Brian Monteith: Leaders glad for holiday breather

Politicians and voters alike are glad for the breather of a public holiday. Picture: TSPL
Politicians and voters alike are glad for the breather of a public holiday. Picture: TSPL
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SCOTLAND’S leaders have plenty to plan and think about, so an extra day off comes in handy, writes Brian Monteith

Holiday weekends can be a very useful thing for politicians. You might think that the little rascals get enough holidays and that the odd day off at the end of May would not matter, but I suspect this weekend brings urgent respite for our Scottish party leaders – or their aspirant replacements.

Such is the pace of the domestic political machine – the parliamentary business with speeches to draft, tricky questions to compose or answer, burgeoning piles of committee paperwork to deliberate over, media appearances at breakfast or bedtime and constituency business to attend to – that a public holiday is a very welcome respite for our political elite.

And all this while remaining fully conversant with the facts of an issue, the history of your country and the universe and who’s thieving from who in River City to keep you grounded with modern culture.

For some it may be a chance to read a good book or maybe go to yesterday’s Scottish Cup final and its after-party and not worry about work the next day, while for others it offers the chance to take a step back and consider the future.

Take my word for it, it is vital to be strategic in politics – not only knowing where you are and where you want to be, but trying to work out what is over the horizon and what such developments might offer by way of threats and opportunities. Some events are, of course unforeseen, but there are enough challenges coming up that are certainties and require adept footwork, the building of alliances and a Plan B if the outcome has been misjudged.

Take the SNP deputy leader: we are still more than a year away from the independence referendum that at every level of Nicola Sturgeon’s thought and action must be dominating her life to the point that she wonders how she keeps down her ministerial job. But the SNP government will be in power until April 2016, a further 18 months after that seismic event, and there will be huge political ructions before and after.

In June next year there will be the elections for the European Parliament, and ordinarily these would pass by almost unnoticed to all but political anoraks, but in the year of the referendum they will take on their own significance, not least because they will receive television coverage across the UK that will elevate Ukip (with more MEPs than the SNP) to a level of importance not normally accorded in Scottish sitting rooms.

Whether or not Ukip does well in Scotland is rather beside the point, because what matters is the damage the party can wreak by taking votes and vital percentage points from its opponents – possibly denying any one of them an MEP.

That outcome and how it is presented will be an issue for Sturgeon and others such as Ruth Davidson – Sturgeon because she is in charge of the referendum campaign and has to have a ready response for every scenario, and Davidson because a poor result could be a mortal wound as first the referendum and then the 2015 general election come up on her.

And what about the result of that referendum in personal terms? If a Yes is recorded, it is a reasonable assumption to expect that at some point Alex Salmond will, within a few years, want to manage a smooth handover of his party’s leadership to Sturgeon, who will of course be given great credit for such a historical outcome.

Unfortunately for Sturgeon that result is not, currently, the most likely outcome and so thinking about how to achieve her undoubted leadership ambitions after a demoralising rejection from the Scottish public requires time put aside now, at moments like public holidays, when the circus pauses for a brief 

To what extent will Alex Salmond wish to continue as First Minister after a No vote in October 2014? Will he not wish to wind down and hand over early enough for First Minister Sturgeon to take the reins and, firstly, fight the 2015 general election before, more importantly, returning the SNP to winning ways by the Holyrood elections of May 2016?

Alex Salmond has his critics, including this column, but he is no fool and will be thinking of his options too. The idea that he and Sturgeon will not, together, be considering how the different eventualities might play out is risible. With Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister in 2015-16 the SNP will become an entirely different animal, remoulded by her and in her image. Given that, unlike Salmond, she is no admirer of the Laffer curve or neo-liberal economics, it must mean that the SNP will take on the Labour Party from a position further to the left on the political spectrum than where it currently is.

Johann Lamont will have already worked this out and so will be taking this into consideration as policies are reviewed and presented for public consumption. Lamont has been given some plaudits for her jousts with Salmond at First Minister’s questions but the chemistry will change when it is Lamont versus the newly anointed empress Sturgeon, and so Lamont’s advisers such as Paul Sinclair will already be inserting lines of attack on Sturgeon into the media output to plant the seeds of doubt early on.

For Sturgeon the need over the next three years to craft a reputation as Scotland’s own Joan of Arc, or dare I say it, Boudica, will be paramount. For after the rejection of a No vote, the SNP will need to craft a new role for itself and that is most likely to mean being accepted as the party best placed to extract the maximum amount of devolution from a British government that will be unrecognisable from Cameron’s collapsing coalition.

By 2016 the British Conservatives could have a new leader (my money’s on Gove) and Labour, in its desire to enter Downing Street will most probably have conceded a European referendum on terms renegotiated by Ed Miliband, resulting in a No vote.

With the outcome of each election or referendum come new scenarios and unexpected consequences. Just thinking about it all is enough to require a holiday and so, for Nicola Sturgeon at least, the next holiday weekend cannot come round quickly enough.