If you turn off the microphones, lock the doors and guarantee eternal anonymity, some of Scottish Labour’s brightest hopes will confess a guilty secret. They sympathise with the SNP.
Not that they want an independent Scotland: that remains a heresy. But when the cameras are gone and the curtains are drawn, Labour’s younger modernisers swap their ritualised “Nat-bashing” for something more measured and forward-looking. They might acknowledge that there are “very committed social democrats” in the SNP. They might mention the virtues of “non-secessionist nationalism”. They might even contemplate working with named Nationalists in a never-never land called “realignment”.
These cloistered meditations raise interesting questions about the SNP. After ten years of leading his party, how deep is Alex Salmond’s desire for independence? Would SNP supporters settle for less? Could we see the Nationalists governing a devolved Scotland, alone or in coalition?
Such futuristic subtleties have been hijacked by a blast from the past. Tax looks likely to dominate the Holyrood election campaign, which kicks off after Easter. Salmond has pledged to reverse Gordon Brown’s 1p Budget tax cut and spend the money on schools, hospitals and housing. The SNP says voters can choose between “a penny bribe, or a penny for Scotland”.
It was an unexpected decision for a party leader who has spent months remodelling himself in the new Labour image. Salmond has lunched in Edinburgh boardrooms and rhapsodised about cutting corporation tax. He competed with the Chancellor for the favours of Prudence. It looked increasingly likely that the party would renounce anything so profligate as the “tartan tax” powers.
But on the Friday after the Budget, the SNP stripped off the Clark Kent suit-and-spectacles to reveal itself as Scotland’s Superman. Salmond pledged that, if elected, he would use 1p of the tartan tax to wipe out Brown’s Budget “bribe” from April 2000, releasing £690 million for the Holyrood parliament to spend over three years.
Electoral suicide? The SNP is gambling on the hypothesis – much advanced but rarely tested – that Scots are an altruistic breed who care more about their fellow man than do the egocentric English. But SNP strategists, huddled in their Edinburgh eyrie over a bad pastel portrait of Sean Connery, harbour a less noble aim. They hope to discomfort Labour voters already unhappy with their government’s support for tuition fees and the Private Finance Initiative.
Labour Party staff at Delta House in Glasgow are frankly overjoyed – a joy almost matched this week when Salmond became the first party leader to condemn the bombing of Serbia. They promptly put out a new set of posters proclaiming: “The SNP divorce means more tax.”A Scotsman poll found that 65 per cent said the SNP’s decision would make no difference to how they voted, but focus groups reveal intense suspicion of the notion that the Nationalists’ tax plans will be limited to a penny.
Even in the SNP itself, there was some top-level disquiet. Three members of the party’s “cabinet” voted against it: Alex Neil and Fergus Ewing – both candidates for SNP target seats – and the MP Roseanna Cunningham. All were worried that Salmond, and his deputy John Swinney, were using the wrong tactic at the wrong time. They felt that fear of high taxes could pile up on fear of independence and alienate the critical “splitters” – Labour voters temporarily flirting with the SNP for the Scottish elections.
But Salmond won the overwhelming backing of his party at a special spring conference last month. The few dissenters came from the left, objecting that income tax was regressive and that the party was losing sight of its objective: independence.
More worryingly for Salmond and Swinney, there was an instant spat with the business community. The CBI warned that Scotland must not become a “high-tax enclave”, earning a sharp rebuke from Swinney, who claimed that Budget plans to raise fuel duty were “more damaging to business than our proposals to freeze income tax”.
Fall-out has also reached the Liberal Democrats, who have themselves promised to use a penny of the tartan tax to improve education. The “Penny for Scotland” announcement made them panic about getting too close to the SNP. Party spokesmen started to backtrack and say they would not “necessarily” invoke the tax power. The missing voice in this debate is the voice of the right. Labour now sees the campaign as a re-run of the 1992 general election – with Alex Salmond playing Neil Kinnock. The nasty logic is that Donald Dewar ends up playing John Major. The complete collapse of the Tories in Scotland robs Labour of a convenient hate-figure, and a useful unionist ally against the SNP.
The SNP’s next, and critical, task is to capture the voters’ imagination by spelling out what its £690 million could be used for. The party has been trawling for ideas from among organisations such as Shelter and the British Medical Association to come up with concrete detail of the kind Labour tried for with its five “early pledges”.
If Salmond loses his gamble and the SNP come a poor second on 6 May, what will the consequences be? He has led his party for a decade, bringing it to the centre stage of Scottish politics, and might be forgiven for feeling fatigued. There is no obvious heir in his Westminster team, and Swinney will be equally implicated in the “Penny for Scotland” policy. The search for a successor could be one of Holyrood’s more exciting dramas.