IT WAS a curiously subdued Alex Salmond who made the keynote speech at the SNP’s spring conference in Inverness yesterday.
The usual Salmond warmth, the usual Salmond twinkle and the usual Salmond swagger were not in evidence. He read the speech, rather than delivered it. To use the Reaganesque demotic of which the First Minister is a proven master, it seemed as if his gas was at a peep. Salmond has taken something of a back seat in recent months, letting his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, be the reassuring face of the SNP’s campaign for independence. An acknowledgement, perhaps, of what the pollsters confirm is female voters’ wariness about Salmond and indeed independence itself. Was the SNP leader yesterday under strict instructions to keep the cocksure side of his personality – which men seem to admire much more than women – in check? In Inverness it certainly seemed that way, and the result was a strangely hollow performance. Whatever the reason, this did not feel like the speech of a man leading a nation to a historic moment of self-determination.
Usually such set-piece speeches fall into one of two categories – they are designed to either fire up the faithful or reach out to the undecideds in the country at large. The SNP faithful need no firing up, especially after the theatre of last week’s announcement of the date of the referendum. Despite the polls showing the Yes campaign trailing the No side by around 20 percentage points, SNP activists are in fine fettle. This is a moment many of them have spent a lifetime waiting for. They are acutely conscious of being in the ante-room of history, and they are full of fight for the campaign ahead. They know they are coming from behind, but they have confidence in the power of their message. The campaign has 18 months yet to run, and there is little sign of unhappiness in the ranks – save some grumblings about the conduct of the broader Yes Scotland campaign of which the SNP is a part.
As for reaching out to the undecideds, Salmond’s speech yesterday leaned heavily on the potential for independence to rid Scotland of Trident and to ensure Scottish soldiers were never again drawn into a war like the Iraq conflict. They are both issues about which the Nationalists care deeply, but are they really high up the list of concerns of those who have still to make up their minds how to vote?
The SNP leader was on firmer ground in offering a new deal on child-care to Scottish families. This is exactly what those sceptical women voters need to hear – although Salmond fell conspicuously short of making them a concrete offer yesterday. Perhaps his strongest suit was in emphasising the role of independence in protecting Scotland from the excesses of Westminster’s welfare cuts, including the notorious bedroom tax. As our political editor Eddie Barnes points out on page 13 today, Scots who live in the nation’s most deprived estates and are the most disengaged from the political system may hold the key to a Yes campaign fightback and – potentially – a victory for the independence movement.
Yesterday did not feel like a historic milestone on the road to independence – more a lay-by to take a breather. But with the Nationalist movement needing to take advantage of every platform it can to advance the case for a sovereign Scotland and close the considerable and enduring gap in public opinion, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that yesterday was a wasted opportunity.
A test for the SQA
When the results of last year’s school examinations were announced, there was cause for celebration not only among the thousands of pupils who had sweated at home awaiting their arrival but for Scottish ministers too. Individually, of course, not every pupil got the outcome they were hoping for but, overall, the pass rates continued their relentless rise upwards, with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) revealing Standard Grade, Highers and Advanced Highers had all reached their best-ever levels.
Notwithstanding the critics who saw the remorseless upward trend as more evidence of exam standards being dumbed down, ministers preferred to see it rather as a sign of the growing ability of the school population and proof positive of the quality of Scottish teaching. But our report today on the departure of six senior examiners from the team that oversaw marking of the Higher maths exam last year raises disturbing questions about whether this year’s exam has been prepared with the normal rigour and whether the team now in place has the necessary experience to ensure that standards are maintained. Parents must be reassured that the SQA’s behind-the-scenes problems will not have an impact on the future of their children, and ministers must take steps to ensure that our greatly respected system of Higher examinations remains the gold standard of Scottish education.