Scottish News – We’ve witnessed 2010, but what of 2011?

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With 2010 over and our retrospective look now gathering dust along with the rest of the Scottish news from last year, what can we expect as we enter 2011 and what might prove to be a seminal year in Scotland’s long and controversial political history?

Last year ended with support for the Union and calls for independence running neck and neck.  At 44 per cent and 40 per cent respectively, the 16 per cent who have yet to make up their minds will be the focus for those making the argument.

The other question of course is whether Alex Salmond or Iain Gray will guide their respective parties to Holyrood election triumph and what the reaction of the Scottish electorate will be when they start to see the effects of the London cuts to the block grant.

Few were aware of the real terms cut introduced by Labour under Gordon Brown, the effects went by relatively unnoticed.  However make no mistake, the effects of the £1.3 billion cut to next year’s budget will be felt, as they will every year after.  It’s going to bite and the Scottish electorate will expect their new government to have some sort of strategy in place in order to mitigate the pain.

But of course the lead up to May 5th is where the initial action will be as the parties’ position themselves for what promises to be a bitter campaign battle.  It’s already clear that Labour’s early strategy is policy-lite and insult heavy.  Iain Gray’s recent very public personal attacks on Alex Salmond are merely a continuation of his behaviour in the Holyrood chamber where vitriol has replaced any kind of constructive argument.

First Ministers Questions is one thing though and an electorate will quickly tire of this kind of approach, indeed the Scottish media is beginning to send out signals to Gray and his strategists that they need to up their game.  Labour also have a major problem in that Gray has already made the first serious error of the campaign by making it clear that Labour will increase council tax if they win.  Scottish Labour also back pay restraint, so they have to find a way to square the ‘less pay – higher tax bills’ circle.

The SNP have decided on an approach that focuses on the character of the two main protagonists.  Salmond is a big beast at Holyrood and is a respected political figure across the UK.  In contrast Iain Gray struggles with an image problem not helped by public appearances that are extremely limited.  Gray also struggles with even gentle probing in interview situations as was demonstrated at the Scottish Labour conference when he appeared to momentarily freeze when pressed on his party’s council tax policy.

The SNP’s other approach is to offer the electorate the very clear alternative that is fiscal independence.  Full Fiscal Autonomy, Devo-Max, Economic Independence – you pays your money you takes your euphemism – basically the argument is that Scotland retains all money raised in Scotland and thus the fiscal surplus currently being funnelled straight into the UK Treasury can be used in order to protect jobs and public services.

The policy has the backing of eminent economists, academics and business leaders.  The one major weakness of course is that it needs a referendum before it can be implemented.  The SNP backed off of its pledge to bring an independence bill before the Scottish parliament in this term, a strategic gamble.  Opponents will attack this clear ‘U’ turn and ask why, if they couldn’t honour the promise between 2007 and 2011, anyone should believe them this time?

The SNP counter of course will be that a second successive SNP victory will change the political dynamic for good and the momentum will be there for a referendum.  A newly elected SNP government could turn it into a vote of no confidence and defy the Unionists to block the will of the Scottish people.  So, the message will be vote SNP if you want a ‘get out of Tory jail’ card.

The Unionist alternative to Fiscal Independence is the Scotland Bill.  This Tory inspired interpretation of ‘Calman’ has the backing of the other two unionist parties but crucially many eminent economists and business leaders are against the proposals calling them unworkable and damaging.  A mature debate on the Scottish economy and the best way forward is critical but not guaranteed.

This is because politics in Scotland is not a straight debate between parties.  Into the mix we have what is very loosely termed the ‘Scottish media’.

A group of newspapers and a London controlled broadcasting corporation don’t so much report the political narrative north of the border, they actively manipulate and influence it.  Scotland is very poorly served by its newspapers and by the BBC’s Scottish outpost in Glasgow.  The end of 2010 and first day of 2011 was indicative of what we can expect from the Scottish media as 2011 unfolds.

The attack on the SNP by a Unionist head of a business lobbying organisation days ago was afforded prominent positioning by most of our media.  BBC Scotland headlined the story both online and on TV and Radio – it featured on Reporting Scotland, thus ensuring that everyone was aware of the attack.  By contrast a counter from an independent think tank was all but ignored, presented by newspapers as ‘a row’ and hardly mentioned by BBC Scotland – if at all.

The welcome interjection of Ben Thompson into the ‘debate’ was unexpected and left the Unionist media in an unusual situation.  It resulted in Mr Iain McMillan drafting an angry letter to these newspapers that effectively ‘blew his cover’ and, some would say, exposed his political agenda.  It will be against a backdrop of these politically motivated press releases that mature debate about Scotland’s future will struggle to be heard.

But what of the other two parties, the Tories and the LibDems?  Until the general election these two would have filled the walk on role of the Scottish election, and to a degree the Tories still will. 

The LibDems though are the fly in the ointment for Labour and the media.  As the only party Labour can form a coalition with at Holyrood the LibDems are key to a stable Unionist administration.  For this to be possible the libDems must be able to contribute sufficient numbers of MSPs to ensure a majority.  Without the LibDems a triumphant Iain Gray has to lead a minority Labour administration. 

The LibDems are haemorrhaging support in Scotland at the moment, languishing around the 5% mark.  Their coalition with the Tories at Westminster did little for the Scottish party and their recent ‘U’ turns on tuition fees and their embracing of Tory cuts only compounded their problems.  With the LibDem vote not at all certain to migrate to Labour and almost certainly not going to the Tories the SNP could find itself the electoral beneficiary of any mass migration.

The Scottish media therefore will have to tread very carefully in its dealings with Tavish Scott and his party.  Expect them to back off from attacking the Tories new best friends in the hope of stemming their vote collapse in Scotland.

The Scottish budget will be debated in the midst of the campaign war and one thing is near certain, Labour will oppose it no matter what the SNP put forward.  The budget will pass when the Greens and The Tories eventually vote in favour and both the media and Labour will highlight the Tory support, an old ploy for sure but certain nonetheless.

Jim Devine’s forthcoming trial for alleged expense fraud is an awkward event for Labour.  We won’t see Sheridan like headlines but this is a story with UK significance so it will have to be reported.  How much damage it does to the Labour party north of the border remains to be seen.  ‘Lunchgate’ was a fortuitous happenstance when Devine’s alleged misdemeanours originally broke, time will tell if another major story ‘breaks’ in Scotland when Mr Devine’s trial begins.

Who will win in May? No idea, but one thing I am convinced about is that it is very close – do not believe the nonsense that some media commentators are spouting about it being a shoe-in for Labour.  Election campaigns are governed by strict rules and in the more balanced campaign environment expect the SNP to outperform their Labour counterparts and polls (genuine polls) to reflect this.

The Royal Wedding won’t affect the debate too much but the AV referendum is dangerous in that it will definitely deflect from Scottish issues and confuse the electorate – a deliberate Westminster ploy.  It will allow Labour and Tory big hitters to muscle in on the Scottish election campaign, to hog the national news and thus to ‘infect’ the narrative.

Whoever wins though will face an uncomfortable year as they are forced to administer a ConDem budget cut.  If it is Labour then Iain Gray may well rue his description of job losses resulting from the reduced budget as being ‘SNP Cuts’.  An unforgiving electorate will be in no mood for name calling and bleating – they will want to know what Gray’s ‘defence’ plan is and they will want it fast.

Beyond May 5th is when the intriguing battle commences.  The winning party who has not anticipated the political realities that await beyond that date will suffer at the hands of an electorate enduring painful cuts at the hands of London. 

It really is going to be a fascinating next four months – let’s hope the Scottish media prove me wrong and embrace balance and objective reporting.  For Scotland’s democracy will surely suffer if ignorance and misinformation are what we arm the electorate with as they enter the polling station on May 5th.