ONE thing that has struck me in all the commentary and analysis since the General Election is the refusal to accept that there might be a kind of right-of-centre Scottish nationalism, and that its alienation from the present leadership of the SNP could be a reason for the setbacks last Thursday.

For instance, blogger James Kelly wrote in The National about the groups of voters the SNP lost this time on the way to the polling booths. One important group consisted of “committed No voters, mostly in areas of former Tory and LibDem strength”, whose behaviour in the circumstances seemed easy enough to explain: “the real mystery is how the SNP ever managed to claim their support in 2015”.

But it is only a mystery if we accept that “committed No voters” is an accurate description of them. Take those in Gordon, for example, a traditional battleground of Liberals and Conservatives till Alex Salmond intervened there in 2007 to make the Scottish parliamentary constituency a three-way marginal, then a rock-solid safe seat for himself, before transferring to the Westminster level and, after one further triumph, losing it last week. I would have thought that, with such a history, the allegiances of its electorate could only be regarded as fluid at best, rather than “committed No”.

Loading article content

Gordon is, after all, part of the north-eastern region which formed the heartland of the SNP and maintained that role for a third of a century. Could this have happened just through hanging on somehow to people who now turn out to have been “committed No voters” all along? Surely a more likely explanation is that these voters, like many others, are seldom rigidly fixed in the electoral choices they make. This is especially true in rural seats where economic contrasts are not so stark as in industrial areas. The SNP majorities in conservative places like Gordon and its neighbours would be made up of some core Nationalists, some home-rule Liberals, some rural radicals, as well indeed as some Tory Scottish patriots of multiple allegiance who don’t mind waving a saltire now and then. The achievement of Salmond and his political neighbours lay not in making pseudo-nationalists out of non-nationalists but in assembling local coalitions of enough disparate elements to win the seats.

Evidently these coalitions have crumbled since 2014. The previous majorities have been shaken up and reassembled, now in favour of the Tories rather than the SNP. The constituencies have not themselves undergone any sudden social transformation. Their voters have just taken stock of an evolving political scene and come to a fresh view of how their interests will be best served.

I would have thought one obvious reason for these voters to switch support is that the SNP has moved to the left and become less congenial to people in the centre or on the right. During the campaign it certainly made its pitch to the left, little suspecting how from that side a sudden threat would appear in the shape of the Corbyn swing – which, because in Scotland we are badly served by the pollsters, went unnoticed till the last minute. So the possibility of support, indeed continued support, from the right was ignored and neglected. Right-wing constituencies were, incredibly, somehow taken for granted, which is a big reason why so many were lost.

The constitution of the SNP defines its aim as “the furtherance of all Scottish interests”. It is in fact a novelty that this aim should now have been whittled down to what is fashionably called the radical or progressive agenda. While Salmond was personally a lefty he could, as a former bank executive, walk the capitalist walk and talk the capitalist talk. That was what he and his colleague John Swinney did at a crucial stage more than a decade ago as they made the rounds of Scottish finance and industry persuading moneyed men that the independence of the country might be good for them too – and that, at any rate, things could hardly get worse than they eventually got under New Labour. All the while Salmond remained First Minister, he continued to cultivate these connections, and with a good deal of success. George Mathewson, Jim McColl, Brian Souter, Tom Farmer, Bill Samuel, Peter de Vink and many others have all endorsed or donated to his SNP. But since 2014 the ample flow of business funding has dried up.

The reasons are not far to seek, and can be found conveniently summarised in the election manifesto the SNP published a couple of weeks ago. Looking inside we find, against dozens of spending commitments and calls for higher taxation, only a couple of lines on how the private sector of the economy (from which all other blessings flow) is to be encouraged and expanded. Even the Labour party in its never-never land made some attempt at costings for its own programme of fantasies. For the SNP, it seems, the money just grows on trees. Certainly neither of the Scottish Government’s bumbling economic ministers has had any enlightenment to offer – and all this against the background of a country sliding towards recession.

I am not confident that the present Scottish Government has any grasp of the basic economic realities. If it tries to discuss the economy, it either blames everything on the English (not without reason, I hastily add) or else tends to talk sweet nothings, to take refuge in prattle about inclusiveness and sustainability. Perhaps the men and women round the cabinet table at Bute House collectively believe these virtuous abstractions add up to economic growth in some post-modern sense. If so, they are wrong. Economic growth means getting more bang for your buck, more output for your input, so that increased productivity allows you to make new investments out of the profits from your existing business. Then Scots in general grow richer, and there is more for the poor as well. But the output needs to take priority over the benefits.

With the SNP’s electoral support back below 40 per cent, we must presume that for the time being another referendum is off the table whether the First Minister cares to say so or not. But the setback for the SNP last Thursday need be only temporary if it is understood as an economic opportunity. The government in London can’t and won’t help us because its policies are geared to the needs of the south-east of England.

It is for Nicola Sturgeon and her ministerial team to concentrate on the improvement of Scotland’s underperforming economy: the day job. Without more success there we can be sure that even if there should ever be a second referendum, it will be lost. And there is more than enough ordinary, useful business for the Scottish Government to get stuck into before its next encounter with the voters in 2020. Watch this space.

The example we should follow is not that of Jeremy Corbyn but of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. She is nominally from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, but she covers a spectrum which embraces a successful industrial policy with a regime of benefits far more generous than anything we are likely to see in this country for a long time yet. What is the basis for the achievement of the most successful politician in the western world? The balanced budget that leaves all the necessary room for economic growth.