Saturday, 31 December 2011

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

Fireworks over the castle and crowds on Calton Hill. This Hogmanay in Edinburgh may look like any other, but when the new year dawns and the fog of whisky fumes has cleared, something will be different.

Like a glacier advancing, political opinion has slowly shifted in this city over the past year. Behind genteel Georgian façades I’ve seen dinner parties descend into shouting matches; listened in bars as people, once Labour supporters, talked about “taking control of our own lives”. Interviewees have turned the tables on me and asked: “You’re the journalist. You must know. Are we going to be independent?”

It’s the biggest question Scotland has faced for 300 years, let alone in my lifetime. Just months after the SNP’s historic election victory, pale-faced “unionists” (in Scotland the SNP has even seized control of vocabulary) stare at each over their coffee cups, enumerating the forces lined up in the great debate. The nationalists have a leader, a message, they appeal to youngsters and have the best and richest campaign machine in the country. On the other side, the Brits have ... well, no leader and apparently no campaign at all.

Every week has brought some new sign of the SNP’s onward march: the almost daily spectacle of Alex Salmond riding roughshod over his political rivals in Scotland; his constant point-scoring over Westminster. Whether it’s public-sector strikes or European walkouts, the First Minister deftly blames the coalition Government for all Scotland’s ills.

At SNP HQ there is, these days, an almost palpable confidence in the air. Without once uttering the word “zeitgeist”, Peter Murrell, the chief executive, argues that the party is almost completely in tune with “the nation”. The latter is a term he uses often.

The Scottish nationalism of people like Murrell, who has the mild demeanour of a clergyman, is far removed from the hairy, firebrand politics of its ancient heroes. These days it feeds off focus groups and consensus politics, fires up young people and embraces incomers from Pakistan and Poland, binding allcomers to the cause. “Outside of the political classes, people tend to say ‘Why not?’ and that gives us confidence,” says Murrell, who used to work for the Church of Scotland. “We’ve already come a long way. We are heading towards the final bit of the journey.”

This view appears to have a firm foundation. This month, the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, produced by the National Centre for Social Research, confirmed that most Scots favour a revised constitutional settlement known as “devo max”. In other words, a system of government that would give Holyrood control over all tax and spend decisions, yielding only defence and foreign policy to Westminster. These findings, as Murrell points out, demonstrate that the population already wants more powers for Scotland than any political party — apart from his own — has so far been prepared to offer.

“People simply don’t want the status quo,” he says. “The nation is far ahead of Labour, two thirds of the way towards the independence position. Our responsibility is to define the independence bit of it, and that is what we are starting to do.” Then, with a tight little smile: “We can have everything.”

Everything? Unionists will mutter, “There they go again”. But in fact, what “everything” means to the SNP remains a moot point. Around the Scottish Parliament, the party’s MSPs and researchers are working on a “referendum prospectus”, a holy book that will define a vision for the new Scotland. It has already emerged that the SNP wants to retain at least two great British institutions, the monarchy and the BBC. Up for discussion are the economic settlement and the division of oil revenues, the roles of the Civil Service and the military. One senior Nationalist has already raised a question, apparently crucial for his party: “Is there a need for a separate DVLA or even Ordnance Survey?”

According to Nationalist logic, separation from the rest of Britain will be made palatable to doubters by “the social union”, the mesh of family ties that link those 800,000 Scots-born people in England with the folks back home, not to mention the connections shared by 400,000 English people who have drifted north of Hadrian’s Wall. Why these myriad family ties should work in favour of nationalism is not immediately obvious but, according to Angus Robertson, MP, the social union will apply a kind of healing balm to those inflamed by the notion of an independent Scotland.

“Independence will be underpinned by that sense of shared historical experience — the fact that we are not strangers or foreigners in the nations of these islands,” he tells me when I speak to him at Westminster. In other words, there will be no need for border controls or passports, at least from a Scottish perspective. (English politicians may have other ideas should economic migrants head to Scotland, and then decide to take the high road south.) 

With so many weighty matters on their minds, it’s little wonder that the SNP is keen to postpone the referendum. That, and the fact that they suddenly have the resources to fight a long campaign. When the poet Edwin Morgan died this year, he left the party £1 million. A couple of months later, Chris and Colin Weir won £161 million in the Euromillions lottery, and gifted a million, with (so rumour has it) much more to come. SNP activists talk excitedly about having £20 million to spend up until June 24, 2014, when, it’s a fair bet, the referendum will be called. That date, after all, is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

The party is rich in another way. Murrell and his team are the best campaigners in Scotland by a very long street. The digital strategy at the heart of May’s victory has drawn much admiring attention from beyond Holyrood. Daniel Teweles has worked in the White House with Barack Obama as a digital consultant, and advises on politics and social media all over the world. He watched the Scottish election with growing excitement.

“Let’s be honest, Scottish politics were not really on the international map — but they firmly placed it there,” Teweles tells me. Starting from second place in the opinion polls, in the 60 days before the May election the SNP transformed its prospects, in part at least, by cleverly integrating its doorstep campaign with, in geek-speak, a “single digital platform”.

In other words, activists were able to use a new party website linked to Twitter and Facebook feeds to swap information continually between their online campaign and party workers on the streets. In practice, this meant that SNP workers could trace every user who typed “SNP” into social media boxes. From watching online conversations they identified non-members who were championing the party. They could track down any user who was interested enough to open an e-mail from the party. That one digital platform helped the canvas, raised funds and dragged out the vote. It was quite simply brilliant, says Teweles. “They didn’t separate online and offline at all. It’s an arbitrary difference anyway. In the Western world we live our lives between online and offline, with our phones and laptops. The SNP understood that.”

So is the union doomed? The party’s opponents take their crumbs of comfort from a notion that the Nationalist surge in the May poll was apparently little to do with rising support for independence. This a thought confirmed by John Curtice, professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, who has worked on the Scottish Social Attitudes survey since 1999. 

“As SNP support grew over the last four weeks of the election, it became less and less of an independence vote,” Curtice tells me. “You could see that very clearly if you tracked YouGov’s polls. The Labour Party had no vision and ran a useless campaign against one of the most charismatic politicians in the UK, and a government which was seen as effective in representing Scotland’s interests. This just wasn’t a contest.”

Where Murrell and his team see support for “devo max” leading inexorably to independence, others discern a line in the sand once those tax powers have been granted to Holyrood. A crucial question arises when people are asked: would Scotland be better or worse off with independence? 

“In most areas of life, people think independence won’t make a difference,” says Curtice. “The one area where that isn’t so true is when you come to the economy. Then opinion splits — a third think things will better under independence, a third no difference, the rest think it will be worse. This is the most vital part of the argument that the SNP has still to win. Once you start trying to predict for and against independence, the economy is very important.”

Factor in the sovereign debt crisis and the traumas in the Eurozone, and other questions arise. “In the short run, the SNP want to keep sterling — but who’s going to let them keep sterling?” muses Curtice. “The UK Treasury? Without conditions? Does the UK Treasury want an independent Scotland to be using the pound and potentially engaging in debt? Then, by the time Scotland joins the euro, there will have been consolidation. So does independence offer more fiscal freedom than ‘devo max’? It’s not so obvious any more.”

Back at SNP HQ, Murrell, unflappable, believes that there is time enough to make the economic case. And if the opposition arrives at the referendum, as they did at the election, with no leader, no message and no strategy, who knows what can happen? On that Curtice agrees. “The unionists ought to win,” he says. “But so far they have displayed a remarkable ability to screw things up.”

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