THE SNP is celebrating 50 years of the party’s continuous representation in the House of Commons. Before that, the Nats had scored one brief by-election victory, when crusty Robert McIntyre won Motherwell in the fag days of the Second World War, but he only held the seat for three months. After that, there was the long dry spell at Westminster till the fearless Winnie Ewing claimed Hamilton in November 1967. There have been SNP bottoms ensconced on the sticky green benches ever since. Indeed, the party remains the third largest contingent in the Commons.

But so what? Half a century on Scotland is still firmly part of the British Empire. True, we have wrestled a bunch of devolved powers from London. But the process has been akin to pulling teeth without the benefit of an anaesthetic. At no stage has the ruling party in government at Westminster ever said: “Golly, gosh, chaps! Those Scots have voted for Home Rule. Let’s do the democratic thing and let them decide what powers they want.”

Instead every single bit of devolved legislation has been handed over piecemeal, in the fashion of a parent dolling out sweeties to the bairns, while telling them too much sugar will rot their teeth. Three referendums on (1979, 1997 and 2014), we’ve got has far as having half of income tax controlled by Holyrood, but the big stuff – Universal Credit, pensions, the economy, interest rates, public borrowing, corporation tax, defence, bank regulation, broadcasting, internal security, and who we invade – all remain under lock and key at Westminster. As Enoch Powell sagely reminded us, power devolved is ultimately power retained at the whim of central government, for as long as the UK parliament remains “sovereign”.

I don’t mean to disparage the hard work done at Westminster by SNP MPs over the years. Crow-barring devolved powers from London control has been beneficial to Scotland. For instance we can mitigate the worst excesses of Tory cuts to welfare, as with the notorious bedroom tax. But that’s my point: we can only mitigate. We can put a metaphorical finger into the hole in the dam but we can’t prevent the Tories or Labour at Westminster creating a thousand new holes. We are playing a defensive game when the opposing team has the right to change the rules any time it wants. Scotland remains a devolved “region”, our parliament exists at the whim of whoever has a majority in the Commons, and our MPs can be voted down any time the ruling party wishes. Day after day after day, for half a century.

I salute those SNP MPs who have stuck it out at Westminster. Having spent two years in the joint, I am filled with admiration for Winnie Ewing, who had to go into the lion’s den on her own for three years. If you think Parliament is misogynist now, imagine just how boorish it was 50 years ago when there were only 26 other female MPs in total. Winnie’s early time at Westminster was made miserable when one Scottish Labour MP began to stalk her. She was so depressed by this that her weight went down to eight stones. Eventually, she got the Labour whips to intervene and she received a written apology. (By the way, said stalker still adorns the House of Lords.)

That doleful and increasingly predictable Unionist commentator, David Torrance, suggested this week that Winnie’s election in 1967 began a trend in which SNP MPs and MSPs came to believe their mere election was the significant thing, rather than actually seeking to change the material world in any substantial sense. David contends that providing a genuine political alternative to the status quo requires “intellectual legwork”, whereas the Nats have offered little more than “superficial slogans (“independence in Europe”), grievance and moral grandstanding”. Ouch!

David Torrance tries to give intellectual cover to the traditional, shallow Unionist trope that debating constitutional issues is a diversion from the real business of running the economy or resolving social problems; aka “getting on with the day job”. But even a modest brush with the history of the SNP would reveal a passion – some might even say obsession – with detailed policy analysis.

FOR decades, when the late, great Stephen Maxwell ran the SNP’s policy research unit, the party turned out a wealth of detailed work on economic, education and social policy for a social democratic Scotland. The arrival of North Sea oil in the 1970s led to a festival of ideas on how to create a sovereign wealth fund; establish a petroleum tax regime that would effect a sustainable energy industry for the long run; and yet avoid the deindustrialisation that having a petro currency was likely to inflict. Sadly, none of the latter intellectual innovations were heeded by HM Treasury, with disastrous results. Today, the Scottish national movement is bristling with idea and policy papers – on everything from creating a national investment bank to laying the groundwork for a citizens wage.

The problem is, of course, the little matter of political power. Or rather the absence of power in Scotland to implement most of these things. A Scottish National Investment Bank will have to run the gauntlet of conservative Treasury accounting rules unique in Europe. A citizens wage requires complete control by Holyrood of social security and pensions. Reversing deindustrialisation necessitates Scottish control over industrial and competition policy, as well as over capital spending. One could go on and on.

The constitutional question is not a diversion from the day job nor is it a boring discussion about abstract rules. The constitutional question is at root a debate about who has power — power over the economy, power over taxes, power over natural resources, power of life and death. The fight to control our wealth and lives in Scotland is not the utopian irrelevance Torrance pretends. By making this pretence, Torrance gives ideological cover to those who really do pull the strings — in the City of London, in the untaxed multinational companies, and in the UK Treasury that protects these vested interests. Which brings me back to my starting point. The half century occupation by SNP members of those green benches at Westminster has seen fine speeches galore and ministerial questions by the bucket load. We have wrestled some powers back to Scotland, and that is to the good. But the truth is we should be celebrating 50 years of national independence, not five decades of taking the train to King’s Cross. The longer the SNP stays at Westminster, the further away is the real goal of bring sovereignty home to the people of Scotland.

They do things differently in Catalonia. This week most of the elected ministers of the Catalan Republic are incarcerated in Madrid jails. I’m not suggesting instant UDI in Scotland, but I am saying we need to be careful of getting into the mind-set of being supplicants at the Palace of Westminster. Sometimes — when opposing Thatcher’s poll tax — resistance has taken forms other than a late night speech in an empty House of Commons. The Catalans are making their own history, we in Scotland can make ours. Fifty years at Westminster is long enough.