Something extraordinary happened today.
The leader of a political party pitched her election manifesto almost exclusively to people who don’t live here and can’t vote for her.
Such is the intensity of Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign of love-bombing England that Scotland was almost a side note at the SNP manifesto launch on Monday.
For the First Minister’s speech, delivered amid the towering rock faces of Edinburgh International Climbing Arena for the benefit of those who like their metaphors sledgehammer-subtle, was directed at people south of the border.
Scotland has all but elected its 55 SNP MPs by this point. The people Sturgeon has to win over are those centre-left voters in the rest of the country. Their support will be her leverage over a weak Labour government as much as any parliamentary arithmetic.
But until now, their image of Scottish Nationalism has been the eternally, inexplicably satisfied coupon of Alex Salmond. The dawning of the Sturgeon Era has replaced an angry middle-aged man with a young, dynamic, amiable woman as the symbol of the SNP.
That shone through her speech almost as luridly as the canary-yellow backdrop to the proceedings at Ratho.
I hate to disappoint Iain Martin but there was no Leni Riefenstahl abseiling with a shoulder-mounted DV camera while Stewart Hosie stood off-stage bawling “Ein Volk, ein Reich, einzwei Referenden”. (Though once the cameras were switched off a lederhosen-and-fishnets clad Angus Robertson did give a particularly rousing rendition of “Springtime for Hitler”.)
Instead, there was a personal appeal to voters across the United Kingdom.
She said: “Even though you can’t vote SNP, your views do matter to me. And you have a right to know what to expect of my party if the votes of the Scottish people give us influence in a hung parliament. So my promise to you is this: If the SNP emerges from this election in a position of influence, we will exercise that influence responsibly and constructively. And we will exercise it in the interests of people, not just in Scotland, but across the UK.”
To this end, the SNP would “make common cause and build alliances with others of like mind” to shift the political centre of gravity to the left. Nationalist MPs, the shiny manifesto said, would vote to end austerity, increase NHS spending across the UK by £24bn by 2020/21, and hike the minimum wage to £8.70 within five years. They would furthermore scrap Britain’s nuclear deterrent, abolish the “bedroom tax”, back EU membership and immigration, and push for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
The whole manifesto reads like the Guardian letters page printed on glossier paper.
And as if that wasn’t enough, she brought her party into line with policies where Labour has been to the left of the SNP. Having previously committed to restoration of the 50% tax rate, she now confirmed the Nationalists would back Labour’s mansion tax and tax on bankers’ bonuses.
She did everything but uncork a spicy red, put Barry White on shuffle, and whisper sweet nothings in lefty Britain’s collective ear.
For some, it will be hard to buy Sturgeon’s claim that she wants to do what’s in the best interests of the UK. The first, last, and evermore principle of the SNP, after all, is the demolition of the United Kingdom. The only question is whether longer or shorter-term tactics are best employed to achieve this end.
This may be true and her commitment to progressive solidarity across the nations and regions of a country she tried to dismantle may ring implausible. But just over two weeks from now, Sturgeon will in all likelihood hold the balance of power at Westminster. Plausibility is nice and all but it’s got nothing on 50ish seats in the House of Commons.
Labour strategists think they can govern as a minority and dare the Nationalists to vote them down. Sturgeon’s tactic is to present her party as a natural ally of Labour and dare Ed Miliband to rebuff them. The Westminster political class has come to realise that Nicola Sturgeon is more likeable than any of them. What they’re about to learn is that she’s smarter, shrewder, and wilier too.
In government in Edinburgh, the SNP has overseen 100,000 cuts to college places and a 7000 plummet in staff numbers, an NHS failing to meet its A&E targets, and a council tax freeze which “disproportionally benefits the wealthy”. Yet Sturgeon is able to present hers as the party of improving public services, reducing inequality, and progressive politics.
Call it hypocrisy. Call it chutzpah. But it is a skill that she has in spades at a time of widespread cynicism about politicians and their candour.
It is not that Scotland has “gone mad”, or at least not any more than Britain did for New Labour in 1997. Indeed, that comparison is useful for understanding the phenomenon at play north of the border. After 18 years of Tory government, the UK (including Scotland) wanted to believe in Tony Blair so much that it built him up as a near-messiah figure, a pedestal from which the only way was down.
People in Scotland want to believe. Not only and perhaps not even in independence but in a personality politician and a movement that makes them feel empowered. The SNP says things don’t have to be this way, another country is possible. Like New Labour, the SNP will do some good and it will make some mistakes but in the end it will leave people feeling let down. Such is the way of it when parties are swept to power on the unscalably high expectations of voters who are more optimistic than realistic.
That is why the oil price collapse hasn’t dented the SNP’s support. It is why the Nationalists can demand full fiscal autonomy immediately then, when a £7.6bn black hole is found, change the name to “full financial responsibility” and say not to worry because it would take years to implement anyway. It is why Sturgeon can promise a “once in a generation” referendum in 2014 and have changed her mind by 2015.
The public has made up its mind and won’t be reasoned with. Take your inconvenient facts and shove them.
Monday’s speech reminded us of something else: Sturgeon is pure class. In taking questions from journalists, she warned her activists and candidates to treat the media “respectfully” and recognise that reporters have a right and duty to “scrutinise” SNP policies. Where Salmond would have played to the crowd, she spoke to the country. And that country wasn’t Scotland, it was the United Kingdom.
(That said, liberal London, the pundits who have fairly cooed over the SNP leader, might care to reflect why the First Minister felt the need to give her supporters a public lesson in Democracy 101. It is no longer taken as given amongst some in Scotland that reporters have a right to hold politicians to account, or at least one party’s politicians.)
It was far from her best speech, shorter than most and flat in parts. But even on her worst day, Sturgeon is better than every other Scottish politician put together. One need not be a swivel-eyed Saltire-waver to be carried away by her uplifting rhetoric.
But it is rhetoric and after May 7 the messy business of parliamentary politics begins in earnest. And here things could get interesting.
So much of the criticism of the SNP is predicated on the assumption that they are wrong. That their approach to austerity is idealistic mush at best, populist bluster at worst, and doomed to failure. That the rest of the UK is not willing to be pulled to the “left”, or what passes for left in SNP terms. That English voters will not see the hand of friendship but the scraped knuckles of nationalism.
But what if they’re right? What if there is a “progressive” majority across the four nations and a Labour-led, SNP-driven government was able to grow rather than cut our way to a balanced ledger? What if austerity was scrapped, the “bedroom tax” axed, and (less likely) £100bn earmarked for upgrading our nuclear deterrent diverted to schools and hospitals?
What if, in short, the UK became more like the independent Scotland envisioned by Sturgeon? What reason would there be left for all but the most committed Nationalist to vote Yes in a future referendum?
That is a consideration for another day. Today was all about wooing the English centre-left. Relying on the highly scientific metric of counting the number of “I wish I could vote for her down here” comments in my Facebook timeline, I’d say a lot of them are making puppy-dog eyes right back at her.
Originally published on STV News.