DURING the 2007 Holyrood election campaign, Labour in Scotland had a particularly difficult problem. Or, at least, it thought it did.
A decade after Tony Blair had swept the party to power in Westminster, the Prime Minister was preparing to leave office (he would stand down in June, a month after the SNP’s first Scottish Parliament election win) and he was box office poison.
Ideally, Labour strategists wanted the PM kept as far away from Scotland as possible. Instead, Gordon Brown, then popular, then the saviour of his party, was to take Blair’s place on the campaign trail.
But Labour couldn’t credibly pretend Blair no longer existed, so a trip north of the Border was discreetly arranged. On his arrival, opposition politicians had one thing to say: “Iraq”. It didn’t much matter what subjects Blair tried to address, “Iraq” was always the answer.
A few days after the Prime Minister was whizzed back out of Scotland, Labour officials noticed something unexpected: their own polling showed a lift in support for the party following Blair’s visit. For all his opponents threw at him, the PM still had something. Iraq? It didn’t have the impact they’d feared.
Blair was in Scotland last week to offer his take on the independence debate. He spoke at length about the Union, about shared history on these islands, about international connections, about the challenges of the modern world. The SNP listened carefully to what he said and then shouted “Iraq”. With their “illegal war” line, the nationalists have the answer to Blair and they’re sticking with it. Which makes their debt to him all the more ironic.
Blair’s presence in Scotland might have given his opponents some sport, but it also reminded us of his legacy for our politics (no Blair, no Scottish Parliament), and – perhaps a smidge uncomfortably for nationalists – the continuing importance of his campaigning blueprint in winning elections.
No party has learned more from Blair than the SNP. He is both hate figure and guru. (An SNP cabinet secretary once remarked to me during Labour’s terrible post-2007 election meltdown: “Have these people never read Blair’s book? I f***ing have.”)
Just like Blair, Salmond reached out to the doubters. Just like Blair, he persuaded the naturally conservative middle-classes to take a chance on him. Just like Blair, he won again on the back of that.
If Blair’s brilliance was in the way he sold his party’s story to those who would not previously have considered voting for an ostensibly left-wing party, Salmond’s has been in using Blair’s ideas to woo those who’d always rejected nationalism. Both leaders took products we didn’t want to buy and made them (for enough of us, at least) irresistible.
Blair-hatred might have emanated from Salmond for years, but still he follows in the former Labour leader’s tactical footsteps. Wasn’t the SNP leadership-driven debate that led to the party overturning its opposition to Nato as much a piece of Blair-style theatre as it was about policy?
Eighteen years ago, Blair took on his party (in a fight he knew he would win) over Clause IV of its constitution, which called for the nationalisation of key industries. In rewriting the clause, to remove the demand for common ownership, the then Labour leader stamped his authority on the party and sent a message to voters that they weren’t the bunch of “loony lefties” of caricature.
In overturning opposition to Nato membership – and losing two MSPs through resignation from the SNP as a result – Salmond had his Clause IV moment.
Blair’s policy priorities – crudely, social democracy dressed up with a touch of feelgood retail politics – continue to find echoes in the work of the SNP Government. The free prescriptions policy, with its story of compassion and the reality that it saves cash for the middle classes, could have been born on a New Labour away-day in 1996.
But the former premier’s visit not only reminds us of what he taught his nationalist foes, it exposes the risks to them of taking his lead.
Blair’s Third Way was about bringing together a nation that could unite behind his centre-ground message. Once the cautious electorate had come along, his job was simply to keep them there (which he managed to do for another two elections). Blair – Iraq, aside – did all he could not to scare the horses. He remained convinced that a hint of radicalism would scatter voters.
And here’s the problem for Salmond. Having chosen the Blair template, the nationalist leader achieved the same things: he won over his doubters, he rebuilt his party’s brand. But hasn’t he also boxed the SNP into a cautious little corner? In 2007 – when nobody in the SNP seriously believed that an independence referendum was likely in the near future – it made perfect sense for Salmond to tell voters they could back his party without supporting the abolition of the United Kingdom. That Blair-inspired reach-out-and-touch message was soothing, it calmed the electorate.
As Blair pointed out this week, however, the SNP’s plans are now all kinds of radical. That cautious SNP message sits uncomfortably with their referendum plans, which demand of voters a greater leap into the unknown than we’ve been asked to make in my lifetime.
Shouting “Iraq” seems an unsatisfactory response to difficult questions being raised by a senior politician whose views on the constitution resonate still with the majority of Scots.
An SNP MSP declared Blair’s visit to Scotland great news for the Yes campaign. It would remind people of the war in Iraq and drive them to vote for independence, she said. It may do, I suppose – though I’m unconvinced that Iraq’s going to be at all significant in 2014. The visit should, however, remind the SNP of the huge battle ahead.
Blair may have taught the nationalists how to win elections, but there’s nothing they can learn from him on winning a referendum. He showed them how to play safe, not how to gamble.