Leader: Salmond is best choice

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THE modern attitude to elections is by and large a little perplexing and a little sad. It has to be wondered why there is not more excitement and enthusiasm as polling day approaches.

Here is a chance to actually have a say in the direction our country will take over the next five years. It is a major responsibility, helping to determine not only in how we as individuals are treated, but also how we see our society and our nation going forward. And yet there is a general cynicism that pervades the entire event.

Perhaps as society as a whole grows more affluent it is believed elections are less important. The globalisation of industry and finance, shown in stark relief by the worldwide credit crunch, may make some think that decisions taken here have little impact on the events that truly govern our lives. Perhaps the revelations of the MPs' expenses scandal just reinforces views that politicians are simply self-serving.

And perhaps the recent move of political parties adopting middle-ground policies and the certain votes they bring has led many to believe that there is little true difference between them. But the truth is that the credit crunch has made elections even more relevant to every one of us.

Although many decisions are taken by Westminster and not Holyrood, the make-up of Holyrood will still have a major impact. Decisions to be taken in the next few years will determine how much money we give in some taxes and how large chunks of our public money are spent. That will have an impact on what services the state provides and how many people it employs.

We may even have our own National Debt. This election gives us a choice to make. It may not give us all the choice we would like; the way we vote may not improve every aspect of our lives, but it does give us a say in important aspects, and it would be a failing to squander it. More than that, we should positively enjoy it.

So what choices are available to us when it comes to determining the leadership of the country?

The Liberal Democrats are suffering, rightly so, for sacrifices they have made to power-share at a UK level. It seems we do care about broken promises, and, by all accounts, they will pay the price at the polls.

The Tories are no real force in Scotland, and their only chance also is in influencing from the sidelines, but perhaps the impact of that should not be underestimated. It may be that a strong Tory presence in Parliament might be able to inject some grounded realism into fantasy economics.

But the real choice in shaping the direction of this country from Holyrood lies with either Labour or the SNP. How have they put their cases?

The fact is that Labour's campaign has been appallingly negative and treated the electorate with contempt. Both main thrusts of its campaign have been deceptive and can only have been constructed against a view that we, the electorate, are stupid.

Initially Iain Gray, in a shameless attempt to re-create their success at the Westminster elections last year, again raised the spectre of Thatcherism and the Tories. At the launch of its manifesto the Labour pledge card began with the words: "Now the Tories are back…" This was simply a scare tactic raising a non-existent bogeyman - or bogeywoman in this case. A Labour government in Holyrood is not going to pose any serious opposition to a Westminster coalition - the only place the Tories are back. He knew that. He was simply hoping for a Pavlovian reaction to the word Tories. But few delivered the response he was after.

When that tactic went badly for Labour, Gray belatedly switched his attack to the real opposition: the SNP. He again chose to raise a populist fear, and warned that a vote for the SNP brought independence closer, and said: "The message of separation is simple. If you don't want it, don't vote for it." But we are not voting for that. This election is a vote for a Holyrood government, not on independence. We know that there will have to be a referendum on that. We know how it works. Give us some credit.

His was a relentlessly negative campaign, disingenuous at best, sneakily manipulative at worst. It is a damning indictment of his political judgment.

Alex Salmond asked to be judged on his record in government. You have to be confident to do that. There have been few calamities - the release of Al Megrahi possibly the greatest error of judgement - but, frankly, Labour's behind-the-scenes machinations over that put them in a worse light. And there have been notable successes including the council tax freeze and small business rates. Operating as a minority government has meant some major pledges never saw the light of day, but that perhaps is no bad thing and proves the effectiveness of parliament.

That is not to say everything in the SNP basket is wonderful. There are doubts over its policy on university funding, and on universality of some benefits, and the local income tax is just simply wrong. There are major fears that the coming impact of spending cuts is simply being ignored and the full budget-balancing nightmare will only be revealed after the election. As for personalities, Alex Salmond, for all his bonhomie and cheery chappie public persona, is a consummate politician, no stranger to realpolitik and spin, and seeks to exploit all the advantages he can for his party's ends.

As we go into this election, there are no real great policy divides between Labour and the SNP on the major issues like the health service, employment and university fees, usually because both parties have moved somewhat opportunistically to follow their opponent to the populist position.

The choice before us here is not that of choosing the bits of the SNP or Labour manifesto we agree with. The choice before us is who we believe would be better for Scotland.

Gray did not do enough on the positive front. He has not laid out how he would steer Scotland through the tough times ahead. Gray pitched himself as a "serious politician" who would tackle the coming difficulties, but then scrapped reform of the council tax and his education spokesman's policy on university tuition fees. He was too content to play the oppositionist, rather than the potential First Minister.

Alex Salmond has proved he can stand up for Scotland on the national and international stage and acquit himself well. Tellingly, in this election, he has spoken with passion about his grand vision for Scotland, a vision that sees the country harnessing its population's creativity and its natural environment and exploiting its moment in time to be a global leader in renewable energy technology. We may be wary of some of the claims, and know that there is a long way to travel, but we should admire and applaud its ambition. Where is the alternative vision?

So, that then is the choice before us. For our money, Salmond takes it, comfortably.