The latest polls show the SNP languishing 10 points behind Labour. There is of course a long way to go between now and next May. However, whether Salmond stays or goes one thing is clear, after four years in government and spending £500,000 on ‘a national conversation’ and an independence green paper, he has not increased the support for independence in any meaningful way.
It begs the question – not – will Scotland become independent? But rather – why do Scots support the union?
Let’s face it, Salmond did not drop his independence referendum because he thought he might win it. He had no majority for independence in the Scottish parliament and all the evidence is, no matter what question he used, the Scottish people would still vote ‘no’.
The union is complex and runs deep. Scots people see themselves as Scots living in the UK. They see the union as exactly that – a union. Between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. While there will always be tensions between Scotland and its larger neighbour – and in the Thatcher years these were significant – Scots still want to live in the UK
Most Scots would struggle to list the devolved and reserved power split in the Scotland act 1998. Even political anoraks would struggle to explain the Barnett formula – never mind how it should be reformed. A few Scots know about the Calman commission; fewer know about its recommendations to devolve more powers to the Scottish parliament which form the basis of the Scotland Bill starting its passage through Westminster
This is not to say that Scots don’t have strong views on their country. They do.
Scots undoubtedly support their Scottish parliament. In 2009 over 450,000 people visited it. The Scottish Parliament has embedded itself in both the constitution of the United Kingdom and the consciousness of Scottish people. It is here to stay.
It’s just that Scots, like most others in the UK, are interested in jobs and their families’ wellbeing. Not constitutions.
Salmond hailed his 2007 victory claiming ‘winds of change were blowing through Scottish politics’ and calling on ‘progressive forces to seize the moment of triumph, of hope over fear and take Scotland forward’.
His problem was only 17 per cent Scots voted for him. The rest of Scotland either voted for other parties or didn’t vote at all. It was just that only 16.7 per cent voted Labour, giving Salmond a one seat majority in the Scottish parliament.
You would struggle to suggest that Scotland has ever politically supported nationalism. The SNP has won one election in a hundred years. They still do not control a single council outright. This is not a good record for a party who claim to represent Scotland.
The issue for nationalists is that, although Scotland has a separate legal and education system and some of our public services have a distinct Scottish identity, Scots themselves have a strong sense of social, economic and cultural union with the rest of the UK.
Most Scots have family and close friends in England. Many will have lived and worked in England. Scots holiday in England and have professional networks in England. We share similar jobs, personal interests and cultural references.
We share expectations for our public services and social rights. The NHS was founded across the UK. We share its values. We share a belief in free comprehensive education. We share a tax and welfare benefit system which reflect our shared values about work, family and social security. Our trade unions and voluntary sectors organisations work across the UK
We share a post-medieval history, with Scots playing key roles in the British empire and abolishing the slave trade. We fought two world wars together and Scots regiments are still proud members of the British army. And Scots have played key roles in the political history of all three main UK parties.
Perhaps strongest of all is our economic union. Goods and services are continually traded between us based on integrated businesses, banking systems and transport networks. We also share a coastline and a language. Most importantly we trade without barriers. The recent problems in Iceland and Ireland have reinforced the importance of these links for Scots.
In short, most Scots are not in principle for or against independence. And there are Scots who support the union in principle but again they are the minority. Scots support the United Kingdom because it makes sense to our everyday lives.
This is the nationalist dilemma. They feel that nationalist desire for independence but can’t convince Scots that it makes sense. The more they prioritise independence the less inclined Scots are to vote SNP, the more they put independence on the back burner the less they progress their reason for existence.
Scottish patriotism runs deeper than the technicalities of devolution versus independence. Scots want what’s best for them and their families.
So, on this St Andrew’s Day, the last before the 2011 election, it’s time for ordinary Scots to call for a new generation who can lead the union. Not leaders who can just attack or defend it. Devolution is, as Donald Dewar put it, ‘a process’ and Scotland, and UK, need leaders who understand that.
Salmond is the last of the old pre-devolution generation of leaders. It’s time for common sense Scots to call time on his old style of politics. Let’s use St Andrew’s Day to celebrate Scottish common sense and hail a new politics for Scotland.
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