Reflections on the SNP conference

Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

James Mitchell discusses this weekend’s SNP conference in Aberdeen, reflecting on the party’s 80 year history and its future.

The SNP meets in Aberdeen this weekend almost exactly 80 years after its foundation.  There will be many references to the long journey, the many friends lost along the way – no doubt Margo MacDonald will rate a few mentions – and insistence that repaying the debt requires current members to work hard up to the referendum.

Parties are like other institutions (and people) – they love anniversaries.  They adopt a Whiggish view of their history, viewing the past through the lens of today.  The referendum is seen as the inevitable climax of a long struggle for independence that started eight decades earlier.

Its opponents charge it with proposing ‘independence lite’ unaware that in so doing they are assisting the SNP in projecting an image that might be more palatable to Scotland’s rather (small ‘c’) conservative electorate.

There are continuities, not least evident amongst activists who kept the idea alive through generations.  But the SNP’s history has been marked as much by discontinuities.  The SNP of 1934 was on the fringe of the fringe.  Political history is littered with parties that fought to survive and survival invariably involved change.  The most enduring feature of the SNP has been its name.  Even that was questioned at various points.

Douglas Crawford (SNP for Perth and East Perthshire 1974-79) once suggested changing the party’s name but that suggestion found few supporters.  Even Alex Salmond once thought that the party ought to change its name.  His preference was for Scottish Independence Party to ensure its core objective was in its name but he soon abandoned the idea.  Instead, when he was a vice chair of the party in the 1980s he altered the party symbol in minor ways, each time irritating many members.

But even independence has not been the term for the core objective of the party throughout its history.  The party in 1934 compromised on ‘self-government’ and referred to ‘sovereignty’, in an ambiguous effort to draw in wide support.  But ‘independence’ became the common term used.  The party only formally changed its objective in its constitution in 2004 under an important review under John Swinney leadership.  There was a paradox in this change.  The party had shifted its view from Euroscepticism to Euroenthusiasm over the previous decade.  It was moving towards a more sophisticated understanding of the position of states in international politics yet the change appeared to signal a step backwards, towards a more hardline position.

The paradox is easily explained.  Independence operated more as a slogan, a means of mobilizing activists and offering a clear objective than as a fully developed constitutional option. That journey towards a more nuanced understanding combined with attachment to a symbolically sharper term has served the SNP well.  And it was a journey that continued.

The SNP White Paper on independence, issued after it first came to power in 2007, may have used the term independence but there were many references to interdependence. Even a casual reading of the document suggests a rejection of old-style notions of state sovereignty however much ‘sovereignty’ remains a favoured term amongst party activists.  The journey continued with the publication of last November’s White Paper.  Finding anyone in the SNP willing to concede that the prospectus was anything other than independence is a challenge.  Its opponents charge it with proposing ‘independence lite’ unaware that in so doing they are assisting the SNP in projecting an image that might be more palatable to Scotland’s rather (small ‘c’) conservative electorate.

But careful reading suggests that what the SNP proposes might be termed confederal.  In the final analysis the term adopted is less important, though not for activists. What is understood by independence has always been at issue.  How this is interpreted by the electorate will determine whether the SNP’s next conference will involve a massive celebration amidst the hard work involved in negotiations (old-style independence would require far fewer negotiations) or whether it needs to review not only its strategy but also how it conceives of Scotland’s constitutional future.

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One Response to Reflections on the SNP conference

  1. Gordon Jackson says:

    “Independence operated more as a slogan, a means of mobilizing activists and offering a clear objective than as a fully developed constitutional option.”

    I agree that this has been quite a successful strategy, although it’s also quite disingenuous. One of the great problems I have with the referendum is that we’re voting on a kind of primitive understanding of the word “independence” which implies we can simply sever ties with the rest of the UK and pursue our own course.

    In reality we’re being asked to support a kind of confederal arrangement in which we’re still effectively tied to the rest of the UK, and in which UK institutions still make decisions that have a very real impact on local communities in Scotland. I can see why the SNP don’t want to emphasise that, but it’s still an important point. One damaging consequence, for instance, is that if you accept that the rest of the UK’s institutions will still have some impact on our lives it begs the question of why we gain from giving up our representation within those institutions.

    Why give up Scottish MPs, for instance, when Westminster will still make decisions that affect our communities? By framing it as “independence” the SNP have managed to push complicated and awkward questions of this nature off the agenda, but I think they’ve somewhat stepped over the boundary of selling an honest vision to the electorate.

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