By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
Saturday, 17 May 2008
When Gordon Brown addresses the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh today, no doubt some in the audience will privately reflect on the widely differing fortunes of the Prime Minister and Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister.
The two rivals both enjoyed a honeymoon when they came to power last year. Mr Brown's came to a sudden halt in October when he dithered over whether to call an election. Mr Salmond's honeymoon is still going strong, one year into his Scottish National Party administration. Mr Brown hoped devolution would neuter demands for independence and keep Labour in power in the new Scottish Parliament for ever. After two four-year terms, Labour is in the uncomfortable position of being in opposition in its own heartland.
While the Prime Minister is fighting for his political life, even critics of the First Minister would admit he has had a very good year. Some commentators believed there would be blood on the carpet, either in the Holyrood parliament or after a battle between the SNP administration and the Labour Government.
It hasn't happened. The wily Mr Salmond has chosen his battles carefully. He has governed responsibly, believing that a "softly softly" approach, rather than an immediate firework display, was the best way to build support for the SNP's holy grail of independence. Although he heads a minority administration, he cleared the hurdle of seeing the SNP budget approved with the help of the Tories, after ensuring more money for policing. When he has been unable to implement promises immediately, such as free prescriptions, he blames Westminster for the lack of money. It has been a win-win year.
It was Mr Salmond's assured start that pressured Labour into scoring a spectacular own goal. Wendy Alexander, Labour's leader in Scotland, was itching to fight back by challenging the SNP to call an immediate referendum on independence. "Bring it on" seemed a confident move to make. But Ms Alexander's timing was awful, in the aftermath of Labour's routing in local elections in England and Wales. Moreover, she had not cleared her move with Mr Brown. They had discussed it, and he saw the merit of trying to put the SNP on the back foot. But he did not want to back an early referendum while he was being accused of denying one on the European Union's Lisbon Treaty, still going through the Westminster parliament.
He was taken aback by Ms Alexander's move, especially when she claimed he had sanctioned it. He tried to cover their differences, but it did not work. The referendum challenge became another headache for a Prime Minister in trouble.
Mr Salmond cannily declared that the SNP would stick to its pledge for a referendum in 2010. Privately, the SNP thinks holding it under a Tory government would boost prospects for a "yes" vote. The game has not been won yet. A poll published yesterday showed that 31 per cent of Scottish voters would support Scotland becoming an independent state, with 43 per cent against. But there is no doubt that the momentum is with Mr Salmond.
What the SNP's year in power has achieved
Prescription charges reduced from £6.85 to £5, saving £1.85 per item, as first step towards full abolition by 2011. Pre-payment certificates for people regularly needing prescriptions have been cut by 50 per cent. Free personal care and nursing payments to older people in care rise in line with inflation, helping more than 9,000 people.
Council tax frozen for 2008-09 financial year, saving the average Scot more than £13.
Cut business rates in order to boost jobs. Introduced a £73m Small Business Bonus Scheme to help more than 150,000 small companies grow.
Abolished unpopular road tolls.
Scrapped the graduate endowment, which has saved students who graduated last year and those still in the system a total of £2,289 each.
Launched "national conversation" about Scotland's future as a prelude to referendum on independence in 2010.