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Left or Right? The Curious Case of the SNP

10/08/2015 10:59 | Updated 09 August 2016

The Scottish National Party is a genuinely unique animal in our modern politics. It has grown from being the butt of many a political joke to become the dominant force in the Scottish Parliament in just a few election cycles. It now occupies a large swathe of the green benches in a Parliament that its members and politicians would rather not have any part of and their forward momentum, depending on how the next Holyrood elections go, shows no sign of ending.

The SNP is the main event in Scottish politics. I have already gone to great lengths about how I think the SNP will position themselves in strategic terms as we go into the next Scottish elections but in this piece I want to consider an issue that has arisen in many recent conversations I have had and witnessed; how should we view the Nationalists in the broader political context?

These chats have been an attempt to position the SNP on a political spectrum or compass. We know they are populists - this much is evident from their rhetoric, from Mhairi Black's impassioned but ultimately content-absent maiden speech (seriously, watch it again and point to me where there was anything of substance said) to political chameleons like Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh who needs only a couple more party membership cards to complete the set - the signs of populism abound. However, the question still stands; where are they on the left-right spectrum?

Naturally, this very much seems to depend on where the person asking stands themselves. My right-wing friends correctly point to the reckless anti-fiscal responsibility rhetoric and an unfortunate misunderstanding of how budgets, deficits and economics in general work. They also correctly point to the fact that the right-wing UK Government has grown the economy, stopped our economic decay (to an extent - we're still accumulating far too much debt) and the UK being in an all-round improved state with its corresponding Nationalist objections. Added to this, the SNP commonly use the language of the hard left - check out their statements on land reform if you want something to read between verses of the Internationale.

So far so left wing? Well, no.

While the language, posturing - particularly the tokenistic nonsense like clapping in the Commons - and some of the policymaking are of the left, they lead my left wing friends to correctly ask; where is the redistributive action (action as opposed to empty white noise of which there is an abundance)?

A government and a party committed to a leftist conception of equality would, it would seem, be opposed to freezing council tax for everyone from struggling mums to millionaires, wouldn't it? This policy has led to a real terms cut in council service budgets - hardly a desired leftist outcome. Furthermore, the SNP have presided over the handing out of middle-class indulgences such as free university education and free prescriptions at the expense of the NHS and especially college places, the latter of which have been shown to be of particular use to those from low or lower-middle incomes.

So are they right wing? Well, no.

I don't think there is really an answer to the question; are the SNP a left or right wing party? They have a mix of both, depending on what is popular rather than what will work and the rhetoric occasionally does not match the policy.

I have a lot of love for my friends, most of whom disagree with me on pretty much every political issue, but I respectfully submit that in this case we are asking the wrong question. Given that the SNP flip from centre-left to centre-right depending on where public opinion is at that time it is relatively pointless to try and pin them down to one consistent position; however, if we look at the up-down scale of the political compass then I believe that we can make some headway.

If you are unfamiliar with this, admittedly terse, political mechanism then allow me to give you some background. The left-right scale is as you might expect while the up-down scale refers to a preference for liberty versus state intervention. You might call it statism versus libertarianism ranging from absolute authoritarianism to anarchism.

When we consider this scale, the SNP becomes a lot easier to place in theory and a lot more troubling in practice. Only a government and a party with a "state knows best" mentality would implement a state mandated third parent under the ominously titled "Named Persons Scheme". Only a party with a severe statist mentality would centralise the police force and slash, in a sneaky real-terms manner, the budgets of local government.

Surely it also takes an un-libertarian government to arm the police and make it look like an accident while also attempting to scrap corroboration? As for the SNP policy of hard-headed and utterly ignorant land reform which amounts to nothing short of a land grab, I cannot conceive of a more anti-liberal and interventionist policy. The SNP also seem intent on keeping people living in state housing rather than creating an environment in which people can realistically aspire to own their own homes. Statism, it seems, is always the dish of the day for the SNP regardless of its varying left and right wing flavours.

Finally, if big government is your thing then fine, I think you do yourself a disservice as a free individual, but again, it's fine if that is your thing. However, as someone who was raised in the tradition of those fine Scots like Adam Smith and David Hume I would consider it a damn shame if we forgot that legacy and continued down the irreversible road of statism. We are a nation with a legacy of innovation, radicalism, and freedom. We can lay a legitimate claim to be the original home of Enlightenment liberty and we can remember that if we think hard enough. Let's get back to our roots; they're far too valuable to forget.