Monday, May 09, 2011

When the music's over...

It bears repeating that it is difficult to underestimate the scale of the SNP's victory on Thursday. Now that Annabel Goldie has decided to quit, this is an election rout that has toppled the leaders of the three main parties of opposition in Scotland. The interesting question is what is Salmond and the SNP going to do with all this power?

I don't mean to rain on their parade... Actually, I do. I am Scottish, after all - and despite what a number of commentators would have you believe, the SNP forming a parliamentary majority on less than 50% of the popular vote might represent a number of significant changes in the Scottish polity but taking it as indicative of a transformation of our national character is a little premature, to say no more than that.

When the music's over, there will be a number of challenges that will present themselves to the nationalists sooner or later.

They will no longer be able to blame inaction on some of their 'flagship' policies on their minority status. The reality of the situation is that the much hailed 'competence' of the previous administration was based on cautious, crowd-pleasing measures. Now that this is no longer the case, I'll be interested to see if they press ahead with some of their more controversial plans.

For instance, policies like a local income tax and the minimum pricing of alcohol may or may not be a good idea in and of themselves but I would have thought that their most immediate effect if enacted would be to take money out of the pockets of the median voter. The council tax is unfair but the local income tax, as well as being very costly to introduce, is likely to squeeze couples with children. They'd be wise to let this one slide, in my view.

There is also the question of how their policies are going to be paid for. The election campaign was notable for the way all parties, with the possible exception of the Conservatives, avoided this issue. Regardless of how desirable, how sustainable within the current fiscal framework are free tuition fees, for example?

But a re-arrangement of the fiscal framework forms only part of the SNP vision, which brings me to their most serious challenge. What do they actually mean by independence? While it would be unwise to predict the outcome of a referendum and foolish, as numerous people have already suggested, to underestimate the political cunning of Alec Salmond, it is surely extremely unlikely that Scotland would become an independent nation-state after the pattern of the 19th and 20th century model with the accompanying trapping of a separate monetary policy, army, border controls and head of state?

No matter how effective the SNP machine is, I still can't imagine the Scottish electorate being persuaded to disengage from institutions which - no matter how much people might wish it otherwise - they have a certain degree of affection for. I doubt this would even be offered as a choice. The model of 'independence' that will be offered is likely to include the retention of the Queen as Head of State, monetary union with England and, much more controversially, continued participation in the British Armed Forces. The question is, will this satisfy the nationalists who imagined separation to conform more closely to the picture of 'divorce' painted by Labour's scare-mongers? It remains to be seen.

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