In some ways, the upcoming Holyrood election is lacking in the drama of an American election night or a nail-biting referendum. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoys approval ratings far higher than any of her opponents. The SNP are almost certain to win the election with even the worst polls for her party giving them a lead of over 20%. The main question on the minds of political pundits in the lead up to next week’s election, is whether the SNP can replicate their incredible achievement in 2011 and win an outright majority. It is highly likely that this outcome, or indeed an SNP minority government with support from the Scottish Greens, would lead to calls for a second referendum on Scottish Independence.
Election campaigning has been perhaps unsurprisingly, low key. Continuing COVID restrictions have curtailed the usual photo ops and whistle stop tours of the country by party leaders. The televised debates have been predictable with headline grabbing standout moments few and far between. The election is however, a historic one for a number of reasons. It is the first election since the COVID pandemic that has changed the way we live our lives for over a year now. It is also the first election since the UK formally left the European Union, with the worst of the effects already hitting Scotland’s fisheries. A large number of Scots will also hope this is the last devolved election with the possibility of an independence referendum in the near future.
The 2021 Holyrood election may also be remembered as the first culture war election, with the emergence of a handful of new political parties with some mysterious and sinister motives. The Reform Party, All for Unity, The Alba Party and The Scottish Family Party, have all grabbed the occasional headline, often for the wrong reasons. Though their political aims may be very different, they have all done their bit to ensure Scottish politics is a little more bad-tempered. Efforts by the SNP to improve transgender healthcare have prompted a wave of backlash, as has a bill to criminalise hate speech.
Culture wars are arguably an American phenomenon due to the reactionary nature of the Christian conservative right in the states. Even mundane issues such as the wearing of a face mask during a pandemic can be turned into a bitter politicised fight. Those who believe in racial justice, gender equality, LGBT equality, or indeed COVID, are branded woke, leftie, liberal, snowflakes.
The issue of abortion in America is dramatized and ramped up to a point where the debate is often described as “A battle for the soul of the nation.” Fox News reacted to the legalisation of same sex marriage with the question, “Do we even live in America anymore.” When Derek Chauvin was recently found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, news Anchor Tucker Carlson suggested it was a case of “mob rule.”
This dramatic and reactionary rhetoric is, however, far from harmless. A right-wing culture war against transgender children in the US has resulted in anti-trans legislation filtering through state legislators up and down the country. Trans kids have been denied access to bathrooms and school sports teams. Bills to ban lifesaving transgender healthcare for children, against the advice of medical professionals, are being put forward in a number of states. In addition to this, measures are being put forward to criminalise certain actions by parents seeking medical help for their transgender children.
The culture wars of the US may seem like an issue far too distant to matter in the UK, but with social media, these same hostile arguments can travel across the pond faster than ever before. Scotland is certainly not unique in this respect and was perhaps due a soul destroying discussion about morality. The fact that this discussion has been lead by a powerful former First Minister recently cleared of sexual assault is disappointing, nonetheless.
The Alba party was an unexpected newcomer in the 2021 election. The party was founded as a vehicle for Alex Salmond to project himself back into frontline politics after a long court battle in which Salmond’s defence described him as being “touchy-feely” and having engaged in “sleepy cuddles.” Salmond admitted wrongdoing on his part but stressed his actions were consensual. In truth, building a cult of personality around a man less popular than Boris Johnson in Scotland was always going to be an uphill struggle.
The party will only stand for seats in an attempt to gain a “super majority” for independence. Salmond and other members are highly critical of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, claiming they are not doing enough to win independence. The irony is not lost on many voters, that a man already accused of misogynistic behaviour, who lost an independence referendum, is prepared to intervene and “assist” a women who has taken independence polling far higher than he ever achieved and currently has a net approval rating of +22 compared to Salmond’s -72.
The first major defection to the Alba party came in the form of MP Kenny MacAskill who was described by SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford as “An increasing embarrassment to many in the SNP”. This would set the tone for a trickle of departures. The next was Neale Hanvey, a man previously suspended for anti-Semitic Facebook posts. Top of the list in the West of Scotland is Chris McEleney. The Inverclyde councillor has run multiple failed campaigns for deputy leader of the SNP, but has found himself on the fringes of electability due to his opposition to women’s rights to an abortion.
These candidates would prove to be the tip of the iceberg in a party where a history of offensive social media outbursts seems to be an entry requirement.
Ex-boxer Alex Arther will stand on the Lothian list for Alba. The announcement of his candidacy was quickly followed by a short apology due to his online behaviour which included referring to beggars as “pigs,” promoting anti-vaccination views and mocking AIDS survivors.
A number of Alba candidates including Hanvey and McEleny have expressed fierce opposition to transgender rights. Other Alba candidates and supporters have been accused of spreading homophobic conspiracy theories online with one comparing transgender ideology to the Holocaust.
It is unclear whether Salmond agrees with any of the sentiments of his members and candidates. He has expressed concern about the Scottish governments hate crime bill and attempts by Sturgeon’s government to improve transgender healthcare. Whether he shares these views or not, he is happy to latch onto a culture war to bolster his chances of getting back into politics and healing his bruised ego.
On the other side of the independence debate, is George Galloway’s All For Unity. The party exists to oppose the SNP and to add a little unhinged masculine bravado to Scottish politics. Like Salmond, Galloway is a regular contributor to a Russian government backed TV network. Recently Galloway supported Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and was sacked by Talk Radio for anti-Semitic remarks. The one time cat impersonator in 2006’s Celebrity Big Brother, was a proud leftist and once remarked, “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative, please shoot me.”
Not only has Galloway stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Conservatives during this election, but he has also indicated he will be voting Conservative on the constituency ballot. The proud socialist will be abandoning his principles in a tactical bid to oust Nicola Sturgeon.
Like Salmond and the Alba party, Galloway has latched onto the anti-transgender movement posting a bizarre video on social media declaring “This transmania has gone far enough.” The party also supports repealing the SNP’s hate crime bill and candidates include Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP. Galloway has followed the rhetoric of Trumpism in American, ranting about “woke liberal nonsense.” His aggressive approach to interviews has been widely mocked on social media. In particular, his discussion with The Nine presenter Martin Geissler in which Galloway remarked “The animus is snorting out of your ear.”
The Reform party, unlike Alba or All For Unity, already has representation in the Scottish Parliament in former Tory MSP Michelle Ballantyne. Ballantyne was unsuccessful in her 2020 bid to become leader of the Scottish Conservatives and later resigned from the Tories in protest at their support for Coronavirus lockdown measures. She would later join, and automatically become Scottish leader of Nigel Farage’s Reform party. Formally known as the Brexit Party, Reform was originally marketed as an anti-lockdown party and rhetoric of “returning freedoms” still makes up a large chunk of their manifesto. The remainder is a collection of vague Farageism and threats to repeal the hate crime bill. Though Farage may be stepping down as leader of the UK party, they remain a far right cluster of ex conservatives and ex UKIPers.
Perhaps the most sinister of the bunch, is the unassumingly named Scottish Family Party. Many of the other smaller parties like Alba and All for Unity, have basic websites with short manifestos. The Scottish Family Party is different. Their manifesto is long and detailed, with a wide range of policies. Their campaign has been slick and obviously well-funded, with leaflets distributed to homes in every constituency in Scotland. Their paid ads appear all over social media from Facebook to TikTok. Their YouTube, Twitter and Instagram pages are packed with content. A recent post on their Instagram shows a projection outside the St Nicholas Centre in Aberdeen.
The mystery of how such a small party that didn’t exist during the last election has run such a well organised campaign could be down to mysterious wealthy donors, but this is impossible to know for sure with such a shroud of secrecy around the party. It might have been assumed that they were some form of breakaway or rebranding of the old Scottish Christian party, who are not standing in this election. There is no real evidence of this, other than policy similarities. Confusingly, the leader of the Scottish Christian party has thrown his support behind George Galloway and All For Unity.
This mysterious, organised, and well-funded campaign is more menacing when you begin to investigate the party’s policies.
The Alba Party and All for Unity may be against improving transgender healthcare. The Scottish Family Party want to ban it altogether, removing virtually any legal means for a trans person to change gender. This is one of their key policies along with an outright ban on abortion. In the UK, women have had the right to a safe abortion under a wide range of circumstances since 1967. In that time, the UK has managed to avoid the same poisonous debate that rages in the US. The Scottish Family Party would seek to bring that toxic culture war to Scotland and create an environment where safe abortion is illegal, and women are demonised and shamed for seeking one.
They aim to reduce sex education in Schools to a bare minimum, with a ban on topics such as contraception or LGBT inclusion. Their manifesto also argues for the removal of the harassment section of the equality act and the abolition of medical confidentiality for under 16s. They want definitions of domestic abuse to be changed so they exclude psychological abuse. They would enforce a ban on same sex couples adopting or fostering children, as well as a ban on same sex couples starting a family through IVF on the NHS.
If these policies weren’t enough. They support maintaining the gender pay gap as apparently it reflects the natural differences between men and women.
It remains unclear how concerned people should be about these pop up culture war parties. Alba and Reform have gained electoral representation, but as of yet only through defections from other parties. The electoral system in Holyrood elections can allow smaller parties to gain a foothold in parliament. Independent MSP’s have been elected in the past, as has the Scottish Senior Citizens party. It is not unrealistic to imagine some pretty unsavoury characters gaining a much larger platform next week.
On a more positive note, there is a good chance the parliamentary arithmetic after the election will mean these parties do not hold any sway over those in power. Only Alba stand a chance of gaining an MSP according to polling, and most recent polls suggest they will still fall short. Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out working with any potential Alba representatives. Recent history is also not on their side. The best ever results for the old Scottish Christian Party and the racist British National Party both came in 2007, with both receiving just over 1%. Nowhere near the threshold for an MSP. While UKIP were surging in the rest of the UK, they peaked at an insignificant 2% in Scotland. Again, not enough for a single MSP. The Scottish electorate have a proud history of showing bigots the door. Long may it continue.
Words by James Archie
YouGov – March/April Election polling
The Scotsman – SNP set to miss out on majority
The Guardian – US anti-trans bills
The Independent – Kenny MacAskill joins Alba Party
The Independent – Boxer Alex Arthur joins Alba
The National – George Galloway to vote Tory
Bloomberg – US Abortion Culture War
Lord Ashcroft Polls – Scottish Leader Approval