ASK yourselves; what will this Holyrood election determine? Your constituency MSP? Your list representatives? The incumbent of Bute House? The future of Scotland?

All of the above, perhaps. That seems most pertinent for this single transferable election, operating at so many levels.

Self-evidently, it will, indirectly, settle the choice of First Minister in the next session (pending a Parliamentary vote of directly elected representatives, together with the assent of the Monarch.)

Thus will emerge a Scottish Government, charged with persuading the new Parliament to back the measures which will be necessary to lead Scotland out of the pandemic, to shuffle off this hideous plague.

Thus, too, may emerge Holyrood arithmetic which could create pressure for indyref2: asking the people of Scotland, once again, whether they favour independence.

But there are other contests in play. Not least the battle to lead the largest party outwith government.

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At Westminster, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition receives an enhanced salary and, in effect, forms part of the democratic retinue attending the Sovereign, with a rank allocated by court protocol.

Perhaps this is some consolation for the exasperation of electoral failure. In government, one acts. In opposition, one can only say.

However, even that small recompense is denied to opposition party leaders at Holyrood. No top-up salary, just an allowance hypothecated to strictly limited purposes. No formal status.

The Herald: Douglas RossDouglas Ross

Mostly, our opposition leaders cope bravely. They talk of being the “main” opposition. Or, if denied that by arithmetic, they might say they are the “real” opposition.

Eagerly, each party forms a Shadow Cabinet, although the term has no particular significance and is seldom used by, for example, the broadcast media.

In their hearts, Opposition leaders know this. They know that their aspirational Cabinet is insubstantial, chimerical. More wraith, than shadow.

And yet the contest is sharp for all that. The battle for second place, for a silver medal, is serious and acerbic.

To be clear, every party in this election is out to win as many seats as possible. Nobody concedes anything in advance. Not a vote has been counted.

The overall winner will emerge. More broadly, though, it is a question of momentum. Which parties, which leaders, will be seen to be rising on the tide when the votes are counted. Which will appear marooned.

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That is true for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats who strive to outpace each other in a race to gain leverage at Holyrood; over legislation, over the budget, over Scotland’s constitutional future.

It is also highly pertinent for the Tories and Labour, the two larger opposition parties.

While fighting for every vote, the leaders of those two parties acknowledge, for example in Herald podcast interviews with me, that the polls would appear to suggest that Nicola Sturgeon is heading back to office.

So, even as they combat that prospect of an SNP victory and Ms Sturgeon responds in kind, Douglas Ross for the Tories and Labour’s Anas Sarwar are also fighting each other.

Intriguingly, they are both newcomers to leadership, each attaining office following a very Scottish coup in their party.

Politics is permanently in flux. No political party has a right to exist, let alone count on guaranteed continuing popular support.

In Scotland, the Liberals were dominant for much of the 19th century, peaking at 85 per cent. The rise of Labour supplanted them.

Since the advent of universal suffrage, only one party has achieved a majority of the popular vote in Scotland. That triumph was attained by the Tories, with 50.1 per cent in 1955.

Strictly, that feat was achieved by the Scottish Unionist Party before much of their traditional, proletarian support slipped away as times and attitudes changed. Flux, once more.

The phenomenon of more recent times has been the success of the SNP, at Holyrood and Westminster. They thrived partly because they modernised, offering consensual governance within devolved powers, while simultaneously advocating independence.

Equally, though, their rivals struggled to match the SNP’s dedication to Scotland. Parties who seek both Scottish and UK power can sometimes seem torn.

The SNP won by-elections over Labour, then wider victories in Tory areas. But their big triumph was to supplant Labour in many working-class areas as the unalloyed advocate of Scottish interests.

Both the Tories and Labour, of course, want to regain status, partly by countering the SNP but very substantially by contesting each other.

In doing so, they adopt the overall leitmotif of this election, which is timidity on tax. Contestants presume that, with UK borrowing at post-war record levels, folk are scared enough and could use a little fiscal comfort.

So the Tories say they hope to peg back income tax for those currently disadvantaged by the Scottish system. As rivals accuse them of feather-bedding the wealthy, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says this aim is unlikely to be met without some service cuts.

Labour promises substantial public spending but the IFS expresses its disappointment that there are no cost estimates beyond short-term anti-Covid recovery measures

However, the sharpest distinction lies in constitutional strategy.

For the Tories, Douglas Ross wants to corral all supporters of the Union into the Tory voting pen.

There are limits, however. It seems that the political leader of that Union, the Prime Minister, will not now be campaigning personally in Scotland during this pivotal contest.

I imagine that Mr Ross will, somehow, find the mental strength to bear this blow with equanimity.

As for Mr Sarwar, he wants to sideline the referendum and focus upon recovery from the pandemic.


Partly, that allows him to talk about other issues, such as the NHS. However, it is also a classic third party appeal. He struggles to prise his way into a fault line battle between the SNP, the largest party of independence, and the Tories, the largest party backing the Union.

And so he seeks to alter the terms of that contest. However, he also seems to have changed Labour’s tone, disowning stridency. Previously accustomed to scooping up votes in Scotland, Labour faced the hazard of hubris. Mr Sarwar offers humility instead.

As ever, the voters will decide how our politicians feel. Think moon or parrot.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.