King Kenny prepares to raid across the border

There were two show-stopping speeches in the great NATO debate at SNP conference.

First, Sandra White MSP shone as the doughty, wee wumman of SNP politics.  And anyone who mistakes that for a backhanded compliment knows neither me nor her very well.  Sandra is actually one of the most important MSPs in the SNP group, for she has stuck by her principles through thick and thin, rarely wavered from the left-leaning path her early political experiences mapped out for her and articulates what she believes in a language which speaks to the ordinary punter.

Until Sandra spoke, the debate was in danger of collapsing under its own weight.  The rawness of Jean Urquhart’s pain on it all nearly had me in tears, while John Swinney’s appeal to our rational selves was just as heartfelt in a different way.  And then came Sandra, whose opening remark – that she wishes she was 12 so she’d get a stool to stand on – burst the tension.

Yet, what she said and how she said it was vitally important to the debate.  Not for her the high-faluting jollying of speaking to this important yin and thon yin, she speaks with the grassroots of the party – and was rewarded with the loudest cheer of the day for that rejoinder.  As for the 70% in the much misrepresented and still largely under wraps YouGov poll? Well, they couldn’t have included any voters she knew, because on the doorsteps she visits, the SNP’s policy on NATO nor NATO itself are not issues she encounters.  More cheers.

For all that Sandra garnered the loudest cheers, the day really belonged to Kenny MacAskill.  In truth, the argument was drifting from the pro-camp until he got up to speak.  He got a standing ovation at the end – not just from those supporting his arguments – and it was utterly deserved.

What we got was vintage Kenny.  Abandoning the tight constraints of the media training which has attempted to take the preacher out of the man for broadcast interviews, this was an impassioned sermon.   It certainly came as a surprise to those who have come to know him as a government Minister, for this was a version of Kenny MacAskill kept under wraps for some years.  And like Sandra, what he had to say mattered just as much as how he said it.  Indeed, his opening joke – that I’m no poster boy for NATO and the USA – gave him a moral authority on the pro-side which others failed to articulate.

His contribution epitomised the agonies experienced by many delegates, who, like him, had come into the SNP as anti-nuclear anti-establishment agitators.  He has marched with and indeed, led direct action protests – to ban the bomb and drum the poll tax out of town.  But, he reminded conference, it was all about the prize of independence and to come this far, in his view, to not jettison unhelpful ballast and so, threaten achieving the glittering prize, would be unforgiveable.  Identifying with all the delegates in the hall, he was tired of marching and protesting and now just wants to get there.

This crescendo finish gave him his standing ovation, tapping into a shared weariness of a journey long travelled by so many in such spectacular fashion.  It was a speech which made your backbone shiver and your hair stand on end.  And anyone thinking that any leadership contest after the First Minister hangs up his crown is a shoo-in for Nicola Sturgeon might want to think again.

Capitalising on his success at conference, tomorrow he takes to a bigger stage, with a raiding mission across the border.  Invited to make the opening address at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) conference in England and Wales, he will make a stark contrast with their own Home Secretary, Theresa May.  Remember all that talk from Alex Salmond about Scotland being a progressive beacon for the rest of the UK?  Well, this is it in action.

No doubt Kenny the preacher man will be put back in the box, but he will still barn storm, contrasting his approach and that of the Scottish Government’s to policing with the UK Government’s. In short, he will work it right up them.

In Scotland, the police service will not be privatised, we will safeguard officer numbers, we will not implement the Windsor package (savage changes to police terms and conditions) north of the border and we will protect this vital service from Westminster cuts.

He will extend an important hand of friendship too:  “And as Scotland looks to the future we are clear that the friendship, support and solidarity between officers across these isles, will remain.”  But he will point up that with the move to a single police force in Scotland, creating the UK’s second biggest single police force, means the rules of engagement have changed.  A new relationship is required, one of a partnership of equals, paving the way for the Scottish police to demand parity of esteem with its counterparts elsewhere.

This matters, not least because it continues to forge good relations with a vital set of vested interests as we move towards the yes vote.  Kenny MacAskill’s eyes are not just firmly on the prize in party circles, but in how he has handled all aspects of his justice brief.  And suddenly, having spent years trying to work out the riddle that is the complex personality of one of the SNP’s leading lights, I’m starting to get it – and him – a little better now.

The boys in blue were out in force (sorry) at the SNP Conference.  And while there have always been a healthy number of former polis in the party’s ranks (sorry again) – my ain pater being one such – this is different.  For many years, there was an unhealthy suspicion among the rank and file of serving officers in particular, of what the SNP was about: no longer.  This statement on the Justice Secretary’s riever mission from Scottish Police Federation General Secretary, Calum Steele, shows how far the gap has closed in recent times:

We are not surprised that Kenny MacAskill has been invited to address the ACPO conference.  The police service in England and Wales looks jealously at the service north of the border and sees that there is an alternative approach which could help deliver a world class police service against a background of shrinking budgets.  They see that you don’t have to demoralise and decimate the police to save money.  The police service in whatever country in the UK is never shy of seeking to import success from elsewhere and this invitation can only serve as an endorsement and recognition of the successful policing model which is being developed in Scotland.

After a bravura performance which saved the day in the great NATO debate and without any doubt, a headline grabbing opportunity to come tomorrow, Kenny MacAskill is currently king of all he surveys.  He might not yet be a potential prime leadership contender, but he is definitely back in the hunt.


Time for the SNP to loosen its stays

Never blog in anger is a lesson I learned early in this enterprise.

And while I was sorely tempted to hit the keyboard immediately after the “great NATO debate”, it would have been a foolish move.  I’d already formed the headline, after all, before I’d even left the hall: “the leadership won the vote but lost respect/the argument/the party/delete as appropriate”.  Any of them would have been unfair and untrue.

Had I done so, I would have missed out on hearing others’ reactions – important reactions too, like that of one seasoned political observer I spoke to in the aftermath.  What did I think of it all, he asked?  I bristled and fulminated and gnashed and wailed.  What did you think, I asked?  I thought it was wonderful, he said.  It has been years since I had the privilege to witness such passion, such heat, such quality in a political debate.  This is what politics has been missing and this is the sort of politics people want, he opined.  He has never, knowingly, voted SNP in his life but is coming close to voting yes in the referendum now.

That stopped me in my tracks.  Burns has been misquoted twice already in dispatches at conference, so allow me to do so a third time.  “O wad some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as ithers see us“.  For Friday’s debate won the SNP many admirers and a not insignificant number of new friends.

There is no doubt that the outcome of the great NATO debate is still filtering through.  Many are still angry and fretting over what it actually means;  some of the anti-protagonists are still processing, still too sore to talk about it, but have not taken their ba’ away completely.  The fact that so many of them are still here at conference says a lot about the mettle of folk who collectively make up the SNP.  They’ve learned a lot over the years.  And to prove it, this is what Jamie Hepburn MSP, one of the leaders of the parliamentary rebel gang, had to say to me – exclusively, I might add.

“Of course I’m disappointed that we didn’t carry the vote.  But at the end of the day, we held the debate and outsiders looking in thought it was good we had that type of debate.  And it was good.  We shouldn’t be downhearted.  It’s time to respect the party’s decision and we’ll move on from here.  I’m not surprised how close it was.  I could tell in the build up that it was going to be close.  And it’s not unhealthy for there to be a balance of different opinions in the party. 

“To anyone thinking of resigning from the SNP over this, I’d say, remember why you joined, remember why we’re here.  Those reasons still stand.  The SNP is still, the best and most appropriate vehicle for achieving independence and social justice for Scotland.

Wise words everyone in the party should reflect on.  Including the leadership.

But let me scotch a myth.  The leadership did not support this debate.  It did not call for it nor sanction it, nor expect to find itself practising some long-forgotten dark arts.  This update on party defence policy was exclusively the work of the Westminster MPs.  It was touted to party and briefed to the media that it had leadership support.  At the start of the summer, that wasn’t remotely true.  And as someone who has been around some of this stuff, albeit a long time ago, I sensed then from what was being said and what wasn’t, that this wasn’t a leadership move.  Which is why I blogged as I did way back then (a post, which even to me, seems uncannily prescient), mentioning both Anguses in dispatches but not the leadership.  I also tweeted my doubts that this was stamped Made by Salmond and was rounded upon.

Well, now we know.  The reason the leadership ended up bossing this debate in the finishing straight was because it was all unravelling.  Despite assurances they’d been given that it was all under control, that the party membership was ready to take this step and that the vote was a shoo-in.  Which is why the speakers in favour of the resolution were some of the party’s biggest hitters.  And it is why many voted for the resolution and against what they actually believed.

Because at this stage in the referendum campaign – so near and yet still so far – they did not want to deliver a defeat to the leadership.  And while it was uncomfortable being reminded of the reasons for my withdrawal from front line, active politics by seeing some manoeuvres dusted down and brought back into action, frankly I cannot blame the leadership at all.  The leadership did what it had to do to save the day.  And the point is that it – and the party and its members, supporters and activists – should never have been put in this position in the first place.

But a few days’ reflection suggests that the great NATO debate was not so unhelpful.  In this debate, the SNP showed what it offers the people of Scotland.  Indeed, it reminded itself of where it came from.  Here was a party charged with passion, belief and commitment.  People stamped and cheered and boo-ed and tutted in equal measure because they cared, because this was something that mattered.  Folk in the hall were applauding speakers and speeches even though they were on opposing sides.  Indeed, it was impossible to tell from the clap-o-meter which way the vote might go.

The great NATO debate might have left everyone feeling somewhat bruised – not least the leadership – but has surely taught a few lessons.  Not least that something with meat on the bones on the conference agenda brings about a full delegate complement and a thronging and thriving atmosphere.

But the biggest lesson?  That debate is nothing to be scared of.  Indeed, by showing what it is made of, the SNP will have gained a few yes votes.  A party capable of hosting debates replete with purpose and principle is likely to curry favour with an electorate – and indeed, a media – fed up with a whitewashed political discourse.  Spin and its misuse over the last decade has made people mistrustful of politicians.  No one respects what they have to say; few believe any utterance they make without suspecting a hidden agenda.  With the great NATO debate, the SNP has given people at least, pause for thought.

For it showed that actually, the SNP has at its core, a different DNA, one with a range of beliefs in its membranes, that amounts to more than a single cause.  That the party is thinking and working out what independence means, not just for its members and activists, but for Scotland.  The SNP demonstrated that the people’s trust in it is not misplaced, that those of us trying to persuade more to vote yes to independence do so from a position of more than self-preservation.

And having dabbled with the concept of allowing real debate once, it is time for the party to loosen its stays.  For too long, the SNP has behaved like a buttoned up matron.  Stiff and unbending, brooking no dissent, wrapping those who stray from the line over the knuckles with a ruler, fixing others who dare speak unwelcome thoughts with a reproving stare.

Enough.  We have all grown up a lot in the last twelve years.  The SNP has moved from protest to power; the transition, by necessity, required supreme discipline.  But now? Allowing more excellent debates within its membership – on issues which people really are asking us about on the doorsteps – would mark the SNP as a properly mature movement.  At ease with itself, confident in its beliefs, comfortable with who it is and what it offers the people of Scotland.

If the SNP learned nothing else from the great NATO debate, it is surely that there is much to be gained and little to be lost from allowing debate to flourish.  After all, who dares wins.


Alex Salmond: “What was gained by devolution, can only now be guaranteed with independence”

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.”