The Scottish National party is starting to exhibit the same arrogance and complacency that proved the downfall of Scottish Labour, according to Alastair Campbell, who also accused party leader Nicola Sturgeon of lacking any “big vision” for the country.
On a visit to Glasgow to help his long-time friend Ken Macintosh launch his bid for re-election to the Scottish parliament in May, Campbell told an audience of activists: “The Scottish Labour party of old has to accept it allowed itself to get very complacent and very arrogant and to take people for granted and I think that if you look at the SNP now, you start to see some of the same stuff.”
Suggesting that the dramatic surge support for the SNP since the 2014 independence referendum mirrored the rise in popularity of New Labour, he said: “I do think there’s a little of inhaling their own propaganda too much and I think that’s dangerous for them. There will come a point where they think they have a divine right to rule.”
Tony Blair’s former director of communications claimed that first minister Sturgeon’s current popularity meant that she was able to “float above” the expectations of government.
Dismissing her speech at this weekend’s SNP spring conference, in which she announced a new drive to win support for independence to start after May’s elections, Campbell said: “It told me that she didn’t have anything else to say. What was absolutely clear was that she did it for the people in the hall. I don’t think people in Scotland were crying out that ‘we want this election to be about independence’.
“I thought ‘where’s the big vision for a better stronger Scotland?’ and maybe it’s not there. Maybe in the end all you’ve got is this ‘floating above’. [The SNP] are brilliant at spin. That’s why they get such an easy ride most of the time.”
Campbell also accused the London mayor of writing “scare stories” on Europe and said he believed the UK would not back a British exit from the European Union. Campbell said Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexit campaigners had taken the tactic of characterising the remain campaign as Project Fear “straight from the SNP” and added “they try to de-legitimise you to stop attacking them”.
Linking the level of political debate in Scotland with his criticisms of coverage of the EU referendum, he argued: “While that’s the debate, it suits the populist, because it means you’re not under the pressure that you should be as a party of government to explain what you’re doing.”
With polling currently predicting that more than 50% of Scots will support the SNP in the Holyrood elections, Campbell acknowledged that the landscape was “very, very difficult” for Scottish Labour, while praising its leader, Kezia Dugdale, who Mackintosh stood against for the post of leader last summer.
He said the party’s challenge was to focus on substantive criticisms of the SNP in government. “In 1997, the day after the election, there was an extraordinary mood of euphoria and I remember Tony [Blair] said ‘this is weird, you can’t govern on this stuff’. It’s very difficult to deal with things that feel quite unreal. That’s why you must focus relentlessly on the ideas. I guarantee if you keep going on about GERS [the worst headline figures on Scotland’s finances for five years, released last week] the SNP will say this is so boring but it’s not and you have to keep reminding people.”
Campbell suggested that the SNP received uncritical coverage from sections of the media, in stark contrast with SNP supporters who argue that the media – in particular the BBC – displays bias against the party.
He said: “I do think the SNP have managed to cast a spell on large parts of the media. They certainly don’t get covered in the same way that we did when we were in government. You’ve had it with these scandals [referring to the resignations of two SNP MPs, Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry], with the economic figures, but there’s never been frenzy.”
Offering a footballing analogy to encourage Macintosh’s supporters who are about to embark on a gruelling few weeks of campaigning, with the SNP challenging this traditionally Tory seat for the first time, he said: “Don’t imagine you’re up against Barcelona or Real Madrid. You’re up against a team that’s OK, they’re mid to low table but they’re covered like they’re Barcelona or Read Madrid. Once you get that into your head, then you can take them down.”
Macintosh, who became friends with Campbell when the pair worked together at the BBC in the 1990s, warned the audience that the SNP had “stolen Labour’s clothes”, but that “they dress themselves up as progressives when they’re actually populists’.
He added: “I say no to another referendum and no to a centralised one-party state.”
This article was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th March 2016 19.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010