SNP must refresh its vision as it paves the way for a second referendum
Nearly three weeks in and I think it’s fair to say that this election campaign has yet to catch fire. It was always going to be difficult to replicate the sheer excitement and mass engagement of the independence referendum and subsequent general election, so perhaps we should cut our political parties a little slack.
In addition, with the SNP streets ahead in the polls, the UK media have seemingly called this a ‘nothing to see here’ contest and instead have made the EU referendum and Mr Trump’s performance across the Atlantic the focus of their political fare.
But after two hotly contested TV leaders’ debates, it turns out there are a few things worthy of further analysis to keep political geeks like me on our toes.
For a political campaign to be successful, you need to deploy a message with a credible messenger. Whilst there were no clear winners in either debate, for me, there was only one credible candidate for first minister. Despite one or two stumbles in her defence of the SNP’s income tax and named person policies, Nicola Sturgeon was polished and also did a good job in putting her opponents on the spot.
Intriguingly, the TV debates also told us that the constitutional argument is alive and well in Scotland. This was the only issue in over three hours of heated discourse that really sparked impassioned contributions from both sides of the argument by participants and audience alike.
With respect to all other party leaders, all of whom had their positive moments, you couldn’t help feel watching the debates that Nicola Sturgeon’s answers were the ones that really mattered.
Unless there was a cock-up of epic proportions, and in all probability even then, her party will form Scotland’s next government after May. The question is what happens next?
I finished my last Holyrood article by writing that the SNP were campaigning on a refreshed version of the ‘record, team, vision’ mantra that served the party so well in 2011. It is the last of these that I think needs some considerable work.
The SNP is a party of government now, and an effective and seemingly entrenched one at that. But its purpose can never be to govern for its own sake. It must be to govern for a purpose. That purpose over nearly a decade has been to attempt to display competence in office whilst simultaneously articulating the ‘vision’ of an independent Scotland.
The reality, however, is this vision hasn’t been updated, promoted or defended since September 2014, allowing opponents to make considerable hay with the publication of the Government Expenditure & Revenue Scotland deficit figures.
The irony is that these statistics are, by definition, a description of Scotland’s under-performance within the constitutional status quo and not Scotland’s potential performance as an independent nation.
In response, the First Minister has made clear that a renewed effort to improve the economic case will begin in the summer, which those of a ‘Yes’ persuasion feel is badly needed.
From her perspective, it would seem the other ingredients for potential success are already in place. Scottish Labour, the SNP’s principal opposition, is still coming to terms with its vastly reduced influence and the very safe bet is for yet another UK Tory government following the 2020 general election. The SNP’s membership and coffers are at extraordinary highs, and with an engaged electorate they can communicate directly with people to an extent no party in Scotland’s political history has been able to.
The UK commentariat may not be paying much attention to this Holyrood election but they should. The result and its aftermath may be the start of a process leading to a second independence referendum – if Nicola Sturgeon can continue to carry public opinion and build enthusiasm for her constitutional objective.
There is ‘something to see here’ after all.