Here's why the Holyrood election should be called off now - Euan McColm

As coronavirus infection rates soar, a ridiculous delusion continues to grip many Scottish politicians. Nationalists – not all of them but a fair number – continue to peddle the fantasy that a second referendum on independence referendum could take place within the next year or so.

The election should be postponed until autumn, says Euan McColm
The election should be postponed until autumn, says Euan McColm

Ignoring the reality in which we find ourselves, they insist a pro-independence majority in May’s Holyrood election will provide the SNP with an indisputable mandate to ask the constitutional question. Excitable nationalist MPs and MSPs tell their followers to get ready for their date with destiny fast approaches.

How exhausting it all is.

Even before we get to the not inconsiderable matter of how precisely a referendum campaign might be safely run while coronavirus continues to tear through the populace, the fact remains that the power to hold a referendum lies with the government of the United Kingdom.

Scottish nationalist politicians can talk about mandates all they like but they cannot conjure one up through the force of will. While there’s the slightest risk he might lose a referendum, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not entertain the idea of allowing one. He is not that stupid.

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To nationalist fury, Johnson will continue to throw the SNP’s line about the 2014 referendum being a once in a generation event back in its face. And he will add, for good measure, that the focus of all politicians should be tackling the pandemic. Yes, yes, I know that he remained focused on Brexit while Covid-19 spread but politics is full of inconsistencies and hypocrisies and nationalists will just have to suck that one up.

But is not just a referendum that should be put on hold. While coronavirus remains such a serious problem, I wonder how this May’s Holyrood elections can go ahead as scheduled.

How can candidates safely campaign under the sort of restrictions we face for the foreseeable future? How can we guarantee the safety of polling stations when we know that mutations of the virus are more infectious than the strain that first brought the country to a grinding standstill?

Sure, we could encourage an uptake in the number of people using postal voting but this would be no straightforward task. In 2016, 726,555 postal ballots were issued, which amounted to almost 18 percent of the electorate. There is, then, a mountain to climb to make postal voting the preferred option for the majority.

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There are other factors, too, which make the case for the postponement of the Scottish Parliamentary elections.

Before each election, parliament is dissolved, a process which places necessary restrictions on the actions of politicians. The Government of the day remains in place but ministers are expected not to make major policy decisions. During this period of purdah, there are restrictions, too, on the activities that may be carried out by civil servants.

All of these perfectly sensible rules ensure that the election process is as far as possible and that no candidate is given an unfair advantage. However, in the middle of a pandemic, these rules might hinder necessary government action. It is unthinkable that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could not make major policy decisions about the coronavirus response for a month or more. The current situation demands politicians are able to take swift action and an election could very easily get in the way of that.

And then there’s the fact that politicians simply have more important things to be dealing with than campaigning. None of us need reminding about how devastating the impact of coronavirus has been and while this pandemic continues to rage, wouldn’t we all prefer that out parliamentarians were giving it their full attention?

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Sturgeon has said that she hopes May’s elections will proceed as planned. I daresay she does. But it seems unlikely that they can do so safely.

It would be far better, now, if the First Minister and opposition leaders could agree to postpone polling day until, perhaps, Autumn.

This would allow a number of things. It would mean politicians could continue to devote their efforts to tackling this crisis, it would ensure there were no restrictions on any necessary government response, and it would allow civicl servants to work on increasing uptake of postal ballots.

Throughout this pandemic, politicians have too often been caught on the hop, forced to be reactive rather than proactive.

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In fairness, there is a lot of learning along the way to be done during unprecedented times and so missteps can, surely, be forgiven. But haven’t our leaders learned, almost a year after the first lockdown began, that it is better to act decisively as early as possible rather than to leave big decisions until the last possible minute?

The First Minister revealed on Friday that Scotland’s hospitals are dealing with more coronavirus patients than ever before, The number of deaths, she said, was distressingly high and the NHS is under severe pressure.

With all of this in mind and no clear sign that things stand to get much better any time soon, it would be positively reckless to proceed with polling day this spring.

Scotland cannot afford either the distraction or the physical risk of an election campaign and the sooner Nicola Sturgeon recognises these truths, the better.