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New year, same old FUDs

Posted on January 03, 2012 by

January 3rd is our favourite day of the year. Lovely though the extended break is (and thanks very much to the surprisingly high numbers of you who kept visiting the blog while we sat back and stuffed ourselves with mince pies and Crabbies Mulled Ginger Wine for most of a fortnight), there’s nothing quite like cracking the wrapper off a whole shiny 12-pack of sparkling freshly-baked months, full of potential and that great new-year smell. Sadly, though, you can always rely on Scotland’s proud Unionists to come along and let off a few rancid trouser-coughs into the room.

In 2012, they’ve kicked off with a particularly bizarre brace of Christmas-sprout-fuelled rotten gas expulsions. First, prolific Tory blogger and pundit David Torrance let off a rather spiteful blast of foul air at Alex Salmond in response to the string of garlands festooned on the First Minister far and wide by the political media in 2011. Making the faintly astonishing claim that Salmond had had “a disappointing year”, Torrance attempted to back the assertion up by calling His Eckness’ personality into question, highlighting the intemperate attack on the Supreme Court and, er, not much else.

Having painted the FM as a ranting, all-smearing loose cannon, Torrance immediately backtracks and portrays the SNP’s first seven months of majority government as a policy “damp squib”, with Salmond now described as a “safety-first” conservative who doesn’t really want to rock the boat, who “just wants to be loved” and who “has curiously little to say”. Quite how Torrance squares this impression with the explosively controversial passing of the anti-sectarianism legislation, the return of the contentious minimum-pricing bill and the backing of gay marriage in the face of bitter opposition from churches (in particular the Catholic church, whose voters the SNP had only finally wrenched away from Labour in 2011) is something we’re at a loss to explain.

(We did try politely asking him to, via the Steamie’s comments, but our contribution was mysteriously declined.)

Torrance’s sour personal assault on the First Minister, though, paled into insignificance beside an extraordinary piece from Labour’s Ian Smart, which also span off from the Times awarding Salmond the Briton Of The Year title in December.

Borrowing this blog’s own recent Argentina 1978 analogy, Smart – as befits one of Scottish Labour’s brighter thinkers, although admittedly that isn’t saying much – starts off with a thoughtful and interesting analysis of the relationship between Scotland and England, but then descends into an increasingly-prevalent myth which clearly brings Labour comfort in the depths of the party’s current despair.

The idea is that if the SNP can’t win a referendum on independence now (it being assumed that that’s the only reason they’re not having one immediately) they’ll never be able to, because “It is difficult to see political circumstances getting any better for the SNP than they are at the moment”. It’s an argument that holds about as much water as Rab C Nesbitt’s string vest – indeed, it’s not so much an argument at all as desperate wishful thinking.

Smart’s reasoning (if we might generously describe it as such for the moment) runs that there’s an unpopular Tory-led government in Westminster that Scotland rejected at the polls, that Scotland is awash with natural resources, and that the three opposition parties are in disarray, yet the SNP still can’t command a majority for independence. But what he inexplicably fails to note is why any of those things are likely to get worse rather than better (from the SNP’s perspective) in the next few years.

All three Holyrood parties have brand new leaders, yet nobody believes any of them will make a dent on Salmond. Least of all Smart himself, who penned an exceedingly doomy appraisal of Labour’s prospects under Johann Lamont for the Herald [paywall link] the day after her election, which opened with this stricken lament:

“So here we are. Faced with the most cataclysmic election defeat in our history, Scottish Labour has settled on a strategy of “steady as she goes.” Faced with a chance to change the leadership of that disastrous campaign, we have, instead, voted to give them a resounding vote of confidence. Faced with the people’s verdict, we have chosen to tell the people, in no uncertain terms, that they got it wrong and need to do better next time. Faced with the need for a Harry Potter figure, we have settled instead on a dementor. The only consolation is that since we clearly intend to fight the 2011 campaign again in 2016 we might be able to save some money on literature.”

It is pretty much a universally-acknowledged truth that Labour in Scotland has drawn from a pool of talent which has been in constant decline since devolution in 1999. There is not the slightest sign of that trend reversing itself any time in the forseeable future (Smart’s piece in the Herald wistfully concludes “They say it is always darkest before the dawn. Here’s hoping”), which doesn’t suggest that even Smart believes Salmond’s fortunes are likely to have peaked just yet.

The other two London-based parties in Scotland are no better off. The Lib Dems are so few in number they didn’t have a leadership election at all, simply giving the job to the only person who volunteered. Everyone expects them to take an even bigger pasting from the electorate in 2015/16, while the Tories elected a fresh-faced newcomer who’d only been in the Parliament for a few months, and whose gaffe-strewn first weeks as leader have only served to deflect attention from the fact that she too is very much a “more of the same” candidate firmly entrenched in the policies of her failed predecessor. Hoping either of them will prove to hold the anti-Salmond Kryptonite seems optimistic to say the least.

The other two pillars of Smart’s hope are no sturdier. With Ed Miliband unable to hold a lead over the Tories even as their deficit-reduction plan tanks and the nation heads back into recession despite the most savage austerity cuts for generations, it seems decidedly plausible that Scots will enter the second half of the decade with another Tory government voted in by the English against Scotland’s wishes – and this time, one unlikely to be encumbered by a coalition with the Lib Dems. Similarly, Scotland’s wealth of natural resources isn’t going to vanish between now and 2015 – if anything the reverse will be true, as more and more renewables projects come online.

So we’re at a loss as to how Smart figures that things can’t get any better for the SNP. Any rational analysis would probably conclude instead that the Nats will continue to ride a growing wave – indeed, all they may need to do is sit back and watch the opposition continue to shoot itself in the foot. Labour’s position on the constitution (in so far as anyone can identify it at all) is only going to get more tangled and absurd as the referendum approaches, as the party paints itself more and more tightly into the unpopular “status quo” corner alongside the toxic Tories.

The simple “give ’em enough rope” approach has paid dividends for the Nats so far. Letting the likes of George Foulkes, Michael Moore, Michael Kelly and Michael Forsyth (what is it with Michaels?) make the headlines with endless variants on “too wee, too poor, too stupid” has seen support for both the SNP and independence grow and grow, with the party now a staggering, barely-believable 40 points ahead of its position just 10 months ago. (The numbers for independence are growing less dramatically, but palpably all the same, with numerous recent polls showing that at the very least it’ll be all to play for in the referendum.) Smart’s view that the only way for the SNP is down seems to be built entirely on faith rather than evidence.

The piece goes on for hundreds more words to rapidly less interesting effect, all based on the same premise – the absolute conviction that the SNP can’t possibly win the independence vote under any circumstances – concluding with a hideously smug and sneery “this is going to be fun to watch”, which we’ll charitably put down to Smart having enjoyed a wee Hogmanay dram or two. (Because quite apart from anything else, absolutely nothing about the referendum is going to be decided one way or the other in 2012.) To be honest, by the end Smart seems to be trying to convince himself more than anyone else.

This blog isn’t nearly so arrogant as to treat the outcome of the independence vote as a certainty either way, but what we are confident of is that if the opposition parties doggedly keep to their current path – and it looks very much as if they’re determined to do that very thing, perhaps for want of any better ideas – Alex Salmond’s star is only going to be travelling in one direction for quite some time yet. Labour, meanwhile, might want to take advice from someone far wiser than us:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

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12 to “New year, same old FUDs”

  1. peter

    ian smart should care to mind that, in the past,  such propitious political circumstances leading up to the scottish election: tory govt, recession, high unemployment etc.,  would have  guaranteed a labour a shoe-in,  on may 5th.
    as alluded to in this blog,  i too, inferred from his article an element of projection; a fear that the political tide is being excerted on by a new force.
    will the citizens of scotland vote for independence; i don't know. but they will get the opportunity.
    incidently, my mother who is in her 81st year assured me that she voted for SNP at  may's holyrood election. to me that was a significant landmark.

  2. Ian Smart

    Never minded a bit of polemic and, to be fair, the link lets visitors read the whole thing for themselves but you ignore my central point..
    Although, to my camp,  the lesser of two evils,  decisive defeat in an independence referendum called in a misplaced climate of confidence in victory will not just be bad for the SNP, it will actually be bad for Scotland.
    I think the FM has already concluded that and this year (and probably next) will be characterised by him gently leading his Party to that conclusion. That's what will be fun to watch.
    That doesn't mean that I believe Scottish Labour to be remotely currently electable at Holyrood. We're not. Unless we get our act together, you could probably lose a referendum and still get re-elected. The problem then at your end is re-elected with what leverage or for what purpose? Better, in all senses, to hold on to the dream.
    For what its worth, I've always thought that there are events which could signficantly change the game in your favour: British Participation in the Euro and the expiry of our current Monarch being at the top of that list. Neither of these however is going to happen in the next couple of years. There, I'm starting to make Eck's case for him!

  3. RevStu

    "I think the FM has already concluded that and this year (and probably next) will be characterised by him gently leading his Party to that conclusion."

    I can't agree. I think the FM believes, like a lot of us (perhaps to our own surprise), that the prospect of winning the independence vote is very real and growing by the day. Even were it to be lost, though, I doubt very much would change. Labour would still be a shambles, and the SNP would probably still win in 2016, because those voters who support the nationalists as a party of devolved government but are wary of independence could vote for them in the secure knowledge that independence was no longer an imminent threat.

    (Not sure I could see any notable difference arising from the demise – God forbid – of HMQE2, and frankly there’s more chance of Roseanna Cunningham taking over the throne than there is of the UK joining the Euro before 2015, but I’m not sure that would be a game changer anyway. Don’t think most ordinary Scots care much either way about the EU and Euro.)

    To be honest, though, the more I watch Labour in particular tie itself in knots and bewilderingly abandon the position supported by most Scots, in favour of lining up with the Tories behind the status quo, offering Scotland only "some powers, some time, somehow", the harder I'm starting to find it to picture us losing the referendum. I genuinely can't believe the FUD camp is letting itself be this badly outplayed by Eck, and keep expecting to wake up one day and find they've come to their senses. No signs yet.

  4. Dubbieside

    We have heard it all before from Labour. Remember devolution will kill nationalism stone dead? Or how about, there will never be an SNP government, quickly followed by the SNP minority government will not last a full term. Or how about, there will never be a majortity SNP government.
    How are you doing on the prediction front so far Ian?
    Look at the current state of Labour in Scotland, they have elected a new leader with less charisma and voter appeal than Michael Foot. When they elected Iain Gray some of them believed they were electing the next First Minister of Scotland, now they know they are not.
    It looks to me like Labour are betting the farm on a no vote in the referendum, but that leaves them very little room to move. If Scotland votes yes they are out of power for a long time. "We have just won our independence why would you want to vote in some party who never wanted it and campaigned against with their tory pals.
    If Scotland votes no, they still do not get in, this is still the party that would rather have torys at Westminster running Scotland than Scots at Holyrood, after all they shared a platform with the torys to prevent Scotland running their own affairs.
    I know which side of the argument I would rather be on.
    P.S. That naughty Mr Salmond is not thinking of running the referendum when he thinks he will have the best chance of winning it is he. How underhand, I bet none of the unionist alliance would do anything like that.

  5. DougtheDug

    It's interesting that Ian Smart makes the artificial distinction between devolutionists and unionists. Again the Labour mindset cannot label itself with the cause it espouses. "… delay will allow the Devolutionist camp to get organised". What Devolutionist camp? Later on Ian demands a simple independence or status quo question with no Devo-Max option. Is he therefore talking about the Unionist camp?

    Ian also acknowledges that when Alex Salmond said, "Labour's devolution bus runs on SNP petrol", Alex was correct and that only the threat of independence drives the devolution of powers to Scotland. He also acknowledges that if the independence threat was to disappear it would be the end of any more devolved powers coming to Scotland.

    This is where his logic as it is starts to really break down. In order for Scotland to continue to get more devolved powers the SNP must present a credible threat of independence so the SNP must never ask the independence question because they'd lose and then the threat would be gone. So in other words when Labour point to the SNP's loaded gun as a reason for more devolved powers everyone knows it's not a credible threat. So what kind of threat is that?

    I've asked this question before and it's still valid. Why is the Labour party in Scotland so hardline Unionist? It's obvious that the SNP are nationalist because that was the raison d'être of the party's founding but the Union, the preservation of the British Establishment and the preservation of the British State were not founding factors in the creation of the Labour party even in England. At some point the Labour party became a Tweedledee to the Conservatives' Tweedledum ensconsed happily together in the Commons bars and the House of Lords benches.

    The Labour party in Scotland don't want to stand on a platform with the Conservatives in defence of the Union, the British Establishment and the British State even though they share these common aims because the Labour party has looked into its own soul and seen John Bull standing there not Keir Hardie and the truth hurts too much. It's also the reason why they are desperate to be called, "Devolutionists", not, "Unionists". In other words they've seen John Bull and tell everyone it's really Jock Bull, it's not John it's Jock, Jock. All I can say is it is most definitely Bull.

    If Ian Smart worries that losing the independence referendum will be such a disaster for Scotland why doesn't he campaign to win it? His solution is the standard Labour one where the SNP should avoid the question and turn their backs on the founding principles of the party.

  6. Dubbieside


    The elephant in the room for Labour is that their bottom line is that they would rather have torys at Westminster running Scotland than Scots at Holyrood.

    No amount of spin can disguise that fact.

    What they have to do is explain to the people of Scotland come the referendum just why they support tory rule at Westminster and why that benefits Scotland.

    There is no point in Murphy saying I will not share a platform with Cameron but I am quite happy to be governed by him.

  7. Graham

    I’ll not be popular for saying so but Torrance, in this instance and others, offers at least some valid criticism. Prior to reading anything of his, I’m prepared for a British nationalist perspective and I don’t recall ever being disappointed. Nevertheless, that I don’t share the cut of his political jib doesn’t invalidate his arguments.
    Criticism, constructive or otherwise, of the First Minister, Scottish Government, SNP and independence is healthy. The dearth of free thinking (a few notable exceptions aside) must be the least attractive characteristic of recent Scottish political discourse. Party cheerleading and mouthpiecery is the answer to absolutely nothing, not even British propaganda.
    Torrance opens reasonably enough by sandwiching between praise for handsome election and top drawer television performances the uncharitable but pertinent point that the SG’s majority was backed by only 23% of the electorate.
    What then follows is predictable enough but I would agree that:
    The basis on which we define political success is absurdly narrow;
    Unconvincing are statements like we would have created a situation where agreement could have been produced on the Treaty;
    The centre left and social democratic mantra is more self delusion than an accurate reflection (Torrance and Hassan repeatedly attempt to dispel the myth);
    The SNP does argue simultaneously for and against things like defence;
    The something for everyone (all things to all people) has been increasingly under strain; and
    A policy of safety first – constitutionally and domestically – does not a great politician make.
    I hope Salmond has not continued to strangulate independence to death while posing as a consistent and principled defender.

  8. RevStu

    "the uncharitable but pertinent point that the SG’s majority was backed by only 23% of the electorate"

    That isn't a "pertinent" point, because people who don't vote in elections don't count – not just in Scotland, but everywhere else. The government is decided by who wins the most votes out of those actually cast. Everyone else can by definition be assumed to not care either way.

  9. Morag

    Show us a leader in the UK who has been backed by more than 23% of the electorate.
    Given the higher turnouts in general elections I imagine there may be such cases, but I'd like to see the data.
    And then I'd point out that in a four-party system 23% is an even better result than it looks.

  10. DougtheDug

    I've had a look at David Torrance's article and here's my response.
    Alex Salmond may be ruling with support from only 23% of the total Scottish electorate but David Cameron is ruling with a mandate from only 23.47% of the total UK electorate but no one makes that point when mentioning the 2010 General Election or his Government. As the Rev. Stu says, if you don't vote you don't count when it comes to choosing a government.

    Alex Salmond's lasting contribution to the political milieu will be an independent Scotland if he succeeds with his primary ambition and the Constitutional Court is also legally and constitutionally muddled as it should have no authority over Scots Criminal law under the Treaty of Union.

    The phrase, "…his majority will be utilized regardless of the consensus he claims to seek", is pretty hilarious coming from a poltitical journalist. It can be translated as, "The majority party will pass legislation they believe in even if the opposition don't like it". That's what majorities are. I've never heard complaints that parties in Westminster have passed legislation despite, (gasp), the the opposition objecting to the legislation. If the opposition agreed to every bit of Government legislation what are they doing in a different party? Are the SNP supposed to shelve every bit of legislation that the Labour party or the others don't like? Judging from Labour's behaviour in the last Scottish parliament that would have meant no legislation passing at all.

    The juxtapositon of Ian Smart's article and David Torrance's article also highlights a fault line between them. Ian Smart is quite open in admitting that Scottish constitutional change only happened as a reaction to the threat of Scottish independence and the rise of the SNP but David Torrance seems to think that the SNP have had no impact at all on the creation of the Scottish Parliament. I'm not sure how he thinks Alex Salmond has been meant to deliver extra powers to the Scottish Parliament when extra powers are in the gift of Westminster and the parties there who do not want any extra powers to go to Scotland. The Scotland Bill being a case in point with lots of noise and fury delivered as a mould breaking constitutional change but actually changing almost nothing.

    It remains to be seen if David Cameron was posturing but at the moment Britain seems isolated in Europe which is perhaps not the best way to behave if you are trying to work with your neighbours. The rest of that section is just random noise. On defence the SNP wants to keep jobs in Scotland and the SNP's position on Europe has always been consistent in that they want Scotland to be part of it. Independence constitutes what independence always has constituted, a nation with a supreme parliament elected by its own people. There's plenty of examples in Europe and elsewhere. I'm not sure why academics like David Torrance can't actually look across the Channel for easily seen and already working examples and have to try and reinvent the wheel on their own on what, "independence constitutes", for Scotland.

    Alex Salmond has spent is life in a party which over the last three decades has gone from being ridiculed by its opponents and the media as, "Tartan and Shortbread", to running the Scottish Parliament and now has a fighting chance of breaking apart the British State which has always been its aim. Alex Salmond a, "safety first", politician? If he'd been that type of politician he'd have joined one of the dependence parties and hoped for a career which ended in the Lords, flunkeys serving tea, an ermine collar and a nice pension and not spend most of his political life in the wilderness in a party almost everybody had written off as nothing more than a regional pressure group.

  11. Dubbieside


    And the same rule will apply for the referendum. If you do not vote you do not count!

    I can already hear the bleating of the dependency party’s about how many voted and mandates. Funny how that pertains to Scotland and Holyrood but not to Westminster.

  12. Graham

    There is ample of Torrance's article to disgree with. That he offers some valid criticism and opposing an argument does not render it invalid should be uncontroversial.
    I read 'electorate' as meaning the body of people entitled to vote, as opposed to votes cast. Percentage of votes cast is the standard rule of thumb and highlighting electoral disengagement is just not cricket? Slightly precious.
    That those who don't vote don't matter is an easier sell at elections than at constitutional referenda.

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