Look at the political map of Scotland today and, but for a smattering of red, blue and orange, the land screams nationalist bright yellow. The scale of the Scottish National Party’s victory in the parliamentary elections of May 5 was nothing short of historic. Having secured their first ever parliamentary election triumph in 2007 over their bitter rivals Labour by a narrow 47 seats to 46, the SNP, after a four-year term as a minority government, was handed a stunning 69 seats by the Scottish electorate. That pushed Labour, seen by many as the natural governing party of Scotland, into a distant second place with 37, and gave the nationalists a majority in the 129-seat parliament with which to pursue their much-coveted referendum on independence.
Despite being ahead in the polls for some weeks prior to the election, SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond was himself taken aback by the nationalists’ margin of victory—which has shaken the very foundations of the United Kingdom. “It’s unprecedented, and it’s given the SNP a whole list of opportunities and challenges,” says Gerry Hassan, a Scottish-based writer and commentator. “They’ve got the potential for an independence referendum, and they’ve got an agenda to begin dismantling the Labour apparatchik state in Scotland, which was gatekeeping, stopping things from happening, that was looking after their own.”
On the independence question, analysts like Hassan believe that in building up to a referendum—likely in 2015—the SNP must make clear what independence, currently supported by just under 40 per cent of Scots, really means in a modern context. “The SNP are not going to galvanize Scottish public opinion by talking about border controls,” explains Hassan. “They have to talk about what kind of Scotland we want that fleshes out this concept of independence, which I think will be a very different kind of independence.” This “different kind of independence” will likely be less of a tearing up of the 300-year-old union with England, and more renegotiating the terms of the union—the “united kingdoms rather than the United Kingdom,” as Mike Russell, a SNP minister, told the Times.
Salmond, ever the canny operator and widely regarded as one of the most gifted politicians of his generation, knows he has time on his side. This parliamentary term will last for five years rather than the usual four, in order to avoid a clash with the next Westminster election. Meanwhile, he has already started pushing for greater financial powers for the Scottish parliament, which he hopes will make that leap into independence a little less foreboding for an electorate that has always fiercely protected its Scottish national identity within Britain.
So while introducing a new minimum price for alcohol in order to tackle the country’s boozy culture is one of the headline policies of this second-term nationalist administration, it is, as Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter wrote in Glasgow’s Herald, the battle for Scotland’s constitutional future that looks set to dominate the political landscape of this most ancient of nations. “Mr. Salmond wants to put Scots in the position where remaining in the Union becomes more hassle than leaving it,” Macwhirter said. “Unionists have four years or so to prove him wrong.”