Sunday, May 27, 2007

Be afraid of Salmond

27 May 2007

Alex Salmond is in office, but not in power. The Scottish National Party administration is a weak and feeble creature, unable to get its way in parliament, insecure and liable to be snuffed out at any moment by the combined might of the opposition parties.

Right? Wrong. Absolute tosh and garbage. This supposedly impotent administration has confounded the consensus of the commentariat, myself included, that it wouldn’t be able to do very much. If this is inactivity, heaven help us if the SNP ever get a working majority.

Salmond and co have simply brushed aside the pessimists and driven forward a programme of government which is bold and imaginative. Confidence trick it may be, but it’s a pretty good one. Hardly a day goes by without a new and eye-catching initiative making the headlines. Clean coal technology and reopening the Scottish pits; writing nuclear power out of the energy equation, carbon capture at Peterhead, scrapping the Edinburgh air link, reviewing free personal care, new measures on sex crime, freezing council tax, a Scottish television channel.

Yes, you heard it - a Scottish digital television channel. SNP people have been urging BBC executives to use the forthcoming analogue switch off as an opportunity to set one up. I can assure you that there is a lot of interest in this in Queen Margaret Drive from the top down, where the idea has been under discussion for some time.

Of course, like many initiatives the SBC may never see the light of day. Nor does the Scottish government actually possess the power, for example, to freeze council tax, according to authorities like Prof. Arthur Midwinter. But many SNP initiatives will materialise. There WILL be more police on the streets; local hospital emergency facilities, like Monklands, will stay open; free school meals will be restored; and prescription charges abolished. Postgraduate student fees will be scrapped and bridge tolls axed. The challenge will be to the opposition parties to stop Salmond dominating the public agenda.

For example, all the Scottish parties support free personal care and want to see it properly funded - which right now it isn’t. Frankly, I can’t see any of them siding with the Department of Work and Pensions on the issue of attendance allowances, when Salmond demands the #23 million back. Ditto public sector reform. Following the publication of the Howat report - which the previous administration had shamefully kept secret - Salmond is promising to make the Scottish state more efficient and transparent and to cut a way through the bureaucratic jungle. He means it, and so do the Tories who will back him. Good-bye Scottish Enterprise - at least as we know it.

And it’s not all populism either. The SNP showed that they are capable of seeing beyond the next headline by not sacking Labour’s capable Elish Angiolini, as Lord Advocate, and by removing the post from cabinet. In doing this they took a real risk. In future, on issues like Shirley McKie, the Human Rights Act etc, the SNP will not have political influence over the Crown Office, and could lose control of events. But, as Tony Blair used to say, it was the right thing to do.

The opposition parties - with the exception of the Scottish Tories who have seized the new opportunities with both hands - haven’t got the measure of this new administration at all. Like the political commentators, they are still thinking that Salmond is a hog-tied minority leader with a big mouth and no power. The Liberal Democrat leader-in-waiting Tavish Scott last week accused the Nationalists of “hitting the ground prevaricating”, as if they weren’t doing very much. He should try looking around.

The Nationalists have entered government with the same sense of determination and purpose Labour showed when it took office in Westminster in 1997. Of course, Tony Blair’s government had a 169 seat majority, whereas Salmond has a 20 seat deficit, and no visible means of support. It is being held aloft by will power alone, but the will certainly is there. This administration will have to be brought down by combined action off the opposition parties, and they are going to have to time this action very carefully indeed.

First of all, they need a casus belli - a justification for going to war with Salmond. It’s not that easy to think of one presenting itself, unless the First Minister does something deeply unpopular like releasing half the Scottish prison population. Not entirely fanciful, since the SNP is committed to replacing jail by community sentences.

However, Salmond will be careful to avoid doing anything so controversial that it could raise a confidence issue in the parliament. Instead, he is going to tighten up on the monitoring of sex criminals, and is even contemplating reopening the issue of Catholic adoption agencies right to refuse gay couples. The Left shouldn’t assume that this administration will be particularly liberal.

Which leaves the opposition parties with the option of forcing Salmond out by cutting off his financial lifeline - refusing to support the budget to pay for all Salmond’s initiatives. This is the surest way of forcing another election, and they would have the active assistance of the UK Treasury in choking off Salmond’s cash. However, the opposition parties might find that they have fashioned a noose for their own necks if they do this.

Salmond would go to the country on the strength of the agenda outlined in his first hundred days, the most ambitious prospectus put before the electorate since 1999. He would force Labour to argue the case for hospital closures, more bureaucrats, keeping council tax, prescription charges etc.. Following its disastrous outing at the last election, Labour is in no shape to fight an election. Its leader, Jack McConnell, has been kicked around the press by his own MSPs, by Labour MPs and by the UK campaign team, who have no confidence in him. Yet, as we saw last week, the only credible challenger Wendy Alexander, the hungry caterpillar, is simply not ready to take over yet, if at all.

Nor will the Scottish Press be so eager to support Labour as they were last time. They have been shown to be dangerously out of touch with their own readers. So, there is every possibility that an early election could be equally damaging to Labour, and that the SNP could be returned with a substantially increased majority. This is what happened in 1966 and in 1974 when minority Labour administrations in Westminster sought re-election after finding that they couldn’t continue. The people gave them a mandate to show what they could really do.

So, Labour may well decide that it would be fatal to strike early, even if it could line up the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. Which means we may all have been wrong again in believing that this government will be short-lived. Salmond is going to be given space to show what he can do. He has called our bluff, and he intends to go on calling it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Brown versus Salmond - what a contest!


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. We will shortly have two of the most gifted Scottish politicians of their generation facing each other across the constitutional divide. Alex Salmond as First Minister of Scotland; Gordon Brown as Prime Minister of the UK. What is England going to make of this r grudge match?

On Friday, as Gordon Brown toured marginal constituencies in the South of England, he was pursued by a bagpiper reportedly hired by the Tories. The objective was clear: to indicate that in some way Gordon Brown is a stranger in a foreign land, that his not really ‘one of us’.

This has become the new Tory “dog whistle”, replacing immigration, as the subliminal message that Tories want to communicate to Middle England. They won’t want to make overt attacks on the next Prime Minister’s Scottish origins. But Tory focus groups have no trouble identifying disquiet about the Chancellor’s personality - the dour Scot has a lot of work to do if he wants middle England to warm to him. A few thousand eco homes won’t win the South.

Events this week in the Scottish Parliament will only confirm the sense of Scottish “otherness”. Alex Salmond will y be elected as First Minister of Scotland, with Nicola Sturgeon at his side. Salmond will then head off to meet the Queen - an even of immense symbolic importance, even if not very much will be said.

The English media will then begin to realise the enormity of what has occurred in Scotland. No only has Labour been defeated, but the nationalists have been allowed to form a government unaided, unrestrained by any unionist coalition partner. Alex Salmond may have very little scope for getting his own way domestically as a minority leader - much of his legislative programme has already been dumped. But the point is that it will look and sound as if he is the leader of Scotland, and many English commentators will conclude that Scotland is now, to all intents and purposes, a separate country.

Polls suggest that more English people support independence for Scotland than Scots. Resentment at Scotland supposedly being featherbedded by public subsidies and for living in relatively cheap homes, is not hard to find. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone - no friend of the Chancellor - claims that London is being impoverished in order to stuff the mouths of Brown’s homeland, and that the metropolis needs a better deal.

The idea that this global financial powerhouse - the richest real estate in the world - is in need of financial assistance from low growth Scotland may sound daft from our point of view. But if you are a professional family in your early thirties, living in a rented shoe box and faced with sending your kids to a run down local school, you might well start to wonder whether Londoners don’t deserve a better deal.

It is not that easy, however, for the Tories to play the English card, at least overtly . They are a unionist party, after all, and dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom. They can’t appear to be in league with the Scottish nationalists, even though, in a very real sense, they are. As First Minister, Alex Salmond will have no qualms about raising the West Lothian Question. His troops in the Commons will insist that it is unacceptable for Scottish Labour MPs to “dictate” to England its policies on education, health and such like, when English MPs have no say in a Scotland.

The West Lothian Question was always a difficult one for Labour, since their majority was reduced in the 2005 general election. But with a non-Labour party in office in Holyrood it becomes all but impossible to mount a convincing argument for Scottish MPs to retain their full voting rights in the Commons. (My own view is that it would be wise pre-emptively to reduce the number of Scottish MPs further) I suspect that this may be in the back of the Chancellor’s mind when he promised a constitutional review to restore power and respect for parliament. And if it wasn’t in his mind, it soon will be.

The irony of Gordon Brown setting up what the Guardian newspaper described as a cross party “constitutional convention” on the future of Westminster, when he has refused any review of Holyrood’s constitutional status, will not be lost on the Scots. Brown’s convention is meant to review things like the ministerial code, Royal Prerogative and war making powers. But if such a body is set up it will have to look at the reform of the House of Lord, and at the new constitutional relations across Britain.

The Northern Ireland and the Welsh assemblies are moving towards greater autonomy. It will no longer be possible, with a nationalist government in Scotland, for relations between Holyrood and Westminster to be managed by cosy personal relations within the party of government as has been the case since 1999. Constitutional machinery will have to be created to resolve the many disputes that will arise between a nationalist FM and London.

The Tories will realise that they have nothing to lose by agreeing to endorse Brown’s plans for parliamentary perestroika, since it will inevitably raise the question of voting rights of Scottish MPs. If the Chancellor is trying to restore power and influence to parliament, he is going to have to look at the issue of “English votes for English laws”, as the Tory home affairs spokesman David Davies calls it - this is the idea that Scots MPs should withdraw from votes on purely English legislation.

And if Prime Minister Brown tries to block any consideration of the WLQ, newspapers like the London Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph will go for him. The London media is not anti-Scottish as such, but if it believes Scotland is already drifting off into the post-imperial sunset, it will have no qualms about demanding that Brown should stop, as they will put it, imposing laws on England on the strength of votes from MPs from another country.

They will also raise the whole Barnett Question. With a nationalist administration abolishing prescription charges and bridge tolls, scrapping university fees, delivering free school meals and subsidies to first time home buyers, the perception will be that Scotland is getting away with grand larceny - financing a social democratic paradise on the backs of English tax payers.

Alex Salmond will agree that Barnett is unfair and should be scrapped; that there should be a new needs assessment and that Scotland should be forced to raise its own taxes in order to fund its own spending programmes. This could hasten the day when Scotland gets its own tax powers and assigned revenues from oil. And that really would be the beginning of the end for the UK. The Liberal Democrats may live to regret handing Alex Salmond the keys to Scotland.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tony and me

And so where were you on that bright May morning in 1997 when all those Tory hate figures like Michael Portillo and Michael Forsyth were buried by the Blair landslide. Bliss it was..etc, (turn to page 94). We’ve been forced to relive those moments so often during Tony Blair’s long good-bye, that it’s all becoming a little sick-making.

And anyway, how do we really know he’s gone? I’ve been writing political obituaries of Tony Blair since 2004, and he still hasn’t actually left office yet. Until the last nail is driven into his political coffin, I reserve judgement. Even if he goes on a gap year to Africa to do the mission thing, he might still come back hoping that the nation and his party will realise its mistake and demand his return. Don’t laugh, Alex Salmond did it.

And no, I don’t bear him any personal animosity. I’ve always found that I couldn’t help liking Tony Blair, even as I loathed what he was doing to our political culture. The first time I really got to know him was back in the 1992 Labour conference when, as a journalistic assignment, I elected to follow this interesting but still largely obscure shadow minister around the Labour Party conference fringe. It was an extraordinary experience.

Blair pursued this like a military campaign. He would speak at three fringe meetings in each lunchtime. It was all talk and go, but the amazing thing was that they all seemed to love him for it. He would segue seamlessly from the Police Federation to the civil liberties campaigners and charm both of them equally. Trades unionists were a pushover, and business groups saw someone they could, well, do business with.

Blair’s great asset was his likability. He talked a lot of platitudes, about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime; about governing in the interest of the many rather than the few; about reconciling social justice and economic efficiency - but we weren’t really listening to the words. Blair was like one of those people at school who for no obvious reason were just hugely popular - everyone wanted to be around him. He made people feel good about themselves.

I was as susceptible as anyone, and while our relationship has never exactly flourished, I have always found him immensely personable. The last time I spoke to Tony Blair was during a dark rainy night in February, when I and a group of journalists were invited to a country house hotel in Erskine to break bread with the Prime Minister and talk about the Scottish election campaign. He bounded in, with the same old expression of slightly dizzy resignation his face which seemed to say: ‘Hey, we all know this politics business is kind of ridiculous, but let’s all try to get through it as best we can”.

The PM looked immensely fit and lively, and talked absolute unalloyed nonsense about the Scottish election . But the warmth in the room was unmistakable. The greatest conman in political history he may have been, but the secret of successful confidence trickery is the realisation that people really like to be conned. They want to have their naive beliefs validated; to think that pigs really can fly, if there is a leader around with sufficient determination to get pork airborne.

Blair used his personal plausibility to extraordinary effect. From that very first moment when he announced that everyone accepted that he was a “pretty straight kind of guy” after the Bernie Ecclestone bung back in 1998, to his back-to-the-wall encounters with furious British public in the 2005 general election. Alistair Campbell devised the so-called “masochism strategy” to deal with political unpopularity, which involved getting Tony Blair to confront as many angry critics as possible, preferably on camera, to show how difficult it was for them not to like him.

The supreme achievement of the Great Persuader was the Iraq war. Only Tony Blair could have faced down two of the biggest parliamentary rebellions since Irish Home Rule, and persuaded MPs to go to war on the basis of an intelligence “dossier” that had been downloaded from a PhD thesis on the internet. The Commons in February 2003 suspended disbelief, and voted for the most costly foreign policy disaster in post war British history with their eyes wide shut. They simply wanted to believe that Tony knew what he was doing.

The Prime Minister charmed the country’s newspaper editors as easily as he charmed parliament. They don’t like to admit it now, but back in 2003 the press actually believed that we could walk into an Muslim country, bomb the capital, lock up the government, grab the oil and then sit around in the sun while Iraq turned into a beacon of democracy. Some people still believe even today. In fact, Alistair Campbell seems to think that’s what really did happen.

The bigger the lie, the more people want to believe, that was the great discovery of the 20th Century totalitarians, and in a small way, Tony Blair has confirmed the thesis. If the people love you enough, you can say almost anything and enough of them will believe. It’s not just PR - as Gordon Brown is finding out - the spin is only as good as the spinner.

Brown versus Blair - no contest

Everyone thinks that Tony Blair is distraught at the thought of Gordon Brown taking over from him, but there are consolations? After all, what better way to continue the love affair with the British public than to leave them when they are still clamouring for more and to be replaced by someone who can’t even get the camera angles right in his campaign launch. Who managed to get a door slammed in his face on national television on his big day. Blair’s characterisation of the Chancellor as “the great clunking fist” after the March budget has fixed Brown’s image in the public mind. Leaden, stiff, heavy, inelegant and brutal. The cartoonists are already getting to work.

Blair has had more farewells than Sinatra and that has made deprived his successor of the gift of novelty. Brown looks worn out even before he starts in the job, at least by comparison with Blair, who seems to be handing over to the older man.
The Chancellor has been forced to carry the spirit of Blairism into the future by agreeing to red lines on the war, terror, detention, id cards, Trident, nuclear power, and market driven public services.

Brown is a brilliant politician, of course, and will no doubt have a few surprises up his sleeve. His greatest asset is his youthful ministers - Yvetter Cooper, Ed Balls, David Miliband, Douglas Alexander, James Purnell - who will be elevated to senior cabinet positions. The new PM will signal a generational change even though he is not part of it. Brown will confound critics of his control freakery by pretending to give power away, to independent boards, specialist committees, co-opted business figures. He’s even hinted at non Labour figures entering government in some way.

But he will never escape the shadow of Tony Blair, and the constant comparisons of their respective styles. Blair has prolonged his leave-taking to such a degree that Gordon Brown has been forced to mate with his ghost. How can we be sure Blair is really gone? We can’t. The most successful Prime Minister in Labour history will be a living reminder of the limitations of his successor. Unless, that is, Gordon Brown decides to drive a stake through his heart.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What the SNP victory means

“I’m off to buy a hat in order to eat it” so said one prominent media face on Friday morning. When Alex Salmond announced two years ago that he was going to win 20 seats, everyone in the Scottish press, myself included, scoffed at the idea. Pah! the nationalists had come third behind the Liberal Democrats in the 2005 general election vote. “Alex will live to regret that”, we said. Well, the hat shops of Scotland are doing brisk trade this weekend.

Let’s be clear: this was a hugely significant even revolutionary result - and I use that word advisedly. It is comparable to the Labour victory in 1997, which brought to an end the Conservative hegemony of British politics - only this election could have rather more profound implications for the British constitution.

Scotland now has a new political landscape. To understand why, you have to look beyond the headline result, in which the SNP had only a one seat advantage over Labour. Gaining 20 seats was, of course, remarkable enough, given the dominance of Labour in West Central Scotland and the hostility of the popular media, which tried to hijack the election by vilifying Alex Salmond. The Sun should be rightly ashamed of its polling day front page depicting a hangman’s noose as the penalty for voting SNP. This time, the Sun really lost it...

But look across the councils of Scotland. Labour have been reduced to two: Glasgow and Lanarkshire. The SNP have returned 360 councillors, a hundred more than their target. This means that the Labour monolith, which has run Scotland from the bottom up, is now being dismantled from the top down. IN future, in all those councils which were Labour one-party states, there is now a series of coalitions in which the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, where not actually in office, will provide vigorous oppositions.

The new cohorts of non-Labour councillors represent the seed-corn of the political future. They will be working to challenge Labour’s hegemony of the local state, of public appointments, of the local media. It has become a truism to say that Scotland is now two countries: West Central Scotland and the Rest. But even in Labour’s heartland, in its Western fortresses, there is now an SNP presence.

Five nationalist MSPs in Glasgow, for Heaven’s sake. The voters of the West may have responded to the command of the popular tabloids like the Record and the Sun this time, but they may not do so readily once non-Labour politicians are no longer aliens in the West.

Of course, for the revolution to be realised, the SNP must form a government. This will have to be cemented within the week, and the only realistic, and democratically credible solution is a coalition between the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. They have the numbers - 65 - they have the policies - trident, local income tax, nuclear power, fiscal autonomy - and they have the “moral authority” - a phrase that Alex Salmond has astutely inserted into the post-election political discourse.

And such a coalition would also have the only credible leader in the Scotland. Alex Salmond has proved in this historic campaign that he has earned the right to be the next First Minister. It is very difficult to see how Jack McConnell could continue to lead Scotland from the back after his dismal outing. Read the devastating comments on the Labour leader from his own campaign team in today’s Sunday Herald.

Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader also had a poor campaign, where he failed to connect, lost two key MSPs in Euan Robson and George Lyon and shed thousands of votes in his own constituency majority. If McConnell and Stephen’s political overlords - Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell - believe they can prevail upon them to cling onto power, with a kind of rump Lib-Lab administration backed by the Tories, then they are simply deluding themselves.

The people of Scotland would not stand for two parties which were given such an electoral pasting attempting to cling on to power. Such a coalition would lack any kind of authority at all, moral or otherwise. It would confirm the worst paranoid fears of Scots that Holyrood was actually run by London. McConnell would appear as a puppet and Stephen as a muppet.

Of course, the Liberal Democrats don’t want to do a deal with Alex Salmond. They don’t trust the SNP leader, think he’s a demagogue who would not listen to them and would run the Scottish Executive as if it were his fan club. But the LibDems may not be in a position to refused to do a deal. The logic of proportional democracy, and their own pronouncements on the need for stable coalition government in Holyrood, may ultimately force them into a coalition, whether they like it or not. It has to be with the SNP because there is simply no reasonable democratic alternative. The people have spoken. They have their ministerial careers to think of too.

What these two parties should do is park the referendum issue in a constitutional convention for the duration of this parliament. The SNP and the Liberal Democrats have both talked favourably about setting up a constitutional convention to review Scotland’s future relationship to the UK, its powers and responsibilities, its financing and taxation. Lord Steel has pointed the way in this paper today. <> They should call on all interested parties in Scotland to join in this convention and allow it to do its work, as did the 1988 Scottish Constitutional Convention, which drew up the blue-print for devolution. Let this whole constitutional issue be taken out of the day to day running of the Scottish parliament, and allow the government of Scotland to be stabilised.

Let the LibDems continue to say they don’t want a referendum, by all means; and let the SNP say they do want one - but farm out the whole debate to the Constitutional Convention. It should decide how and when the Scottish people should be consulted after it has deliberated. I believe that the SNP would agree to do this, and would even accept a multi-option referendum at the end of it, including the Liberal Democrats option of federalism - a devolved parliament with enhanced powers.

The alternative for the SNP is anyway that their bill for a referendum, if they put it to the parliament as piece of minority legislation, would be resoundingly defeated. So, what have the Nats to loose? Gordon Brown may try to prevent Labour taking part in the new Constitutional Convention Mark 2, but that would split the Scottish Labour Party. I have spoken to members of the party who would willingly participate. If Ming Campbell orders the LibDems to stay out, they would split too.

Taking the referendum factor out of the equation would allow a Nat-Lib-Green coalition to honour its democratic covenant with the voters prepare a programme for government. That programme practically writes itself. The Liberals and the SNP are agreed on the need to scrap the council tax, introduce local income tax, lower business taxes, establish a growth target for Scotland, promote enterprise. They are both for renewable energy, against nuclear power and Trident and in favour of liberal policies on asylum and immigration. They want more police on the streets, more teachers in schools, smaller class sizes and maintaining local hospitals.

On crime, they agree on community sentencing, police reform and longer sentences for knife crime. They want affordable housing, promotion of wave and tidal power, carbon emission targets, implementation of the National Gaelic plan. I can also reveal exclusively that Alex Salmond would not object to Nicol Stephen's number one legislative priority - an hour of physical education a day in schools - just so long as it doesn’t apply to him.

There is such an obvious fit between the policies of these two parties that it seems almost absurd that they are not able to do a deal, and this would not go unnoticed by the people of Scotland. The Greens would certainly support it, especially if Robin Harper were to be given some kind of environmental brief, and even Margo MacDonald, the last of the independence, might be tempted.

What Labour might ask the Liberal Democrats to do, given that the option of a continuation of the Lib-Lab coalition is not credible, is to retreat to the backbenches, let Salmond run a minority administration and join Labour MSPs in a guerilla war against Alex Salmond. Do everything to frustrate the effective operation of the Scottish Executive, and hope that the Scottish civil servants would also sit on their hands and do nothing to assist the nationalists in running an effective administration.

Well, the Liberal Democrats would be entitled to do that, certainly. There is nothing in the rule book that says they have to join a coalition, just as their is no rule that the largest party in the Scottish election should necessarily lead it. But Nicol Stephen would do well to note his own parlous state after this election, where the Liberal Democrats came fourth after the Conservatives. The only way to salvage something from the mess is to try to remain in government and exert some influence on events.. The Liberal Democrats have to ask themselves whether they really want abandon their ministerial posts and their policies just so they could prove that the Scottish people had voted in the wrong way on May 3rd. The people might not be very forgiving.

They should observe how the SNP won this election against the determined opposition of the pro-Labour establishment in Scotland. They might consider whether boycotting the new Scottish Executive might exclude them from relevance to the new political Scotland, and the emerging Scottish consensus on the need for greater autonomy for the Scottish parliament. Might be better to get in there and stake their claim, rather than appear to go down with Labour.

After all, where have Labour been for the last forty eight hours? They ceded the media, and the political initiative, entirely to Alex Salmond, right from the moment when the nationalist leader, after helicoptering into Edinburgh like a President-elect, cheekily delivered his victory speech even before he had won the election. Was it a media coup, or a constitutional coup d’Etat?

Where was Jack McConnell then? If Labour were so convinced of their own moral authority to govern, why did the former First Minister not come out to present his case to the nation on Friday? Condemn Salmond for hijacking the election, pre-empting the nation and assuming the mantle of leadership? I spent much of the post-election period with the international media encampment on the lawns outside Holyrood. The SNP were there in strength throughout, but of Labour there was little sign. Ministers, from McConnell down, simply hid from the cameras because they didn’t know what to say.

More to the point, where has Gordon Brown, the architect of Labour’s campaign, been when his party and country needed him? Playing Macavity again, and pretending not to be there when things went wrong? Leaving it to Tony Blair, of all people, to field the questions on the situation in Scotland, when it was the Chancellor who should have been taking to the airwaves to make the case for a united Britain.

The Labour establishment in Scotland failed to get its post-election act together, and it is important to ask why. Was it for the same reason that the campaign was misconceived from the start? Was it because of the cynical arrogance of a cabinet ministers who believed that Scottish voters could be scared into line by a relentlessly negative campaign expressed in the rebarbative rhetoric of the Sun?

A lot of people in Scotland this weekend have discovered to their surprise that they were closet nationalists. Friends, including long time Labour supporters talk of being astonished by their own elation at the result of this election. There is an unmistakable air of excitement, of optimism even, which has largely blown away the embarrassment felt by the computerised chaos of the count. Scotland doesn’t often feel this way. Beware - it might be habit forming.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Liberal Democrats are afraid they might win

This much we know: Scotland will have a new government, probably within the week, and Alex Salmond should be leading it as First Minister. Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Tavish Scott, on BBC’s Politics Show, ruled out any ‘cling-on’ coalition with the Labour rump. The only question now is whether the Liberal Democrats want to be part of the future, or part of the past.

Well it appears that they are determined to stick in the past, for last night their spokesman, Tavish Scott, appeared to rule out any coalition with the SNP even before negotiations began. This is unfortunate, because the Libdems were about to be offered a deal in which the contentious issue of a referendum on independence would be handed over to a cross-party constitutional convention or commission.

The Liberal Democrats have already called for a convention in their manifesto, so they could hardly refuse to participate in it. Tavish Scott had of course made clear he would still demand that the SNP drop its commitment to a referendum. But what they Libdems don’t seem quite to realise is that, in a sense, the nationalists already have. It comes down to a matter of simple arithmetic.

If the SNP are forced to govern alone, as a minority, which seems likely now, they would anyway have little chance of holding the independence referendum. This is because the bill to stage the referendum would be voted down by the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP is in a minority. So, why put it in the first place?

Everyone is so convinced of Alex Salmond’s perfidy that they have failed to consider the possibility that he might actually mean what he says. That he really does want to show that the SNP can run an effective administration in Edinburgh under the terms set by the devolution settlement. In fact, there is every sign that this is precisely what the SNP leader wants to do, and that he is not going to allow a referendum to get in his way.

The nationalists aren’t completely stupid, and they can read the polls as well as anyone else. They can see that, right now, there is no great demand in Scotland for formal independence. Fewer than 25% of Scots voters say they would support separation from the UK.

The vast majority would support extending the powers of the Scottish parliament, broadly along the lines proposed by the Steel Commission two years ago. That means tax, economy, broadcasting, nuclear energy etc.. That’ll do nicely. It would make Scotland functionally independent across 80% of the legislative competence of a national parliament.

In otherwords the Liberal Democrats wre pushing at an open door. They were only a couple of negotiating days away from an agreement that the next four years would be about their programme for government rather than about the metaphysics of independence. The whole constitutional issue, referendum and all, would have been hived off to the convention, where the great and the good could think profound thoughts, while the Lib/Nat/Green executive got on with scrapping council tax and promoting renewable energy.

The SNP cannot give up on its core commitment to independence, clearly - but make no mistake, it was poised to shelve it for the lifetime of this parliament. I detect no urge from senior SNP sources to force the convention to report by a certain timetable, or to come up with any particular constitutional proposal. Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that she accepts that the Liberal Democrat option of federalism would be one of those considered.

The Liberal Democrats may not want to join a government led by Salmond - many don’t like him - but they are now placed in a very odd position now if they don’t. Do they want to lose all their ministerial posts, all their influence in government for nothing? Don’t they want to implement their manifesto? And surely, if they are so concerned about the fate of the union, shouldn't they be in there, fighting their corner, and ensuring that Salmond is bound by collective cabinet responsibility?.

But what about Salmond own fundamentalist fringe? Would the awkward squad of new SNP MSPs have bought this pragmatism, or see it as betrayal? Bill Wilson, the standard-bearer of unreconstructed revolutionary nationalism, has said there is no point in being in government if every day is not spent trying to secure liberation from the English yoke.

Well, I suspect Mr Wilson may find himself in Alex Salmond office in the course of the week, where he will find that the SNP leader is a very persuasive man. Mr Wilson will have to explain what purpose would be served by engaging in futile gestures like putting forward a referendum bill that has no chance of being adopted. I suspect even Mr Wilson can count.

Everyone assumes that Salmond is only interested in being in government so that he can create instability and confrontation with London. But needless provocation is not going to bring independence any closer. The Scottish electorate is very unforgiving of parties who think that political theatre is more important than good governance, or who believe that fomenting strife and confrontation is more important than seeking reconciliation and consensus. Look what happened to the Scottish Socialist Party.

The SNP have discovered - much as New Labour did in the 1990s - that oppositionalism is a dead end. That you have to go with the grain of public opinion rather than against it, and win trust. The New Nationalism has been as successful as Tony Blair’s New Labour. The SNP has won a truly historic election and it is eager to demonstrate that it can run a responsible government.

Now, the nationalists may fail. Their commitments are massive, and their means of delivering them limited, especially if the Liberal Democrats remain aloof. Looking down the likely candidates for ministerial positions does not exactly inspire confidence But Alex Salmond has shown in the last week that he has that sense of purpose, that sense of destiny, which is essential in a national leader.

Meanwhile, Jack McConnell and Gordon Brown have been engaging in back-room plotting to destabilise the new administration. Four days on from polling day, all we hear is the inarticulate whine of ex-Labour ministers a trying to explain why they didn’t have the nous to demand a recount of a 48 vote majority.

But you can’t reverse history in the courts of law. The Scottish Labour Party have lost the election, lost the coalition and they are about to lose their leader, Jack McConnell. Their only option now is to go gracefully into opposition, where they can sort themselves out, rediscover what they stand for, and provide effective opposition to the nationalist government which remains the only democratic outcome.