The Scottish Election: In ‘Review’

In the first article for the Young Scottish Fabians' election takeover, Dominic McGinley discusses the state of political discourse in the Holyrood elections.

You’re probably familiar with the hoary old chestnuts which these days constitute election coverage: ‘blah… most important in a generation blah blah… determine Scotland’s future blah blah… supermajority blah blah… mandate for referendum blah blah… battle for second place blah.’ This sort of Grade A bilge is good for filling columns, and for flattering candidates and party leaders into actually believing that their campaigns have been in some sense impressive, profound or interesting.

But let’s try to cut through the cack and address the real issue in this election – the utterly depressing lack of any policy discussion of substance on any issue from any party. The truth is, this election campaign has flatlined intellectually and politically. Ask Joe Bloggs at the Bull and Bush (in the beer garden, from a safe distance) what he thinks of the election, and you will get one of two replies. If Joe happens to be one of those ‘Alba’ people who grabs you by the arm and tries to convince you that secret Scottish oil fields have been stashed away by the deep state, he’ll probably be excited to share his thoughts with you. But otherwise, he’ll likely be unable to tell you anything meaningful about the parties’ policies, if indeed he knows there’s an election on at all. It seems that the more mundane and forgettable the actual election campaign, the more pundits feel compelled to talk up the stakes, to add a bit of confected anticipation. 

Maybe we should be grateful for this noble lie – because the reality is almost too depressing for words. The SNP’s woeful record has been spoken about (drug deaths, cancer waiting times, an education system which appears to be rotting before our eyes etc.), but no one makes the point forcefully enough, and I suspect even if they did, no one would actually care. The SNP seem immune to scrutiny, because they know that – if they pretend independence is near enough – their voters simply won’t pay any notice to their failures. Anas Sarwar and Willie Rennie have stressed SNP failure in debates, and Nicola Sturgeon has barely attempted to defend herself – but whether she does or not is irrelevant if ‘the 45%’ can be marshalled into polling stations on Thursday.

Even the SNP discussion of independence, their key talking point, has been poor. The SNP shut down debate about the practicalities of independence by sophistically turning the question into one of democratic legitimacy. This is the usual routine:

What about currency? Have you come up with a plan yet?”

“The plan will be put to the people in a referendum, and it’s frankly anti-democratic of you to try to stop the Scottish people deciding on my plan… when I decide what it is.”

Our first reaction may be anger at such fluff – but, more than that, I think it’s just depressing that this sort of sleight-of-hand is the best Scotland can come up with. Of course, it is legitimate to ask whether the SNP have a plan, or whether the attention of the first minister will be diverted by the task of secretly formulating the plan, over the next few crucial recovery years. Likewise the question of uncertainty:

“Do you really think that the middle of the worst unemployment crisis for a century is the right time to create unprecedented business uncertainty?”

“Well look at Boris Johnson! I’m not certain I like him ha ha. So if we’ve got a bit of uncertainty going on anyway because of Brexit, we might as well add a bit more on top, right?”

There are big questions here about what exactly democracy means, and what legitimacy looks like. Is an SNP majority enough for a referendum? If so, why? What if turnout is beneath 50%, and less than half of the votes are cast for pro-independence parties anyway? Would this dent the mandate? Would it necessarily be undemocratic for a Westminster government to deny a referendum? If so, how often must independence referendums be held in the future in order that ‘democracy’ is maintained? These are difficult questions, but for God’s sake if the SNP are going to spend every election gassing on about theoretical concepts like legitimacy and democracy, let’s at least make them do it properly.

And the others aren’t much better. Douglas Ross appears each day in a different pub garden or farm steading, usually passing on just how worried his good friend Ruth Davidson is getting about all this independence malarkey. His campaign is based on a logical inconsistency:

Premiss 1: Boris Johnson has a duty to refuse any request for a referendum.

Premiss 2: An SNP majority would constitute a mandate for a referendum which couldn’t be refused.

(Conclusion: Something bizarre and offensive about travellers, presumably.)

Anas Sarwar is by some distance the most impressive of the ‘First Ministerial candidates’, and he has enjoyed the best campaign so far. He seems relaxed and assured in his performances at the hustings and on the trail, and he is winning plaudits from across the political spectrum. But even the Labour campaign has been light on policy. I’m sure there’s plenty of great stuff in the manifesto, but the only stuff that has made it through to voters is soundbites, usually about recovery or division. My family and I have taken to drinking shots each time we’re encouraged by Anas to reject ‘the old arguments’, and so to be honest the rest of the details of his campaign are a little blurry.

The Greens on the other hand are to my mind an increasingly unattractive force in Scottish politics. They have made the unfortunate journey from independent-minded environmentalists, one of whose varied and challenging policies was independence, to a bourgeois eco-nationalist group (see Patrick Harvie making nationalist self-determination arguments in the TV debates).

The Lib Dems appear to have spent the entire campaign budget on stunts, which has made it a little difficult to focus on their policies. I’m sure they have plenty to say on mental health treatment and education, but before they get onto the issues, your mind has normally wandered to asking, ‘Is that Willie Rennie parachuting out of a plane above the East Neuk of Fife?’ or ‘Why is Willie Rennie climbing Ben Macdui on a space hopper?’

And then there are the also-rans, like George Galloway’s All 4 Unity, which is in danger of getting fewer votes nationwide than the 489 votes Galloway himself got when he stood in West Bromwich in the 2019 General Election. Or the Faragist Reform UK party, which has inexplicably chosen to feature on its leaflets the unlikely messiah Michelle Ballantyne, staring purposefully into the middle distance. 

There is also Alex Salmond’s Alba Party. But I think that’s more than enough on such a distasteful topic.

An election no-one was really bothered about, whose winner was certain from the beginning, and whose main campaign theme has been the same as at all elections for the past 4 years, was never going to get the heart racing. But it shouldn’t be too much to hope for that elections in the midst of pandemics, unemployment crises, and climate emergencies feature some interesting and fruitful debate. We should be appalled by the sorry state of Holyrood politics, which in the tone of its argument and calibre of its candidates more closely resembles a parochial village council than a polity ready to emerge as a nation-state. And, given how important we’re constantly told Thursday’s results will be for our constitutional future, perhaps that should worry us.


Dominic McGinley is the Youth Officer of Dunfermline CLP studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He also sits on the Executive Committee of the European Movement in Scotland.

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