SNP risks being drawn in to a close quarter defence of its record in Government

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by Stephen Maxwell

With the Parliament now locked down the election campaign is properly under way.  It will not be the campaign that supporters of the Scottish Independence Convention would most like to fight.  The opportunities – and the challenges – of independence will not dominate the parties’ manifestos or the hustings, even less the media coverage.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrats will be so locked into defending their record in Government that they will have little scope or energy for promoting the modest enhancements of Scottish powers promised in the Scotland Bill.  They will hold the Bill in reserve against any developing attacks from the champions of fiscal autonomy or independence.

Labour will be no keener to broach issues of Scotland’s political status.  Its policy position is an enigma so far.  Of course it will criticise and cavil at SNP’s record in Government but on most of the potentially divisive issues – the council tax freeze, a graduate tax, free bus passes and prescriptions – it has fallen into line with the SNP.  There are hints that its manifesto will contain a commitment to merging social care and health and try to outline a distinct strategy for business, jobs and training.  But unless it has been nurturing a secret conversion to radicalism it will have difficulty distinguishing its proposals from the left of centre mainstream of Scottish policy.  Almost its only distinctive policy so far is its call for tougher action on crime delivered by the Daily Mail’s representative in Scottish politics, Richard Baker.  But overall Labour seems likely to downplay policy in the interest of maximising the reflex Scottish protest vote against a Tory Government in London.

The Scottish Green Party has a sharper policy profile.  Its headline demand is for a 3p Scottish ‘variable rate’ supplement to the UK standard rate of income tax to support Scottish public services against spending cuts and for the future replacement of business rates and council tax by land value taxation.  And it opposes a new Forth Road Bridge.  In direct contrast with Labour’s evasions the Greens are following a high risk strategy directed at attracting the necessary minimum of votes to secure some list seats.  It seems to be targeting voters disappointed by the fragmentation of Scotland’s radical left rather than nationalists frustrated by the SNP’s failure to deliver an independence referendum.

The fall out from the crisis of the global financial system gives the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect/Solidarity plenty of local material for an ideological assault on capitalism.  No doubt their first priority will be to avoid getting locked into a circle of recrimination around Tommy Sheridan.  It remains to be seen how far they will choose to highlight the political implications of Scotland’s consistent electoral rejection of pro-market Governments from Thatcher to Cameron.  The apparent takeover of the pro-independence Solidarity by Unionist Galloway might be expected to give the SSP a clear run except that that supreme political huckster seems intent on squaring the circle of asserting that there is no Scottish mandate for the cuts while still insisting on the supremacy of Westminster.

The SNP has announced that it will fight on its record in Government, the quality of its Cabinet team and its vision for Scotland’s future.  Most supporters of independence will be disposed to take the first two elements as read but may have concerns about how expansive the vision will be.  Will it focus on the case for independence or one or other of the varieties of fiscal autonomy, or be restricted to calls to “be part of better” as illustrated by particular achievements or ambitions – renewables, council tax freeze, a minimum unit price for alcohol … The danger is that without a forcefully articulated vision of an alternative Scotland the SNP risks being drawn in to a close quarter defence of its record in Government (including the cuts) and too much focus on personalities.

But judging by the recent record those unpredictable events which so often determine political outcomes will create new opportunities for making the case for independence.  Osborne’s unexpected tax grab on North Sea oil income in disregard of its effects on a vital Scottish industry makes the case for full fiscal powers for Scotland more eloquently than a hundred academic papers.  This month’s revelation that the Trident submarines based in Faslane are using a Fukushima type nuclear reactor reinforces the case for Scottish control of the base just as the intervention in Libya with all its risks and costs revives the issue of Scottish control of foreign policy.  The news that in a grisly reprise of the Thatcher era the new Tory led coalition emphatically rejected by Scottish voters will take around £14bn in Scottish North Sea oil revenues in 2011-12, even as it slashes Scottish public spending by £1.3bn, restates the basic democratic case for Scottish independence.  Independence may not be at the top of any party’s campaign agenda but it can still project a powerful and perhaps decisive presence on the election stage.{jcomments on}

Published with thanks to the Scottish Independence Convention.