In all elections, as the campaign heat rises and speculation becomes more fevered, it is important to retain a calm, long-term perspective. There is much to be said for ignoring the froth of the waves and focusing instead on the direction of the tide, which is always much harder to discern in real time.
Last week was dominated by the froth. The outstanding performance by Nicola Sturgeon in the seven-way ITV leaders’ debate caused a stir in the media often out of proportion to any reality.
Calls went out for the SNP to run in England and for Scotland’s First Minister to be installed in all of the offices of state simultaneously. We have seen this phenomenon before in a political and media world that likes to create heroes so that it can then seek to undermine them.
One debate doesn’t make any person or party the answer to every question. And, trust me, there will be nobody more cognisant of that simple truth than Nicola Sturgeon.
She is a strategic politician prepared to play the long game. What few viewers from outside of Scotland will realise is that this was a performance that was more than a decade in the making. She took part in that debate with a longer record in executive office than anyone else on the stage.
Obviously the Scottish Government has a much more limited set of policy areas about which to vex itself . Nicola’s cabinet hasn’t had to worry about a credit rating, foreign policy, or defence. Or, for that matter, meaningful taxation or social benefits. But she has been health secretary to quite some success and the NHS is an issue that will always be prominent in the debate around the time of a general election.
As the fifth First Minister (sixth if you count Lord Jim Wallace’s capable spells as stand-in) she is the most prepared of any holder of that office. As party leader, she has greater authority than any predecessor and the greatest opportunity and challenge.
She will also be aware that the next debates will be more difficult for her, in terms of the format if nothing else. Tonight (Tuesday), the Scottish leaders’ debate on STV will see her firmly in the centre of the frame as the First Minister, with the other 3 parties focusing their questioning on her record and prospects. The same will be true on BBC Scotland on Wednesday albeit with a 6 party panel.
Then, on 16th April, the BBC will host a curiosity of a debate in which the Prime Minister and his Deputy will play no part. So, it will be a battle of the opposition politicians. It is difficult to fathom how that will play out but a curious moment of distraction it shall be.
However, debates are just debates after all. They influence the news ‘froth’ but do they really determine the outcome of elections?
We know from long experience that what truly influences the voter is a sense of whom they want to see govern. Who do we trust to speak up for people like me and to steer the nation through stormy seas?
While the outcome will remain uncertain until it is not, there are a few core truths we can depend on:
1. The power of the two large parties is diminished possibly irreversibly. This must put pressure on the first-past-the-post electoral system. If the polls prove remotely accurate and the SNP wins the vast majority of Scotland’s seats on a minority of the Scottish vote, it will throw the issue into relief from the opposite angle from normal.
2. The SNP is not the Taliban. Sometimes, to listen to the wilder extremes of its caricaturing , you’d think it was. This is a sophisticated and mature governing party with a highly capable campaigning machine and some of the most progressive political voices in Europe at its head. Diminish and dismiss it with a giggle and you fail yourself and your supporters fundamentally. Underestimating your opponents is the biggest possible flaw in politics.
3. The SNP is not anti-English. Again, this is the easy shorthand for many politicians and media critics who either willfully don’t understand the party or lazily seek to attach to it labels they learned half a century ago. The SNP has been at pains to sell a modern openhearted case for a country that just wants the power to self-determine. That is anti-no-one. If you don’t believe me, reflect on the fact that its Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, is half German and was born in Wimbledon. He also happens to be one of my best friends. Academic evidence from the referendum suggests that a majority of Scottish born voters favoured independence, with only those migrating to Scotland, especially from the rest of Britain, pushing the vote towards ‘No’. The SNP and its Parliamentarians have been very careful to treat this information as irrelevant and continue to push a strong pro-immigration line. Have they been given any credit for this? Of course not.
4. Labour has one main club in its bag in Scotland: “Voting SNP increases the chances of a Tory Government”. This message has proven powerful over the years. It’s a large part of the reason the SNP high-watermark since 1974 was 22% of the vote in 1992. Last time out, in 2010, the SNP only polled 19%. What appears to be different is that Labour’s trust connection to the Scottish electorate is breaking and in some places possibly already broken. Scotland has voted Labour loyally for decades and often got a Tory government anway. Now it seems that in a world of minorities, having the SNP anchor a Labour government is an attractive option not just to Scots but also to many others throughout the UK.
5. The result is unlikely to be as strong for the SNP as the polls suggest. The likelihood of some squeeze as the poll looms is always real; the Labour party is spending big on subterranean campaigning in many seats, it won’t give up its power base so easily and is happily adjusting expectations so it can seek to surpass them. And there could be some tactical voting in some areas by those who want anyone but the SNP.
6. And finally: the SNP don’t want a Tory government and won’t prop one up whatever happens. Once again, their opponents are spending a lot of time trying to allege this and find evidence where it doesn’t exist to prove it. The SNP bears its own internal scars from the 1979 no confidence vote (the Liberals voted the same way but everyone seems to forget). The party story has also moved on it sits in a strategically different place. On the face of it, another Tory government might look like the best way to further undermine trust in Westminster, but grudge and grievance won’t actually help the welfare of anyone, let alone the SNP and its case for independence. In any case, the SNP just lost the independence referendum and the idea of another one anytime soon is not realistic. Again, I urge people to focus on the underlying tide, not the choppy waves of the moment. What matters most is achieving a new way of governing Britain that allows Scotland to grow and the regions of the rest of the UK to compete more effectively with the South East. The idea that Whitehall and Westminster alone hold the answers is clearly risible. The culture and way of working is now outmoded. Britain needs reform and to make it progressive, the SNP and Labour working together would be a start.
So, whatever the result it feels to me that the country(ies) are changing pretty fundamentally. The SNP could become Britain’s third party, which transforms the responsibilities they face, as I argued in Scotland on Sunday last week. It means that businesses and organisations across the UK will need to upskill their own understanding of the SNP and modernise their thinking on who they are and what they will mean. They will be on every Parliamentary group and every committee and slated to contribute to every debate. That hasn’t happened before.
As I argue above, the party and people you meet in the months ahead will be quite different from the caricatures you have been led to expect. They have their faults — we all do — but they are arguably more unified, optimistic, professional and progressive than most political organisations you might come across in the modern world. They also will be aware of their own limitations. So, as the election results come in, “play the ball as it lies” (as a former First Minister is fond of saying) and engage positively with new realities.