Thankfully, Joan McAlpine has been fairly quiet this weekend. The burd hopes she has spent the time reviewing the events of the last few days and working out what went wrong. She could do worse than seek out the sage advices of some of her parliamentary colleagues, particularly those who bear the scars of long years spent in the SNP’s trenches and of bruising campaigns past. More than anyone, the likes of Mike Russell, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney, could tell Joan that she ain’t seen nothing yet, that this is only the start of it, that this is how it has always been for the SNP. One against four (being the three Unionist parties and the mainstream media, of course).
And that this is the reason why the top echelons of the party operate like a tightly drilled unit when battle has been commenced.
By anyone’s standards, Joan McAlpine’s political rise has been meteoric. Two years ago, she was an unknown in the SNP firmament (which is not to say she hasn’t been a longtime supporter). Having decided to pursue a role in active politics, she approached it with the same determination and display of talent which saw her become one of the very few women in Scottish journalism to reach the top of her profession. She missed out – narrowly – in securing a constituency but thanks to the historic landslide vote in May, got herself elected on the South of Scotland list.
Everyone who encountered her during the election campaign was impressed, including the First Minister, and she quickly established herself in his inner circle, providing media advice and speechwriting skills. Her touch was plain to see in some of his keynote speeches in the run up to May’s election and her fingerprints were all over his victory speech at Prestonfield House and his earliest First Ministerial speeches before the summer. In a good way. Her appointment as his parliamentary liaison officer came as little surprise, with many predicting that a ministerial promotion was inevitable in the future. Some might be revising those predictions this weekend.
For it was her proximity to the First Minister which prompted the media to make such a fuss about Ms McAlpine’s ill-judged and intemperate remarks in the Scottish Parliamentary debate on Scotland’s Future last week. Joan – of all people – knows that the political journalists in Scotland hunt as a pack. As soon as they scent blood, they’re off. Her job as parliamentary liaison officer to the First Minister is to avoid laying trails that carry them anywhere near him. Indeed, her job is to ensure that she is carrying the right trail at the right time and that if there is trouble afoot, to lay a false trail that carries the scent in the opposite direction. The master at doing this is Kevin Pringle: he’s another who learned his craft the hard way and knows how tightly the messaging needs to be drawn at times like these.
This clearly isn’t the first time that a careless political remark has squandered political value but this one did so pretty spectacularly. The “anti-Scottish” jibe was a pointless arrow fired at political opponents unnecessarily. If it was deliberately aimed then the tactics need to be revised. All parties need their outriders but they need to be as far removed from the leadership as possible.
It also resulted in the backroom team expending a lot of energy, trying to make it go away. With over 990 days to go, that energy needs to be conserved for the fights the SNP wants to pick with its opponents, not for these kind of unplanned skirmishes. The timing of the remark could not have been worse, resulting in the SNP’s second most important person being harried and pursued on BBC Question Time. Watching it certainly made me wince, not because Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t handle it – her media skills are outstanding – but because she was prevented from doing the job she was there to do, which was get the SNP’s positive message across. She’s the country’s Deputy First Minister and shouldn’t have to be defending a jibe made by a backbench parliamentary colleague on UK wide television.
The episode also overshadowed an outstanding week for the SNP: the way it seized the initiative back was like watching a masterclass in political gamesmanship. The First Minister and his Depute, made all the other parties and senior politicians – not least the UK Prime Minister – look like amateurs. And they did it by playing the ball, not the player – until Joan’s intervention of course.
In the old days, the SNP was very good at this kind of personality politics but it got the party nowhere in terms of winning elections. It was only when the SNP switched tack and abandoned negative politicking that they won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. This trading of insults is the kind of politics that makes the public switch off and the SNP cannot afford for this to happen, not even for a weekend. Two years might seem like forever, but there is such a lot of convincing to do, on so many fronts, that every hour is needed. And every single one of them should be focused on making the positive case for constitutional change, not mopping up after hostile exchanges.
We really haven’t seen anything like the fullscale onslaught the Unionist establishment is capable of and will have to mount, if it is to thwart the SNP’s ambition. The party knows what to expect and is now much better placed to counter it all, but only if its people hang tightly. There is no margin for error, not when the main prize is at stake, and there is no room for anyone within the leadership circle who is high risk and high maintenance.
Alex Salmond is renowned for nurturing chicks. A significant number fledge successfully and choose to stay in the nest; some decide to flee of their own accord. But he is not afraid to dump those who fail to make the grade or transgress out of his nest. That’s the problem with meteoric rises – the fall can be just as spectacular.