Alex Massie

David Cameron is lucky he faces Ed Miliband, not Nicola Sturgeon

David Cameron is lucky he faces Ed Miliband, not Nicola Sturgeon
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In some respects David Cameron has been a lucky politician. Lucky that his predecessors had failed so completely that his initial brand of so-called modernisation seemed a punt worth taking. Lucky that he faced Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair. Lucky that he could pivot from 'sharing the proceeds of growth' to 'we're all in it together' without too many people noticing (or caring too much). Lucky, above all, that he now faces Ed Miliband.

Because however you dress it up, this has not been a happy government. In economic terms - the defining issue of the age - his party has missed many of its most important targets. Functionally-speaking, George Osborne's record in office has followed Alistair Darling's 2010 plans more than it resembles Osborne's own projections from five years ago. Events, of course, and all that jazz.

Labour really ought to be winning this campaign. That it is not doing so with ease is a reflection on its leader. I doubt I'm the only person wondering, today, how Labour would be doing if it had a different leader. Say, someone such as Nicola Sturgeon.

I know, impossible. But, still. Something worth pondering, not least because the speech Sturgeon gave in London the Imperial Capital today was much more impressive than comparable speeches I've seen from Miliband lately.

It helped that she had an argument. Helped too, that this argument was written in clear English. Unfashionably, her sentences even contained verbs.

And it was a clever speech too, not least because it was more modest than a comparable speech given by her predecessor would likely have been. Of course she defended the Scottish government's record, highlighting its philosophical differences with the Westminster coalition. But there was a notable lack of sneering (and an equal absence of smugness).

In part, that was because she also did not hide from economic reality.  At least not completely. In this respect her speech moves the SNP forward. The party's economic prospectus for life after independence was fantasy economics and, in the end, far too good to be true. Even during the referendum campaign, however, Sturgeon was quicker than any of her colleagues to concede that independence was no kind of magic wand. It was a means to an end just as much as a valuable end in itself.

One of the reasons her speech is an effective critique of the coalition is that, in part, she conceded her opponents' good intentions. To wit:

One of the things I encountered time and time again during last year’s referendum campaign – indeed the sentiment which came to dominate the debate - was an overwhelming desire to create a fairer society, as well as a more prosperous one. That desire came from many no voters, incidentally, as well as from yes voters. And I know it extends well beyond Scotland’s boundaries.

But one of the reasons that the referendum was such an electrifying and exhilarating experience, was that we got to ask fundamental questions about the sort of society we want to live in. And everybody – including 16 year olds who had never voted before, and many older people who hadn’t voted in 30 years – knew that they had a voice that would be heard in a decision that really mattered.

The consequence was a surge in engagement and political confidence which – regardless of the result - will benefit Scotland for years and decades to come.

And when you emerge from a debate as wide-ranging, passionate and fundamental as that, the discussions that dominate Westminster seem bizarrely and depressingly narrow.

The entire focus of the Westminster debate is on the deficit. Now, the deficit is hugely important. But it’s a symptom of economic difficulties, not just a cause of them. And it cannot be seen entirely in isolation.

Scotland, like the UK, and other countries around the world, faces deep, interrelated, complex challenges. The deficit is certainly one; but so too is boosting productivity, ensuring skilled and well paid job opportunities, adapting to an ageing population, combatting inequality and moving to the low-carbon age.

Trying to tackle the deficit while ignoring those other challenges makes no sense. Much UK policy over the last five years has asked the wrong question – how do we cut spending as quickly as possible – and inevitably it has arrived at the wrong answers. The result has been policies which target the vulnerable, hinder growth, and constrain rather than build our economic potential.

Now you need not agree with all of Sturgeon's prescriptions to think there's something to a lot of this. Plenty of people with no great love for the SNP also intensely dislike the manner in which debate is conducted at Westminster - and the narrowness of the terms of reference within which such debates as do take place are held. 

As it happens, I agree with plenty my old friend Iain Martin says here. But whereas I am sure Alex Salmond would have been happy, as Iain says, to wind the English up I think Nicola Sturgeon is playing a slightly different, more subtle, game. I think she recognises the dangers of being seen to be agitating right now for another independence referendum. It is, for sure, a long game. There will be time enough for such things.

But, yes, she would like to nudge Labour to the left. Not simply for her own political advantage (though, of course, for that too) but because she actually thinks Britain - and not just Scotland - would be better served by a different economic analysis.

Nor does she actually want to do a post-election deal with Labour except on the vaguest issue-by-issue basis. If she did want a more formal arrangement, Trident's renewal - which Labour cannot possibly concede to the Nats - would not be reckoned a red line.

Now, I don't share Sturgeon's faith in the government's ability to 'create jobs' (though to the extent that ability does exist it is easier and more palpable in a polity of five million people than in one of 60 million). Nor do I think a 0.5 percent real terms increase in public spending in each year of the next parliament is necessarily either credible or useful. But by SNP standards this still counts as grim realism. She's right, too, to talk about the problem of productivity (though, then again, if this could be solved by government it might have been by now).

Nevertheless, there was a good deal of Third Wayism in this speech too. Of course the deficit matters. Of course the private sector matters. And, yes, tax rates must be competitive too. Business growth is vital. But inequality is important and so is household debt and childcare and fairness and so many other things.

In these respects and though she might not thank anyone for saying it, there was more than a hint of early Tony Blair in today's speech. Nicola Sturgeon as a Blairite? Well, why not? It's not as fanciful as you might initially think. Not if you actually read her speech it isn't. As she concluded: 'Fairness and prosperity can go hand in hand. Indeed I'd put it more strongly - they must go hand in hand.' Is this just circle-squaring? Perhaps. But that's what Blair tried too. And people like it.

Which, if you like, makes David Cameron a fortunate fellow all over again. Because his challenge is defeating Ed Miliband and that, I think, must be an easier task than defeating Nicola Sturgeon would have been.