“The only way that we’re going to win independence is if we persuade people that Scotland can be a fairer, wealthy, and greener country.” – Ian Blackford MP, former leader of the SNP in Westminster and ‘Business Ambassador to the First Minister’ tells Portland.
Despite being political rivals, old friends SNP grandee, Ian Blackford MP, and Portland Senior Advisor and former Press Secretary to Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, joined Portland clients and colleagues for a candid conversation that covered everything from the future of the SNP to the opposition’s chances at the next General Election and how to run a croft (that’s a small area of arable land for the unfamiliar) in rural Scotland.
Blackford talked about his role as the First Minister’s Business Ambassador, a position created by Nicola Sturgeon, and teased a new report due to be released this summer, set to outline the new way in which the SNP will engage with the business community moving forward.
Blackford was open about the challenges that the SNP faces and admitted that there are areas for improvement for the party and how it governs the country. Deepening its relationship with the business community, making progress on the rollout of Scotland’s additional gigawatt capacity and taking action to improve NHS waiting times were among the areas that Blackford claims to be high on the agenda.
The discussion had a strong air of optimism about the future. Blackford spoke of the dawn of the next generation of party leaders being ushered in under Yousaf, effortlessly handling questions about the recent, “bloody” leadership contest, the party’s membership and its prospects at the next General Election. Not foolish enough to be drawn into making predictions on the outcome of said election, he did have some words to say about tactical voting and what Keir Starmer needs to do to close the gap between Labour at the door of Number 10.
Less than 24 hours after the conversation with Blackford, the news broke that the former Chief Executive of the SNP and husband of former First Minister, Peter Murrell, had been arrested. This is likely to be the next in the saga of not insurmountable challenges the SNP has faced in recent months, making the job of moving the party onto higher ground even trickier for its new leader.
Read below for our analysis of key elements of the conversation.
SNP’s leadership race
The conversation focused on the many recent changes within the SNP, not least concerning Blackford’s resignation from the position of SNP leader in Westminster – on which he implied that he jumped before being pushed.
Turning to Sturgeon, he admitted to sharing everyone’s surprise at her sudden departure. He said that prior to the announcement he had tried to convince her to stay on but that she had directly made the same case to him that she has made to the public, she was concerned that she had become too divisive a figure in Scottish politics and that it would be in everyone’s best interests for her to resign. The race to find a new leader that followed was, in his words, “bloody” but justified.
Campbell praised Kate Forbes for being able to land some hefty blows on delivery, particularly those aimed at Yousaf and his record with the NHS, something he suggested Labour has struggled to do. Forbes’ social conservatism was mentioned and somewhat dismissed, with Blackford suggesting that given her competence and ability to articulate herself SNP members may have been able to look past her less-than-liberal personal views.
His opening gambit on the subject of relations between the SNP and the business community was by way of an apology for not working as hard as the party could or should have.
He took the opportunity to verbally fling open the doors of the Scottish Parliament to businesses, peripherally promoting his new position as Business Ambassador to the First Minister. He claimed that generally speaking, feedback from within the business community attests to the ease of engagement with the Scottish Parliament in comparison to Westminster and teased the release of a report this summer that he said will outline a seamless and efficient process of business engagement.
Independence and devolution
Blackford talked about Independence in an almost romantic fashion, painting the picture of a Scotland that could be “fairer, wealthier and greener”.
He spoke fondly, despite the outcome, of the 2014 Referendum, when SNP membership, and by extension, support for Independence were at a high. He said the appeal for Independence was reliant on the competence of the Scottish Government, however, over the last few years there have been questions over the SNP’s ability to deliver on its promises. Blackford argued that the discourse around Independence, particularly the focus on process over the last 12 months has hurt the cause, something Yousaf must seek to turn the dial on. Refocusing the conversation, he stated that the route back is to inspire confidence in people of this vision of a more prosperous nation. It’s the economy stupid, Blackford said, quoting James Carville.
When the (not so) small matter of the Supreme Court ruling was raised, Blackford gave what some would consider a ‘stock answer’. He asserted that it should be the right of the people in Scotland to make that choice, and if the Scottish Government has an implied mandate for Independence, whoever is in charge in Westminster should respect that right. In doing so, he heavily criticised the approach taken by both Sunak and Starmer.
He spoke briefly about devolution, which he clearly views as a consolation prize. On the shopping list, however, he sees employment law, economic policy and social security as key areas.
As a key stalwart of the Scottish economy, energy was named a “massively important” part of the country’s plans. Proudly, Blackford spoke of Scotland’s 27 gigawatts of additional capacity, however, he turned to the need to act at pace, attract companies across all stages of the supply chain and unites Scottish ports.
For Blackford, education, immigration and innovation are inextricably linked to Scotland’s economic prosperity, especially important if the country is to become an independent nation.
Education and innovation
Economic growth is driven by innovation, research and development, and the simplest route to which Blackford sees is through Scotland’s universities. Drawing on examples from major corporations such as Microsoft, he highlighted that their success has been fuelled by a booming higher education sector on the west coast of America that has fostered an environment conducive to creativity and innovation. Crucially though, drawing talent into Scotland’s higher education system is secondary to keeping them thereafter.
Under current immigration laws, over which Holyrood does not have control, international students don’t have the right to stay in Scotland long enough for the country to reap the rewards of their potential economic contribution, a policy Blackford labelled “disgraceful.”
Crossing over into discussions around Brexit, Blackford emphasised that the end of free movement has been “crushing” for Scotland, particularly in rural areas such as the Highlands and Islands and in the tourism and hospitality sector, one of Scotland’s largest industries. It is evident the issue of immigration, and Scotland’s lack of devolved powers intersects across Scottish politics and will likely be a key policy issue for the SNP going forward.
Brexit was covered with brevity and Blackford, had little positive to say about the current Home Secretary, lambasting her for the constant denial of issues at the border. “They know the problems they created,” he said “but they are simply blind to accepting the responsibility and the damage they have caused.”
Although it occupied a limited part of the discussion, health is clearly a priority policy area for the SNP. There was no attempt to cover up the fact that the system is in desperate need of repair but guarded by the notion that the situation in Scotland is not quite as acute as in England. There is an appetite not only to improve the health service in Scotland but to change its management and its structure.
Knowing that it will be a key line of attack for the opposition, it is an area in which Yousaf cannot afford to fail.
Labour’s chances in the next General Election
Like most politicians, Blackford avoided offering a prediction on what will happen at the next General Election. If he is fearful of a Labour resurgence, he did well to hide it.
The SNP’s rise to power in 2007 dealt a devastating blow to Labour’s Scottish presence while inadvertently handing the Conservatives control in England. Campbell suggested, therefore, that a vote for the SNP opens the door to Downing Street for the Tories.
To Blackford however, the SNP’s job is to keep the Tories out of Scotland. Interestingly, he doesn’t think Labour’s road to Westminster is through Holyrood and losing or winning in Scotland is not going to impact Labour’s ability to form a government in Westminster. He said the task is clear: win enough seats in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
On Labour’s chances of doing so successfully, he didn’t provide an opinion. He did however offer this advice to Starmer: “be bolder.” Naturally, Blackford ruled out the prospect of a coalition after the next election but did say that the SNP could find ways of working with another progressive party. Starmer has expressed a similar if not more hardline stance, saying that Labour would enter into a minority government before it would do a deal with the SNP. The strength of this statement is also likely to be aimed at dismissing the “coalition of chaos” attack lines favoured recently by the Tories.
Only time will tell whether this will be enough to get Labour into Westminster. As Blackford reminded attendees, to predict the outcome of a General Election this far out would be particularly foolish. However, critically, he noted that current polls indicate an appetite for change among the general UK population with Starmer the most likely beneficiary.
The current government
One area Blackford and Campbell found were in firm agreement was their criticism of the current UK government. While Blackford openly expressed his respect for Theresa May and her handling of opposition leaders, both Blackford and Campbell expressed that their confidence in Conservative leadership has continued to decline since May’s time. His comments about He was unforgiving of Boris Johnson, who he sparred with regularly in the House of Commons chamber, as you can imagine, were curt and unforgiving, calling him a toxic individual who demeaned the very office of Prime Minister.
On Rishi Sunak he, perhaps more surprisingly, had little positive to say. Describing him as a more “benign personality” than Johnson, but one who allows the same level of toxicity to continue to permeate Westminster.
From both Blackford and Campbell, the key takeaway was not to underestimate how far Sunak will go to pander to the right wing of the party, as he desperately tries to hold onto the red wall.