According to SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, Scotland will be independent by 2017.
Salmond’s claim follows earlier SNP predictions which came and went but left the Union unscathed. The SNP’s best known prognostication was its slogan of the early 1990s: “Scotland Free by 93.” As the then Scottish Labour Party leader, Donald Dewar, commented in a rare moment of humour: “It’s a good slogan. It rhymes, and they can revive it every ten years.”
Salmond is certainly correct not to see independence as something lurking round the corner. Recent opinion polls have consistently shown support for independence running at less than 25%. In late 2006, on the other hand, an opinion poll found 52% in favour of independence.
The contrast in these figures probably has more to do with the unreliability of opinion polls. However, there appears to be a decline in support for independence in recent months — it is backed by well under 50% of the population.
That support for independence should have declined while support for the party of independence — the SNP — has increased over the same period is paradoxical only at first sight.
Since coming to power the SNP has implemented a variety of populist measures. Its first budget froze council tax levels, for example — albeit in combination with backtracking on manifesto commitments, cutting funding for higher education, and planning to cut public spending in Scotland by 2%.
In general, however, the SNP is still seen as an administration committed to reversing the failures of its predecessors at Holyrood. Hence, support for it has grown.
But the fact that the SNP has been somewhat successful tends to weaken the argument in favour of independence. After all, if council tax levels can be frozen, school sizes cut, and prescription charges abolished within the framework of the Union, then why take a leap into the unknown?
Even if support for independence begins to increase again, it is unlikely to reach 50% by 2011, the year in which the SNP is committed to attempting to stage a referendum on the question.
But even the holding of a referendum in 2011, never mind the SNP winning it, is unlikely. Unless they were to undergo a sudden change in line, the combined ranks of Labour, Lib-Dems and Tories in Holyrood would scupper a referendum, by voting down the proposal.
In this context, Salmond’s prediction makes some degree of sense. His calculation appears to be:
The SNP will be returned with an increased majority in the 2011 Holyrood elections (partly on the basis of its record during its first term of office, and partly due to a backlash against the other parties for denying Scotland the right to stage a referendum); the SNP’s record during its second term in office will win it even greater support and credibility; by 2015 it will be popular and trusted enough to hold and win a referendum; after a couple of years of negotiations, Scotland achieves independence.
Whatever else might be said about Salmond’s calculations — which might be wrong, but cannot be said to be irrational — they underline the extent to which the SNP’s demand for independence for Scotland is a political project for making Scotland an independent unit of capital accumulation in the globalised world economy.
Salmond’s vision of an independent Scotland is a very material one — that of a low-tax, high-profit “Celtic tiger” economy. His basic problem is whether he can convince a majority of the Scottish electorate that Scottish capitalism is better than Unionist capitalism.