IAN SMART does some detective work on the First Minister’s conference speech, and concludes that there’s something missing . . .


I’ve got a fair bit of speechwriting experience.

It’s partly my job: “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, would you wish to be sent to prison on the word of this drunken man?” etc, etc. But it is also a political task with which I have been tasked, on others’ behalf, from time to time.

Since that speechwriting has been in the cause of progress, I have undertaken these tasks for love not money. But, to be honest, if paid enough, it is probably a task I could undertake for any cause or any political party because, as you learn it, you become aware that there are certain set formulae for platform speeches.

Generally, opposition politicians are for change, for who could be against that? That, however, allows them greater liberty of discourse.

For governing politicians the task is both more difficult and the form more restricted. You always have the occasional other example: continuing to run as an outsider while actually in power or, in extreme circumstance, appealing for popular absolution as the victim of events. But these are not the norm.

The norm has five elements:

  1. A topical  introduction of some sort related to the place or time;
  2. an attack, ideally involving humour, on the opposition;
  3. a list of your achievements in office;
  4. what is, or at least purports to be a new initiative of some sort; and
  5. an inspirational peroration.

It is possible to reverse elements (2) and (3) but only at the price of restricting the humour to the introduction. You can also “baroque” it a bit by putting in trills from different bits out of sequence as you go along or even, if you’re really on the ball, have a recurring leitmotif. But the basic structure might as well have been set out by Isaac Newton.

So, paid enough, I could have written such a speech for David Cameron or Danny Alexander or, as somebody else clearly did, for Alex Salmond.

The point, however, is that in the speech delivered, if not the speech written, for the First Minister, the fourth part was missing.

If you know the trade its actually quite easy to spot the cut. It’s here, three quarters of the way through:

  • If Murdo Fraser thought such a notion was conceivable then he wouldn’t be trying to disband the party!

  • In contrast fiscal responsibility, financial freedom, real economic powers is a legitimate proposal. It could allow us to control our own resources, introduce competitive business tax, and fair personal taxation.

  • All good, all necessary but not good enough.

The cut is almost certainly before the middle para but just conceivably immediately after it.

And it’s a last-minute cut. I say that because speeches are written for two audiences: those who hear it and those (opposition politicians and journos) who only read it. For the latter it must make narrative sense so an early rewrite is gone over to ensure that the speech still “flows”. Here, however, the FM offers no previous or subsequent reference to “financial freedom, real economic powers….”. There is, accordingly, no narrative sense – the sure sign of a last-minute cut.

But you also don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what has been cut. The newspapers were clearly heavily briefed in advance that the First Minister would be committing the SNP to a second question in their legendary referendum. Indeed, they were clearly so heavily briefed that a lot of the immediate press reaction declared that to be what the speech was about. In fact, it is not even mentioned! That is clearly what was cut.

Now, as all readers of crime literature will know, the real question is not what happened, but why.

The SNP are entitled to have a triumphant conference. Most of their senior activists have spent their whole lives being kicked to (the point of) death by the Labour Party. In May they had their revenge.

So they’ve all turned up in Inverness in party mood. I suspect very few of them will have surfaced as I am writing this. I hesitate to be a party (should that be Party?) pooper, but the problem is that they (if not, to be fair, their leadership) are labouring under the misapprehension that they are on their way to independence.

The leadership however know that they won for any number of reasons. But, regrettably for them, a popular desire for independence was not among them. Had it not been so, independence would have taken up more than one page of their sixty-two page Manifesto and indeed they would be hurrying now to accomplish it.

Now, I don’t like Eck, but he is not a heartless man.

What had been written in the original version of the speech was that there was to be a second question in the referendum. And even if he wasn’t to state it expressly, the subtext of that statement was that he had concluded that they couldn’t win the first (previously only) question – the question whose asking, in unequivocal terms, was the one towards which most of these people had devoted their lives.

So that part of the speech was cut. At a human level, I applaud him for that. Unfortunately for him however, the shattering of dreams will have to come some time. As a consolation, unless we get our act together, there is no reason the SNP will not be able to continue as the Goverrnment of Scotland and have another great day out while persuading themselves independence is imminent when they gather for their 2016 conference.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.