Election 2011: A revisit
The mighty tectonic plates of political power have shifted and, without exaggeration, nothing will ever be the same again. The historic SNP victory was nothing short of a mass movement that swept away everything that had come before. And as the political equivalent of a flash mob, it will no doubt be picked over in fine detail by academics of the future as they analyse what on earth happened in Scotland on Thursday 5 May 2011.
And when political history is being taught in the classrooms of tomorrow, teachers will attempt to answer the question about how a party that until little more than four years previously had been seen as a rank outsider, commonly viewed as being populated by a disparate group of oddballs and fanatics, linked by one seemingly unachievable aim of separatism, had managed to turn its fortunes round, to the extent that not only was it able to seize a majority in a Parliament designed never to accommodate such arithmetic, but had also taken with it the scalps of the three unionist party leaders and put the issue of independence for Scotland firmly on the agenda.
From 6 May, people were no longer asking if independence would happen but when. And in seeking answers, those educationalists would do well to look to the massive ambition of one man for a country that his political opponents used to patronisingly call ‘the best wee country in the world’, assuming Scots would think that was good enough.
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The SNP’s seismic result was more than just a political wobble, it was a mass movement bound by a Scottishness, an ambition and a desire for things to be better than they are or have been. There was a congratulatory air about Scotland last week and to listen to people that had never before voted SNP talking about how they felt they had been part of something much bigger than themselves was not only highly charged but it restored some faith in the fact that people do think about politics and they do realise they can shape their own destiny. This is not meant to be a party political broadcast but it is an acknowledgement that there was only one party in Scotland this election that paid cognizance to Scotland’s mood music and successfully tapped into a discontent with what else was on offer.
Scots don’t want to be part of the cannon fodder that provides a kick-start for Labour at Westminster; they want to be part of a success on their home soil. Scots don’t want to be simply told that they are better as part of the Union, without being furnished with the reasons why; and Scots are not going to vote for a party purely on the basis that it says it will curb the excesses of the one that more people have voted for in the first place.
On that basis, the SNP deserved to win simply for affording Scots with the intelligence to vote with their Scottish head in a Scottish election. And for that reason the SNP were given the benefit of the doubt. When George Robertson said that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead, did he ever envisage a moment like 5 May, when Scots, who may never have considered themselves Nationalists, voted in their droves for a party with independence at its core? For despite the protestations, Labour still believed that it was the natural-born leader for Scotland and even armed with the evidence of the 2007 defeat, its members doggedly hung on to the idea that it was the electorate that got it wrong, not them.
But the electorate did not come back to Labour and even when faced with the Liberal Democrats in bed with the Tories at Westminster, they did not turn to Labour, they went to the SNP, on both the constituency and the regional list vote. Why? Because the SNP were positive, optimistic, enthusiastic for the future and took absolutely nothing for granted. What a seductive combination.
But the SNP’s ballot-box success is not predicated on an assumption that its new supporters are sudden converts to independence. They are not. However, after this election the genie of independence can not simply be pushed back into its bottle. Clearly, an independence referendum is the direction of travel and Salmond has won the right to decide when. But what all parties must now do is arm Scotland with the facts.
People who voted SNP don’t necessarily support independence but they do want to know more and they do at least appear to have faith in the messengers of separatism to govern them, so the challenge for the SNP is to tell them what independence would look like; what would our currency be; how would we be taxed; what would our relationship with England be; how would we defend ourselves and what guarantees for success would we have? These are just some of the questions people are asking.
Equally and perhaps more importantly, however, given we are already on a road well travelled, it is for the unionists to start telling us what the Union has actually done for Scotland. But these are discussions for the luxury of the months and years ahead; for now, the very real financial challenges are the priority for this next Scottish Parliament. As the new Presiding Officer so succinctly put it last week, ‘and now we have work to do’.