Will the Scottish National Party dematerialise in an independent Scotland?
Stephen Noon has looked into the future and seen an unlikely outcome to a Yes vote – no more SNP. Maybe the chief strategist of Yes Scotland is craftily aiding independence by getting floating voters to envision (and therefore invest energy in) life beyond the Great Divide? Maybe Noon had a festive dram too many – or just maybe he’s been watching Merlin.
For those who shunned the BBC Saturday night series on grounds of schmaltz and childishness, an era ended last week when the long-running saga came to a non-negotiable end.
In the final scene a modern Merlin casts a wistful look towards the Lake of Avalon where Arthur and his sword Excalibur lie “ready to rise again when Albion needs them”.
Never mind Arthur – the question for many viewers was “where is Merlin?” One look at the reclusive, lean, youthful-looking man in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday provides the answer. Merlin is obviously Stephen Noon.
All right – it’s improbable (though Arthurian place names apparently fit Dunadd in Argyll better than Wessex) – but there’s no doubt Stephen is to Alex what Merlin was to Arthur. A power behind the throne, a confidante, a strategist and now a heretical visionary.
Noon has written at length (Beyond the SNP, 30 December 2012) of a post-independence future without the SNP – surely as unthinkable to party faithful as the wizard’s prophesy that Arthur would be killed by a fellow knight.
Alex Salmond’s former Westminster assistant argues that once the Rubicon is crossed, all bets will be off, the SNP’s raison d’etre will disappear, the divisive constitutional issue will be resolved and Scots will be free to resume their underlying voting habits.
It’s obviously true that Tartan Tories stand beside Tartan Social Democrats and Tartan Greens in the SNP and beyond the uniting mission of independence there may be no appetite to keep the raggle-taggle group together.
But that ignores the inevitable fondness for power of any ruling party and the equally inevitable familiarity or desperation among voters about the capacity of any other team to steer the Good Ship Independence during its long maiden voyage.
Is there any precedent for a party withering away after delivering peaceful independence? Not really.
In Norway it was the Conservatives’ eventual recruitment to the all-party independence campaign that hastened the end of union under the Swedish king – no separate nationalist party was needed to prosecute a cause so popular that 368,208 Norwegians backed it in a 1905 referendum with just 184 against.
The move towards independence was deeply embedded in Norwegian civic society, and party politics in the aftermath of 1905 was indistinguishable from its pre-independence configuration.
Indeed, all parties rapidly involved themselves in “further nation building” and “safeguarding the gains of independence” – paving the way for the growth and primacy of Labour, the avoidance of Russian or Finnish-style revolution, the evolution of a powerful social democracy and a preference for compromise and negotiation that has marked politics ever since.
In 1945 Norway’s parties celebrated the end of German occupation by standing on the same shared manifesto. The job of building a new country doesn’t stop at the referendum finishing line. That’s just the beginning.
The job of being a parent is a job for life. If nurture and nature shape the young, then the hand that rocks the cradle must be carefully chosen.
Why on earth would the SNP not want to parent its own creation? Because independence belongs to everyone? Come on. Unlike devolution – which was a broadly-based, civic, consensual and Norwegian-style campaign – independence is currently a more narrowly party political one.
Despite this year’s launch of the all-party/no-party Yes Campaign, a recent survey found 92 per cent of Scottish charities had decided not to get involved in the independence debate.
Whether right or wrong, unduly cautious or rightly circumspect, scared by unionist propaganda or just uninterested – independence is not currently the number one priority of most Scots.
Admittedly a Yes vote in 2014 would not be possible unless that changed and Scots, not the SNP, “owned” the Yes option.
But would such “civic takeover” allow the SNP to disband? Not on your nelly.
By the time 2016 elections come around, the SNP will have been running the Scottish Government for almost a decade – half of its young life. They’ll be the only ones who believe in the possibility of independence sufficiently to have planned for its arrival.
Will voters really want the architects of such a controversial and ambitious scheme to “wither away”? Probably not.
Scots are trying to visualise the “Promised Land” and assess its viability and desirability – a perfectly normal part of any change process. It’s true that “the new Scotland” can be whatever the majority of voters want it to be, but that doesn’t put colour on the map, flesh on the bones or a real feeling for an independent Scotland in the hearts of non-disciples.
So I suspect Stephen Noon’s “withering argument” is a bit of very clever positioning. It’s a description of the SNP’s ideal Scotland, without committing the party to a future it cannot guarantee to deliver. It’s a colouring in of shapes that are currently two-dimensional, empty and uninspiring pour encourager les autres.
Noon says: “With a Yes vote, the election in 2016 will be filled left, right and centre with many new horizons.”
More likely it will be filled with one confident, exuberant set of Old Hands and another set of stunned, disbelieving and defeated New Hands who cannot (given past form and human dynamics) cast off the beliefs of several generations overnight.
Indeed opponents have responded dismissively – “The SNP will do anything to get votes.”
But how can a promise to quit government attract support – because it sounds selfless and noble or because it makes constitutional change sound like a simple, overdue plumbing job, not a daring, high-risk, structural repair after which the building could finally be sound or close to collapse?
What a wizard wheeze from a supreme strategist at the end of 2012. We’re all imagining the scenario he wants us to think about – job done. So does the man have magic powers or just a good understanding of human psychology?
Remember – Merlin’s task was to revive the Old Religion and usher in an era of peace and prosperity.
So don’t laugh.