Alex Massie: How will SNP fare after Salmond?

IF Scotland votes No next year, will Alex Salmond retain his enthusiasm for the political hurly-burly and if not, who can match the political titan, asks Alex Massie

First Minister Alex Salmond gives out 'high 5s' to school children at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Alex Salmond gives out 'high 5s' to school children at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Jane Barlow

PITY the poor Scottish Parliament. It is a teenager now and, like many a teenager, the parliament is sorely misunderstood and too easily under-appreciated. The people, damn their eyes, don’t understand it. They neither recognise its politicians nor know what it does. Nor, for that matter, do they respect its achievements.

That, at any rate, is one conclusion to be drawn from Lord Ashcroft’s series of polls conducted in Scotland this year. The results of his research are a reminder that the public is less interested in politics than the news media and members of the political class would like to believe.

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Politics, for many people, is an unwelcome distraction. Their passions are neither stirred nor shaken by the latest developments at Holyrood (or Westminster). They would, in general, welcome less politics.

Only 14 per cent of voters are confident they know which powers are devolved to Holyrood and which responsibilities remain Westminster’s prerogative.

Half of voters have never heard of, or have no opinion about, Willie Rennie (he’s the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, by the way). Mention Johann Lamont and 40 per cent will stare at you blankly, while 38 per cent can tell you nothing about Ruth Davidson.

Some 23 per cent of Scots who favour independence believe this should not be the Scottish Government’s priority. And 30 per cent cannot name anything the Scottish Parliament has done since 1999 that rises to the status of being a “main achievement”; a further 13 per cent are quite certain that the parliament has not a single achievement to its name.

It is enough, frankly, to induce a startling sensation: a measure of sympathy for our elected representatives. Is this, they might reasonably ask, what it is all for? In the privacy of their own homes they must wonder if HL Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, had a point when he noted that: “No-one in they world, so far as I know – and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

The wages of leadership are paid with public indifference and scorn. Brecht’s sardonic suggestion that, as the public has failed, it might be time to dissolve the people and elect a new one is something that must, in their darker moments, appeal to our parliamentarians.

Despite the ample opportunity for cynicism afforded by Lord Ashcroft’s polling, his research remains valuable and not just because much of it is conducted on a greater scale than the polls commissioned by newspapers or campaign pressure groups.

Indeed, Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests an electorate that is simultaneously ignorant and sophisticated. Ignorant, that is, about policy and personality, but sophisticated about its voting intention.

Scottish politics is a game of levels. On one level (assuming the polls are accurate), the public intends to vote against independence. On another, the public still seems minded to vote for the SNP at the next Holyrood election. Of course, the aftermath of a No vote might change that calculation, but on current projections, the Nationalists would remain the largest party at Holyrood. That might seem evidence of a contrary electorate but, perhaps paradoxically, it also makes sense. You might describe it as a desire for a “strong and distinctive Scotland within the Union”.

That is partly because 62 per cent of Yes voters would be utterly certain to vote in a Holyrood election held tomorrow, but only 47 per cent of No voters would definitely go to the polls. This is not surprising, but it is a reminder that Holyrood polls are an inadequate basis upon which to make predictions for the independence referendum and that Scottish Parliament elections are treated differently to Westminster elections or plebiscites.

Lord Ashcroft’s polls also reveal the extent to which Alex Salmond still dominates Scottish politics. He is a tartan-wrapped colossus. Everyone knows who he is; everyone has an opinion about him. In a climate marked by considerable apathy and great ignorance, this is no small achievement. Some 99 per cent of Scots have heard of Salmond and 95 per cent know enough about him to have an opinion. He is the only Holyrood politician you can imagine featuring on a revived Spitting Image. In those circumstances, having a net approval rating of only -4 is actually a notable achievement.

Some 45 per cent of Lord Ashcroft’s 10,000 respondents have a favourable view of the First Minister; 49 per cent take a dim view of his character or performance in office.

The First Minister is undoubtedly a polarising figure, but he remains the independence movement’s greatest asset. Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney are capable politicians – and manifestly decent people to boot – but it is difficult to imagine either of them leading the Nationalists to victory. They are respected, but not feared. And “respect” is a double-bladed compliment: it can easily mean an opponent you like but consider over-matched. I’ve never heard Swinney or Sturgeon described as “evil”, for instance.

Even so, Salmond’s reputation has survived surprisingly well. He has, after all, been in office since 2007. Time defeats all incumbents yet it has not – at least not yet – ruined Salmond. We might expect 90 per cent of SNP supporters and 84 per cent of voters intending to vote Yes in the independence referendum to view Salmond favourably; it is much more remarkable that 28 per cent of Scots planning to vote No next year still view Salmond positively.

So, the First Minister remains the SNP’s ace. Salmond has been a public figure for so long now – he was first elected an MP in 1987 – that it is easy to forget he is still only 58.

By the time of the referendum, he will have led the SNP for 20 years, albeit in two ten-year spells interrupted only by the brief Swinney regency. Of course, his “name recognition” will be higher than that of his opponents Johann Lamont (Labour), Ruth Davidson (the Conservatives)and Willie Rennie (Liberal Democrats). He benefits from being chief of his ain midden whereas they are subordinate, in public consciousness if not strict authority, to Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, respectively. This, too, gives the Nationalists a great advantage in Scottish affairs.

How can Labour beat the SNP if voters neither know nor care who Lamont is? If this challenges the opposition, Nationalists might pause to wonder what will happen to the movement should Salmond retire from the fray. The SNP bench may be deeper than in the past, but Salmond remains its indispensable, irreplaceable figure. (And, Nationalists might reasonably say that even a one-man band will make more noise than the opposition’s collection of no-man bands.)

All of which is a further reminder that however much the blethering classes might like politics to be about policy it is, and will remain, a game of personality, too. The SNP’s rise is both the product of historical forces (chiefly the decline of “Britishness”) and one man’s great achievement. Salmond has simultaneously beaten “only” Jack McConnell and Iain Gray and, in making the SNP a natural party of government, achieved something remarkable. It is hard to imagine it happening without him.

But time catches up with all champions eventually. If Scotland votes No next year, will Salmond retain his enthusiasm for the political hurly-burly? And without Salmond, whither the SNP?

His successors may enjoy the SNP’s structural advantage at Holyrood, but without Salmond’s dominating personality and presence all will one day be changed – and changed utterly.