International report

'You could easily forget it’s happening': Scotland's strange election campaign

Audio 07:35
Remember this: a pro-independence protest in Glasgow in 2014.
Remember this: a pro-independence protest in Glasgow in 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

As Scotland carefully exits lockdown, citizens across the country will go the polls on 6 May in elections that have been described as the most important since the nation’s devolved Parliament reconvened in 1999. The last Scottish elections, in 2016, took place before Brexit, before the coronavirus pandemic, before the unprecedented rise in support for independence.This is the first of four reports.

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Those elections were also before the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, was accused, then cleared, of sexual misconduct allegations.

A series of inquiries took place to investigate the Scottish Government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints and whether the current First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, broke the ministerial code.

The conclusions of both inquiries were published just before the start of this election campaign, in a spectacularly toxic and fractious atmosphere that nearly triggered her fall. Sturgeon survived and her party, the SNP, is now set to win the elections.

However, support for independence is wavering. “Nicola Sturgeon had a good pandemic, especially towards the tail end of last year when her popularity was soaring, and so was the support for independence,” says journalist Dani Garavelli.

“So there was a situation where there was sustained majority support for independence for the first time in modern history. That’s tailed off a bit, partly because of the parliamentary inquiries, and partly because some of the handling of Covid has been less impressive.”

An election campaign you could easily miss

Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, says the mood during the campaign couldn’t be more different than in the days before it started.

“On the one hand, you had this incredible rancour right before it started, and yet at the same time you had this sort of missing energy. The canvassers and campaigners can’t be involved in the way they normally are”, she says. “It’s not as visible a campaign. You could quite easily forget that it’s happening if you weren’t looking for signs of it.”

The Scottish Parliament legislates on devolved matters such as health, education, justice and the environment. However, with the recent political controversies and the rising support for an independent Scotland, the constitution is taking centre stage in the campaign.

“It is overshadowing other issues,” Ailsa Henderson says. “People aren’t talking about the economic recovery of Scotland to the extent you would think they might be. That’s true not just of the post-Covid recovery, but also of how Scotland copes in a post-Brexit world.” 

Bright new dawn for Salmond's Alba Party?

There’s another big issue in this campaign: the return to politics of Alex Salmond, who hasn’t held elected office since he lost his seat in the north-east of Scotland in the 2017 UK general elections.

Nicola Sturgeon’s predecessor, who claimed the sexual misconduct allegations were part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to keep him away from politics, announced in March the creation of his new pro-independence Alba Party.

The goal, he says, is to help the SNP gain a supermajority for independence by presenting candidates on the list vote, where the SNP is unlikely to win many seats because of a semi-proportional voting system.

“All that does is draw the attention back to the personalities and the concept of this feud between the two of them. I don’t see how this narrative is going to change over the next few weeks”, Dani Garavelli says.

The Alba Party is chasing a different electorate from the SNP. “That movement may appeal to men who are older, who have campaigned for independence their whole lives, who are not happy with what they interpret as the “woke” (socially progressive) legislative agenda of the SNP”, Ailsa Henderson explains.

With the Scottish Greens, who also support independence and are set to make gains in the upcoming elections according to the polls, there could indeed be a supermajority in the Scottish Parliament that could force Boris Johnson to agree to a second independence referendum.

However, the British Prime Minister and his Conservative Party say they won’t bulge: whatever the outcome of the Holyrood elections, Holyrood being the seat of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. BoJo is determined not to let "indyref2" happen.

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