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Launching the Scottish National party’s manifesto, Nicola Sturgeon spent almost as much time appealing to people who cannot actually vote for the SNP as she did wooing those she hopes will back it next month.
The SNP leader’s extension of a “hand of friendship” to voters across the British Isles signals an ambition to win greater influence on UK-wide political affairs if her party gains — as polls suggest — most of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.
So while the core of the SNP’s electoral offer is focused on potential voters’ national interests — summed up by the slogan “Stronger for Scotland” emblazoned on a large banner behind Ms Sturgeon — the party is also attempting to cast itself as a positive player for the whole UK.
This follows heavy criticism of the SNP in the English press for attempting to exert undue influence on matters outside Scotland and worries that the Nationalists might try to force the UK to abandon its nuclear deterrent as the price of support for a government.
“We will seek to make common cause and build alliances with others of like mind across the UK to deliver the progressive change that so many want to see,” Ms Sturgeon told supporters in rural west Edinburgh.
The message of co-operation is intended to counter concern from south of the border about the damage a large cohort of SNP MPs could inflict on the UK body politic, but it is also an important effort to maximise support in Scotland.
Polls suggest that in many seats, more people are ready to vote SNP on May 7 than voted for independence in last year’s referendum. So Monday’s manifesto mentions the sovereignty issue only to make clear that it is not on general election agenda.
“The SNP will always support independence — but that is not what this election is about,” the manifesto says.
And in a further attempt to calm constitutional concerns, the manifesto plays down the SNP’s post-referendum flagship policy demand for “full fiscal autonomy”. Under this regime, Scotland would raise all its own taxes while transferring some funds to the UK government to cover shared costs such as defence and debt service.
The Labour party has seized on fiscal autonomy as a vital weakness in the SNP case, since with low oil prices it would spell a huge budget crunch for Scotland. “With full fiscal autonomy, the SNP have signed up to bigger cuts than the Tories,” said Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour leader, who dismissed the Nationalist document as a “say one, thing do another manifesto”.
Labour campaigner Blair McDougall found irony in the SNP’s embrace of Labour policies such as a 50p top income tax rate and bankers’ levy. “The only progressive policies in their manifesto are ones we challenged them to back,” Mr McDougall tweeted.
But there are few signs that the issue of full fiscal autonomy is resonating with voters. Ms Sturgeon has further attempted to muddy the waters by relabelling the policy “full financial responsibility” and assuring voters that even if agreed, it would take years to introduce.
Instead the SNP will prioritise the devolution of more modest powers over aspects of welfare and employment law, the manifesto says.
The Scottish first minister stressed instead the SNP’s goal of ending UK-wide austerity with “modest” 0.5 per cent growth in departmental spending. “[This] is a manifesto, above all else, to end austerity. That will be our number one priority,” Ms Sturgeon said. “It is time to end the needless pain of Tory cuts.”
The combined promise of more UK spending and a stronger voice for Scotland will hardly win over Ms Sturgeon’s southern sceptics. Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders have expressed alarm at the prospect of SNP MPs taking over a swath of the House of Commons’ green benches.
The latest computer projections from a group of academics at electionforecast.co.uk suggest that the Nationalists remain on course to become the UK’s third largest party with 43 seats.