Over the past couple of weeks, there’s been a new line from the anti-independence parties. David Mundell, and certain figures in the Labour party, appear now to be conceding that a mandate for another independence referendum is indeed produced by the result of a Holyrood election. It’s just that they’re insisting that the mandate can only come from a pro-independence majority in the Holyrood elections in 2021. They still refuse to concede the indisputable fact that there is already a pro-independence majority in Holyrood, that the SNP already has a mandate for another referendum, and that Holyrood has already voted in favour of one.
It’s noticeable that the anti-independence parties are not saying that a win for the SNP in a snap Westminster General Election would produce a mandate for another referendum – even though arguably a win for the SNP in Scotland in a Westminster election would produce a stronger mandate. After all, as we are constantly being reminded, the constitution is a power reserved to Westminster. So if Scotland votes for a large majority of SNP MPs elected to Westminster on a manifesto of support for another referendum, there’s an unchallengeable mandate for one.
But no, according to the likes of the discredited Mundell, it has to be a Holyrood election in 2021. How Scotland votes in elections to the parliament which actually does have the power to alter the constitution doesn’t seem to count. It’s not hard to see the reason why, and it’s breathtakingly cynical even by the standards of Scotland’s anti-independence parties. It’s the elephant in the room. They are hoping that the trial of Alex Salmond, which is due to be held next year, will cause the SNP to implode. They are hoping it is going to be all their SNP bad Christmasses come at once.
Clearly, the trial of a man who was and is a towering figure in the SNP is not going to do the party any favours. The matter is of course sub-judice, so we cannot discuss the nature of the allegations against him, nor speculate about his guilt or innocence – except to note that all those charged with a crime are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
However I do not believe that the trial will have the substantial impact on support for independence that the Tories, Labour, and the Lib Dems are clearly praying for. The reason is the same reason that support for independence has never yet been dented by the constant barrage of SNP bad stories which fill the Scottish press on a daily basis. And that’s because the desire for independence is not primarily driven by belief in the SNP, but rather by a deep dissatisfaction with and alienation from Westminster politics amongst the people of Scotland. No amount of SNP bad stories in the press are going to make the Tories or Labour treat Scotland’s needs and interests with any more respect than they have done to date. It’s Brexit and that manifest lack of respect for Scotland which are driving the rise in support for independence. That won’t change irrespective of the Salmond trial.
I also suspect that the political fallout for the SNP produced by the trial will be considerably more limited than the anti-independence parties are hoping for. The closest parallel is the trial and acquittal of Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal party, in 1979. He was tried on charges of conspiring to murder his ex-lover Norman Scott – although until his death in 2014 Thorpe denied he had had a sexual relationship with Scott. Thorpe was forced to resign from the leadership of the Liberals in May 1976 after a series of increasingly lurid newspaper investigations into his relationship with Scott following the shooting of Scott’s dog in October 1975. In May 1979, just a few days after that year’s General Election which saw Margaret Thatcher enter Number 10, Thorpe was put on trial along with three others for conspiracy to murder. Thorpe was acquitted on all charges, although he never succeeded in restoring his reputation.
Thorpe had been a successful and popular leader of the Liberal party, which all through the 1960s had been a minor force in British politics, languishing in single figures in the polls and with a derisory share of the vote in General Elections. The party’s nadir came in the general election of 1970, when Jeremy Thorpe was newly elected as the Liberal leader. In that election the Liberals lost half of the 12 seats they had previously held and were left with just 6.
However once established as leader, Thorpe managed to oversee a revival of the party’s fortunes in the two General Elections of 1974. In the February election, the Liberals won 14 seats, a gain of 8. This election was characterised by widespread public dissatisfaction with the three day week and the economic management of the UK by Edward Heath. Under Thorpe, the Liberals were able to reap the benefit and increased their support, largely at the expense of the Tories. That election produced a hung parliament, there was another General Election in October that year, in which the Liberals lost two MPs but gained one, leaving them with 13.
Despite a looming trial and previous months of sensational newspaper stories about Thorpe’s alleged relationship with Scott and the shooting of Scott’s dog, the Liberals still managed to pick up 11 seats in the General Election of 1979 even though Thorpe himself lost his North Devon seat to the Conservatives. The party lost three seats overall, but gained one. It is arguable that there was a “Thorpe effect”, but it seems to have been very limited in scope. The party had held around 12 or 13 seats throughout most of the 1960s and 70s, and continued to hold that number all the way through the period when the Thorpe Affair dominated the press – although before the matter had come to trial. The party pretty much held steady in opinion polling during that period. There was no collapse in Liberal support either before the trial or after it.
The first general election after the Thorpe trial is not directly comparable because the Liberals did not fight it as a single party, but rather as part of the Alliance with the newly formed SDP. The SDP was a breakaway faction of centrist Labour MPs who were dissatisfied with the leadership of the left wing Michael Foot. The Alliance doubled the number of seats previously held by the Liberals, gaining 12 and ending up with 23 MPs.
However this result does prove that the trial and its aftermath had not damaged the Liberals as a political brand. That’s the case even though many people continued to believe that Thorpe was guilty despite his acquittal. There was a very strong lingering perception that Thorpe had behaved extremely poorly, and had not adequately explained himself. The trial was felt by many to be heavily slanted in favour of Thorpe, with the British establishment looking after its own, and the judge’s summing up – heavily biased in Thorpe’s favour – was the subject of a scathing parody by the comedian and satirist Peter Cooke.
Voters are grown ups. They are capable of distinguishing between the individual actions of a politician in a private capacity and the overall goals, aims, and philosophy of the political party to which he or she belongs. They are capable of looking at the wider political context when they cast their votes. And so they rejected Jeremy Thorpe as a politician, but they did not reject his party.
Jeremy Thorpe’s behaviour in private was not a reflection of the political ideals of the Liberal party, the public saw that. They will also see that whatever happens in the Salmond trial, it is not a reflection of the political goal of Scottish independence. The anti-independence parties may be hoping that the Salmond trial will prevent independence happening. They’re in for a big disappointment.
It’s not the Salmond trial which has the capacity to cause serious electoral damage to the SNP in 2021. What has the capacity to cause the party serious electoral damage is if they fail to deliver on their manifesto commitment to push forward for an independence referendum during the lifetime of this Holyrood Parliament. That’s where the potential for damage lies, not the Salmond trial. That’s the real elephant in the room for the SNP leadership.
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