Monday, 22 October 2012

SNP bid goodbye to the Dylan generation

That’s all the political conferences done - from the TUC in Brighton to the SNP in Perth I’ve been on the road for almost six weeks and survived relatively unscathed. And now, now I’m stuck at Glasgow airport - Phileas Fogg-bound,

In that time I’ve heard Bob Crow thunder for a general strike and squirmed through Danny Alexander’s excruciating autocue. I was blinded by Ed Miliband’s “look ma, no hands” stageshow, and I rolled in the aisles while Boris called the British Prime Minister a broomstick.

Jaded, yes, but strangely enthused too, because the best was saved for last.

The undoubted highlight of the conference season was the SNP debate on Nato membership last Friday. It was genuine politics in the raw, long held principles at stake, impassioned debate and a knife edge vote as a movement wrestled with its conscience over principle and pragmatism.

This was electric soup for political pundits who thought the days of real party debates were a relic of the 20th century.

And leave the last century is what the SNP did. The party said goodbye to the Bob Dylan generation by voting, narrowly, to accept NATO membership as part of the price of their goal for an independent Scotland.

The leadership won by just 29 votes, leaving 365 delegates gnashing their teeth while Angus Robertson toasted himself with a “who dares wins” text from the court jester, Angus MacNeil.

Kenny MacAskill’s firebrand oratory undoubtedly saved the day for the pro-Nato motion. You can take a rebel boy out of Lewis, but he will never shake off the echo of its evangelical pulpits. But, ah Kenny, what doth it profit a man to gain the world...

Are there any great amount of votes to be levered from effectively sacrificing the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance, because that is where this logic ends up.

It ends, somewhere at the far side of an Angus Robertson rainbow, with an independent anti-nuclear Scotland accepting Trident on the Clyde as the price for EU membership. Forget foreign bases, Trident won’t be going to Brest or Georgia, Trident won't be going anywhere if Scotland is in NATO.

All that might be neverland, but the move on NATO was highly symbolic for the party. Alex Salmond said activists could take credit for the way the debate was conducted, and so they should.

He said this is how they would run an independent Scotland, but the spirit of that debate (some booing apart) is not evident in how Salmond himself presents the case for independence.

Everyone in Scotland should welcome a referendum campaign because it ought to flush out all the arguments for and against and end the national navel gazing, for once and for all. No sign of that from the SNP leadership though.

You can’t, as Salmond does, assert that you are unrelentingly positive and expect people to believe it when you just carry on with a list of girns against Great Britain.

You can’t twist the stats to try and show that every man woman and child would be better off if the figures can be shot down in one minute by the other side’s targeted gunfire. The economic case, the £500 “indy dividend” that Salmond promised, is threadbare and frankly unconvincing.

And you can’t risk an electoral backlash by rigging a referendum, as his opponents accused him of doing yesterday.

Because the conference ended on a note of drama too, with Nicola Sturgeon telegraphing that the SNP government would ignore the impartial advice of the Electoral Commission on referendum campaign spending.

It was chilling for the pro-UK parties to hear the SNP deputy leader, in an otherwise robust speech, try to sneak away from the advice of the elections referees. “Scotland’s future will not be bought and sold for anyone’s gold,” she said.

Well, that was rich coming from a party that has a Euro Lottery millionaire splashing cash on its campaign for the next year and half before the proposed limits on spending come in.

Of course this might be a kite-flying exercise by Nicola Sturgeon, seeing how far the envelope can be pushed before compromising, toeing the line and putting up a fair fight.

That is the way the SNP negotiated the referendum deal, all bluster about a second question until their all-Scotland consultation persuaded them there was no chance to make it fly. (By the way, where is my consultation response Mr Salmond, and that of thousands of others. I thought it was highly important to you and that no decisions could be made before you read it?)

Putting Sturgeon on manoeuvres yesterday was shabby politics by the SNP leadership after all the grand words in Edinburgh about moving onto a substantive debate.

In high stakes politics, in a once in a generation chance that Salmond has given the SNP for an independence vote, some might be tempted to think that the ends will always justify the means. It would be a dishonour to the electorate and they might not be forgiving.

Meanwhile the SNP still has a lot more questions to answer on defence, a lot of questions to answer on the currency, a lot of questions to answer on EU membership.

A great conference, yes, but a missed opportunity too. Two years out Alex Salmond still has a problem with numbers and letters. He won’t name the date and he hasn’t spelt out the case for independence.

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