If mention of the Scottish elections being held this Thursday sends you to sleep with excitement then you accurately reflect the sentiments of the Holyrood electorate. No election north of the Border has previously been conducted in so apathetic a climate. Election posters are virtually non-existent, with rows of blank windows proclaiming a contest to which the public is passionately indifferent.
Nothing could be a greater contrast to the feverish atmosphere of the referendum. If the nationalists thought they were creating a new era of public engagement they must be sadly disillusioned. The new Scotland turns out to resemble the old Scotland under sedation. The average Holyrood candidate is a party loyalist nonentity taking up space that might more profitably be occupied by a vacuum.
As if to counter the atmosphere of somnolence, the leaders of the three main political parties – all of them women, so lots of diversity there – shouted loudly and talked through one another at their three set-piece televised debates, while the rest of the country was trying to get some sleep. But there was one issue they did not shout about: in Basil Fawlty mode, “Don’t mention the economy” was the SNP’s chief rule of engagement which, with growth trailing the UK at 1.7 per cent, was hardly surprising.
The SNP policy contribution has been a doubling of the business rates surcharge on medium to large commercial premises. Some of us take the old-fashioned view that before raising taxes one should wait for people to earn more, but Scottish politicians reject such pandering to the fat cats who parade the ulcers and heart attacks that result from running medium-sized enterprises as if deserving of sympathy. Labour has tried to outflank the SNP on the left by supporting a penny in the pound increase in the basic rate of tax and an increase in the top rate from 45p to 50p.
An Ipsos MORI poll showed 52 per cent of voters supported the first policy, 75 per cent the second. That is understandable: of the 4 million on the Scottish voters’ roll, only 2.3 million pay income tax and even among the taxpaying majority the public-sector nomenklatura favours tax rises, since its own income would be ring-fenced.
The one factor that has infused some interest into the contest is the battle for second place. The SNP has a commanding lead in voting intentions which over the past month has varied in opinion polls between 49-53 per cent in the constituency ballot and 44-47 per cent in the regional list. Scots have two votes, since 73 MSPs are directly elected and 56 selected from party lists. It is this electoral anomaly that has provided the SNP with its only significant concern.
Increasingly, some Scottish voters are exercising their discretion by spreading their votes across two parties. It makes them feel more influential, sophisticated, even-handed and more at ease with people of different opinions in their social circle. That is why in the most recent poll, by Panelbase for the Sunday Times, the SNP registered 49 per cent in the constituency vote, compared with 44 per cent on the list. That would still be enough to give the SNP an overall majority, but the increasing volatility of the list vote worries its strategists. There has been a slightly hysterical tone to the party’s “Both votes” slogan.
For, in the peculiar swings-and-roundabouts arrangement at Holyrood elections, parties that fare badly in the constituencies are to some degree compensated on the list. In 2011 the Conservatives won only three constituency seats but were awarded a further 12 from the list. That is what has provoked the only interesting speculation in this campaign, as the badly broken Scottish Labour Party showed signs, in some polls, of falling behind the Conservatives into third place. The more recent polls, however, have shown Labour pulling ahead of the Tories, by 23 to 17 per cent in the constituency vote and 22 to 19 per cent on the list.
The polls show clearly that this slight improvement in Labour’s position is coming from a late fall-off in SNP support. That seems to be due to the emergence of the constitutional issue as a dominant theme in the later stages of the campaign. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, is in a difficult position on the question of a second independence referendum and the opposition parties have held her feet to the fire over that policy.
The SNP manifesto lacks the commitment to an independence referendum that was in the equivalent document in 2011. To propose a re-run would be provocative to the public. Sturgeon’s position is that she will call a referendum when support for independence has consistently been at 60 per cent in the polls for some time. Since it has never reached that level, this suggests she would prefer to govern Scotland with the sweeping new powers gifted to her by David Cameron and wait for some dramatic change in circumstances.
That is hugely speculative, even though a recent poll showed a narrow majority of Scots would vote for independence after Brexit: talking to people with clipboards is cheap, reality reasserts itself in the polling booth. Meanwhile, for even the most modest wealth creators, the coming fiscal powers in the hands of a spendthrift parliament and government spell the message “Be very afraid.” Whatever the outcome on Thursday, do not look for any surge in free-market enthusiasm in the subsidy-addicted birthplace of Adam Smith.