Is Alex Salmond a progressive or a conservative? Has he run a centre-left administration or a centre-right one? The question still gets asked because there is evidence pointing in both directions. This election, if the polls are in the right, gives Scotland a chance to get either version. But voting SNP on the list would, curiously, be an abstention on that crucial question.
His instincts on international affairs are certainly more left than Labour’s or the Lib Dems. The SNP was clearly opposed to the Iraq war, and there has been no sign of a wobble over Trident either. But these are issues that aren’t decided at Holyrood, so remain tangential at best to this election.
On tax, despite the massive slew of propaganda from the SNP, he’s clearly a natural conservative. Council Tax is regressive, and freezing it saves the richest the most. An effective tax cut, it also hurts the poorest most, the people most likely to rely on public services. The freeze is funded, the SNP say – which means £70m was given with one hand while £654m was taken away with the other.
The £1.3bn of cuts which John Swinney handed on in his last budget also show the priorities pretty clearly, with housing, education and public transport all put under pressure to allow a continued road-building programme.
This might be mere electoralism, an effort not to scare the horses again with a Penny for Scotland, even though the need for additional revenue now is much greater than it was in 1999. But I suspect it’s where his heart lies – as is the desire to cut corporation tax and follow at least some parts of the Irish model, including a substantial programme of speculative borrowing if the Calman powers arrive.
On the environment, the 100% renewable pledge looks good, until you see that for the SNP it also means retaining all the climate-busting generating capacity for sale. I’d agree there’s a massive economic opportunity that comes with a shift to renewables, but that seems the only point of green energy for the SNP: otherwise they wouldn’t have rammed a new coal plant into the National Planning Framework.
And would an SNP administration have secured the backing of so many turbo-capitalists and right-wing newspapers if it were even vaguely left? For every jailed socialist pleading to be allowed to vote for the SNP there are five tax-cutting businessmen hailing the Salmond record. Not to mention the fondness between Salmond and the egregious wingnut birther and eviction specialist Donald Trump.
But the SNP is, contrary to popular opinion, more than just Alex Salmond. There are many genuine progressives in the party, not many perhaps amongst the Ministerial team, but there are plenty in and around the party who see the opportunities independence could bring for a genuinely fairer Scotland, with a more redistributive tax settlement and priority given to essential services, not 1960s style vanity infrastructure projects. It’s what Chris Harvie was trying to get at last week, despite his four wasted years as a loyal button-pusher. It’s where the outriders for a better nationalism like Pat Kane and Bella Caledonia come in.
Some of the polls suggest that the SNP plus the Greens would make 65+, with the usual media frothing about independence as if it’s the only issue our politics should be about. But all the polls also indicate that the SNP plus the Tories would make 65+, enough for a continuation of the unofficial alliance, especially over budget matters, which has set the tone since 2007.
No other party has voted with the SNP on every single budget vote, and no party did so more enthusiastically than the Tories earlier this year when the cuts had to be passed on. I like Derek Brownlee personally, and I hope the predictions that he will lose his own seat are wrong, but he has been John’s loyal little helper not just to annoy their mutual enemy, but also because this is a genuine meeting of minds.
The Tories know what holding the balance would bring them – especially if they come back as the only way (other than with Labour support) that Bruce Crawford can make a majority with a single party. That scenario will put the Tory thumb on the SNP scales, and I fear we will see five years of a deepening squeeze on public services, five more years where the car remains king, and where the dash continues for the last, dirtiest, most unsafe oil in Scottish waters.
There is another possible outcome – a strong enough Green vote to push the SNP towards their more progressive instincts and yes, to vote against them where they seek to put big business ahead of the people or Scotland’s environment. The polls show we could be heading that way. But make no mistake, the only plausible alternative to a Tory-tinged SNP government right now looks like a good result for the only out-and-out progressive party in the last Parliament: a substantial Green block at Holyrood.