Scottish Election 2021: how an election campaign like no other played out

It was the Holyrood campaign which saw one party leader repeatedly take to an aerial trapeze, inspired another to join in an impromptu funk dance routine in a car park and a third to utilise giant games and chairs as photo shoot props in a trend which many regarded as a Holyrood remake of ‘Honey, I shrunk the Kids’.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie relaxes in a deckchair at the launch of his party's campaign.

But while this year’s candidates ramped up the quirk in a covid-era campaign where traditional door knocking and in-person hustings were largely off the menu, the Holyrood election also had its serious side.

Social media played a bigger part in this year’s campaign than ever before, due to social distancing requirements and a campaign conducted predominantly in lockdown.

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Even the TV debates, staged in as normal a manner as possible by Scotland’s broadcasters, had a strange atmosphere due to the empty seats where the audience should have been. Meanwhile, media huddles, usually boisterous free-for-alls after photocalls, were hosted on Zoom, with awkward virtual hand raising and unreliable internet connections.

First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon meets the alpacas during a visit to LOVE Gorgie Farm in Edinburgh during campaigning for the Scottish Parliamentary election.

The campaign began as it often does, with a performance by king of the quirky photo shoot, Willie Rennie - poster slogan ‘Win with Willie’. Mr Rennie kicked off the Liberal Democrat campaign with a giant deckchair on the beach at South Queensferry, where he sat, legs dangling like a toddler, to announce his plans for education. He soon followed up this stunt with a few games of giant chess and giant Connect Four, sparking comparisons to hit film Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

He was also pictured taking part in various sports, including shinty and karate, for which he came under fire for allegedly breaking social distancing rules in place at the time - as well as posing nose to nose with a baby badger on a visit to the Scottish SPCA in Alloa.

Scottish Labour also played heavily on new leader Anas Sarwar’s human side - with the highlight possibly his impromptu decision to join in the Saltire Burlesque Academy's open-air dance class in the car park of Livingston FC’s Tony Macaroni Arena. The 38-year-old father of three proved that he could strut his stuff as he performed with the group to Bruno Mars hit Uptown Funk.

Yet for Scottish Labour, the focus of the campaign was clear. Mr Sarwar, who took up his post just a few weeks before the election campaign began, wanted to reestablish the party as a credible opposition. His party, instead of publishing a manifesto, launched its “Recovery Plan”, focusing heavily on rebuilding Scotland post-covid. He asserted himself as a strong voice working in harmony with – but independent of – Westminster Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie after casting his vote in the Scottish Parliamentary election at the Notre Dame Primary School in Glasgow.

"Keir knows I’m the boss”, he told The Scotsman in an interview.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, also relatively new in post, struggled more to establish himself as an autonomous voice distinct to the increasingly unpopular Tory party south of the border.

He came under fire for former leader Ruth Davidson’s prominence in the party’s campaign - she appeared beside him to drum up support in person on many occasions and was the poster girl of the Tories’ campaign leaflets - yet is entirely stepping back from Scottish politics after the election.

He also faced uncomfortable questions when Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had previously said “wild horses” wouldn’t keep him away from the Scottish election campaign, but mysteriously did not show his face north of the border. However, Ross soldiered on, showing grit in the face of what must have been one of his party’s most difficult ever Holyrood campaigns.

Scottish Conservative party leader Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson on Calton Hill, Edinburgh during the election campaign.

He repeatedly made clear his intentions to work with other pro-union parties – and at one point was rumoured to be considering encouraging Tory voters to vote for other unionist parties in certain seats - but was knocked back by Mr Sarwar, who at the beginning of the campaign, admitted he had never had a conversation with Mr Ross.

All of the parties were keen to show their support for local businesses when lockdown restrictions eased. Party leaders rushed to promote photocalls at hairdressing salons across Scotland in April and ordered pints in outdoor beer gardens, despite less-than-balmy weather conditions.

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Compared to some of their rivals, the SNP managed its campaign in a slightly more sober way, issuing open letters to the people of Scotland and promoting Nicola Sturgeon as an experienced First Minister who could lead Scotland through the recovery from covid.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar on stage at a drive-in rally in Glasgow during campaigning for the Scottish Parliamentary election.

That didn’t, however, stop Ms Sturgeon from joining forces with former Westminster leader Angus Robertson - now standing in the key Edinburgh Central seat - to awkwardly feed some alpacas at a city farm in Edinburgh.

Perhaps the strangest moment of the SNP’s campaign - made perhaps, even stranger by the fact that Anas Sarwar is a former dentist - was when Ms Sturgeon performed an examination on "dentosaurus" while out campaigning at a Glasgow dental practice.

The party also played a blinder when they pulled out actor Martin Compston - of Line of Duty fame - to lend his support to the party’s campaign on the night of the finale of season six of the hit BBC series.

Alex Salmond’s controversial Alba party pursued its campaign in somewhat bumbling style when, at a photoshoot in front of Stirling Castle, the former SNP leader and some of his candidates seemed to have difficulty lining up letters to spell the name of their party. Earlier this week, Alba was accused of "flagrantly endangering public health" after inviting more than 100 candidates and activists to a campaign event outside the Scottish Parliament.

The star of the campaign show for the Scottish Greens was co-leader Lorna Slater, who unexpectedly revealed her love of trapeze after receiving a lesson as a present for her 40th birthday conducting no fewer than two interviews - one with The Scotsman’s On the HolyRoad video series – while hanging upside down from an aerial support. Co-leader Patrick Harvie brightened up many a public appearance with his rainbow mask.

Yet for all of the public fun and games, there was a lot riding on this election campaign.

Threatening to overshadow the vote was the looming possibility of a second independence referendum and while the unionist parties attempted to move the focus of the campaign away from the issue, it could not be avoided.

TV debates, especially those in the later stages of the campaign, became heated. The final debate, screened on the BBC, saw Ms Sturgeon vehemently denying Douglas Ross' claims that she would hold an “illegal wildcat referendum” if Westminster did not agree to a second poll.

Meanwhile, the heated nature of the campaign was not restricted to the debates. The election build up was plagued with incidents both on and offline, including a brick thrown through the Lib Dems' Edinburgh office, a man being charged following an incident with SNP candidate Fergus Mutch and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar being racially abused. Violent threats have also been received by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross and All4Unity candidate George Galloway.

Whether or not the SNP wins a majority after today’s vote remains to be seen, however, there is no doubt that this has been a campaign like no other.

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