Comment: The SNP's support is now built on polarised constitutional debate not competent government
Governing competence was the SNP’s big idea to build support for independence when it first came to power in 2007. The party emphasised its desire to make devolution work and
Support for independence provided its electoral base but limited its appeal. Its opponents presented an apocalyptic vision of an SNP government obsessed with the constitution, in incessant and unnecessary battles with London, and neglecting everyday policy concerns.
In 1999, the SNP had issued a card with nine pledges addressing how it would use devolved powers. The tenth pledge was to hold a referendum to “allow the people of Scotland to choose independence if they so wish”.
The pledge card and referendum had been pinched from New Labour’s campaign playbook two years before. Labour had set out to reassure devo-sceptics that they could vote Labour as there would be an opportunity to reject devolution in a referendum.
So, the SNP sought support from people deterred by independence by promising a referendum. This annoyed some in the SNP who saw it as backsliding on the party’s core belief.
The SNP’s 2007 breakthrough came in the tradition that oppositions don’t win elections – governments lose them. Scottish Labour looked tired, lumbered with the legacy of the Iraq war and perceptions that it was in thrall to the party’s London leadership.
The SNP squeaked home to form a minority government. Most voters remained sceptical, worried that an SNP government would lead to chaos and conflict.
But what had kept the SNP out of office proved an asset during its first term. Against expectations of catastrophe and running battles with London, the SNP appeared the model of mature and competent government.
The absence of an overall majority meant that the leadership could simultaneously explain why no referendum was held to activists, while reassuring an independence-sceptical electorate that a referendum was unlikely. Paradoxically, devolution seemed more settled in the SNP’s first term than any time before or since.
That reputation for competence won the SNP an overall majority in 2011. It won due to a combination of low expectations, a dose of populist measures, the energy that parties new to office often bring to government and, crucially, the absence of independence at the forefront of politics.
The assumption that governing competence would automatically lead to increased support for independence proved mistaken. Fewer voters thought that the constitution was the most important issue after four years of SNP government (down from 26 per cent to 15 per cent). Support for independence had barely changed, at only 24 per cent when three options were on offer – independence, more powers and the status quo.
But a referendum could not be avoided as it was in the party’s manifesto, albeit hardly an issue in the election. Few beyond the party faithful expected an independence majority in 2014, at least until very late in the referendum campaign.
Once more, low expectations worked to the SNP’s advantage. The 45 per cent Yes vote was not seen as a devastating defeat but a major step forward that transformed Scottish politics.
Independence was no longer a drag on SNP support. The binary constitutional choice that emerged from the referendum meant that the SNP could reasonably expect to retain office so long as support for independence remained over 40 per cent.
And public opinion was entrenched and polarised. The post-referendum constitutional trench warfare saw small temporary advances only to be lost.
The casualties are all too obvious. Independence became the upas tree under which all other issues died. The SNP is in full campaign mode and has been since at least the Brexit referendum.
But preparing for another independence referendum is not the same as preparing for independence. An independent Scotland will confront some major challenges, many of which could – indeed should, regardless of whether Scotland becomes independent – be addressed now but are being neglected.
The main casualty of political campaigning is competent government. It is not difficult, even for the most incompetent government with a substantial budget at its disposal, to indulge in populist pork barrel politics. But good government is not about throwing the odd bit of pork in the direction of key elements in the electorate.
What was the SNP’s great strength in its first period in office has become its new vulnerability. Rhetoric and promises have increased expectations but delivery has been poor across a range of policy areas.
Nicola Sturgeon has not helped herself with commitments that she struggles to come close to achieving. Closing the educational attainment gap was her big commitment on becoming first minister but it remains gapingly wide. The SNP now relies on a polarised constitutional debate dominating Scottish politics and the relegation of competent government for continued electoral success, a reversal of the early years of devolution.
Good government requires strategic vision, long-term thinking and taking difficult decisions. That is difficult in the shadow of another referendum with a governing party in campaign mode.
But even from the perspective of supporters of independence, this ought to cause concern. Not only is it failing to convince enough voters of the case for independence – we now rarely hear predictions of the imminence of 60 per cent support for independence − but so little is being done to ease the transition to independence.
A reputation for competence did little to increase support for independence between 2007 and 2011. The opposite may not impact on support for independence either, but losing such a reputation will undermine party support in elections.