Sunday, 11 March 2012

Independence watered down and rebranded. Again.

I'm about as likely to listen to or read a whole party conference speech as to read a party's manifesto. However, you don't have to read much reportage and analysis of Alex Salmond's effort to the SNP's spring rally yesterday to notice his attempts to re-characterise the concept of independence.

Of course, in today's world of globalisation, supra-national institutions and what Gerry Hassan refers to as "post-nationalist politics" and "shared, fluid sovereignties", classic 19th century-style definitions of independence are increasingly impractical, and thus the term itself progressively redundant.

Not necessarily in the more idealistic world of politics, however, and obviously the SNP's basic aspiration is still posited as 'independence', and no self-respecting Scottish Nationalist would suggest otherwise.

Nonetheless, beyond the level of political rhetoric such a simplistic notion requires to be addressed with some nuance, as indeed Gerry Hassan's quotes above ably demonstrate.

Thus some formerly on the fundamentalist wing of the SNP have long since lost faith in the party's commitment to independence in view of its long-standing (if not quite the mantra it once was) aim of the oxymoronic 'independence in Europe' - why repatriate sovereignty from the UK Union only to cede it to the European Union?

Of course, mainstream SNP opinion sees no obvious problem with that, fuelling, naturally, the accusation that many in the party have a problem with England and the English rather than pooling sovereignty per se. Indeed, to the extent that there seems more Nationalist antipathy towards the likes of retaining sterling, the Bank of England and the Queen in the UK context rather than regarding a nascent European superstate, then this perhaps lends support to accusations of Anglophobia.

On the other hand, Alex Salmond knows that as things stand he has to water down the concept of independence to that extent because otherwise he has little chance of delivering it when the day of reckoning comes. Hence also the fact that the fundamentalists often lament the SNP's reluctance to even mention the i-word.

But while retaining the comfort blanket of aspects of the UK may help sell [whatever] to the Scottish electorate, it does little to endear Alex Salmond to mainstream Nationalist opinion, however much the movement generally has been impressively successful in maintaining a relatively united front.

Hence, perhaps, Alex Salmond's attempts yesterday to associate the idea of independence with any repatriation of powers from the UK to Scotland. Therefore in his speech he referred to "progress that has been made in those areas where our nation already has some independence", "the independence we have over the NHS", a "taste of independence", "another area of public life where we have independence", "a measure of independence" and "A LITTLE INDEPENDENCE HAS BEEN GOOD FOR SCOTLAND" [SNP's emphasis]. And that's not to mention his reference to the ostensibly paradoxical "home rule with independence".

Thus the concept of independence has been watered down to encompass, er, just about anything that's associated with any measure of devolution.

Which of course is consistent with the idea of national sovereignty amounting to a question of degree - or points on a continuum - rather than anything more absolute. But which, on the other hand, perhaps amounts to an inappropriate attempt to redefine political ideology for those of an objective disposition, or indeed a corruption of language for nationalist adherents to the more classic idea of independence.

But Mr Salmond is clearly attempting to associate independence with any further devolution of powers, and to the extent this is successful then this will help him sell his diluted 'indy-lite' to the SNP faithful, or even characterise the achievement of devo-whatever as a success and another step on the gradualist road to the real deal. In short, as in the world of retailing, if you can't get people to buy something then a rebranding often helps; never mind the substance, just concentrate on the marketing.

On the other hand, to the extent that the mere mention of the i-word seems to scare the horses of Scottish voters more generally, then presumably Mr Salmond won't be using the same tactic in relation to the great unwashed, as opposed to in a set-piece speech to his party acolytes.

In the aftermath of last May's SNP landslide I was one of the few who questioned whether in fact an independence referendum would happen. Well it now certainly seems likely that a plebiscite will take place, but I may yet be vindicated - whatever it's called, will it really amount to 'independence'? Indeed, will the i-word even appear on the question paper?

Of course, the nature of the 'independence' option offered to voters may well depend on whether a 'third way' appears on the ballot paper. If there's a devo-whatever choice then there's no real reason to water down independence, because it's obvious which option will win. However, if it's a straight status quo/independence choice then the latter will probably have to be watered down for Mr Salmond to have any chance of delivering. Hence retaining the Queen, sterling, Coronation Street and the Bank of England as the lender of last resort.

Thus it may be 'independence', Jim(my), but not as we know it.


Barbarian of the North said...

Good analysis.

Salmond has to change the strategy, and the key point is the current standing of the polls. In fact, even looking at the polls around May last year there was still no huge surge of support for independence. Think on that: the SNP deliver a landslide victory, people know what the SNP want, yet the support still hovers about 40%. The vote last May had a huge safety net in that short of the ludicrous notion of UDI (which some still want him to do), there was no danger of a split from the UK.

The biggest problem for the SNP is Europe. Despite assurances that "the Scottish people will decide" - aye right - the SNP is still hellbent on futher integration with Europe.

Remaining in Europe will cause one particular problem not many will be aware of. Swinney is trying - without success - to change the rules on EU students getting their funding paid for in Scotland. Under independence, English, Welsh and NI students will be reclassified as EU students, and will also be entitled to free funding. The numbers cannot be restricted by the Scottish Government either.

Scotland needs to retreat from Europe under independence, otherwise we really will be worse off.

As you point out, the SNP's independence campaign is starting to look more and more anti-English - will that be the right message?

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, Barbarian.

Of course, the problem with it all is that it's difficult to know what to take at face value. For example, when Alex Salmond said a few weeks ago that he wanted to be at the 'heart of Europe', did he really mean that or was that just to distance himself from David Cameron, who'd just fallen out with most of the EU over the euro crisis.

Of course, all parties say things they don't really mean or change their minds on when it suits - the LibDems on tuition fees being a notorious example in recent history - but the thing with the SNP is that they won't bother so much if it paves the way to independence.

Electorally it's bad for a party to U-turn, and to that extent that acts as some kind of deterrent, but at the end of the day when they're caught out they can suffer at the polls.

However, that doesn't matter so much for the SNP, because if they can use such tactics to gain independence then it won't matter if they're found out to have been bullshitting - governments can be voted out, but independence couldn't be reversed.

To that extent I'm even more cynical about what the SNP says than any of the other paries. The end justifies the means, they may well think.

Allan said...

Good post Stuart and thanks for the comment accross at "Dispatches...".

Unlike Barbarian, i suspect that the SNP's biggest problem will be attempting to undo the drip drip of "subsidy junkie" stories that appear in the media. As I pointed out in a comment on Better Nation in January, it's all very well SNP supporters playing at "rapid rebbuttal" on the bloggosphere, but the referendum will be won and lost with people who do not participate on the MacBlogosphere.

Europe will be an issue, as will the Economy and possibly the monarchy - I don't subscribe to the view that an EU referendum will be Salmond's trump card. Indeed the later Salmond holds off on that score, the more it might seem like desperation when/if he does announce it.

Of course, from a certain point of view Scotland has always had a degree of Independence from the rest of the UK. Different law system which lead to slightly diferent laws for Scotland. I suspect that the preferable next step for the gradualist wing of the SNP would be Devo Max, especially as full blown independence is more popular in England than it is here.

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks Allan, indeed you're bang on in that the kind of debates on the blogosphere and twitter have little or no relevance to the vast majority who'll decide the referendum, which is why the politicians think they can haver such superficial and contradictory rubbish much of the time; they think the vast majority won't notice, and sadly much of the time they're right.

By the way, don't know if there's a problem with your blog, but all I can see is the blog title, the title of your latest post - After the referendum - and the funny thing that looks like a video but isn't, and I think you said appeared if you composed your post in Word. There's not text and no other posts, in my browser at least.

Don't know if it could be something to do with the Blogger software. For example, I preferred the old-style comments section like on here - what happened to the option for email updates for the comments??