Will the referendum come too soon for Salmond, the SNP Pretender?

Salmond and his party have two years to gain an extra 20 points’ worth of support.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP annual conference on October 20, 2012 in Perth, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Room number two of Perth’s Salutation Hotel is where Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, stayed one night in 1745.
The plaque on the wall outside tells us that, on this fateful occasion, a Colonel Bower was seen wearing the tell-tale white cockade of the Jacobites and shaking hands with the Young Pretender, conduct that would lead to his trial in York. Two streets away from the Salutation the Scottish National Party is holding its annual conference from Thursday to Sunday, and its leader, Alex Salmond, is receiving the acclaim of the audience at the city’s concert hall following his keynote speech. It hasn’t been one of his vintage performances and the First Minister looks jaded. Even so, the people in the front rows are all competing with television crews and a host of photographers as they try to clasp the new pretender’s hand. Two hundred and fifty or so years after Charles Edward bided the night in Perth, another Scottish leader is tilting at the throne of Scotland.

Victory for fine rhetoric
It soon becomes evident that the spirit of euphoria that characterised the conference in Inverness last year is absent. Back then, the party was wandering about in a happy stupor after its astounding landslide victory in the Holyrood election and, suddenly, everything seemed possible. The long-dreamt-of referendum on independence would at last take place.

But is 2014 too soon for it? The debate the previous day on the SNP’s Nato membership U-turn suggested that, for the first time in a generation, the leadership had seriously misread the party’s rank and file. The debate itself is something splendid to behold. Here is politics red in tooth and claw, as a matter of crucial importance to the party is decided on the day by an old-fashioned show of hands. You will seldom see such passion and raw emotion as the advantage sways one way and then the other. The leadership wants an independent Scotland to be a member of Nato yet still retains its opposition to nuclear weapons. It is a necessary evil if SNP leaders are to take with them some of the 75 per cent of Scots who would not feel secure without Nato.

However, opponents claim that to belong to an organisation with nuclear first strike capability while ditching Trident is fundamentally hypocritical and strikes at the soul of this most pacifist of Britain’s political parties. It is pragmatism v principle. That the pragmatists narrowly carry the day is thanks largely to two minutes of barnstorming oratory by the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill.

On the road to Glasgow
I am accosted by the reassuring rasp of the Daily Telegraph’s Scotland editor, Alan Cochrane. He is unionism’s only true flagbearer in Scotland and he tells me, in hushed tones, of a spiritual encounter the previous day on the London-to-Glasgow train after he helped an older lady with her luggage. Having enquired as to Cochrane’s identity, the lady revealed that her own name was Sister Frances, a Catholic nun returning for a funeral. “I shall say a prayer for you,” she told the newspaperman, who persists in the Reformed tradition. As he rejects my suggestion of some mild revelry at a nearby tavern to mark his spiritual awakening, I tell him that Sister Frances’s prayers must already be having an effect.

Bias on the brain
The previous night, Cochrane had been on the panel for the BBC Question Time broadcast from Easterhouse in the East End of Glasgow. Among those appearing were the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson; the SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon; and the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Labour’s Margaret Curran. The audience was as boisterous as you might expect in one of the city’s edgier arrondissements, and there was some sporadic booing of Sturgeon. Yet David Dimbleby held it all together with his usual bumptious aplomb.

At the conference in Perth the following day, there are rumblings from some nationalists that the programme was heavily tilted towards the unionists and was therefore characteristic of what they see as the BBC’s institutional bias. This view is echoed at a fringe meeting that evening organised by the National Union of Journalists in Scotland. The event seeks to explore issues of press regulation following the Leveson inquiry, but most of the questions express frustration at perceived anti-SNP bias in Scotland’s national newspaper titles.

I don’t accept this. Even as the meeting unfolds, Salmond is having a cosy chat with senior executives of News International, owner of the Sun, the Scottish edition of which has been supporting the SNP for the past two years. Earlier this year, the steadfastly Labour-supporting Daily Record recruited the nationalist MSP Joan McAlpine as one of its chief columnists. The anti-nationalist press conspiracy theorists need to return to reality.

Poor man’s friend
I ask a senior party adviser if ministers and MSPs have been told to cram as many messages about social justice as possible into their speeches, because this seems to be the overall conference theme. The First Minister, for his part, pledged £11m to provide family nurses in every local authority.

The next day, Sturgeon announced a £33m fund to help the country’s most vulnerable. Two weeks earlier, the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Johann Lamont, had made a badly judged reference to the “something-for-nothing” society and signalled Labour’s disenchantment with the country’s network of free care initiatives. Few conference speakers passed up the opportunity to castigate Lamont’s “Thatcher moment”; it’s clear to me that the SNP has firmly positioned itself as Scotland’s party of social justice.

Salmond and his party have two years to gain the extra 20 points’ worth of support they need for independence and that is why this option for the poor will come to dominate the party’s white paper on independence late next year. If it is accompanied by a credible economic narrative, it may yet form an intoxicating brew.