I conspired to miss the First Minister’s keynote speech at the SNP’s Spring conference today, but not deliberately. Small matter of taking the chicklet to a birthday party.
Though my excuse is much lamer than that of SNP HQ staffer, Sue Ruddick, who managed to give birth rather unexpectedly it seems. Congratulations and a great big welcome to the world to her wee man, who truly is of the independence generation. Which was fitting really, given that the independence generation dominated the boss’s speech.
But I’ve listened to so many of Alex Salmond’s speeches that even reading the text, I can hear his voice – every cadence, tick and crescendo. It seems that today I missed a stormer. As Angus McLeod, Scottish political editor of the Times and longstanding commentator, said this was “the speech of a politician at the top of his game. Almost relentlessly positive in tone and content“. Praise indeed.
Fond of quoting Burns in his speeches, reading and re-reading this brings to mind the question, “when will we see his likes again”? For, this was a big speech packed full of big themes and big announcements from the biggest beast in Scottish politics.
It came as close as damnit to elucidating what amounts to Alex Salmond’s core beliefs: “..working for a Scotland that can truly prosper – the strong economy and the just society“. These were the twin themes forming the warp and the weft in the tapestry he spun.
On the strong economy, there were announcements of a further £5 million package to support 2.500 young people into work, of every SNP council elected after May delivering a living wage, of a £300m package of “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects delivered in a list to London. The challenge is clear: if we are stronger together, help us deliver growth for our economy by releasing the capital and borrowing that would enable Scotland to get on with delivering these projects, putting people back to work in the process. “In devolved Scotland we can demand, in an independent Scotland we can deliver”.
Some of the usual messages were present and correct; lines already tried and tested. Labour was dismissed for its negativity and irrelevance at the top of the speech – “once upon a time, it is said, Labour were the ‘people’s party’ but.. in May last year, the people spoke. And they chose Scotland’s party“. He focused little on the opposition and making negative attacks, but when he did, he trained his sights on his counterparts at Westminster.
Indeed, pointing up the differences between Scottish and UK Government – of demonstrating that “home rule with independence beats Tory rule from Westminster, any time, any day” – formed a significant part of Alex Salmond’s speech with the cornerstone the commitment to the NHS. “On the health service we are showing our friends in England there is an alternative. And let me absolutely clear – because of the independence we have over the NHS – this Government, this SNP Government will ensure Scotland’s NHS is never for sale“. This division over the status and treatment of the NHS north and south of the border is hugely significant and gives the SNP a powerful argument and selling point for a yes vote.
The First Minister continued to drive this wedge, with a commitment that “for 35,000 young Scots, with the SNP the EMA (educational maintenance allowance) is here to stay“, and by indicating that while Scotland has record numbers of police officers, the UK Government is cutting numbers and preparing to privatise certain functions. It is potent and resonant stuff and at last, we are starting to see reasons to choose independence – or at least to reject the status quo – being set out.
The language he used was interesting too. This was a speech in which the lines between independence and devolution were deliberately blurred. Salmond talked of the “little independence” the current settlement provides being good, while emphasising that “real independence” will be even better for Scotland.
At last, Alex Salmond found his touchy-feely side. Suddenly, it is all about people: big numbers and constructs were by-lines in this speech. This SNP Government is in the business of putting itself on people’s side, demonstrating that “we can be a beacon for social justice but only if we allow our light to shine“. Thus, he made a commitment “to create the conditions in this land which will see a life opportunity for every young Scot“. He also announced a £10m Commonwealth Games legacy fund to enable communities to upgrade their sports facilities – the just society in action, no less.
And the First Minister set out how his Scottish Government was providing for the independence generation, demonstrating how they are using the powers they have to provide the “best package of free nursery education on offer anywhere in the UK“, commiting to enshrine an entitlement to provide every 3 and 4 year old, and every 2 year old looked after child, with 600 hours of nursery provision. Again, he indicated this was “a statement of intent – a signal of the nation we can be, and we will be, with the powers of independence“.
All the way through this excellent speech, Alex Salmond was moving the debate on. This much we have, look what we can do now, but imagine what else we could achieve with a little bit more. Indeed, though the sections on independence and what it would mean for Scotland were aspirational, gone were the narrative sweeps of old. Independence has a purpose: “Scotland, not just a nation of promise, but of potential fulfilled“. Independence is what other countries do; independence would deliver a different kind of union on these islands, one based on a partnership of equals; independence is nothing to be scared of “because being independent is the most natural thing in the world“.
This was a vital speech, signalling a step change in the terms and tone of the debate. Softening it actually. There was nothing about the process of independence and lots about its purpose. It was a speech with plenty of meat on the bones, showing how the SNP is delivering for the people of Scotland, but could deliver so much more – “just a Yes vote away“.
I’m only sorry I didn’t get to hear it after all.