Given that the entire Scottish press is agin’ them, the success of the SNP in this election campaign so far is pretty remarkable. The nationalists have consolidated and even increased their pre-campaign lead - something they have never done before.
They haven’t won the election yet, but they have already won a moral victory of sorts. Their leader, Alex Salmond, has dominated the election campaign, set the terms of debate and persuaded hundreds of thousands of voters against the collective advice of the nation’s opinion formers.
You can’t help thinking that there is something wrong somewhere, when the national press is so out of step with the voters. You would think that this huge shift of opinion would be reflected somewhere in the public prints. But it remains the case that, until today with this paper’s endorsement of Alex Salmond, there has been no major newspaper in Scotland willing to offer even qualified support to the party which, if the polls are to be believed, now commands the majority support of Scots.
Alex Salmond would do well to brace himself for some rough treatment in the closing days of the campaign as sections of the press try to destroy Scotland's apparent infatuation with him. No, it hasn’t been as bad as 1999, when the SNP were monstered, but there have been pretty robust attacks from the red tops nevertheless. Just look at some of the Daily Record’s recent headlines: “1000’s OF DRUG DEALERS WOULD GET OUT OF JAIL”, it claimed, if the SNP won. “SNP TRIPLE TAX GRAB”...“DONT LET SNP DESTROY PROSPERITY”... “ECK OF A BAD DAY”.
The Sun, which once flirted with nationalism, has been equally hostile to the SNP. All we need now is a reprise of the famous Sun front page of 1992: “If Alex Salmond wins the election will the last person to leave Scotland please turn out the lights”. Mind you, the Scottish bra Queen, Michelle Mone, appears to have got there first, promising to take her uplifting business elsewhere if independence looms.
Of course, television is the dominant medium of modern politics, and it is obliged to be impartial. But the written press influences debate in the electronic media, it sets the agenda, makes the stories, identifies the issues. Perhaps this election is an illustration of the limitations of the media in influencing voting intentions. So far, it’s the Sun wot lost it.
Labour’s strategy for this election, as conceded last week by Jack McConnell, was to surf the expected tide of pro-union feeling in the last two weeks of the campaign. Just as John Major wiped out Labour’s lead in the last fortnight of the 1992 general election campaign over the economy, so Labour’s strategists confidently forecast that they would do the same to the SNP. They would first burn off the narrow SNP lead, and then grind them into obscurity in the closing days, by exposing their tax and spending pledges to relentless scrutiny.
But it hasn’t happened yet. The polls last week moved in the SNP’s favour, with MRUK in Thursday’s Herald, turning a four point deficit into a four point nationalist lead, and Yougov in the in Friday’sTelegraph according the SNP a nine point advantage over Labour. The largest poll yet, by Yougov for Strathclyde University, today indicates the SNP are eight points ahead in the first vote. This means the SNP have almost doubled their headline first vote polling lead in the space of a fortnight.
Doesn’t mean they will win of course, and there are still a lot of “don’t knows”. Moreover, under the vagaries of the additional member electoral system, they could win and lose at the same time. That nine point lead for the SNP in the Telegraph/YouGov poll translates into a five seat lead, according to professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University. A similar lead for Labour in the 2003 Scottish election gave them a twenty three seat advantage over the SNP in the Holyrood parliament.
The spread of SNP votes makes it difficult to translate its poll figures into actual seats, especially in West Central Scotland. The nationalists need to take key Labour constituency seats like Kelvin, Govan, Kilmarnock, Cumbernauld in the West, as well as Linlithgow, Livingston, Aberdeen Central and Dundee West. This is why no few commentators are willing to predict that the SNP will be the largest party on Friday morning. One possible nightmare scenario is of the SNP winning the largest number of votes but not returning the largest number of of seats in the Holyrood parliament.
Much still depends on the extent to which the marginal parties, like the SSP and Solidarity and the independents enter the race in the closing days. The Greens may turn into late-breaking king-makers, if as the other parties expect, their vote increases. It is quite possible that, if they return eight or nine seats, the Scottish Green Party could hold the balance of power in Holyrood. It would force the bigger parties to launch an auction of environmental policy promises to win the support of the Greens.
This might be no bad thing. The environment is such a huge, overarching issue that many Scots will be inclined to split their votes, as they did in 2003, backing the Greens on the list. The Liberal Democrats have tried to colonise green territory by pledging that Scotland will be carbon free by 2050. But the Libdem equivocation on things like road tolls has not done a lot for their environmental credibility. .
Nor is there much certainty about how the Liberal Democrats will perform on Thursday, they are running a low-key campaign with a low-key leader. Nicol Stephen seems to regard an hour’s PE as an election winner, and scarcely opens his mouth without mentioning it. The Liberal Democrat leader has tried to argue that the Holyrood election is a referendum on the constitution, which it manifestly isn’t, and implied that Scots have no right to hold one, which is presumptuous - especially since the Libdem have actively participated in the last three referendums on the UK mainland. Nicol Stephen also angered Labour by appearing to rule out forming a coalition with them if they aren’t the largest party.
The Scottish Conservatives have mounted a dignified campaign led by the doughty Annabel Goldie, everyone’s favourite auntie. They have also talked a good deal of sense on issues like local taxation, affordable housing and drug rehabilitation. But they have been caught between the grindstones of the constitution debate. Annabel Goldie’s defiant insistence that the union is inviolable has contrasted with comments from figures like enterprise spokesman, Murdo Fraser, and even David Cameron that - though they don’t recommend it - Scotland could survive perfectly well as an independent country.
In taking this line, they are trying to come to terms with the debate as it is taking place in Scotland. Labour, meanwhile, have simply excluded themselves from it. Tony Blair’s visits have become increasingly negative, culminating in his highly personal remarks on Thursday that Alex Salmond is only interested in “fighting England”, as if the SNP leader were a latter day William Wallace.
Now, there is a case to be made that the SNP leader, if he became First Minister, would be likely to take a more robust line towards Westminster on issues such as the attendance allowances which were withheld from free elderly care, or the #381 million in council tax benefit. Then of course there is oil, Trident, immigration... But it might be that the Scottish voters, while showing no obvious interest in secession, may want a government in Holyrood, which is a little more confrontational.
This is the only way of reconciling the great electoral contradiction of this election, which is that support for formal independence is dwindling, even as the SNP is drawing ahead of Labour. In the Yougov poll on Friday, support for a separate Scotland in Europe was down to 23%. Other polls have placed independence in Europe lower still, while showing a large majority in favour of more powers for Holyrood.
Jack McConnell is convinced that this contradiction is the key to victory. He has been tearing round the country to shopping centres and old peoples’ homes, selling the message that Labour, not the SNP, is the real “patriotic party”, Scotland’s real national party. However, he still looks the underdog. TV interviewers have begun to treat him as a loser, talking down to him and badgering him about inconsistencies in his local taxation policies. Bernard Ponsonby’s assault on the FM, currently running on YouTube, isn’t a pretty sight.
The SNP has conducted a cool presidential campaign, based around the personality of their leader and on an independence-lite policy programme. This is either perpetrating a fraud on the electorate, as Labour say, or it is just what it says it is - an attempt by the SNP to show it can be a credible party of government in Holyrood. The intriguing question, given the dismal showing in the opinion polls for a separate Scotland, is whether the SNP has now entered on a course that will inevitably lead it to become a “post-nationalist” party like its Catalan and Quebecois equivalents. Certainly, there is a long way to go before the SNP could conceivably win a referendum on independence. All those spending commitments have to be honoured, local income tax introduced, relations with Westminster harmonised.
And, first things first, it has to win the Holyrood election on Thursday and manage to cement a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats who are still refusing to countenance any referendum on anything. It all seems like an impossible task.
But the polls can’t all be wrong. And what they are saying is that, unless Labour pull something out of the hat in next three days, Alex Salmond will the next inhabitant of Bute House.