Friday, 6 May 2011

A tale of three leaders

To paraphrase Tony Blair slightly, now is not the time for clichés and hyperbole, but the scale of the SNP's Holyrood victory leaves me gobsmacked and indeed politically shell shocked. In fact even caught up in the Nationalist fervour to the extent of thinking that perhaps the SNP are a great party, Alex Salmond deserves to be president and Scotland should be freed from the shackles...oh, stop it, things will be back to personal reality pretty soon!

Like many I thought the polls were exaggerating the scale of the SNP victory, but if anything it looks like they were underestimating it, thus the landslide victory, or at least as close to one as could ever be expected in the Holyrood context.

Equally, now is perhaps not the best time for any kind of detailed analysis, but perhaps the most significant electoral factors were three of the party leaders. Of course, one of the great turnarounds in personal fortunes in recent years has been that of Nick Clegg's, from the hero of the Westminster leaders' debates last year to the villain of the Lib Dem's unpopularity following their coalition deal with the Conservatives.

On the other hand, Labour under Iain Gray has failed to capitalise on the consequent Lib Dem meltdown in Scotland, and although perhaps more ridiculed than reviled à la Clegg, clearly Scottish voters were unimpressed by his insipid personality.

By contrast Alex Salmond is often called the only 'big beast' in Scottish politics, which the SNP exploited in terms of the contest's quasi-presidential feel, in particular taking advantage of the Lib Dem rout to the obvious detriment of Labour - despite the latter's share of the vote remaining largely unchanged - including the scalps of some of their more heavyweight Holyrood politicians (or perhaps 'middleweight' is more appropriate, even in the context of the upper echelons of Scottish Labour).

Clearly all this will put the SNP on a huge roll, at least until the realities of office catch up with them and the age of austerity takes hold, and it's that poisoned chalice scenario again, perhaps paradoxically exacerbated in view of the scale of the Nationalist victory. This situation is excellently portrayed by Ian Macwhirter in yesterday's Herald and by Professor David Bell in today's Scotsman.

Of course, Salmond & Co will attempt to blame it all on Westminster - the positivity, vision and hope only goes so far - and the extent to which this impresses the electorate will be crucial in the coming few years.

Equally, even the more realistic of the Nationalists will be hugely encouraged by the results as regards the winnability of an independence referendum, and indeed how this might play out in a few years time will depend to a large extent on whether the public blames Westminster or Holyrood for the cuts agenda.

But Iain Macwhirter's claim on TV earlier that the results demonstrated Scots had "lost their fear" of independence is surely overegging the pudding at this stage: the pundits are always telling us how the sophisticated Scottish electorate is able to differentiate Westminster from Holyrood (thankfully!), and by the same token they can also vote SNP for the latter without it representing support for independence.

In the meantime, however, the SNP can surely be excused a bit of triumphalism. For a day or two at least.

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