If the right of the SNP is allowed to simply disregard Party discipline and kidnap the agenda in an attempt to create a New SNP, then New SNP will pay a price. It is the left of the party which has shown loyalty and discipline that needs to stop this – by speaking out now.
It is a phenomenon I have noted since the rise of New Labour in the mid-1990s and it has always perplexed me – the right wing of political parties expects the left wing to demonstrate restraint and loyalty but it never applies the same expectations to itself. Throughout the Blair years any left-winger who suggested that any part of Blair’s populist (in the proper sense of setting the many against the few) and neoliberal agenda was in any way wrong was called in for an ‘attitude adjustment’ before the words were fully out their mouths. Any suggestion that wars of aggression were wrong was dealt with sternly (George Galloway was expelled from the Party). Any hint that people should pay more tax was shot down immediately (it more-or-less forced John McAllion out of the Scottish Front Bench Team just before the 1997 election). Anyone suggesting that immigration policy was draconian or harsh was equally thoroughly dealt with.
But – and this is an awfully big but – this Discipline of Party Policy did not apply to right-wingers. David Blunket was free to say some very harsh things about the government’s immigration policy and indeed claim outright failure of policy, but only on the basis that the policy wasn’t right wing enough. Mandleson could talk for hours about insufficient deregulation and the failure to open up markets even further without the humiliation of being ‘called in’. Alan Milburn could call for the wholesale privatisation of the NHS and be home in time for tea without so much as a mild warning. Frank Field could claim that the Party was wrong to back a universal welfare state (the founding purpose of the Party and still very much Party policy) and be lauded as a ‘deep thinker’.
The same is true in the Tories to a fair extent. If Ken Clarke goes off message to the left on penal reform Downing Street briefs agains him. If any one of a number of nutters goes off message to the right on one of any number of matters, Downing Street sympathises. At least with the Tories you might argue that they are supposed to be of the right so it make some sense.
But what of the SNP? I know that many in the Party are and always have been very uncomfortable with some of the economic policy. The touchstone issue is the commitment to a blanket corporation tax cut if they get the power. This ill-thought-through policy is based on the Ireland experience but unlike Keynes, as the facts have changed (and we know the truth about the Irish ‘miracle’) no-one has changed their minds. I know lots of activists and many MSPs of the left (and indeed of the centre) would like this policy changed, but they have shown forbearance and kept their mouths shut.
The same, yet again, does not apply to the right. At the first opportunity they have rolled their tanks onto the wider Party’s lawn. In their sights is the 30-year-long commitment to oppose Nato membership. With none of the restraint of the left, the right has been briefing like mad. They have tried and tried to create a policy U-turn out of nothing and so far at least they’ve got the media believing that the left is on the run.
However, there is one lesson that the SNP leadership must learn about the right – it is never satisfied. Never. The old greed-and-envy dichotomy of left and right is true in one regard – the right is always greedy for more. Always. There is no doubt in my mind that their strategy is to start with the Nato commitment. If they win that, no-one should believe that they will go home satisfied. They would find it very hard to overthrow the commitment to remove Trident from Scottish soil, but that will be their long-term aim. The next step will be for a slight obfuscation on timetable. The SNP could remove Trident from Scottish soil on day one of being an independent country – as other countries have shown. All they have to do is say ‘keep your submarines here until we can sort out a deal but take the warheads out of Scotland tomorrow’. There is no barrier to this at all. But the right will find reasons to start with a more relaxed timetable. Then it will prove ‘more difficult than we thought’ in negotiations. Then there will be a good, pragmatic reason to keep them (such as a financial bung from Whitehall). And the next thing you know it’ll be all over – Trident in Scotland forever.
No-one should be under any illusion that the UK defence establishment and security services will not – cannot – allow an independent Scotland to become a non-aligned, non-nuclear nation. As we know, this would disarm London and shatter the world-view of the British establishment. It will use every means necessary for what it will believe to be the security of the UK. After all, that is the purpose of our secret service and it is the reason it is secret.
But it is not just war and peace. There are some in the SNP who have privately briefed that the Party’s universal free education policy for universities is wrong. There are even one or two who will muse aloud on whether the blanket ban on allowing greater market forces into the NHS is such a good idea. These people are in a disappearingly-small minority in the Party but they do not seem to feel themselves bound by the wider Party.
And so a couple of messages from this. The first is that a victory for the right over Nato is not the end of the matter, it will simply be the beginning. Trident will be the next target. The second is that if there is to be a war for the soul of the Party then the left will need to be just as ready to break Party unity as the right. And finally, if the leadership is to allow the impression that there is a semblance of a project to create New SNP by ditching issues of principle then it will suffer the fate of New Labour. No-one likes a sell-out.
If SNP policies are all up for debate, fine. If the position on Nato was just sort of conversational, not an actual commitment, then the left should rise up equally vociferously about the corporation tax policy. There are two simple reason for this. The first is that a message has to come out of the SNP that it is not about to be captured by the right. And the second is that the SNP leadership must get the message that if it accommodates the wilder fantasies of its right wing, it is allowing the lid to be lifted off the box and a battle for the soul of the Party is underway.
This is not a technical issue. Those who voted for the SNP on the basis of progressive policies like a rejection of Nato have every right to believe that the manifesto for which they voted should stand firm and not be overturned by ideologues within one year of their vote. This is not like some of the previous failed manifesto commitments which failed for reasons of lack of money or a lack of a parliamentary majority. This would be a U-turn of choice, a decision made for no good reason to betray a commitment made to us about creating a better, more just Scotland.
The right cannot be allowed to drag everyone else around by the ears. If they aren’t stopped from above, then the Party as a whole must be encouraged to stand up against them. Allowing them one win will be only the beginning.