6 May 2011

A stunning result in Scotland

Perhaps the Arab Spring has gone to my head but it seemed a little strange not to see either crowds or tanks on the streets of Edinburgh as I drove in from the airport this morning.

Perhaps the Arab Spring has gone to my head but it seemed a little strange not to see either crowds or tanks on the streets of Edinburgh as I drove in from the airport this morning.

I had forgotten my passport when I headed to the airport, and for a moment wondered if I would soon need it to get over the border. For what has happened here is seismic.

There are swings to the SNP from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives,  so this seems not so much an anti-anything vote as a pro-SNP one. But it is the defeat of Labour in which the Nationalists take most delight.

With the wit for which he used to be known before he got all dignified and smiley, Alex Salmond‘s assessment of Labour in Scotland is bruising: “I suppose it’s a bit like the American bison. I dare say we’ll still see one or two dotted about, but the great herds of Labour have gone forever.”

Alex Salmond at an election count (Reuters)

“Forever” might be a little over-confident, but the defeat of Labour in Scotland is stunning in scale and going according to the quiet script SNP believers have been telling for a while. And what is truly remarkable about this landslide is that it has happened while the SNP leader is the incumbent. How has it happened?

There is clearly huge anger at the coalition cuts being decided in London, and the Liberal Democrats have been punished the most. Even the apparent distance between the Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott and Nick Clegg couldn’t stop the haemorrhage.

Labour’s leader Ian Gray has been widely criticised for the way he ran the campaign – too much focus on coalition cuts, rather than the SNP’s credibility in Edinburgh. It seemed to betray an enduring lack of understanding of how the SNP has matured with its period in office. Gray was also attacked for lacking the kind of charisma Salmond has.

Since the loss of Labour’s Donald Dewar, and the outright refusal of any other big party beasts to abandon Westminster and return to Scottish politics, Labour has struggled to find a character who can compete with Salmond, who now seems not just the pre-eminent Big Beast of Scottish politics, but the only one. If Gray resigns there is no obvious successor – some, like Andy Kerr who were talked about, have lost their seats.

Even the Tories have suffered here, despite believing their leader Annabel Goldie has just the personality and approach to bring the party back.  Her claims to grip whoever won the election by the short and curlies were based on believing her votes in Holyrood would be vital to get laws passed. An SNP majority will make that seem hubristic.

Some of the anti-Tory vote harks back to history : Thatcherism is still loathed in much of working class Scotland – probably more so than in England – and some here fear that it is returning with younger, smiling Cameron/Osborne faces.

But the headaches for the SNP don’t go away now they have a mandate, they simply change and get more complicated.

Read more: Alex Salmond’s SNP makes big gains in Scottish elections

Maintaining their credibility is their first challenge. Their pre-election pledges on no tuition fees, tackling youth unemployment, public sector jobs guarantees and investment will be difficult, at least, to deliver without a renegotiation with Westminster.

Their desire for greater tax-varying powers will either force them to start using those powers at some point to pay for their promises – despite the suggestion the only way on corporation taxes is down – or shelve policies. And while it suits the SNP to have a government in Westminster frustrating the aspirations of Scotland, it is far from clear whether that will push public opinion further towards independence.

The SNP calculation on that for some time has been “steady as she goes”. Turning a huge supertanker of public opinion towards independence depends on credibility in office, a sense of injustice at the way Scotland fares and a confidence that has been lacking in many quarters that Scotland can succeed on its own.

A referendum in the second half of a five-year term,  as Alex Salmond has suggested, means the argument cannot be put on the shelf the way it largely was in the last term. They don’t have a lot of time.