I’ve long been surprised at how few people seem to take the SNP and its strategy seriously. That failure has been a grave mistake on the part of most of the other Scottish parties, one which I suppose is driven by their visceral dislike of the SNP. If they’re seriously to compete with it, the other parties need to become similarly sophisticated.
I’ve an article in today’s Scotsman about the constitutional strategy, or strategies, of the SNP. (One of the points I make is that it’s actually running two at the same time, and while there’s no conflict between them at present there may be in future.) It appears there under the heading ‘Win-win strategy may yet triumph’. The article is available here, and it’s also posted below with my original title and formatting, which has longer paragraphs and a few added links.
Trying to have their cake and eat it? The SNP’s constitutional strategy
The SNP are one of the most constitutionally sophisticated parties anywhere in the world. No wonder – while for other parties in Britain, thinking constitutionally often seems to be an irritation or a distraction, it’s central to the SNP’s concerns. Understanding their constitutional strategy is necessary to understand what’s going on in Scotland, and how things are likely to play out over the next few years. What’s interesting is that for some time now, they’ve been running two distinct strategies simultaneously – and these may eventually come into conflict with each other.
The first strategy derives from the Parti Québécois, which seeks ‘sovereignty’ for Quebec. The referendum has long been a corner-stone of PQ strategy, and it and came within a whisker of winning the one held in 1995. The SNP have been in contact with the PQ for some considerable time and taken their advice, so it would be little surprise if they weren’t applying its lessons – and this strategy has been fundamental to the PQ’s approach. It is about ‘creating the winning conditions’ for a referendum. A referendum should only be held when the ‘winning conditions’ are in place, and the absence of those conditions is sufficient reason not to hold one. The most important winning condition is of course general public support for independence, but there are many steps to be taken to help create that. The most important such condition is general popular support for independence, but this is built up by showing the need for independence in a variety of ways. Some of these are positive, emphasising how Quebec (Scotland) could make its own, better, choices if it were independent – whether about economic policy, the use of natural resources, or the use of the armed forces. Some are negative, emphasising how membership of the federation (Union) undermines Quebec’s (Scotland’s) distinctiveness. In Quebec’s case, that distinctiveness is largely cultural and relates to the French language. In Scotland, it will concern other issues, with the legal system likely to be at the top of the list. All this is designed to create conditions in which Quebec’s (Scotland’s) grievances have become the common currency of debate, are accepted as Quebec’s due, and where Canada (the UK) has failed to act to remedy them.
Along with this goes a strategy of building the impetus toward a referendum. This means focussing discussion on the terms of a referendum rather than whether there should be one, securing acceptance that there should be a referendum even from those opposed to a ‘Yes’ vote, and removing other impediments to it. The point is that it is not a rushed or hurried process, but one for which the ground has been thoroughly prepared over an extended period of time. The aim is to accustom everyone to the process, and to create a context in which there is wide support for the main propositions underpinning arguments for independence. These, all taken together, are the ‘winning conditions’.
A ‘winning conditions’ strategy is rather an odd one in British politics, but it’s easy to see how it has been applied over the last few years. The ongoing debates about a referendum, during and after the National Conversation as well as through the election, were part of it. More recently, the row about the jurisdiction of the UK Supreme Court and its involvement in Scottish criminal appeals has served to show how the Union undermines the distinctiveness of Scottish law. But one of the key steps was not to propose a referendum bill in the last Parliament, when it would have been voted down with alacrity. Conventional British logic would have meant proposing that, allowing the other parties to vote it down and then taking the case to the general public at the election. But the desire to build momentum, and avoid losing any vote in connection with the referendum, led to it being withheld despite many promises it would be introduced. The SNP preferred to break those promises rather than weaken the overall strategy. And its attachment to having a single independence referendum – rather than the ‘two referendums’ approach just endorsed by Michael Moore – stems from the fact that building up to a climax twice is more than twice as hard as doing it once.
At the same time, though, the SNP hasn’t wholly given up on more traditional ‘British’ approaches. At the same time, it’s running a ‘win-win’ argument. It’s trying to obtain greater devolved powers, through amendments to the Scotland Bill presently before Parliament (and perhaps beyond that as well), at the same time as it is laying the ground for an independence referendum. It’s made it clear that such powers should include much wider borrowing powers, devolution of corporation tax, control of the Crown Estate’s interest in the seabed, and broadcasting. Here, the logic is that if it succeeds and gets the powers devolved, that’s a win, and the result is a model of devolution that’s much closer to SNP aspirations (and one which this doesn’t stop requests for further powers later on). If the attempt to secure wider powers fails, that strengthens the case for independence at a referendum because the UK Government has rejected Scottish ‘claims of right’. This has a neat logic, and puts further pressure on the UK Government to agree to further devolution. Many at UK level are playing into its hands by automatically resisting such changes, on the grounds that it will just be one of many moves down a ‘slippery slope’ to independence. From that point of view, unionist politicians are blocking something bad for fear of something worse – but in fact, they just strengthen the case for that ‘something worse’.
All these strategies are about a battle for a middle ground of Scottish public opinion. It’s clear from opinion surveys carried out for the Scottish Social Attitudes surveys over many years that what the Scottish public wants is a strong form of devolution. They want Scotland to have extensive autonomy to make its own policies, while remaining within the Union. The Calman Commission’s recommendations (and the Scotland bill) don’t deliver that, but it would not be hard to do so. The SNP is making full use of the reluctance of the unionist parties to agree to any substantial changes to the form of devolution put in place in 1999 to build support for something much, much wider – if not full statehood. While the unionist parties stick to a constitutional position that isn’t where the majority of the public are, they’re unlikely to beat the SNP in this argument.
The SNP also have a problem, though. Ultimately, their two strategies are incompatible. Extending devolved powers can help create a devolution settlement that is more satisfactory in the eyes of the general public. However, putting such a form of devolution in place in turn would make it harder for the SNP to win a referendum. There is clearly a point at which one set of wins for the SNP (greater devolution) will undermine their ability to win in another (an independence referendum). Indeed, consciousness of this may limit the demands the SNP makes in the short term, for fear it will get what it asks for and so undermine its wider argument. A UK Government trying to outmanoeuvre the SNP would be generous about devolving extra powers, knowing that this undercuts the wider arguments for a Yes vote at a referendum. Opposing it simply helps build the case for independence.