Scottish Parliament election: The real reasons why the SNP, Labour and Tories might all agree to a 'Covid' delay – John McLellan

We’re four days after the Oxford vaccine was approved for use, which should accelerate the UK’s Covid recovery at a pace we could barely imagine only a few weeks ago, and four days after Brexit was finally settled.

The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh, seen greeting Queen Elizabeth in 2019,  has the power to postpone May's election for six months but would probably want to have widespread political backing for the decisions (Picture: Duncan McGlynn/Scottish Parliament)
The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh, seen greeting Queen Elizabeth in 2019, has the power to postpone May's election for six months but would probably want to have widespread political backing for the decisions (Picture: Duncan McGlynn/Scottish Parliament)

There are so many reasons for optimism, yet the prevailing mood remains gloomy.

Listening to the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford on Wednesday it’s easy to see why; the future according to Mr Blackford holds nothing but misery until the glorious day when Scotland recreates the Hanseatic League and takes its place alongside Estonia and Latvia in the EU, or something like that.

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In Mr Blackford’s world there has been nothing but misery since 1707 when a bankrupt nation traded the freedom to go bust with a lead role in Empire building, but that’s another story.

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Scottish Parliament election: 2021 may prove to be a momentous year for Scotland...

Put alongside the dire warnings about the new strain of fast-spreading Covid-19 lurking in every enclosed nook and cranny waiting to infect us all and overwhelm the NHS, is it any wonder optimism is in short supply?

We’re now used to disappointment, to the three-weekly cycle of will-she-won’t-she let businesses, gyms and leisure centres re-open, and we’re accustomed to the grim daily statistical read-out to explain why they are staying shut.

Who knows if Christmas get-togethers produce the predicted infection surge, or if it has been further fuelled by traditional Hogmanay over-indulgence as thousands welcomed in an illicit First Foot in a hooded cape carrying a scythe along with the bottle, black bun and lump of coal.

While First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to warn the Grim Covid Reaper is stalking our streets, vaccine or no vaccine the prospect of going to the cinema, theatre or sports fixtures seems as far off as ever, unless you are George Galloway.

Everything hinges on the fast Oxford vaccine roll-out, starting in Scotland on Monday, but details are scant despite ministers having had months to prepare. If all’s in hand, most Scottish adults should be immunised by May, or at least offered the chance, but given how chastened both UK and Scottish governments have become by the second surge, an autumn relaxation might be as good as it gets.

But there is the small matter of a Scottish election in May, and with the future of the United Kingdom at the top of the agenda a big turnout is expected even though rallies, hustings and door-to-door canvassing are unlikely to be permitted.

Recent council by-elections don’t get close to the logistical challenges and electing a single councillor bears no comparison, so should such an important vote proceed with campaigning so limited?

The power to postpone for six months now sits with Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh, but it would be a brave decision to call off unilaterally. Setting aside public health concerns, even though the big three parties will deny it publicly, they all have political reasons for not being too unhappy if he pulls the plug, not least because campaign coffers were emptied by the December 2019 General Election.

Scottish Labour is in no shape to fight its way out of a vinegar-soaked chip poke, never mind an election, and an unexpected product of the Brexit deal was senior figures like Jackie Baillie, Anas Sarwar and Ian Murray openly challenging Richard Leonard’s Brexit position. Mr Leonard tried to blame a press officer for a release he claimed not to have seen, and although the end must be nigh time is short to find a new leader voters will at least recognise.

Scottish Conservatives are united behind new leader Douglas Ross, but he is still settling into the role and the more time the new post-Brexit UK has to bed in, and voters see the sky has not collapsed and the fishing boats still come in, the better.

But what about the SNP, with all polls pointing to an overwhelming majority? Surely it is in their interests for the election to go ahead as planned?

But Ms Sturgeon knows an absolute majority, or even a pro-independence majority with the Greens, will spark internal demands for some sort of independence referendum in very short order, but she also knows the same polls show independence is a low priority for most voters.

There are enough don’t knows to put victory in doubt so forcing an early independence vote could, even if the Court of Session ruled it possible without UK government consent, prove disastrously premature and risks a second defeat which, as in Quebec, could set back independence for years.

Some close to her inner circle have made public calls for caution, but progress towards independence has become a bitterly divisive issue which the election could bring to a head. Given the SNP’s dreadful domestic record, another six months or a year will make little difference to their general support, but it might just buy Ms Sturgeon time to quell internal trouble and also put the Salmond Inquiry, however that ends, behind her.

Let’s presume the election takes place as planned, the polls are accurate and the SNP win a majority. Ms Sturgeon will still have to deal with the remains of the pandemic and the reality that Covid-19 is now just another virus we cope with like seasonal flu, but she will also have to sort out 111 new powers coming the Scottish government’s way from Europe.

Win an absolute majority and she will be plunged into an internal fight, a constitutional crisis, and even success in a referendum will usher years of wrangling between a Scottish administration which can’t float two ferries and a battle-hardened British team which has just negotiated a deal most observers reckoned was impossible.

Mr Macintosh will not postpone for political reasons but don’t be surprised if he is persuaded the health of the nation comes first and he receives the First Minister’s full support. Just don’t expect the opposition to protest too much.

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