Saturday, May 03, 2008

Salmond's first year in power. A blinder.

On the afternoon of May 4th. 2007, when Alex Salmond arrived in triumph at Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House by helicopter, he didn’t actually know that he had won the Holyrood election even as he declared victory. Most of his team didn’t either because some constituencies had yet to declare. It was an exercise in sheer political chutzpah, a gamble that paid off. A year on, Salmond is still collecting his winnings

Even when the final result was declared at 5.40pm and the SNP emerged as the largest party, with 47 seats to Labour’s 46, Salmond still hadn’t really ‘won’ the election. There was no guarantee that the SNP leader would be elected First Minister by the 129 MSPs in new Scottish parliament. Indeed, we now know from the memoirs of the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, and other sources, that Gordon Brown was convinced that Labour had won a great moral victory and that a new Liberal-Labour coalition was the logical and necessary result of the split election result. They even tried to persuade a sceptical Jack McConnell to dig in.

Yet from the moment Salmond set foot on Holyrood turf, everyone could see that this was his moment. Through the fuzzy logic of the election result, and after the most chaotic ballot in British history, in which 145,000 Scots were effectively disenfranchised, only one thing stood out with any clarity: Salmond’s sheer determination to govern. He seized control of the Scottish state, brushing aside Labour and the shell-shocked Liberal Democrats, coopting the minor parties and even winning back the heart, or at any rate the head, of the Independent MP Margo MacDonald - the former SNP icon who’d left the party because she couldn’t stand Alex Salmond’s overbearing manner. Now her solitary vote could wipe out Salmond’s majority over Labour.

Yes, it was a political coup - a revolutionary moment even. But Alex Salmond didn’t need any guns or dodgy ballot papers to get his hands on the levers of power, just the strength of his own conviction. It was essentially the failure of the the Liberal Democrats and Labour, their demoralisation and lack of political vision, which allowed Salmond to claim the prize. To declare his party first among equals in a parliament of minorities. The Scottish Tories wisely realised that the Scottish voters had voted for change, and refused to join any “pan-unionist” attempt to block Salmond from being elected First Minister.

The speeches made by Salmond in those early days in May, the most eloquent I have ever heard in the Holyrood debating chamber,confirmed that the SNP leader was the only politician in Holyrood with the confidence and the imagination to lead Scotland, even as he said that he would be led by the will of parliament. Salmond promised a new kind of politics, in which cooperation and consensus would replace executive bullying. It was to be a “more reflective model of government” which would “rely on the strength of argument in parliament, not the argument of parliamentary strength”. Even some on the SNP benches had to pinch themselves to hear Alex Salmond talk so fondly of yielding power.

But what the new First Minister had realised was that he didn’t actually need votes in parliament to govern Scotland. He could to a great deal through executive action alone, by the power of his own pen, by the rights conferred upon him by the Scotland Act. The great irony of this first ever nationalist administration is that nearly everything it has achieved has been within the existing constitutional settlement. It took a nationalist government to discover the power of devolution.

After he was elected as First Minister, Salmond gathered his team together and told them bluntly to prepare for personal sacrifice. He was going to work 24/7 in Scotland’s cause, not sparing himself, and he expected everyone to do the same - or to step aside. They have set a blistering if sometimes chaotic pace. I recall arriving at Bute House for a meeting with the First Minister around this time and finding him in the state room surrounded by young aides, piles of paper and empty coffee cups. Civil servants scurried in and out as if they were living in the early days of a better country. It was never like this under the previous management.

These rookie ministers may have been making it up as they go along, but they managed to look as if they know what they’re doing. Officials I have spoken to over the past year all tell the same story: that they were impressed not only by the energy and sense of purpose of the new administration, but also by its apparent professionalism. Nicola Sturgeon seized the hydra-headed health department by the scruff of the neck and delivered a cut in prescription charges, and saved Monklands Accident and Emergency, despite a ferociously tight budget. The finance minister, John Swinney, froze council tax, negotiated a politically valuable concordat with Scottish local authorities, and delivered his budget on time against the parliamentary odds. One unlikely hero emerged in the shape of Bruce Crawford, as Parliament Minister,who managed to deliver parliamentary votes on local income tax, Trident and higher education even when the parliamentary numbers were against him.

Where had this expertise come from? None of the politicians in the Salmond cabinet had any ministerial experience, they have no wise party graybeards to counsel them, no collective memory of being in office. Unlike under Labour, there were no minders sent up from London to guide and advise - mind you, perhaps that was one of their strengths. One of the minority government’s other strengths lay in its not being part of a coalition, which has made decision-making much easier. The LibDems unexpectedly refused even to discuss terms for a partnership coalition, perhaps believing that the SNP would be unable to survive long as a minority government. If so , they were seriously mistaken.

One year on, and the Salmondistas are still in power, their popularity rising by the day. If there were an election tomorrow, they would probably be returned by a landslide, which is one important reason why this minority government is still in office. The bigger parties could easily have brought Salmond’s government down by mobilising the anti-nationalist vote in the Scottish parliament. But they knew that if they forced a confidence vote, it would probably precipitate an early election - and to Salmond returning with more power to his elbow. After the budget vote in November, Labour was left having to vote against its own motion to ensure that it didn’t bring down Salmond’s government by accident.

Of course, it hasn’t all been plane sailing. It is fashionable in Holyrood watering holes to declare that the beginning of the end of Salmond’s great adventure may already be in sight. Problems over replacing the Private Finance Initiative with an ill-thought-out Scottish Futures Trust, combined with widespread criticism of the SNP’s plans for a local income tax, have - it is said - knocked the gloss of this upstart administration Salmond has peaked; from here on it is all glum faces and lost illusions.

But I am not so sure the end is nigh for the Nats. Complex questions about the over-centralisation of local authority fund-raising under LIT, and about whether bond issues are ultra-vires under the Scotland Act, are not the kind of things that get people talking during happy hour. Off balance sheet scams like PFI/PPP are anyway emerging as costly ways of financing schools and hospitals, and are under challenge from the EU. Certainly, there have been promises broken by the SNP, over “additional” police, over abolishing all student debt, and over those £2,000 hand-outs to first time buyers. However, there is little evidence yet that the voters have noticed, or that they care about these relatively minor set backs. What the voters have noticed - this very month of April - is their council tax being frozen, prescription charges cut in half, local businessmen relieved of rates, bridge tolls abolished and at the graduate endowment scrapped.

Labour have denounced the SNP’s “populist” policies as cynical attempts to court electoral support, while privately wishing they had been able to deliver them themselves. But Wendy Alexandere has been careful not to oppose the giveaways, even as she insists that the government cannot afford them. The SNP government knew they might only have a few months to live, so they lived a lot, on the razzle-dazzle if not the never-never. No one yet knows where the money is coming from to pay for it all, especially since Westminster has handed the fledgeling administration the lowest public spending settlement since devolution - 1.8% over three years, or 1.4% if you accept the SNP argument about the lowered baseline for health spending. Four years ago, annual increases in the Scottish Executive budget were running at over 5% a year. The cash to pay for things like boosting free personal care, back-dating the NHS pay awards, and such like must be coming from somewhere, but so far no one has worked out exactly where.

The SNP has a lot of big ticket items in the pipeline too - like the border rail line, the new Forth Bridge, dualing the A9, completing the M74. It stands to reason that good times cannot last forever and that budgetary chickens must come home to roost. Higher education is one area where the financial squeeze could damage recruitment and university expansion and the school building programme could be at risk. The ending of ring-fencing in council spending has led to high profile with cuts in services to the disabled, elderly and the like which Labour are quick to blame on the government.

The former Labour health minister Andy Kerr has
labelled the SNP “heirs to Thatcherism”, for cutting social services to pay for their pro-business policies. Labour’s Scottish leader, Wendy Alexander, has accused Alex Salmond of leaving his door open to rich men like Brian Souter and Donald Trump while locking out the poor and needy. This line of attack might have carried more weight had Labour been more conspicuously socialist when they were in office. Why didn't they curb the right to buy, restart council housebuilding, oppose Trident, replace PFI as have the SNP? The charge of "Thatcherism" has a distinct air of pots and kettles at a time when the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has been caught hammering the poor by cutting the 10p tax band.

There are other areas where the SNP is caught between populism and principle. The Scottish government’s energy policy is clearly in difficulties, with the rejection of the massive Lewis wind farm bringing into question its commitement to renewable energy. Many other wind farms are in the pipeline and local opposition to them will only increase. The Pentland Firth may be the Saudi Arabia of tidal energy, but it is decades away from being developed commercially. The strike at the former BP refinery at Grangemouth looks ominous. A fuel crisis is the last thing this government needs - especially since it lacks the power to control prices or introduce rationing.

So, there could be troubles ahead. But the one thing that hasn’t caused significant trouble so far has been relations with Westminster. Yes there have been spats over al Megrahi, council tax benefit, the cost of G8 policing, but no real bust ups. Many people expected that the SNP in office would spend much more of its time picking fights with UK ministries, blaming London for Scotland’s ills and turning the Scottish Executive into a £30 billion battering ram for independence. It hasn’t happened. The SNP have not behaved like “Trot nats” indulging in gesture politics and causing pointless disruption to peoples’ lives. Alex Salmond knows that the SNP will only win the trust of the Scottish voter if it shows that it is capable of responsible and effective government. Ministers have got their head down and worked their socks off .

The ‘let’s-show-‘em’ strategy seems to have paid off. There are signs that Salmond may now be converting support for the SNP government in Holyrood into support for Scottish independence. The latest TNS/System Three opinion poll in the Sunday Herald two weeks ago suggested that a majority of Scots may now support negotiated independence for Scotland. Other polls have shown such a majority in the past, but not since the election of an SNP government. Having seen the SNP in action, there is every indication that the Scottish voters are impressed with their nationalist experiment, and that they are thinking harder about self-government than ever before.

In the past, independence was a vague and distant possibility; a world of fantasy politics. Now, with a dynamic nationalist administration in office, it is now possible to see what independence might actually look like in practice. Across Scotland surprising people, like the scottish billionaire Tom Hunter, and Stephen Purcell, the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, are talking seriously about a referendum on independence. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s attempts to build a popular campaign for the Union seems to have run into the sand along with his leadership. A lot has changed in the last twelve months, Scotland most of all. It may be that the real battle for Britain is about to begin.

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