Last night’s debate confirmed that Scotland’s parties will spend this election dutifully sticking to the speed limit in their own lane.
Constitutional exchanges made the headlines, but that’s because journalists are duty bound to report something – the debates certainly stretch the definition of “news”. Predictable unionist pearl clutching. Predictable nationalist evasiveness. All of it simulated: in private, almost everyone in the Scottish village trusts Nicola Sturgeon to maintain the status quo. You get the sense that all these parties are worn but comfortable items of furniture, to be shuffled around Holyrood manor in a quinquennial dusting exercise, ultimately to be placed neatly back in their same groove.
Nicola Sturgeon seems even more exasperated by questions of independence than by Alex Salmond. Devolution suits her style. Barnett money is delivered, that money is spent, briefs are mastered, complaints are registered, elections are won. By contrast, independence raises a raft of questions that make her squirm, not least how the Scottish national unit makes (and issues) its money, and how self-determination will be actualised without taking a fight to Westminster.
But even if all the SNP leadership’s instincts tell them to drop independence, they can’t. Not because of some imagined wing of hairy-chested fundamentalists, or even because of the threat posed by Alex Salmond. The true problem is that the independence narrative remains central to excusing the domestic failures of an otherwise archetypical centrist government. The constitution supplies the excuse and the answer: nothing is happening because of Westminster; but independence will allow us to show our progressive bona fides.
That said, having done little of note in seven years, the SNP has suddenly issued a raft of worthy policy promises. One brand of cynics will call this a panicked response to the Alba Party (which may, if nothing else, have helped bring the announcements forward). Another brand of cynics will ask, if these policies are so good, why haven’t they been implemented before? A valid question that persistently haunts parties who have been in government too long. A third faction of cynics will wonder whether sudden flurries of policy will be the payoff for another five years of constitutional limbo.
But carping cannot disguise the fact that Sturgeon was the most capable politician there and the only one imaginable as the next First Minister (unless, like me, you fantasise about making a cabinet out of the audience to shake things up). Change was only likely to come through the SNP’s own structures. With the defections to Alba, the SNP will return to its centrally controlled, machine-driven management style.
Her opponents have bet the house on a party-political alternative. Alba’s absence was far more notable than the presence of any rival party leader. Does it stand a chance, or will it be obliterated? Polls in coming weeks will make for unusually interesting reading.