SNP numbers at Westminster

Managing Expectations

Published: 4 May 2015
Author: Craig McAngus

The election of a significantly larger number of SNP MPs may open old discussions within the party about the strategy to achieve independence. Craig McAngus considers the tensions within the party, where they came from and where they’re going next.

Apart from the decision to change party policy and back an independent Scotland’s membership of NATO, there have been almost no public splits in the SNP parliamentary group since they went into government at the devolved level in 2007.  The party has been remarkably united, and this unity has stemmed from the desire of party elites to show the Scottish electorate that it is a sensible, mature and mainstream party, the ‘bunker’ mentality that minority government between 2007-11 instilled, and the fact that those at the apex of the party have known each other well for many years and are thus used to working closely with one another.  Electoral success has also helped.  The SNP also has a settled strategic approach in terms of how it will achieve an independent Scotland.

This has not always been the case.  One long-standing, philosophical debate in the SNP involved the party’s approach to Scottish independence, particularly in the context of debates going as far back as the 1970s around whether Scotland should have a devolved assembly or not.  On the one hand, Fundamentalists saw devolution as a trap whereby Scotland would be woven more tightly into the UK and the ultimate objective of independence would be stifled.  On the other, Gradualists saw devolution as a stepping stone which the SNP could use as a platform to gradually accrue powers from the UK Parliament and inch closer towards independence.

Alex Salmond was one of the leading lights of the Gradualist approach.  With his initial rise to the leadership of the SNP in 1990 he became a major part of making Gradualism became accepted doctrine within the SNP.  With devolution very much on the agenda throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, it would have been electorally and strategically foolish of the party to not ride on this bandwagon.  Significantly, the SNP even changed its approach to achieving an independent Scotland when the Scottish Parliament began its work in 1999.  Gone was the ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ approach whereby winning a majority of Scottish MPs was a signal that Scotland was to become independent, and in came the commitment to a referendum.  This actually helped the SNP when it came to winning votes at Scottish elections because it allowed the party to reassure those who did not support independence that a vote for the party did not mean Scotland leaving the UK

The SNP’s approach to constitutional reform whilst in government is also very much in tune with the Gradualist approach.  One good example of this was the ideal to have a multi-option referendum on independence: by putting a ‘middle option’ on the ballot (some form of further devolution), it was believed that Scotland could take a significant step towards independence and be in a better position the next time an opportunity came along to achieve independent statehood.  Even the White Paper on Scottish independence can be understood in these terms, advocating less of a ‘separatist’ approach and more of a confederal arrangement with the UK through the retention of familiar British institutions such as the Monarchy and the currency.

The party’s membership have not challenged this Gradualist approach, at least not publicly or in any influential way, because, quite simply, it has worked!  Indeed, the SNP won a majority at the 2011 Scottish election and, as a result, delivered a referendum on independence.  It appears at this stage that they are also on course to win at least 45 (probably more) of Scotland’s 59 seats at the General Election.  One caveat here is that the party’s membership has rocketed to over 100,000 since the referendum, and with these new members may well come new expectations, although academic research needs to be carried out in order to understand what these new expectations may or may not be. 

Unlike previous General Elections, the SNP is now in the situation where every single one of its candidates can harbour realistic hope that they can win the seat in which they are standing.  Within this group of candidates, signs of a new form of the Fundamentalist-Gradualist divide has shown itself to be present: the divide between those who see SNP success at the General Election as a platform to hold another independence referendum, and those who are keen to take independence off the table for the time being and focus on getting a good deal for Scotland in broad policy terms and in terms of moving beyond what was proposed in the Smith Commission report. 

Crucially, Nicola Sturgeon is in the latter camp, and it is highly unlikely that her leadership and strategic decisions will be challenged from within the SNP.  Her position is without challenge or question at the moment.  Despite accusations by Labour that the SNP will do everything it can to get that second referendum, it is highly unlikely that it will happen just because the SNP do well at the General Election.  Nevertheless, the composition of the next UK Government is almost impossible to predict with any real certainty at the moment.  This means that Scotland’s constitutional future is also unclear, and so by extension the path towards independence.  Should there be a perception within the SNP that the Gradualist strategy towards independence is stalling, there may well be internal pressure to become more hard-line on the issue of a second independence referendum.  This could manifest as disillusionment amongst those who will vote SNP at this General Election and then, potentially, at the Scottish Parliament elections next year. 

Electoral success is one thing, but with great success comes great expectations, and those who take a more Fundamentalist view on independence and a second referendum may well have to dampen their expectations, and the SNP’s leadership may well have to convince them that they are the political party that can deliver independence even if it appears, on the surface, that it is not coming around anytime soon.

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