It might not be a game changer, but Souter’s intervention with a huge donation of £500,000 to the SNP’s election coffers, definitely moves things up a gear.
We’ve been plodding our way to the Holyrood election on donkeys. With all polls pointing to a Labour victory, so far, it’s felt like a long, slow inevitable march with few twists and turns on the way.
Souter’s money might change all that. It’s the equivalent of a ferrari screeching past in the fast lane, tooting its horn and leaving the donkeys for dust. Suddenly the race is on. Maybe.
It at least injects a little frisson, though not necessarily for the right reasons. It rakes up memories of one of devolution’s deepest sores, the Section 28 debacle. For those that think politics was invented in 2007, the Labour-led Scottish Executive wanted to repeal Section 2A (as it actually was), a hateful Thatcher measure which effectively banned the mention of homosexuality from local authorities and especially schools.
There was vehement opposition to this move and Souter bankrolled their campaign. The battle over it was visceral, pitching Labour ministers against each other, dividing families even, and Souter’s intervention has yet to be forgiven by large sections of the population. Hence, every time he pops up with a cheque for the SNP, it attracts considerable media attention. Few, though, are so quick to point out that Souter, through his charitable foundation, has also been a significant financial supporter of good causes in Scotland and in the developing world in recent years.
In any event, Souter has been donating to the SNP for years, even before they were famous or at least, government material. And his largesse was even bigger in 2007 and didn’t do them any harm, so the party leadership will assure itself. Moreover, they are using his donation to seek match funding from party supporters and members. For every pound they donate, Souter will match it to a maximum of half a million pounds. Clever.
And suddenly, they are able to match Labour’s spend – for make no mistake, despite protestations of this being the sackcloth and ashes election, Labour is spending, especially in its key target seats – giving activists a huge filip and boosting morale. It might even flush a few fairer weather activists, and especially donors, back into the fold.
But four years has proven to be a very long time in Scottish politics. Financially, we are in a very different place and SNP supporters and members who could afford to donate readily in 2007 might not be so disposed or capable. Reaching the magic million might prove more difficult this time round. Moreover, Souter’s largesse might be less ignored by commentators and particularly, voters than four years ago.
The cod psychology goes like this – when people are looking for reasons to vote for you, they dismiss niggling doubts or small beer concerns. They focus on the bigger picture, on the things they like about you. When people are looking for reasons to shift their vote from you, suddenly every small detail is magnified. People will go out of their way to focus on your annoying little habits. The trivial and the inconsequential in the scheme of things suddenly become hugely important. It’s a bit like the death of a love affair.
So, while Souter’s money mattered less in 2007, it might just be the tipping point for the kind of voters the SNP needs to hold seats and stay in power. It might only apply to a tiny amount of the electorate but in these seats, every vote will count.
And even if the magic million is reached, the SNP will need to think hard about how it spends it. Iain Gray’s instincts that this is a different election requiring a more subtle tack are sound. People don’t want gloss and gimmicks: they want steadfast and sure. If the SNP uses the funding for big national show pieces, e-campaigning flummery and the promotion of Salmond as a presidential figure, it might turn people off, not on.
Far better if they target the money wisely, in the marginals, enabling it to go doorstep to doorstep with Labour.
In a previous life, Salmond was a renowned guerilla political fighter. He and the SNP could reap the ultimate electoral reward of second term in government, if they use this war chest to rediscover those instincts.