IT HAS BECOME a bit of a political cliché, but Harold Wilson once said a week was a long time in politics. The past week – from the second day of the SNP’s annual conference until First Minister’s Questions on Thursday – was certainly a long and difficult seven days for Alex Salmond who, fittingly, idolised the former Labour Prime Minister as a teenager.
There are many similarities. Wilson (like Salmond) was essentially a non-ideological figure, a political opportunist who relied on instinct to get by. Wilson (like Salmond) saw his main task as maintaining unity among disparate wings of his party, which required policy compromises as well as tactical manoeuvring.
Thus Salmond (like Wilson) has always had a tendency to fudge difficult policies in the name of unity. For a long time this was the case when it came to equality issues, such as Section 28. But then being in government forces politicians to make difficult choices, which is why there was an awful lot of prevarication before the Scottish Government finally backed same-sex marriage.
It also marked the first chink in apparently strong SNP armour. So on the eve of the party’s annual shindig in Perth, former party leader Gordon Wilson spoke for socially conservative Nationalists (who certainly exist, although not in large numbers) when he accused the Scottish Government of “lurching down the road to fascism”. It was hyperbole, of course, but hardly helpful for the SNP’s “progressive” vision.
Salmond also faced a Harold Wilson-like dilemma when it came to NATO. His (or rather Angus Robertson’s) pitch was nakedly political: change policy or we risk losing credibility and therefore risk losing the referendum in 2014. There was no real attempt to sell NATO, while Salmond remained aloof from the whole affair, as is his wont with anything politically tricky.
But on the discipline front, having to watch as leading (and articulate) members of his party lined up to attack the policy to which he was pledged cannot have been a comfortable experience for the First Minister. And although he won the vote (by just 29 votes), the SNP ended up essentially split over membership of a “first-strike” nuclear alliance.
A few days later two MSPs – Jean Urquhart and John Finnie – resigned over the NATO policy change, reducing the SNP’s overall majority in the Scottish Parliament to just two. Although this was reasonably well handled by the party leadership (“sorry to see them go”, “valued colleagues”, etc), again it was hardly useful. Party unity suffered as a result.
Then, just to cap it all, it emerged Salmond hadn’t told the full story about whether he’d asked for legal advice on an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union. In March he said he had; last week he said he hadn’t. This was perhaps the most serious aspect of the First Minister’s long week, for it involved the all-important issue of trust.
Labour accused him of being a “liar”, not a word even political opponents use lightly, and did its best to depict the First Minister as someone prepared to do anything – even lie – to achieve independence. They tried this a few months ago when Salmond was embroiled in a similar row about his dealings with Rupert Murdoch. Remarkably, no one even mentioned this incident last week, proof of how quickly such events recede in the public (and even media) consciousness.
Will Labour’s narrative take root in voters’ minds? It might, in the long run. The SNP won last year’s Holyrood election due to a reputation for discipline, competence and having a vision of a better Scotland. If voters see that discipline breaking down (over gay marriage and NATO), competence disappearing (over EU legal advice) and the vision getting blurred (in general), then the SNP and Salmond will be in trouble.
But not, I think, quite yet. Alex Salmond is still very popular in Scotland (though less so than last year) and voters are inclined to give popular politicians the benefit of the doubt, even when things go wrong. This means the First Minister can ride out a greater number of political storms than many of his contemporaries, in Scotland and the UK.
The SNP leader is clearly aware of this fragile dynamic. In Billy Kay’s BBC Radio Scotland series The Cause, Salmond recently observed that the “SNP looks and hopefully behaves…like the party that Scotland would like to be governed by”. That was true in 2007, and even more true in 2011, although that political capital does not necessarily transfer to an independence referendum.
But he continued: “The SNP of course mustn’t get complacent in our appreciation of that – every party has support by consent: if people think your heart’s in the right place; you know what you’re doing; you’ve got the right people, they’ll forgive you a great deal. If they believe your heart’s in the wrong place, and you’ve no[t] got the right people, they won’t forgive you anything.”
Wise words. Indeed, Harold Wilson survived many long weeks in politics and won four general elections, but even he lost his shine in the end, ending up a tired, paranoid and mistrusted figure. All politicians, even Salmond, have shelf lives, but the SNP leader must be hoping he won’t end up like his childhood hero just yet.