Ian Swanson: Alex Salmond still has mountain to climb

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ALEX Salmond will address the SNP faithful at their spring conference this weekend with an upbeat message about Scotland’s prospects as a go-it-alone nation and his determination to win next year’s referendum – but despite the best efforts of the Yes campaign, support for independence is flat-lining.

With the date of the big vote finally announced today, the countdown to the crucial decision on Scotland’s future can begin in 
earnest.

But six years of SNP government have done nothing to make Scots any more enthusiastic about the party’s grand vision. A poll last week showed 33 per cent in favour of independence and 52 per cent opposed, with 15 per cent still to make up their minds.

Eighteen months away from the SNP’s opportunity to win the independence they have dreamed of, campaigned for and worked to achieve, Mr Salmond might have hoped to be better poised for victory.

His strategy since becoming First Minister in 2007 has been clear – showing the SNP can be competent in government, winning the trust of voters and hoping he can persuade them to back independence.

He succeeded in the first two aims, but at the moment still has a mountain to climb on the third.

The Nationalists’ unprecedented election success in 2011, winning an overall majority against the odds, proved Mr Salmond’s government had established itself as credible and popular. But that triumph also presented a problem – the promised referendum could no longer be delayed by the pro-Union parties; the SNP had to go ahead with a vote on independence, ready or not.

Since becoming a majority government, the SNP has begun to lose some of the magic touch it seemed to 
posses during its first term of office. The day-to-day tribulations of being in power have left Mr Salmond and his colleagues under pressure over NHS waiting lists and the crisis in A&E departments, having to defend cuts to college funding, seeing the transition to a single police force dogged by high-level disputes, and just this week being criticised by striking civil servants for “hiding behind Westminster” over the one per cent cap on public sector pay rises.

The referendum campaign has not gone smoothly either. After a shaky launch, fronted by several ex-pat Scots who have no stake in the country, independent or otherwise, there was the apparently misleading interview implying legal advice had been obtained on 
Scotland’s future membership of the EU when it had not, and more recently the leaked document revealing that Finance Secretary John Swinney acknowledges that volatile oil prices could prove a problem for an independent Scotland.

It’s not that the anti-independence Better Together campaign has been particularly impressive. Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy admitted at a fringe event at the Scottish Lib Dem conference last weekend there is an inescapable negativity at the heart of their message, saying: “It’s difficult because we are asking people to vote No. You are slightly on the back foot.” But the pro-Union campaign believes if the SNP has so far been unable to convince Scots of the merits of independence, it is unlikely that just months or weeks from referendum day there is going to be a mass conversion to the cause.

For many, it may seem a competent Nationalist government running a devolved Scotland is the best of both worlds. But the independence campaigners claim people can still be persuaded. This week, the SNP has staged debates in the Scottish Parliament on both the tenth anniversary of the war on Iraq and the future of Trident – two key issues where the Nationalists are in tune with majority public opinion and where Scotland would need to be independent to take a different approach.

Unless it can expand on what other differences independence would bring, it faces a continuing uphill struggle.

VALUE OF NATION’S BLACK GOLD AN ISSUE

NORTH Sea oil revenue is at the centre of a fresh row after the Office of Budget Responsibility said revenue would drop to £4.3 billion per year by 2017/18 – while the Scottish Government has predicted up to £11.8bn.

The anti-independence camp accused the SNP of planning national finances on “wishful thinking”.

Finance Secretary John Swinney insisted the higher forecasts were based on the industry’s own expectations, which were more robust.

Mr Swinney acknowledged volatile oil prices would be an issue for an independent Scotland. But Edinburgh economist John Kay, a former member of Mr Salmond’s Council of Economic Advisers, has suggested with prudent management it should not be a problem.

“You don’t have to balance your revenue with expenditure every year, although you do have to balance it over a period of years.”

He added that Scotland would not be significantly worse off or better off as an independent country.