SNP is dancing to the same old tune- Scotsman

Jason Allardyce, Sunday Times, 15 November 2009

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David Kerr didn’t look like a man who was about to make the rest of the UK dance to a Scottish tune. As he shuffled into the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre late on Thursday evening surrounded by weary activists, the Scottish National party’s beleaguered candidate in the Glasgow North East by-election all but gave away the result with his body language.

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In truth, the winner had never been in doubt. The constituency had been rock solid Labour territory for more than 70 years. Not since the 1930s, the era of big bands and dance halls, when a Tory was elected, had a candidate from any other party represented this abrasive, post-industrial corner, where the locomotives that carried the materials that built the empire were once made. All that remained to be speculated upon was the margin of victory.

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There were other, minor, contests being played out further down the roster. Would the BNP hold its deposit for the first time in a Scottish seat following its leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time? Would John Smeaton, the former airport baggage handler who has forged a career in self-promotion from a few moments of disputed heroism during a failed terrorist attack, emerge with his dignity crushed or merely scratched?

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Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon, so triumphalist during the Glasgow East by-election campaign last year when their candidate spectacularly captured a similarly safe Labour seat, was demure. Its canvas returns had counselled against optimism, but even that failed to anticipate the scale of the Labour victory — an 8,000-plus majority and a six-point rise in the share of the vote that the incumbent, the disgraced former Speaker Michael Martin got at the general election, a result that sitting governments can normally only dream about.

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However, as the bunting and rosettes were swept from the floor of the exhibition centre the following morning, realism was dawning with the winter sun. Labour may have retained one of its safest seats, but wider conclusions are limited. Jim Murphy, Iain Gray and the victorious Labour candidate Willie Bain gave an ebullient performance in front of the television cameras but, privately, they must have known there were few lessons to be drawn.

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Beyond the constituency boundaries, little had changed. Gordon Brown remains the discredited head of a demoralised government, the SNP is still ahead in opinion polls for Holyrood, and voters are entitled to be as sceptical as ever that the fortunes of the area — one of the most deprived in Europe — will change for the better. Roseanne Galasso, a 54-year-old care officer from Robroyston, summed up the mood of many. “I voted Labour because I have always voted for them, and because it was always Michael Martin. To be honest, I just would have felt I was betraying someone if I had not voted for the new guy now.”

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FOR the SNP, the result is more troubling. Last month, Salmond was predicting his party would claim a record 20 seats at next year’s general election, enough to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. The UK parties, he confidently asserted, would dance to a Scottish tune. The price of his backing for either party would be support for an independence referendum.

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His comments were derided as fantasy by Brown and David Cameron, who both said the SNP would be an irrelevance and the result in Glasgow North East suggests they may be right. If the by-election result was replicated at a general election, the nationalists would win just five seats, two less than the present crop.

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So what lessons, if any, can be drawn from the result? Some observers believe that, if the SNP is ever going to challenge Scottish Labour’s hegemony at Westminster, then it must devise an alternative campaign strategy to that used successfully for Holyrood.

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Salmond can take comfort from the fact that the SNP continues to enjoy the support of voters for Holyrood, but for how much longer? By making the independence issue his principal strategy at Westminster and at home, does he risk losing support of voters at both?

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Within hours of the result, some senior SNP figures turned on Kerr and Stewart Hosie, his campaign manager. Kerr’s campaign, they argued, was flawed from the start when he was forced to defend his membership of Opus Dei and his hardline stance on homosexuality.

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The SNP’s third choice for the seat, he was accused of misleading voters by falsely claiming he was born in the constituency.

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He was criticised for referring to some areas as “ghettos”, and there were reports of friction with some of his party’s activists, who saw his views as too conservative.

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“He seemed to be in the wrong party as far as some of us were concerned,” said one.

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Under Hosie’s leadership, the campaign was considered by some nationalists to be too positive and toothless compared with Labour’s effective tactics of branding the SNP government in Edinburgh as “anti-Glasgow”, based among other things on its tactically inept announcement mid-campaign that it was cancelling the Glasgow airport rail link.

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Labour, they warned, was beating the nationalists at their own game, exploiting the so-called “politics of grievance”. The cancellation of the airport rail link was one of several local issues that had most resonance among voters, along with poverty and the MPs’ expenses scandal.

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But beyond the campaign, Salmond was reported to be pressing on determinedly with his proposals for an independence referendum next year. Labour and the Conservatives published estimates of the cost at £12m, including the price of running the poll.

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An image was created in the media of a leader seemingly so obsessed with a single vanity project that he was neglecting the ordinary business of government at Holyrood. Several reports have appeared suggesting standards in Scotland’s education system are falling compared with England.

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A study published by John McLaren, of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, earlier this year revealed that, while annual Scottish spending per pupil has risen in the past decade, the proportion of those gaining five good grades at the end of compulsory education (S4) has fallen from 47% in 1999 to 46% in 2008. Data at Reform Scotland, a think tank, showed that pupils in England, who lagged behind Scotland in 1998, have moved ahead, with the proportion achieving the equivalent five good grades rising from 36% to 48%.

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In addition, the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found that English pupils were scoring significantly higher than Scots and that the gap had widened between the survey years of 1995 and 2007. In Scotland, the maths score for 14-year-olds fell from 493 to 487 and the science rating fell from 501 to 496, while in England it rose from 498 to 513 and from 533 to 542 respectively.

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Today, The Sunday Times reports that only one in eight pupils feels challenged at school in Scotland, compared with one in four in England, according to an international study by Edinburgh University and the World Health Organisation. It also reveals that Scottish teenagers spend more time socialising with friends and playing computer games, rather than studying, compared with their counterparts south of the border.

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Meanwhile, business leaders have had a public spat with ministers, accusing them of failing to provide proper leadership and of being “anti-business”. The financial sector in Edinburgh is experiencing severe difficulties with thousands of jobs being cut and, while the rail link Glasgow wanted is being cut, the trams that Edinburgh did not want continue to be built at mounting cost. Scotland voted for the Scottish parliament to escape the so-called “democratic deficit” of the Thatcher years.

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If present trends continue, critics say, that deficit will return twofold as the majority of voters are saddled with a Conservative government they did not vote for and an SNP administration at Holyrood set on a determined path towards separatism that they do not want.

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Salmond’s strategy is to press ahead with the referendum bill, in spite of the opposition to it, using resources of the civil service to draft legislation that even if it is not passed, will set a historic marker.

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Defeat in the Scottish parliament will allow him to campaign in future elections armed with the claim that opposition parties denied Scottish voters a say in the constitutional future of their country. With Cameron expected to be the next prime minister, he will be able to exploit old enmities — Thatcher’s legacy was a common feature on the stump in Glasgow North East — and to create cross-border conflict, reviving historic tensions over the way Scotland is treated by an arrogant, unthinking London government.

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Some analysts question the wisdom of this strategy and believe that placing all his eggs in one basket with less focus on the bread-and-butter issues of government could backfire.

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“There is the possibility of a Tory government being interpreted as the bogeyman coming back but, if the SNP thinks that will lead it to a referendum, that’s too simple a narrative,” said Gerry Hassan, author of The Political Guide to Modern Scotland. “There will be more complicated issues like the economy, public services, and Scotland’s identity.”