Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

The SNP's Progressive Dilemma

David Torrance


Daniil Vnoutchkov

| 6 mins read

It was the former Labour politician David Marquand who identified what he called the ‘progressive dilemma’ in British politics, that is the reluctance of UK voters to support parties – usually Labour or the Liberals – whose broadly progressive values and policies they otherwise claim to support.

Superficially, the Scottish National Party (SNP) – currently approaching its tenth anniversary in devolved government – would appear to be an exception. Three times it has fought elections for the Scottish Parliament on a “progressive” platform, and three times it has emerged as the largest party, once with an overall majority.

On closer examination, however, the SNP is subject to exactly the same dynamic as its progressive counterparts on the UK stage. Indeed, as I argue in my essay for the most recent edition of Political Quarterly, when it comes to Scottish Nationalism there is in fact a twin dilemma: in order to achieve independence, the SNP has needed to win political power, and in order to achieve political power it has had to win elections, and orthodoxy dictated that winning those in Scotland involved offering voters a centre-left agenda.

But over the past five years it’s become increasingly clear that the SNP’s two goals, winning (and subsequently retaining) office and ultimately securing independence, are often in conflict. Indeed, two recent events illustrate the point, the devolved Scottish Government’s latest Budget and the publication of its “Brexit” paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe.

The first is significant – “historic” in Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s own word – because for the first time Holyrood will have (almost) complete control of income tax bands and rates north of the border. Now although the SNP has always subscribed to the low-tax orthodoxy of British politics, its rhetoric about “social justice” and “progressive” values have rather created the impression that, given the chance, it would be more redistributive.

But in the most recent Budget, all the Finance Secretary did was forego the Treasury’s planned threshold increase for the upper rate, which means middle earners in Scotland will end up paying a little more than those in the rest of the UK. On the 50p rate, however, the SNP had in the past supported its restoration, only now it uses George Osborne-like arguments about the dangers of fiscal flight.

The SNP is not stupid; it knows its electorate well, and it fully realizes that while Middle Scotland likes to think of itself as “progressive” and more left-wing (i.e. better) than Middle England, it’s not really prepared to translate that conceit into higher taxes. In other words, the secret of the SNP’s electoral success since 2007 has been a New Labour-like ability to articulate the desires of Middle Scotland and thus win political support.

Increasing taxes and welfare payments (now also within its gift) risks offending moderate voters and therefore not only diminishing the party’s grip on devolved government but also support for independence. In the run up to the last referendum, for example, the SNP went out of its way to moderate its message, suddenly becoming pro-NATO, stressing its support for the monarchy and promising that independence would not mean higher taxes or lower public spending.

And now Brexit has increased the chances of another independence referendum, the SNP remains in safety-first mode. The essence of the Scottish Government’s long-awaited Brexit paper, meanwhile, is also that of compromise. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is acutely aware that a large chunk of her own supporters voted Leave in June’s referendum, thus she now accepts that Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, is set to leave the European Union.

So instead her government’s paper argues that the UK and, failing that, Scotland, ought to remain part of the EU Single Market. With respect to Scotland, however, this goal is quixotic, for sub-state units (i.e. a devolved Scotland) are not eligible to join either the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association. And even if it were possible, it’d need the approval of all 27 EU Member States, which seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Spain.

There are also broader tensions. The SNP might depict the UK as innately regressive, prone to Conservative, reactionary governments, and the EU as generally progressive, in spite of its economic treatment of Ireland and Greece, but the point remains that the former’s fiscal transfers give the Scottish Government significant leeway to sustain universal benefits like free personal care and free university tuition, while Scotland – independent or not – would likely be a net contributor to the EU.

Those on the Nationalist left, however, comfort themselves with the belief that once independence has been achieved, the SNP will dispense with Blairite triangulation and govern according to properly progressive principles. That aspiration, however, rather betrays the reality that it hasn’t thus far. The party’s twin dilemma will continue until, and perhaps even beyond, another independence referendum.

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    David Torrance

    David Torrance is a constitutional specialist at the House of Commons Library. Before that, he was a freelance journalist and broadcaster. He is the author of more than a dozen books on Scottish and UK political history.

    Articles by David Torrance
Volume 94, Issue 3

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