The Edinburgh International Climbing Arena is an imposing sight. Think of a quarry, roofed over, and with additional facilities, and you’ll be close to imagining it accurately.
So it provided an interesting backdrop to the launch of the SNP’s Manifesto for the Westminster Elections of 2015. As I’m sure the event planners calculated, even eschewing all the obvious metaphors involving climbing, reaching the summit, and showing true grit, the sheer scale of the place reflected the new reality for a party with over 109,000 members.
As someone who joined the SNP in the 1970s, such occasions still seem a little surreal –with the memory of similar manifesto launches being performed in pokey upstairs rooms or basements, accompanied by a deafening roar of apathy from even the Scottish media.
Today’s launch was attended by media from all over the UK and elsewhere, and by an attendance of around 1000 SNP members. The presentation was slick, the event well run, and the messages loud and clear.
Looking round the arena, I did wonder if the whole thing might go over the top. However, as Brian Tayor wrote later, this party is too experienced and too canny to make such elementary mistakes. Nicola’s entry was loudly welcomed with applause but there was not a sign of triumphalism or celebration. The mood in the hall was excited but focused; the SNP has got here through hard work and it doesn’t seem that they are prepared to give away their position through sloppiness or premature point scoring. This was not a rally, it was the launch of a manifesto. Those who cried it something else are maybe a little befuddled at viewing such enthusiasm from so many politically motivated folk.
How it was done was impressive, but what was important was what was said.
The SNP now has a coherent range of left of centre policies delivered with some passion and expertise by a leader who clearly and obviously believes in social justice. Indeed, she speaks with more conviction and understanding of what needs to be done to support the most vulnerable than any other politician in Scotland today.
It was a sign of the times that the first five or six questions from the broadcast media were from London based organizations.
Was she a hypocrite to complain when English votes decided on Scottish issues, but to look to seize the chance to influence UK politics from Scotland? As she pointed out: it was the Better Together campaign who begged Scotland to stay – to “lead the Union” not “leave it” – they can hardly complain at the result of just such a democratic vote.
If the SNP were in favour of redistributive policies, why had they not enacted any in their seven years in government? Nicola pointed out that the fact that no such powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament was one of the reasons why independence was needed.
The assembled media have been unused to such extended opportunities to question the party leaders during this campaign, and were clearly enjoying the chance. “Why are the English afraid of you?” brought forth a startled laugh, and a suggestion that Mr Cameron might be, but that her own mail box was filled with folk in England asking how they could vote SNP.
As the mainstream media have pointed out, this manifesto reaches out to northern England in particular – a region which suffers, like Scotland, from the drag of power and resources towards London. Having lived in the north west of England for twelve years, and having family and friends there, I can vouch for the envy they have at the engagement in politics of folk north of the Border, and the feeling engendered by the Referendum campaign that ordinary people can make a difference. They would love to vote for a party like the SNP which can make commitments to the most vulnerable in society without monitoring the reactions of the middle England electorate whose support is required for a Westminster majority.
We saw in the Leaders’ Debate, generally speaking, that the more left leaning voters hear of the SNP’s plans, the more they take to them – right across the UK. Today’s Manifesto launch has attracted major interest from the UK media and will hopefully mark a continuation of a process of understanding – or at least listening to – the SNP’s actual policies, rather than presenting a 1970s picture of Braveheart Nats foaming at the mouth with hatred for the English.
Much has been made of the synchronicity between Labour ideas and the SNP manifesto – and, from some areas, a suggestion that the policies have been “stolen”. The real riposte to that is that the voters have seen time and again since the Blair years the difference between what Labour promises in opposition and delivers in power. Seemingly, they trust the SNP in their commitment to ‘hold the Labour Party’s feet to the fire’ over their left of centre commitments and to pull them away from their Tory-Lite policies. As the First Minister said today: “I didn’t say there was no difference between Miliband and Cameron – I said they weren’t different enough.”
Labour have long claimed that Scotland supports Labour policies. I think they are right in that. The difference in 2015 is that it’s the SNP the voters trust to put them into action.
And Labour in Scotland would need to look at its own record to understand why that is so.