A short primer on the SNP for London-based journalists.
08 March 2015
Having read Max Hastings' and Allan Massie's frothing, bonkers articles on the possibility of the SNP taking some part in the government of the UK, I worried about other journalists for London-based titles believing any of it.
So I thought I'd put together this handy cribsheet.
Now, a word of warning. I am a member of the SNP, but I'm not an office holder and have no particular insight. Everything below is my opinion, not rock-solid SNP policy. I'm happy to be corrected if I've got something wrong.
The 2015 General Election is nothing to do with Scottish independence.
A couple of decades ago the SNP used to say that if they could gain more than half of the MPs in Scotland, that would constitute a declaration of independence. That was fair enough at the time - it was the only democratic way the people of Scotland could express their will. Once the Scottish parliament was set up/reconvened, that changed. It is now the SNP's stated position that the only way Scotland can become independent is if the people of Scotland vote for this in a referendum. And the SNP's position on a future referendum is pretty clear too - it'll only happen if the Scottish people want it, and crucially, (in my opinion) it'll only happen if and when the SNP are sure they'll win it.
"Surely the SNP's only purpose is independence though?"
The SNP has the goal of independence, it's true. But they've been in government in Scotland for over 7 years now, and they've had to do all sorts of other things in the meantime. Manage a budget, run a health service, a legal system, education and policing. And that's not an insignificant budget - the Scottish budget is around 2/3 of the size of the UK defence budget for instance. You know how you think Boris Johnson is quite important? Nicola Sturgeon has responsibility for double the size of budget he does.
And John Swinney has balanced that budget every year. Yes, I know, legally he has had to as the Scottish govt hasn't had borrowing powers, but nevertheless, the SNP have managed to live within their means whilst keeping the country largely pretty happy with them. Search for 'Scottish Government 2007', and after 'minority' the most likely adjective you'll find linked to it is 'competent'. People like 'competent' - it's clear from the polls. The SNP's huge lead is not an accident nor an aberration.
You see the SNP have learnt a lesson - if the people of Scotland were ever going to be persuaded that independence was a viable option, they had to believe that a collection of Scottish politicians would be capable of running a country. And that's what they did. So in a way, everything the SNP does is about independence, but equally it's about governing well.
"The SNP will want to wreck the UK to further its separatist ideals."
Superficially you might think that. But remember, the SNP membership may contain a diehard core of people who want independence at any cost, but many more have been drawn to the party through its left-wing ideals, its record in government, its lack of involvement in scandals and the fact it gives them a viable alternative to the established UK parties. The SNP leadership knows very well that support could quickly disappear if it's seen to try to destroy the UK's economy or foment trouble with our neighbours. Far more likely is that if they have the power to do so, they'll push to introduce some of the popular policies we have south of the border: free prescriptions, an end to tuition fees, free hospital parking etc. This will help cement the trust and pride their electorate have in them up here.
In a TV interview Labour's George Foulkes was challenged about whether all the good the SNP was doing in Scotland was a bad thing. He (famously) moaned, "No, but they're doing it deliberately". The SNP will continue to govern well "deliberately".
"But how dare Scots tell England what to do, even it they're telling us to do good things!"
C'mon, even you can see how ridiculous that argument is. It's a little better now since devolution, but basically Scotland has been told what to do by England for most of the last three centuries. And you've all told us for the last two years that we should vote No in order to continue as part of a single state, pooling and sharing our resources. And now that we voted the way you wanted you're telling us to butt out? The SNP believes in not interfering in laws which only affect England, but because of the way the UK is set up, there are very few laws passed as Westiminster which don't affect Scotland in one way or another. Suppose there's a vote about whether to designate a new London tube line as either a national or regional infrastructure project? If it's national, then Scottish taxpayers contribute to it. If it's regional then they don't. Of course the SNP have to vote on it.
"But, but, Alex Salmond..."
Alex Salmond resigned both as First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the SNP in the autumn. He is still an MSP for a seat in the north-east, and is standing to become an MP in May in the same region. Nowadays the leader of the SNP and First Minister is Nicola Sturgeon. She isn't standing as an MP - she's got an important job and is very busy. The depute leader of the SNP is Stewart Hosie MP, and the leader of the SNP in Westminster is Angus Robertson MP. Almost every article written on the subject by journalists south of the border focuses on Alex Salmond gaining power. He's still very much held in affection and respected by party members and the public in general in Scotland, but it's not at all clear what role he'll have, assuming he does get elected.
"So, we just have to accept the SNP will be in power?"
The polls consistently say the SNP are likely to be the 3rd largest party in a hung parliament. If that's how it turns out, then yes.
"What can I do about this nightmare scenario?"
As a journalist at the centre of things with lots of contacts in Westminster, you're used to holding politicians to account, setting agendas and forming opinion amongst your readership. In Scotland, none of that matters. Nobody here, or at least nobody whose vote can be swung trusts you any more. 45% of those who voted, voted Yes. That was despite the fact that none of the London-based newspapers even came close to being neutral during the referendum, nevermind supporting independence. You happily repeated every scare store and twisted fact which came out of Better Together, never thinking to question them.
Right now, here in Scotland, you're irrelevant.