Kevin Pringle: Who is fixated on constitutional politics now?

Written by Kevin Pringle on 9 October 2018 in Comment

Writing ahead of the SNP conference, former SNP director of communications Kevin Pringle looks at the state of play

Kevin Pringle - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

As ministers at Westminster are keen to remind us, including on their own website, “Scotland has two governments”: one in Edinburgh and one based in London that hasn’t gone away, you know, or withered on the post-devolution vine.

The point may be factual, but it’s also political.

In years gone by, Conservative politicians liked to draw a contrast between a UK government supposedly getting on with its day job, and an administration at Holyrood consumed by constitutional politics and obsessed with issues such as the colour of post boxes in an independent Scotland.

As the SNP gathers for its annual conference in Glasgow, there are both opportunities and risks for the party in the bizarre reversal of roles that has taken place.

We now have an entire Westminster system consumed by constitutional politics and obsessed with issues such as the colour of passports in Brexit Britain, and an SNP government focused on the day-to-day in the absence of any quick route to another independence referendum.

In the published conference resolutions, ‘independence’ makes one brief appearance in a schedule to the motion proposing amendments to the SNP’s constitution in which, unsurprisingly, it is affirmed as the party’s primary aim.

That’s fair enough, as the SNP hardly needs to have a set-piece debate on the core belief of every delegate in the hall.

However, its relative absence does underline the extent to which Brexit has overshadowed Scotland’s independence debate rather than injected it with new energy, at least so far.

That could change, as the prospect of a no-deal or blind Brexit makes the UK a scary place at home and a laughing stock abroad.

Some of the SNP conference motions reflect pressure group politics and are therefore fairly narrow in scope, albeit worthwhile, such as those on food waste in supermarkets, nuclear-free local authorities and poverty-proofing school uniforms.

In the absence of a clear focus on the constitutional debate, and the opportunity the prospect of independence creates to tell the story of a dynamic country and more equal society, it’s harder for the SNP to craft an uplifting narrative that speaks to the country as a whole.

Instead, the pattern is one of niche politics and discrete policy offerings – as we also saw in last month’s Programme for Government.

Welcome to the ordinary world of government.

It’s not that the SNP is becalmed, more that Scottish politics as a whole is frozen.

And that’s by no means a bad situation for Scotland’s dominant party.

More than 11 years into government – longer than Tony Blair was in Downing Street, and soon to surpass Margaret Thatcher’s period of tenure – and the SNP is still showing big leads in the polls.

That is extraordinary by any standards, and indicates substantial support for the SNP’s policy programme and its continuation in office.

It may no longer be glad confident morning, and the system-busting performances of 2011 and 2015 are unlikely to happen again, but the party’s ability to win elections shows no sign of abating.

Nicola Sturgeon is also fortunate in the opposition she faces.

Theoretically, as the principal opposition leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson is the challenger for the job of first minister.

But she leads a party that hasn’t won an election in Scotland since 1955.

I just don’t see the Tories having the necessary reach across Scottish society to win top spot anytime soon.

The Scottish Conservative Party is bigger now than it has been for many years in terms of electoral success, but it’s also narrower.

The recovery in Tory fortunes since the independence referendum has been achieved by being much more intensely ideological as defenders of the Union, but they have maxed out that section of the electorate prepared to vote

Conservative on a constitutional basis and may not have a lot more to offer, certainly nothing as simple and galvanising.

The party that traditionally was capable of winning enough support to lead an alternative Holyrood administration, Labour, has turned in on itself and failed to move forward in step with Jeremy Corbyn south of the border.

Richard Leonard has to make noises about being the next first minister, but Labour isn’t going to make a great leap forward from third to first in 2021.

I suspect that the SNP is more vulnerable in a UK general election, though the likelihood of another hung parliament could give the party the necessary relevance and profile to hold seats and maybe win some back.

But if the SNP is favourite for the next Holyrood election, the question is will it win on the basis of a normal trajectory of decline after such a long time in office, or can it again light up Scottish politics as the party of independence?

This conference may provide clues rather than answers.

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