This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 15, 2021.
Glancing at the opinion polls, pro-Union voters could be forgiven for growing disconsolate. Keeping half the country constantly ginned up for constitutional conflict may not create a single job or get a single child up to literacy standards but it certainly gives you a formidable electoral bloc.
As Ruth Davidson conceded in her opening speech at the Scottish Tory conference on Saturday, the SNP is going to win the May 6 election. If Nicola Sturgeon went to every door in the country and insulted the owner’s child, pet and/or colour scheme, she would still come out on top. That’s the way of it when the entirety of politics takes place in the narrow square inches of a flag.
But, as Davidson stressed, ‘that doesn’t mean we all pack up and go home’. There was ‘too much — far too much — at stake’ to do so. The SNP has already said that, should it win a majority, it will legislate for another independence referendum — and if Westminster doesn’t like it, it will go to court. It’s hard to think of a course of action more likely to stir up rancour and division.
Davidson argued it was ‘absolutely essential’ that the Nationalists be ‘held in check’ and you need not be a Conservative to agree. It is in the interests of all the opposition parties, indeed all of Scotland, that there be a brake on a government bent on setting Scots against one other yet again.
There are reasons beyond the constitution, too. The pattern of obstruction seen throughout the Salmond inquiry, the contempt for the Scottish parliament, for the idea of accountability itself — these are deeply troubling behaviours.
That the SNP has been able to get away with them as a minority government begs the question of how it might conduct itself with a majority.
An SNP victory cannot be stopped but there is a chance that an SNP majority can. Although it would see Sturgeon remain in power, her government would not always get its way. If the SNP and the Greens combined fell short of the 65 seats needed for a majority, plans for Indyref 2 would be dead in the water.
The prize: respite from tedious constitutional wound-poking.
The cost: tactical voting.
It’s a source of long-running debate whether tactical voting works but, if well-organised, it could help keep SNP gains to a minimum. But it needs voters across the opposition parties to set aside tribalism. It doesn’t work if one group casts their ballot tactically while the others stick with their side no matter what. Tactical voting is a two-handed operation: one to hold your nose, the other to vote for a candidate you would not otherwise back.
Helensburgh Tories might not share Jackie Baillie’s social democratic worldview, but the Labour MSP is a tough-as-nails political fighter against the SNP. Not only does she stick up for the Union, her blunt questions and no-nonsense demeanour have made her the stand-out MSP on the Salmond inquiry.
Voting Conservative in Dumbarton would hand the seat to Sturgeon’s candidate, who pulled up there having failed to win Edinburgh Western five years ago. A political GPS that guides you from one end of the M8 to the other in search of a winnable seat is a sign of a savvy candidate, but local voters might prefer an MSP with a different kind of compass.
In North East Fife, Willie Rennie is also facing a challenge from the Nationalists. Whatever you think of the Scottish Lib Dems, their leader is firmly opposed to independence and can be found daily hounding the SNP for its failings on Covid-19, education and mental health.
Sometimes when you see him in full flow, getting stuck into ministers with gusto and a dollop of good humour, you wonder how he ended up leading a bunch of wet flannels like the Lib Dems. But that is all the more reason to keep him in post.
For tactical voting to work, it has to go in both directions. In Ayr, John Scott, a moderate Conservative, has a majority of just 750 over the SNP in a seat where more than 5,000 Labour votes were cast in 2016. These electors hold the key to victory.
If they stick with Labour, they could wake up with a Nationalist MSP; if they lend their vote to the Ballantrae farmer, they will deny Sturgeon a gain. Ditto in Galloway and West Dumfries, where Sturgeon loyalist Emma Harper aims to overturn Tory Finlay Carson’s 1,500 majority.
What no one can yet tell is what kind of SNP surge might occur in any given seat. The Conservatives’ Rachael Hamilton might seem safe with her majority of 9,000 in Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, but the Nationalists will be pulling out all the stops to install list MSP and energy minister Paul Wheelhouse.
Last year, when Conservative MP John Lamont spoke about celebrating Burns Night, Wheelhouse told him: ‘Rabbie Burns was a proud Scot every day of the year… not just once a year — unfortunately you’re more likely to have a political epitaph of being one of a modern day “Parcel Of Rogues in a nation”…’ Labour and Lib Dem supporters, aware their parties stand no chance in this constituency, might consider a one-off Tory vote given the alternative on offer.
The biggest risk in tactical voting comes on the regional list. Truth be told, pro-Union voters are being encouraged to waste their vote on minor parties that are not going to win a single seat. Those who feel the Scottish Tories are not assertive enough may be tempted to chuck a protest vote to All for Unity (also known as Alliance for Unity) or the Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party, but they should ask themselves this question: Why hasn’t the SNP uttered a single critical word about these parties?
They claim to be standing on the regional list to stand up to Sturgeon but Sturgeon is busy attacking the Scottish Tories, not these late-arrival Unionists. Might that be because she appreciates the value of these outfits to her chances of winning an outright majority?
All for Unity and those like it are too tiny to elect any MSPs but, with a fair wind, they might garner enough list votes to cost the Tories a seat here or there. The biggest irony may be that the parties that claim to be the most Unionist end up doing the most damage to the Union.
Take the Central Scotland list, from which the Tories elected three MSPs last time. The top three candidates are former Stirling MP Stephen Kerr, sitting MSP Graham Simpson and Meghan Gallacher, the Tory group leader on North Lanarkshire Council. If enough 2016 Tory voters switch to one of the fringe parties, Gallacher could miss out in favour of an SNP or Green MSP.
Given this is someone who vows to ‘focus on issues that matter, not a divisive independence referendum’, it would seem counterproductive for anyone who agrees to keep her out of Holyrood. The same goes for Glasgow, where the Tory list vote was just 6,000 ahead of the Greens in 2016. One Patrick Harvie is already one too many. Do we really want another one?
All for Unity is all over the place. It has endorsed Labour’s Monica Lennon in Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse. Yet, when Nicola Sturgeon was demanding a second referendum in 2019, Lennon said: ‘If Boris Johnson isn’t prepared to grant this request, he should allow the Scottish parliament to decide.’
I happen to rate Lennon highly but it seems odd that a campaign which says it aims to ‘stop nationalists from holding a second independence referendum’ would back a candidate who wouldn’t necessarily do so.
Pro-Union voters should not despair. There is still a chance to deny Nicola Sturgeon a majority, but to do so will require the setting aside of partisanship and a fair dose of common sense about which parties are serious contenders. Scotland needs more MSPs who put Covid recovery first and fewer who put independence before everything.
Any chance to bring that about should be taken up with vigour.