Mike Elrick: Monarch of the political glen looks to be lacking some dignity

QUEEN Victoria’s favourite artist Sir Edwin Landseer painted the quintessentially iconic image of a Scottish red deer stag in its prime, The Monarch Of  The Glen. And in many respects Alex Salmond has been the political equivalent, the “Monarch of the Scottish political glen”, master of all he surveys.

QUEEN Victoria’s favourite artist Sir Edwin Landseer painted the quintessentially iconic image of a Scottish red deer stag in its prime, The Monarch Of  The Glen. And in many respects Alex Salmond has been the political equivalent, the “Monarch of the Scottish political glen”, master of all he surveys.

After 21 years as his party’s leader, he is within touching distance of the prize that he and his party so desperately want. He has seen off all-comers – at least two generations of political opponents, and remarkably, after five years in government, his party’s popularity remains considerable.

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On the face of it, all in the SNP glen is rosy, even after the lacklustre launch of the Yes campaign. For hasn’t the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament, in what the First Minister deemed last week to be a “milestone” vote, endorsed the notion that independence is now “the settled will” of Holyrood?

It undoubtedly is the “settled will” of the SNP but only time and the referendum will tell if it, rather than devolution, as my former employer John Smith said, is the “settled will” of the Scottish people.

Salmond may have convinced a parliament with an in-built SNP majority of the independence cause, but last week’s First Minister’s Questions demonstrated just how far the SNP has to go to convince doubters that Nationalist plans for independence aren’t being made up as they go along.

The fact that the First Minister tied himself in knots attempting to distance his party from his deputy Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that an independent Scotland would have a seat by right on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee post separation, shows the continuing inability of the SNP to be able to explain the fine print of what their independence plans will mean. In the next two years those opposed to the SNP’s separation plans will exploit such failure to nail down the details ruthlessly. And they will be heartened that in recent weeks Alex Salmond has looked out of sorts – less Monarch Of The Glen and more stag at bay, as Labour’s Scottish leader in particular, appears to have got his measure. There must be a fear in nationalist hearts that with victory on the horizon, their leader is looking fallible.

With so much at stake in terms of his and the party’s credibility, how the SNP and its supporters deal with criticism and scrutiny of its independence plans from wherever it comes, will go a long way I believe to determine whether the party can convince enough Scots to back independence.

There has been much talk by nationalists of “uniting the nation” in their bid to convince the vast majority of Scots that independence is a gamble worth taking – reaching out particularly to Labour voters to deliver separation.

The problem is the nature of nationalists themselves, no doubt fuelled by the fact that independence seems within their grasp.

All the moderate, the reassuring rhetoric of the SNP aimed at floating voters sits uneasily with the immoderate reality of how the SNP and its foot soldiers deal with criticism of the SNP’s policies – and their palpable loathing of all things Labour.

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Over the years, like many in Labour ranks, I have become accustomed to wearisome Nationalist jibes about “London Labour” and uncaring “unionist” politicians standing in the way of Scotland’s future. The fact that political heavyweights and passionately proud Scots like John Smith, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown were Scottish, representing Scottish constituencies, is conveniently ignored.

Working for Wendy Alexander when she was Labour’s leader in the Scottish Parliament I saw at first hand just how far political debate degenerated into personalised visceral abuse. Alexander was subjected to frankly shocking personal attacks by Nationalist MSPs and the “cybernat” online presence.

The First Minister himself has failed to set an example. He has failed to condemn the highly personalised attacks of “cybernats” on those who dare to disagree with the SNP. On a weekly basis at First Minister’s Questions he has also failed to rise above party politics. Instead, too often, he too has resorted to personally attacking the man or woman, not the ball, using the kind of rhetoric that one would expect from nationalism’s less intelligent online followers. He did it with Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Nicol Stephen and now with Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson.

None of Salmond’s predecessors in the role of First Minister conducted themselves in the Holyrood chamber in anything like the way that the current First Minister now does. We are not just talking about the usual cut and thrust of political debate. Instead, in place of genuine debate, ridicule, belittling and character assassination have become the norm. Positive nationalism it is not.

And it’s not just in the Scottish Parliament that such contempt for others’ views is displayed. Take a look at the online comment feeds of this newspaper and others to see what I mean.

The SNP in government does not deal well with criticism from any quarter which might raise doubts about whether they can be trusted with the levers of power. With a referendum on the horizon it is difficult to see how Nationalists can suddenly renounce deeply partisan politics in favour of all things consensual and inclusive.

But if the SNP is genuinely serious about reaching out beyond its political core to the supporters of other parties and floating voters then it needs to turn its back on the kind of rhetoric that is a big turn-off to the vast majority of Scots who still remain opposed or indifferent to independence. The kind of rhetoric that divides not unifies.

I for one have my doubts. It’s hard to see Scotland’s current Monarch of the Glen or his party’s most fervent missionaries in the coming referendum debate changing the habits of a lifetime. «

• Mike Elrick is a former adviser to John Reid and the late John Smith