Alex Massie

Dancing to a Scottish Jig? Aye, Right.

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Och, David, dinna fash yersel'. The chances of Alex Salmond playing a tune for anyone to dance to next year are a good deal slimmer than the First Minister himself. His speech was, like Gordon Brown's in Brighton, a parochial affair, designed to appeal to the lumpen party memebership, not convince anyone who ain't already a true believer. 

It was, then, absurd. But no more absurd than is the rule at this kind of gathering. Then again, it was, in one sense, a Unionist speech, albeit one cloaked in nationalist rhetoric. Public spending in Scotland has essentially doubled in Scotland since devolution (without, it must be said, doing very much in terms of advancing the health or education of the Scottish people. This is an inconvenient truth best parked and abandoned) and, even allowing for generous nat-friendly fiscal calculations the current level of expenditure would, one feels, be unsustainable in a post-Union, independent future. 

At the very least Salmond (assuming Il Tartanissimo were Sultan of All Scotland) would be responsible for the messy business of raising that money himself. Currently, like his Labour predecessors, Salmond's approach to government is all fur coat and no knickers. He'd not be so comfortable in the post-independence world he'd like to inhabit. But perhaps hair-shirts will come back into fashion.

There will be much talk, in these months ahead, of the SNP's "social conscience" and how it alone can be trusted to "stand up for Scotland" and, at a Holyrood election at least, there is a certain cogency to that proposition, not least since the alternative is letting the straw-weight talents of the domestic Scottish Labour party back into power. But a Westminster election is a different beast.

Hence Salmond's desire to cast himself as, simultaneously, an outsider and a bulwark against English (for which read fiscal) encroachment. You might think that Scotland ought to share in the public spending restraint expected but Eck will have none of that.

Unionists may reflect, ruefully perhaps, that Salmond's defence of the Scottish public sector's right to spend billions without any need for reform or improvement is an expensive price to pay for the Union. The naitonalists would like to provoke an English backlash, hence this rope-a-dope strategy wherein the financial largesse provided by the Union is turned into a weapon to be used against the Union even though said profligate expenditure would, one suspects, prove impossible to sustain in our tartan-hued future.That doesn't mean that the independence cause is disreputable, merely that it's often advanced by disreputable, less than scrupulously honest, means. As, fairness demands one notes, is the Unionist cause.

But there you have it. There was a certain nineteenth century quality to this weekend's entertainment in Inverness. It was quaint in its own way and a reminder that the SNP have almost always over-egged matters in advance of Westminster elections. Perhaps you too remember Free by '93?

Anyway, Salmond's an amiable bluffer. Kenny Farquharson explains why it's most unlikely anyone will be dancing a Scottish Jig next year:

Salmond took some time to spell out the SNP strategy for the general election. So, let me see if I've got this right. The masterplan is to get enough votes so a group of 20 Nationalist MPs can hold the balance of power in a hung parliament at Westminster, using this influence to extract more money for Scotland and more powers for Holyrood. "Let London dance to a Scottish tune," says Salmond. (Can I put in a request for 'Shangalang'?) Hmm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there a lot of 'ifs' in the SNP's big idea?

Here are those 'ifs' in full. If the biggest party doesn't win an overall majority, and if the SNP triples its representation at Westminster, and if the total number of SNP seats just happens, by a random numerical coincidence, to be more than the number of seats the winning party is short of an overall majority, and if the SNP (rather than the Lib Dems or the Ulster Unionists or UKIP or any other party) can do a deal, then it will be a great result for Scotland.

Call this a political strategy? It's more like a four-horse accumulator at Haydock Park.

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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