Scottish election 2021: How the unintended consequences of bad campaigns decided the outcome – Brian Monteith

Is that it? Really? After five years of alleged, and I believe proven, misrule, we have an election and end up essentially standing still?
Election staff prepare to count the ballots at Ingliston near Edinburgh (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Election staff prepare to count the ballots at Ingliston near Edinburgh (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Election staff prepare to count the ballots at Ingliston near Edinburgh (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

The verdict appears to be, in true Scottish style, not proven, rather than not guilty – but it amounts to the same thing. While the evidence presented appeared compelling and left a sour stench in the air, the opposition in the end did not do enough to make its case and Nicola Sturgeon has lived to govern another day.

One could be forgiven for observing that it might have helped had the supposedly learned opposition parties ventured to be a competent prosecution instead of opting to talk about the fanciful possibility of a different trial altogether, yet to take place in another court room – which will never be heard. Ever.

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To sum up, the accused was allowed to deflect, distract and deceive (or alternatively reveal downright ignorance of facts or process) and all because of the incompetence of the prosecution’s advocates’ strategy from the get-go.

Of course the prosecution sees it differently. The Scottish Conservative leadership will claim they halted the Sturgeon juggernaut and deprived the SNP of a mandate to hold a second referendum. Well, only if you accept the Ross-Davidson definition of how a mandate might be obtained.

The Scottish government has no legal competency in holding a referendum that can force a larger body (of which it forms only eight per cent) to allow it to secede.

It would be as if Glasgow wished to become a city state – or Orkney & Shetland wished to become a British Crown Dependency – and decided to hold a referendum without the legal authority of the Scottish Parliament.

Democracy is the rule of law made real; democracy is the flesh to the bones and structure of law. They are inseparable and mutually dependent. The law must and shall be observed – through a decision at Westminster.

It should also be observed the vital wins made by the opposition parties in the constituencies were greatly assisted by regular and loud appeals for tactical voting – made especially by billboards and press adverts of pro-UK groups such as Scotland Matters – and across social media by others too numerous to mention.

The Scottish Conservative campaign appeared especially confused, having (I am assured) three high-level visits to the Labour seat of East Lothian when it really should have concentrating on winning Ayr.

Being top of the Tory regional list, the East Lothian Tory candidate was, after all, assured election anyway. In the end the SNP won both seats when the unionist parties might have held them.

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Previously I have remarked about the Conservative effort made in the Liberal Democrat seat of Edinburgh Western when there was the need to be fighting in the SNP seat of Edinburgh South West. It makes no sense.

We also had Douglas Ross’s ridiculous decision not to have the Prime Minister take part in the campaign which also meant that Rishi Sunak and other ministers were confined to barracks.

No UK voices able to press home the point about how the UK was central to managing the pandemic response, provide the economic lifeline, procure and distribute the vaccine – and shall be central to the economic recovery.

The comparison of the Scottish Conservative campaign for second place and Boris Johnson’s campaign that won the Hartlepool by-election and procured convincing mayorality victories for Andy Street in West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Teeside (the latter with 73 per cent support) could not be more stark.

The Labour campaign may have found a more palatable persona in Anas Sarwar, but again he too showed too much liking for taking swipes at his “Toarrie” opposite number as if Boris Johnson was standing for election or it was the Conservatives presiding over record drug deaths or the decline of our education. I “get” that parties need to keep a certain distance during election campaigns but that’s quite a different matter to whom you concentrate your fire on.

Two other observations to consider must include the loss of one seat by the Liberal Democrats (in effect to the Greens) which now means Willie Rennie’s party is no longer considered a party group in its own right (you need to have five MSPs for this highly advantageous privilege). This means his outfit shall have to work doubly hard to now be heard.

Then there is the question of parties seeking to game the system, by which I mean a party standing only in the regional lists when holding effectively the same views as another far larger party standing in the constituencies and benefiting from the latter’s supporters “lending” their votes.

Attempting this morally dubious ploy were the Green Party and Alba – both of whom hoped to gain from receiving SNP supporters’ votes. Alba lost out completely and surely cannot be expected to survive until the next election.

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Meanwhile in Glasgow and South of Scotland, the “Independent Green Party” attracted enough votes to deny the Greens one list MSP in each region. The Conservatives benefited in both cases. Those gaming the voting system should be careful what they wish for – they too can be gamed.

How different would the post-election commentary now be across Scotland – and in London – were it not for the unintended consequences of the non-party campaigners and those gaming the system?

Scotland cannot surely endure another five years of Holyrood failure followed by another election that fails to hold our rulers to account. The opposition must change its game – as well as our voting system.

Brian Monteith is editor of and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.

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