ONLY boring people get bored, so the saying goes, so what should we make of the claims that this is a boring Scottish Parliament election? Are we a nation of boring people, or are we just being subjected to a lacklustre campaign? And if it’s the latter, whose fault is that?
In many respects Holyrood 2021 is surely quite exciting, given it’s quite rightly being framed as an independence election and – whether we like it or not – there’s an attention-grabbing new party in the mix. We’ve also got two new party leaders in Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar, and a new co-leader in Lorna Slater, so there are plenty of fresh faces (and one not-so-fresh one back in the mix), but are there any fresh ideas?
Well yes, actually, there are – but good luck weighing them up at this late stage in the game.
When it comes to policy, the Scottish Greens were wisely fast out of the gate with a manifesto pledging green jobs, warm homes and better public transport. This allowed Slater to paint a positive picture of Scotland’s future during the rather premature BBC leaders’ debate, while those around her kept their policy cards close to their chests. It was hardly inspiring. There was much talk from the Unionists of “recovery”, but, are they scared to even hint we might be able to create a better society than the one we had pre-Covid, given the constraints of the devolution settlement?
They kept asserting that we shouldn’t still be going over the same old constitutional arguments, but they spent so long saying so that there wasn’t much time left to talk about anything else. Of course, had they blurted out all of their proposals too early they wouldn’t have been able to drip-feed them to the media over – an approach that helps sell papers and draw in viewers and listeners, but hardly serves the interests of the electorate.
Is it really so radical to suggest that manifestos should be published on day one of any election campaign, so that politicians could spend the following weeks discussing them? Is it a crazy thought that before people send off their postal votes, they should actually know what each party is proposing?
The SNP are of course in a bind when it comes to their manifesto – announce too many jazzy new policies and some will ask why they haven’t already implemented them, given they’ve been in power for 14 years; too few and the charge will be that they have run out of ideas, or are too preoccupied with independence (despite the fact that so many in the Yes movement are falling out with them precisely because they feel they haven’t been preoccupied enough).
The role of the Greens as kingmakers over the last five years puts them in a strong position – they can take credit for the policies they have managed to push through yet take none of the blame for any shortcomings (perceived or actual) in how Scotland is governed. The Tories and Labour know, of course, that they won’t have to deliver on any of their manifesto pledges, but it certainly took some excitement out of the election when both openly acknowledged they had no chance of winning. It makes you nostalgic for the days when a deluded Ruth Davidson would confidently assert she would soon be First Minister, or Jo Swinson pretended she was on course for Downing Street when it transpired she couldn’t even hold East Dunbartonshire.
Some would call this defeatist, others realistic, but by accepting the SNP will win the election regardless of what policies their own parties put in their manifestos, don’t they tacitly admit that the Scottish Parliament just doesn’t have enough powers to make the kind of changes that will make voters sit up and take notice? Doesn’t this illustrate the constraints placed on Scotland, and help make the SNP’s constitutional arguments for them?
Of course, it could be one big co-ordinated bluff – act like an SNP win is a foregone conclusion and perhaps a large enough number of people won’t bother to vote (especially if they didn’t get around to applying for postal votes), and the largest party will be left without a majority. As reader Alan Laing of Paisley pointed out earlier this week, loose media talk about potential for long queues at polling stations deterring voters could prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. And can we please ban the phrase “cutting through” from media debates – if the public aren’t taking any interest in this election (or any particular aspect of it), the media need to take some responsibility for poor communication.
It’s hard to disagree with Lesley Riddoch’s assessment in yesterday’s National that “big constitutional issues are now all that really excite politicians, candidates, journalists and activists”, but what of the bigger group of people with a role to play in this election: the voters? If politicians and journalists don’t care about the policy issues over which Holyrood has power – from wraparound childcare to mental healthcare, employment guarantees to business rates, rail travel to renewables – then it follows these won’t make the headlines. But these issues matter, so couldn’t we have had a series of themed leader’s debates instead of general rammies?
It’s an independence election but it’s also much more than that. Every election is an independence election when discussion of what we can do exposes the limits of devolution. It’s just a shame so many frustrated voters will have run out of patience waiting to hear what policies they’re being asked to vote for. Frankly, I don’t blame them.