The SNP have cornered the market in Scotland’s political narrative
This election looks to be more about continuity than change, writes former SNP communications director Kevin Pringle
A cursory look at Scotland’s newspapers most days of the week reveals a fair number of stories critical of the performance of the SNP Government.
Some people find it hard to reconcile the generally negative tenor of the coverage with the soar-away performance of the SNP in the polls. They point to it as evidence of press bias, pure and simple, and concentrate on social media, both for consuming news and contributing to political comment.
It’s a matter of record that only one daily and one Sunday title support the SNP’s ultimate objective of an independent Scotland, and it’s certainly true that a lot of reporting of Scottish politics still flows from a constitutional perspective, even though it’s eighteen months since the referendum.
But the more meaningful aspect isn’t the nature of the coverage, it’s that Scottish political news is still overwhelmingly about the SNP: what Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers have done, haven’t done, should have done and might do. Occasionally, it’s even about what they have done well, such as their contribution to saving the two Tata steel plants in Clydebridge and Dalzell.
If you’re working for the SNP, it’s easy to get a bit fed up ploughing through the papers day after day and seeing the bright, shiny government announcements tarnished and the good intentions traduced. That’s true of the named person legislation and a host of other issues.
However, it’s a case of the Oscar Wilde adage: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Alex Salmond used to make a similar point via a line from Robert Burns: “The mair they talk, I’m kent the better.”
It’s not just that the SNP have dominated Scotland’s electoral landscape these last nine years. Even more importantly, because it underpins success at the ballot box, they have cornered the market in Scotland’s political narrative – defining the Scottish interest and then working to deliver it, as we saw in the fiscal framework negotiations with the Treasury.
The early stages of the election campaign have confirmed that dominance. To their credit, the other parties have worked hard to come up with a policy agenda, but their offerings are largely in contradistinction to what the SNP do and say.
The tax policies of Labour and the Lib Dems are more about trying to embarrass Nicola than doing what is best for all taxpayers, public services and the economy. The Tories are going big on the named person policy because they think they can get traction against the SNP on it.
Above all, Ruth Davidson has talked up the Tories as the possible main opposition in Scotland, and Kezia Dugdale has allowed herself to be talked into a discussion about second place – which reinforces the SNP’s credentials as the party of devolved government.
In the 2007 Holyrood campaign, the SNP led the debate with simple but eye-catching proposals such as the council tax freeze and 1,000 more police officers. New Labour did the same before the 1997 General Election with their pledges.
The other parties just aren’t there yet. Privately, they would settle for depriving the SNP of an overall majority, which is not impossible.
Polls show that people back the SNP’s record in core areas such as the economy, health, education and justice, and until that changes, I don’t see Scotland’s government changing.
Media coverage often measures the SNP’s performance against the unattainable standard of perfection. People know that government, and life, isn’t like that.
This election looks to be more about continuity than change. And, ironically for a party which aspires to radical change, that will suit the SNP just fine.