Well, those of us who whined about the absence of independence from this Scottish election campaign have our wish at last. But those in and much closer to the SNP might be tempted to rejoinder, we told you so. What we have is the death-throe rattles of a down and out Labour party, throwing jibes instead of rational argument, in a last gasp attempt to turn this election around. It might even work, for momentum now suddenly, inexplicably appears to have swung their way.
The same old, tired arguments are being trotted out about the bogeyman of independence and all the SNP can do is toss back the same, old narrow and tired responses. Having a pop at the messenger – “not for the first time Brown is talking Balls” – is neither big nor clever, and serves only to show that the SNP is on the defensive and feeling cornered. As it always does when independence is introduced to the election debate.
Which is exactly what happens when you allow your opponents to introduce your core message on their terms. The SNP must share the blame for being back where election campaigns always seem to end up. The first faux pas was Alex Salmond stating during BBC Scotland’s leaders debate that a referendum would only be held in the later stages of the parliamentary term, now five years, if the SNP forms the next government.
He hasn’t put a foot wrong all campaign and been out of sight in terms of quality and leadership. But Sunday, it happened. He made the fatal mistake of allowing himself to be engaged by Glenn Campbell and answered the question put to him. Commendably, the SNP leader was trying to show that it would not be centre stage for an SNP Government, that looking after Scotland’s interests, nursing the economy back to health, protecting and creating jobs would all be the priority.
But it has given Labour a foothold. Yesterday, they trumpeted how Scotland would face five long years of independence dominating proceedings, to the exclusion of all else. It’s a low blow but an effective one.
The second error the SNP has made in an otherwise faultless campaign has been the one it usually makes, which is not to talk about independence until someone else does. The burd is almost incredulous that the SNP thought it would get away with it. The narrative of record, team, vision, based on positive hope than negative fear, is a compelling one. But the idea that it could somehow stash independence in the attic and no one would bother to go up and drag it out was fanciful. Desperate times require desperate measures, and that is Labour’s motivation.
Alex Salmond in his autumn SNP conference speech made the most articulate and passionate claim for believing in independence and what it would, could bring for Scotland that the burd has ever heard him make. It should have marked the start of a process, not a full stop, of key SNP figures – heck, even some of its celebrity backers (or at least those who do support the cause) – taking the argument further. The reason the Scots are so nervy about independence is because neither the big picture nor the necessary small details have ever been properly elucidated. Weaving it through this election narrative might have allowed the SNP to debate the issue on its terms.
But we are where we are, with two days to go. Labour’s tails are up, the SNP is being backed towards the ropes, though not quite there yet. What to do?
Whether the SNP likes it or not, it has to go toe to toe on this one, until the final bell rings at midnight on Wednesday. Time to get in the centre of the ring and start fighting on its terms.
First, side the party with the people. Polls show unequivocally that Scots want their say: a majority supports the right to hold a referendum. Yet, the other parties would deny even that, preventing people taking charge of their own destiny. The SNP should make more of this; indeed, Salmond’s response to the initial audience question on a referendum in Sunday’s leaders’ debate is the perfect one.
Second, fight fire with fire. It was a throwaway remark by Nicola Sturgeon, buried in a statement last week, which alerted me to the possibility: “the stronger the vote for the SNP, the more progress we can achieve for Scotland – including strengthening the Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster so that it has real job-creating powers.” Why has the SNP not made more of its willingness to take Scotland forward to devolution max?
More powers for the Scottish Parliament is supported consistently by a majority of Scots. The committee that considered the Scotland bill recognised this, recommending extending the reach of the bill and the powers and levers of the Parliament accordingly. Since its arrival at Westminster, the committee’s recommendations have been systematically dismantled and dismissed, largely by Labour MPs. At the same time, they have introduced a range of amendments that smack more of foisting their own resentments on the Scottish people than representing their interests: it has been SNP MPs who have tried to see the will of the Scottish Parliament carried forward. The SNP should have made more of this – as polls show, people trust the SNP to stand up for Scotland’s interests and this issue gives the perfect opportunity to prove how.
Attempting to carry serenely on by sticking to the script hands the initiative to Labour and risks allowing them traction. For the first time in the campaign and at exactly the wrong moment. The polls are too close not to at least try to regain supremacy and finish the campaign fighting on its terms, occupying the centre of the stage. And that means leading on the independence argument.