SNP to debate next step forward
Alex Salmond's surprise resignation will bring a September leadership contest
Last week, Alex Salmond announced his resignation as National Convenor of the Scottish National Party. Salmond has been the party's most successful leader. When he took over in 1990, the party had three MPs and 14% of the vote. Now they have six MPs, 35 MSPs and over 30% of the vote. He has taken the SNP from the political fringes to official opposition in the new Scottish parliament. At 45, his decision to resign has surprised many. Salmond himself says only that it is time for someone else to take the SNP to ``the next stage''.
While they agree on the final destination, not everyone in the SNP agrees on where that next stage is. Since last year's first ever Scottish parliament elections. Salmond, who is political and personally close to some of the most reactionary elements in the SDLP, has been under pressure form a section of the party unhappy at the direction in which the Salmond leadership was taking the party. Salmond, an economist in his previous life, wanted to show that Scotland could afford independence. He steered the SNP towards joining the Yes campaign during the referendum for a Scottish parliament. Having historically opposed devolution, it was a move with which many in the party were uncomfortable.
Many were disappointed with the tactics and showing in the election to the Scottish parliament and felt the decision to list independence as only tenth of their ten pre-election pledges was indicative of the priority the leadership was giving the party's historic mission. The more Salmond restated his mantra that independence was `a process', the less convinced they became of the leadership's commitment to `the divorce', as Labour continues to call independence. Salmond argued that the way to get independence was to show that the nationalists could run the parliament successfully and could do even better if it had more powers, in fact all powers. In short, make devolution work.
This internal criticism should not be overestimated, as Salmond still had the support of the vast majority of the party. In truth, the SNP is, as Salmond claims, in a strong position. Critics point out that with all the SNP MPs standing down to concentrate on their Edinburgh seats, the SNP will struggle to hold on to their Westminster quota. But why should that matter? The party already believes it is more likely to gain independence by getting a majority of seats in the Scottish parliament. While this may be unlikely in 2003, the next Scottish parliament elections, it is likely they will improve their vote and representation, securing their place in the public's mind as a potential government of Scotland - something that would have been laughable ten years ago.
Whatever the reasoning behind his decision, Salmond is gone. The scene is now set for the debate on strategy some have longed for. John Swinney, currently Deputy Leader and favourite for the post, is a support of the Salmond strategy, known as `gradualist'. Swinney, who represents a previously Tory seat at both Westminster and Edinburgh, is so uncontroversial as to make Salmond appear revolutionary.
He will face Alex Neil, currently SNP Social Security spokesperson, who is a known `fundamentalist'. Neil believes that too much emphasis is being placed on devolution (which he describes as ``a unionist invention'') and wants the party to concentrate on the demand for independence. Formerly a member of the Labour Party, he believes his arguments for a battle for the hearts and minds of the Scottish working class appeal to the grassroots of the party. Great care should be taken with these labels, as they hint at a greater divide between the two factions than actually exists. Most of the criticism of the leadership has more to do with personal animosities and ambitions than political differences.
The SNP conference which will decide the matter will not be held until September. In the short term, the SNP will be weakened by the episode. They will go into the next set of elections divided, whatever the outcome, and led by a less respected figure than had been anticipated. Scotland's unionists, primarily Labour, have been given a surprising boost. The Scottish parliament on the other hand, having already been snubbed by Labour's most prominent Scots, has now lost its most prominent and articulate nationalist. The next SNP leader will have to grow into the job and quickly if they are going to make the breakthrough in Labour's central belt heartlands that independence requires.
BY JIM SLAVEN