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It’s been a boring election, but in a rather interesting way.

There is an election going on, apparently. You may have missed it, most of us seem to have. But you will be invited to a polling booth next week to cast you vote in the least exciting election in years.

Indeed, Holyrood 2016 may turn out to be the election no one noticed, such is the degree of voter fatigue.

I mean, when was the last time that the big election story was who is going to come third? (Labour according to another poll by Ipsos-Mori yesterday) Even the policies are minimalist. The SNP headlined a carton of childcare products in its manifesto launch last week, and Labour’s headline policy on the eve of its 2016 manifesto launch yesterday was breakfast clubs. Not exactly the new Jerusalem.

I know: We’re not supposed to make jokes about these things – “how dare you sneer at poor children”. But baby boxes and breakfast clubs are worthy but inconsequential policies. They’re the kind of things party strategists come up with then they’re scrabbling around for something to provide nice pictures and generally be be unobjectionable.

Though there was a scintilla of controversy even about breakfast clubs. I seem to recall it was the former Labour leader, Iain Gray, who said last year it would only be wealthy people “like Nicola Sturgeon who stand to gain from free school meals”. But Labour has said goodbye to all that revisionist stuff and now supports lots of universalist and left wing policies, like taxing the rich through the 50p band.

“We’re going back to our roots” said Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale yesterday, echoing the great social philosopher Bob Marley. Unilateralism is back on the agenda too. Trident will be scrapped, said Scottish Labour’s manifesto -–subject to the workers’ jobs being saved. Mind you, if you never axed a weapons system in case it lost jobs we’d still be building Dreadnoughts. A Scottish policy on Trident is also somewhat academic because Holyrood has no powers over defence

Nor, according to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at her manifesto launch last week, does the Scottish Parliament have the power to reverse austerity. Ms Dugdale wasn’t having any of that. Labour are now the only “anti-austerity party”, she said, warning that another SNP government means “£3billion of unnecessary cuts and years more austerity”.

Indeed, it was a little odd yesterday seeing members of the SNP-supporting Scottish Resistance – at least I think it was them – being photographed outside the Labour launch yesterday with a placard reading: “Red Tories Out”. It is Ms Sturgeon who has echoed George Osborne’s claim there isn’t any point taxing the rich because they’ll just avoid it. So shouldn’t that be: Yellow Tories Out? A rival demonstrator appeared with a handwritten sign saying “Stop Being Silly” which seemed apt.

Of course, Ms Dugdale had important things to say and her manifesto had lots of policies, including an outright ban on fracking, rejection of the TTIP trade deal and a “fair start fund” to help poor pupils do better at school, though it took a long time for them to appear on the Scottish Labour website. Indeed, the SNP got their response out – saying she had got her NHS funding numbers wrong – before the Labour manifesto appeared in cyberspace. Perhaps Labour web supremos didn’t think anyone would be interested.

There probably hasn’t been a duller election since the 2003 Scottish parliament elections, when voters turned against all the big parties and turnout fell below 50 per cent. Voters were underwhelmed by the performance of the Liberal-Labour coalition led by Jack McConnell – an administration which was defined by the Dog Fouling (Scotland) Act, passed on the eve of the election.

Voters were so fed up they decided to elect a raft of outsiders – six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs led by the anti-poll tax campaigner,Tommy Sheridan, and seven Scottish Green Party MSPs led by the amiable Robin Harper with his Dr Who scarf. He was the first-ever elected Green party parliamentarian in Britain, and Mr Sheridan was the first truly left wing socialist, having emerged from the Trotskyite Militant organisation. I’m not saying this will happen again, though the Green Party are definitely on the up, and the SSP has been reborn as part of the left-wing grouping, RISE. And even Mr Sheridan is standing again under the Solidarity banner.

It’s different this time – a very different kind of boring election. In 2003, the Scottish Parliament building debacle was still on voters’ minds, as was the resignation of the former First Minister Henry McLeish for the sub-letting of his constituency offices. Home rule didn’t seem to be up to much, and some people were even arguing for a repeal of the Scotland Act.

The political context today could not be more different. Holyrood is now at the centre of Scottish public life. The SNP, which actually lost ground in 2003 under its underperforming leader John Swinney, now dominates Scottish politics. Indeed, so dominant is Ms Sturgeon – the nation’s beloved according to the opinion polls – that she has sucked the life out of every one else.

The First Minister, as she will again become, is like a political neutron bomb that kills every living thing but leaves all the buildings and infrastructure intact. We have a general election will all the usual conventions, including local government officials trousering hefty sums for acting as returning officers, but the political rivals have been obliterated.

Ms Dugdale, whose leadership was under question even before yesterday’s manifesto launch, resorted, as revealed by The Herald, to attacking Ms Sturgeon’s commitment to the sisterhood. This has been another sub-text to the election: it has become a kind of feminist beauty contest. The big three parties in 2003 were led by Mr (now Lord) McConnell, Mr Swinney and the late David McLetchie for the Tories – all alpha males, OK, perhaps beta blokes may be more appropriate.
Now the three biggest parties are led by women – Ms Sturgeon, Ms Dugdale and Ms Davidson. That represents a remarkable transformation of Scottish political culture in only a decade or so. It is surely a tribute to Holyrood it has sponsored such a remarkable social change.

And there is another important difference. In 2003 politicians and the press were still licking their wounds from the furious row over the abolition of Section 2A which banned the teaching of homosexuality in schools. It’s hard to recall just how viciously this divided Scotland. The Sunday Herald, for which I was writing, took a very liberal stand and its editor, Andrew Jaspan, was furiously attacked by supporters of Keep the Clause, led by Cardinal Winning, the Stagecoach magnet, Brian Souter and the publicist Jack Irvine.

Yet today, two out of three of Scotland’s biggest parties are led by openly gay women. This would have been inconceivable in the early years of Holyrood. And again it is a tribute to the effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament in dragging Scotland into the 21st Century.

Scotland has gone from being a sour and socially conservative backwater to one of the most advanced political cultures in the world. So, yes, this has been a boring election; but it’s been boring in quite an interesting way.


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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