Scotland

SNP keeping an eye on the prize

Image caption Alex Salmond will address the SNP's last annual conference before the 2011 Holyrood election

The past few years in Scottish politics have been pretty exciting.

In contrast to previous devolved administrations, a party in minority government for the first time has been forced to fight for every policy and make concession after concession before anything makes it into law.

On the other hand, the global economic events of the past few years have shown the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament.

With massive spending cuts on the way, the Holyrood government will have to make do with what it gets from the UK Treasury.

These are the two big issues facing the SNP, as it holds its final annual conference before next May's Holyrood election.

But, rather than seeing them as a problem, the party is determined to make them its platform for winning a second term in power.

Hot on their heels is a Labour party that, while out of power at Westminster, is the largest party in Scotland, in terms of its number of MPs and MSPs.

The SNP is basing its campaign strategy on its record in government - the achievements the party lists includes cutting NHS waiting times to a "record low", building or refurbishing more than 300 schools, putting more than 1,000 extra police on our streets - resulting, it says, in crime rates falling to a 30-year low - and freezing council tax.

The Nationalists also argue they have spoken up for Scotland as never before and offer a real alternative to the "London-based parties".

But a campaign based on the SNP's record in government are exactly what its opponents are hoping for.

Labour, the Lib Dems, the Tories, and others have focussed on the SNP's dropped manifesto pledges - included in that list is the local income tax, cutting class sizes for P1 to P3 pupils to 18 and, most controversially, the independence referendum bill.

Other policies, such as minimum alcohol pricing are heading for defeat at Holyrood, and, in this seeming age of austerity, the affordability of universal benefits such as abolishing prescription charges and the student graduate endowment are being questioned.

Economic growth

The SNP argues that, in many cases, policies were not brought forward because they had no chance of ever making it into law, that opposition parties would be determined to vote them down whether they agreed with them or not.

In turn, the opposition parties say they refused to back them because they simply weren't credible policies.

The Nationalists cite another reason for not bringing forward flagship manifesto commitments.

The global financial crisis and, in particular, the collapse of the banking system meant the focus shifting to Westminster, with its reserved powers over the financial sector and power to bail out institutions such as the Royal Bank of Scotland.

All eyes will once again be on Westminster next week, as the chancellor announces the spending review. Deep cuts to the Scottish budget, still funded through the Treasury block grant, are on the way.

It is on this basis the SNP in government say they can deliver economic growth in Scotland as an independent nation - although the party has long since ceased referring to the success of small independent nations such as Ireland and Iceland, which have been hammered by the recession.

The Scottish government may have won backing from rival Holyrood parties to campaign against UK defence spending cuts.

But, come the election, all bets will be off for SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, who will once again run his party's campaign.

Election tactics

As well as domestic issues, he will also have to gauge how the electorate may respond to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision to release the terminally-ill Lockerbie bomber - one of the most contentious and high-profile decisions in Scottish political history.

The Nationalists made clever use of modern technology to boost their 2007 campaign.

And one of the most effective, yet simplest ideas, was using the phrase "Alex Salmond for first minister" on the regional list ballot papers - although this tactic was banned in the aftermath of the 2007 voting fiasco.

During the first SNP conference of the party's term in government, Alex Salmond told the BBC that he would bring forward the Referendum Bill, even if he knew it would be defeated, because that was the party's policy.

Since then, and after a wide and long-running consultation on the issue, the first minister decided to drop the bill in order to make it the key issue of the election campaign.

The SNP's battle plan with the referendum is to claim that the opposition parties have denied voters their say on Scotland's future.

Come May 2011, the voters will have their say on whether the SNP gets a historic second term in government.

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