Will ye no' get elected again?

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SCOTLAND is the land that cries wolf. Several times this century the Scottish yearning for Home Rule has sent spasms of concern through the English establishment. Each time, the discontent has been blocked, or diverted or simmered down.

Now, once again, there is a howling from the Highlands, where the Scottish National Party took the two European seats. Across Scotland it won almost a third of the votes cast, its best performance ever. The Conservatives fell to a humiliating 14 per cent. Should the clubmen of St James's deign to notice?

Let's start with the scale of the SNP's success. Place in mental brackets all that vast swathe of thinly populated territory its Strasbourg MPs now represent and think only of the figures. Across Scotland, its share of the vote was 32.6 per cent, a couple of points up from the October 1974 general election, which returned 11 Scottish Nationalists to Westminster. Winnie Ewing, one of the SNP victors, predicted that the party would do so well next time round, in 1999, 'that we can go straight to the United Nations' and demand recognition.

Well, all politicians get a little over-excited sometimes. But something is clearly going on. The SNP performance is not dissimilar from its poll ratings; it is taking votes from all the other parties and is doing particularly well in the target constituencies for a 1996-97 general election. So its performance last week deserves to be treated just as seriously as those of the other parties.

Because these European elections include a 'verification count', at which the ballot papers are first sorted and counted, the SNP was able to take samples of its vote in the nine Parliamentary constituencies included in the Euro-seat of North East Scotland, which it took from Labour. Projecting from these samples, the party claims it would have won six of the nine constituencies. A swing of the scale the SNP saw this time might gain the party 16 seats at a general election. It is targeting both Labour and Tory seats, but it is the competition with Labour that is most interesting. It involves more battlefields and has, historically, been the most savage Scottish political contest. It will get more so.

One big difference between the SNP in the Seventies and today is that it has clearly shifted leftwards (did defecting Tory voters notice?). Alex Salmond, its robustly talented leader, was actually suspended from the party in 1982-83 for his membership of the left-wing 79 Group, a faction which looked forward to 'a Scottish socialist republic'. He has softened a bit since then, but his heart is firmly on the left, firmly in charge - and he is competing directly for the loyalty of Scottish socialists.

So long as John Smith was leader, however, Labour in Scotland seemed immovably secure. 'Smithy' was almost as devout a devolutionist as he was a kirk-goer, and there was no real question about the party's commitment to Scottish Home Rule. The Nationalists have moved quickly to claim that this has changed. Salmond recently declared of Smith's presumed successor: 'Blair's not fit to lace John Smith's boots, never mind fill his shoes.'

This may have been selected as the new line of attack simply because the old SNP one - that Labour couldn't win in the south of England and were, therefore, a wasted vote - no longer sounds plausible. But it has some resonance. Labour MPs are already complaining that the Scottish media have been 'going on' about Mr Blair's Englishness. The SNP reckon his background as a public schoolboy in Edinburgh will be just as damaging on the council estates.

Labour's European share of the vote was lower in its Scottish 'heartland' than in the UK generally and there has been a four-

point swing from Labour to the SNP since the 1992 general election. It is becoming pretty clear how the Nationalists will try to widen it.

To protect its flank, Labour will probably harden its line on Home Rule. In some ways, the party reckons it has been a victim of its own success in attacking the Government's record: the Scottish Tory vote has collapsed so badly that the SNP is gaining, too. One of Mr Smith's last political assessments was about this: 'When you shake the tree, some apples fall into the other guy's garden.'

George Robertson, the shadow Scottish Secretary, reckons that the passage of the Scottish local government Bill, which further concentrates power in the hands of central government would give him, in office, the power of a governor-general, responsible for up to 7,000 appointed quangos. This is so plainly undemocratic that, Labour reckons, it underscores the case fora distinctively Scottish democracy. The implication is that the Scottish Tories are pushing the country towards its own parliament in two ways: by boosting the Nationalists and calling into question the legitimacy of the current administrative structure.

Even without the final SNP breakthrough, current Scottish politics is starting to look a little volatile. Ever since Wilson, Labour has been dithering between a minimalist devolutionary model, which would give Scotland the trappings of its own legislature without strong or entrenched powers, and a more red-blooded commitment.

Smith was somewhere in the middle. But it would not be surprising to see Labour running at the next election on a 'maximalist' Home Rule platform, advocating an Edinburgh parliament with strong rights which Westminster would be unable to remove. The party may be obliged to sound more militantly Scottish precisely because its leader is English.

The political implications of this are fascinating. Scotland may be nearer to having a real parliament today than at any time since 1707. John Major, if he is still the Tory leader, will have a heaven-sent opportunity to rerun his 'wake up and save the Union' campaign in 1996-97: if he does, it will raise the Scottish Tory vote well above the pathetic 10-14 per cent it is polling today. But Labour will, this time, have no choice but to argue unequivocally for sweeping political reform, knowing that if it forms a government, there may well be a vocal and leftwing SNP contingent sitting alongside at Westminster.

That would be quite a fight. Its likelihood depends largely on whether the SNP can keep the pressure on Labour. The next opportunity to watch them try comes in two weeks' time with the Monklands by-election. The thought that Labour could even come near losing a 15,000 majority in the seat of its revered former leader is an extraordinary one. But there have been internecine wars on the local council and the Labour candidate is a former employee of Robert Maxwell.

Earlier this week I asked Alex Salmond what his chances were. The party has a mountain to climb, he conceded. Yet he had a twinkle in his eye. Is Scotland crying wolf? Scotland's crying something. Even in comatose St James's, it will be worth glancing at what happens next.

(Photograph omitted)