The SNP’s clever balancing act

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The SNP’s clever balancing act

It might yet become an exam question.

The background: two senior politicians are on the stump contesting one of the weirdest general elections in history.

One is a woman from working class roots in Ayrshire. A solicitor once upon a time, since her twenties she has been a party hack. At the time of writing, she has been leader of the Scottish National Party and Scotland’s first female First Minister for less than six months.

The other (chap) went to Eton, sauntered through a PPE at Oxford en route to Conservative Party Central Office and then — naturally — moved to Downing Street, via a short career as a PR man. He has served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the past five years.

It’s the sharp end of the election campaign, close to polling day. A battalion of writers and photographers follows the main protagonists everywhere, willing them to fall into the sea, punch a burly farmer or share an ice-lolly. Party apparatchiks, schooled by the likes of Peter Capaldi and Rob Lowe, are dispatched to follow the followers.

Late in the campaign, the woman visits a community gymnasium in Cumbernauld, where she walks barefoot along a high beam. She is dressed in jeans and a white blouse.

Elsewhere in the land, the man reads out a speech from behind a lectern. He is wearing a navy suit, white shirt and blue tie.

Which one falls?

The contrast provides the perfect metaphor for this strange election campaign. Nicola Sturgeon appears unassailable. She could probably have juggled fiery sticks and Riverdanced along the beam without missing a step. Whereas the Prime Minister only had to remember which football team he claims to support. He got it wrong.

The SNP is a party that is viewed as the rebel alliance by some and the Galactic Empire by others. The latter are currently suffering from more than a touch of envy at the popularity of the Empire. They warn that in time it will, like all empires, fall — that the current success is little more than a passing illusion.

But if it is an illusion, it is an expertly constructed one, an achievement for which the SNP’s leadership team deserves much credit. They would argue that in an era of lost trust, being able to govern while retaining the voice of the outsider could be the answer to a lot of difficult questions.

As practitioners of politics, there are few better than the SNP. They would have given New Labour a run for their money and if the other parties thought they could get away with the same trick, they would try it in a heartbeat.

It’s a masterclass in pure politics, from a ruthlessly professional outfit. The best in the UK right now.

From the First Minister herself to the small group of loyal and trusted advisers and senior elected politicians that have bossed the party for years, discipline and focus has put this team where it is now.

These are people who grew up together. Most of them actually like each other, which is itself a remarkable achievement in politics. It’s certainly unusual in the febrile world of Scottish politics.

The difficulty for the SNP now is how to maintain the illusion through the General Election and into the Scottish elections in 2016.

The iron discipline that binds this coalition of left and right, united by the desire to self-govern, is being tested by some of its own, and a careless approach to the language used to describe opponents.

It becomes harder over time to be a Government, while insisting you are also the opposition.

The electorate is not daft. From time to time, the people of Scotland in particular use the ballot box to make some pretty bold statements. They get the outcome they want.

They turfed the Tories out of Scotland in 1997, using New Labour as their blunt instrument of choice.

To the Scottish Parliament, they elected a bunch of Trotskyite Scottish Socialists, a man who represented the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party and a hospital campaigner. They swiftly unelected most of them.

Later, they simultaneously returned more than 40 Labour MPs to Westminster in 2010 and elected a majority SNP Government in Scotland a year later.

Most people now expect up to 50 SNP MPs to be elected to the House of Commons early next month. What next?

David Cameron told my colleague Chris Deerin last month that it’s too early to say whether this SNP surge is evidence of an irreversible change in British politics. Look at the history. He’s right.

What is more certain is that the grace and poise that took Nicola Sturgeon effortlessly along that high beam in Cumbernauld at the weekend will be required in large measure in the coming months.

That kind of balance is not easy to sustain, especially with bothersome West Ham supporters taking pot shots as you go.

Malcolm Robertson
Founding Partner