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Holyrood 2016: The First Scottish Presidential Election

21/03/2016 13:12 | Updated 21 March 2017

If the reader has been able to draw their gaze away from the new series of House of Cards they will know that there is a real-life American Presidential election underway. This election makes one wish that Frank Underwood were real and willing replace the shrill Avon lady, grandfather of Fidel Castro, human embodiment of 4chan and the alleged Zodiac killer that Americans are being forced to choose from. However, the American's are not the only ones being asked to vote for a President; we Scots are also getting ready to have a Presidential (style) election of our very own.

This is a curious development in Scottish politics. It feels like we are being asked to elect a Commander in Chief and not the next Scottish Government. Our entire election is being centred, for the first time, on the leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson are our unofficial Presidential candidates.

The SNP has, as usual, been ahead of the curve. In the 2011 Holyrood elections, the Nationalists asked Scots to vote "Alex Salmond for First Minister". This subtle way of placing the emphasis on the charismatic leader had hints of Tony Blair and New Labour at the time and continues to do so. Mr Blair may have invented it but the Nats have perfected it. The real test for whether or not I'm right will be if words to the effect of "Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister" appear on the ballot paper on May 5th. I suspect they will. It is a clever strategy and allows the SNP to draw attention towards their popular leader and away from their unimpressive record in government. It's about being on the road with Nicola's army... never mind the home record.

While this is the second time the SNP has used the 'focus on the boss' tactic; the reason 2016 can be legitimately called the first Scottish Presidential election is that the other parties are deploying it too.

The Scottish Tories definitely are. If you have received any of their literature through the mail, you will notice that it's all about Ruth Davidson and is accompanied by the slogan "Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition" - which will also appear on the ballot paper. Aside from a few rare media appearances by some of their candidates, the Scottish Conservative strategy appears to be to get as many people onto Team Ruth as possible. They cannot be blamed for this of course; Ms Davidson follows in the tradition of previous Scottish Tory leaders in having an impressive level of personal popularity. Also, the party seems to understand that there are swathes of Scotland that do not trust it and that, by positioning itself as the party of the No voter, it has ruled out 45 per cent of Scotland - placing the emphasis on Ms Davidson is probably in its best interests.

Scottish Labour is also geared up to fight a presidential contest for Bute House. Every effort has been made to improve its leader Kezia Dugdale and to stress that it is she, not UK Labour, who runs Scottish Labour. It is worth noting that neither Jeremy Corbyn nor John McDonnell were in attendance at Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow at the weekend, despite the latter being in the same city. A very clear message indeed! In fact, Labour's conference featured no motions or debate of any kind. It was more like a rally than a conference, with everything pointing towards Ms Dugdale.

This emergence of the Presidential style is not good for Scottish politics.

Firstly, as if it were not obvious, Scotland does not have a presidential or federal system. The position of First Minister, much like that of Prime Minister, differs from a Presidential position in one very important way. The First Minister is first among equals in the Cabinet; while they may lead the government politically, they are not the executive branch and therefore do not deserve the importance given by a Presidential milieu. By constructing a presidential style of election we may inadvertently continue the decoupling of the population from the reality of politics. Given the number of Scots who supported independence for some childish 'hope and change' reason, we know how easy it is to get Scots to believe in an idea over something substantive.

If asked vote for a party leader rather than the local candidate, a political philosophy or a set of policies we run the risk of continuing the detachment of the electorate from their representatives. There are some excellent local MSPs in Scotland - Johann Lamont, George Adam and Alex Fergusson, for example - and they continue to be so because their voters know exactly who they are voting for. If the entire political dialogue of the country continues to shift towards a presidential style then these links may be broken in favour of a nationwide popularity contest. Our unique Scottish politics would lose something if this were to happen.

Scotland has already seen what happens when people vote based on popular leadership. In the 2015 UK General Election we returned 56 SNP MPs to Westminster, many of whom rode the wave of Sturgeon and Salmond popularity right to the green benches. Under any other circumstances it seems highly unlikely that a Mhairi Black - the imitation working class hero from middle-class Ralston - or our own political chameleon Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh - whose collection of political party membership cards is only missing UKIP and the Lib Dems- being returned as MPs. The Sturgeon/Salmond pull-effect was just too strong to prevent some Scots from making the sillier of that year's decisions.

Can this be fixed? Perhaps, but it would require a combination of culture change, education and an - if you can believe it - increase in Scottish cynicism. If we were a more engaged polity on a local level, more involved with local issues, politicians and institutions then the appeal to play follow the leader might be reduced. This would also depend on a more educated electorate, capable of understanding that they are not voting for a First Minster but for people to make up a government. This would take both time and resources and our comprehensive education to stop being a joke... Grammar Schools, any one? Finally, we need to be more cynical and suspicious of those aspiring to political leadership. A more suspecting and hard-nosed approach, not entirely out of character for us Jocks, could perhaps encourage us to look at Messrs Sturgeon, Davidson and Dugdale and wonder about those new clothes.

But then I've always been a bit optimistic.