Sturgeon takes the helm as SNP plots Westminster offensive…
Scotland’s new First Minister took office this week, it what is merely the latest development in a resurgence of Nationalist support which has confounded those unionists, amongst whom I include myself, who supposed that a ten-point defeat in the referendum would “plunge the SNP into crisis”.
Nicola Sturgeon is no Alex Salmond – he seems set to remain a one-of-a-kind colossus. Yet despite a calmer, more managerial approach to governing Sturgeon is not resigning the SNP to be ‘Scotland’s party of government’ until such time as another referendum is viable. Instead, she claims that independence will be won within her tenure as First Minister.
She is naturally buoyed by the rise of what one commentator describes as “Yesism”. For tens of thousands of people the ‘cause of Scotland’ – and its political wing, the SNP – has become utterly central to their sense of identity.
They are by no means a majority of Scots, especially when one allows that many Yes voters will not have been true believers, but they are a cultural phenomenon strong enough to allow their political leaders to hold US-style rallies and even justify the trial launch of a new, explicitly nationalist daily newspaper, which in almost any other circumstances would be a ridiculously anachronistic tactic.
In the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon has struck a markedly different tone to her predecessor – not least by taking pains to gender-balance her cabinet. During her first First Minister’s Questions the combative rhetorical beatings that Mr Salmond habitually inflicted on the opposition parties were replaced with a painstaking consensualism.
This served to wrong-foot several of her questioners, with both Labour’s Jackie Baillie and especially Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie giving the distinct impression that they prepared for the wrong sort of fight. Ruth Davidson’s usual style of data-led attacks on the SNP’s record in office seemed to better weather the change of target.
Amidst all this, the SNP are planning for the 2015 election. The party has already begun to set out its preconditions for supporting a Labour government – scrap Trident – but buoyed by the prospect of a large caucus it now appears to be aiming to build a broader “anti-austerity” wedge with Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Meanwhile, Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame has floated the idea of contesting the English border constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, currently held by retiring Liberal Democrat grandee Sir Alan Beith, in order to help the SNP win a slot in the UK leaders’ debates.
The last nationalist politician to fight and win a seat outside his own nation was TP O’Conner, who held the Liverpool Scotland constituency for the Irish Parliamentary Party for 44 years from 1885 to his death in 1929.
…as Davidson sets out an aggressive new Scottish Conservatism
Speaking of the Tory leader, Sturgeon was not the only candidate to succeed Salmond to Scotland’s highest office. Davidson took advantage of a procedure whereby any member of the Scottish Parliament may put themselves forward for the post to make a powerful speech to the Scottish Parliament outlining her vision for Scottish Conservatism.
She drew a clear dividing line between the Scottish Conservatives and the other Holyrood parties, casting the Tories as the party of parental choice and community power. She criticised the SNP for subsidising the middle classes with free prescriptions instead of directing public money to where it was needed most, and savaged Nationalist policies such as appointing a “state guardian” for every child, centralising the police, and banning the sale of council houses to tenants.
She also remained true to her commitment to school choice, echoing Conservative policies south of the border, and attacked the Nationalists for fetishising their refusal to implement tuition fees at the expense of Scotland’s higher education sector.
Since becoming leader in Scotland, one of Davidson’s most interesting lines has been that “the time for sackcloth and ashes is over”. Toeing to the national consensus and having personally well-liked leaders has, contrary to apparent logic, actually seen the Conservatives lose ground at every Scottish election since 2003.
The new line will almost certainly see the Tories less well liked by those who would never vote for them – but it could well win them voters hungry for an alternative to the high-tax, centralising consensus in a new, fiscally responsible Scottish Parliament.
Justice Minister denies Republican prisoners are being given control of prison wing
David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party and Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, has denied claims that the prison service is conceding Republican prisoners control of their prison environment.
Last week the head of the Northern Irish prison service offered to review strip-search policies and relax controls on the movements of Republican prisoners – if a recent spate of threats against prison officers came to an end.
Paul Givan, Democratic Unionist MLA and chair of the Justice Committee, claimed that according to prison officers he had spoken to the province had a “weak and capitulating minister of justice”, and claimed that Republican prisoners were replicating the tactics used by the IRA to secure prison concessions.
Despite rejecting the specific criticisms, Ford supported a motion calling upon him to reject any concessions to the prisoners, which passed the Assembly vote.
Welsh Assembly mulls proposed £10,000 pay rise for AMs
First Minister Carwyn Jones has said that he can’t see how Labour could support proposals, put forward by an independent commission, to increase the pay of Assembly Members by 18 per cent in a time of spending cuts.
The independent remuneration board claims that the rise, which would see the cabinet ministers paid £100,000 and the First Minister £140,000, reflects the increased responsibilities of Assembly Members as more powers are passed to the Scottish Parliament.
Both Unite and Unison have called for AMs to reject it and lead the lives of “ordinary working people”, whilst Plaid leader Leanne Wood claims she’ll only accept it when everyone in Scotland is on the living wage. Liberal Democrat AM Aled Roberts reportedly said he could not look friends and neighbours in the eye if he accepted it.
However, Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach claims that the low pay of AMs is a barrier to entry for political representation, and as a single mother from outside Cardiff she had struggled with childcare costs upon being elected.