Analysis: Speech presents independence as a natural extension of devolution
ALEX Salmond’s conference speeches are not renowned for oratorical originality. For the past decade, he has generally gone for a tried-and-tested formula of bash opponents/make new announcement/promise to banish Trident/namecheck giant of the Labour movement/emphasise social democratic vision.
All of that was on show yesterday afternoon when the First Minister delivered his 18th speech as SNP leader. He has been around a long time, has Salmond, yet conference delegates still hang upon his every word and laugh dutifully at his jibes and jokes. His authority, of course, is absolute.
So the Tories were bashed particularly hard, Friday’s George Osborne/Andrew Mitchell debacle supplying a convenient hook (Salmond has always been lucky in his enemies), while Labour was also hammered for having “moved on to Tory ground”. The Liberal Democrats didn’t even warrant an insult.
There were new announcements: a curiously named “Paving Bill” to enable 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in 2014, Family Nursing Partnerships and 400 new telecoms jobs in Glasgow. Trident was mentioned a couple of times, though not ostentatiously so.
Would he mention the late Jimmy Reid or “Eddie” Morgan? No, this year it was Campbell Christie (“a giant of the trade union movement”) and even Donald Dewar, with whom Salmond campaigned during the devolution referendum 15 years ago.
And therein lay the nub of the First Minister’s speech, an attempt to present independence as the natural extension of that original devolution settlement.
Harnessing what he once called “the spirit of 1997”, Salmond appealed for support from “those millions of our fellow citizens who said ‘yes’ to Scotland before”.
“With devolution, day after day, year after year, we can take small steps forward,” he reasoned, but “what Scotland needs is bigger, bolder steps”.
While the Scottish Government was determined to safeguard the “gains” of devolution, it could only do so with independence.
Notable by its absence was any mention of a second question, or so-called devo-max, often alluded to in previous conference speeches. Instead, Salmond argued there already existed “a majority for change in this country”; by adding together “popular aspirations” like control over welfare and taxation, the 2014 referendum could – and would – be won.
At points, Salmond presented independence as a means to an end – a more prosperous and socially just Scotland – rather than an end in itself. “Our cause is not and never had been just about achieving our constitutional objective,” he said, not altogether convincingly.
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.
His speech also included snippets of the likely narrative we’ll hear on the road to 2014, that voting “yes” will protect Scotland’s “social solidarity” while voting “no” will “secure nothing” from a Westminster government that’s “beyond salvation”.
Humility occasionally crept in. “It is not for me,” Salmond protested, “it is not for this party.” But then he had to appeal beyond Perth’s Concert Hall, as well as rouse those within it. “Our home rule journey,” he concluded, “begun by so few so many years past, is coming to its conclusion.” As the First Minister put it himself, it’s now “game on” for Scotland.
David Torrance is Alex Salmond’s biographer.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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