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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK

Scotland's damp squib

Politics of hard knocks: A Lib-Dems Punch and Judy show

BBC Scotland News Online's Mark Coyle looks back over an election campaign which has flattered to deceive.

This has been an election campaign like no others.

It has smouldered and threatened to burst into flames, but the vital spark has never quite been there to provide the combustion needed to fire the public's imagination.

If this is the much-vaunted "consensus politics", shattering the Westminster mould, then we truly are breaking new ground.

Several theories have been put about to explain this low profile - Nato's bombing of Serbia (although ironically that has given the hustings one of only a handful of genuinely passionate talking points) and the new and apparently little understood voting system.

Kosovo speech

Alex Salmond's much-quoted "unpardonable folly" speech around the beginning of the campaign proper has been blamed by some analysts for the seeming ebb and flow of support for the Scottish National Party, if the polls are in any way to be believed.

The other main party leaders have been respectful of Mr Salmond's right to his opinion, but have, in no uncertain terms, distanced themselves from his opposition to the bombing. On the doorsteps, they say, support is by and large behind Nato - not the SNP leader.

At one point during the campaign, BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor opined that in itself, devolution was, quite simply, not a subject dear to Scots' hearts in the same way that full independence would be, if the latter was available as a result of this election.

Political knockabout

None of this is to say that we have not had some good old political knockabout and, dare it be said, even some fun along the way.

[ image: Alex Salmond: Plays the joker]
Alex Salmond: Plays the joker
Alex Salmond played his "bluff" card when Tony Blair came to Glasgow and tore into nationalist policies; the Tories found themselves in hot water over one of their campaign posters emblazoned with "FCUK tuition fees", but beyond that, there have been precious few laughs.

We've had debates about petrol prices in rural areas and the Kvaerner Govan shipyard in Glasgow along with cross-examinations of Scotland's education system and the question of whether we'll be taxed at a higher rate than the rest of the UK at some point in the future. Much of it has been the usual game of politics, the "you said this - no I didn't" type of thing.

The bare-knuckled political brawling has largely been confined to exchanges between Labour and the SNP and mainly on one subject.

PFI brawl

They have found themselves down a back-street called "Private Finance Initiative", slugging it out over the rights and wrongs of the policy, which uses private money to pay for public projects such as schools and hospitals.

The SNP has tried to exploit its opponent's soft underbelly - aiming blows at the solar plexus whenever there has been a suggestion of a split within Labour ranks.

We've seen a senior union official resign from the Labour Party and a Labour MP speak out against PFI and on each occasion, along with many others, the nationalists have accused New Labour of wearing the Tories' old clothes.

[ image: Wendy Alexander: Sparred over PFI]
Wendy Alexander: Sparred over PFI
Labour has consistently highlighted the cost of what it terms Scotland's "divorce" from the rest of the UK, as proposed by the SNP. Time and again, Labour's potential MSP's and aspiring ministers have hammered away, accusing the SNP of hushing up the figures.

When the media drew from Alex Salmond the admission six days ago that in the worst-case scenario, an independent Scotland could have a short-term fiscal deficit of £1.7bn, Labour was cock-a-hoop. This was the ammunition it had been waiting for.

And yet, when the two parties, in the shape of Labour's Wendy Alexander (tipped in places as a rising star) and the SNP's Andrew Wilson, came head-to-head on BBC Scotland's Campaign99 television programme on Monday, the confrontation will be remembered for telling us - absolutely nothing.

This sparring match typified the enmity (no doubt they would say they're chums really) that exists between the two sides.

They bickered, they ignored questions from presenter Iain McWhirter and were intent only on squaring up to each other.

The audience was forgotten; perhaps their political machismo was targeted more at their own parties: "Look at me, I'm a big boy/girl. Remember me on the 7th of May."

'Fine fellow'

[ image: David McLetchie: Stock has risen]
David McLetchie: Stock has risen
And what of the other parties? By most accounts, the Conservatives' leader David McLetchie, who came into this campaign with the customary Tory whispers dogging many of his steps, has seen his public stock rise.

Donald Dewar was even moved to describe him as a "fine fellow" during the leaders' debate on the Here to Holyrood programme hosted by Kirsty Wark on Tuesday night.

However, latterly as the Tories in London fell into another of their internal policy squabbles - this time over whether or not they had ditched Thatcherism - the waves of questions lapped over the border and forced Mr McLetchie to deny that divisions in the south would harm his party's Holyrood prospects.

The final opinion poll, in Wednesday's Scotsman newspaper, predicts the Tories will win 17 seats, five more than the Liberal Democrats.

All the talk has been of Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions. Mr McLetchie's party may win more seats, but of course a deal with Labour is out of the question. So too is a pact with the SNP.

[ image: Jim Wallace: Hailing birth of new politics]
Jim Wallace: Hailing birth of new politics
In recent days, the Scottish Lib-Dems' leader Jim Wallace has taken on a mantle of king-maker. He may be the man who holds a very large key in Holyrood, but he has a shown a steely determination when it comes to "non-negotiable" issues, such as the abolition of tuition fees. These, he insists, must go. If not - no deal.

The Lib-Dems have constantly hailed the prospect of a new generation of politics, an era where consensus is the way to policy agreement and the anger of Westminster is left behind.

This election has been held up as the first real chance for the smaller parties to gain a toehold, representation-wise.

It appears few voters actually understand the system which may well give that representation to parties such as the Scottish Greens or the myriad of socialist-based parties.

Local battlegrounds

Local issues provide the battleground for many of the independents who are standing.

For example, Robbie the Pict - who claims to be a descendant of William Wallace - is going up against Sir Ian Noble, a former chairman of the Skye Bridge Company. The bone of contention - having to pay to cross the bridge.

What kind of nation will we wake up to on Friday morning? A brave new world or a pale Westminster shadow? It's a cliché, but it seems appropriate under the circumstances because in this case, time really will tell.

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