Sean Bell: What kind of election campaign has it been?

“Tomorrow’s Holyrood election – for which more than 4.2 million people have registered to vote, the highest number yet recorded – has arguably frustrated Scotland’s politicians at least as much as the public on whom their futures depend.”

PEOPLE rarely get the election they want, least of all voters. Those who practice or comment upon politics for a living often take a grim kind of relish in telling people they must make do with what’s on offer, whether they like it or not.

So maybe it’s karmic justice that tomorrow’s Holyrood election – for which more than 4.2 million people have registered to vote, the highest number yet recorded – has arguably frustrated Scotland’s politicians at least as much as the public on whom their futures depend.

None of Scotland’s unionist opposition parties, for example, are in serious doubt about who will – or, more pertinently, will not – be forming the next government. That option is not on offer – it’s been a while since it was – and so they’ve had to make do.

The SNP, meanwhile, would probably have preferred not only a different kind of election campaign, but more certainty about what can be expected when they reach the other side. However, as even the Scottish Tories cannot seem to get straight what a Tory government in London will or will not concede to its Edinburgh equivalent, we all march into the great unknown together. So it goes.

So what have we learned from an election campaign that have taken place in times we can no longer even euphemistically call ‘interesting’? Well, that depends on who you’re looking at.

More than any other party, one suspects that the Scottish Tories do not really enjoy elections. There are easy jibes I could make about this – so I will. Elections make it difficult to maintain the lie that the famous disdain of the country’s electorate for the party, outside of a very particular but rarely expanding tendency, is unfair, unmerited or exaggerated. It is hard to imagine the Scottish Tories welcoming the opportunity to be reminded what non-blue rinse people think of them, so their enthusiasm for plebiscites of any kind is understandably subdued.

Their key pledge in this election has been to ‘end division’, which they seek to accomplish by repeatedly telling half the country that they are wrong and doing everything in their power to frustrate them. This is how nations are healed, apparently.

What makes this time round different than any other for the Tories? Well, there is Douglas Ross, on whom I won’t waste much time. It does not require lengthy political analysis to conclude that Ross is not very good at this. His few cheerleaders in Tory media circles despair that, behind the scenes, he is supposedly quite personable and maybe not a complete fuckup. If there is any truth in this, then Dr Jekyll’s periodic transformations had nothing on what happens to Ross whenever he appears in public.

Over the course of the campaign, we have been given cause to remember Ross’ past statements and actions which cannot simply be glossed over as ‘socially conservative’, and have understandably attracted accusations of prejudice – in other words, those aspects of Toryism his predecessor Ruth Davidson frantically sought to abandon or obscure.

If Ross does any better than what is expected, it will be proof that Tory voters in Scotland a) don’t care what he thinks of gay marriage or the Gypsy/Traveller community, and b) either do not want capable leadership or lack the ability to recognise its absence.

We then have Scottish Labour, which contrary to my stern advice still exists. Previously, on ScotLab: The party never recovered from two shocks – the psychological trauma of the SNP’s 2007 victory, which for the Labourite old guard simply did not compute, and the post-2014 political landscape, which stubbornly refused to be terraformed into sleepy post-constitutionalism.

Reflecting on the first year of Richard Leonard’s leadership of Scottish Labour, I wrote – perhaps unkindly – that he had won the position by running on a bold platform of Not Being Anas Sarwar. Now, in an oddly poetic reversal, Sarwar is running on Not Being Richard Leonard, enthusiastically tackling all the things it would be impossible to imagine his predecessor doing. In our infinite, our multiform Scotland, there may well be people who like this kind of thing – the practiced sincerity and shirt-with-no-tie routine straight from the Blairite playbook, the rhythmic assault upon Bruno Mars that in a just world would merit legal action – and Sarwar better hope they exist in great numbers. Otherwise, voters may notice what a complete non-starter his efforts to rise above the constitutional fray have been. Though the incompetence of Douglas Ross has rather overshadowed this failure, Sarwar seems unable to grasp that ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ is not a compelling electoral stratagem.

While writing this, I almost forgot to include mention of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. I have now done so. Glad I caught that. So, moving on…

The Scottish Greens – on course, according to most polls, to increase their representation in Holyrood significantly – have had a pretty good election, all things considered. They have had great success in raising the profile of their co-leader Lorna Slater, whose election to the post I covered back in 2019, while Patrick Harvie has repeatedly reminded the electorate of the key differences that exist between his party and the SNP (in particular, his comments on the currency options for an independent Scotland in last night’s debate presage an argument which will soon return in earnest).

More broadly, the Greens have distinguished themselves from the rest of the major parties in their response to the increasingly unhinged loathing which their unstinting support for LGBT rights has provoked in Scotland’s most reactionary quarters. Instead of shrinking from conflict, flinching at dog-whistles over ‘identity politics’ or weakly pretending that all perspectives – no matter how vicious or ill-informed – are equally valid, the Greens have proven that their credentials in defence of some of Scotland’s most marginalised groups are beyond question.

As tedious as the many predictions about the potential makeup of the next pro-independence majority have been, the Greens are possibly the only ones who should have spent more time on the subject over the past few weeks. The widely discussed possibility of a formal coalition with the SNP raises interesting questions – namely, how would it differ from the more informal support the Greens have offered Sturgeon’s government in the past? Alas, all of this will likely only be addressed if and when negotiations begin.

We then have those ‘new’ parties, fronted by some very old faces. Alba are not big on apology or reflection – it’s kind of their credo – but even their most sympathetic observers (and the Scottish commentariat, contrary to reports, has a fair few) would surely acknowledge this cannot have been the campaign for which they were hoping. One controversy has trailed another without respite, their policy programme has not exactly set the world on fire, and the deluded hope that a vast movement of Alex Salmond aficionados was lurking invisibly amongst the Scottish polity does not appear to have borne fruit.

There’s also George Galloway and his ‘All For Unity’ party. As Source is an online publication, I can’t technically run out of space, but I still prefer not to waste words: Galloway is a tool. He will be a tool in the unlikely event that he enters Holyrood, and he will be a tool if his latest clown car implodes. He is a universal constant. Again, I cannot speak for everyone, so there may be a constituency of people who find this man entertaining or even necessary. I just hope none of them are allowed access to sharp objects.

Then there is the SNP, who have been stunningly fortunate in the enemies arrayed against them. Where others might have exposed their shameful lack of political imagination in rebuilding the case for independence and telling Scotland what self-determination might look like, they are instead faced by mediocrities who wear their allegiance to the Union like a ball and chain and long ago gave up trying to convince anyone they enjoy the experience. When Nicola Sturgeon’s future was placed in jeopardy by the Salmond inquiries, those agitating for her downfall largely revealed themselves as opportunists, conspiracist cranks and frothing misogynists. These are not worthy adversaries – but then again, the SNP has never been especially bothered by the absence of such before.

Others should be. There are questions in need of answers, and under normal circumstances – as if that phrase is anything but a bad joke these days – an election would be the perfect time to press for them. Answers for why the SQA is still playing silly buggers with their not-exams-but-we’re-going-to-treat-them-like-exams, when after last year’s disaster they should be grateful not to be sitting in stocks in St Andrew Square. Answers over the number of Covid deaths in the nation’s care homes, as Source’s Nick Kempe has explored in forensic detail. Answers about why vested interests such as landlords were seemingly prioritised once the full scale of the pandemic became apparent.

Yet while the SNP have escaped rigorous examination in most respects, they have allowed several key pieces of messaging to get away from them. The emphasis on whether or not an outright SNP majority will be achieved has been to the detriment of not just the party, but the cause of independence. As the Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell pointed out on Twitter this week: “There’s been an incredible failure to manage expectations by the SNP in this election. Holyrood is not built for majorities. If you’re anywhere near a majority, you’re doing incredibly well.”

Despite that, the question of whether or not an SNP majority will be achieved has been fed, unwittingly or not, by the acquiescence of many to the idea than an SNP majority is somehow more valid than a pro-independence majority. Provided all the parties included in the latter are in broad agreement about how a second referendum would be pursued, they can be counted together in this regard; after all, in the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, we had no shortage of smug commentators happy to lump Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems together as Scotland’s so-called “unionist majority”.

So much for the parties – but what of broader ideological currents?

I will presume that most readers of Source have some familiarity with the ongoing disagreements and frustrations within the independence movement. It suffices to say that it is passionate, frustrated and not a little confused, and that no section of it cannot name some other subset which it would like to be rid of. It has numbers and energy, but as Verso’s recent republication of Tom Nairn’s trailblazing work The Break-Up of Britain should remind us, it lacks a serious intellectual framework for the times we face, which the SNP is in no hurry to provide. Even if you don’t consider elections the appropriate environment for such weighty matters – it’s tough to get Nairnism into a soundbite – that only begs the question: what is?

The unionist Right has undeniably been put on the back foot by a succession of pro-independence polls which only recently started to slide back in the other direction, and are still flailing around for some magic solution – a new Act of Union being the latest – which will solve their constitutional woes. Given that no such solution is remotely workable, it is hardly surprising that much of the Right has either fallen back on old tricks – such as the late-breaking, deeply suspect claim that Iran is meddling in Scottish politics – or turned its attention to anti-woke grifting. The latter of these, the reactionary equivalent of comfort food, allows them to simultaneously play the victim while chipping away at the rights and basic humanity of oppressed peoples. While such tactics have not dominated this campaign, they have been present, on both sides of the constitutional divide, and will not dissipate until a proper fightback is launched.

That responsibility falls to the Left, which as this campaign has shown, remains in an unenviable position, with no clear road to exerting influence over the direction of the SNP, but few inspiring electoral options elsewhere. This frustration has, in some cases, caused it to retreat into weird intellectual cul-de-sacs. It is depressingly common to hear those who despair at the lack of class analysis in our discourse argue that this will change once we stop talking about other things (royalties for this idea may be sent to Anas Sarwar in a stamped addressed envelope). As long as this tendency is indulged, a Left which buries its head in the sand when the times call for engagement will be judged accordingly.

It has become a common refrain that Scottish politics has suffered for lack of an effective or vibrant opposition, but that isn’t strictly true. There are those asking the right questions and demanding change in the right places – but with few exceptions, they are not doing so from within our political parties. Instead, they do so from within campaign organisations, from the third sector, from activist circles and – very, very occasionally – even from the media. Look to Living Rent, the reconvened Radical Independence Campaign, the TIE campaign, Save Loch Lomond, or countless others who deserve mention, and tell me Scotland’s political culture is moribund.

It would be gratifying if this were enough – if Scotland had the opposition it deserves, even if it is not where convention suggests one might find it. But after a year which has, along with all its other troubles, seen concerted attempts to impugn the integrity of Scottish devolution or derail its democratic future, it would be welcome if the passion and principles, intellectual rigour and clarity of purpose which can be found in so many places throughout this country could be reflected in the parliament which, once upon a time, so many fought for.

This is not to say there are no candidates asking for your vote who have merit, who may yet enter Holyrood with the best of intentions. But if this election campaign gives any indication of what will follow it, is it too much to ask for more?

Picture courtesy of Magnus Hagdorn