In the run up to the 1997 General Election, the SNP campaign in Stranraer was visited by Alex Salmond. The day started with some street work in the town centre and activists and members turned out in their finest. But having been out on the stump with the party leader at by-elections, I knew what to expect.
I warned the assembled and excited throng that at best, they could expect a hello or a quick handshake. And so it turned out.
He sailed imperiously down the street, scarcely glancing at the SNP stalwarts, heading straight for the bus queue. For there stood folk whose votes might not yet have been won.
I was reminded of this listening to the First Minister’s speech at Spring Conference today. Its audience was not the assembled mass of Yes voters crammed into the Aberdeen conference centre, but the still to be persuaded out there in their living rooms. In Larkhall, Letham, Lenzie and Leith.
There were, of course, enough hooks and riffs to galvanise the faithful. Several ripostes for the “Westminster establishment” in all its guises. A handful of reminders of the purpose of independence which float the boats of the believers. An end to the iniquitous bedroom tax, to stopping Scotland being ruled by governments it didn’t vote for, and the loudest cheer for the reaffirmation of independence being the route to removing Trident from our shores.
But those expecting big licks might be heading home somewhat puzzled, for there were few in evidence. This was not rambustious, vintage Salmond. But a quieter, more serious Salmond, engaging in a fireside chat with the nation. Alex Salmond was here to have a conversation, so his tone was quite soft, his jokes were actually quite funny and humour was used to make serious points. His pace was measured but also hurried over the big set piece schticks to leave space for new lines and his attention was focused on two key groups of voters. Those who vote Labour and women.
The pitch to Labour supporters was less pronounced than the Depute First Minister’s yesterday and was there for emphasis more than anything else. “Independence will be good for Scottish Labour… It will have the chance to return to core values, many of which we agree with and share.” But the woo is definitely on.
Not before time, is the SNP pitching directly and specifically to Scotland’s women, in whose hands and crosses rest this movement’s fate. There are too many saying they are voting no to be ignored and enough still to make up their minds to make it worth the SNP’s while.
I cannot recall – and I’ve heard a few of his speeches – the First Minister devoting so much of a major speech to women and what are often portrayed as women’s issues. He could have done more, particularly on setting out why the Union has failed Scottish women. Why is it important for an independent Scotland to have powers to enforce the Equal Pay Act? Because women in Scotland are still paid, on average, 12% less than men, consigning more women and by consequence, more children to the misery of low incomes and poverty. And successive UK governments have not made a priority out of using the law to force the pace of change.
But by using his big pre-referendum conference address to bring equality into his Cabinet and to increase women’s representation in that Cabinet to 40% – “the Cabinet is our Board as a country” – he was sending an important message to women all over Scotland. We “practise what we preach”.
He returned too to childcare, setting out “universal childcare and early learning for all of Scotland’s children” as the “independence pledge”. He made the most of the contrast between Scotland and Westminster: “childcare for all families is the priority, not tax breaks for the few”. And to sustained applause, the First Minister crystallised the choice between two futures: “Westminster wants to renew a weapons system which can destroy the world. In an independent Scotland, we want to create a childcare system which will be the envy of the world.”
There was no rousing finish, no tub thumping call to arms. If anything, he got softer still, drawing the listener and viewer in, still wooing, with a warm tribute to Margo and her commitment to “the human community” of Scotland. And appealing, subtly, to our conceit of ourselves, suggesting we might want to keep the eyes of the world on Scotland after 18 September, “to watch in admiration at what we will be building.”
What this conference speech revealed was a hitherto hidden public version of the First Minister. Gone was the purr, the chuckle, the bombast. In its place, an eamest, almost romantic statesman.
And I rather think I like it.