World

Sorry, Sean

Scottish voters look set to reject separatism this week

Bruce Wallace May 10 1999
World

Sorry, Sean

Scottish voters look set to reject separatism this week

Bruce Wallace May 10 1999

Sorry, Sean

Scottish voters look set to reject separatism this week

Bruce Wallace

in Edinburgh

World

Scotland

The Scottish National Party meeting in Perth’s Edwardian town hall begins, as one might expect at a meeting of Scots devoted to independence from Britain, with a display of patriotic fervour. “Can we have a cheer for the Scottish rugby team?” is the first question from the floor, and a hearty hurray goes up for the lads who led Scotland to victory in the prestigious Five Nations Cup. “Let’s not forget our curlers,” SNP leader Alex Salmond chimes in from the stage, and the slightly perplexed crowd—not all have heard the news of Scotland’s world championship win, it seems—musters a polite cheer for the curlers, too. “Two Scottish world champions, a good omen for us,” mutters Salmond.

But the signs are anything but good for the SNP as it heads for the May 6 elections to Scotland’s first Parliament in almost 300 years. The SNP trails the Labour Party and its Scottish

leader Donald Dewar by more than 20 points in most polls, and is “sinking into the dark glen of despond,” as The Herald newspaper put it last week. Even a blustery last-minute intervention on behalf of the cause from actor and ardent Scottish nationalist Sean Connery seemed unlikely to reverse SNP fortunes. Not only have its opponents successfully sounded alarms about the economic dangers of the SNP’s plans for independence, but the cheeky Salmond has taken two bold political stands that show every sign of backfiring on his party. He has called for a tax increase to pay for more public spending on education, hospitals and housing. And he opposes Britain’s participation in the NATO air strikes on Kosovo, a decision he criticized early on in the war as “unpardonable folly.”

So far, the folly seems to be all Salmond’s. “A moment of madness,” says Glasgow sports writer and SNP supporter James Trayner of the deci-

sion to oppose the war. Salmond still defends it, telling Macleans “history will judge the West harshly for the hash we’ve made of this.” But polls reveal the political cost: one in five Scots say they are less likely to vote for Salmond because of his anti-NATO comment, and his personal popularity has plummeted.

If Kosovo is an issue of principle, the rest of the SNP campaign is clearly a matter of political positioning. Voters may not like the SNP in great numbers, but Salmond has no doubt about what they hate: Tories and Tory policies. Under prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Conservative popularity steadily shrivelled in Scotland as the party lavished its attention on the electoral base in wealthier, populous southern England. The Tories opposed the mere idea of devolving power from Westminster to a Scottish Parliament. Scots made their own displeasure known by wiping the Tories out in the 1997 election, falling in massively behind Tony Blair’s socalled New Labour party which promised—and delivered—a referendum securing devolution.

Salmond’s solution to facing such a popular foe was to try to smear New Labour with a Tory brush, picking on Blair’s modernization of Labour into a tax-cutting, business-coddling government. “If the Tory party cannot get elected in Scotland under Tory policies, why would Labour win in Scodand using Tory policies?” Salmond thundered in Perth. The cornerstone of his strategy was a one-per-cent increase in income taxes, the funds to be spent on social services. “I believe most people are prepared to pay a penny more for investment in schools and health,” he contends.

By trying to tap into this traditional self-appraisal of Scotland as a more egalitarian, compassionate society, Salmond is testing whether a party with unapologetically social democratic values is still electable

in the globalized age. The issue was underscored during the campaign when the Norwegian owners of the Kvaerner shipyard in Govan just outside Glasgow announced they would close this last of the great Clyde River shipyards. The SNP tried desperately to pin the closure on Labours freemarket embrace. “When Labour was elected after all those Tory years, we all thought a wonderful new world had at last arrived,” says Archie Simpson, a Govan city councillor who recently jumped from Labour to the SNP. He stands on Govan’s desolate streets, the decline of one of Glasgows first planned middle-class neighbourhoods from the shipbuilding heydays apparent to all, watching two youth gangs sniff out each other’s willingness to brawl. “But nothing’s changed,” he spits. “There are too many Tony Blairs in New Labour.”

But Simpson is a rare crossover. The SNP is having trouble even in hardbitten Govan. Not enough Scots seem to believe the party’s claims that employers like Kvaerner would stay open in an independent Scotland. And a majority, according to many commentators, believe Scotland’s state spending is already too high. Meanwhile, Blair’s gamble that devolution would lance Scotland’s independence boil seems to be working, at least for now. Support for independence has fallen to 42 per cent, the lowest in two years, with Dewar constantly invoking the spectre of Quebec-like “neverendums” on Scotland’s future.

But the independence itch will not go away. The SNP is counting on the new Parliament (to be built, appropriately, Scots say, on the site of the old Scottish and Newcastle Breweries at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile) to be a tool for prying more powers from Westminster. That is the conclusion, too, of the lead character in a new play about Scottish nationalism called The Summertime Is Come. It is written by Tom Gallacher, who once lived in Canada and drew inspiration from Quebec’s eternal debate. “Too late,” the lead character says of the British government, “they’ll realize no matter what they offer, the Union is dead.” For now, however, the Union seems safe.