The titanium-clad Lindsay Stewart lecture theatre in Edinburgh’s Napier University, where the SNP launched its manifesto last week, pokes out of the ground like the head of one of those mechanical monsters from War of the Worlds. You half expect it to rise up on its tripod legs to the sound of foghorns and start vaporising the citizens of Morningside.
Well, that’s not far short of what Labour says will happen if the SNP gain power. Chaos and doom. Four years of “tax and turmoil” will follow if the nationalists are allowed to get up on their hind legs. Don’t listen to their assurances about referendums and cutting taxes, says Jack McConnell. These are secessionists, who will destroy the union, vaporise prosperity, divide family from family and turn Scots into aliens in heir own land.
Well, thus far, the Scottish voters don’t seem to have been scared by Labour’s monsters. They don’t seem to see the nationalists as revolutionary fanatics bent on destruction, but relatively benign patriots looking for a better deal for Scotland. In the coming weeks, voters will find a million glossy brochures falling out of their Sunday newspapers featuring Alex Salmond looking like one of those celebs modelling a Marks and Spenser’s suit. This isn’t just a nationalist party...
The SNP are certainly showing us the money. The network media, from the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson down, were in attendance at the Salmond spectacular in the Napier, and they were rather impressed, if only by the stage management. The London-based media are going to play an important role in this Scottish election, if only because it happening in the future Prime Minister’s backyard.
But they want to know if the SNP are for real this time, of if this is just another fleeting nationalist spasm. Is the SNP leader a potential national leader or just another soundbite-monger? Alex Salmond was so under control it almost hurt, trying to sound statesmanlike, suppressing his instinct for the cheeky phrase and the catchy put-down.
But breaking up Britain? No, no, no - that’s all left to the distant future, the referendum or ‘neverendum’ on independence. In 1999, the SNP were taken severely to task for putting independence tenth on their election priority list. This time, it merited but three lines at the foot of page 15 of the 74 page manifesto. And it was so hedged about with provisos that you could almost think this was a strategy for preventing independence rather than achieving it.
The manifesto promises: “Publication of a White Paper, ENCOMPASSING a Bill, detailing the CONCEPT of Scottish independence in the modern world as part of PREPARATIONS for offering Scots the OPPORTUNITY to decide on independence in a referendum with a LIKELY date of 2010”. Not exactly the Declaration of Arbroath. There was a time when true nationalists would have been chewing their sporrans at such a mealy-mouthed formulation.
But Labour say we shouldn’t be fooled. As we left the Titanium mother ship, mobiles trilled that Jack McConnell himself was ready to present a detailed rebuttal of the SNP manifesto. This was impressive work. Labour staffers had within two hours deconstructed the entire spending programme.
Costing every item from their tax exemption scheme for artists to writing off all student debt, from abolishing bridge tolls to introducing first time buyers grants of #2,000, Labour number crunchers come up with a figure of #5,000 in tax for every family. Unfortunately, since this was the same figure they had been using before the costing exercise, it slightly undermined its credibility.
But it has to be said that the nationalists’ list had a lot of wish in it. Abolishing bridge tolls, a thousand more police officers, scrapping prescription charges, abolishing business rates for small businesses, massive investment in renewable energy - it looks like the SNP have taken every demand from every pressure group in Scotland, thrown them together and called it a manifesto. It is the kind of thing Labour used to do, and was rightly criticised for it.
McConnell sliced through the SNP’s local income tax numbers, claiming that even on their 3p cap a two earner couple living in an average Band D property would pay more when their household income is over #47,703 rather than the #64,000 the SNP claim. My own problem with local income tax is rather more straightforward. Why it is fair to remove the burden of local tax from middle aged owners of houses, which have tripled in value, and from people who are living on investment income from shares, in order to place this burden on the backs of younger working families who are currently struggling to get on the housing market?
But the real question is why, when Labour had delivered such a comprehensive demolition of the SNP’s numbers, the Scottish press almost completely ignored it. It was Jack McConnell who was on the defensive, fending off repeated questions about holes in his own council tax policy.
Labour’s own manifesto launch three days earlier - in a rather cramped room in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall - had diced with disaster. After successfully delivering his pitch on making Scottish education the best in the world, McConnell appeared to lose the place over his own plans for local taxation. Labour are promising to halve and then abolish water charges for pensioners and to extend the council tax bands to make them more progressive.
Sounds sensible. This would target pensioners accurately and make owners of big houses pay more. Trouble is, the First Minister didn’t appear to know how many big houses would be affected, nor how the water charges would be paid. He suggest there would be direct payments to pensioners, but his advisers later indicated that Scottish water would receive the subsidy.
Now, these may seem rather arcane, even trivial points, but in the present state of hand-to-hand fiscal warfare, it was incredibly important that Labour had their ducks in a row over local taxation. They had costed every dot and comma of the SNP’s programme, and it was reasonable to expect that McConnell would be able to give a good account of his own.
Fiscal authority figures, like Professor Arthur Midwinter of Edinburgh University, have been looking from on high and issuing thunderous critiques of the various parties’ attempts to play the numbers game. Ten days ago he said that the SNP’s budgetary farrago indicated that they “weren’t fit to govern”.
The nationalists suspect that Prof Midwinter is a Labour stooge, but I can assure them that he is not impressed by Labour’s numbers either. Not just the vagueness about splitting the upper and lower council tax bands to make “some people” in bigger houses pay more. He was dubious also about Jack McConnell’s pledge to funnel #1.2 billion to education by effectively freezing the spending of other departments. This Professor Midwinter says, Jack is not in a position to do, because above-inflation increases are built into the spending of certain departments like health. “McConnell will have to revisit this”, he told me.
Of course, everyone remembers the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy coming to grief over local taxation at an early morning news conference in the 2005 general election. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nicol Stephen, didn’t fall into that trap, probably because most of the press corps had nodded off. The LibDems want to raise local income tax by 3.5-3.75 to pay for it the abolition of council tax. Otherwise, there manifesto, with its promises of more schools, renewable energy and such like was suspiciously close to Labour’s. And it’s clear where the LibDem sympathies lie.
Tavish Scott, held an impromptu post-manifesto session in which he repeated that the LibDems will never, ever, (read my lips), NEVER agree to a referendum on independence and hope to die. Even if there is another option on the ballot paper - as Alex Salmond hinted at during the SNP manifesto launch - proposing the Liberal Democrat “federalist” policy of more powers for Holyrood, the Tavish Scott says they will not be interested. The Liberal Democrats are prepared to negotiate on every one of their policies except this one.
In other words, the Liberal Democrats will do everything in their power not to form a coalition with the SNP if the nationalists are the largest party after May. They will look instead to support some other arrangements with the non-SNP parties. Anything but let Alex Salmond into Bute House.
Whether this is quite in the spirit of a proportional parliament, or even of the Liberal Democrats’s own democratic traditions is open to debate. They have participated in numerous constitutional referendums in the past. Nicol Stephen’s claim that the May ballot is real “the referendum on independence” is disingenuous. He understands the difference between a constitutional proposition put to the people, and the election of a party to run a legislature.
Whatever, it looks as if the SNP, if they do win, will have to look to minority government, or some form of loose agreement short of giving the Liberal Democrats any place in government. Will the LibDems be happy to do without their ministerial motors? Well, they hope that it will never come to that.
At the end of this crucial manifesto Labour are worried, but still confident that their dominance of all those constituencies in West Central Scotland will prevent the SNP from converting their opinion poll lead into actual seats. They still believe Tony Blair is an election winner, even Scots want to give him a kicking. It is the oldest cliché in political campaigning, but there really is everything to play for in this fascinating election. And Scottish voters are starting to feel the hand of history on their shoulders.