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Alex Salmond: a lion in his own cause

By Matthew Barrett

Last year, Wales voted for eight Conservative MPs - five more than we won in 2005. We became the second biggest party in Wales. You could say Wales was beginning to reflect English electoral trends. The same could not be said in Scotland.

Back in 2009, CCHQ was said to be targeting two Cabinet members with Scottish seats - Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy. Its overall "decapitation" strategy didn't claim any scalps, but it did severely weaken the position of Ed Balls, Ben Bradshaw and John Denham.

And Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy? Not a bit of it. 

Alistair Darling increased his majority in Edinburgh South West from 7,242 to 8,447 and Jim Murphy increased his East Renfrewshire majority from 6,657 to 10,420. Across Scotland, Labour candidates increased their majorities. They didn't lose any seats. We had prominent target seats in Scotland: Perth and North Perthshire (SNP), Angus (SNP), Stirling (Labour) and Dumfries and Galloway (Labour). Again, in each of them, the incumbent's majority increased. The national mood simply didn't transfer north of the border. The same has happened in this Scottish election. 

From the off, the Labour strategy was negative. Bash the Tories. Here's an extract from a speech by Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray:

Thirty years on, the social pain caused by those Tory economic theories runs through 1,000 communities in Scotland. The scars of what they did to our mining industry run through every street, every house and every family of the mining towns in my constituency – to this day. Unused shipyards lie empty with the silence of discontinued industry, craft and creation – to this day. And the ghost of a once-great steel industry haunts the empty expanses of the Ravenscraig site – to this day. Those Thatcher economics were the most dismal algorithms of the dismal science. And are they not written in the DNA of David Cameron and George Osborne to this very day?

So the strategy was to present Scottish Labour as the defender of the people against Tory cuts from Westminster. It didn't work. Opinion polls at the beginning of the year had Labour beating the SNP by 10%. The lead disappeared, and the SNP pulled ahead. Part of the reason is that Scottish Tories are seen as peripheral, and unimportant in Scottish politics. Why bash a party that hasn't a hope of forming a government? So the strategy changed. Then the new line was that the SNP was wasting money on an independence referendum. 

It's odd. We are the Conservative and Unionist Party (Unionists in the (southern) Irish context, not Scottish, but we merged with the (Scottish) Unionist Party decades ago). We are the only party in Scotland to be unequivocally Unionist as a non-negotiable political belief. Yet Labour has been, over the last few elections, more vocally unionist. It's a scare tactic. It's a negative campaign to run.

Alex Salmond postponed any referendum he might hold until the last period of the next Scottish Parliament. Support for independence hasn't been higher than roughly a quarter for a while. If Salmond had held a referendum alongside Parliamentary elections, he'd have lost it. So the issue of him offering a referendum isn't a big one, because the outcome is fairly predictable, and doesn't offer the possiblity of a big change in Scottish politics. 

The upshot is that Scottish Labour had no idea what it would do, if elected. It knew what it would not do. Labour's pre-election website (and their manifesto, too) welcomed you with the message "Now that the Tories are back Scotland needs a Government that will fight for what really matters". 

So a party with a hopeful and uplifting message was a neat contrast. The Lib Dem website offered "Solutions for Scotland", but the mistrust and unpopularity of the Lib Dems has spread north of the border. The SNP website, on the other hand, said "Together we can make Scotland better. Be part of better!". That's hopeful and uplifting. 

Paradoxically, despite the SNP's ultimate aim being independence, the increase in SNP support should not be taken as an independence vs unionism thing. Many Westminster Labour voters switch to become Holyrood SNP voters. Labour's campaign was, in bashing the Tories, trying to make the Holyrood government a reactionary one. It undermines the status of any potential government, because any administration devoted to bashing a Westminster government would simply be, by its own doing, a regional sub-division of Westminster politics. And it insults the intelligence of Scots, implying they can't differentiate between the two political establishments. 

The question of decent governance is more important than an unwinnable future referendum. Many people think the SNP made a fairly good go of their first time in office. There's the Lockerbie issue. A major blow. But in some ways, Alex Salmond's defiant position of not apologising for it, nor saying it was wrong, is at least more consistent than if he now said "We got it wrong, we shouldn't have released al-Megrahi". He even turns the release of al-Megrahi into a nationalist point - he says:

“What we did was to follow the strict precepts of Scottish law. Of course there was discretion. Kenny MacAskill [the Justice Secretary] had discretion, he could have decided differently, and it was a tough call. But the precepts of Scottish justice are not a bad anchor to have.”

SALMOND ALEX Alex Salmond has the ability to turn things round to the topic of Scottish excellence. He's a redoubtable and hardy warrior for his cause. He's personally popular, regardless of the SNP's standing. The Scottish Parliament's election system is composed of two layers. The first layer is constituency MSPs, elected just like MPs. This is then "topped up" by a second layer of regional MSPs - 7 MSPs from each of the 8 electoral regions. The second layer is elected by the d'Hondt system - as MEPs are. There is a party list, rather than a list of individuals. On that party list, you can find "Scottish Labour". But you won't find "SNP". Instead, you vote for "Alex Salmond for First Minister - SNP"

One only need look at how the SNP fared between 2000, when Salmond resigned the leadership, and 2004, when he regained it, to see how much of an asset he is to the SNP. Charismatic, pragmatic, energetic and authentic, he appeals to as many voters as possible: he's in favour of freezing taxes, keeping university free, launched a manifesto called "A Greener Scotland", and specific appeals to Lib Dem voters

The SNP is sometimes called the "Tartan Tories". It is true that their core vote is middle class, that they value tradition and the preservation of history. John McTernan wrote in the Financial Times (£):

His administration has been true to that tag: business-friendly, small-state nationalists. Indeed, the SNP has had an almost four-year start on Mr Cameron and has been shrinking the state by stealth – freezing council tax, cutting local services and cutting taxes on small business. Minority government is Mr Salmond’s preferred outcome from the election.

He is able to combine seemingly opposing elements: on the one hand getting the endorsement of prominent business leaders, while making statements about nuclear power, "illegal" wars, and trying to impeach Tony Blair - all characteristic of, not just left-of-centre, but the far left. He is a populist.

And here is the strength of the SNP and Alex Salmond: when a party appeals to neither right, nor left, but to people of any description who want to see their country do well, you won't build up a "toxic" reputation; people will feel more relaxed about voting for you if the party they usually vote for isn't having a great campaign. That is why many, many people vote SNP at Scottish elections, but for other parties at Westminster. 

There is a "but". It's a significant "but". The SNP, while more realistic than Labour in their economic plans, is not facing up to the difficult economic position Scotland is in. This is probably a vote-winner - Scotland does tend to vote overhwelmingly for parties presenting themselves as of the left, after all. It is also why the Scotsman backed Salmond, and the Conservatives too:

Usually the subject of knee-jerk derision in Scotland, the Conservatives are still battling the legacy of Thatcherism, but they have endeavoured to move beyond that under their feisty Scottish leader Annabel Goldie. In this election, the Tories have distinguished themselves as being the only party to come close to telling the electorate the truth: that cuts will have to be made, that graduates may have to contribute to the cost of the education they receive, that everything cannot be free. For this, they deserve praise, and this honesty combined with the very Scottish humour and good sense of Miss Goldie are helping, finally, to rehabilitate the Conservatives. But, despite something of a revival, the Tories cannot hope to be the party of government. 

Why did Alex Salmond win this election? A Labour party that played the independence fear card for four Scottish elections (won two, lost the third, and didn't wake up to the failure of such tactics in time for the fourth), Alex Salmond's personal appeal, a message of optimism and inclusion, populism, and the unbeatable positivity of a party willing to trust the people.


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