“It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine,” wrote P. G. Wodehouse, before his matchless prose and humour were vandalised by semi-literate Oxbridge snowflakes posing as “sensitivity editors”. One thing at least has not changed: a Scotsman with a grievance is never hard to find.
Today they run into millions, though the object of their grievance is unusual. Their ire has turned against the political party that, not so long ago, many of them regarded as the hallowed vehicle that was destined to convey them out of servitude to the privileged heirs of Edward Longshanks and into a utopian future as an independent state, outside NATO, the EU and the Great British Bake Off, proudly embracing a standard of living equivalent to its neighbour Rockall.
To put it delicately, the SNP has suffered one or two slight hiccups recently – nothing too serious, just the consecutive arrests of its former Chief Executive and Treasurer, the disappearance of a piddling £600,000 hypothecated for IndyRef2 and the equally mysterious appearance of a camper van at the address of Nicola Sturgeon’s mother-in-law. Only people with nasty, suspicious minds would place a discreditable construction on that scenario. So anxious were Police Scotland to emphasise the uncontroversial character of the incident that, as a goodwill gesture, their officers dug over the former first minister’s garden free of charge, like boy scouts doing bob-a-job.
These petty misunderstandings, however, have induced a haemorrhage of support for the Braveheart faction: Scots are notoriously sensitive in the wallet and any notion that separatism was tinged with creative accounting would be sufficient to repel their support. So, the new standard bearer of independence, Humza Yousaf, decided to rally his followers with a clarion call at Holyrood, setting out that most dreaded of political accessories – his “vision” for the future.
It was an indication of how dire the situation is for the SNP that Humza Useless actually executed one U-turn; it is a further measure of how cluelessly out of touch he is that it was a very minor retreat, simply telling civil servants to go back to the drawing board with plans to ban the advertising of alcohol. Legislation at Holyrood consists almost exclusively of bans and prohibitions.
Even under Labour, a millennium or so ago, one of Holyrood’s debut enactments was a ban on fur farming, which had reached an advanced stage when officials made the discomfiting discovery that there were no fur farms in Scotland. Rather than lose face, the devolved government ploughed on with the expensive process of enacting a statute to outlaw a non-existing practice. That dread of losing face is even more pronounced a characteristic among separatists.
That is why Humza Useless, instead of gaining some real political breathing space by scrapping Nicola Sturgeon’s absurd and business-damaging bottle return deposit initiative, merely kicked the bottle down the road by postponing its introduction to March next year. After all, to have done otherwise would have deprived him of his credentials as the Continuity Sturgeon candidate for the post of First Minister.
Where his speech smacked of real relish was in his pledges to ratchet up taxation, which has already provoked an exodus of rich potential investors from Scotland. The tone of the First Minister’s remarks will have confirmed that, on the SNP’s watch, Scotland is reclaiming its past identity as a dependency culture and renouncing any prospects of becoming an enterprise culture. His words on taxation will have got every Scots-domiciled potential investor Googling airline timetables.
“We need to be even bolder on taxation and redistribution of wealth,” quoth this apostle of stagnation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has already warned that Nicola Sturgeon’s tax rises have left the top 10 per cent of Scottish earners 2.1 per cent worse off than their opposite numbers in England and that this fiscal ratchet is a recipe for encouraging tax avoidance or even flight south of the Border, or further afield. SNP tax policies are also a disincentive to people to seek work.
They will also, of course, reduce tax revenue, but to Scottish leftists the Laffer Curve is as alien as the Orion Nebula. The bottom line is that any faint hopes nationalists might have entertained that a new First Minister might chart a course to survival has been dispelled by his prejudiced, top-down, neo-Sturgeon business as usual approach to government. Only the equally unimaginative, dreary opposition of Labour’s Anas Sarwar, competing with Yousaf in a Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Roget’s Thesaurus exchange of ritually derogative clichés, prevented total SNP meltdown.
Is this a tipping point for the Union? Yes and no. The implosion of the SNP ends any real prospect of independence over the next couple of decades. That is because of the composition of the SNP vote. At its kernel there is a hard core that some commentators estimate as high as 40 per cent of the electorate, but which is more likely between 30-35 per cent, of diehard separatists committed to voting for independence regardless. That is both the strength and the weakness of the nationalist movement.
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It is its strength in the sense that hardly any imaginable vicissitudes will deter that constituency from supporting separatism. Since the electoral system at Holyrood favours minority parties, that means there will always be, even in the most adverse circumstances, a basic representation of nationalists there. If disillusionment with the SNP drives some of its supporters into the arms of Alex Salmond’s Alba party, they could still find representation at Holyrood. The independence movement would be weakened by splitting into rival parties, but their common commitment to independence would supply a separatist vote in the devolved parliament.
Westminster is a different proposition, but it is no longer the primary forum of Scottish constitutional debate. That said, there are also elements of the current situation strongly unfavourable to the nationalists. Although dedicated Scottish separatists distinguish between the independence movement and the SNP, as veteran nationalist Jim Sillars recently pointed out, for two generations the SNP has been regarded as the repository of separatist hopes. The collapse of that iconic vehicle is a heavy blow to those hopes.
There is a further moral dimension to the situation: independence has lost its innocence. Disillusionment with the behaviour of the SNP has extinguished the bright aureole of idealism that formerly distinguished it, in the eyes of some voters, from rival parties. Now that sense of exceptionalism has gone. Then there is that small, difficult to quantify but crucial section of the SNP vote that did not support independence at all, but voted for the party to run the devolution settlement and keep out both Tories and Labour.
The result of the 2014 independence referendum, with its decisive 10 per cent margin, exposed the existence of unionist SNP voters at election time – but, crucially, not at referendum time. This means that, if the SNP or whatever party might replace it as the standard bearer of independence, were ever in a position to negotiate a referendum, it would be unable accurately to calculate the strength of its support, since opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, while the existence of this phantom support at parliamentary elections means it could not even rely on actual votes cast as an indicator of the outcome at a referendum.
Finally, there is the ultimate imponderable: the durability even of the hardcore separatist vote over the longer term. The existence of this intransigent constituency is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1997, on the eve of devolution, Alex Salmond was still taking a taxi-load of six MPs to Westminster. As late as 2010, the SNP had the same number of MPs, though it was admittedly by then dominant at Holyrood. Only in 2015 did the SNP achieve the totemic 50 per cent of the vote and a near-clean sweep of 56 MPs out of 59.
Credit for that electoral breakthrough was widely awarded to Nicola Sturgeon, who undoubtedly played a large part in the SNP victory. But there is another interpretation that it has until very recently been unfashionable to canvass north of the Border, but which may now attract closer examination.
In the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, in which Scotland endorsed the Union by more than a 10 per cent majority, and safe in the knowledge there could not conceivably be a further referendum in the near future, many Scots voted SNP to secure a strong representation at Westminster and to make it clear to the UK government that, just because they had elected to remain British, that did not mean they could be ignored or their interests remain unaddressed.
In those unique circumstances, where there was no possible danger of the SNP securing independence, unionist voters felt it was safe to employ that party to promote Scottish interests aggressively. That was why the SNP secured 50 per cent of Scottish votes – precisely because it was perceived, in a constitutional context, to have been defanged.
That is the constituency that, in the putative – but now increasingly remote – prospect of a second referendum would melt “like snaw aff a dyke”, as the old Scots simile phrases it.But what about the remaining intransigent 35 per cent? It seems likely that too will melt away, in a much slower time frame, as new generations develop different worldviews in which the kind of isolationism represented by the SNP, in a future when even the EU may find itself dissolving, no longer seems relevant.
But whatever the future of Scottish nationalism may be, one thing is certain: the current First Minister, whom the party’s own internal electorate has inflicted upon itself, is the best friend the Union could ever have.
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