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Salmond's vision

Brian Taylor | 16:33 UK time, Saturday, 12 March 2011

For medieval kings, the court jester had an added function - beyond entertaining the lieges and making them forget how miserable their lives were.

This was to provide a running commentary upon events and remind the monarch of his foibles.

I am now in my medieval period - albeit still very far from regal (although I felt like a king when Daly banged in the winner in injury time on Thursday).

However, I benefited hugely from a running commentary as I sat in the front row at the SNP conference to hear Alex Salmond's speech.

A woman in the row behind me offered what appeared to be involuntary sotto voce reactions as the speech progressed.

She giggled at the funnies. She muttered outrage at the various alleged iniquities of the party's opponents.

And she voiced quiet sympathy as Mr Salmond described his encounter with Nancy, a Kilmarnock woman concerned at the possible loss of her disability allowance.

Now, of course, the woman in the row behind me was a supporter, a Nationalist.

But her audible reactions reminded me that the purpose of a political speech - especially one this close to an election - is to push certain buttons: to find the keys that will persuade people to vote for your party.

Council tax

It would seem that Labour suspect, within themselves, that Mr Salmond has already found some crucial keys. How else to explain their declared conversion to the notion of freezing the council tax for a further two years?

Iain Gray says that now is not the time to sanction an increase in council tax: people have suffered enough.

The parties, of course, will argue the case.

The SNP - and others - say that Labour's promise lacks credibility. Labour denies that and counters by criticising SNP plans for a local income tax.

But it could be claimed that the policy ground has perceptibly narrowed.

The two big parties are now pledged to a council tax freeze. The two big parties are now pledged to avoid university tuition fees or graduate charges.

There are, of course, substantial policy differences - not least over the very constitutional future of Scotland.

But perhaps the economic circumstances are counselling policy caution, instead of boldness.

Perhaps that means that the election will be determined not solely or wholly on narrow policy but on wider perceptions by the voters.

'Top team'

Alex Salmond seemed to recognise that.

He set out, quite deliberately, to go beyond individual policy detail. His template was record, team and vision.

Again, each will be contested by rivals.

Mr Salmond said his government had achieved much: rivals will point to the gaps. Mr Salmond said he led the best team for Scotland: rivals will dissent.

But the "vision thing" is often the trickiest element in a speech. At its worst, it can sound maudlin and mawkish.

The simplistic option for an SNP leader is to yell freedom.

Independence gains a guaranteed ovation in the hall - and is easily understood by the wider audience as the party's emblem.

Mr Salmond went further.

Firstly, as he has done in the past, he attempted to link independence with the current economic circumstances, arguing that enhanced powers and oil revenues would enable Scotland to boost growth.

Big society

At the close, he went further still, attempting to offer a concept of nationhood founded on "a community of people with a shared commitment to their culture and to their children." A sense of self conjoined to a sense of society.

It was, in a way, a version of the Big Society debate begun by David Cameron.

The first minister even made a sideways reference to the Cameron vision, albeit by saying that he wanted a fair society, not merely an encompassing one.

The watching voters will, of course, make their own mind up.

But, in the hall, the reception was exceptionally warm, even for avowed supporters like my conference neighbour.


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