We were treated to a different kind of leader’s speech today. Not the usual tub-thumping, barnstormer approach; gone were the jibes and the smart one-liners which go down a treat and potshots at the opposition were largely serious in tone and aim. Though the First Minister couldn’t resist a pop at the Tories’ latest PR disaster, dismissing them as “incompetent Lord Snooties“.
This was the First Minister in low key mode, but in a good way. For, he was talking more to the nation through the live TV and radio feeds rather than his captive 1200-strong audience in the hall. One first time conference delegate, Aimee Chalmers, thought it “an inspirational speech, quite touching.” And Bill Kidd, MSP for Glasgow Anniesland, suggested, “This was a determined speech, designed to make people think. It wasn’t a tub-thumper, there were real issues in there. Alex was talking about what we’ve done to protect what people hold dear. Pointing up the difference between us in the SNP and the Lord Snooties (or Snootys, to spell it properly) at Westminster was good.”
The tone of Alex Salmond’s speech to conference could actually be summed up by what he said after a five minute standing ovation from a packed out theatre: “Conference, we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got a referendum to win, so let’s go and do it“.
And in content, he carefully and cleverly began setting out the arguments for independence – and key to this will be the idea of an independence dividend. “Over the next year we will spell out what that independence dividend can do for services and for jobs, and we should start by committing to give every child an equal chance in an independent Scotland.” Highlighting how the independence dividend could deliver a family centre providing advice and support in every community in Scotland, the First Minister used the example of the dividend to be gained from paying far less for defence than Scotland currently pays Westminster.
Children featured heavily in the speech – another sign of a softer approach being taken and also of the party waking up to the need to appeal to a broader base of voters. The First Minister announced that in the next few weeks, the Scottish Government would introduce a “paving bill” to make it possible for ALL 16-17 year olds to vote in the referendum in 2014. This commitment was met with sustained applause and loud cheers.
Moreover, he also announced a further, massive investment in Family Nurse Partnerships, with £11 million over the next two years, to roll out the intensive support programme across Scotland “benefiting thousands of young families and giving some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children the best possible start in life“.
But the key part of the speech was devoted to establishing what one delegate called “the protection of progress that has been made, divining clear water between us and the Unionists“. This also pleased Mike Weir MP who thought it was a “brilliant speech, really touching buttons and setting the campaign for a Yes vote off.” The MP for Angus also thought that the speech “showed our ambition for a truly social democratic Scotland fighting the Unionists’ pessimism all the way to the end.”
As Alex Salmond put it, “It seems they are against independence for one simple reason – because an independent Scotland would be run by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland. Instead of telling people in Scotland what we can do, they tell us what we can’t do. The irony is that most of them are thirled to a Westminster Parliament that can’t run a railway, never mind a country.
Just think of it. Labour, the party which brought the country to its financial knees, unites with the Tories, the party of omnishambles, to tell Scotland that we are incapable of running our country. Their message is clear: “Abandon hope all ye who vote No”.
He ridiculed the Tories but reserved his most biting and savage criticism for Scottish Labour. “According to the Labour Party, Scotland has become a “something for nothing” country. So exactly who are these people who want something for nothing?…. they are your friends, neighbours, the workers at your side, your parents, grandchildren and children. … They don’t want something for nothing. They just want the right to live in a country which understands the importance of society, a country that knows the value and not just the price of the services we hold dear. These are the fruits not just of this party or this government, but the fruits of a Scottish Parliament that chose to reflect our nation in these ways.”
And it was this focus on the “social contract between Parliament and people” which pleased delegates like Bill Kidd and Jeane Freeman. Jeane, a founder member of Women for Independence and a former Senior Special Advisor to Jack McConnell when he was First Minister, commented: “As usual, Alex’s speech was very good. There were two key points for me. First, about how far away the Westminster Government is going from our values and what is most important to Scotland.”
As the First Minister said, “We face a Westminster government that is hell bent on pulling our society apart at the seams. Austerity a one-way street, with tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor. Billions to be spent on new nuclear weapons while families struggle to heat their homes. What kind of brave new world is this? Now is the time for Scotland to choose, to seize a different future… Given all that we have, why isn’t Scotland doing better? Let us be clear. Westminster would put this first class nation in the second class carriages. No more second best for Scotland.”
And Jeane’s second point? “How Scottish Labour has now pointed up what we stand to lose if we do not vote for independence because they are now going in the same direction as the Tories. So many of our values – on society, community, neighbourhoods, opportunity and prosperity – are the values that took me into the Labour party. And now the Labour party’s left me. I’ve not changed, they’ve moved.”
Alex hammered this home in perhaps the most powerful section of his speech, which paid tribute to Campbell Christie who died last year. “Devolution – brought to life by people of all political persuasions and of none, people with a vision of a better, of a different Scotland. Now Labour’s leaders tell us, tell Scotland we have wealth enough for Westminster’s weapons of mass destruction. But they tell us we are too poor for Scotland’s free personal care. If that is the price of London government, it is a price that Scotland will not pay. This Party, this Government, makes no apology for standing full square behind the gains of the devolution era. And full square behind those hard-pressed families that benefit from these gains…. Within the limits of devolution, there is only so much that we can achieve. But that will not stop us from doing what is right now as well as pointing the way to a better future.”
His finish was quieter than usual too. But with a steely purpose: “our home rule journey, begun so many years past, by so few, is coming now to its conclusion. Together, we say Yes. To Scotland and to Independence.”
So let’s return to that key passage about the social contract which got the loudest cheer of the day. What he said here encapsulates the focus of the argument which the SNP will now begin to set out to persuade all those in Scotland – “the majority of our fellow citizens are for change” – to vote yes to independence. And which the party and the Scottish Government will use relentlessly to pare off voters on the left, less than impressed with Labour’s cuts commission, and bring them into the Yes fold.
How will the SNP define this idea of the social contract? “Some call it universality, and say it’s time has passed. I call it human decency and it’s time is now.”