Alex Massie

The View from the North

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Away from the BNP and the Woes of Brown (which sounds like an Aberfeldy tea-room or something) the other notable european result came in Scotland where the SNP's handsome victory (29-21 over Labour) confirmed that Labour can no longer automatically consider itself the natural governing party in Scotland. Given that the 2007 Holyrood election was essentially a tie (the SNP winning on away goals), this was the first time the SNP had ever routed Labour in a national election.

Sure, Labour's difficulties at Westminster played a large part in this, but only a part. Their inability to counter Alex Salmond's merry band at Holyrood was also a factor. This, even though the nationalists, having enjoyed their first 12 months in power,  endured a more difficult second year in office. Despite Salmond's local difficulties, Labour has struggled to lay a glove on him.

Theoretically, then, the nationalists are ready to make major gains at Westminster next year. I'm not so sure: in the first place, one ought not to under-estimate the power of ancestral voices. That is, faced with the prospect of a conservative government, some Labour voters will return to the fold.

Secondly, my suspicion is that a higher percentage of the nationalists' core vote can be relied upon to turn out at european and Holyrood elections than is the case for any of the other parties. That's one reason for their victory last week. I think.

Thirdly, in 2005 the SNP only won 17% of the vote at the last Westminster elections, leading one to suspect that the electorate had a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the differences between UK and Scottish elections. From that perspective, talk of the Nationalists winning more than 20 seats seems pretty wild to me. Labour's vote in scotland might have to plummet to something like 25% of the Scottish vote for that to happen. Could this happen? Certainly. But is it probable? Not quite.

Still, the SNP are understandably cock-a-hoop and, again unsurprisingly, SNP bloggers are urging the party on to 2010 and their plans for an independence referendum. Here, however, it seems that the nats should be careful what they wish for. SNP Tactical Voting may argue that unecideds are more likely to vote for independence, but it seems much more likely that they will in fact break the other way. If you're not sold on independence when you enter the voting booth what's going to persuade you to take an enormous constitutional gamble? Not much, I hazard and I think that there are many people who might even consider themselves sympathetic to indepndence who would, nevertheless, vote for the Union when push came to shove.

And the most recent System 3 poll suggests this too: support for independence is at 36%, those against the idea at 39% while 25% have yet to make up their mind. Or are incapable of doing so. And this after two years of an SNP government that was supposed to lay the foundations for the Road to Independence?

That's not to say that it can't or won't happen. But if I were a nationalist strategist I'd be very wary of a referendum next year and, in fact, not at all sure that I'd want to have that fight right now.

Nonetheless, there's no denying that the SNP ain't going anywhere soon - even if there's also little reason to suppose that a vote for the SNP is automatically or always a vote for independence. Labour and the SNP will each settle around the 30% mark but with Labour's support more concentrated in the urban west, it's still going to be difficult - though not impossible - for the Nats to defeat Labour at Westminster.

That shouldn't worry them too much and, indeed, the risk is that SNP giddyness and extravagant predictions of future glory sts them up for a fall next year when they fail to meet, let alone surpass, the expectations they have set for themselves.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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