Wendy Alexander has announced she now backs a referendum on independence. Its one of those issues where, for a Unionist like myself, there are advantages and disadvantages to having a public vote.
The intellectual journey of the SNP activist is different from that of other people. When we were young, most of us who are political activists looked at the world around us and decided what priorities a future government should have, and then, based on those priorities, decided which party best reflected those priorities. If you’re a nationalist, you start off by deciding you can’t stand the English for one reason or another (probably connected with football and, for those of a certain age, Jimmy Hill, who has a lot to answer for, let me tell you), and that you want independence. The rest of your political development – the insistence that you’re not anti-English, that you’re, in fact, very fond of our southern neighbours and that you are an internationalist – will come later. Then, once you are a regular attendee of your local SNP branch and you share your colleagues’ intense indignation at having “ER II” on Scotland’s post boxes, you make your first strategic decision: should the SNP, a party of no political principle other than nationalism, veer to the left or the right? That will depend on whether the dominant party at any particular time is of the left or the right. If it’s a centre-left party, then the SNP should go in the same direction, since there are clearly more votes there. Similarly, had the Tories still been Scotland’s dominant party over the past couple of decades, the SNP would today be adopting the veneer of a centre-right party.
You end up with a party and with activists who couldn’t care less about trivial stuff like the health service, schools, unemployment or poverty, but who get awful excited when you start banging on about the constitution.
Obviously the political advantage Wendy hopes to secure in supporting a referendum is that she can shoot the SNP’s fox. This will probably happen at some point, and Alex Salmond has admitted that a referendum decision will stick for a generation. The down side is that all those SNP members who positively salivate at the mere thought of a referendum will have their day – at least in the run-up to polling. And I can’t help worrying that an SNP with a populist platform that, because of a previous referendum decision – doesn’t include independence, will appear a lot less threatening to unionist-inclined voters.