Salmond poses the questions the ‘No’ campaign have to answer

Ed Jacobs reports on Alex Salmond's speech to the 2012 SNP Conference this weekend.


“Why on earth do we allow this bunch of incompetent Lord Snooties to be in positions of authority over our country?” – that was Alex Salmond’s question, posed to delegates at the SNP’s conference in Perth over the weekend as he mocked the Tory Party for the gifts they had provided him – the resignation of Andrew Mitchell over “plebgate” and George Osborne’s unfortunately mishap on his train on Friday from Cheshire to London Euston.

It was good, tub thumping stuff that brought laughter to the conference hall, but at its heart was a serious point of strategy by Salmond, namely seeking to portray the referendum as a fight not against a cross party campaign in favour of the union, but one against those nasty, Tory, southern toffs in Westminster.

In doing so he sought to point the finger of guilt at those such as Labour and the Lib Dems who had proverbially jumped into bed with the Conservatives against Scotland being able to run its own affairs.

Decrying Johann Lamont’s speech just a few weeks ago in which she openly questioned the long term financial viability of a number of uniquely Scottish universal benefits, and Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson’s, declaration just 12% of households contribute to Scotland’s wealth, the SNP leader concluded:

“For no sooner has Labour moved on to Tory ground than the other Tories became even more extreme.”

Good political red meat for the party faithful but one which the Better Together campaign should now take heed of.

Polling published on Sunday, carried out by Panelbase for the Sunday Times and Real Radio, has found that whilst support for independence stood at 37% (with 45% opposed), asked how respondents would vote if there were the prospect either of a Tory or Tory-Lib Dem government in 2015, support for independence increased to  51% while 45% said they would be likely to vote no.

Commenting on the results, the Scottish political analyst Gerry Hassan observed:

“One of the crucial determinants in 2014 will be Scottish people’s perceptions of future UK elections and whether they think there’s going to be a Tory or Labour government.

“Some of the measures being taken by the current UK government drive people wild here. This might well be the determining factor at the margins which determines the outcome of the referendum.”

Having signed the agreement on Monday paving the way for the referendum, David Cameron and his party now need to take a back seat and allow Scottish Labour to lead the charge, though preferably without giving the nationalists the kind of cannon fodder that Johann Lamont speech has given them.

Salmond’s second, and perhaps more poignant argument came as he warned that allowing the status quo to continue posed the biggest threat to Scotland and its interests. Invoking the memory of the late, great Scottish Labour politician and the first first minister of Scotland, Donald Dewar, the heart of the current first minister’s speech was that the benefits accrued under devolution – free social care, free tuition fees, free perceptions to name just a few – can only be protected through independence.

It was his, and his party’s, bid to grab the support of that third of the electorate in Scotland who had previously formed a majority in support the idea of devo-max. It is this group and how they decide to vote without the option of extra powers for Holyrood that will be decisive.

As the Sunday Herald observed yesterday:

“Salmond sought to appeal to this disenfranchised middle in his conference address yesterday. It was a speech shorn of triumphalism which implicitly recognised the political reality as recorded in the opinion polls: that most Scots do not currently want to leave the United Kingdom.

“It was audacious, in that it argued that, for Scots to defend the achievements of devolution, they had no alternative but to support independence.”

For him not to succeed, what the Better Together campaign, comprised of parties which have all, to some extent or another, committed to greater powers for the Scottish Parliament need to do, is likely to prove difficult but an absolute necessity – they need to establish, before the 2014 vote, a credible and exciting package of powers to transfer from Westminster and Holyrood, a package that will reassure those voters favouring devo-max hey could get a lot, if not all, of what they want. Without it, the lure of independence as the closest thing that chimes with their beliefs could prove too appealing.

Whilst Fraser Nelson at the Spectator has spoken of the SNP’s “dismal conference”, Salmond’s speech has posed a number of fundamental questions for the Better Together campaign which is vital they are answer as swiftly as possible.

Meanwhile David Torrance, Alex Salmond’s biographer, in his assessment of the leader’s speech, argued it demonstrated the range of qualities and beliefs the first minister hopes will be sufficient to get the backing from at least 50% plus 1 of the electorate in 2014 to support independence.

Writing for Scotland on Sunday he observed:

There are many Alex Salmonds, and several were on show yesterday: the gradualist (“independence is not a single event, but a process”); the class warrior (“incompetent Lord Snootys”); the neo-liberal (“supporting budding businessmen and women”); hyperbolic (“hell bent on pulling our society apart at the schemes”); and romantic (“the common weal of Scotland”).

“Taken together, they explain the politician who has led his party for more than two decades, and his nation for longer than any other first minister. Taken together, Salmond also hopes it’s enough to attract the broadest possible support over the next two years.”

History is a word perhaps too often used in politics, but in just over two years’ time, Scotland has a genuinely historic decision to make – to break up the union as we know it or to reject the nationalist call for at least a generation. Looking at the polls it is easy to conclude the Yes Scotland camp doesn’t stand a chance; to do so, however, would be to underestimate the persuasive powers of their not too secret weapon, namely Alex Salmond.

Time after time he has defied the odds – who could or would with complete confidence bet against him doing the same again?

As the Sunday Herald this weekend concluded:

“The case for independence cannot rest on defending the achievements of devolution alone. It has to convince Scots that leaving the UK, withdrawing from Westminster, setting up an independent army, civil service, revenue and welfare system, will actually be worth the effort. Above all, the economic case for independence needs to be made more convincingly than in Salmond’s speech.

“Asserting that Scotland would be better run without the Tories isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient merely to list Scotland’s natural resources, universities, oil and whisky. These are valuable assets, but they do not amount to an instant economy. We believe that the case can be made, and we wait to hear it spelled out in the next hundred weeks.

“Nevertheless, the SNP leader has a point when he warns that, if Scots vote No in 2014, the forward march of devolution could be halted. There is no guarantee that result will get a parliament with greater economic powers. We have little confidence in the vague promises made by David Cameron, and the unionist leader, Alistair Darling, of a new, improved Holyrood if Scots reject independence. In a real sense, the unionists have upped the stakes in this referendum by denying supporters of devolution max an opportunity to vote for their preferred option.

“Salmond is nothing if not a gambling man, and he has bet the house on the expectation that he can persuade enough Scots to lend him their votes in 2014. It is, as he said, “game on”.”

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