Ian Swanson: Will affair with SNP go the distance?

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Two-and-a-half years is a long time. Political editor Ian Swanson wonders if it is too long for Alex Salmond’s independence hopes.

AUTUMN 2014 is a long way off. There’s plenty time for the SNP to convince hesitant voters to put their faith in an independent Scotland.

Polls may show support for independence still well short of a majority, but First Minister Alex Salmond has been called “arguably Britain’s most persuasive politician”.

And despite talk of big names being lined up by the other parties for a united campaign to save the union, the opposition has made little impact so far.

However, as the SNP prepares for its spring conference in Glasgow this weekend, some wonder whether the First Minister might have made a mistake in opting for such a distant date for his promised referendum.

The SNP’s stunning success in May last year in winning an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament was testimony to public satisfaction with the party’s performance in minority government and a vote of confidence in Mr Salmond and his team. A year on, the Nationalists still lead in the opinion polls.

But nothing lasts for ever. And there are already issues in the background which don’t look good for the SNP.

Mr Salmond has faced questions over his meeting with News International boss Rupert Murdoch and reports they discussed cutting Scotland’s rate of corporation tax from the current 26 per cent to as little as ten per cent in return for BSkyB moving its headquarters to Scotland.

A new ruling by the Information Commissioner says the Scottish Government failed to comply with the law when ministers blocked the release of correspondence involving Stagecoach owner Sir Brian Souter, who was knighted just months after giving £500,000 to the SNP’s election war chest.

There were calls for an apology from Salmond aide Joan McAlpine after she used a newspaper column to compare the relationship between Scotland and England to an abusive marriage – not quite the message the First Minister has been trying to convey on his recent forays south of the Border.

And there have been disturbing allegations of bullying by the SNP, including the claim that Loganair withdrew an invitation for Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace of Tankerness to speak at a 50th anniversary event after being told it would “not be in their interests” for him to do so.

Opposition attacks on the SNP have not so far proved particularly effective, but in time that could begin to change.

In her speech to last weekend’s Scottish Labour conference, leader Johann Lamont accused the SNP of going further than the Conservatives in cutting spending.

If that charge could be made to stick, it has the potential to cause serious damage for a party which has built its reputation on “standing up for Scotland”.

And on the independence question itself, the SNP is struggling to defend the idea that Scotland should stick with sterling as the currency even though that appears to mean the Bank of England having a major influence on what tax policies the newly-independent country could pursue.

Circumstances change all the time. Two-and-a-half years is a long time and by the time autumn 2014 comes round, all these issues may look like ancient history.

But there will be others which emerge or appear out of nowhere and the party’s ability to handle them effectively will be crucial.

One opposition politician says: “The SNP has a long-term plan with clear milestones – like winning control of Glasgow at the council elections in May – but things will happen along the way and the question is whether they are flexible enough to deal with that.

“I think they will have difficulty keeping the momentum over such a long period.”

Nevertheless, Nationalists remain confident that history is on their side and they can weather whatever storms may arise and deliver a clear “yes” vote in the independence referendum.

They say they are quite relaxed about all the alternatives – Devo Max, Devo Plus or anything else – now being put forward. Talk by David Cameron or Alistair Darling about increased powers available for Holyrood all help make the case, they say.

One senior figure says: “Once people see there are more powers on offer, they will look at it and say ‘Why not take the lot?’ People are going to decide just to go for it.”

Scots favour Queen & Corrie

VOTERS like Alex Salmond’s reassurances that an independent Scotland would not mean losing the Queen, the currency or Coronation Street.

An opinion poll shows 60 per cent support for retaining the Queen as head of state, 82 per cent in favour of keeping the pound and 63 per cent wanting to stick with present broadcasting arrangements. But the YouGov poll found in a straight yes/no question only 32 per cent were in favour of independence while 53 per cent were against.

When “tax and spending powers” was added as another option, it became the most popular choice with 36 per cent support compared with 24 per cent for “full independence” and 33 per cent for the status quo.