Nationalists must choose Salmond's successor carefully

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The Independent Online

The Scottish National Party, presently assembled in Inverness for its annual conference, has cause to celebrate. Under the guerrilla leadership of Alex Salmond, nationalists have made significant advances. They are well represented at Westminster and have won the status of official Opposition in the still comparatively new Scottish Parliament. Beyond these electoral accomplishments, the SNP has begun to put paid to the allegation that it is a single-issue pressure group. Modern nationalism is stumbling towards an ideology, not just a constitutional objective, which at best is modern, tolerant and inclusive. The party has begun to grow up.

The Scottish National Party, presently assembled in Inverness for its annual conference, has cause to celebrate. Under the guerrilla leadership of Alex Salmond, nationalists have made significant advances. They are well represented at Westminster and have won the status of official Opposition in the still comparatively new Scottish Parliament. Beyond these electoral accomplishments, the SNP has begun to put paid to the allegation that it is a single-issue pressure group. Modern nationalism is stumbling towards an ideology, not just a constitutional objective, which at best is modern, tolerant and inclusive. The party has begun to grow up.

The dilemmas facing delegates - whom to elect as Salmond's successor, and whether to remain loyal to constitutional gradualism - are two sides of the same coin. John Swinney, Mr Salmond's loyal deputy and the favourite to replace him, is a dedicated proponent of the "stepping-stones" approach. He is convinced that a sovereign Scotland is most likely to emerge when the SNP has proved itself capable of governing competently within the context of the UK state. That position reflects understanding of the way devolution has worked in Quebec, Catalonia and elsewhere in the developed world. This means hard work in the Scottish Parliament and willingness to position the SNP as a plausible centre-left opponent of Scottish Labour.

Mr Swinney's opponent, Alex Neil, rejects this long haul. To him, Scotland's new parliament is little more than a unionist trick to trap nationalism for ever in the halfway house of devolution. Mr Neil will concede neither a referendum on independence nor a collaborative approach to the process of nation-building. His is the purist's case; freedom in a single leap.

If nationalists choose Alex Neil, they risk reversing what Alex Salmond has achieved. Impatient nationalism is not better nationalism. It is impossibilism. In order to be trusted, the SNP must first prove itself trustworthy; and, historically, its policieshave left a lot to be desired.

John Swinney seems determined to build on Salmond's legacy and win the trust of the Scottish electorate. He must assert radical values and demonstrate the SNP's capacity to shatter the smug conservatism of Scottish Labour. Nationalism must mean more than reform of the UK constitution. It must offer a genuine, radical alternative. By committing his party to fight for policies beyond the dream of independence in Europe, Swinney has, so far, demonstrated an ambition worthy of the current incumbent.

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