When Tony Blair told the Labour conference in Oban that: “In this election there are only two possible outcomes: a Scottish Nationalist Party Government or a Labour one” he was talking nonsense, pure and unalloyed. Everyone knows that this is not the choice facing Scotland. Holyrood is condemned to coalition, and no party is ever likely to win an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament.
The SNP intend to go to the nation in May, not on ‘independence tomorrow’, but on ‘time for a change’. And times have changed, but Labour’s political approach has not. The Prime Minister’s speech, for all its eloquence, could have been delivered word for word in 1999 - in fact, I think parts of it were.
It was essentially the same old message that “Divorce is an expensive business”. Which it may be. But the May 2007 elections are not really about independence. Scotland has moved on.
In 1999, raising fears about the cost of separation made sense. Those were the first elections to the first Scottish parliament in nearly 300 years and there were real fears that the SNP could turn it into a battering ram for separatism. That it could “do the double” and turn devolution into independence in one go. But in the eight long years since then, people have been able to see how a parliament of minorities actually works. Or in some instances doesn’t.
This means that there is a double lock on independence. First, the SNP - if it wants to enter government - will have to form a coalition with a unionist party like the Liberal Democrats. The second lock is the referendum on independence, which the SNP say they will insist upon legislating for in the first hundred days if they are the largest party after May.
My own view is that this policy could turn out to be a millstone for the nationalists. There’s very little prospect of them winning it, for a start. The constitution is a reserved matter, and Prime Minister Brown (should it be he) would, I believe, try to seize control of events by staging a multi-choice referendum on his terms and at the least propitious moment for the SNP.
However, looking purely at the forthcoming May Holyrood campaign, the clear message that will go out to the Scottish voter is that a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence tomorrow. To say, as Tony Blair did, that and SNP win would “plunge Scotland into a constitutional nightmare” is empty scaremongering.
The SNP would have to prove itself in office, running a competent devolved administration, before Scotland would ever consider “moving to the next level” as Alex Salmond puts it. This lowers the constitutional stakes. It allows people to consider lending their support to Alex Salmond - if only for a change of face in Bute House.
And rather a lot of voters seem to be keen on a change of tenancy. Alex Salmond’s personal popularity has rarely been higher, with YouGov in April suggesting that nearly twice as many people think he will make a better First Minister than Jack McConnell.
Mind you, the opinion polls are not particularly helpful right now. Last week, the same polling organisation, YouGov had the nationalists seven points ahead of Labour in one poll (commissioned by the SNP) and yet had them level pegging with Labour in a similar poll conducted for the Daily Telegraph. Polling organisations have an uncanny knack of delivering the results the client wants.
However, few doubt that there has been a trend toward the nationalists and towards independence - whatever that now means - over the last few months. SNP MSPs who had been privately sceptical about the opinion poll figures earlier in the year are now saying that they think there is a real groundswell taking place. That the Scottish voters have turned a corner and are now prepared to give the SNP a chance.
Even some senior Labour MSPs have been wondering if 2007 might not be rather a good moment for Scotland to experience the reality of life under the nationalists. The present administration has little dynamism left, as revealed by Jack McConnell’s election pledges yesterday. Vague promises about education and the Forth Bridge don’t capture the imagination. Moreover, Labour ministers are acutely conscious that the days of high spending are coming to an end and that budgets could become very tight in the next four years.
If the SNP took over - in an unstable alliance with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats - Scotland’s first SNP-led administration could collapse under cuts and confusion. Soon the voters might be looking back on the Labour years with nostalgia. Well, that’s the theory.
The curious thing is that with such indifferent leadership, the Scottish Parliament has achieved as much as it has over the years, the smoking ban being the most recent example of assertive legislation. Jack McConnell is not getting the credit for this, in part because of hostility to Labour in the UK and because people are fed up with the lacklustre administration he has been leading, which has all the charisma of a medium sized Scottish council.
The Prime Minister doesn’t help with his talk of constitutional apocalypse. The reality is that the SNP will enter government eventually - that’s the logic of democracy. Labour would do better to take them on as legitimate rivals rather than constitutional wreckers.