Scottish Election 2021: The die is cast, now Scotland waits...

The polls closed at the traditional time yesterday. The ballot boxes were locked, collected, and transported to community halls, leisure centres, concert venues the length and breadth of the nation, but those drafty expanses, normally filled with the clang of trolleys, the rustle of papers, the sucking of mints and teeth, the expectancy of victory and the disappointment of defeat, lay empty and silent.

Ballot boxes arrive at the P&J Live/TECA, Aberdeen, ahead of the counting votes on Friday for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections.

For at the end of an election campaign like no other, which saw no stump speeches by politicians to attentive or heckling crowds, no candidates knocking on doors, no kissing of babies, the Covid pandemic intervened in yet another part of Scottish life, putting the counting of election votes on hold.

There were no exit polls at 10pm when polling stations shut; no rows of rubber-thimble wearing men and women at makeshift tables ready to painstakingly and steadfastly count the lilac and peach ballot papers upon which democracy was written with an X.

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The coronavirus, which had already prompted more than a million people to vote by post, put an end to the overnight counts, the overnight TV election specials, the overnight caffeine overdoses. There was no reason to stay up into the wee small hours, not for election addicts, not even for candidates. And of course the temperatures put paid to any idea of sitting in a pub garden to dissect the campaign and wonder if enough had been done.

The polls are closed but it will be Saturday evening before all votes are counted.

The outcome of the 2021 Holyrood election will only be fully known tomorrow night. Covid restrictions have seen local authorities shift the counting of votes into the daytime, and over two days; complying with social distance rules, and ensuring the nervous tension for candidates will feel even more relentless than normal.

Beginning at 9am in some parts of Scotland today, the tellers will work a normal day shift, and return tomorrow to do it all again. Airdrie and Shotts could well be the first constituency to declare with an expected time of around noon – and Neil Gray the SNP candidate will know if his decision to quit his MP role to contest the seat made vacant by the retiring Alex Neil was the right one. At some point Nicola Sturgeon will discover if she has retained her Glasgow Southside seat with a similar majority as in 2016 or if the new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has managed to eat into those 9,593 votes in any way.

All in, 44 constituencies will be counted today, the Western Isles included, giving the constituency the chance to shake off its mantle of traditionally being the last to declare. Tomorrow another 29 results will be revealed by Returning Officers, making announcements to half-empty rooms, winners making speeches to the handful of people allowed in to witness democracy in action.

The result of the regional list votes will also be announced on Saturday, finally putting an end to the speculation of whether Alex Salmond and George Galloway will be on the backbenches of the Scottish Parliament’s debating chamber, even if such a result would put them on the front pages of newspapers.

For six weeks the campaign has been in swing, though that could easily have been missed behind the masks. Yes Anas Sarwar revealed he could do a fine impression of Bruno Mars, leading a zumba class in some Uptown Funk moves, yes Lorna Slater contorted herself on her garden trapeze, and yes Douglas Ross really does know the words to an Atomic Kitten hit song, but the reality was the campaign never really got off the ground, not even when Willie Rennie took to the skies in a microlight; the distance between politicians and the electorate has been wider than ever thanks to a campaign bedevilled with pandemic restrictions.

There was of course the arrival of Alba, which provoked an initial flurry of interest given the man at the head of the party. After the first half of the year which saw the long shadow of Alex Salmond’s time in government threaten to overwhelm his successor, here he was again, to “shake things up”. Nicola Sturgeon just could not shake him off.

And yet the campaign never gained any steam – the polls put the SNP ahead from the start, and even if, as May 6 got closer, they narrowed to such an extent that what had been a predicted majority is now in the balance – the outcome was not in doubt.

The only interest lay in who would come second – could Labour return to claim the silver medal position, or would the Tories cling on? Did anybody really care?

Ennui has engulfed this election, the public far more concerned about trying to see friends and family after a year of isolation than desperate to hear the same old pledges, same old constitutional arguments.

The politicians attempted to offer hope, putting their plans for Covid recovery on display like mating peacocks exhibiting their shiny feathers, until their manifestos were brutally plucked by economists, who questioned their financial credibility.

They strutted and fretted their hours in front of the TV leaders’ debates podiums, on their battle busses, in virtual Q&A sessions with journalists and hustings with third party organisations. Will their sound and fury have signified much?

The polls barely shifted throughout the campaign, but the majority of the leaders braced themselves for the mostly chilly, damp Scottish May day as they cast their ballots.

Much will come down to whether supporters of the nationalist cause turn out and vote, anything above 60 per cent will give the SNP hope for a clear victory.

Anything less and that majority begins to slip out of view.

Most party leaders turned out to vote themselves on Thursday morning with Nicola Sturgeon – who had already voted by post – accompanying fellow SNP candidate Roza Salih to the polling station at a primary school in Govanhill.

Posing for a picture with Elsa the dog and speaking to a Syrian family voting for the first time, Ms Sturgeon said it was “great we’ve got everybody who lives here able to vote”.

Anas Sarwar, leading Scottish Labour into the election for the first time, was flanked by his wife and four-year-old son at a polling place in Pollokshields, while his pro-union rival Douglas Ross, joined by his wife Krystle and son Alistair, voted in Moray.

Willie Rennie, usually so keen on a photocall after appearing on a microlight, being taught karate and on a giant yellow deck chair in front of the Forth Bridge during the Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign, stayed home having voted by post.

Scottish Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater voted in Glasgow and Leith respectively with their party on the verge of a historic result.

Meanwhile, the disruptive presence of the former first minister and Alba leader Alex Salmond who is aiming to upend the political orthodoxy in Holyrood cast his ballot in Strichen, Aberdeenshire.

Success for each of the party leaders will be measured most likely with the benefit of hindsight, but the high stakes of constitutional disagreements will see any minor unexpected shift in the final result amplified and repeated for five years more.

Boris Johnson, along with the people of Scotland, will watch the results with a keen eye and will study the overall vote shares for any possible route to block indyref2.

It will take until Saturday evening for the question of who will take the reigns of government and lead the nation through the post-pandemic recovery, and who will be on the opposition benches holding the government to account to be answered.

For now though, Scotland waits.

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