So, I didn’t make it to any conferences this autumn. Long story, let’s not bother. Claiming to be a blogger when your recent output suggests otherwise played a part though.
And nor did I actually hear the First Minister’s speech. Heresy for some I know, but a family outing to Stair Park to see the mighty Stranraer play was too good an opportunity to pass up. Especially for the unexpected pleasure of seeing an enormous Yes hoarding on top of the wee turnstile block and the opportunity to inaugurate a Stranraer fans for yes group.
I read the speech in full this morning and as everyone has already opined, it’s a great speech. In fact, reading it with the First Minister’s voice in my head, I actually welled up at the latter passages: maybe a good job I wasn’t actually in the hall, I’d have been blubbing.
There can be no doubt that Alex Salmond has rediscovered his mojo. At the start of the summer, after a bruising few months, he seemed like a man on the ropes, bruised and battered by all the defensive sparring and who appeared to have thrown his towel in, ceding control of it all to his more than able Deputy.
But a summer away from the fray and he emerged in early September, several stones lighter and purring in that way only he can do. As a friend who found his style intensely annoying once said, he acts as though he has something up his sleeve and I just wish he’d get on and reveal it.
He is back in this mode. He looks good. He sounds good. And he’s up for it. Cue relief all round for those of us in both the SNP and Yes camps.
There is absolutely no doubt that the SNP is now circling Yes’s wagons. Since its launch, they have allowed it to get on with creating the campaign to win the referendum. Of course, the SNP wanted some of its people in strategic positions and there has indeed been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing behind the scenes but publicly, there has been a hands off approach. There was a willlingness to allow this movement to blossom and grow and work in tandem, parallel to the Scottish Government.
I recall in the late 1990s, Alex Salmond realising that to win independence, a wider movement, beyond the SNP, was needed. He tried to get one off the ground then but the timing wasn’t right. But that episode paved the way for the current movement, for supporters of an independent Scotland from all parties and none. And had Yes Scotland not made such a bourach of things then they might have been allowed to carry on, as they are, all the way to the finish.
It was my dad who crystallised it for me at the Indy Rally. A wise old owl who’s been around the block and who has spent the last 25 years of his life working for the SNP and the cause, but also for the good of his community. And that’s meant working across party confines to create, support and when needed, oppose rainbow alliances in council administrations in Dumfries and Galloway. He knows what it takes to build coalitions which work. And for both him and my mum, the abiding pleasure of that day was being there and knowing hardly anyone: lovely to renew old acquaintances but much more powerful that there were thousands of people neither of them had ever seen or met before. It wasn’t an SNP gathering but an independence one, truly.
Yet, his view of all the speechifying was illuminating and contained two nuggets. First, that there were far too many “shouty socialists“. By this he meant, people with a narrow and repetitive far-left view of how Scotland should be, which frankly was largely unrepresentative of the wider population. It might have pleased his daughter but “this isn’t what resonates with people out there, this isn’t what folk in Scotland believe in or vote for.”
Second, he wondered where all the SNP speakers were. For over an hour, it was an SNP free platform. Some of the speeches were great – he loved Elaine C Smith and Dennis Canavan – but wondered why if the Chair of Yes Scotland was up there, why too was the Chief Executive. Good question actually. But what puzzled him most was that out of a platform of 12 speakers, only 3 were identifiably SNP and two of those were Scotland’s highest elected politicians. Why was the SNP ceding this territory – their territory – to everyone else? A quarter of the speakers, yet a majority Government and years, nay decades of foot slog and ridicule and belief to get here, and suddenly it’s like the SNP didn’t matter, had no locus here. It made me, someone who had embraced the wider, broader movement pause. And he was right (of course).
I don’t think he was alone in these thoughts. And from manoeuvres in recent weeks, it would seem the SNP leadership, the inner war room, agrees. This subtle shift might all have been part of a grand plan but actually I think the party was sincere in its initial intention to facilitate the building of a wider movement and allowing its momentum to lead the campaign.
But it isn’t working. And over the summer, it seems like the First Minister has gone away and thought about what needs to change.
Yesterday’s speech marks a critical juncture. Clues had already been laid: I might agree with Alex Bell’s view that the White Paper should lay out the seismic shifts required in Scottish society to create the nation we want to be, but political reality suggests otherwise. Such an approach would send voters scurrying from undecided to no. And such a fundamental difference of opinion on this seminal document meant he had to go.
Others “close to the leadership” have been laying a breadcrumb trail: Andrew Wilson’s recent columns are instructive here. Yes, we should aspire to be the change we want to see in the world but let’s not set out in detail this side of the referendum what that might mean, except where it’s about encouraging people to buy into the vision. Thus, the commitment to a minimum wage in independent Scotland which keeps pace with the cost of living.
Moreover, Kenny MacAskill spoke for many SNP activists at last year’s SNP conference in the NATO debate: some of us are tired of marching and would just like to get there with enough time to enjoy the view. Ultimately, what matters more: winning the campaign and losing the vote or just plain winning? The SNP has too much experience of the former not to use those scars to work out how to persuade the Scottish people to vote yes. If that means winning on terms that the Scottish people are comfortable with, then so be it. As Andrew Wilson’s Donaldson Lecture suggests, the referendum is not D-Day but Day One.
At the heart of it all is trust. While the polls might show little movement towards a yes vote, they also indicate which party the Scottish people trusts. The approval ratings for both the SNP and the First Minister are remarkable, given that they come after six years in power. People believe that the SNP delivers what it promises. Why do you think Johann Lamont has made it her mission to chip away at the First Minister’s character and why Better Together have tried to undermine people’s confidence in the premise of independence? Thus, if we are to win a yes vote, then the SNP needs to move to the forefront of the referendum campaign, to show itself as leading this debate, so that people can trust the terms of the debate.
The First Minister being back at the top of his game is crucial in this regard. Those who think it’s nearly all over should think again.
This cause is not lost, not lost at all.
For everyone discomfited by this shift, they would do well to remember this. Having learned the hard way, the SNP now knows how to win elections. Whether this translates, or can translate, into victory for a referendum campaign remains to be seen. But with barely a budge in the polls in eighteen months, Yes needs a different tack.
On the evidence of the last few weeks and yesterday’s speech, the First Minister does indeed appear to have worked out what that tack is. He clearly does have something up his sleeve and I’m not the only member of my family to be comforted by this.