituency. If my theory about whichever party being in a position to beat Labour will win is correct, then it is no wonder the SNP did well while the Lib Dems tanked.

Most votes are wasted anyway, especially under the FPTP system. But a sure-fire way to waste your vote in Glasgow East was to vote for the Conservatives or the Lib Dems. Only hardened Tories and Lib Dems who despise Labour and the SNP equally will have voted for them (or, indeed, any of the other smaller parties).

In summary, I think that the SNP’s victory in Glasgow East means almost nothing for the union.

That is not to say that I think that the status quo will prevail. I think I am right when I say that all of the parties currently represented in the Scottish Parliament, and the largest parties that are not represented in the Scottish Parliament, all support some kind of increased devolution to varying degrees. That includes the Conservatives, who appear pretty open to the idea of the Scottish Parliament having some leverage over fiscal policy.

Even Labour, painted into a unionist corner by their opposition to the SNP, have toyed with the idea of fiscal autonomy. Mind you, that was under the leadership of Wendy Alexander, who seemed to be a bit of a loose cannon when it came to trying to tackle the issue of the constitution. Who knows what direction Labour will take under their new leader, but I suspect that they will find it difficult to maintain support unless the take the majority view that the Scottish Parliament should have a greater degree of fiscal autonomy.

All of this, though, is almost incidental to the success or otherwise of the SNP. Increased powers for the Scottish Parliament will not come about as a result of SNP success. It can come about as a result of the success of any party.


  1. You’re clearly up far too late Doctor Vee (although logically I must be too).

    Still regardless of the time of night that was a very thorough and interesting comment. And I think it pretty much sums up the situation.

    I’ve never looked at the independence debate or general discussions around the constitution as being ‘public’ issues. This isn’t to say that some members of the public won’t have strong views on them, simply that they’re not burning topics for people in the way they are for politicians.

    Instead I suspect most people just get on with their everyday lives without ever giving a thought to such matters. The general exception would be if a referendum was held and then this would obviously focus minds.

    Similarly with the Glasgow East election. Independence clearly wasn’t mentioned during the campaign, instead people passed a negative judgement on a Labour government which has been in power for 11 years. And this was also true of the Holyrood election last year.

    Of course if a referendum is held in 2010 then people will consider the issue more closely, although based on pretty much every opinion poll I don’t think the SNP get their way. And in some ways the most interesting question is what happens then?

  2. Interesting post, and in large measure I agree with your thinking. But one has to ask – why were the SNP’s policies comparatively appealing? I can see two main reasons.

    Firstly, the SNP is a more unnatural coalition than possibly any other party in British politics – with key figures ranging from Alex Neil on the left, through Alex Salmond (ex-socialist, now social democrat) to Jim Mather on the right. Ditto their support base. So policies need to be constructed in such a way as to tip the nod in each direction, thus giving them at least a superficial catholicity.

    Even more significantly, the SNP exists primarily to remove Scotland from Britain. They’re on a mission – and in that respect are, in fact, a single-issue party. Policy serves and flows from the central agenda. So the gradualist applecart mustn’t be upset, and populism is the inevitable consequence. What the focus group wants, it gets. In the short term, until various chickens start to roost, that’s a vote winner.

  3. IoC — Don’t worry, I wrote this post in advance of publishing it. Having said that, I was up at that time the previous night preparing it. And I was up at that time anyway, just doing something else.

    I think you’re right about independence not being a burning issue. I am sure if you asked the person on the street, 9 times out of 10 they would give you an opinion on independence. But they are more primarily concerned about the state of the local hospital, the price of a pint and X number of other “bread and butter” issues.

    You quite rightly point to the fact that Labour had been in power for 11 years and that this is a big factor in their downswing. I forgot to mention in this post that Labour really shot themselves in the foot in the long term by setting up the Scottish Parliament because it was always going to bring electoral dynamics into play. Sooner or later there was going to be a change of government, and that change was always going to be to the SNP.

    Scottish Unionist — I think you are being a tad harsh on the SNP in your second paragraph there. I think whenever anyone joins a political party they must be prepared to compromise some of their beliefs in exchange for being part of an umbrella grouping for the sake of the bigger cause. You could point to all of the major parties and point out similar divergences in ideology.

    In a lot of ways I think this broad-based approach is quite healthy. It chimes with the cuddly notion of the “new politics” for one thing. And for another thing, we don’t want to end up like the socialists with the Judean People’s Front etc etc.

  4. Doctor Vee

    I have no suitable Alex Neil quote to hand, but Alex Salmond considers himself to be a social democrat, saying in 2007 that his positions are “part of the socialist pantheon”.

    Whereas Jim Mather said in 2003 that “any notion that an independent Scotland would be a left-wing country is delusional nonsense” and that most Scots “have enough experience of left-wing policies to know that they only make matters worse”.

    If such wide divergences exist within any other party, I certainly can’t think of them. That said, I doubt that Mather would break ranks to say such a thing today. It seems to me that the SNP is bound together only by their shared motivation to break up the UK and by rigid internal discipline which seeks to ensure that no individual undermines that effort by failing to toe the line.

  5. If my theory about whichever party being in a position to beat Labour will win is correct, then it is no wonder the SNP did well while the Lib Dems tanked.

    Of course it is. Pretty well established Theory within PolSci, Duverger’s Law applies to by-elections in a much greater degree than in general elections, voters are less likely to vote in by-elections, but those that do

    a) want their vote to matter and
    b) are aware the nation is watching.

    The big challenge in most by-elections for both parties and voters is to establish who the challenger is—sometimes you have 2nd/3rd position being very close, and vastly different results in other local elections, which is why you get parties putting resources in when they on paper don’t have much of a chance, or sometimes you even get spoiler campaigns, like in Ealing Southall where the Tories campaigned heavily in 3rd place and managed to stop the LDs squeezing their vote.

    I think, overall, you’re correct, the SNP get a bunch of votes for a large number of reasons, but nationally in Scotland they’re seen as the alternative party of Govt and hence get ‘opposition’ swing votes, just as the Tories do in England. Especially true given the coalition nature of Scottish politics, if you want a change of administration, then you need a different ‘largest party’, switching to the LDs from Labour is less of an option as the LDs are unlikely to come first, thus Labour could’ve hung on, etc.

    I love watching Scottish politics, a 4-party dynamic with 3 different voting systems: utterly insane but interesting psephology.