Sunday, 13 March 2016

Boring for Scotland

Courtesy of, of all sources, Newsnet, here is the text of Nicola's speech to SNP Conference

It was received in the hall as if it was the Sermon on the Mount crossed with the Gettysburg Address.

But on the written page what immediately jumps out at you is the lack of substance.

To be fair to the First Minister, the Party Leader of a governing Party, any governing Party, has a tough gig in making a conference speech. Mario Cuomo famously talked of campaigning in poetry but governing in prose. On any view however the best speeches bring an element of poetry with them while inevitably the obligations of office leave mere prose as the dominant vehicle. Even Blair and Cameron, archetypal politicians for whom the occupation of power was/is their very raison d'etre, undoubtedly made their most memorable speeches while still in opposition.

Nonetheless, there is an accepted template for the pre election speech of a governing Party leader. You provide a bit of light relief poking fun at the haplessness of your opponents before turning to the red meat of the disaster their success would be for the country. And Nicola certainly does that.

You then, by convention, outline your achievements of the past four or five years. This is where Nicola's speech starts to depart from type. For what have been the achievements of the past five years? Say what you like about the SNP from 2007 to 2011, they did things. They abolished the graduate endowment and slashed maintenance grants to poorer students; they relieved the fifteen percent of the well to do who paid prescription charges from their obligation to do so; they froze Council Tax; they let Megrahi go.

These might not have been particularly progressive things but they were nonetheless things.

The problem when Nicola came to this bit of the speech is that she had nothing to say. As I say, what has the SNP achieved since 2011? Few, even of the most devoted of Nats, could maintain that health or education provision are better than they were five years ago. At best, they are, arguably, no worse. Sure, the accomplishments of the first term have been banked, but, even there, the Council Tax freeze has now quietly been acknowledged to have been a mistake; the reduced college places for working class students as a consequence of the electorally popular free places at St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities for the sons and daughters of the upper middle classes is......perhaps just better not talked about very much. Particularly by a supposedly social democratic Party. Nonetheless these things are still there. But 2011 to 2016? Well, there was a referendum, which had it resulted differently, would have been a really, really big achievement. Except it didn't result differently. And, to be honest, this is a Party still so upset about that that it would be bad taste to talk about it. Particularly......I'll come back to the particularly.

The final section of an "election" speech delivered by an incumbent is also difficult. More so the long incumbent. There inevitably is an element of "If this is such a good idea why didn't you do it before now?" Generally however this can be got round by announcing that it is a result of "our careful stewarding of resources". Except that Nicola can't claim that while at the same time railing against "evil Tory austerity" for denying her those resources. So although it was enough to bring the faithful to their feet, all we get is a couple of penny ha'penny schemes that I suspect would not be objectionable to Michael Forsyth, never mind Ruth Davidson. And a promise not to raise taxes which any Tory would have enthusiastically applauded. And that was it. No other agenda at all.

As I say, if you don't believe me, read it yourself.

To be fair, there is something to be said for boring but reasonably competent government. Swinney does a good job as Finance Minister. So do a number of other Ministers. The ones who are useless are no more useless than the similarly useless who would occupy at least some office if a different Party was in power.

But, and this is a huge but, people don't join political parties to advocate boring but competent government. If that's what they're into they would join the Civil Service.

Kez is pretty hapless. I didn't need Nicola to tell me that. No more so than when Kez herself enthusiastically announced that she was confident we would be........ second. But, to be honest, if we had thought there was any chance we might win this election she wouldn't have been our candidate to start with. Ruth is in a different league as a politician but she's still a Tory. So the SNP will win this election. Perhaps not with an absolute majority but certainly with a plurality that will make any alternative administration an impossibility.

Labour needs time. But, of necessity, we are going to get time.

For that's the hidden poison pill for the wilder Nats in Nicola's boring speech.

In the Summer, the SNP are going to have some sort of conversation about Independence. Not a second referendum. Not even a precursor to a second referendum. A conversation.

This was a pre election conference. As a political pro I share the irritation of the SNP leadership towards the delegate who wanted it to be occasion for debate.

And as a, hypothetical, nationalist political pro, I would have cheered the idea of this conversation, as a diversion for the herd, as enthusiastically as did the rest of the SECC.

There is an immediate prize for the SNP and that is retaining office. While giving the Labour Party another kicking on the way. Not a small prize. Indeed, if you are now a Minister, or an MSP, or a Spad, or a paid constituency worker, or an wannabee any one of these, a very important prize indeed.

As indeed, next year, there will be the different prize of depriving Labour of our remaining local government fiefdoms. With more, well paid, secondary prizes as a result.

I make no criticism of that. It is how another Party of my acquaintance operated for many years.

But at some point somebody is going to ask "Whatever happened to Independence?" Just as, dare I say, last Summer the Labour Party, in the context of the three terms of Blair landslides nonetheless asked "Whatever happened to socialism?"

The problem is that what is popular with Part activists, of any Party, is seldom what is popular with the general public.

At some point even the currently unimpeachable Nicola will have to face her activists honestly, tell them that Independence is off the agenda because there is no way Scotland would be daft enough to vote for it. Ever. That is the "particularly" that I referred to above. From start to finish, 2011-14 there was but one poll that put them ahead and then they lost. Decisively. Since then, any examination of the detail indicates that even the prospectus that got them to 45% was a hopelessly optimistic one.

It's over.

That was the rationale behind Nicola's promise of a conversation, not a referendum.

At one point she'll have to tell her activists that. Then, if she survives that different "conversation", she'll have to tell the rest of us why she should remain in office nonetheless.

That's when, and only when,  Labour will be back in the game.

Just about my favourite political quotation comes from Ted Heath, on the day Mrs Thatcher fell. He claimed it to be an old Chinese proverb.

"If you wait long enough by the banks of the river, eventually the bodies of your enemies will float by"

Time to do a bit of waiting.


  1. Grants cuts are an achievement of the 2011-15 period of office ....

  2. The 2011-2016 parliament has been dominated by austerity and indyref. It can be argued that simply stewarding Scotland through the former has been a major achievement. And the latter was, by any measure, a huge achievement. Indyref has done more for democratic engagement in politics than any initiative in my lifetime. Its positive, inspirational effect on young and creative people will be felt for decades to come.

    Scotland will inevitably become independent at some point, most probably by 2030. The 2014 indeyref uncorked that particular bottle, and all that the result has achieved is to prolong the waiting game. This is obvious to all but the most diehard unionists.

    Most people I know voted yes in 2014, and this wasn't just a vote. For many of us, it was a once-and-for-all, unilateral, emotional rejection of the UK. We had barely any interest in Scottish politics before the referendum. Now we analyse and discuss it every day. Something changed irrevocably in 2014, and we all need to accept that and move on.

    Incidentally, we voted yes in full recognition of the fact that we would be facing a generation of economic restructuring and ward work. Believe it or not, this was seen as an attractive scenario, when compared with the previous lazy, complacent, middle-class consensus. Working as if we were living in the early days of a better nation, and all that.

  3. Ted Heath might have known quite a bit about floating corpses. Some controversy regarding excursions on his yacht?

    You can sit on the dock of the bay all day 'cause Labour in Scotland have been washed out with the tidal surge.

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