An Unholyrood alliance: a satirical view of the Scottish Elections

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Cosy Scottish Parliament politics have not been a big spur for satire, but a cabaret on the eve of the election hopes to rekindle Scots' love for mocking the powerful

ROUNDING on the heckler, he delivered a tried and tested putdown. "Calm down, dear" the Prime Minister quipped, instantly dividing the room.

Career politicians and career 'alternative' comedians started emerging around the same time. And on television at least, where checks and balances, abhorrence of bias and editing for controversy tends to smother debate, they can occasionally appear blandly indistinct.

Having cultivated their image for the cameras since university, they are desperate not to offend and are instinctively populist, concentrating on trivialities that no-one can abide rather than focusing on what they genuinely care about. They implore you to listen to them but they're none too keen on feedback. Left-wing comics and right-wing politicians collude in weekly panel show mockery and we charitably call it satire.

In the 1980s, stand-up was defined by its opposition to Margaret Thatcher, a bit like Scotland. This legacy survives in the form of Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Scotland. Iraq notwithstanding, political stand-up became largely sidelined under New Labour, as alternative comedy was absorbed into mainstream culture.

At last year's Edinburgh Fringe, following the election of the first Conservative-led government at Westminster for 12 years, Stewart Lee observed that "when I started doing stand-up in the 1980s, stand-up was all about crowds of people who hated the Tories coming to see comedy performed by a man who hated the Tories. And everyone left happy. Nowadays, it's about crowds of people who hate their electrical appliances coming to see a man who hates his electrical appliances. And everyone leaves happy."

As 5 May heralds the Alternative Vote referendum and Holyrood elections, though, some polls are predicting an increased voter turnout. On Channel 4, the flawed yet well-intentioned 10 O'Clock Live is already struggling to reflect young people's growing politicisation. Here in Scotland, the Stand Comedy Club is considering resurrecting a regular topical night. In Glasgow, George Galloway is fronting Stand Up To Cuts with the likes of Bruce Morton at Oran Mor on Monday, while former members of the Wildcat theatre company have reconvened for an evening of protest comedy and song, It's A Dead Liberty, at the Tron two days later. That night in Edinburgh, Unholyrood, a new evening of political cabaret will blend comedy, poetry, music and whisky.

Paul Sneddon, who is appearing as his alter-ego Vladimir McTavish, began his career in political cabaret, performing sketches at fundraisers for CND and the miners' strike, "a lot of anti-Thatcher stuff".

He appreciates that Unholyrood is a bold undertaking, as he struggles to identify a single political comic on the Scottish circuit in the wry style of Andy Zaltzman, let alone the passionate vein of Mark Thomas. He blames this on a broad consensus between the SNP and Labour, and too fond a familiarity between the Scottish parties and Scottish media, epitomised by Jack McConnell holidaying with Kirsty Wark. Mainly though, it's because "when you're talking about Scottish politicians, most people have no idea who you're talking about".

At his recent Glasgow International Comedy Festival show, he had to explain to the audience who the Scottish Labour leader and prospective first minister Iain Gray was.

Anger rather than obliviousness inspires potent political humour, and Unholyrood host Susan Morrison believes most Scots are in denial about the severity of the impending financial cuts. Having performed at the Royal College of Nursing's annual conferences, she's "heard a lot of grumbling among the nurses" in the past two years. But in Liverpool this time, "there was outrage and serious fury, you could feel it all around you". Given the resounding no-confidence vote handed to UK health secretary Andrew Lansley, she's wary of Unholyrood descending into indiscriminate politician bashing, or worse, a Leftie love-in.

"If it becomes a regular event, I'm sure it will start to move out from its boundaries," she says. "If people know it's there, you should get more of a melting pot of thoughts and ideas. I live in the hope that people can persuade their friends to come with the promise of music, comedy and drink. Drink's always a good way to fuel a revolution, don't you think?"

Sneddon is confident that there's an audience for it, "because alternative comedy was very much a grassroots movement. Although some of the people who got into it are now huge, mainstream entertainers, I think there's scope for a new grassroots, because the real challenge for modern comedy is to provide something different."

In London that process has already begun, with Josie Long explaining that "all I've been doing recently are political gigs".

A supporter of UK Uncut, Long recently met with students protesting at Glasgow University's Hetherington Club and last week revealed her participation in the Arts Emergency Service, a charity that champions state funding of tertiary level education. She comes from a modest background yet graduated from Oxford with an English degree. She outlines the organisation's plans for a 2 ticket lottery, whereby one in 10,000 students each month win the chance to pay off their student loan up to 12,000.

It's almost an example of David Cameron's Big Society in action, the irony of which is not lost on Long, especially as with her reputation for upbeat, inclusive whimsy, she's struggling with occasional audience outrage at her overt political colours."I almost feel like it's destructive to my comedy, because in the past, all I've written about are things I love, that I was interested in or aspiring to do," she says.

Her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show will be about "about how I feel desperately tormented by anger every day. Honestly, I've never felt such frustration, rage and impotence. Ultimately, I have to do the best show I can. But should I try to temper the part of me that wants to be completely uncompromising, that wants to say, 'If you support this, you don't deserve to watch me, now f*** off!'? Or do I try to convince you to agree with me instead?"

Spoken like a true politician, albeit one thinking internally or speaking off camera.

• Unholyrood is at the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 4 May. Stand Up To Cuts is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, on 2 May. It's a Dead Liberty is at the Tron, Glasgow, on 4 May