Alex Salmond is King of all whom he surveys. As he casts his eye across the expanse of his parliamentary group and struggles to recall names and match them to constituencies, he will be met with beatific smiles. The group of 69 contains many who did not even dare to dream of election this time last year and now find themselves as their people’s representative and champion, pinching themselves regularly to convince themselves it’s real.
Well done and good luck to them all. The First Minister too deserves the hero worship that is undoubtedly beaming his way right now. He can do no wrong, the electorate seas literally do part for him. Whatever the question is at this stage, the answer is yes or no depending on what the First Minister wants.
A more cynical commentator than the burd might suggest that Alex Salmond has taken advantage of his omniscience amongst his group to bounce them into a shift in strategy on independence. No newbie was likely to pipe up with an impertinent question or remark at the first group meeting at which this shift was discussed, not if they want to survive and indeed, rise through the ranks in the next five years. If truth be told, most were probably oblivious to what was being said, the sound of the Returning Officer’s announcement still ringing in their ears and desperately trying to remember how to get from pod to toilet and back again without causing a puddle.
But five years is a long, long time in politics. Can Alex Salmond rely on such unity of purpose and thought from all 69 members throughout this historic second term? The burd has her doubts and far from seeing this as a bad thing, it would be good for the Parliament and the SNP itself. Discipline is important but so too is internal debate and discourse. At the very least, the dynamics of a group are well served by having a few prepared and thoughtful enough to play devil’s advocate. It makes for better decision-making all round.
The SNP group is diverse if not totally representative of the people. But there are three characteristics worthy of comment at this stage.
First, the group has a significant number of councillors from all over the country some with many years’ experience of opposition, like Richard Lyle and David Torrance, others like Derek Mackay and Kevin Stewart, with experience of administration. From the off, there are 16 out of 69 members carrying a dual mandate at least until next May which may limit the contribution some of them can make, simply due to time restraints and workload. But it does also give them an understanding of why discipline is necessary but also of the mischief that can be caused within a large group. More helpfully, they bring with them an insight into the potential impact of national government policy on local service delivery. They might not always see eye to eye with Government proposals and their representation elsewhere will certainly give them a different perspective to offer.
Second, there is a significant number of people who have reached an age and a level of achievement in their own lives, by their own efforts, that they will feel confident enough about being their own people. They are largely men – but might also include the wonderful Jean Urquhart – who have established their own businesses or had highly successful careers and have coupled those experiences with their belief – sometimes long held, often only shaped by their experience – in Scottish independence. A Ministerial career would be nice but they’ve had – still have in some cases – successful interests elsewhere and actually their driving force will be the desire to take Scotland forward to independence. Many of this group will not have expected to find themselves in Holyrood and will be mindful that a shift in the electoral wind could dump them back out at the next election. They won’t want to waste their big chance to achieve their life’s dream.
They might all be gradualists now but some could become impatient if the route path to independence remains as rocky and indistinct as is currently being expressed. Or they feel that the switch to independence lite is the wrong path to take.
Third, whisper it, but this parliamentary group contains a significant number of NPKAF – Nats Previously Known As Fundies. Apparently the old debates between fundamentalism and gradualism are dead and buried but the shift towards independence-lite and away from full fat independence might just re-ignite them. There are many who will see the pragmatism in what Alex Salmond and the leadership are proposing for now, but old habits die hard. Most believe in an innate patriotic nationalism that still expresses itself in the old songs and in notions of freedom. It might be well buried for now but again, frustration and impatience, particularly if the new strategy starts to garner negative headlines, could see it bubbling to the surface.
And make no mistake, Alex Neil, for all his constructive role since election in 1999, is close to many in this segment of the parliamentary group. He will be keeping them close and offering a friendly ear and shoulder to lean on as they find their way into parliamentary life. He is a wily enough character to know to court this segment – just in case.
But for the moment, everything in the Nationalist garden is rosy. A few will be waiting anxiously by the phone today, hoping to receive a call from the great man himself. He does after all have riches to choose from to fill his senior Cabinet and more junior ministerial positions.
His tactical nous on taking Scotland on to independence has seldom been wrong and his MSPs will trust his judgement implicitly. For now.