There is no question that the SNP Conference just finished in Perth was upbeat, professional, impressive and—because of the slew of new members present—one of the most open and exciting. Salmond didn’t disappoint in the choice of demeanour for his swansong: dignified but laced with humour and a touch of humility. After a decade of growing stature and success as Leader, he chose a shrewd time to go and various unionist attempts to portray him as ending in failure say more about the authors’ failure to grasp the zeitgeist than any real failure of Salmond’s.
Undoubtedly a hard act to follow, Nicola Sturgeon’s decade apprenticeship in his shadow stood her in good stead. She came out of the gate with a rousing, competent speech that was more subdued, more grounded, more content-rich than Salmond would have given and so set the tone that the guard had changed.
Nicola’s speech went down a storm with the faithful, as it usually does. She has managed to appear more the hands-on activist that backbone SNP volunteers and office bearers take to their hearts. She went over very well with the feminist and Women for Independence factions (See Burdz Eye View for an enthusiastic but nonetheless measured take from this perspective.) Lesley Riddoch said “Incredible list of specific pledges in powerful well crafted speech by Nicola Sturgeon in first leaders speech”.
But it reached well beyond those likely to be sympathetic. More objective reporters were also well impressed: Ian MacWhirter said “Sturgeon lacks Salmond’s wit and rhetorical sweep. But forceful delivery and gave conference what they wanted.” while David Torrance enthused “Impressive first leadership speech (was) well crafted, bold social justice agenda, ecumenical tone and slick delivery.” Perhaps the wittiest observation came from Libby Brooks “I know as an upstanding feminist I’m not supposed to report on Nicola’s clothes, but she sure is stealing Labour’s right now”.
Which is a shrewd insight into what the speech appeared to be aimed at: Labour voters not yet part of the 70,000 new SNP members but whose loyalty has been undermined by the dearth of clear policy directions from anyone in Scottish Labour. The pledges Lesley Riddoch refers to will tug at the loyalties of Labour members and voters alike, such as:
- Increase free child care to eligible 2/3/4-year-olds to 32 hours per week
- Ensure that the Living Wage is adopted by everyone, including the Parliament
- Increase NHS funding in real terms every year in this and the next Parliament
Such firm commitments wil go down a storm across urban Scotland—especially in those once-Labour strongholds that voted Yes. That includes Glagow, Dundee and South Lanarkshire. As political positioning to cut the legs off remaining Labour support across the Central Belt and boost the chances of the SNP decimating Labour MPs, this could scarcely be bettered.
Although most of the 41 current Labour seats could not be called marginal, the hill that the SNP vote would have to climb becomes credible once polling numbers reach unheard of heights like the 45% SNP vs 25% Labour that recent polls have indicated.
But such tactical advantage comes at a price. While the above pledges may please the faithful and seduce wavering Labourites, none are self-funding; their provision requires fiscal creativity. That does not necessarily mean high taxes; John Swinney has proved to be a skilled and steady hand on the budget tiller—but even he can’t work miracles.
So, whether it is a revamp of council tax or income tax, a mansion tax, or an equivalent of the innovative Land & Buildings Transfer Tax, it will hit the better off. Given the unbalanced society Cameron and Osborne seem hell-bent on creating, this may be no bad principle and look relatively popular in Scotland. Why? Because, unlike in England, after almost two decades in the wilderness, Scottish Tories appear incapable of fighting their way back from irrelevance.
And, despite all that has been written above, is a shame. That is for two reasons.
- The SNP is an amazingly coherent organisation, given it is such a broad church. To date, Salmond has worked miracles through leadership and strength of character to keep such broad opinions focussed on the prize. The net result has been a business-friendly, socially conscious balance. But, add the above list to free tuition, bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions, etc and something has to give.
- That coherence will not permit wide internal dissent without a factionalism that has blighted other parties but not—so far—the SNP. The natural balance of debate should be provided by someone like the Tories. But, since Bella and her shrewd influence left, not only do they continue ineffectually in the wilderness but they have had no ideas that carried into public debate to modify SNP policy.
So, the SNP are on a roll, surging behind a popular new leader and likely to mow down their main opponents in six months time, with nothing effective balancing their outmaneuvering of Labour on the left.
But if these clever tactics work, will Nicola be able to rein in the populist tendency or nervous members sitting on slim majorities that has scuppered Labour in the past? Irn Broon handed Blair squillions that bloated the social budget beyond affordability by pushing fiscal prudence out the window. That created the present mess that is proving hard to tackle even by un-squeamish right-wing Tories.
It may be negative thinking to posit a similar, if less severe scenario for Scotland. But unless John does work some fiscal miracle, unless Nicola is very frugal with all the extra demands her pledges make on finances (that still mostly come from a hostile Treasury), unless the SNP can—in the absence of effective opponents—train themselves in financial rectitude when their track record to date portrays the opposite, Scots will have their own austerity straitjacket strapped on them during the 2016-20 parliament.
And that will form a shoogly launch pad from which to seize opportunities from more devolution—never mind independence—that Cameron’s stumbling, Europhobic second administration is likely to then offer the SNP.