How does Salmond use the powers at his disposal?
There is a new political superhero in the country, standing victorious astride his domain, saltire-emblazoned cape billowing in the wind. Not even Labour at their most dominant, with their historic base in the country, popular Westminster administration and record in delivering devolution could win an outright majority. Considering that only two months ago Labour had double-digit leads in the polls, thereâ€™ll be more than a few looking at the Holyrood outcome and asking â€˜how the hell did that happen?â€™
The simple answer falls into two parts, the first of which is that by an large, the SNP-administration has been seen to have been reasonably effective. Itâ€™s rare in any political system for a party not to get a second term unless itâ€™s messed up mightily. However, the SNPâ€™s lead in 2007 was small and Labour was in a much worse position then UK-wide than it is now.
The second part was just how good the SNPâ€™s election campaign was an how poor Labourâ€™s was in both message and personnel, particularly leaders. Labour seemed to have assumed that there would be a backlash against an unpopular UK government and that they were best-placed to protect Scotland from the cuts coming from the south. Right analysis; wrong conclusion. The UK coalition parties were punished, the party seen as best-placed to defend Scottish interests did benefit – but that wasnâ€™t Labour.
As an aside, and going back to those polls, the SNP finished 18% ahead in the list vote. None of the pollsters got close to reporting such a lead and YouGov in particular had a disastrous showing, reporting leads of just two and three percent in their final two polls.
But that is all in the past. The SNP now have an historic opportunity and with it an historic responsibility. There are no legislative roadblocks to implementing their manifesto. There is of course still the matter of funding and relations with Westminster but Holyrood has its own tax-raising powers if necessary anyway.
The largest question has to be that of Independence. The SNP didnâ€™t introduce their referendum bill in the last parliament, on the basis that it would have been voted down. It will be introduced this time, though in what form remains to be seen. The huge vote for the party was not by any means a vote for independence, the SNP having made the leap from being a single-issue party to one of the two parties of government in Scotland.
Indeed, the SNPâ€™s reticence in pushing the independence agenda last parliament may well have reassured some unionists to trust them this time. Even if the vote is lost, simply asking the question would for them be a massive step, forcing people to consider it as more than a theoretical possibility.
The second part of that question is timing. The thinking looks to be to hold the referendum late in the parliament, building on their record in government and continued unpopularity from London. That would be a strategic mistake. Chances like this do not come around often and the temptation to wait for a better moment must be resisted at some point, else the question would never be put. Who knows how the SNP administration will be viewed four years hence, after nearly a decade in office? If there is a cloud on a very distant horizon, itâ€™s the cataclysmic performance of the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the recent Canadian election.
An early referendum may get in the way of banking the additional devolved powers likely to be heading Holyroodâ€™s way but a skilled operator – and Salmond is undoubtedly that – should be able to make the case anyway.
Whatever the SNP choose to do, it would be good to see some betting markets on the year and outcome of the referendum now it really is on the cards.