Costing success: The dilemma of devolution and nationalism for the SNP


Commentary by Christopher Silver

With the SNP’s manifesto launch, we now have a clear picture of how Scotland’s public affairs will be managed over the coming five years. As Nicola Sturgeon noted, “unlike the manifestos of other parties, this is a programme for government on offer”. As the only manifesto with any chance of being implemented after  May 5, it’s substantive, it’s smart and it understands that the SNP’s real opposition is 400 miles to the south.

Author Christopher Silver

Within this document, you’ll struggle to pinpoint material that folk are likely to find disagreeable. But its appeal is not simply to every demographic, as the imagery tells us. Rather, as has been re-iterated throughout the campaign, its beneficiaries are the inhabitants of every household in Scotland.

On one level, this is a clear articulation of what government should be — a project based on collective solidarity from which we all benefit. It is also well crafted political messaging, fitting all of these small ingredients — a small business bonus here, some extra childcare there — into a wider narrative about the nation as a good society that works for all.

Of course, there is ample evidence to dispute that picture. The claim to tackle inequality does not line up with the evidence that throughout swathes of Scotland it is as ingrained as ever. Redistribution is politically unfashionable everywhere and historically, equality is incompatible with unbridled wealth accumulation. Interventionist policies can assist the needy at critical points in their lives but they cannot tackle the systematic underlying reality that Scotland is a deeply divided country and will continue to be so in 2021.

But such truths rarely get in the way of Holyrood election campaigns. Instead, a masterful re-election campaign has played a deft hand, not least with a grid that covered controversial and difficult questions on income and council tax early in the calendar. With dry and unpalatable matters of revenue raising now a distant memory, the party is free to offer up a mix of winning policy commitments. The emphasis is squarely upon seeking a ‘personal mandate’ for a popular First Minister, a crucial aspect to every successful SNP campaign thus far: flagging up the ongoing reality that most opposition politicians in Scotland remain second rate at best.

The gods have been kind to the SNP and the party is keen to be munificent in turn. The baby boxes, the renewables prospectus, the super fast broadband, the cheaper flights — there is something for everyone in there.

Universal Appeal

Realising how smart universalist policies can be, the party remains able to position itself on the centre-left by taking a stance agains the ‘freebie’ or ‘something for nothing’ narrative that often seems an inevitable part of British politics. Yet it is perhaps a product of the SNP’s centrist anxieties that we have not moved on to talking instead of the provision of university places, prescriptions, childcare and personal care, as publicly funded. Free at the point of use, they are still paid for, but the burden falls collectively rather than on the individual.

Nordic countries offering similar programmes do so from the starting point of fundamentally different political cultures, in which the state is perceived as a conduit for sharing and solidarity, rather than an aloof interventionist force. A similar change of attitudes and language will be necessary if universalism is to form the foundations of a sustainable social settlement in Scotland.

The reality is not that the SNP have found some kind of post-ideological nirvana where such issues are apolitical. Rather, they have managed to skilfully defend Scotland’s fiscal position from within the United Kingdom — a result that was, significantly, placed right at the front of the manifesto document itself. The ideological questions of tax and spend are neutered of their difficult content and instead become matters of constitutional wrangling. Everything else slots into place behind the notion that Scotland needs defended and the SNP are the only party capable of mounting that defence.

Power and independence

This brings us on to the more vexed question of how the party now relates to its foundational commitment to Scottish independence. Such a strong record and future programme begs a slightly awkward question. Namely, if we live in a country in which every household already benefits, why does it need to be independent? Surely a system already delivering for everyone is by definition as good as it gets?

The query is not intended as facetious — though it has become increasingly difficult to offer even the most reasoned commentary about the SNP without some sections of its massive membership assuming that they are being derided. Members of a party at the height of its powers still seem bafflingly insecure with a political posture in which they are no longer the underdog.

Efforts to persuade more Scots of the merits of independence, planned for the summer, will be crucial in working out how the party can square its commitment to ongoing devolved government with the vigorous pursuit of independence. A slightly cryptic remark about the proposed content for this move flagged the scale of the challenge: “The case we make will be relevant to the complex world we live in today.” Steps towards the difficult and volatile questions of independence will inevitably move voters away from the disarming optimism that has won the SNP so many victories.

There has been a massive increase in geo-political and economic instability since 2011, which any new plan for a Scottish state must seriously consider. In a hostile world, what can motivate Scots to step out into the unknown when they are currently insulated by devolution? What glittering prizes can the SNP conjure up premised on statehood, that are not already evident in the content of its devolved offering?

The success of the SNP’s gradualism, its competence in government and the need to re-state Scotland’s apparent era of civic excellence in the present, inevitably impacts on the case for independence. If we are experiencing ‘better’ in the present, why change?

Party or Movement?

It is self-evident that the SNP are an astonishingly successful political party. But all success come at a cost. It now seems perfectly likely that this election will represent the moment when a wider independence movement no longer became feasible. Whether or not there is room at Holyrood for a range of pro-independence voices belies the basic point that supporters of the SNP are bound to invest their hopes (and votes) in the party that has been the overwhelmingly dominant pro-independence force for decades. For many, there has only ever been one vehicle to get to independence; for more recent converts, so much was invested in the last referendum that only the certainties of party membership offer a way forward.

The SNP self-consciously presents itself as something more than just a political party. Its self-image is something of a hybrid: capable of scooping up the insurgent, youthful movement politics of protest and passion (now taking root throughout Western Europe and America) but also able to function as a moderate parliamentary force.

The problem of one party speaking for an entire movement is well known. The UK Labour Party is perhaps the most glaring example of how this can go wrong. Parties can become too large, and thus unwieldy. Without serious alternative sources of power in the streets, in civic society, or in parliament itself, the kind of large scale change that independence represents is impossible to achieve.

The privileged position of being uniquely capable of wielding power inevitably comes with greater scrutiny. If no one else can campaign for First Minister or offer a programme for government, voices beyond party politics need to step up to the plate in order to question power and keep debate alive.

Let’s not forget that the gods can turn nasty. The potential impact of another economic crisis, or Brexit, could easily jeopardise the couthy ideal of ‘everyone’s a winner’ Scotland. In such a scenario efforts will be required to defend the benefits of devolution and the additional rights that Scottish citizens have built up within it.

In such an eventuality, or in the staging of another referendum campaign, the SNP — despite all its current energy and scale — will need allies beyond its own ranks, and beyond Scotland.


  1. You asked “if we live in a country in which every household already benefits, why does it need to be independent?” Surely the answer is self evident? Without independence then at some stage a coalition of unionist parties will be the new government and the first thing that will happen will be the dismantling of everything that has been achieved. Would it be possible for such a coalition to apply to Westminster to dissolve Holyrood? Why even take that chance.

    • Absolutely right, without the SNP to mitigate the disasters, we’re left to the total mercy of Unionists
      The Smith nonsense clearly asked for Scotland Parliament to be Permanent, for those who don’t know, that was not granted, just mumbled about, so Holyrood can be dissolved by the will of Westminster anytime they like

      They promise to giveth and they take away at will, no country anywhere should live under that regime it’s inhuman

      But I suppose for some as long as we have the most powerful parliament in the whole of the known Scotland

  2. I think dropping independence is a serious strategic mistake. The SNP ‘payroll’ is filling up now with ever more bourgeoisie (teachers, lawyers, spads, etc), some from other party backgrounds, as will be evident in Holyrood soon enough, reflecting the dilettante changes and tweaking they will continue to make to Scotland’s unequal society and fast diminishing economy. Amazing how many new MSP’s will have been bag carriers/researchers for other MPs/MSPs. Nothing changes, its almost like a new slab. The lack of effort of the 56 “roaring lions” at Westminister is also very disappointing. This is the high point for them I think. They lose their mojo by ditching indy. SNP1 / Green or RISE2 for me.

    • Independence has not been dropped. It has been put on the back burner until we have longer term evidence thst we can win. Do you not see that the anti independence side would just love us to jump too soon? The way forward is to continue to govern competently from the left , a bit further left for my preferences, until the people are ready. We are already on that road. It is worth also remembering thst the country, post independence, will have to come together. Softly, softly, take people with us. I am in my early sixties and full expect it to happen in my lifetime. Courage, mon brave! Keep the heid, big yin! Mine’s a Guinness.

      • I agree: independence “has been put on the back burner” by the SNP leadership. Not really worth SNP x 2 then, is it?

        SNP1 / Green2 looks better and far less chance of a wasted list vote. The more indy MSP’s the better in my view.

        • You’re correct about more Indy M.Ps, but this is a way to get fewer. You haven’t picked up my other points; I’d be interested on your views on these.

  3. “It now seems perfectly likely that this election will represent the moment when a wider independence movement no longer became feasible.”

    We haven’t reached the point where it was feasible. To say it is no longer feasible is to say a door that is not yet open is now closed.

    I hope it is too early to say the opportunity has passed before it has arrived. The political dynamic is increasingly fluid. The constitutional question stubbornly remains. Unionism is, at the moment, in retreat.

    At the moment we are faced with a binary choice: ‘status quo’ vs independence. There is no reason why this could not become ‘gradually more control of our own affairs falling short of independence’ vs ‘no change ever’. It would seem unlikely that the dynamic could be ‘less control over our affairs’ vs ‘no change ever’. Confidence breeds appetite. A consensus around ‘increasing control over our own affairs’ would certainly usher in a wider (increased) independence movement because there is plenty of space to talk about precisely what increased control we should have and how to get it.

    The polls suggest public aspiration for self-governance has yet to be satisfied. How do the Unionist parties respond creatively to this reality? They must adapt or die. These are the fertile fields upon which this tussle will be fought and the opportunity created for a wider independence movement.

    A majority of political parties supporting a path of increasing control over our own affairs is one possible future. We are still some way off it.

  4. The SNP successfully defended Scotland’s budget, could labour have?

    The manifesto of the SNP will have been formulated by experienced ministers, drafted by the best Scottish politcal strategists and then gone into an iterative review by senior SNP MSPs and MPs and then finally approved for release and then the uk press pack and economists can pick over and savage. All quiet on the uk front, that means they found nothing to criticise.

    labour’s manifesto is reliant on labour having to pay external resources to draft a document that places them to the left of SNP. Few will read it, none will believe it, a box ticking exercise.

    labour lied to the people and aligned themselves to the tories, their demise is inevitable, many saw it coming, but hid their heads in the sand. They knew labour in Scotland needed to move towards independence, break ties with London and root & branch change were its only path to salvation.

    That salvation option is all but disappeared for labour, or has it?

    Kez will leave the leadership soon, a smart leader would seek to work with the SNP, an idiot would continue with SNP BAD.

    Have labour a smart person in their ranks?

  5. What dilemma? The Unionist Parties are populated with the incompetent and the idiotic and are also collectively spineless when it comes to defending Scotland from a Westminster/ City Of London British Establishment that hates us with avengeance.

    The insulation of devolution is fag paper thin and growing numbers of folk have come to realise that harsh brutal fact. I for one don’t recognise that post ideological nirvana you write about. What I do see is just another SNP BAAHD squeal.

    Oh and I think if the Referendum taught us one thing is that beyond our own borders we have no allies and we cant rely on gaining any either. Within Scotland there is an opposition that has no interest at all in being constructive in opposition even to the point when they actually agree with an SNP policy or even SNP legislation as the knee jerk SNP BAAHD bleat will always break out.

    • Yes voters have the chance to change the opposition fundamentally to an indy opposition by voting SNP1 / Green2. Greens present 11% polling could catch slab’s 18% with only another 7% from SNP list vote. Why allow your list vote to elect more unionist MSP’s?

      • Why risk splitting the independence vote and letting the unionists into control by the back door.

        Greens are soft on independence and rise are opportunists hanging onto coat tails of SNP.

        Vote SNP 1 and 2!


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