The next step: furthering the debate

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by Rory Scothorne

The SNP have won the trust of Scottish voters. Now, they must win it all over again.

Gerry Hassan called it a ‘Very Scottish Revolution’. Countless other commentators and politicians have been adding words
like ‘historic’, ‘momentous’ and ‘game-changing’ to the growing list of superlatives with which they describe the SNP’s landslide election victory. And it is not just the sheer size of the win that earns it such an extravagant description. The implications are far more important.

Aside from all the talk of ‘tectonic shifts’ away from traditional loyalties and heartlands, this election crucially represents the resounding acceptance by the Scottish people of a party that is very explicitly in favour of, as so many of those same commentators and politicians put it, ‘breaking up Britain’. Both Unionist and Nationalist politicians are rightly saying that it was not a mandate for the SNP to just declare Independence outright, but it was also just over a week ago that Tavish Scott was saying ‘A vote for the SNP is a vote for Independence’ in the leaders’ debate.

I am not suggesting that the scare tactics of Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats actually worked against them, inspiring people to go out and vote for a post-election UDI – polls on Independence put support at between 30% and 40%, while the SNP got 45% of the vote – but it is very clearly not an issue which genuinely scares the Scottish people in the way that Unionist party leaders would like it to. The SNP’s victory in 2007 by a single seat suggests that back then, a considerable majority of Scotland’s voters were unwilling to endorse a  party that wanted an Independent Scottish state, whereas now – well, the SNP’s victory was an even more emphatic endorsement than Tony Blair received in 1997.

I remember a trip I went on in my final year of school – a small group of us in Paris, largely just to see the city and get a week off school, but the official reason was to attend a day-long conference on the involvement of young people in the European community. A number of important speakers – David Aaronovitch, David Davis and John Sergeant to name a few – gave us their esteemed opinions on the issues affecting Europe’s youth, who they claimed were far more involved in political life than the rows of snoozing teens in the conference hall suggested.

One speaker in particular caught my attention and interest, as he – without much warning – exploded into an impassioned but somewhat fragmented rant about the evils of Scottish Nationalism. I was at that time rather naïve, uninvolved and uninterested when it came to Scottish politics, my attention diverted to Westminster by New Labour’s dominance of the media. And so, listening to Charles Kennedy fume and frown over Alex Salmond’s ‘blinkered separatism’, I believed every word, and the crowd applauded him enthusiastically. This man was an MP and former party leader, and a Scottish one too. If he, a proud and intelligent Scot, saw Independence as a danger, then surely he must have had a point? I left the conference hall announcing my firm support for the things he had said, my friends nodding in concurrence.

Yet just a week ago, I was walking up to a doorway wearing an SNP rosette and preparing to persuade a first-time voter to vote for the party I had so readily opposed just a few years previously. The girl who opened the door told me that no, she wasn’t who I was looking for, her sister was in Glasgow. I asked if she herself was going to vote – ‘No, I’m only 16, but if I could, I’d vote SNP!’ Now, I’m not saying I believe everything that voters (or non-voters) tell me on the doorstep (alas, some just want to get rid of me), but the enthusiasm with which she gave her support took me by surprise.

Not only was she far younger than I was when I began to understand independence as being about far more than flags and anthems, but she lived in one of the most affluent areas of Edinburgh, the Tory/Lib Dem stronghold of Ravelston. In my mind, most affluent Scots (especially those in the capital) are fairly small-c conservative, and the prospect of a change as radical as Independence should by rights scare those who like things the way they are (especially if they are making plenty of money out of the way things are), whereas those who have the most to gain from a radical change should be more enthusiastic. Yet it was not just the more deprived Labour heartlands that rode the SNP juggernaut as it accelerated towards majoritygovernment – Nationalists decimated the Liberal Democrat seats and took Tory scalps too, notably David McLetchie’s former stronghold in Edinburgh Pentlands.

I know that in many ways Independence was de-politicised for this election by the prospect of a referendum, and that plenty of people voted for the SNP because of issues other than the constitution. It helped too, that they are the only party not darkened by the shadow of Westminster – Labour are still recovering from Blair and Brown, and the Liberal Democrats have been crushed by the weight of their Tory bedfellows.

But if the threat of a referendum itself is enough to send spittle flying from the mouths of Unionist leaders, then surely it should have some hold over the Scottish people? I would say no – this election, and the astounding result, must be seen as the people of Scotland looking Alex Salmond and his party in the eye and saying ‘Ok then – persuade us.’ The Unionist parties have fallen behind public opinion, and the distance to which they have fallen is shown in the results. They have obscured the Independence debate with talk of ‘separatism’ and ‘divorce’, when they should have been trying to win the argument with a positive, alternative vision for the future of the country.

Looking back, I see Charles Kennedy’s outburst in Paris as one of negative stereotyping, brought on by an irrational and ingrained fear of one of the last radical ideas in mainstream UK politics. In those halcyon days before the credit crunch, fear worked. People were wealthier than ever, and the threat of economic catastrophe held great influence. But no longer can this win over Scotland’s impressionable youth. Nor can such apocalyptic prophecy inspire Scotland’s weary electorate. In an era of cuts and fear, these people want something to believe in and hope for.

What really impresses people about Alex Salmond, and what persuaded me to don that rosette and march across Ravelston talking to Tories, is the sheer ambition of the SNP. The voters may not agree with Independence now, but there is no denying that they have shown their admiration for the SNP’s belief in Scotland’s ability to improve itself. They have had four years to prove themselves, setting ambitious targets for climate change action and green energy, expanding free education, taking a successful and progressive approach to justice, and the crucially de-privatising the Scottish NHS.

It is now time for the SNP to prove that they can go further. They need to persuade the older voters, who grew up as Britain declined, but remain fond of its institutions and history. They need to persuade the young, who can always be inspired by something radical, but are now restrained by an absence of hope. They need to persuade the wealthy that investors will not be scared off, and that Scotland really can keep its own financial sector afloat. And they must show the poor that the future will be fairer for them. Most importantly, they must persuade the centre-left liberal majority that Independence is the most progressive step we can take to ensure a secure and sustainable future for Scotland.

The SNP are finally in the right position to make the next step on Scotland’s journey. They have become the poster boys and girls of devolution, a symbol of Scotland making up its own mind away from the stuffy and archaic establishment of Westminster. But they cannot, and I think they will not, assume that this is a mandate to dictate the benefits of Independence to the people. As Mr. Salmond himself has said, they do not have a ‘monopoly on wisdom’.

It is up to Scotland, not the SNP, to decide what it can gain from Independence. I firmly believe that the debate will only be won if a distinctive vision of Scotland’s future comes from below, not above. What do we want an Independent Scotland to look like? What can we gain from it? What do we not want to lose from Britain, and how can we incorporate that into a new relationship with its constituent nations? Independence can only happen if the debate moves away from the traditional political elite and into the public realm. If it is done right, this national conversation could set the foundations for a new, ultra-democratic and more unified Scotland, built to a uniquely Scottish design. The referendum should be a creative tool, not a harbinger of division, and I believe that if that happens then there will be no stopping the enthusiasm of an inspired electorate.