Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Just What Has Alex Salmond Ever Done For Us?

I must admit to being amused by “Scottish” Labour’s very own pussycat in a cardigan Simon Pia.  He does have this shtick of being laid back and yet does catch people out.  His (and Scottish Labour’s) bone of contention is that the SNP aren’t really as left of centre as they make out.  This is all rather pertinent given the air of nostalgia enveloping the, not quite out the door yet, former First Minister Alex Salmond.

And just to show I don't have the power to point and tax things like glasses of water...
The tributes have flowed, and that’s before we get to Saturday’s conference appearance where he (unintentionally) nearly upstaged his successor Nicola Sturgeon and the gathering outside the conference venue to give thanks.  All of which has left me rather underwhelmed.

Yes, under Salmond there is free prescriptions, a council tax freeze, no tuition fees, a stop to the hospital closures proposed by the McConnell administration and an investment in renewable energy.  All of which delivered in the teeth of a rapidly contracting funding settlement from Westminster.  At the end of Salmond’s first term, I made the point that Salmond has been the effective “steady hand on the tiller” rather than a reforming character. 

However, Salmond has relied on this in his second term as this period has become all about the referendum.  Maybe it is unfair, after all there’s been the amalgamation of all of Scotland’s constabularies into the single “Police Scotland” (though to be honest, this did appear in the Labour & Tory Holyrood manifestos too in 2011, with the Lib Dems the only party to voice legitimate concerns).  It does feel as if the decks have been cleared for the referendum.  In the light of the no vote, does this leave Salmond without a legacy?

Certainly there have been opportunities among Salmond’s list of achievements to fashion a lasting legacy.  From the council tax freeze, we were supposed to be getting Local Income Tax.  When the sums were shown not to add up, there should really have been a debate on how to replace the Council Tax.  Instead the freeze continued.  Instead of upping the money flowing into the NHS, the Salmond administration could look at reforms (particularly in the field of middle management) to the NHS.  Maybe, the move from Standard Grades to CFE will be seen as a legacy in years to come – a successful attempt to bring the standard of education up – but at the moment there are still many teething problems to be ironed out.

Whatever else Salmond does though, front & centre of his time in Bute House will be that referendum.  Maybe that’s the thing though.  Salmond’s legacy might not be a policy initiative but more the comparative radicalisation of the Scottish electorate.  Not in terms of a shift to the left (it remains to be seen if this is the case, though we will know next May) but in the increased politicization of the Scottish electorate.  It’s this increased political awareness that spells bad news for a Labour party desperate to make up some red water on the Tories.  That dawning realization that the Tories spending plans will be aped by Labour will not go down well among the Scottish electorate, that realization can be attributed to the referendum effect.

If Salmond’s achievements are not as much as they could have been, his supposed black marks are not the ones you might think.  For me, the biggest disappointment was that the scandal surrounding the continuing of the First Scotrail franchise was swept under the carpet by all and sundry.  Mind you, maybe this did play a part in the recent award to Abellio of the Scotrail contract.  There was also his government’s part in Trump-town.  Then again, like with Salmond’s cheerleading regarding RBS takeover of the Dutch bank ABN Amro, politicians of all parties were all too keen on showing that Scotland was a good place for business.  It just makes Salmond’s involvement in Trump’s development more of a harbinger that things hadn’t really changed. 

The much higher profile black marks don’t really stack up.  The release of “the biggest mass murderer in Scottish legal history” on compassionate grounds doesn’t stack up because, as I’ve always argued, Megrahi rather than the biggest murderer is more the victim of the biggest miscarriage of justice in Scottish legal history.  Meanwhile Scottish Labour’s favourite stick was that the SNP was anti-Glasgow, the ammunition for this was the cancellation of the proposed Glasgow Airport Rail Link.  While there is a case for some sort of rail link between Glasgow and it’s Airport, the cack handed way it was put together was nothing more than a vanity project for Glasgow Labour. 

Even more distasteful was the bandwagon jumping of Renfrewshire Labour politicians claiming that the GARL was a good thing, that the construction of a link destroying football pitches was a good thing, that a rail link that took visitors away from Paisley was a good thing.  Salmond & Swinney were right to scrap the project, though maybe should have looked as cost effective alternatives.  That Renfrewshire Labour activists still cling to GARL as all that is wrong with the SNP shows that they’re not learning.

In some respects, Salmond has been fortunate that his opponents in Scottish Labour were still in a sulk about 2007 and all that to be a truly effective opposition.  It’s possible that Wendy Alexander would have been much more effective at bringing Salmond to account than Gray and Lamont.  On the other hand, an effective Labour opposition may well have pushed the SNP to go further with regard to legislating through Holyrood.  If there’s that sense that Salmond’s second term was all about the referendum, well it’s because they could afford to.  A poor opposition at Holyrood meant that Salmond’s government has essentially been in cruse control since May 2011.

With the Salmond years now over, only the Inverdale question remains.  To paraphrase.  In the pantheon of great first ministers, where does he stand?  I’ve long said that he has set the standard for Scottish First Minister and nothing has really changed my mind.  Singularly the most accomplished & effective occupant of Bute House, Salmond has been the one man advertisement for the big jobs being filled by experienced people that have served their apprentice.  Especially pertinent given the inexperience at the top of the Westminster parties (Cameron has been an MP for only 13 years, Milliband & Clegg for 9).  Them’s big shoes to fill for Sturgeon, and as I’ve already said that brings it’s own pressures.

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