Scotland’s election and the future of the union

The forthcoming Scottish elections are shaping up to be the most gripping since 1999. The Nationalists are pulling ahead, Scottish Labour are fighting for their lives, and the future of the union and of Britain itself hang in the balance
Gerry Hassan
26 April 2011

Three opinion polls in a row have now given Alex Salmond’s SNP double digit opinion poll leads. Bookmakers William Hill offer odds for the SNP of 2/9 on and Labour of 3/1 to be the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament after May 5th: a huge turnaround from barely a week ago.

It is now fashionable and commonplace to dismiss modern elections as ‘boring’ and the Scottish elections are no exception. The normally thoughtful Alf Young in ‘Scottish Review’ viewed the current contest as ‘the biggest yawn in living memory’ and ‘depressing’.

The reality is more complex and interesting: these are flawed, but fascinating elections with a number of compelling themes. There is the tale of the resurgent back from written off Nationalists, the once favourites Scottish Labour fighting for their lives, the Lib Dems for the first time under scrutiny, and a Tory Party slowly beginning to emerge from Thatcher’s long shadow. That and the future of the union and the very existence of Britain itself, make these the most gripping Scottish elections since 1999.

With a week and a half to go Labour are panicking. Iain Gray, their Scottish Labour leader, has attempted to relaunch their campaign, the party has abandoned its main election themes, and Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are heading north.

Iain Gray’s relaunch took place inauspiciously on Bank Holiday Monday at The Lighthouse, Glasgow. Faced with the SNP’s opinion poll leads, Gray told his audience:

"When voters ask about Alex Salmond tell them this: he only cares for his job, not yours … he’s not asking you to vote for his programme because he doesn’t have one, his name stands for one thing and one thing alone: separatism."

(The Times Scotland Edition, April 26, 2011.)

He added, ‘The message of separatism is simple. If you don’t want it, don’t vote for it, because Alex Salmond says a second term will give him the moral authority to pursue it.’ This is the time-honoured Labour anti-Nationalist message, but it has taken Labour to be on the wracks to directly engage their main opponents.

Labour candidates and insiders are positioning, briefing and backbiting about an election campaign which is being seen as one of the most disastrous in living memory. One Labour insider said, ‘We have misjudged the campaign, this is not a core vote election’ (The Times Scotland Edition, April 25, 2011). Not since Labour in 1983 and ‘the longest suicide note’ has a Labour campaign been so divorced from reality.

Numerous commentators have offered Iain Gray and his team advice, Kenny Farquharson in ‘Scotland on Sunday’ suggesting the party has to go hard on separatism, the SNP record in office, the economy, law and order, and getting Iain Gray ‘to lighten up a bit’. Kevin McKenna, in an ‘Observer’ column, acknowledged the skills of Nationalist politicians in office, and gave the opposite advice, calling for Labour to ‘cast off their new populist and reactionary clothes’ on knife crime and a single national police force.

There is in much of the analysis a lack of understanding of what makes the SNP different. First, the SNP are unchallengeable on the terrain of speaking up for and defending Scotland’s interests. Bizarrely, Labour completely vacated this territory when instead they should have been on their opponent’s ground – like the Tories on the NHS, or New Labour on the economy – neutralising it as much as you can. Second, the Nationalists are back invoking the positive account of the potential of Scotland which leaves Labour articulating negativity and fear.

And the SNP manifesto gives an insight into how the party sees itself. Presented as a kind of ‘Hello’ magazine, we get policy, but we also get people and stories; we get nationalist weddings and children over the last four years, along with reflections on the party’s past. The underlying message is clear: we are not just another party, we are a movement, practically Sister Sledge-like ‘We are Family’. It is bold, naïve and idealistic, but it mostly works.

The last stages of the campaign are apparently going to see Labour try to hit the SNP with all it has, but does Labour have that much ammunition left? Are Ed Miliband and Ed Balls really ‘big hitters’? Is Gordon Brown being brought out of mothballs really going to turn around a desperate campaign? Hamish McDonnell comments:

Until now, Labour has liked to portray its campaign for the Holyrood elections as a totally Scottish affair: run in Scotland, organised in Scotland and led by Scottish politicians.

For all the SNP’s professionalism and Labour’s problems, it is possible that a relentlessly negative campaign about the ‘evils’ of separatism may hurt some of the SNP’s most ‘soft’ vote. But what it does underline is the intellectual bankruptcy of Scottish Labour, the party of ‘Red Clydeside’, the ILP, Smith, Dewar and Cook, and which is now reduced to an insipid leadership and election campaign. George Galloway commented, ‘How has the party of Willie Ross and Donald Dewar shrunk to the party of Iain Gray?’ (The Times Scotland Edition, April 20th 2011).

An interesting explanation to this election is emerging from some of the commentariat. It argues that the SNP’s super soaraway election ratings don’t really matter, and that what really counts is the Westminster election. Thus Scottish voters or ‘The Sun’ newspaper can allow themselves to be seduced by the silky charms of Alex Salmond, safe in the knowledge that the union is alright.

This is a Westminster-centric delusional argument. The future of Scotland will be shaped mainly by the character and dynamic of the Scottish Parliament elections. Holyrood much more than Westminster is the decisive force in Scottish politics; this basic fact is one the Westminster classes, and in particular the strange beast that is Scottish Labour, has struggled to understand. And these elections will influence not just Scotland and the union, but the future direction of Ed Miliband’s Labour and the Cameroon Conservatives. That seems pretty compelling to me!

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