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Can the Scottish National Party Survive Scottish Independence?

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

No matter the result in Scotland today, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is undoubtedly at its finest hour. Led by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, the party has gone from the fringes of Scottish politics to the cusp of achieving their almost impossible goal. Salmond has been heralded all over the world as a great leader and a savvy politician. The New York Times wrote this week that, regardless of Thursday’s result, Salmond “has earned a place in Scotland’s pantheon,” while the Guardian commented, “He would not rank alongside figures such as Gandhi, George Washington or even Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera. But in historical terms he would be a tier above many of the leaders who peacefully led their countries away from Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.”

But while the SNP is enjoying an undoubtedly great moment, it is also in a precarious situation. If Scots vote no, the party faces its own irrelevance: Can a nationalist party survive a failed nationalist referendum? But if Scots do decide that they are better off going it alone, it is not totally clear that it will be Salmond and the SNP who will govern the new nation.

From its very creation in 1934, the SNP’s raison d’être was independence. The question that plagued and divided the party for decades was how to obtain it. After decades in the wilderness making speeches about independence based on legendary figures like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, they were still a very minor, one-issue party as late as the 1990s. But in the past 20 years, Salmond turned them into a modern political party, marrying the romantic rhetoric of nationalism with pragmatic political strategy.

The SNP first won power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, with Salmond on the helm, and when they gained an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, the victory gave Salmond the mandate to demand a referendum with David Cameron, leading to today’s vote. The SNP has been heralded as one of the most successful single-issue parties in history, but if the referendum fails, what would be their issue? Yes, the SNP would have won more power for Scotland—the British government has promised maximum devolution of powers if Scotland stays in the union—but the crusaders would no longer have a crusade. They would be heroes, but their time would also be over.

If Scotland does choose independence, it wouldn’t necessarily be the SNP who governs. Other parties would likely quickly begin contesting power. Labour, who holds 37 seats in the Scottish Parliament (to the SNP’s 69), would not sit idly by and allow the SNP to dominate, and smaller parties like the Greens and even the Socialists would undoubtedly begin to push forward in the new nation. 

Salmond himself is not universally popular, even within his own party. He was hounded out of the SNP in 2000, though he returned to great success four years later. Among Scottish people at large, Salmond had a negative approval rating only last year, with only 45 percent of Scots approving of his behavior as First Minister, and 49 percent disapproving. His popularity is particularly low among women. Despite a concerted effort to woo women voters, women are 9 percent less likely to vote for independence than men, and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont lambasted Salmond in March for a belated attempt to address issues like childcare: “There is one thing which the First Minister has discovered this year. Women give birth to children. Then they look after them.”

The dramatic turnaround in the referendum, which looked doomed to fail as late as a month ago, as well as his success on the campaign trail, have improved his numbers over the last year, but like many a popular politician before him, Salmond may find the business of governing much more difficult than the romance and the showmanship of campaigning. The SNP has proved that it can rally and animate a nation; governance is a different issue entirely. The referendum will go down in history as the SNP’s greatest achievement, but once they’ve achieved their goal, will there be anything left?