100 DAYS IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS
“There’ll be no glossy brochures,” says a source close to the First Minister this week by contrast. Salmond’s second 100-days mark arrives on Thursday. It comes hot on the heels of another less welcome anniversary which occurred yesterday: the second year since the SNP administration freed the Lockerbie bomber, which brought with it a welter of bad publicity for Salmond’s administration. A second-term government must always carry baggage – good and bad. And so, while this week the SNP Government will no doubt issue the usual list of achievements to mark its 100 days in office, it seems that Team Salmond has opted against making a song and dance of the first milestone of SNP 2.0. After all, his aides note, it’s the same faces in many of the same jobs – why make a big deal of it?
On one level this is true. Ministers such as Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell and John Swinney have returned to the same desks they left in April, with the same bulging in-trays warning of the same issues – the most pressing of which is the fact they are running an ever more costly public sector without any new money. But, on another, it is misleading. For this SNP Government is a very different one from its predecessor. May’s incredible landslide victory for the party, which handed them an overall majority in parliament, and ensured the certainty of an independence referendum saw to that.
Ironically, the voters liked the last SNP Government so much – the one constrained by its slim minority rule – that they ended up returning a completely different one – one which now holds complete power. The verdict of the Scottish people was a resounding request for seconds, please. Instead they ended up with an entirely different menu. This new government now sets forth trying to keep the existing show on the road, while campaigning to persuade Scots that a new dawn is required. How have they begun?
The new SNP Government is nothing if not emboldened by the people’s resounding vote of approval. The pace has risen notably in the 100 days since May, when it became clear that the referendum would be taking place at some point in this parliamentary term. St Andrew’s House, the government’s Edinburgh HQ, is signed up entirely to the SNP’s credo, with Sir Peter Housden, the Permanent Secretary, said to be utterly committed to Salmond’s leadership.
Four years ago, 100 days in, the first Nationalist administration had limited itself to discussions about devolving firearm legislation to Scotland. Four years on, with those powers having been willingly handed over by the UK government, such a small request seems almost quaint. The new Government isn’t mucking about. Today sees Salmond publish a detailed paper to the UK government urging them to consider a Plan B on the economy – by spending heavily on capital investment. That comes hot on the heels of another paper last week, proposing the devolution of corporation tax to Scotland. That itself was part of a flurry of demands, issued by Salmond in the weeks after the election result, when he handed over a shopping list to the UK government of items he would like – including powers over alcohol excise, the Crown Estate and borrowing.
For voters who may only have latched on to the policy most paraded by the SNP during the election campaign – to freeze council tax for five years – this shopping list, issued in their name, may have come as something of a surprise. The charge from the SNP’s opponents, most notably Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, is that the new SNP Government isn’t therefore acting on what voters backed in April, and has become a “steamroller government”, twisting the mandate it received from the people (to freeze council tax, maintain police numbers and ring-fence the NHS) into the one it wants for itself (to run a permanent campaign demanding every power going). At least we’ve got wheels, reply SNP MSPs, who have mocked Rennie for his “cheek” in even having the temerity to challenge the Nationalists after May saw them returned as “the Orkney and Shetland party”. Armed with the people’s mandate, they are having none of it.
This hints at the new sense of entitlement that has emerged within the new SNP administration since May. The day after the result, Salmond described the SNP as Scotland’s “national party”. His aides have talked of forming a “big bothy” in which all of Scotland’s views are represented within the party tent. But, for some, what this really is about is a new attitude which says: “If you don’t like what we’re doing, tough – we’re doing it.” A few straws in the wind have emerged into public view. In May, Education Secretary Mike Russell declared a moratorium on school closures – with local authority chiefs, to their fury, learning via the media. A few weeks later, Alex Salmond waded into judges on the UK Supreme Court over their decision to uphold Nat Fraser’s appeal against his sentence. Last week, it was selectively leaked that the SNP would be introducing a new single police force in Scotland – a move bitterly opposed by some in the forces and across local government.
One source involved in the discussions claims: “Kenny [MacAskill, the justice secretary] is out to gag dissent by leaking this and hoping to silence chief constables over the next couple of weeks. The hope is that this kills off any criticism of the proposals because they are somehow inevitable.” Meanwhile, the cluster of interest groups which deal with the Edinburgh administration speak almost weekly of the regular hauling over the coals being doled out by Salmond’s advisers for those who step out of line by criticising SNP policy.
So what, you might ask. Such heavy-handed tactics are what well-drilled political outfits do – and were exactly the tactics used by the Labour UK government after the SNP won in 2007, when the same interest groups received some none-too-subtle reminders to remember whose side they were supposed to be on. The SNP can equally claim with justification that the complaints are coming from “the forces of conservatism”, opposition parties aiming pot-shots, or unionist opponents in the public sphere who will always spoil for a fight anyway.
The problem for Salmond, however, is that – whether motivated by partisan politics or not – a pattern has emerged which could stick. The fact is that the new SNP Government is incredibly powerful. Using that power brutally will therefore lead, as night follows day, to charges of bullying. The words of the Scottish Parliament’s former presiding officer Lord Steel last week, as he revealed he had resigned his advisory role to the Scottish Government because of Salmond’s comments on the Supreme Court, were particularly damaging. Declaring himself “appalled” by the way Salmond, MacAskill and an authorised spokesman for the government had spoken, he added, “I told Alex that I hoped this was not the way they were going to continue now that they had an overall majority, because if so I expected a growing number of complaints against ministers.”
Much of the backlash, it is fair to say, is caused by the massive personality of Salmond himself, and the fact that he so clearly enjoys and relishes flexing his power. One senior public figure in Scotland notes: “The truth is that if Alex likes you, then you’re his best pal and he can’t do enough for you. But if he doesn’t, be prepared. You’re out.”
No matter how Salmond chooses to lead, and no matter how successful electorally he is in the short-term, this period in office looks like a hard graft. There is not just the pressure of the referendum but also the crisis in the public finances to manage as well. The conflict between the two could be debilitating – and may prevent the SNP from doing the hard thinking that it knows it must on presenting a robust case for independence ahead of the big vote. Independent MSP Margo MacDonald notes: “They are too busy doing devolution to be revolutionary.” Overworked by the pressing demands of keeping the country going, the likes of MacDonald fear that the hard work selling and explaining independence will go amiss (the current confusion over the party’s stance on what currency it will have after independence is a case in point). “It is a revolution that is needed such is the upheaval that we have seen across the world. I don’t think Alex has had the time to do some thinking. Maybe he thinks he can’t fight too many battles at once,” MacDonald adds.
The good news for the SNP is that this negative picture hasn’t yet stuck in the public eye. On Friday, it saw off its opponents once again to win a by-election in Edinburgh’s city centre. With Scottish Labour still in recovery mode after the election, and with no sign yet of a new leader emerging, there is every reason to expect that next year’s local authority elections when they come will see further SNP gains.
Strathclyde University politics professor James Mitchell, who is close to many SNP figures, adds that there is every reason to expect that whatever turmoil the next few years bring financially, it won’t be the SNP Government which gets the blame, but the Conservative-led administration in London. “They will get the blame whether it is their fault or not,” he declares.
He also believes that the SNP ministers, the civil service and the whole Nationalist team have only become stronger and more competent over four years in office – and that they will use the crisis in the public finances over the coming years as an opportunity to show off their credentials.
Certainly it is true that, whatever faults the Salmond administration has, the unambiguous evidence is that voters are overwhelmingly prepared to give it a fair wind.
And with a weak opposition, and an unpopular UK government in power, the Nationalists look set to maintain their position as Scotland’s domestic party of choice for the next few years.
Several Labour figures have already privately declared they do not believe they have a chance of winning the 2016 Scottish elections, meaning that the SNP is likely to remain in power for the next nine years.
Whether the referendum is won or lost, a government with such power can change a country for ever. This is within Salmond’s grasp. But no-one needs reminding about the perils of absolute power. One hundred days on, Salmond and the SNP Government has never looked stronger. Therein lies his greatest danger.