Alex Salmond’s belief that independence will be achieved on the back of a “rising tide of expectations” is drawn from recent Scottish political history. It’s no coincidence that support for the SNP boomed in the 1970s following the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea and then slumped in the ‘80s as the UK economy entered a severe downturn.
The near doubling of Scottish rates of poverty and unemployment during the Thatcher era sapped Scotland’s economic confidence, reinforcing the defensive and conservative instincts of the Scottish electorate. No doubt last week’s news that British economic output has begun to recover after the worst recession in living memory was greeted with the same sense of relief in Bute House as it was at the Treasury.
For months after the SNP defied electoral arithmetic to secure majority status at Holyrood in 2011, its control of the Scottish political landscape seemed absolute. With his unionist opponents humiliated, Alex Salmond was effectively free to run things on his own terms.
Recently, however, a series of badly executed policy U-turns and poorly handled referendum controversies – over Nato membership, EU legal advice and Scotland’s currency options – has taken the wind out of the nationalists’ sails. Now another controversy is stirring as the party’s commitment to cut corporation tax comes under increasing scrutiny.
In addition to the death of Margaret Thatcher, last week marked the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and 32 years since the election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. This confluence of dates is appropriate. The conflict in Northern Ireland cast a long shadow over Thatcher’s premiership. Her time at Downing Street was effectively book-ended by the killing of two close colleagues – Airey Neave in 1979 and Ian Gow in 1990 – by Irish republican paramilitaries.
Thatcher’s career may have been closely linked to the Troubles, but she never really understood – or tried to understand – the complexities of Ulster politics. Certainly her rhetoric left little space for nuance. The IRA, she declared, was out to “destroy democracy.” Republican violence was either “criminal” or “terrorist.” Divisions in the region pitched “extremists” on one side against, simply, “the rest” on the other. Ultimately for Thatcher – whose instincts were those of a traditional law and order Tory – Northern Ireland represented a security problem, not a political one, and required a security response.
The late polemicist Christopher Hitchens once warned that he would “go on keeping score” about the refusal of some countries to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq “until the last phoney pacifist has been strangled with the entrails of the last suicide-murderer.”
Among the “phoney pacifists” to whom Hitchens was referring were a number of his former friends on the left, now, in his eyes – as a result of their opposition to the Bush administration’s War on Terror – apologists for totalitarianism and theocracy in the Middle East. Hitchens’ post-9/11 conversion from socialism to neo-conservatism was indicative of a broader split in the Western liberal commentariat, occurring in the early 2000s, over the use of American military power to “promote democracy abroad.”
The explosion of loyalist anger sparked by the decision to remove the Union Jack from the top of Belfast City Hall a few weeks ago – and the street protests, riots and police clashes that followed – has served as an abrupt reminder of how deeply unsettled the political situation in Northern Ireland remains.
Despite the power-sharing deal struck by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2007, politics in the province has grown more, not less, polarised as support for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and its unionist equivalent, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has steadily waned.