What did we learn from the last year in Scottish politics?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 24 August 2015 in Editor's note

Scotland may have voted No but the SNP proved to be on the winning side. Mandy Rhodes takes a look at the the last political year

In the early hours of September 19th last year in a small meeting room in the bowels of Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, a group of hard-nosed but exhausted political veterans were in a tight and heartfelt embrace.

But this was no rerun of their increasingly familiar scenes of back-clapping electoral success. Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Salmond’s loyal chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, were desperately clinging to each other in an act of collective sorrow.

It was a tearful group hug that lasted, says Aberdein, for a good ten minutes. A brief encounter that marked a political lifetime.


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For while the nation’s eyes were fixed on television screens as the votes were still being counted at the end of an historic independence debate, this powerful group of SNP friends knew they had just lost the referendum.

It was a poignant moment in what had been a hard fought and exhausting battle. They had all come into politics to achieve one thing – independence – and now that moment was gone - apparently for a generation.

None had really prepared for defeat but as Salmond broke off from scripting the concession speech he had never wanted to write, to embrace his most trusted fellow travellers, it was also the moment that the referendum baton was passed to the next generation. And a whole new era began.

Salmond’s half written speech wasn’t just conceding defeat it was also to reveal how he would be standing down as First Minister, as leader of the SNP and as an MSP.

An emotional Sturgeon desperately tried to persuade her mentor to reconsider. It was, she felt, too soon. Too knee-jerk. Too defeatist. But Salmond knew, as he always does, when it was time to call it a day.

And he was right. Disappointment in a No vote seemed to grip Scotland like a hangover.

And in the days that followed, even some that had voted No appeared to carry something of a heavy heart. And as crowds spontaneously gathered at the Scottish Parliament, apparently down but not out, anger at the Prime Minister’s ill-timed words about English Votes for English Laws on the morning after the vote, gathered traction.

Some felt undeniably cheated and in his resignation speech, Salmond’s voice cracked as he vowed to hold Westminster’s “feet to the fire”. The phones at SNP HQ started to ring off the hook.

Scotland may have voted No but the SNP was proving to be on the winning side. And this was something no strategist had predicted.

Membership enquiries spiralled out of control. MSPs had to be commandeered into party HQ to answer phones and stuff envelopes. Nicola Sturgeon, the obvious successor to Salmond, was being mobbed by crowds in the street as she was greeted like the victor not the vanquished. Independence may not have been won but the SNP’s time appeared to have come.

Sturgeon stood unopposed as the next party leader and in a sell-out tour of rock-star proportions she appeared in venues around Scotland meeting the new membership and being courted by the global media. Her message was clear – the fight would go on.

Meanwhile, for those on the actual winning side, things were more complicated. The Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont resigned, lobbing a few grenades in her wake. She said the UK party treated Scottish Labour like a “branch office” and she revealed a sharp truth – Scotland had left Labour behind.

So while Labour went on yet another flawed journey of self-discovery and the ill-judged appointment of a mercurial Westminster MP, Jim Murphy, as its new lead, the SNP were already in the race for Westminster with an unbeatable head start.

The nationalists wiped the other parties clean off Scotland’s political slate. Of the 59 Scottish MPs returned to Westminster, 56 were from the SNP. Ed Miliband resigned, Jim Murphy resigned and Labour, both in Scotland and across the UK, was thrown into disarray.

Scottish Labour has just chosen a new leader in its former deputy leader, Kezia Dugdale, who says she is ready to hold the SNP Government to account. She will have a “free thinking approach to policy” and says she will face the Scottish people not face off the SNP. She has a big job to do.

Meanwhile, the ongoing UK Labour leadership contest has been a bitter affair. Looking like a fight between ideologies from down the decades; a pick of the pops from the 80s, 90s and 1960s, which boiled down to one thing – a battle between career politicians and who could seize power.

But it is Jeremy Corbyn, the political rank outsider, that unreconstructed man of the people, who only entered the race to provoke a debate and not to get into No 10, who has captured the mood. And why? Because he embodies what the electorate want more of – hope and authenticity.

Politicians always say they want more political engagement. They say they want people to rise from a state of apathy and be enthused. But when they are faced with a grassroots support that fills halls and applauds what they hear, despite the lack of polish and manufactured appeal from the man on the stage, they say it is of the wrong kind.

Interestingly, with the election of a new leader for Scottish Labour, the question I am most asked is what would Jeremy Corbyn mean for the SNP. And ironically for Kezia Dugdale, as she seeks to win back support from Scots that backed separation, she may also need to concede that if Corbyn’s at the helm, she will need her party to seek less independence from him, not more.

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