David Cameron speaking from the Olympic Velodrome on 7 February. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Cameron takes a leaf out of Salmond's book and speaks to the heart, not the head

Britain's muted but certain recovery is bad news for Alex Salmond. David Cameron seems to have learned from the Scottish First Minister, appealing to the heart, not the head.

“Good morning. My name is Jackie and I am from Legacy here at the Olympic Park...” This was probably a well-worn joke, accessible to those who liked the spoof Olympic sitcom 2012 and that sort of thing, but Jackie couldn’t have done more to lighten the mood as she conjured up in our minds a speech by the lady from Sustainability, and an extended coach ride that took us from Stratford International station to the Olympic Park, via Wembley Stadium.

Disturbingly, it was true. She was from Legacy, and she began to explain the regeneration programme. Happily, it created enough of a distraction to allow for initial conversations. I introduced myself to the lady sitting next to me, called Olga it turned out, who informed me she was the CEO of a medical imaging firm. “Why are you here?” I asked. “I do not know,” she replied in a faintly Eastern European accent. “Why are you here?” she retorted. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. After this verbal mirroring finished we determined to stick together in case everyone else knew why they were there.

We needn’t have. Even Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dame Tessa Jowell looked slightly wide-eyed at their inclusion (understandably in Tessa’s case – she had had to endure the ranting of the historian David Starkey the night before as a fellow panelist on Question Time), despite the fact that they had more right than others to be at the venue, but weren’t necessarily connected to what was about to be said.

In a sense, I had a connection with the content (namely a couple of articles I’ve written for the New Statesman website on the subject, with the predictable quotidian abuse for doing so) but not the venue. In PR terms maybe we were, collectively, engaged in a piece of cosmic cancellation that rendered the audience almost entirely neutral.

I had already heard at 6:30am on Radio 4 “that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be saying later today at the Olympic Velodrome that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be emailing, texting and telling their Scottish friends to vote to stay in the Union on 18th September...” so I was simultaneously miffed and relaxed about being bussed in as a member of a well-dressed group of extras. To my surprise, Olga, an expert in image analysis, hadn’t clocked that we should be more interested in analysing the image, rather than the content.

Because, as it turned out, and for no other reason than coincidence, the Prime Minister did attempt something that I had urged in a recent New Statesman article – to avoid the technical arguments on Scottish independence, and appeal to the emotions. The “Better Together” campaign appeals (like its spokesman, Alistair Darling) to the mind, while Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP – who doesn’t have the fig leaf of a thought-through policy or a contingency plan to cover his political ambitions – appeals to the heart.

David Cameron’s intervention was specifically designed to redress that balance. And it was a lesson in public speech-making; admittedly sometimes too insistent, sometimes a little too red-faced in delivery, sometimes a little too anecdotal and sometimes veering towards making the case for independence (the list of Scottish cultural and business successes was impressive), but always, and this is something that really cannot be doubted, an enunciation of a personal desire to see the union stay together because he genuinely believes only chaos and diminution lie ahead should Scotland vote “Yes” to independence.

Salmond’s response was unsurprisingly aggressive – he even contrived to use the phrase I predicted for him when he said “game on” during an interview on the BBC One O’Clock News. With Salmond, it really is like waiving a stick in front of a dog when it comes to the points of view of others, especially if you are English, a Prime Minister and called David Cameron. Each and every piece of opposition has to be stamped upon as though he and the SNP are creating an informational version of a Celtic North Korea. But he failed to land a killer blow, even missing the obvious “on yer bike” line for choosing the velodrome as the venue for the speech.

The economic situation of the UK is unlikely to help Salmond in the coming months; there is little to knock the UK off course from its muted recovery, with signs that a new credit cycle is starting while unemployment is falling, and demand for graduates is increasing. These are all things that lead people to desire to maintain the status quo. And since few people know about – or are sufficiently interested in – the niceties of sovereign credit ratings, single currencies or the need for new over-arching institutions to police an independent Scotland, Cameron’s appeal to the heart is a welcome addition to the technocratic angle. It couldn’t have come out any clearer if you’d passed the whole thing through one of Olga’s award-winning image processing algorithms.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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