The Scottish election comes to life

A sensational poll on the forthcoming Scottish elections shows the SNP leaving Labour behind. Have the Nationalists got themselves an unassailable lead? Or can Labour change strategy in the fortnight until polling day?
Gerry Hassan
21 April 2011

Suddenly Scotland is everywhere on the British airwaves and media. Two very different sides of the nation: Alex Salmond’s cheeky sunlit Nationalists (the scheming separatists in Labour parlance) on one side; and on the other, the dark side of football, ‘the Old Firm’ and sectarianism.

To some English listeners and viewers, this fantasy/nightmare Scotland portrayed by these accounts must seem like a strange land. A place where the population lives the life of reilly on English subsidies while complaining all the time that their culture of entitlement is being threatened or isn’t generous enough. And when they are not doing that they are knocking hell out of each other or getting blind drunk at Celtic v. Rangers games.

This morning’s MORI poll for ‘The Times’ and ‘Scottish Sun’ is a sensational poll which shows the SNP bandwagon gathering pace. And Labour holding their vote but faltering badly in any attempt to keep up. The vote shares are:

Constituency Vote SNP 45% Lab 34% Con 10% LD 9% 

List Vote
SNP 42%
Lab 32%
Con 10%
LD 9%
Greens 6%

This puts the SNP up 8% on the constituency vote and 7% on the list vote compared to the last MORI poll, and would produce a Parliament with SNP 61 (+14), Labour 45 (-1), Con 10 (-7), LD 9 (-7), Green 4 (+2). This would leave the Nationalists four seats short of an overall majority and with the Greens having a pro-independence majority in the Parliament (‘Salmond heads for victory in poll shock’, The Times Scotland Edition, April 21st 2011).

This is the only hope for Labour in this poll beyond the fact it may overstate the SNP lead. Salmond’s surge may bring political and media attention onto the subject of independence which the SNP are hardly profiling, with Labour attempting to convince ‘soft’ SNP supporters that a vote for the ‘separatists’ isn’t an option without consequences. However, the SNP vote is much more enthused and motivated than what is left of Labour’s shrinking base - hardly surprising given the differing feels and tones of their respective campaigns.

The media coverage of the Scottish elections is illuminating. The British coverage is part of the long running story of ignoring Scotland and then waking up and occasionally covering the land as one of equal part, ‘restless natives’ and ‘welfare whingers’. This is what I would call the ‘wave’ interpretation of Scottish nationalism, which made sense of its episodic surges pre-devolution, but which makes no sense now. Previously the British media ‘discovered’ Scotland and its nationalism in the SNP surges of 1967, 1973-74, 1987-88 and the false dawn of 1992. And since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament they have generally just forgotten about Scotland.

The Scottish media coverage has been changed by the conversion of ‘The Sun’ to the SNP. One interesting point – on the morning of the News International Edinburgh Business Seminar in which Alex Salmond is the only Scottish political attending – is what happens to the other Murdoch Scottish titles? Could the unionist ‘Times’ really come out for Salmond? Or the ‘Sunday Times’ or ‘News of the World’?

‘The Sun’, as those with long memories will remember, once before supported Alex Salmond and the Nationalists: the 1992 UK general election. It is interesting to compare the paper then and now and see the difference. Then in January 1992 ‘The Sun’ came out with a front page declaring ‘Rise Now and Be a Nation Again’, and included pages of emotional nationalism of a ‘Braveheart’ style which turned out to have little political capital.

Today this week’s ‘Sun’ has hard political copy, less sentimental nationalism, and more anti-Labour coverage. The tabloid paper had detailed analysis on Scotland’s health inequalities with commentary by the respected academic Danny Dorling, under the stark title, ‘Warning: Voting Labour is Bad for Your Health’ (‘Warning: Voting Labour Is Bad for Your Health’, The Scottish Sun, April 19th 2011). This seems a world apart from the super, soaraway ‘Sun’ of 1992.

There are two weeks to go to polling day. Have the Nationalists got themselves into an unassailable lead? Can Labour change strategy from their disastrous call of concentrating on the Tory bogeyman and ignoring the SNP? And can we aspire to British media coverage of Scotland which doesn’t oscillate between pigeonholing us into the category of romantic nationalists and discontented troublemakers, and forgetting that we even exist. One story of the UK post-devolution in Westminster has been of the ‘idea’ of Britain getting narrower and more inflexible, and whatever the future constitutional shape of the UK, this doesn’t help any of us.

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