SNP's poster boy drives his message home

ONE million households will receive a scaled-down copy of the SNP manifesto in the next two weeks in the most ambitious piece of election marketing ever attempted in Scotland.

It is an indication both of the depth of SNP coffers and the way that the party leadership has planned and executed this campaign that such an exercise is achievable.

Manifestos are usually read only by political anoraks, diligent students and some enthusiastic members of the media. No-one else really pays much attention to them and manifesto launches are normally just used to boost a party's profile for a single day in the campaign. Not any more.

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The Nationalists have rewritten the rules on Scottish elections and, for the first time, will make their manifesto accessible to everybody in the country, sending out a million copies in Sunday and local newspapers over the next two weeks.

Alex Salmond announced the 100,000 initiative at his party's official manifesto launch in Edinburgh yesterday.

The SNP leader said his party had been in business for 73 years but this manifesto was of "particular importance". It was, for the first time, "a programme for government".

He forgot to mention that the mini-manifesto being sent out across Scotland also contained a giant poster of himself and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and that the marketing of Mr Salmond now appears as important, and possibly more important, than the marketing of the SNP.

But Mr Salmond did convey the clear impression that his party was on the threshold of power and the last three weeks of the campaign will be crucial in conveying that message to the country.

He said the SNP had to show it was "credible in government" and that it would only succeed in an independence referendum if it had a "track record of credibility" in the Executive.

The manifesto represents the first part of that drive for credibility and acceptability.

Previous SNP campaigns have stumbled because of badly drafted manifestos. In 1999, the SNP campaign never really recovered after the manifesto was published putting independence at the bottom of a list of ten priorities.

There were no such major disasters yesterday.

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The key themes were clear: cracking down on guns and the sale of alcohol to under-18s, reducing class sizes in P1,2 and 3, taking 120,000 firms out of business rates, resisting the centralisation of the health service and paying off student debt. The document also restated the party's opposition to new nuclear power stations and pledged a 98 million investment in renewable power.

There were no disasters but there was the odd hiccup. Mr Salmond was repeatedly pressed on his plans for a local income tax, particularly on his insistence that the UK Treasury will keep paying 380 million in council tax benefit once council tax is abolished - something the Labour government has already said it will refuse to do.

Mr Salmond could only say that he thought the UK government would pay the money and would not be able to "deny the people of Scotland their own resources".

At this stage, no-one knows whether the SNP's plans will be out by 380 million or not but, if the UK government was to refuse to hand over the money, it could actually work in Mr Salmond's favour.

Mr Salmond stated several times yesterday that he wanted to work "co-operatively" with Westminster if he was First Minister.

He said: "I confidently predict my relationship with Gordon Brown will be substantially better than his relationship with Tony Blair over the last few years."

However, he has already made it clear he will fight the UK government on a number of issues within the first 100 days of an SNP-led administration taking office in an attempt to wrench money and power from Westminster.

If he was able to blame the UK government for a 380 million "black hole" in Executive accounts, this would fuel the sense of grievance the SNP needs to propel Scotland towards independence.

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Mr Salmond did use the public opportunity of yesterday's launch to insist that England and Scotland would become "biggest pals" after independence, that England would "lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour".

In what appeared to be a clear attempt to soften the edge of Scottish independence, Mr Salmond said he wanted to dissolve the 1707 Union of the Parliaments, suggesting he wanted to leave the 1603 Union of the Crowns and the "social union" between Scotland and England in place. But there was always an undercurrent of potential conflict running through Mr Salmond's remarks and the manifesto itself.

Another slight problem with the SNP's manifesto yesterday was the absence of detailed financial plans.

The Liberal Democrats and the Tories produced costings for all their plans, explaining how much each would cost and where the money would come from.

Neither the SNP nor Labour bothered to do the same and, although party spokesmen insisted every commitment could be paid for and explained, they did nothing to counter Labour's argument that every family in Scotland would be 5,000 worse off under independence.

The SNP manifesto was full of commitments, many of them extremely expensive, from annual health and fitness checks in schools to "key improvements" to the A9, A96 and A77 and increasing nursery provision by 50 per cent, yet none of them were costed. The only explanation - and an unsatisfactory one at that - was provided in a general speech, delivered earlier this year by John Swinney, the party's finance spokesman, on the SNP's spending plans.

However, it was clear Mr Salmond is enjoying this time. His party is ahead in the polls, it has more money to spend than any party in Scottish electoral history and it is about to embark on a three-week publicity blitz which will submerge the country in leaflets, billboards and phone calls.

What he has to do, however, is keep his party from getting complacent and prevent his hints of arrogance and cockiness from bubbling to the surface.

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There was a clear case of this yesterday. Mr Salmond made a carefully judged overture to the Liberal Democrats, making it clear that his referendum plans were "negotiable", but he couldn't resist piling in with a dig at his potential coalition partners, insisting that they has shown themselves to be "flexible" by performing a U-turn on road tolls.

If the message to the Liberal Democrats was 'I'm ready to talk', the message to the public was 'I'm ready to govern'.

He said: "We have had a Scottish Parliament for eight years, but it is time we had a Scottish government as well. The present administration is in office but not in power.

"What we need is a government that will lead on the people's priorities to build a better, more successful Scotland."

Rather than hide his local income tax plans, Mr Salmond put them at the centre of his policy plans, calling them "the biggest tax cut for a generation in Scotland". He added: "This is a can-do programme for Scotland, a Scottish programme for a real Scottish government."

Election campaigns are all about momentum and it was clear yesterday, from the feverish excitement of the candidates to the nationwide media interest, that the SNP has momentum and Labour does not.

Of the four main parties, yesterday's SNP launch was the most slick, professional and, although not flawless, it gave the impression of a party which is just starting to believe it is within three weeks of government.

THE SNP manifesto commitments include:

• Abolishing the council tax and introducing an income tax, set nationally, at 3p in the pound.

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• Abolishing tuition fees, restoring student grants and covering the loan payments for Scottish-domiciled students.

• Halting planned closures of hospital A&E departments and introducing a public right of consent on the future of local hospitals. The SNP would also introduce new patients' rights, including individual waiting time guarantees.

• Restricting access to all firearms, including airguns, and cracking down on shopkeepers selling alcohol to underage Scots.

• Reducing class sizes in primaries 1, 2 and 3 to 18 or smaller and expanding nursery provision, ensuring that there is 50 per cent more free nursery education available.

• Abolishing business rates for 120,000 companies with a rateable value of 8,000 or less. Another 30,000 companies with a rateable value of between 8,000 and 15,000 will benefit from rate relief.

• Building track improvements to cut train journey times between Edinburgh and Glasgow to 45 minutes and "taking forward key improvements" on the A9, A96 and A77.

• Resisting any plans to build any new nuclear power stations in Scotland and investing 98 million in renewable energy.