Nothing to lose, everything to lose
The April 2 leaders’ debate saw the ‘impressive’ Nicola Sturgeon praised by the Tories. Eddie Ford gives his assessment
Following the two-hour, seven-way leaders’ debate on April 2, watched by about 10 million people, at least four winners have been proclaimed - Nicola Sturgeon, Ed Miliband, Natalie Bennett and Nigel Farage. Of course, the latter is a bit of a Marmite politician: people either love or hate what he says, with viewers naming him both the worst and best performer in the debate. Naturally, the UK Independence Party leader declared that the other leaders were “all the same” - they all supported an “open door” approach to immigration. He also reproached the NHS for treating foreign patients with HIV - obviously making a pitch for the very nasty party.
As for Bennett, the Green Party leader, this time she did not have a “mind blank” or “mental brain fade”. More importantly she appeared to be sincere and clearly positioned herself to the left of Labour - not exactly difficult, you could argue, even if Miliband is now making noises about restricting ‘non-dom’ status. The Greens are on 5%-6% poll ratings at the moment, hoping to get maybe two MPs - although, given the vagaries of the electoral system, they could end up with none. The same goes for Ukip, of course, but that seems a less likely outcome.
Ed Miliband gave a well-rehearsed performance - almost too polished if anything. In his competent, but extremely predictable, contributions he focused on his traditional themes of the NHS and curtailing zero-hours contracts. From notes left behind in the dressing room, we discover that the Labour leader wanted to portray himself as a “happy warrior” - a phrase taken originally from a 1806 William Wordsworth poem eulogising Lord Nelson,1 which had previously been used by president Barack Obama to describe his vice-president, Joe Biden. Its inclusion almost certainly reflected the influence of David Axelrod, Labour’s expensively acquired US advisor.2 Anyway, only the most churlish - or the Daily Mail - can deny that Miliband kept to his brief. He remained “calm” and “never agitated”, as the notes instructed, making sure to “relish the chance to show who I am” and talk straight to the camera in order to “use the people at home”.
You could even say that David Cameron came out a bit of a winner despite being widely judged a loser. After all, he never wanted to take part in any live television debates with Miliband in the first place - justifiably afraid that such exposure might puncture the Tory propaganda about ‘Red Ed’ being a totally useless twerp who cannot even eat a bacon sandwich. Forced to backtrack, however, he calculated that a seven-way debate was the safest format in which to engage Miliband - he appears to have been right. Therefore the Tory leader stayed semi-detached, if not aloof - the “invisible man”, as Labour taunted. He said nothing embarrassing or substantial, but kept going on about the economic recovery. In other words, he strictly followed the low-risk approach laid out by his own election guru, Lynton Crosby: do not get involved in unnecessary debates and stick to the message: ie, the economy, stupid. Everything else is secondary or unnecessary.
Nick Clegg was fairly nondescript too, it does have to be said - though more by instinct than design. He apologised yet again for past mistakes and made a bit of a blunder, at least in the opinion of this writer, by trying to make Miliband do a Clegg - that is, apologise for “crashing the economy”. The Labour leader came out with the obvious response that all the mainstream parties failed when it came to bank regulation, especially the Tories - they had seemingly been opposed to any regulations, and committed to polices that would have made the economic crisis even worse if they had been in government at the time, said Miliband.
However, the overwhelming consensus about the leaders’ debate is that Nicola Sturgeon came out on top by quite a margin. Indeed, Michael Gove - Tory chief whip and former education secretary - heaped praise on the “impressive” Sturgeon, and George Osborne stated that the Scottish first minister “overshadowed” Miliband.
Why did she do so well? Matthew Engel in the Financial Times made some interesting comments about the ‘we agree with Nicola’ show - presumably referencing the 2010 ‘I agree with Nick’ TV debate in Manchester. Anyone remember ‘Cleggmania’? Engel compared Sturgeon to the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood - who sounded as though she was “competing to be mayor of Rhondda” (April 3). Sturgeon, on the other hand, was a “real player” who “married the sectional interest” of the Scottish National Party with the “hint of statesmanlike stature”. In other words, she came across - maybe rather ironically - as a British politician, concerned with issues and matters beyond the Scottish borders. Thus she emphasised how she wanted to work “constructively” in Westminster and repeated her call for a “progressive alliance” with Plaid Cymru and the Greens against further austerity. She is for the interests of ordinary English and Welsh people too, it seems.
Themes she repeated in the April 7 Scottish leaders’ debate, which saw Jim Murphy claim that Labour does not need the SNP to win the election or form the next government. Every poll taken so far shows that Labour faces potential wipe-out north of the border, with the SNP set to gain between 30 and 40 seats - support for the party has surged sharply since the narrow defeat of the ‘yes’ camp in last September’s independence vote, with membership hitting a record 103,000 and its general election polling figures consistently reaching 45% (17 points ahead of Labour). In the other leaders’ debate, Sturgeon said Labour had a history of breaking trust with its voters - pointing to the example of Tony Blair, who within months of taking office had introduced tuition fees for university students, begun the process of privatisation in the NHS and later took part in the Iraq war. The SNP, she claimed, could prevent a minority Labour government under Miliband from repeating those errors - it would act as the conscience of the Labour Party.
We now have the ‘challengers’ TV debate to look forward to on April 16, which will feature Miliband instead of a representative from the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP, as the biggest party in Northern Ireland and the fourth largest in the House of Commons, is now considering legal action against its exclusion - you can hardly blame them.3 Some Labour MPs fear, at least in private, that Miliband was wrong to force himself onto the show as he is on a hiding to nothing in a debate which will just highlight the fact that he is an establishment, Westminster-orientated, politician. But, according to his aides, Miliband was adamant about exposing the way in which a vote for the SNP would increase the chance of a Tory government imposing austerity on Scotland. Finally, on April 30 there is BBC’s Question time with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg taking questions sequentially from the audience - chaired, of course, by the dynastic David Dimbleby.
Obviously, it is the interests of Gove, Osborne and other Tories to flatter Nicola Sturgeon and subliminally ‘promote’ the SNP. Having only one seat in Scotland, the Tories have next to nothing to lose - it can be sacrificed for the greater good: ie, getting the Conservative Party into office. But Labour, on the other hand, has everything to lose. The outcome from Scotland could give David Cameron that precious opportunity to get the first bite of the cherry and install himself in No10, whether as part of a ramshackle coalition or winging it as a precarious minority government.
From the establishment point of view, however, the whole Tory campaign around Scotland and now the general election has been dangerously narrow - perfectly illustrated by Cameron’s idiotic ‘English votes for English laws’ comments outside Downing Street on September 19 last year, which opened up a can of constitutional-political worms and played straight into the hands of a delighted SNP. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Digging deeper into his hole, Cameron has rhetorically asked how supporters of the union could consider working “with a bunch of people who would rip up the flag, given half a chance”. The SNP must be shunned, locked out of the corridors of power. To be fair, Miliband has played the same game, refusing to countenance the idea of including SNP ministers in any post-election government led by him.
Yet, as we have seen, the Tories have no compunction in shamelessly boosting Sturgeon if they think it might temporarily serve their own opportunist interests. Overall, a near perfect recipe for fuelling nationalism on both sides of the border. Frustrated, and slightly perplexed, one writer in the FT has posed the question - do the unionist parties actually “want to drive Scotland from the union”?4 Well, while the answer from the Tories seems to be equivocal at the very least, for some sections of the establishment a much wiser strategy involves getting the SNP into the Westminster fold, see it do some sort of deal with Labour, and then tame it with the responsibilities of keeping a Labour government in office. Cameron and Miliband may think nothing much has changed, as our FT writer observes, but the truth is that the leaders’ debate - whilst “mostly dull in itself” - showed a political landscape “transformed by rising nationalisms and splintering allegiances”. If the mainstream parties genuinely want the union to survive then that can only come “under very different terms” and by learning to govern with “new partners”. Time will tell.
All of this brings us to the infamous leaked memo from a senior French diplomat, which claims that Sturgeon told the French ambassador to the UK she preferred a Tory government, as she did not think that Miliband was prime minister material.5 Both Sturgeon and the diplomat concerned have totally dismissed the claim as “100% untrue”, with the first minister awaiting the results of an inquiry into the leak - which funnily enough made its way to the front pages of the rabidly anti-Labour Daily Telegraph. Conspiracy theory or not, a former UK ambassador and human rights activist, Craig Murray, is convinced that the memo has the work of the security services stamped all over it.6
But in a certain sense it does not particularly matter whether Sturgeon said it or not. You can guarantee that a lot of SNP strategists actually think a Tory government would not be such a bad idea. The reasons for that are not too hard to fathom. Another administration aggressively cutting public spending and pushing for an EU referendum would make the anti-union, pro-independence message much more attractive - separation will insulate us from the ravages of austerity and Tory/English rule. It is equally true from a SNP perspective that propping up a Labour government carries very real dangers too.
If there is no economic recovery or boom, perhaps with plunging oil prices putting the squeeze on Scotland’s GDP and tax revenues, then the SNP would have to take a measure of responsibility for further reducing living standards. The party of anti-austerity will have become the party of austerity, albeit in Tartan colours.
2. The Guardian April 5.
4. April 3: https://archive.today/wqSYv.