Lesley Riddoch: Trust is the key, not fear
So PROJECT Fear stalks the land again. According to David Cameron, the prospect of SNP support for Ed Miliband in government is “frightening”, “calamitous” and liable to “alter the direction of our country”, causing English hospital and road building programmes to be abandoned. Why? Because the SNP “don’t care what happens in the rest of the country” and “don’t come to Westminster to contribute to a government. They come … to break up our country.” If Scottish Nationalists held the balance of power, the Tory leader said, “the rest of the United Kingdom – Wales, Northern Ireland and England – would not get a look-in”.
Quite how this scaremongering attack will go down with English voters who’ve gamely placed the SNP leader top in every leaders’ TV debate, isn’t clear. In fact, Nicola Sturgeon is the only party leader the southern electorate actually likes. A YouGov poll for the Sun gave Nicola Sturgeon a net approval rating in England of +5. Across the UK, she’s on +7, compared with David Cameron on –5, Ed Miliband on –39 and Nick Clegg on –47. I’d guess £30 billion cuts from a new Tory government looks far more likely to threaten hospital and road building to these voters.
So why is David Cameron trying to demonise the SNP, and will his attacks succeed?
Unfortunately for the Tory leader, he opted to unveil his new “active and angry” image on the wrong TV sofa. Scots-born Andrew Marr challenged every bit of Cameron’s anti-SNP rhetoric (“Are you saying their MPs should be blocked from entering the voting lobbies to support Labour?), told Cameron he sounded like an English nationalist and observed that voters were far more worried about the prospect of a Tory/ Ukip deal.
If there had been time, Marr could also have asked why an SNP government would cut hospital spending in England when health spending in Scotland is dependent upon it. The Barnett Formula means most Scottish spending is a function of British spending – so the SNP would have nothing to gain by failing to build English hospitals in a support arrangement with Ed Miliband.
Cameron’s usual complaint is that Labour and the SNP are spendthrift parties who don’t understand austerity and can’t be trusted with the nation’s finances.
So why did the Tory leader devote precious TV time to a frenzied and illogical attack on the SNP? Perhaps he was reading the latest Lord Ashcroft polls and realising his P45 might arrive sooner than planned, when he also caught wind of the SNP manifesto – due to be launched today – in which Nicola Sturgeon promises to back a bill restoring the NHS in England to a fully public service by reversing the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. That’s a hugely attractive policy, so Cameron had to spike the SNP’s guns by casting doubt on their bona fides – no matter how implausible that might sound. His contention – that SNP MPs head south only to subvert British democracy – is plainly farcical, but it does echo the words of Britain’s top civil servant who breached neutrality rules last year by publishing advice against a currency union.
According to Sir Nicholas MacPherson, the independence referendum was an exceptional case because the “very existence of the British state was at stake”. In a critical report published three weeks ago, the Commons public administration select committee begged to disagree.
But now here we are again. The Prime Minister has come close to suggesting that the SNP have treasonable, state-subverting motives and should be banned from polite society and powerful electoral agreements.
I appreciate all’s fair in love, war and elections – and that such idiotic assertions demonstrate only that panic is sweeping through the Conservative campaign. But given the recent partisan behaviour of this government, civil service and wider Establishment – should we worry that Project Fear is about to be unleashed for the last two weeks of the campaign?
Actually, it may be far too late for negative scaremongering to gain much traction, partly because the Scots electorate are once bitten, twice shy, and partly because Nicola Sturgeon has managed to change the terms of trade of the entire campaign. Normally, elections are a dismal calculation of naked self-interest – this time, though, good old-fashioned trust has once again reared her elegant head and all the main UK parties have been found wanting.
Trust is something the SNP have won from Scottish voters the hard way over eight long years. Of course that trust has been tested at times and could still easily be lost. But Labour has already recklessly squandered that precious commodity – the more Jim Murphy jumps after policies, the more trust he erodes. Indeed, he sounds like an Old Testament prophet, peddling simplistic, detail-free predictions of doom to voters who have finally begun to expect so much more.
Without trust, you can’t throw six to start – in politics or in life. With so much pessimistic, finger-wagging, Labour can’t even reap the advantage of Kezia Dugdale’s relative youth.
The Scottish Labour deputy is a decade younger than Nicola Sturgeon, but stuck regurgitating slogans on autopilot, she doesn’t sound it. That’s why Labour is in a tailspin. The more they grab at passing policies to curry favour, the more trust they dissipate.
The Lib Dems have even greater trust issues thanks to their tuition fees U-turn. But their failure to include PR as a “red line” manifesto issue last week was almost as disappointing. If electoral reform isn’t at the beating heart of the Lib Dem cause any more, what is? The AV vote was lost in 2011. But now, as the country is awash with tactical voting and negative campaigning, Britain must accept first-past-the-post voting has reached its sell-by date, delivering neither stability nor fairness. Yet the party of PR has dropped the issue into the small print to concentrate on easier-to-argue policies.
Of course it will be hard for the SNP to focus on two governments, keep their 100,000 members happy and meet the exacting standards of social justice to which Nicola Sturgeon has now committed the SNP.
But for most progressive Scots in the general election, that political project is now the only game in town.