Universally condemned it may have been but his outburst proved Scotland is on the UK agenda, argues Lesley Riddoch
Are the SNP flavour of the month – and how long can the honeymoon last?
Nicola Sturgeon has evidently charmed America and pushed all comparison with the wizardly Alex Salmond aside. International interest in this feisty little nation is on the rise. Rarely a week passes without a group of students or professionals – or last week Norwegian councillors – meeting journalists and academics, to figure out why Scots continue to educate themselves, fund-raise for alternative media and stay mobilised for the next electoral challenge.
Why is a large section of the Scottish electorate defying political norms to remain on near-permanent democratic red alert? It has left foreign commentators bemused. How can a party lose the referendum battle yet keep winning the electoral wars -- comfortably and consensually? Of course, there’s an obvious explanation. Now the indyref is over, many Yes activists have simply shifted their allegiance from the cause to the keepers of the flame. But that’s not all. The latest poll suggests No voters are continuing to switch to the SNP. The party entered the referendum campaign with 31 per cent backing for independence, ended it with 45 per cent, received 50 per cent of the popular vote in the general election and is projected to win 60 per cent at next year’s Holyrood elections. That steadily rising curve of support has happened despite voters hearing the supposedly toxic words “full fiscal autonomy” and “economic black hole” throughout the entire election campaign.
Are Scots becoming inured to scaremongering and predictions of economic disaster – could there already be an incipient majority for independence? And if so, what’s changed in nine short months?
Well, evidently – the Nicola Sturgeon phenomenon notwithstanding – the SNP has caught a mood for change amongst Scots whilst opposition parties are stuck defending an unattractive, unequal, Conservative-led status quo. The SNP’s political narrative combines ambition, empowerment, trust, capability and progress -- the opposition is stuck administering austerity and an EU referendum in which no major party is yet backing the “out” option. It’s no wonder the SNP’s agenda chimes more sweetly with Scots. The SNP has also been bold enough to back the selection of potentially awkward Westminster candidates, newcomers to the party, all energised by the indyref. The contrast with Scottish Labour – and even the SNP’s own recent history – is clear. Far from trying to control the wave of enthusiasm, the SNP has embraced it. Love them or loathe them, the SNP are driving the Scottish political agenda and no-one else is coming near them.
Not even professional curmudgeons like David Starkey, who thinks the party can be compared to the Nazis. In a newspaper interview this weekend, the 70-year-old claimed the Saltire was like the swastika, and likened the SNP’s view of the English to Adolf Hitler’s hatred of Jewish people. The TV historian said those who sympathise with the SNP, especially in England, were “incapable of recognising that this is national socialism,” and noted that Scots who “bare their knees” in kilts were mirroring the traditional dress of Germany. SNP MP Kirsten Oswald said Starkey’s comments were “irresponsible” and “deeply offensive to the Jewish community, the half of the Scottish electorate who voted SNP last month and 60 per cent who currently intend to vote SNP next year”. “He has become little more than a serial utterer of bile and bilge,” she added.
So far, so predictable. Like a semi-dormant volcano, it’s been a while since Starkey last erupted -- though he does so on a regular basis. In April 2009 he said; “‘If we decide to [have] an English national day it will mean we become a feeble little country, just like the Scots and the Welsh and the Irish.” In April 2012 he opined that “Alex Salmond is a democratic Caledonian Hitler.” So it was no surprise that the unaccountably over-exposed historical “expert” should explode again this spring.
Actually, though, the treatment of his comments suggests something has changed amongst his audience – the opinion formers of Middle England.
The Mail on Sunday’s headline -- “TV historian David Starkey branded ‘serial utterer of bile and bilge’ ” – picked up Ms Oswald’s quote. The Mail, which firmly backed the No campaign, also acknowledged the SNP’s “stunning victory north of the Border”. Poor Starkey -- when the Daily Mail abandons you, your cause is utterly sunk. Soon the professor’s predictable eruptions will merit no coverage at all – even on his own home turf.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, SNP MP John Nicholson asked: “Does [David Starkey] just say the silliest thing that comes into his mind?” Having a junior SNP spokesperson on such a prestigious network TV programme is in itself a bit of a turnaround. BBC Question Time is also set to have SNP panellists on half of its programmes at venues outside Scotland before the summer recess. And the increased volume of calls from BBC network producers suggests they have all been urged to meet targets in broadcasting the views of SNP MPs and Scottish commentators. It’s all recognition of one thing – the SNP’s third-party status at Westminster. It all speaks of one thing – grudging respect.
Winning a landslide majority in the Scottish elections didn’t do it, achieving 45 per cent in the indyref didn’t do it. It has taken the election of 56 MPs to prompt the beginnings of recognition for the SNP and the distinctive politics of Scotland. Westminster success – even achieved through the distortion of first past the post voting – is the only measuring stick Westminster mandarins and BBC bureaucrats understand. It is, after all, their own.
So finally there’s the chance that a fairly accurate reflection of Scottish political attitudes may reach Middle England. Which is fine. And yet.
Carry On Westminster is eclipsing the Scottish Parliament – as predicted. That is inevitable for a while, but it’s not helpful. Scottish Parliament elections are a year away but there’s no semblance of a focus on domestic issues or a high-quality, feisty opposition to the SNP. That’s not the SNP’s fault – but supporters concede it may soon become their problem. Scots expect a guid argument over policy and future plans – not a tartan rubber stamp.
Can any of the existing opposition parties deliver?