Political electioneering in Scotland – strictly by invitation only

Political electioneering in Scotland – strictly by invitation only

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 5, April, 2021

AT LEAST TWO new parties will be on the ballot paper in the Scottish parliament elections of 6 May, the pro-separation Alba and the anti-separation Alliance for Unity.  Their appearance and ability to gain 6 and 4 per cent backing from prospective voters in a Panelbase opinion poll published on 4 April has caused  deep consternation at the top of the SNP and also its main opponent the Scottish Conservatives.

Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that following the poll’s publication both these established outfits have directed far more aggression towards the newcomers (or usurpers of the status quo) than towards each other.

Initially, the SNP treated Alba’s formation on 26 March with lofty condescension. It was a pathetic comeback vehicle for a washed-up politician, one Alex Salmond. The smugness wore thin when the list of defections rose, particularly among women office holders and elected officials. It became less easy  to write off Alba as a stillborn creation. To prevent the party’s call for a super-majority by voting SNP in the constituencies and Alba in the lists, gaining traction, Sturgeon treated her new adversary with icy disdain. She told Ciaran Jenkins of Channel 4 on 2 April, “I have no intentions of trying to work with Alex Salmond or a new party.”  He was an unstable character bound up with his own appetites. She drove the point home when she said: “Everybody knew Alex Salmond was a gambler because he has never made any secret of it. He backs the horses on an almost daily basis.”

As if to leave no doubts that her former colleague was now a political untouchable she has made almost continuous references in recent days to the danger that Scottish women faced from sexually violent men and how the law must be changed because currently it did not afford them sufficient protection.

It does not require a great mind reader to see that Salmond walking free in March 2020 after charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape were quashed still rankles with her and she is keen to frame his acquittal in the minds of voters as a perversion of justice rather than its triumph.  When interviewing him, media figures such as the BBC Today programme’s Nick Robinson (who would have different reasons to dislike Salmond) was careful also to dwell on his trial rather than the impact of his new party.

It is interesting that the SNP hardline on Salmond and Alba emanates from the top. Most SNP elected officials keep a tight silence except for the 18 Westminster MPs (out of 48) prepared to go on record that they would never cross over to Alba.

The Conservative outcry against the other ‘interloper’ Alliance for Unity (A4U: on the ballot paper All for Unity) is more generalised. Whereas Alba poses a threat to few SNP MSPs nearly all of whom will be elected in the constituency ballot where Alba is not standing, the Alliance is seen as threatening the careers of Conservatives who have been mainly elected on the lists. Until recently, the vitriol against George Galloway, its founder and the candidate most likely to be returned to Holyrood, was kept within bounds. (A big exception was the attack in the Spectator from journalist Stephen Daisley who said he would prefer to see every Holyrood seat filled by the controversial author of the new hate  law Humza Yousaf than even one going to George Galloway).   

A4U were branded as Unionist vote splitters, enhancing the likelihood of a nationalist super-majority.  The A4U leader Jamie Blackett, a farmer and ex-soldier with years as a Conservative member, riposted it was the failure of the Tories and the other pro-UK parties to embrace tactical voting in the constituencies and agree to a common challenger to the separatists in the list section that lay behind the prospect of Unionist defeat. The same pointless vote-splitting had gone on in the last 3 elections each won by the SNP.  

The A4U had offered to stand down if the others threw their weight behind a single list candidate.  It was staying engaged not least because it was proving able to win backing from Scots who had previously not voted in Scottish elections (where the turnout is invariably much lower than in British general elections), from mainstream Unionists frustrated by the uncooperative spirit of the main anti-separatists formations, and even from ex-SNP voters disenchanted for numerous reasons with Sturgeon’s years in power.

There is huge annoyance that the A4U has not crumpled and as a result personal attacks on Galloway of the kind directed at Salmond (from within the SNP) have increased. Jackson Carlaw, briefly leader of the party in 2019-20 described Galloway as “this utter charlatan. He is no friend of the union” on 4 April. Past quotes from Galloway where he supported a united Ireland were dredged up  even though as A4U is quick to point out, it is Boris Johnson who has agreed to an economic frontier down the Irish Sea, dividing Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the UK. In a tweet to Stephen Daisley, one of Carlaw’s local activists even speculated   A4U was a wrecking initiative  masterminded by the SNP. In response, the A4U is quick to point out that despite attacks of this intensely personal nature, it continues to back Conservatives in seats like Carlaw’s where it stands the best chance of halting the SNP.  

The Conservatives dread the prospect of falling into third place and no longer being the chief opposition party. Many know that only a handful of A4U MSPs is likely to result in a far more combative performance against the SNP in the Scottish Parliament. The Sturgeonites of the SNP in their turn hate the prospect of a strong Alba contingent at Holyrood. 

Both parties fear being exposed a status quo outfits inauthentic and slipshod in their advocacy of core unionist and nationalist positions.  The last thing they want is any radical transformation because it means the glacial pace of change that Tories and increasingly SNP insiders have grown accustomed to might change. It will force them to be more radical on the issue of advancing independence than they have preferred to be ever since Sturgeon took over. They will also face criticism from fellow nationalists for pushing fresh legislation on identity issues such as gender reassignment.

One barely disguised priority of the SNP has been to slot its people into positions of influence right across Scotland and use its control of planning laws to bring private business into its orbit.  This  sway can result in much-needed cash for a party where campaigning often seems to take precedence over governing. Thus a story broken in the Sunday Mail on 4 April showed how ministers overturned no less than seven planning decisions which went against a firm of builders at local authority level since 2014. The firm, Springfield property, donated £100,000 to the SNP in 2015-16.  Before a major housing development in the Stirling area was given the go-ahead, staff from the firm met with Sturgeon in Perth in January 2019 and with senior ministers on other occasions.  Springfield fulfilled its obligation to declare them in Holyrood’s lobbying register. But there is no mention of these encounters in ministerial diaries despite the code of conduct stating: “Private Offices should arrange for the basic facts of formal meetings between ministers and outside interest groups to be recorded, setting out the reasons for the meeting, the names of those attending and the interests represented.”

SNP empire-building in the private sector is matched by an incredibly brazen and possessive attitude to Covid funding allocated to Scotland by the Treasury with the aim of helping businesses to survive the pandemic. The remarkable exploits of Dr Tim Rideout, who sits on the SNP’s national policy development committee,  reached the light of day last week. Last July 8, Rideout stated on Facebook that it would be a “criminal waste” for Yes supporters to miss out on claiming the Treasury cash and boasted of making £50,000 “for the Indy cause” in a single day through the scheme.  

He wrote: “If you have any connection to any Yes group that either owns or is the tenant of shop premises, an office or similar then please ensure they have submitted an application for the Covid-19 business support grant of £10,000.” 

Tom Harris, the former Labour MP commented in the Telegraph: “So a nationalist government that wants to end the subsidy paid to it by the rest of the UK is, in the meantime, using that same subsidy – plus the extra cash intended to fight Covid – to fund electoral bribes in an attempt to persuade Scots to vote for independence and, therefore, a permanent end to high spending on services.” 

It was announced that the money was being returned by the SNP beneficiaries who had received it by dubious means but Sturgeon offered the barest of criticism for such irregular conduct. It is clear that far more effort and ingenuity has gone into such elaborate dodges than in planning to secure independence or work out what to do with it afterwards.  A certain degree of self-justification results if heists are targeted at the British state but inevitably if low conduct becomes a normal working practice, it is difficult to prevent it overwhelming the inner life of the party. This was one of the observations made by SNP veteran Dr Morag Kerr in an article where she explained her reasons for joining the Alba party. She wrote:   

“The destruction of the SNP’s internal accountability to members resulting in corruption, cronyism and extreme partiality as to which interest groups are heard and which are consigned to the outer darkness. This goes hand in hand with the promotion of some absolutely appalling individuals who should never have been near the centre of power in any responsible political party."  

While pledging a desire to cooperate with Sturgeon’s party in the independence drive, Salmond has made it clear that criticism of her governance record is not off limits.  Similarly A4U’s readiness to work with the Conservatives while not refraining from pointing out their weaknesses in stemming the separatist offensive, is a mighty irritation for a party which does not take well to its performance being scrutinised in this way.  it explains why both Sturgeon and Douglas Ross are united in trying to keep Salmond and Galloway out of the television debates between the electoral contenders. It would be something of an ordeal to be up against such quick-thinking and accomplished word-smiths as this pair.  They know their visibility will increase their familiarity with voters, make crude caricatures from media allies of both the Tories and the SNP harder to stick, and give Alba and A4U a higher percentage of votes than polls indicate. 

Both the legacy parties have no interest in a higher turnout than the mere 55 per cent in 2016. Extra voters merely adds to the level of uncertainty within parties more interested in continuity than change.  But much as she would like to, Sturgeon cannot boss around the broadcasters in public. Who participates is their decision with the Electoral Commission having a role if it receives complaints about the selection criteria. But the two main broadcasters, BBC Scotland and STV often appear very pro-SNP in their editorial decision-making. The presence of two charismatic  debaters would likely cause viewing figures to soar.  But in Scotland if the choice of broadcasters proves to keep the audience under heavy sedation, it is a sign that the health of democracy in Scotland is even more precarious than even some of its more sombre analysts assumed.  

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Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of  Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism, Hurst publishers 2005. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54 

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