In the same week as the Hillsborough Inquest finally delivered its verdict, to an outpouring of solidarity and shared celebration; the same week in which we saw renewed vilification for the slimy sods of News International – Nicola Sturgeon poses for THAT picture. Holding up a copy of the Sun, endorsing it as it endorses her…
Now, in the left-Indy-Yes voting corner of the local twitttersphere that I inhabit, this has of course provoked some comment. “It’s a fake,” yell some. “She was tired,” say others. ”It was a joke,” say yet more. And then, most ludicrously of all…”It was an accident.”
Please don’t try to tell me there was no thinking behind it, or that the SNP electoral machine, especially that surrounding the First Minister, is anything other than professional! Now that really is stretching the envelope of credibility: Nicola Sturgeon poses for a photograph…by ACCIDENT!?!
Next you’ll be saying that’s not really Ruth Davidson on that tank because she has no taste for her self image on various eccentric forms of transport.
So, given that what we’ve just seen is a piece of old fashioned machine politics; given that responding to the endorsement of the biggest selling paper in the country, with a wee bit of endorsement of the product, is just the expected quid pro quo, just business as usual… What was the thinking behind it?
Oddly enough, listening to Nicola Sturgeon this morning on the Today programme – effortlessly batting around that old Welsh Harumpher she was talking to – there was a bit of a clue.
It’s not about Independence, she was telling him. Over and over. Loud and clear. “I know YOU and my political opponents think we’re obsessed with nothing else” she seemed to say, “but the truth is that you’re the ones who keep going on about it. This is about a programme of government, and, by the way, the top item on the list is education.”
Now, in 1997 Tony Blair talked a lot about education…
(–BANG! There we go… That’s the trouble with politics at the moment. You just mention somebody’s name (Hitler, Tony Blair) and you find yourself in hot water–)
…As part of the New Labour project for occupying the centre ground of British Politics. And, in UK terms, of course, New Labour was hugely successful. The problem was that in endorsing, as Blair and Brown did, the Thatcherite “revision” of the post war settlement that held “Britain” together as a cohesive social unit, New Labour continued the fissuring of that project, fulfilling Tom Nairn’s prediction of the Break Up of Britain.
This opened the door, in electoral politics in Scotland, to the SNP strategy of replacing the Labour Party, occupying the centre ground of a distinctly SCOTTISH politics – a ground profoundly different from the UK.
The trap for Labour was that to do what it took to win a UK election, it had to abandon its base of support in the “regions”. And in THIS particular region, there was someone waiting to take their place. Someone who would dress in the left wing clothes that New Labour had shed (in order to win seats in the South East of England).
Thing is, that story is over now: the replacement job is done. If there is one thing that this election definitely signifies, it is that we have come to the end of that particular old (successful SNP) song.
This is the New Normal of Scottish politics, the new centre. The SNP in the middle, the Tories on the right, and contested territory on the left. And for a political party, the centre is EXACTLY where you want to be. Ask Tony Blair.
What is going on is that the SNP no longer need to wear the clothes of the left. Because – though it may offend the twittersphere – they know that there are more votes to be gained in a Sun endorsement, than there are votes to be lost to people who will probably vote Rise or Green or Labour on the list vote anyway.
They know that the people of Scotland are not nearly as left wing as the noisier folk among us would like to think. They know that Blair was right. Elections are won in the centre. But that was in the UK…then. This is Scotland now. And the centre is wherever Nicola says it is.
This election is about consolidating the centre ground. Competence is the name of the game. And independence, to the degree it is on the agenda at all, is in the gift of a UK electorate who may well vote for Brexit, and re-elect the Tories in 2020.
In that context, if independence comes, it will come as an award for this next period of manifest and displayed SNP competence. An award granted by what we used to call “the settled will” of the Scottish people.
We’ll see on Thursday night if they were right to make the choice to pose genially with a cover of the Sun. We’ll see over the next few years if nemesis follows hubris – the way it usually does. But please don’t give me any nonsense about “that photo” being the equivalent of Ken Livingstone making an arse of himself over the weekend.
The SNP know exactly what they’re doing.