Allow me to preface this by saying that the SNP will win a second overall majority in May’s Scottish elections. Of that I have no doubt. If the extremely likely does indeed come to pass, it means the Scottish electorate will have emphatically backed its governing party three times in the last five years – four if you count having the highest vote share in the 2012 local elections.
There is a style of media commentary on the subject of the SNP freight-train that irks the party’s supporters no end, and with some justification: call it the “Scottish voters are brainwashed numpties” line of attack. The suggestion that Scotland has somehow “gone mad”, as Chris Deerin put it last year, because of the SNP’S popular support, is not exactly how to win friends and influence people.
That said, there does seem to be a common misconception that the SNP is more progressive than the evidence actually suggests. Far from pushing her party onto firmer left-wing territory, as some thought she might, Nicola Sturgeon’s first year in charge has been marked by a surprising timidity and – dare I say it – conservatism.
In the early days of her leadership, Sturgeon spoke of “radical land reform” as a high priority of her government. A year down the line, the legislation that is actually on the table, while generally seen by land reform campaigners to be a step in the right direction, has been significantly watered down. On fracking, a moratorium has been used to allow the SNP leadership to stay firmly on the fence, while Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos claims to have been privately assured by party bigwigs that they are “not against” the controversial method of gas extraction.
Just this week on income tax, we’ve seen a lot of hot air on how Labour’s ‘Penny for Scotland’ scheme is unworkable, desperate, back-of-fag-packet stuff that would penalise low-earning taxpayers – and all of that may be true.
But in having no alternative, the SNP (whether they agree or not) tacitly endorse Tory taxation and Tory cuts – that UK fiscal straitjacket they claim to be so keen to get shot of. How different from the Yes campaign’s rhetoric on taxation – of ripping it all up and starting from scratch, of empowerment, of the chance to do things differently.
Meanwhile, their electioneering has also taken a small ‘c’ conservative turn. I was at the Stirling University Union last week for SUSNA’s Holyrood campaign launch and saw Bruce Crawford MSP speak.
As Crawford pushed the current party line – “Vote SNP 1 and 2” – I was struck by some of the language he used in arguing for it. Don’t take a risk, was the message. “We don’t have the luxury to vote for a second party” in the List vote, he said at one point, because it might let one of the dreaded Unionists in. But electoral maths geeks are quick to point out scenarios where an SNP list vote could have the exact same effect, due to their huge predicted vote share in the constituency vote. (I’d rather not dwell on the intricacies of the D’Hondt system just now, as I’m hoping to eat dinner soon.)
It also seems highly likely, based on consistent polling – not to mention what we saw in last year’s General Election – that the SNP will achieve something very close to a clean sweep in the constituencies. A little risk-taking in the List vote is hardly likely to do the SNP much real harm – and certainly won’t prevent an SNP majority government.
But what is so important about the SNP having a majority? Why is it so essential that one party dominates the Scottish Parliament?
Independence, or so I’m told. Only an SNP majority could possibly legislate for a second referendum, supporters tell us. Yet the power to hold a legally unimpeachable independence referendum resides at Westminster, no matter how much the SNP may hate that.
Neither is the scenario mooted as the most likely to trigger a second referendum – Brexit against Scotland’s wishes – by any means a certainty. So we have Bruce Crawford and an army of activists telling us not to take a risk and to give the SNP both our votes, because of something that might or might not happen in the future. To throw away pluralism in favour of the most resounding, crushing mandate ever seen in a Scottish election – all for a possibility that could get swept aside by events.
And again, this rhetoric, this “stick with what you know, take no risks” line of reasoning, is so very unlike the brash, spirited vision of the former Yes campaign.
Some SNP supporters tentatively argue that Nicola Sturgeon is waiting for her own proper, personal mandate, at which point she’ll unveil an ambitious, progressive programme of government. Maybe. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. It’s not just the SNP that are conservative, after all. Their voters – the majority of Scottish voters – are as well. Sturgeon will win her mandate on a platform of competence, no tax rises and ridiculing the Labour Party.
If that sounds familiar, please don’t think for a second I would be as lazy or tedious as to label the SNP ‘Tartan Tories’. I certainly don’t doubt that Nicola Sturgeon’s political instincts are to the left.
It’s just that the SNP are the Establishment now – or perhaps one in a pair of duelling political Establishments, one centred in Edinburgh, the other in London. The balancing act between insurgency and government was always a precarious one, and – virtually unchallenged – they have grown comfortable in power. Why should we expect anything more than business as usual from another SNP majority?
For many – University students included – that might not be so bad.