Scotland | Independent Will

The SNP is set to become a pivotal power in a country it wants to break from

01 May 2015
The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (second from right) has challenged Labour’s Ed Miliband (left) to join her party in a coalition against the Conservatives.
Ken McKay / ITV / Gety Images

ON 18 SEPTEMBER LAST YEAR, Scots voted in a referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or whether to return, after a break of 307 years, to independent rule. In George Square, in the centre of Glasgow, a boisterous crowd spent much of that night celebrating that the question had been asked at all. They sang songs, waved Scottish flags, passed wine and whisky around, and told the anti-independence Conservatives in London, and the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, where they could shove their Union. But by 3 or 4 am, as more and more regions declared results, the crowds, now sheltered in pubs and bars, quietened. Once it became clear that the pro-Union “No” vote was going to win, they began trudging home in droves, muddle-headed and despondent.

That morning, I took an especially subdued early commuter train into Edinburgh. As it pulled in, the historic Royal Mile was sombre, dreich and mysterious, with mist and low cloud clinging to the spires and chimneys that flank it. At Holyrood, at the bottom of the Mile, where the Scottish parliament exercises its devolved powers, a giant tent set up for television crews stood almost empty, sagging under a drizzle. Instead of becoming the legislative centre of the world’s newest country, the news was saying that morning, Holyrood would instead be receiving a new plethora of powers that politicians in London had, ahead of the referendum, hastily promised to devolve in a desperate attempt to save the Union. Throughout the city, which had largely voted “No,” there was a feeling of relief, but tinged with sadness—the party was over, and with it the massive media focus on Scotland. An English journalist talking into a camera said, “Up till now, it’s been about what the Scots want. From today, it’s about what the English want.”

That pronouncement was premature. The campaign for independence was spearheaded by the Scottish National Party, though it also took in the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, and disparate other organisations. Each pursuing their own agendas, these groups remain united behind what was, and is, their primary complaint against the United Kingdom—what they see as the marginalisation of Scotland by the UK parliament at Westminster, dominated for the last hundred-odd years by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives, or Tories (these last two parties form the current ruling coalition).

Ian Swanson, the political editor at the Edinburgh Evening News, told me in March that though the “Yes” campaign was roundly beaten—55.3 percent of voters supported remaining in the Union—the defeat’s effect on the pro-independence parties has been “quite paradoxical,” and the SNP in particular “has been able to maintain a remarkable momentum.” And as the United Kingdom votes in a general election on 7 May, the SNP—easily the largest party in Scotland and the Scottish parliament, and presently with 6 seats in the UK lower house—is likely to make or break any anti-Conservative alliance in the increasingly fragmented politics of the very Union it is bent on quitting.

That control of Westminster will again require some form of coalition seems beyond doubt. Television screens across the country recently offered a telling sign. The United Kingdom’s first televised general-election debates, in 2010, featured the leaders of only the three establishment parties; on 2 April this year, David Cameron debated six other party leaders. “I think it’s pretty obvious that no one standing here is going to win this election outright,” the head of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, said in his opening statement. “So you’re going to have to choose … who’s going to work with who.”

Many Scots will vote to make the SNP one of the key players. In March, I got on the phone with Nighet Nasim Riaz, an associate lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland, who is affiliated with Scots Asians for Yes, a pro-independence campaign group. We had last met in September, two days before the referendum, when she had been busy and tired, but also optimistic. Following the vote, she said, “I think the people were so disappointed because it”—independence—“was in our grasp.” But rather than weaken Scottish nationalist politics, that disillusionment translated into further mobilisation. The SNP’s membership soared from 25,642 on the day of the referendum to over 80,000 by 10 October. By March, the figure had risen to 102,000, making the SNP the United Kingdom’s third largest party by membership, behind Labour and the Tories. Besides proving the SNP’s strength, Riaz said, these numbers showed that the pro-independence campaign is “going to be back.”

Rebecca Bicocchi, a politics student at the University of Glasgow who had campaigned for the SNP before the referendum, reinforced much that Riaz told me. When we spoke in April, she explained that while excitement around the possibility of independence has died down, the vote had “brought politics to the fore of a lot of people’s minds ... Not many of my friends or family members were politically active and the Yes-No vote really made them think about what they stood for and what they believed in.”

All this has come at a high cost for one party in particular. “Labour,” Swanson told me bluntly, “are in a real mess.” Scotland’s populous, industrial Central Belt, including the dockyards of Glasgow, has long been a heartland of the leftist party, from where it draws a substantial part of its Westminster voter base. That Scottish Labour backed the pro-Union campaign, though, was construed as tacit support for the Conservatives, who remain toxically unpopular here. Every constituency in Glasgow voted for independence—a huge rebuke for Labour. “A lot of people are realising,” Bicocchi said, that “Labour do not stand for what they used to, and are just as in bed with the Tories as Nick Clegg.” To tap into that public perception as the general election approaches, the SNP is arguing that it, not Labour, can best shield Scotland against the continuing austerity measures that the Conservatives claim are needed to control the United Kingdom’s yawning deficit.

Any transfer of allegiances to the SNP in the run-up to the 7 May vote could seriously weaken Labour’s hand in Westminster. Recent predictions show the SNP winning anywhere between 35 and 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the 650-seat UK lower house; in 2010, Labour won 41 of them. And if the SNP performs even nearly as well as these predictions suggest, it would be instrumental in any alliance against the Conservatives—Labour’s major Westminster rivals, who are expected to make a good showing at the polls.

Swanson, however, argued that how the SNP’s momentum will play out during and after the election is hard to tell. Large numbers of those who have joined the party since September, he said, remain an “unknown quantity.” Another unknown is whether these new members will continue to support the SNP if it positions itself as a key member of a UK-wide leftist alliance. “The SNP is still a very broad church with plenty of people who would run a mile from being described as left-wing,” Swanson said. “I’d be surprised … if the SNP allowed itself to be diverted too much from the independence, standing-up-for-Scotland line.”

In early April, though, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, “challenged” the Labour Party and its leader, Ed Miliband, to form a coalition government with the SNP if both parties have, as they hope to, the numbers to “keep David Cameron out.” She also publicly offered “to make Ed Miliband prime minister.” In a sense, Labour and the SNP would be natural allies: both are stridently opposed to Conservative plans to continue with wide-ranging cuts in government spending. But they also disagree, among other things, on renewing funding for Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, Trident, currently housed at a naval base about an hour’s drive west of Glasgow. The SNP has been vocal about scrapping Trident, though Sturgeon has said the matter would not stand in the way of collaborating with Labour on other policies.

This is a pragmatic concession, as there is little place else for the SNP to turn. Swanson pointed out that the Tories’ unpopularity in Scotland has effectively forced the SNP into pushing for anti-Conservative collaboration, and argued that “Labour could simply put forward its programme and effectively dare the SNP to vote it down.” The most likely form of post-election alliance, he said, would be a partnership between the parties on a “vote-by-vote basis.”

But whatever happens, the SNP faces a conundrum. Working with Labour to run the United Kingdom could raise damaging questions about the party’s commitment to its raison d’être—Scottish independence. The strongest boost to that foundational goal, though, could come from not keeping the Tories out.

For this, the SNP has partly to thank the entrance into Westminster of another insurgent party. The United Kingdom Independence Party gained its first members of parliament shortly after the referendum in Scotland, when two Conservative delegates, dissatisfied with their party’s stance on European integration and immigration, defected to the right-wing, populist outfit and re-won their seats in ensuing by-elections in south-east England. UKIP’s rising appeal to many on the traditionally Tory right is widely seen as having pressured David Cameron into promising another referendum, this one on Britain’s membership in the European Union, before 2017, should he remain prime minister.

Public opinion in Scotland, especially as compared to elsewhere in the United Kingdom, generally favours remaining in the European Union. If the Conservatives come to lead the next UK government, the threat of a ballot that could pull Scotland out of the EU with the rest of the Union, together with bitterness over continuing economic austerity, may prove enough encouragement for the SNP to commit to another referendum on Scottish independence in its manifesto for elections to the Scottish parliament next year—something it has so far refrained from. Riaz told me that a Tory-led ballot on EU membership would mean the strongest chance “for another Scottish referendum being on the cards” in the near future; she hoped, she said, for another vote inside six years.

In the meantime, whatever it makes of the possibilities, the SNP seems destined to give UK politics a good shaking. Whether or not the party eventually resurrects calls for a vote on Scotland’s inclusion in the Union, it could well first, as Bicocchi told me, “really challenge the … elitist system of Westminster.”

Ross Adkin  is a freelance writer based in Delhi.