Alex Massie

An Open Letter to Alex Salmond

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Dear Alex,

Happy St Andrew's Day!

Today you publish your mildly-awaited plans for a referendum on Scottish Independence. Alas, unless the Liberal Democrats can be persuaded to endorse the bill, there's little prospect of any such referendum actually happening. Such are the traumas of minority government.

Of course, you find yourself trapped: if the SNP were stronger, the Unionist parties would refuse the referendum for fear they might lose it, but with the SNP seeming weak, and heading for a tricky Westminster election, they've concluded that there's no point in having the referendum either. Why, they ask, give you the satisfaction?

Some of the opposition is certainly personal. This, you may say, is small-minded. But we are a small country and Holyrood is a tiny parliament. The Unionist parties think they have in a corner; how will you get off the ropes?  You remain Cock of the North, but for how much longer?

As you know, I think the Unionist parties' reluctance to support a referendum they're confident they would win is misguided. As you have acknowledged, a referendum will settle the matter for "a generation". More to the point, I think we might as well thrash the matter out at some point and the sooner the better.

Then again, do you really want an "In or Out?" referendum? Perhaps not. If, as seems likely, you lost it, any such referendum might have a greater impact upon the SNP than any other party. Better for you to keep the true believers thinking that independence is just around the next corner than to have their hopes dashed by the electorate's thrawn (or bored) reluctance to play along.

Which brings me to the Westminster election. Your boast that the SNP could win 20 seats is likely to be recalled with glee by your opponents. Hubris has got the better of the SNP in the past. You will remember "Free by 93" too. Once upon a time, it seemed that you might trump the heady days of 1974 and send more than a dozen MPs to Westminster; now wise heads in your party concede that such a result is the upper-limit of expectations.

Scotland is not the place she was when you won your victory - narrow, but real and deserved - in 2007. Back then HBOS and, most especially, RBS were beacons warning that a new, confident, wealthy Scotland was capable of taking on the world and winning. Their fall was hardly your fault, but the banking crisis and the recession has dented confidence.

So too has your experience in power. You may point to the freezing of council tax as an achievement and you have a list of other accomplishments to boast of but it's fair to say that, in office, the SNP has struggled to excite the populace. More powers might help, but the public is not in the mood to favour politicians whining about what they could do if only matters were otherwise ordered.

Your prospects are further hampered by the fact that, fairly or not, the more Scots see a Tory government as an inevitability, the more they are likely, alas, to turn to Labour as the best bulwark against such an outcome. Furthermore, the more hated Gordon Brown is in England, the more sympathy he will win in Scotland.

What should you do? This is a question for 2011 as well as 2010. Two elections that, I think, may require different strategies.

Next year, I think you should run an ugly, unashamedly populist and negative campaign of the sort that I will find especially dispiriting. I won't be alone in this. Much of the media will hate that kind of campaign just as it (and some of your own supporters) hated your boast that, in a hung parliament, the SNP would hang Westminster from a Scottish rope. So be it.

Remember that, even in the Scottish media, you will struggle to make your voice heard amidst the din of the Brown vs Cameron contest. And, of course, Labour will run a negative, fear-mongering campaign of its own: a vote for the SNP is a vote for a Tory government.

I think this means you ought not to think that you'll be given the benefit of the doubt by floating voters. Nor will disgruntled voters who think it's "Time for a change" necessarily flock to the SNP standard. All this conspires against your prospects and makes it more, not less, important that the SNP's core vote makes it to the polls. Draping yourself in the Saltire risks making you look ridiculous, but it's also your best bet.

This will not be a historic election in Scotland, so let's not pretend it will be. Hold and, where possible, grab should be your starting point. That means the "base" matters more than ever. In turn, that means placing the constitution front and centre and making the argument that recessions come and go but the long-view is what really matters. This may still be an outside bet but it might be the one that gives you best value for your money. As a keen horse-racing fan you can appreciate this.

But that won't work in 2011. Then you really will be defending your record. That means you need to appeal to those occasional or first-time SNP voters who wanted a change from a tired and dreary Labour-Lib Dem coalition. In 2011 you will need to appeal to "Middle Scotland".

Pivoting from one campaign to the other will require some finesse but you've always prided yourself on your footwork. In 2011 it won't be enough to complain about George Osborne's parsimonious budget settlement; when families are economising themselves they may reasonably expect the government to do so too.

2011 will require a confident, optimistic campaign that also makes a pragmatic case for the SNP and its competence in office. A campaign that puts the constitution to one side and concentrates on policy and reform, making a positive case for four more years at the helm. Labour will accuse you of being "anti-Glasgow"; remember that this will help you in the rest of the country. This too urges a tack to the centre, not the left.

Having endured four years as a minority ministry and unused to defending a record, this will be another difficult campaign. But it shouldn't prove impossible and it's certainly much more important than the Westminster election. Better for you that voters protest against the SNP in 2010 than in 2011.

You may need to countenance a coalition partner in 2011. So who will it be: the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats? I'd say the Conservatives are a better bet in every way. But that would need the constitution to be parked and both parties to take a leap of faith. Highly unlikely? Yes. Fanciful? Not necessarily. Look at Stormont. More on this another time...

Anyway, these are interesting, treacherous times that will go some way towards defining your own political legacy.

Good luck.

yours aye

Alex

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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