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  1. Election 2024
11 June 2024

Are Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems planning a coalition?

You could practically see Anas Sarwar and Alex Cole-Hamilton making eyes at one another in the TV debate.

By Chris Deerin

Things you don’t expect to see on your telly on a Tuesday night? Douglas Ross of the Scottish Conservatives being applauded by a Glasgow audience for criticising the Scottish National Party’s obsession with independence; John Swinney (of the SNP) relying on an increasingly obstreperous Lorna Slater (of the Green Party) to stand up for said independence; and Alex Cole Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, quietly emerging as the most impressive performer in the latest Scottish leaders’ debate.

It would be hard to argue that BBC Scotland’s five-way barney, held amid the 19th-century grandeur of Glasgow University, set pulses racing. There is something secondary about this general election campaign north of the border, when so many of the issues at hand are now decided by a Scottish Parliament that will not have its own election until 2026.

Still, we must take our fun where we find it. I realised, watching our new SNP First Minister, that I have never seen Swinney in anything but a grey suit, white shirt and purple tie – and I have been watching him for the best part of 30 years. Try Google image. His wardrobe must simply be miles of charcoal and mauve. Cole-Hamilton – with his suntan, black tie, pocket handkerchief and genteel manner – comes over as an undertaker recently returned from a fortnight in Majorca.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Slater, the Canadian-born co-leader of the Scottish Greens, had stashed a bottle of bourbon under her lectern. As the evening wore on she got louder and angrier and scarier. I’ve met people like that. I’ve been one myself.

Overall, Scotland’s political leaders don’t quite know how to go at a general election in this devolved age. They want to shout at each other about the state of the nation’s schools and hospitals – they do shout at each other about these thingsand yet the day of reckoning on education and health is two years off. So they try to tie their arguments to Westminster – Scotland’s public service problems are due to too little money heading north from London; or, Scotland gets plenty of money from London and the SNP keeps wasting it. This is simply a repeat of the weekly First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood.

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In the end, the two big guns, Swinney and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, probably fought each other to a draw. Well-rehearsed points, familiar barbs, heard for the nth time. Swinney insisted Labour and the Tories were two cheeks of the same arse, both planning £18bn worth of public spending cuts. Sarwar, understandably, denied this.

Much more fun were the leaders of the smaller parties. As my hypothetical bourbon went down, Slater became hugely entertaining. The rich have “made out like bandits” under the Tories, she said. Why not bring in “luxury taxes for people who fly private jets”? Hell, why not? This was only one of the Greens’ “creative and entrepreneurial ways” to raise more cash. “We need to make money to spend money”, she hollered, sounding like a corporate CEO who lives in the Upside Down. And to think her party is opposed to economic growth!

Slater was also the most passionate advocate of independence on the panel, which was sort of strange given John Swinney was also on it. Perhaps this was because it was clear something was happening in the room that the SNP are not used to. As the opposition politicians – the pliant Slater aside – rained down criticism on his and his party’s head, pointing out that they had been in power at Holyrood for the past 17 years, the audience began to join in. The Nats are not used to this audacity from the people of Scotland, and certainly not in Glasgow, heartland of the modern Yes movement,

“It’s always someone else’s fault”, came the cry from the lugubrious Cole-Hamilton, to applause. A fiercely-taloned Glaswegian mother said to Swinney that she and other parents were sick of the SNP passing the buck for failure on to Westminster – “we’re sick of hearing what Labour and the Tories would do. How will you fix education?” The First Minister attempted to blame Westminster. “Stop passing the buck!” shrieked the mother.

Meanwhile, Slater was enjoying herself, if not exactly helping. Having been in government until recently – she was fired by Swinney’s predecessor Humza Yousaf – she declared she was in a position to tell us that money from Westminster “leaves you having to make impossible choices – Westminster sends us this little packet of money and says you have to do everything with this tiny packet of money.”

Maybe, although Block Grant funding for the Scottish Government is the highest in the history of devolution, at around £41bn a year. For every £100 the UK government spends per person in England, the Scottish Government receives around £126 per person in Scotland. “Tiny” seems a bit of a stretch. This is before you add in the higher taxes in Scotland that mean that anyone earning above, roughly, £28k, pays more than their equivalent elsewhere in the UK.

It didn’t feel like a great evening for the indy crew as a whole, even if one felt that Slater’s big night out might only be starting. If the audience were expected to show sympathy for the SNP’s position, and gratitude for everything that’s so selflessly been done for them, it seemed in short supply. Meanwhile, as events drew to a close, you could practically see Anas Sarwar and Alex Cole-Hamilton making eyes at one another. The way things are going, a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in 2026 doesn’t just seem a possibility, it’s beginning to look like a plan.

[See also: Not even Rishi Sunak believes he will enact the Tory manifesto]

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