Ewan Crawford: SNP rivals’ odd reaction to defeat

FROM anticipating results to blaming the voters, the reaction of Unionist parties is bizarre, suggests Ewan Crawford

Ruth Davidson, who seems to relish photo-opportunities, is taking an unusual stance on elections, presuming success months ahead of the vote, outdoing even the bookies. Picture: Hemedia
Ruth Davidson, who seems to relish photo-opportunities, is taking an unusual stance on elections, presuming success months ahead of the vote, outdoing even the bookies. Picture: Hemedia

In a bold move, the Scottish Conservatives seem to have adopted the tactics of publicity seeking bookmakers who pay out to punters before the end of a sporting contest.

In the recent past some bookies have declared Manchester United the winners of the English Premiership long before the title has been settled (and famously getting it wrong on occasion).

To my knowledge, however, no bookmaker has ever paid out before a single ball has been kicked.

The Scottish Tories, however, are made of sterner stuff. Before a manifesto has been printed or a vote cast, their leader, Ruth Davidson, has announced (via twitter as these things are now) that the party has “secured” an MSP on the Glasgow list for next year’s Holyrood election.

And because the job has been done and the seat has been impressively secured nine months before polling day, Ruth is off to the Lothians to bolster the party there. At this rate, that extra seat should also be in the bag in a fortnight, so, who knows, perhaps the leader will soon be on the move again to secure yet further success.

Both Ms Davidson and her predecessor, Annabel Goldie, have many admirable qualities and appear to be decent, good-humoured people.

But such is the state of the Scottish Conservatives that their leaders tend not to be judged by the same standard as all other party leaders: i.e. their ability to win votes.

Instead there seems to be a different Davidson/Goldie measure based on how good a laugh they are and the quality of their election photo-opportunities, often involving a tank or abseiling.

This is what makes the current leader’s focus on votes and seats interesting.

It would be a big mistake to assume the SNP’s dominance will automatically go on and on. Events happen. In fact it is less than ten years since the Liberal Democrats enjoyed an impressive by-election win in Dunfermline (pushing the SNP into third place) and in the 2005 general election the SNP polled less than 18 per cent, following disappointing European and Holyrood contests.

But the behaviour of all the former Better Together allies is making it harder for any of them to stage a comeback.

Having been involved in some of the less spectacular SNP performances (none of course my fault) and as a former adviser in the current successful SNP-led Scottish Government, I am reasonably well-placed to judge how effectively parties respond to defeat and victory.

In this respect, the Liberal Democrats’ reaction to their disaster in May strikes me as the oddest. As far as I can see there is no attempt to acknowledge what voters were telling them. Instead various party figures insist on telling us that “Scotland/Britain needs the Liberal Democrats more than ever” when in fact Scotland/Britain seems to be saying “No, we don’t.”

During a recent weekend in Pittenweem in the East Neuk of Fife, I came across a new Liberal Democrat leaflet which highlighted newspaper headlines suggesting the Tories at Westminster were now free to introduce damaging policies without the restraining influence of Nick Clegg. The message to voters seemed to be: “Look what you’ve done.” I’ve never been convinced that trying to make voters guilty or telling them they’ve made a mistake is a winning strategy (something those of us who believe in independence need to keep in mind).

For the Tories, David Cameron’s success south of the Border largely masked another disastrous performance in Scotland. The Conservatives now seem to be betting everything on goading the SNP into raising taxes to pay for welfare so they can run a campaign based on a warning that the Nationalists are raiding the pockets of hard-working families to increase dole payments. When the SNP declines that offer, it is hard to see what the Tories’ bright new message will be, apart from a brave pledge to cut income tax at exactly the same time as George Osborne’s public spending cuts will start to have their full effect.

Given its difficulties, it seems bizarre to offer any crumb of comfort to Labour but at least that party is having a lively or calamitous (take your pick) debate about its future.

Despite the nervous breakdown many in the party are enduring, it is easy to understand why such a vigorous contest is taking place.

But this means we are left with two parties who are ignoring the result in May and one which is imploding. Instead of proper analysis of the SNP’s success, the party’s political opponents (and a good number of commentators), simply vent their bemusement and anger that, unlike Serious People, voters stubbornly refuse to see through the Nats’ claims.

Those opponents might want to consider, just for a moment, that voters haven’t been duped and that rather than the result of a mythical all-powerful spin machine, many people’s real experience is why the SNP has a reputation for competent government.

In this age, no politician should lay too big a claim to trustworthiness but again a losing party should be seriously examining why so many people trust the SNP to stand up for Scottish interests.

Perhaps most importantly the SNP has successfully married campaigning for constitutional change with a sense of progress and possibility. It has presented an optimistic view of Scotland’s future, falsely derided by too many of its opponents as presenting “a land of milk of honey”.

Before the Westminster recess when the Scotland Bill was being debated, the Unionist parties once again positioned themselves as the parties who like to say No while warning of impending disaster (this time over fiscal autonomy).

When MPs and MSPs return, those parties need to find a way of embracing, not fearing, a further transfer of power from Westminster to Scotland. Unless they do so, they might want to hold off on the boasts about securing seats.