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Alex Bell: 2021 Holyrood election should be about Covid recovery, not constitution

Voters should have Covid recovery, not the constitution on their minds in May
Voters should have Covid recovery, not the constitution on their minds in May

5,000 Scots are dead from a virus the government failed to control.

Short of writing this on the Forth Bridge and illuminating it with every bulb in the country, it would be hard to be more obvious.

We have lived with, suffered from and mourned others because of Covid. Every aspect of life, employment, education and health provision has been affected.

The May elections to Holyrood are then, all about Covid recovery. Except, that’s not what you hear. Instead, politicians of all parties are discussing Indyref2.

Labour leader Keir Starmer warns Scots away from the divisive vote, while figuring how to wrap himself in the Union flag. The Prime Minister used his speech to the virtual Scottish Tory spring conference to rail against the second referendum.

Johnson not only talks about Indyref2, he has set up a special Union Unit in Whitehall to fight it. He has 50 or so people dedicated to contesting a referendum he says he won’t give permission for.

Labour’s new leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar is just as guilty. He fired a candidate for daring to speak of Indyref2. It smacked less of leadership than fear of the enemy.

Unionism has a big strategic problem — it is obsessed by the union.

Hats off to the SNP. They have convinced everyone that Covid is a sideshow and May 2021 is all about their core policy. Hence the stunt to put ‘SNP – Indyref2’ on the ballot paper.

It’s just another trick to keep the focus on the constitution and away from Covid. In the privacy of the polling booth, there will be a prompt — this is a Nat vote, about Nat matters.

Scottish independence: SNP bid to put ‘indyref2’ on ballot paper

As if trapped by a Pavlovian instinct, the unionists always rise to the bait. They used to call Scots subsidy junkies, when it’s they who are addicted to the fight against independence.

It’s a habit they need to kick urgently.  To have any hope in May, they need to change tack fast.

In any fight on the constitution, the SNP do well. All the political noise for years has been about Indy. Hence the incremental rise in support for the party, and for the policy.

Unionists do badly because they don’t have much to say which doesn’t sound negative or patronising.

Or worse still, they engage in some ghastly “Britishness”, which only demeans all involved.

If the Tories and Labour allow this to be an Indyref2 election, they will lose.

The polls already show this.

However, the polls also show that voters do not rank independence the most important issue.

When asked, Scots are unequivocal in putting the NHS, jobs and education ahead of the constitution.

The SNP say we want independence. I don’t think that’s true. We want good government. It’s just that we aren’t given a lot of choice on the matter.

This “choice” is endlessly played back to us — pollsters ask about it and so that’s what polls keep reporting. The Scottish government bangs on about it. And now, so does everybody else.

When the shop only stocks Irn Bru, it’s no wonder it dominates the shelves. But it’s a foolish politician who doesn’t try and sell Cola.

The unionist mistake is to allow the SNP to define the terms of the debate. It’s about Scottish independence, stupid, says the SNP, and don’t you forget it.

But it’s not. Voters can’t help it if the political classes are engaged in a slanging match about rival nationalisms. We may even care, up to a point. But what really motivates us is how to protect public services and the biggest threat to them right now is Covid.

A Covid recovery election fight

Rivals to the SNP need to frame the election as a choice between Covid recovery and the constitution. For every Nat wheeze that keeps Indyref2 in the headlines, they need a Covid recovery response.

This is, after all, a Holyrood election. The powers and policies at stake are health, education and public services.

The parliament we elect might have some bearing on the constitution but it definitely will be in control of the things we treasure, such as the NHS.

What’s more, there are billions in extra spending granted to Holyrood for Covid recovery which has not yet been spent. The UK Treasury allocated £9 billion to the Scottish Government last year in response to the virus.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes as she delivers the Scottish Budget

Thus far, Sturgeon’s government has only allocated a bit over half of that. There is still a lot of money to spend.

This election is the first ever where parties have a surplus of money. The standard campaign question of “how are you going to pay for that?” is replaced by “what are you going to do with the billions at your disposal?”.

The SNP haven’t be holding this money back by accident. Expect big giveaways once the campaign begins. This should be the main focus for rival parties. How best to recover, how best to spend the money.

Nat rivals need to define their own story and then make a lot of noise about. You’d think that after a year in lockdown, this was both obvious, and easy to do. It’s Covid, stupid.

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