THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT election on May 6 will be like no other in recent Scottish history. Every local, Scottish and UK election for the last ten years has turned on the constitutional question: the Scottish National Party is pitted against the Westminster parties, with the Scottish Conservatives in pole unionist position.
But both sides can only rehearse the same moves for so long before boredom, frustration, even desperation with the stalemate sets in. This election marks that breaking point for both nationalists and unionists. New kids are turning up on the election block: two in particular are Alba and All for Unity.
Each is led by an infamous political bruiser. Alex Salmond and George Galloway have both been round more than a few blocks in their time. Both have been tempted out of what appeared to be the wilder shores of a common media retirement at Russia Today by the chance to break the political deadlock in Scotland.
For Salmond, it’s the SNP’s endless prevarication over a second independence referendum; for Galloway, it’s the Westminster parties’ acceptance of their permanent status as opposition. The nationalists and the unionists are co-dependent, equally invested in the neverendum hamster wheel. The result for Scotland has been political inertia and stagnation. Active government has been replaced with endless reviews, reports and consultations, and Holyrood is little more than a talking shop to allow MSPs to feel important. The lack of interest by both government and opposition has led to marked decreases in Scots’ quality of life; Scotland tops the national league for drug deaths, homeless deaths, child poverty, educational decline and NHS waiting lists.
Salmond and Galloway’s interventions seek to exploit the peculiarity of the Holyrood voting system. Voters have two votes: one for an individual in one’s constituency, the other for a party in one’s region. The first is counted on the classic first-past-the-post basis, but the second uses the D’Hondt method, which adds a handicap to each party’s list seat calculation according to the number of constituency seats already won. Alba and All for Unity are both targeting the list vote only.
Salmond wants to wrench the focus back to a second referendum, first aiming to secure a pro-independence “supermajority” by standing Alba candidates for list seats which the electoral arithmetic precludes the SNP from winning, then to use his faction at Holyrood to rally pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to follow his agenda.
By contrast, Galloway wants to put a second referendum to bed once and for all. His blindingly simple formula is to stop the unionist vote being split by recommending a tactical vote in the constituencies, ideally by the Westminster parties standing down candidates in favour of the one most likely to win. This would then allow All for Unity to mop up unionist seats in the regional vote which the Westminster parties would have reduced their chances of winning after gaining constituency seats. This would give the unionist parties a supermajority at Holyrood and require, as All for Unity puts it, a government of national unity, the kind of coalition which the devolved parliament was designed to enable. Top of the A4U agenda is a Clarity Act, as put forward by leader Jamie Blackett, which would set out the terms and conditions for referendums as well as defining more tightly the respective devolved and reserved powers where the SNP have encroached on the latter to their advantage.
These challenges to the Holyrood hegemony have been met in similar ways. The personal attacks on Galloway and Salmond are grist to the mill – it hardly seems a coincidence that both are men of a certain generation with a penchant for the limelight and the ladies. The main thrust of the attack on each is that they are tiny fringe outfits, which rather than winning seats for their “side”, could fatally damage them. The paradox in this argument seems to have passed their accusers by. In both camps there seems to be a fair amount of “how dare you” hysteria: Salmond’s detractors accuse him of setting back the Indy cause or even breaking the movement, Galloway’s of enabling a second independence referendum. Both charges are self-serving nonsense. Underneath both fear an electoral shake-up which may see a handful of SNP or Conservative list MSPs replaced by Alba or All for Unity.
The notion that Galloway will enable a second referendum is particularly ludicrous. It stems from the Scottish Tories’ outdated and misleading electoral strategy. In every election since 2014 they have pitched themselves as the only party who can stop Indyref2. It worked spectacularly well in 2016 and 2017, when the Ruth surge delivered the best Conservative results at Holyrood and Westminster for decades. But the context was David Cameron having allowed the 2014 referendum, as well as well-publicised vacillations about allowing a second referendum in the event of a nationalist majority, including by Ruth Davidson and other prominent Scottish Tories.
The arrival of Boris Johnson has altered the field completely: he has been crystal clear that he will not grant a Section 30 order, the only legislative way a second referendum can be held and one that is entirely in his gift. In effect, it doesn’t matter if no one votes for the Scottish Tories: Boris Johnson still won’t grant a Section 30 order. Salmond’s “supermajority” is a rhetorical sleight of hand: Johnson won’t take it seriously because it is the result of Scottish voters having two votes, and does not signify that a significant majority of the Scottish people want a second independence referendum. Until polls consistently show the latter, a second referendum is off the table at Westminster. Scottish Tories’ fear-mongering about an imminent nationalist take-over is what guaranteed the turn-out which gave them such success in 2016. This strategy informed Douglas “referendum” Ross’s every intervention at the recent televised leaders’ debate: Scottish Tories might like to heed the post-show ratings plus the latest polling and have a rapid rethink.
2016 cannot be taken as a model for 2021. Salmond and Galloway should be seen as warning signs against basing predictions and admonishments on 2016, as certain Tory commentators have done. Their parties may be very new, lacking infrastructure and big money, but they should not be written off, as Sunday’s Panelbase poll indicated. It gave Alba 6% and All for Unity 4%, delivering four seats and one respectively. As John Curtice has noted, seat allocations for smaller parties on the list vote are subject to many variables and very difficult to predict. It is perfectly possible to imagine All for Unity garnering another 2% and four or more seats, especially if Galloway is given the television debate with Salmond that he is hankering for. A YouGov poll a few weeks ago rated him as Scotland’s strongest opposition leader in most areas and he enjoyed the highest name recognition of all the opposition party leaders.
Above all, both Salmond and Galloway are anti-establishment, populist figures, railing against a status quo that people on all sides of the political divide can see is tired, impotent and corrupt. To that extent, they have the potential to disrupt politics and defy pollsters in Scotland in the way that Trump did in the US, and Farage, Brexit and Boris’s red wall did in England.
On current form, the unionist parties in Scotland remain programmed for failure. Little of this analysis makes it to mainstream media, but social media is full of people who have had enough of the status quo and the fatal disunity among the opposition. A poll by Scotland Matters in December showed 69% of voters open to a tactical voting strategy for the constituencies. There are also fantastic videos highlighting the lies and failures of 14 years of nationalist government made by a new breed of anonymous guerrilla film-makers and billboard campaigns by Scotland Matters, Scottish Business UK and The Majority. These are spontaneous grassroots initiatives far beyond anything the Westminster parties in Scotland have achieved.
George Galloway may be notorious for his cat imitation on Big Brother, but he could well prove to be the cat among the pigeons of Scottish politics.
Linda Holt is a councillor for East Neuk & Landward in Fife and a Mid Scotland and Fife regional list candidate for All for Unity in the coming Holyrood elections. lindaholt.org.uk
Photo of cat with prey by robsphoto from Adobe Stock