Scotland: can it go nationalist and still be British?

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Is Scotland sleepwalking to independence? To put it another way, is the Scottish electorate so disillusioned with the governments in both London and Edinburgh that it is determined to punish Labour next Thursday, even if the consequences could be constitutionally momentous?

These questions pose a trap for Labour, for so long dominant in Scottish politics. If leading Labour politicians raise the British card they are seen as self-serving careerists, more worried about their own political futures (and running England) than anything else. If they try to defend their record in Scotland, they are confronted with an issue that has little to do with the current election campaign: the Iraq war. North of the border, Labour has always had a strong moral dimension. A significant number of Scottish Labour supporters feel betrayed by their party’s foreign policy.

The two questions also represent a snare for the Scottish National party, the likely winner next Thursday. SNP activists become aggrieved when it is suggested that their potential success is predicated on negativity about Labour rather than positivity about their own party.

Some of their ideas are resonating, although the most important of all – independence – is not. A mixture of anecdotal evidence and study of the polls suggests that support for independence has not shifted much over the past generation or so, and runs at well under 50 per cent. Many people have told me they would vote for the Nationalists, but later vote No in the promised independence referendum.

Far more positive for the Nats than their core raison d’être – constitutional change – are two themes that have hardly been associated with the party in the past. These are their new ­economic realism and their promise of stripped-down government.

The triumphalist parading of 100 Scottish business leaders – few of them household names – who are endorsing independence is less impressive than the underlying emphasis on economic and financial responsibility. Such talk used to be alien to the SNP. Credit for the change lies mainly with Jim Mather, who will almost certainly be given the enterprise portfolio if the SNP forms an administration.

Mr Mather is one of the few Scottish politicians with a business background. For six years he has undertaken a relentless conversion course, almost a crusade, to convince first his party and then Scotland as a whole that “you must earn before you can spend”. This message is controversial in Scotland and in recent days Mr Mather has become a contentious ­figure.

Doubts about the SNP’s economic credibility remain. As this newspaper pointed out on Wednesday, an independent Scotland’s budget deficit would be about 1.2 per cent of national income. This is manageable, but two unsettling factors would be the complete inexperience in executive politics of those running the Scottish economy and relations with the Treasury in London, which would remain crucial even after independence.

There remains in Scotland a debilitating lack of entrepreneurial spirit. The private sector has been stagnating as the public sector has become bloated. Despite Mr Mather’s dogged evangelism, it is hard to see the SNP reversing this trend with ease.

As for stripped-down government, there is a growing acceptance among Scots that we are overgoverned and that there has been too much legalisation, much of it rushed and ill-considered, emanating from both Westminster and Holyrood. Alex Salmond’s intention to govern with a slim executive and to build administrative efficiency while reducing the amount of legislation is resonating rather more than might have been predicted.

But independence, which is what this election is ultimately about, given that the way Scotland votes on May 3 could feasibly lead to the break-up of the UK, remains an issue of indifference. That raises a very worrying point. If pressed – and in 35 years of analysing and writing about Scottish affairs I have never known a time when both politicians and pollsters were so cautious – experts predict the turnout next week will be at best in the low 60s. That is a good 20 per cent lower than in France last Sunday. This is almost scandalous, given the high stakes.

It will be easy for Scots to punish Labour next Thursday, but are they ready to do so? Old loyalties die hard and modern Scotland is a risk-averse country. Yet change is in the air. Unfortunately, so is apathy. A peculiar mixture.

The writer was editor of The Herald, Glasgow, 1997-2000

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