Scottish Parliament election: The case for postponing Holyrood vote is getting stronger – John McLellan

Only news junkies and political anoraks will have more than a passing knowledge of Liam Byrne, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who owes most of his fame to the note he left his successor when Labour lost the 2010 General Election, saying “I’m afraid there is no money".
Nicola Sturgeon has said she can see “no reason” why the Scottish Parliament election due in May should not go ahead.Nicola Sturgeon has said she can see “no reason” why the Scottish Parliament election due in May should not go ahead.
Nicola Sturgeon has said she can see “no reason” why the Scottish Parliament election due in May should not go ahead.

Mr Byrne is now Labour’s challenger to Andy Street, the Conservative West Midlands Mayor who is up for re-election on May 6, along with England’s other elected mayors, thousands of English councillors and, in case you need reminding, Scotland’s 129 MSPs.

In response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson indicating the Covid lockdown could force the postponement of the elections in England, Mr Byrne insisted they should proceed, saying, “Britain is a democracy. Democracies have elections. Democracies don't have elections that get delayed."

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In that case, Scotland’s democracy must be in some doubt because elections do indeed get delayed here, and not just once. Again, only political anoraks will recall the Scottish Parliament was established with four-year terms, but the election scheduled for May 2015 was postponed for a year by a Parliamentary Order in Holyrood, because of a clash with the 2015 General Election which couldn’t be moved because of the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

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It was supposed to ensure Westminster administrations ran for the full five years and a second delaying order had to be passed to avoid another clash in 2020, which as we all know didn’t happen. After two General Elections in the four years after 2015, the useless FTP Act is to be repealed.

Elections in the UK do get delayed, and it’s looking increasingly likely with the infection rate now spiralling that the Holyrood poll will, but after last week’s column mused about postponement, on Tuesday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told BBC Scotland of her determination to proceed. “I see no reason at this stage why the election would not go ahead," she said. "I think everyone would agree it's really important our democratic processes continue and elections happen.”

With a huge lead in the polls that’s not surprising, as one anonymous MSP told the Times this week, “As things stand we are on course to win a landslide. Why would you give that up?”

Why indeed, but with 100 per cent postal voting now impractical, it’s hard to square ever-tightening restrictions and carrying on with a national election which draws thousands of people out their homes to fixed enclosed points.

By Thursday, less than a week into the new lockdown and with cases and fatalities rising, Ms Sturgeon was talking about even tougher controls and the possibility of another construction shutdown and a ban on click-and-collect services.

Of course, if you think you’re going to win hands-down then why worry if campaigning is restricted to social media, telephone canvassing and a couple of TV head-to-heads, but the timetable for an independence referendum this year, however unrealistic, hinges entirely on a May election, which, according to newly released minutes of a November meeting between SNP Constitution Secretary Mike Russell and the Australian High Commissioner, is what they want.

But they also know from polls that while the public might marginally favour independence in principle at the moment, there is relatively little appetite for a referendum right now. And as the Prime Minister has repeatedly rejected giving the order to allow one, perhaps SNP high command presumes a landslide election win and continued refusal from Downing Street will make it a priority. Otherwise why risk forcing the issue?

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But here are other considerations: Firstly, as the sky has not fallen in following the end of Brexit transition and supermarkets do not resemble shops in Zimbabwe, the “dragged out of Europe against our will” line might itself have limited shelf-life.

Losing European identity might be a big deal for university lecturers in Hyndland bemoaning the end of Erasmus exchanges, but with foreign travel likely to be off the agenda this summer the majority will feel minimal direct impact.

The last thing the SNP will want is for the reality to sink in that leaving the customs union and single market creates big land border problems – Northern Irish supermarkets are already having supply difficulties from the mainland because of the Irish Sea border that wasn’t supposed to be – and there’s more chance of an independent Scotland, with a huge deficit and reliant on the pound, having to settle for a Norway-style arrangement; not in the EU and not in the UK. And not very attractive to anyone but nationalist Scandophiles.

Secondly, research on referenda indicates major change is more likely to gain support when the mood is one of optimism, and although the UK economy will still be shattered come autumn, if the mass vaccination programme goes according to plan then the zeitgeist will be of relief and of moving into a new era and could be fertile ground for inevitable promises of the Earth as reward for boldness and courage. Wait too long and the moment could pass.

Thirdly, there seems to be some momentum behind the concept of a federal UK, with the likes of Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy piling in this week after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer unveiled his constitution commission. It changes nothing for the SNP, but the longer something else is possible, no matter how ill-defined, the more waverers might think twice about taking the plunge.

But since last week the internal heat on Ms Sturgeon has also begun to rise, with a new article by Kenny MacAskill MP in the Scottish Left Review openly calling for the removal of Ms Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell as SNP chief executive and criticising the referendum preparation.

As this column argued last week, postponement could buy the First Minister time to sort out these troubles, even if at personal cost, but no election rules out Indyref2 this year. Isn't that what the majority want?

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