Scotching Westminster

Even politicians in Scotland regard the UK general election as little more than a dress rehearsal.

Dolan Cummings

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Phoning round friends in Scotland in search of the hot election story, I was met with a chorus of ums and ahs and ‘I’ll call you back’s. (They never did.)

If the UK general election seems a dull affair, with no contest and fewer genuine arguments, things are even duller in Scotland. Even politicians north of the border regard the election as little more than a dress rehearsal. Unfortunately, the main event (in two years’ time) threatens to be duller still.

In May 2003 there will be elections for the second term of the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. True, there will be more than one party in contention. Labour will be challenged by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and to a lesser extent by the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens will also hope to win some seats, as will even the Tories. But Holyrood is even less about a battle of ideas than is Westminster.

The SNP leader, and the face of the party’s current campaign, is not even standing for Westminster. Instead, the current election campaign is being used as a marketing campaign to establish John Swinney as the face of the New Scotland, a kind of Tony McBlair. The party’s former leader, Alex Salmond, is expected to be returned comfortably to his seat in Westminster, still technically where the real power lies, but in the topsy-turvy world of Scottish politics, this is like a posting in the provinces.

Ironically, it was Salmond who transformed the SNP from a fringe party bent on independence to a formidable part of the new political establishment based around the Holyrood parliament. Holyrood is a New Labour project that the SNP has exploited well to its own advantage. Simply put, Scots don’t want independence, but they are sick of being taken for granted by Labour, and happy to give them a bloody nose by voting SNP for that funny wee parliament in Edinburgh.

Not that the SNP is substantially different from Labour. Even Salmond’s ‘radical’ ‘Penny for Scotland’ plan (raising income tax to pay for better services) has been ditched as the SNP has matured into a party of New Labour realism. Instead, John Swinney is taking on Labour where they are toughest – on crime. Apart from the obligatory call for more boabies on the beat, he is proposing a sentencing commission to keep judges up to date with ‘public opinion’ (that is, the latest prejudices being peddled by the papers) – very New Labour.

Another tussle could be between Scottish Labour and the party’s UK leadership, as the former tries to establish Holyrood as a genuine seat of power. First minister Henry McLeish is expected to reject Tony Blair’s plans for greater private involvement in NHS hospitals. Scottish Labour has already endorsed such private involvement in principle, but is now playing on Scotland’s left-wing tradition to put clear tartan water between itself and Whitehall.

Even this power struggle is unlikely to reach fever pitch. ‘There are differences in the way we do things in Scotland compared to south of the border, but that is devolution in action’, says McLeish, in a ‘Story? What story?’ kind of way (1). Central Office won’t like it, but they can live with it.

In the absence of any serious differences between or within the parties, the election is not about to grip the Scottish masses. In England, at least politicians get excited about Westminster, even if nobody else does. Scottish politicians have a new institution to play with and can afford to be as contemptuous of the ‘mother of all parliaments’ as everybody else is.

Politicians might fondly believe that voters will spring to life in May 2003, and carry them on their shoulders to the shiny new parliament building at Holyrood. As long as the various parties’ passion for their new institution exceeds their passion for politics, this will remain a rather sad fantasy.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars.

(1) See McLeish to defy Blair on health, The Sunday Times, 20 May 2001

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