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REOPENING after the lockdown last weekend, Dunrobin Castle in the far north of Scotland held its first falconry display of the season.
After demonstration flights from a barn owl and a Harris hawk, we were introduced to Alba the gyrfalcon. Tempted by resident falconer Andy Bunting with dummy prey, Alba circled and swooped — and kept missing.
Finally, she hit bullseye. With Andy’s bait of little nutritional value, Alba was handed a snack as a reward for her efforts.
Like its namesake bird of prey, the Alba Party is unlikely to win anything more than a consolation snack when the Scottish Parliament regional list results are declared on Saturday.
When Alex Salmond made his bombshell entry into the election back in March, he insisted he wanted to work with the SNP to deliver a “super-majority” for independence.
Many speculated that his real aim was to swing the media’s focus back to the Scottish government’s botched handling of sexual harassment complaints against him.
But with piss-poor polling from the off, Salmond was frozen out of the TV debates.
The national conversation stayed stubbornly put on the SNP government’s handling of the pandemic, and — of course — the national question. The First Minister was unflappable as ever.
Alba’s bathetic political journey says a lot about the past six weeks. Covid, the drug deaths scandal and the extraordinary row between the First Minister and her predecessor: all the facts suggest this election should have been the most interesting and climactic in Scotland’s history.
Yet as they say, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Opposition parties continue to slam the SNP’s poor record on public services — and this attack line continues to have zero impact on the party’s performance.
The SNP leadership continues to raise fantasy prospects about an independence referendum this year or next.
The Tories, with an equal dose of fantasy, continue to insist they will never allow a referendum to take place.
Labour continues to say now is not the time, and continues to be accused of lacking a “solid position” on the national question.
Early results on Saturday suggest a very static picture compared with 2016, but no-one doubts we will have the same first minister this time next week.
We should, however, acknowledge a few differences to previous elections — however small they might be.
First, there has been increased public consciousness of the Additional Member System of voting — and how voters might be best advised to use their two votes for different parties.
Second, in spite of the pandemic — or perhaps because of it — turnout appears to be up significantly.
This may be influenced too by the same extraordinary year in Scottish politics which seemed to have little influence on the issues debated by party leaders during the campaign.
The BBC reported that more voters than usual tuned into the channel’s election debates. Perhaps because there were so few other options for evening entertainment in these strange times.
High turnout has traditionally benefited the SNP. But this time the proportion of unionist voters turning out seems to have risen too.
In Perthshire North, held by SNP Deputy First Minister John Swinney, turnout jumped from 62.7 per cent to 69.9 per cent.
But the SNP vote share remained static at 49.5 per cent (up 0.9 percentage points), as was the Tory vote at 39.4 per cent (up 0.6 percentage points).
In Clydebank and Milngavie, another safe SNP constituency, the governing party’s vote remained fairly static at 47.6 per cent (down 1.6 percentage points), in spite of turnout rising to 70.8 per cent, up from 60.1 per cent in 2016.
Labour’s vote increased to 33.5 per cent (up 9.8 percentage points), while the Tory vote fell by 7.3 per cent.
Which brings us to a third shift in 2021 — an apparent shift towards tactical voting among unionist voters.
In Banff and Buchan Coast, the Tories surged while Labour’s vote declined, though it was not enough to snatch the seat from the SNP.
In North East Fife, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie increased his vote share by 11.2 percentage points — with both the Tories and Labour falling back.
In Glasgow Southside, Nicola Sturgeon’s share decreased by just 1 per cent — but Labour’s share increased by 8 per cent.
This will, however, be partially down to Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar taking on the First Minister head-to-head.
Labour’s loss of East Lothian to the SNP, with both Labour and the Tories seeing a slight decrease in vote share, suggests that tactical unionist voting is not happening across the board.
Fourth, we have seen the entry of a number of new political forces. In 2003, Green and Scottish Socialist gains and the election of a Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party MSP led to talk of a “rainbow parliament.”
The Greens have been the only long-term survivors of this wave of representation for smaller parties.
But the entry of Alba, George Galloway’s All for Unity and the Scottish Family Party — nicknamed the “Westburgh Baptist Kirk” — has sparked quips we could be about to see “the bam parliament.”
Both Alba and All for Unity have failed to gain momentum through the campaign, and having pinned their hopes on winning seats, will be left disappointed.
In Southside, the Sturgeon-Sarwar face-off attracted a number of independent challengers.
It was a relief to see convicted racist Jayda Fransen, who was bluntly told by Sturgeon on Friday “you’re a fascist, you’re a racist, and the Southside of Glasgow will reject you,” roundly rejected.
She won just 46 votes, compared to 147 for the flamboyant “Greg Energy Adviser,” who was standing on a public ownership platform.
The Communist Party, standing primarily “to get the message across about our key political demands,” will be satisfied with its lively campaign for list seats in Glasgow and Lothian, and the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency.
Finally, Labour and the Tories have each changed their leader twice since the 2016 election.
Anas Sarwar is considered to have had a good campaign — finding sharp photo opportunities in spite of Covid restrictions, and being quick on his feet in the TV debates.
Labour is aiming to overtake the Tories as the second-largest party — and began to do so in several polls under Richard Leonard’s leadership earlier this year.
The same cannot be said for Douglas Ross. He has left his party pining for Jackson Carlaw, the man Boris Johnson jettisoned — allegedly after an intervention from Ruth Davidson, who is now likely to arrive rather shame-faced in the House of Lords.
Still, it seems the Tories’ sharp focus on stopping an independence referendum could reap rewards.
By tomorrow evening we should finally know who has won the “battle for second place” — but the very fact that pundits are using this language goes to show how much the SNP has solidified its grip on Scottish politics.
It is hard to see this shifting until, at the earliest, the people of Scotland return to the ballot boxes to vote on the national question.
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