Both Labour and the Conservatives tried to relaunched their Scottish Parliament election campaigns yesterday. The fact that they have been described as “stalled” 100 days before polling day tells you all you need to know about the state of the Scottish opposition.
The Holyrood election is a race of the also rans, a contest of losers, in which the only story so far is the Scottish Tories apparently gaining ground on Labour in some polls. This may not be unconnected to the fact, as revealed in Labour’s internal Mattinson Report, that, to many Scottish voters, the parties are indistinguishable from each other.
This may change rapidly if the Tories go with their souls and adopt a tax-cutting programme for Holyrood. Yesterday’s McMillan Report – independent but Tory inspired – dipped a tentative toe into fiscal minimalism by proposing a 30 per cent “aspirational” rate in addition to the existing 40 per cent higher rate.
This is a notional stealth-tax cut for the better off which they hope poorer Scots will not notice – and they may be right. But, as an election bribe, it doesn’t seem big enough to fire the animal spirits of the Scottish middle classes who perversely vote Labour or increasingly SNP. We have become so used to the SNP dominating opinion polls that we no longer realise how strange it is, nearly a decade after gaining office.
The latest polls suggest Nicola Sturgeon is on course for another landslide, winning 73 Holyrood seats. It is most unusual for governments to remain so popular for so long, at least outside one-party states. This has led to dark talk of elective dictatorship and suggestions that the SNP is getting too big for its Nationalist boots.
But the First Minister is no Fidel Castro and Scotland is no one-party state. There are at least five major parties competing for election and a proportional electoral system that makes majority government exceptional. There is also a nominally free press, one almost entirely dominated by journals that oppose independence.
There is no jiggery pokery about it. The SNP dominates because it is popular; massively and counter-intuitively so, even though it has suffered most of the negatives that usually make long-serving governments lose their popularity. Hardly a week goes by without some SNP MP being accused in the press of hypocrisy, sharp business practice or dodgy dealings.
The broadly-based Yes Alliance that boosted the SNP during and after the referendum has turned into a dis-alliance of squabbling groups. Anyone who criticises actions of the Scottish Government becomes the target of excitable Nationalists on social media accusing them of being “yoons” or “traitors”.
Yet that record, like that of any government in power for nine years, demands questioning. Inequality has worsened; the educational attainment gap is as wide as ever; and there have been legislative foul-ups such as the behaviour at football grounds act and the attempts to abolish corroboration.
Police Scotland is a monster threatening civil liberties; the council tax freeze has outstayed its welcome; social care is being squeezed; and the SNP is all over he place on fracking, suppressing debate at conference and trying to look both ways on fossil fuels.
Of course, Ms Sturgeon can cite achievements as well. Voter satisfaction with the NHS is high; she has steadfastly challenged austerity and welfare cuts; and she has promoted the national living wage. But a competent opposition should be able to knock a large hole in this Government’s popularity.
So is it just that the opposition parties lack leadership? Well, no. Ruth Davidson is, by general agreement, the best thing to happen to the Scottish Tories in decades. Kezia Dugdale, though inexperienced, has shown courage and imagination as leader of the battered Scottish Labour Party. If there are better political leaders anywhere in the country I’ve not heard of them.
No, I’m afraid it all comes back to the national question. Scotland is on hold and has been since the referendum, which was supposed to decide Scotland’s future for a couple of generations but hasn’t. If anything, the referendum, despite the Unionist victory, has increased the desire for national autonomy.
Scotland supports the party of independence even though most voters thinks independence may not be economically viable. That is a paradox, but not an unusual one in politics. People want what they know they can’t really have.
So they express their discontent by continuing to vote for the party they think stands for Scotland and always will: the SNP. And it ain’t gonna change any time soon.
from Herald 26/1/16