“Broke”, cried the Labour advan that toured the vicinity of the SNP conference in Glasgow – referring to the consequences of breaking up the union. But it could scarcely have been less appropriate to the occasion. For the first time in quarter of a century, the SNP ain”t broke.
The Stagecoach boss, Brian Souter, had just donated half a million to the SNP. Topping Tom Farmer’s hundred grand, Sir Sean’s bequest and countless smaller donations. It takes the nationalist war chest to 1.3 million – its largest ever.
Liberal hackles rose at the thought of the controversial Brian Souter, alleged homophobe, buying a stake in the new nationalist dawn. But they subsided somewhat when it emerged that Bruce Kent, pacifist intellectual and former CND leader, had also endorsed the SNP.
Quite a combination that. Appealing equally to socially conservative Scotland and left wing anti-nuclear Scotland. And it isn’t the only odd couple in the nationalist camp.
The former boss of the Royal Bank, Sir George Mathewson has been rubbing shoulders, metaphorically at least, with the former leader of Red Clydeside, Jimmy Reid of UCS. Then there is Tory historian Michael Fry and comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli all marching in Alex’s army, even if they are hearing rather different tunes.
The SNP are congratulating themselves for their pre-election conference, as well they might. It went like a dream. However, nationalists are very good at dreaming and the nightmare now is that it will all end in bitter disillusion. Disappointment is practically written into the SNP DNA.
No one knows this better than Alex Salmond, the SNP leader who has lived the dream and lived the nightmare – too often. Perhaps this was why his conference speech yesterday was so low key, solemn even. No one storms a barn better than Salmond but yesterday he was not in the busines of raising rafters. It was as if he was trying to calm down his party, dampen expectations, ease back on the emotional accelerator.
The nationalists have put in an extraordinary performance recently, but as with the Scottish football team this usually means that defeat is just around the corner. So will it be any different this time?
Well, let’s not ignore the obvious fact that, whatever happens in May, the nationalists have been getting their campaigning act together. Their professionalisn brings to mind nothing so much as Labour in the mid nineties. Then, Tony Blair’s team seemed to score public relations coups on a daily basis. Businessmen and celebrities praised them.
The news agenda seemed to dance to their tune, as the Tory government collapsed in sleaze, incompetence and division. They seemed were driving the events rather than responding to them – just like the SNP now.
Much of this is down to timing and astute staff work. Brian Souter has always supported the SNP and Mathewson has had nationalist sympathies also. If they had made their announcements six months ago, it would have raised little comment.
But using the former RBS boss to upstage the Tony Blair showed astute planning.
And the Prime Minister played into the SNP hands by attacking Scotland’s favourite businessman by name
Similarly, the SNP got the maximkum bang from the Souter buck by keeping quiet about his donation until conference time. This meant they could manage the controversy that inevitably followed.
This kind of media management doesn’t happen by accident. It takes leadership and vision and some creative energy.
So the SNP have a leader, the staff, the money and the timing. They even have the opinon polls, with Professor John Curtice – the oracle of British psephology – saying that they will beat Labour and become the largest party in the May election with around 45 seats to Labour’s 42.
The SNP only returned 28 MSPs in 2003, so that would truly be an unbelievable performance, nearly doubling their representation in parliament. It implies that they are capable of winning constituencies in Glasgow – which they have never done in the past outside Govan. People in West Central Scotland are notorious for voting for non human primates provided they sport a red rosette.
It also suggests they can get win large numbers of constituency seats in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and points north. Now, I’m not saying this is impossible, but it would require the SNP returning votes by the truckload after two elections in which they have done the reverse.
In the 2005 general election was worse than 2003 and they were knocked into third place by the Liberal Democrats. And it was the LibDems, not the SNP, who won Dunfermline and West Fife last year – the noughties equivalent of the ’88 Govan by-election.
So there is amountain to climb, and Alex Salmond is going to have to become the Ranolph Ffeinnes of Scottish politics if the SNP is to get to the top.
His policy agenda for the first hundred days sounded attractive enough – smaller class sizes, more nurses, local income tax etc.. But it hasn’t been tested in an actual campaign yet. And the three pence rise in income tax to pay for council services has already taken some hostile fire.
And then of course, even if the SNP get the votes, they still don’t get the government. They will have to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats which might shatter the nationalist family. The first thing that would have to go would be the referendum on independence.
Granted, this may not be the problem it appears to be. Rather like taxation powers for the Scottish parliament – which once threatened the devolution consensus – it may be possible to find a way of fixing the referendum issue in parliament.
After all, the SNP are only demanding a commitment in principle from the LibDems to a test of opinion on the constitution within four years. This doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen within four years.
. The SNP will publish their white paper, and draft referendum bill, in the first hundred days. But before any legislation goes before the Scottish Parliament, it has to be agreed by the parties as represented on the parliamentary bureau, which determines the business of the house. The SNP don’t have control of this body.
The Liberal Democrats and the SNP may not be able to agree the form of the bill that is to be put. The Liberal Democrats may want, for example, a federal alternative to be placed on the ballot paper, which the SNP would reject. If no agreement is reached, the SNP can’t force matters, because it would not have an overall majority of MSPs in the parliament.
The fact that the SNP will inevitably be a minority in the parliament might hold the key to resolving the referendum conundrum. Then again, it might not. The fundamentalists have been very quiet in the party of late, but they haven’t gone away. The spectre of betrayal could reemerge if Salmond appears to be content to run a devolved parliament on its own terms, and not as a battering ram against the Brits.
So it could still end badly. However, the SNP have been making the political weather; they have cash in the bank; Jack McConnell is nowhere to be seen. This is their best shot, they better take i