Feature: How did the SNP became the natural party of government?

Alex Salmond used his years as first minister to revolutionise the way Scots felt about the SNP.
Alex Salmond used his years as first minister to revolutionise the way Scots felt about the SNP.

In 2007, a vote for the SNP was mischievous. By 2011 it was an act of conviction and optimism.

By George Thomson

Rarely do the electoral fortunes of a political party outstrip the wildest dreams of its members, but the meteoric ascent of the SNP has surprised even its most ardent cheerleaders. Having claimed an outright majority in a parliament designed specifically to prevent such an outcome, Alex Salmond's party command all before them in Edinburgh and will look to dictate terms in negotiations with a rattled Westminster.

After decades on the sidelines, the SNP can now claim to be the natural party of government in devolved Scotland. Whereas in 2007 the nationalists sneaked to power in spite of a hostile media (on polling day, the Scottish Sun warned an SNP win would be akin to a noose being tied around the nation's neck), this month's landslide win was cheered on by a broad spectrum of the Scottish press - the Sun included. By the end of the current five-year term, the party will have held power for more than half of the period since the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999.

In truth, while the scale of the SNP's victory was unprecedented, few objective observers could deny that Scotland's political landscape has undergone a fundamental shift in recent years. During four years of mature and competent minority government, the SNP gradually but steadily earned the tacit approval of much of Scotland's media, civil society and business community. Overt support retains an element of taboo and whispered endorsements are often laced with caveats - "I don't know about independence, but they've done well so far," is a common refrain. But a tangible change has taken place. In 2007, a vote for the SNP remained an act largely confined to the privacy of the voting booth; a mischievous, faintly dangerous rebellion against the old order. In 2011, an overwhelming number of Scots came to regard marking the box accompanied by the message 'Alex Salmond for First Minister' as an act of both conviction and optimism.

Commentators of all stripes have welcomed this vindication of positivity. In the run-up to the election, Scotland's unionist parties, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, campaigned against changes proposed by others rather than promoting their own ideas. That negativity was a continuation of the four years of minority SNP rule, during which all three parties used the parliamentary arithmetic to spoil and obstruct. Landmark legislation to introduce a minimum price for alcohol was passed over while Salmond's plan for an independence referendum - which would almost certainly have been defeated - never got off the ground. Dismissing the SNP's narrow victory in 2007 as a blip and confident an obedient electorate would resume normal service at the first opportunity, Scotland's opposition stagnated.

All three parties are now in disarray. Labour and the Conservatives will have new leaders by the autumn while the Liberal Democrats' recently installed chief, the barely-known Willie Rennie, commands just five MSPs. Gallingly for them, the SNP can now pursue an ambitious programme of government free from interference. Minimum pricing legislation will be passed before the end of the year, and Salmond has the luxury of calling for an independence referendum at a time that suits him.

However, with greater power comes greater responsibility. Indeed, the attainment of such a clear mandate has the potential to revive awkward issues for the SNP that were sidelined during a first term marked by compromise and consensus. With an independence referendum now inevitable, Salmond has a responsibility to explain what is meant by the term.

The SNP made precious little of its raison d'etre during the election. Sidelining independence has proven a shrewd move; with a record in government to defend, the SNP have shaken off the stigma of being regarded as an 'obsessive', single issue party. However, as defenders of the Union point out, avoiding the 'I' word has been something of a tactical necessity; despite the electoral gains, support for independence remains stubbornly low at around 30-35%.

Recognising the scale of the challenge that faces him, Salmond has been uncharacteristically cautious, recently floating "independence-lite", a constitutional settlement that could see Scotland sharing defence, social security and foreign policy with Westminster, and remain part of a federalist UK. By proposing a system in which Scotland would continue to share the monarchy, the pound, the British Army, the BBC, social security and the diplomatic service, Salmond hopes to assuage the concerns of those who view complete separation as a bridge too far. This gradualist approach may be Salmond's best bet, but it antagonises party fundamentalists who are anxious not to fudge a unique opportunity to break free from the UK.

A partial separation threatens to compromise the SNP in other ways. Consider defence. To its credit, the SNP has opposed both the Iraq war and the renewal of the UK's Trident nuclear weapons programme. But despite being fiercely critical of Westminster's martial tendencies, Salmond has in recent months launched a high-profile campaign to save Scottish navy and air bases under threat from coalition defence cuts. The priority is clear: Salmond is keen to retain as many defence jobs as possible in order to keep a flagging economy afloat. As the leader of a minority Holyrood administration this played well - a strong voice defending Scottish interests in the face of Westminster high-handedness. But with constitutional questions now centre stage, Salmond must explain how he would square a continued military presence in Scotland despite previous promises that an independent Scotland would leave NATO.

Salmond will require nimble footwork to avoid charges of hypocrisy, but his political stock has never been so high. The voters who propelled the SNP to a majority can be (very roughly) split into two camps. The first, convinced separatists bursting with excitement following the election, represent the party's core support; the second, admirers of Salmond and his team who favour a stronger voice for Scotland but are agnostic on independence. If Salmond can avoid disappointing the former without scaring off the latter, 'independence lite' may well become a reality.

George Thomson writes for Holyrood magazine.


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