Saturday, June 23, 2007

Salmond blows them away

At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday Jack McConnell asked: “What do Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Austria and Switzerland all have in common?” Alex Salmond replied: “They’re all independent countries and they all come above Scotland in the index of success compiled by the Labour Party’s former economic adviser”. Ouch.

It was such an obvious trap that you wonder why McConnell set it for himself. Indeed, Salmond seemed slightly amazed at being offered such an open goal and hesitated a nanosecond before blasting the ball into the back of it. The Labour leader had intended his questioning to underline the inconvenient truth that all those countries have light railways, like the one proposed for Edinburgh, but he ended up underlining his own party’s failure to grow the Scottish economy within the union.

It wasn’t the best FMQs, on Thursday, and there were hints of the unloveable ‘smart Alec’ making a comeback. But what no one can deny is that under the new First Minister, FMQs have been transformed. And the audacious self-confidence on display at this weekly joust has somehow set the tone for the entire SNP administration.

The effect of the last six weeks has been devastating . The SNP hasn’t so much hit the ground running as lapped the political field on an almost daily basis. Opposition MSPs are astonished, blown away at what has been happening - and I’m not just giving an SNP party political here. Even one of the most prominent critics of the SNP, who I won’t name for obvious reasons, told me last week that he thought the SNP had “played a blinder”.

And here’s a curious thing: a lot of opposition MSPs, those not poisoned by animus or self-delusion, seem to agree that the Scottish parliament has moved up a gear since the nationalists took over. It has raised the game of everyone in the place. Debates are actually worth listening to; MSPs who have been languishing in back-bench obscurity have started making speeches and interventions that are pointed, intelligent and relevant. Indeed, you could, with fairness, say that the Scottish parliament, this underpowered and under confident institution, has suddenly come alive.

Partly, this is down to the flood of initiatives from the SNP which continues unabated. It has been hard to keep up - look away and you’re likely to miss a couple of major stories. Last week we had a Climate Change Bill setting one of the most ambitious targets for C02 reduction in the world - 80% reduction by 2050 - which has stunned environmental groups. We had the end of private health care in the Scottish NHS - a move which might have caused a massive row three years ago, but which went by largely unremarked. And before we could get our heads around that, the nationalists announced what could be the biggest house building programme in Scotland for three decades - increasing housing supply by 50% every year until 2016.

Now, it’s absolutely true, as Labour point out, that these announcements aren’t all they might appear. The SNP housing policy is still at the task force stage. The headlines about the SNP cutting class sizes to 18 last week were hardly justified by the announcement of 300 new teachers, many of whom might have been trained anyway. Nor has the abolition of the graduate endowment fulfilled the SNP’s manifesto pledge to abolish student debt. Prescription charges have not been abolished, and only chronic sick are likely to see early relief. The new Scottish Executive is becoming almost as fond of consultations, task forces and reviews as the previous administration.

But there‘s no way that a minority SNP government, or indeed any government, could possibly have implemented its manifesto in six weeks. Just being there would be success in itself. But what Salmond has done, most effectively, is stamp his authority firmly on parliament and Scottish public life, and set the political agenda. Salmond has used his executive powers to the full, saving local hospitals, abolishing dawn raids, ruling out nuclear power, reforming relations with Westminster, reviewing infrastructure projects. No one can be in any doubt that Scotland is under new management, and has a new direction.

This is exactly what Labour did Wesminster in 1997. They made such a dramatic statement of intent in the weeks and months after they won the general election, that they changed the climate of public affairs for the next six years, before things went seriously wrong over Iraq. Those early weeks of the Blair administration - the change in tone, the blizzard of initiatives like Bank of England independence and devolution - even the handling of public events like the death of Diana Princess of Wales, showed just how important the first hundred days of a new administration can be.

The great difference, of course, is that Tony Blair had behind him a majority of 169 seats; Alex Salmond has a deficit of 20 and no coalition partner. The most astonishing thing about this first ever Nationalist administration is the way it has managed to suspend disbelief and deliver a radical programme without any visible means of support. Of the thirty odd votes so far in the lifetime of this government, Salmond has not lost a single one - at least of any consequence.

No, I can’t quite understand it either; no one expected this. On Thursday, even many SNP MSPs were convinced that the nationalists had lost a key vote on local income tax; in the end, parliament backed the motion by 64 to 62. This doesn’t mean that local income tax is a done deal; but it does mean that the council tax is history. That is a very big hurdle crossed.

Luck? Of course - but self-made luck. The SNP parliament minister, Bruce Crawford, is really earning his crust. This unflambouyant politician is turning out to be as skilled an operator as any chief whip in Westminster. His ability to deliver two votes so far on the vexatious trams issue was achievement enough, but he has also scored a series of unreported successes over votes on skills academies and Trident, both of which brought the Liberal Democrats on board.

What has bewildered the opposition Labour party most is the unexpected competence of the SNP ministerial team. Lacking any government experience, and with no unifying ideology oher than separatism, running a devolved administration should have been a rocky learning experience for the nationalists. They should have been all over the place, contradicting each other, bickering over independence and picking pointless fights with London. Easy meat for Labour, with their experienced ex-ministers and their inside knowledge of public affairs. But Labour hopes that this administration would collapse in a heap have been dashed, and it is Jack McConnell who is floundering.

It can’t last of course, and this week the SNP is likely to lose its first important vote - over Edinburgh’s trams - which the finance secretary, John Swinney, seems minded to ignore. My own view is that the SNP should accept the will of parliament on the light railway, but hand the bill for any cost overruns to the new administration on Edinburgh City Council. That would concentrate minds in the capital.

There is a danger that the nationalists, like the Scottish football team get intoxicated by their own early success and up becoming overconfident and reckless. SNP ministers have yet to be tested in crisis. But Alex Salmond has shown what he is capable of and given the political world a lesson in how to turn an indifferent election result into a political triumph.

It is all so unlike the early weeks and months of Holyrood in 1999, when senseless rows about medals and expenses ruined the show. Perhaps if Donald Dewar had entered government with the same imagination panache as Salmond, the story of devolution might have been very different.

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