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Politics Scotland. Alex Salmond. Holyrood. SNP.

Alex Salmond’s acceptance speech.

They always said there’d be days like this.  Having sat through many dismal non-events in the press gallery of the Scottish parliament, it was a relief to see the Scottish parliament rising magnificently to the occasion.  The speeches congratulating Alex Salmond’s on his elective coronation were witty, elegant and thoughtful, without a trace of petty party politicking.  And I’m not excluding the defeated Labour leader, Iain Gray’s effort,  which many observers in the press gallery said was his best ever parliamentary speech. 

   Gray congratulated Alex Salmond on his election landslide which he said marked another stage in  “the coming of age of the Scottish parliament”.  That was a pretty remarkable thing for a defeated  opposition leader to say, but it seemed to reflect the mood of the chamber, and not just among the massed ranks of Scottish National Party MSPs, who seem to have squeezed all others to the margins.   Everyone in the Holyrood debating chamber yesterday could feel “the hand of history” as Tony Blair once put it, on their collective shoulder. Everything has changed, as a result the May landslide, though no one is quite sure in what way, not least the SNP, who are still trying to work out what independence actually means in practice. 

    But what was on display in Edinburgh was a genuinely bold, self-confident, tried-and-tested national parliament, eloquent and surprisingly united despite the party divisions.  Both Iain Gray Alex Salmond enlisted the words of Donald Dewar, the late ‘father of the nation’.  Salmond also dragged in Woody Guthrie, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, Norman McCaig, Hugh McDairmid and others, suggesting that he intends to govern in poetry as well as prose.   The newly reinstalled First Minister celebrated Scotland’s ethnic diversity, the multiplicity of languages spoken on the parliamentary benches, and attacked bigotry and sectarianism.  It was a brilliant exercise in non-triumphal self-congratulation, which put the SNP election victory down, to “positivity”, rather than his own leadership skills or even his party’s policies.  In hard times, the SNP leader said, “a positive message was even more necessary” , which could have sounded Pollyannaish or callous had it come from anyone else.  

    The word has gone out to all the SNP MSPs to forget their overall majority, and try behave as if they were still in a minority.   Salmond was determined that his speech would not sound like that of the leader of a one party state. He listed six political objectives for the immediate future, carefully chosen from the opposition parties’ agendas, and all focussed on the UK government’s Scotland Bill, which is currently going through Westminster and Holyrood.  Salmond’s call for the repatriation of capital borrowing powers, control over the Crown Estate and corporation tax were all in the SNP manifesto. But yesterday he added three more:  excise duties, so that minimum pricing of alcohol can be introduced, control over broadcasting, so that Scotland can have its own digital TV channel, and the right to lead delegations in the European council of ministers.  

   Broadcasting was the big surprise, since we’ve heard very little about the proposal for a new digital TV channel  since it was made by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission back in  2008.  The UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport then dismissed it out of hand because it would almost certainly need a redirection of some of the BBC’s licence fee.  The Scottish government believes the idea was still born because broadcasting is still a reserved responsibility of the Westminster parliament.  So, repatriation of broadcasting will now be thrown into the Scotland Bill melting pot. Alex Salmond says he wants a media that holds up a “mirror to the nation”, one that reflects the new Scottish civil society.  This will revive unionist fears that the SNP is planning to create a kind of “SNP TV” to promote independence.  But it should be remembered that the principle of a digital channel was supported by a unanimous vote of the Scottish parliament in October 2008.   
  Clearly, the Scotland Bill is becoming a vehicle for the creation of what has been called “independence lite” – the kind of co-operative nationalism that the SNP is currently promoting.   If Salmond gets his way, the Scotland Bill will lay the groundwork for a quasi-federal Scottish state with a considerable degree of financial autonomy.  There is a certain irony here, since the Scotland Bill was based on the cross-party Calman Commission,which was  the brain-child of the former Labour leader, Wendy Alexander and boycotted by the SNP as a unionist front.    It is this constitutional opportunism, that infuriates Alex Salmond’s detractors.  The cheek! How does he get away with it?    But he’s been getting away with it for four years, pushing the envelope of devolution. 

   Will Westminster buy what we should now surely call the Scotland Lite Bill?  Not all of it, I’m sure.  But capital borrowing powers is already a done deal, and David Cameron has said he will “reflect” on devolving corporation tax, which is being considered for Northern Ireland.   Europe is doable:  there is already a precedent for Scottish ministers leading delegations on issues like fish and energy.   Excise duty was hinted at in the Calman Commission and by the former Liberal leader, Lord Steel’s parallel constitutional commission, as was devolution of the Crown Estate.    The Crown Estate is a quasi commercial body that manages the UK marine environment and owns the seabed out to the 12 mile limit.  Given the importance of wind, wave and tidal energy, there is a very strong case for the Scottish parliament to have responsibility for it.  I haven’t actually heard any Scottish politician give a fully argued case against devolving the Crown Estate, which doesn’t mean there isn’t one. But I can’t see the UK government going to war over it.  I suspect, however, that David Cameron will veto a Scottish digital channel and it looks as if broadcasting, could become a key battleground in the next six months. 

   Did we learn any more yesterday about what the SNP means by independence?  Not really.  The Salmond approach to sovereignty is to take it one step at a time, and claim that each step has been laid by one or other of the unionist parties.    He intends to use the kinetic energy generated by consensus to propel Scotland toward ever greater autonomy. When will we know, then, when Scotland is independent?  Well, presumably, when Alex Salmond tells us it is. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


8 thoughts on “Alex Salmond’s acceptance speech.

  1. Iain, just a point on accuracy. There is no such body as "The Crown Estate" and the Crown Estate does not own the seabed. There is a bundle of property rights and interests that together comprise the Crown Estate. This includes the seabed. Such rights and interests are owned by the Crown and administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners. They are scottish public land and the rights themselves are actually already devolved which means that Scot Parliament could actually simply abolish them. Indeed there is in fact no statutory basis at all for the Crown's ownership of the seabed.

    Posted by Andy Wightman | May 31, 2011, 10:33 am
  2. Iain, this is so much more mature than Alan Cochrane's effort last week after Salmond's speech, which I'll assume you read. His was hilarious. The words toys, dummies, prams and tantrums did spring to mind along with what you would describe as a "visceral hatred" of Salmond and the SNP. He even appeared to blame Salmond for the lack of leadership in the other Parties. That isn't remotely mature. I commend you for being head and shoulders above him.

    Posted by Jo G | May 31, 2011, 9:34 pm
  3. "This will revive unionist fears that the SNP is planning to create a kind of “SNP TV” to promote independence"That would make a welcome change from having all the channels promoting the union, particularly the BBC and Sky. What's so wrong about finally having an outlet to represent the views of the many Scots who are in favour of independence, and providing an opportunity for undecideds to see for themselves what the positive arguments are for independence?

    Posted by Doug Daniel | June 1, 2011, 12:52 pm
  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Posted by Jo G | June 1, 2011, 8:18 pm
  5. What's so wrong about finally having an outlet to represent the views of the many Scots who are in favour of independence, and providing an opportunity for undecideds to see for themselves what the positive arguments are for independence?I'll answer that question Doug. Because representing the views of only those Scots who favour independence isn't what any new channel should be about. If it was wrong for Unionist opinion to dominate before why would it be right to simply change places? The old way lacked balance, it was unfair, undemocratic. Why would you want to impose the same again in the future only this time with the SNP on top? I want something fresh. I want balance in politics, current affair and news in general. I think that's what Salmond is after too. I think you've misunderstood his message.

    Posted by Jo G | June 1, 2011, 10:39 pm
  6. The LibDem was lousy and unpleasant, otherwise I agree more or less.Salmond's speech being a great one.

    Posted by Scottish republic | June 3, 2011, 1:16 pm
  7. Doug Daniel, an answer from you would have been good, especially from someone like me who isn't a Unionist. I voted SNP. Your silence bothers me.

    Posted by Jo G | June 4, 2011, 9:20 pm
  8. Are all Herald journalists this bad at writing articles?

    Posted by Anonymous | June 30, 2011, 1:23 pm

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