Dr Paul Cairney
Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Aberdeen
Is the honeymoon well and truly over for the SNP?
In the previous issue of Holyrood, I likened the Liberal Democrats to a man who has left his partner to go and find himself, realised that he has made a huge mistake but on coming home, finds that his partner doesn’t want him anymore. Indeed, his former partner (government) is doing very nicely without him, having decided to marry the SNP instead. This is a handy analogy that we can extend to the SNP experience in government.
For example, as John Curtice has said in this magazine, the honeymoon for the SNP is now officially over. Of course, this in itself is not a big problem. Few honeymoons go on longer than two weeks, so two and a bit years is a big achievement (and certainly one that makes all the singleton parties in the Scottish Parliament envious). It is more than the SNP expected. It is longer than Barack Obama managed. It is also far longer than the few days that Gordon Brown managed before being plunged into a series of popularity crises that only abated when a bigger, economic, crisis became apparent.
The more worrying part of its problem is that the marriage itself could almost be over.
The narrowness of the SNP’s win in 2007 has always meant that subsequent defeat is a strong possibility, particularly since the other main suitor, Scottish Labour, is unlikely to have so much UK Labour Government baggage in 2011. However, the problem rarely emerged in the past two years because the SNP and its leadership remained remarkably popular.
Take just a small part of that popularity away and you have a problem. This problem now starts at the top because the SNP has a leader that once seemed invulnerable but now seems nothing of the sort following a small series of events that call into question his judgement and behaviour.
At Aberdeen University (the Rowett Institute, to be precise) we have a member of staff who claims to be an adviser to Alex Salmond on his diet. Yet, most people would give him this advice for free: don’t eat your lunch in the Scottish Parliament with someone paying nine grand for the privilege. No meal is worth that amount of money or grief and so the affair is likely to be a huge disappointment for all concerned.
Most people might also tell the SNP that you shouldn’t keep on doing things like that until someone tells you not to. Indeed, we had already learned that very lesson from the MPs expenses scandal: you should do what seems right rather than something that is not exactly technically or officially wrong.
Otherwise you come off as arrogant; like the usual rules of life don’t apply to you. In the past, Alex Salmond’s arrogance was a positive feature. He was just the sort of David-versus- Goliath figure you needed to stand up for Scotland’s interests when faced with the might of the UK Government. In the present, domestic, climate it has the opposite effect. Displaying arrogance when you have done something wrong makes the problem worse. This is surely the conclusion that most have reached following Nicola Sturgeon’s misguided attempt to help her constituent stay out of jail following a conviction for fraud. Salmond’s loud defence did not go down well; Sturgeon’s apparently sincere contrition did.
Overall, the recent headlines for the SNP undermine the image of governing competence that it has been struggling to maintain. In the past it has been able to point to a cabinet small in number but big in integrity, ambition and judgement; as a remarkably united government that is much bigger than the sum of its parts. Now, it is increasingly seen as a collection of individuals whose flaws are beginning to show.
The final and perhaps most unfortunate aspect of this marriage is that there does not seem to be much else to look forward to. The honeymoon is over and there’s no money left over for the next holiday. In the past, the SNP had vision. It knew what it wanted and it wasn’t going to let the limitations of devolution get in its way. Indeed, this vision would often make up for its shortcomings.
Whenever it had a short-term setback, like dropping the local income tax, you always knew that something else was coming.
Nothing as trivial as parliamentary opposition would stop it in its tracks. Now, you know that there is unlikely to be any significant policy innovation between now and 2011 because there is no money to fund it. The SNP has no real alternative to public-private partnerships for large capital projects and all there is to look forward to with current spending is a debate on which services to cut. There is not even the independence referendum to look forward to since the opposition parties have shown their desire to introduce and reject this bill at the earliest possible opportunity.
All that remains is the possibility that the SNP can be elected for a second term with the promise of making a better go of it next time. However, the problems in the marriage are likely to remain. There will be no money to do things differently and no further appetite in the Scottish Parliament for a debate on independence. There will also be no convincing excuses. The SNP’s strategy has long been to stay positive and to steer clear of the idea that it is powerless or being kept back by more powerful forces in the UK Government and Scottish Parliament.
Its aim is to show that ‘if we can do this with the existing powers then just think about what we could do as an independent government’. Unfortunately it has not shown to the average voter that it can do very much.
The power to introduce pilot elections to health boards or to devolve decision making to local authorities will not excite many, while the abolition of student fees may be seen in a few years as an excellent idea at the time but an expense too far in the climate of cutbacks. It therefore has a tough choice: stay positive and hope that its achievements are gauged by people with very low expectations or go negative, admit defeat and blame other people.