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28 May 2001

They’ve got their eyes on what’s under the kilt

Election 2001 - Scotland

By Tom Brown

So this tourist lady asks a traditionally garbed Scotsman the traditional question about what is worn under the kilt. His reply: “Nothing’s worn, madam. It’s all in perfect working order.” Hooch, wheech and och aye, the noo!

What do you expect, in this utterly predictable election? Maintaining interest in the current campaign has proved difficult, so the tactic has been to keep it light and knockabout or, in the case of the Scottish National Party, below the belt.

Let the anoraks discuss issues such as privatisation; the Nats give us private parts. The SNP party political broadcast features a comely young lady and four brawny Highlanders. She lifts their kilts to reveal the Labour man’s “I love Tony” boxer shorts and the Lib Dem’s woollen underpants (representing woolly policies), while the Tory wears blue Y-fronts back to front, to show that the Conservatives have got their knickers in a twist. When it comes to the manly Nat, the camera decorously pans away, but the young lady reports: “There’s no doubting their credentials.”

The SNP’s retort to prudish critics is that this election needs more fun. It also needs more focus. Running a Westminster campaign in the middle of the first term of devolved Scottish government was bound to present problems. More than half of Blair’s “25 steps to a better Scotland” would have to be delivered by the devolved Scottish Parliament, and voters make little distinction between Labour MPs and MSPs. Labour has further blurred the lines with a campaign that is headed by two parliamentarians from Westminster, Helen Liddell and George Foulkes, and two from Holyrood, Henry McLeish and Wendy Alexander.

Tony Blair’s declaration of intent to ensure greater private sector involvement in the NHS met rapid rebuttal from the First Minister’s office. Scotland has far fewer private units (5 per cent of its hospital provision to England’s 16 per cent), and the leader of Unison Scotland, Matt Smith, huffed: “There is a stronger commitment to public services in Scotland than in England. Any move away from public provision would be strongly resisted in Scotland.” Thus the London manifesto statement that Labour would use private sector providers “where they can support public endeavour” did not appear in the Scottish version.

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Scottish Labour started by fighting a Millbank-style, anti-Tory campaign, treating the Nationalists as irrelevant, but no one believes that the wiped-out Tories matter in Scotland. In the past week, the attack has switched to a shrill onslaught on the real Scottish opposition, the Nats.

It has been easy for Labour to pick holes in an independence budget that glosses over the set-up costs of a separate Scottish state, disguises a £5bn underlying fiscal deficit and relies on questionable oil revenues. But it is less easy for the party to counter the strategy of the new SNP leader, John Swinney, for independence by ratchet effect. The Nationalists are talking about gradually “completing the powers of the Scottish Parliament”, particularly achieving full fiscal autonomy.

Taking control of all revenue-raising and tax powers, not to speak of “spending Scotland’s money in Scotland”, would be virtual independence.

The policy deals with the reluctance of three-quarters of all Scots to make a complete break, and anticipates a halfway situation of an SNP administration in Scotland that fails to win an independence referendum and has to work within a UK framework.

Helen Liddell warns: “John Swinney is peddling low-cal, low-content Independence Lite, but it’s still independence. It will just take longer to give Scotland a sick hangover.”

Tommy Sheridan and his Scottish Socialist Party, which has squeezed its meagre funds to fight all 72 Scottish seats, also have their eyes on 2003. They are virtually ignored by the Scottish media and are no-hopers in this election, but they are banking on their quixotic campaign to raise their credibility and vote in the next.

With the 7 June result a foregone conclusion, and with politicians leapfrogging two years ahead of the voters, no wonder so many are treating this election as a load of what’s-under-a-Scotsman’s-kilt.

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