Eilidh Hamilton has signed three separate petitions calling for her local MP to stand down, but she won’t be voting in this week’s Scottish parliament elections.
“It’s like getting back to football matches or going on holiday: elections are the last thing we should be thinking about when there’s still so much uncertainty about Covid,” says the floral designer, standing amid buckets of blooms in her shop on Rutherglen’s Main Street.
Her MP, Margaret Ferrier, was immediately suspended from the Scottish National party (SNP) last year and faced national opprobrium after she visited businesses in the constituency, and travelled to and from the Commons, having taken a coronavirus test which proved to be positive.
Die sharpness of local anger may have blunted since last October but, for Hamilton, it continues to smart.
“She’s still not been held accountable,” she says with exasperation, and links that to her decision to sit out this week’s Holyrood poll. A looming second independence referendum – which the SNP have pledged to hold by the end of 2023, provided the Covid crisis has passed – is also a factor: “No matter who you vote for, there’s just going to be more change.”
Nicola Sturgeon has described this Thursday’s elections to the Holyrood parliament as the “most important in Scottish history” and this is no campaign hyperbole: at stake is the direction of the nation’s recovery from the most significant economic and public health shock in a century as well as the future of the UK as a union. Should the SNP secure a majority, they will press Westminster for the legal powers to hold a second independence referendum, and are arguing already that Boris Johnson “cannot deny democracy”. The latest polls indicate a dip in support for the SNP, and for independence, suggesting that a majority and the mandate for a second referendum remains in the balance.
Yet despite the potentially huge consequences, there is little excitement about the vote. It is all taking place in the unpredictable context of Covid, with Zoom hustings replacing door knocks and socially distanced candidates struggle to reach an exhausted and distracted electorate.
Elsewhere in Rutherglen the prospect of the SNP dominating the next parliament is greeted with greater equanimity. “It’s a certainty,” says William McKee, a retired mechanic, as he pats his neighbour’s dog, “but you’d best stick with what you’ve got and Nicola Sturgeon has done well getting us through this carry-on.” He agrees there’s not much chat about the election, although where can you chat when most people are still indoors? “I don’t think anyone is bothering about a referendum right now," hy sê.
Hier, as elsewhere in the country, the appreciation of Sturgeon’s leadership through the pandemic is sincere and crosses party lines. Marie Glen, a home carer, is voting “for Nicola”: “She’s a strong woman and very compassionate. Look at what Boris Johnson’s supposed to have said about bodies piling up …”
But others suggest this personal appreciation means that her party is getting a free pass on other policy failures accumulating after 14 years in government.
“Some people cannot see anything beyond her,” says Dee, a cleaner, who has been scrolling through social media while waiting for her bus, and getting annoyed by a post about hospital waiting times. She has come across the new Scottish Labour leader – Anas Sarwar – although she can’t call his name to mind.
In Rutherglen, which has swung between the SNP and Labour at both Westminster and Holyrood across the past decade, Scottish Labour activists are pragmatic about their chances of unseating the popular MSP and minister for mental health, Clare Haughey, but report an increase in anti-SNP sentiment not solely related to the Ferrier effect. And the battle for second place with the Scottish Conservatives is just as significant. With Sarwar only two months into the job, but already having doubled his approval rating, can he convince more pro-union voters who look to the Tories as the strongest opposition to another referendum to give Labour a chance – and do so by Thursday?
With the same realism, Sarwar has refused to grandstand in this campaign about becoming the next first minister. During Channel 4’s Next Leader Of Scotland debate last Tuesday, presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy challenged the opposition, telling them: “Nicola Sturgeon is the only one playing to win. The rest of you are all playing different games.”
But this is missing the point, says Andy Maciver, former Scottish Conservative adviser and communications specialist: it is a consequence of “peak constitutional politics” that elections are being conducted on a single issue, with other parties only seeking to limit the SNP’s triumph, and a “profoundly unsatisfactory” consequence for non-partisans. Similarly, hy sê, “all the energy in London is going into how to stop a second referendum rather than how to win it”.
By talking about independence “all the time”, Tory leader Douglas Ross is “doing what he needs to do” to maximise his vote, Maciver argues. A more interesting trend is the drift of Blairite voters, who moved to the Tories because of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s weakness on the union, but are now attracted to Sarwar and Keir Starmer. It’s “a matter of time” before Sarwar overtakes Ross to reclaim second place at Holyrood, Maciver believes, “but it won’t happen [hierdie] week”.
Natuurlik, it is the size of the SNP’s win that remains critical. Sturgeon herself has described the election as being “on a knife edge”, as has the veteran polling expert Sir John Curtice, and it bears repeating that the Holyrood system is specifically designed not to deliver a majority. SNP insiders accept that the same attack lines about 14 years of failure, echoed by all opposition parties, are bound to cut through with voters.
In his Holyrood election analysis last week, the Tory peer turned pollster Lord Ashcroft noted: “The SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.”
There is some concern among SNP candidates that the relentless focus on their record in government risks making their supporters apathetic, in an election where turnout – which was at 56% in 2016 – is especially unpredictable because of the potential impact of Covid on voting habits. Conversely, there is a worry that so much talk about an SNP majority means supporters will stay at home because they assume victory is a foregone conclusion. In the past week Sturgeon has been travelling beyond the central belt and taking part in more media huddles, perhaps an indication that the incumbents know they have a fight on their hands to energise their base.
There has been much more discussion of Scotland’s complex voting system in this campaign – prompted by former first minister Alex Salmond’s new Alba party, which argues that SNP votes are “wasted” on the regional ballot because the party does so well in the constituency vote, and that independence supporters should vote Alba instead to usher in a pro-independence “supermajority” at Holyrood.
With the SNP hammering their “both votes” message harder than ever and the Tories stressing the importance of the “party vote” on their leaflets, the regional list votes will be crucial in determining the final arithmetic of the parliament. Candidate after candidate has remarked on the strangeness of fighting an election in which the ground war is so curtailed; where candidate visibility means wooden signs in gardens rather than the usual swarms of canvassers knocking on doors – and the consequent absence of street-by-street voter intelligence they provide.
“It is a very strange election, and there’s not a lot of evidence of people being engaged, whether they are bored with Scottish politics or distracted by the pandemic,” says James Mitchell, a professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, who has written extensively about the SNP.
“After 14 years of SNP government, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was growing cynicism about promises that are not delivered. People are fed up, as they were at the end of the UK Labour years.”
Mitchell suggests the “phenomenal” leap in Sarwar’s approval ratings “may be voters responding to a fresh approach, and someone who appears to be a serious alternative who wants to talk about policy, rather than Douglas Ross banging on about independence”.
But if the campaign has been muted, Mitchell adds, “the real politics begins after the election” – if that pro-referendum mandate is achieved.
Sturgeon’s commitment not to hold another independence vote until “after the Covid crisis” is usefully vague, hy sê, “and it would be a huge gamble with the polls still around 50-50, as they are now. “If there is a pro-independence majority in Holyrood, but not in the polls, Sturgeon will be in a very difficult position”.
Recent polling has recorded a fall in support for independence – one poll last week put it back at 42%, including undecideds – the lowest level since just before the 2019 algemene verkiesing. Analysts highlight a combination of factors for the fall: the success of the vaccine programme as a UK-wide endeavour; soft Remainer yessers made anxious by recent reports about RBS moving its headquarters to England in the event of independence; like-minded voters troubled by the prospect of a hard border with England were Scotland to rejoin the EU; or the Alba party’s talk of street demonstrations and illegal plebiscites, which may be putting off tentative supporters.
Salmond insists his is the only party “taking independence seriously”, attracting those who believe Sturgeon has been too cautious on the issue with a pledge to open negotiations with Westminster in the first days of the new parliament.
But a YouGov poll of SNP supporters last week found that 55% would be “disappointed/dismayed” if the SNP formed a coalition with Alba, in vergelyking met 72% who would be “delighted/pleased” if they did so with the pro-independence Greens.
Polls have predicted Alba to win between zero and six seats this week: the Scottish voting system is notoriously difficult to predict and almost impossible to game, despite the party’s claims of securing a “supermajority” via the regional list. More predictable is the likelihood of a stronger showing for the Scottish Greens, who were in buoyant form on Friday as their co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater campaigned on a blustery morning in Glasgow. According to the polls, it is the Greens – not Alba – who are proving most successful at picking up SNP support on the list, with around one in seven SNP constituency voters backing the party with their regional vote. The party is forecast to double its current five seats in Holyrood.
The Greens see a different phenomenon from the other parties – a growing cohort of voters, rond 10%, who will vote for them on the list, where the majority of their candidates are standing, but consider giving their constituency vote to another party where there is not a Green option. “There is a buzz this time,” says Slater, pointing to the incremental Green influence on the minority SNP government’s policies – such as free school meals for primary children, an eviction ban during the pandemic and a public sector pay rise in the most recent budget – as well as the global protests that have brought the climate crisis into the mainstream.
Harvie has previously said that the Greens would be “willing to have the conversation” about a formal coalition with the SNP, but for now the focus remains on getting people out for the vote on Thursday.
“We have to keep doing the work in the last week,” says Slater. “A worry for all parties is voter apathy. That’s why we’re telling people to vote like their future depends on it.”
Is there a pro-independence majority? The SNP has pledged to bring forward a second referendum on independence – if it doesn’t achieve a majority itself, can it join the Greens to argue that mandate? Sturgeon says she would not work with Alba, but if they gain crucial seats what would be her response?
Who is in second place? Under Ruth Davidson’s leadership, the Tories leapfrogged Labour in 2016 to become the official opposition. Can new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar translate his personal popularity bounce into votes for the party in time?
Wait for the final list calculations The regional list vote is the most unpredictable part of the election, and the calculations are unlikely to be finalised before Saturday afternoon, but will make all the difference to the eventual make-up of the next parliament and could see gains for the Greens and Alba.
Economy Confronting its deficit would be “an early, burning question” for an independent Scotland, according to a report last week by the Institute for Government. The level of spending on public services in Scotland in 2018-19 was £2,543 per head higher than the amount of taxes raised, leaving it with difficult spending and taxation choices should it break away from the UK.
Currency One of the weakest areas of the 2014 pro-independence argument, the Yes campaign will need to offer a stronger option second time round. At its party conference in 2019 the SNP voted to establish an independent currency “as soon as practicable” if Scotland were to leave the UK, despite the leadership recommending a more cautious approach.
EU membership Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that moves to re-enter the EU would be automatic after a Yes vote, rather than requiring an additional referendum, but the timescale for accession, and the stipulations set by the EU, remain uncertain.
The border Sturgeon has said she would “work to avoid” trade friction with England in the event of an independent Scotland rejoining the EU, but questions remain, particularly given the ongoing Irish border difficulties after Brexit.
Nuclear weapons and Nato With the SNP opposed to Trident, and no suitable port for the nuclear submarine fleet anywhere outside Scotland, keeping the deterrent would probably require the help of an allied country, unless Scotland were to agree to lease back the Faslane base to the rest of the UK. There was a fierce row within the anti-nuclear party when it changed policy in 2012 and decided to continue Nato membership after independence.