The SNP will have to offer them more than a day trip to Belgrade

The most likely outcome looks healthy - a new pluralist politics which could become a benchmark
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A sunny Saturday morning in the main shopping street of Saltcoats on the north Ayrshire coast. The local MP, the Trade Minister Brian Wilson, is politely but energetically defending the Government's introduction of pounds 1,000 per year student tuition fees to a middle-aged man in a Kilmarnock FC sweatshirt and his wife, parents of two children at university and one preparing to go. He explains that the money raised by the fees is needed to prevent the quality of higher education from being fatally diluted by the sheer weight of student numbers.

The loan repayment system would ensure that they did not have to be repaid until the student was earning enough to afford it. And was there anything inherently progressive in poorer taxpayers paying out good money to keep at university children of parents who could easily afford to contribute? The couple leave on amicable terms, at least recognising that there is an alternative point of view.

This is politics in its purest form, on the stump in the final week of the Scottish Parliament elections. Tuition fees are an important issue. They reflect a policy that is entirely within the constitutional competence of the new Scottish Parliament. But there is nothing explicitly Scottish about the complaints of Mr Wilson's two constituents. The same conversation could just as easily take place, and no doubt will, in England during the next general election, where the same policy applies.

The view that there is something outlandishly different about many of the issues that concern English and Scottish voters is not that easy to stand up in Saltcoats this morning. Not to mention, to judge by some of the amiable grumbling about council tax levels, the quaint notion that the Scots are somehow in love with the idea of paying tax in a way that the English aren't. Indeed, there is every sign that the biggest boost to Labour fortunes here, overwhelming every other factor, was Gordon Brown's - UK-wide - Budget last March.

It's true, of course, that this is a constituency where nationalism struggles to make itself heard, compared to some other parts of Scotland. The local council is overwhelmingly dominated by Labour. The Conservatives, not the SNP, came second in the last general election. One man pauses to tell the Labour canvassers that, yes, he did vote SNP once in the general election because he got fed up with voting Labour and getting Tory governments, but that he has no wish to live in a "Switzerland"; while another man glances at the SNP man down the street with the loud hailer and says, in a mocking reference to the party leader's Alex Salmond's criticism of the Balkan war strategy: "Aye, vote for you, pal, and you get a free holiday in Belgrade."

That this isn't necessarily typical is underlined by at least some of the polling evidence yesterday, which shows that the SNP is beginning to recover from its apparent setbacks earlier in the campaign, and that Labour's dreams of an overall majority, if they were ever justified, are looking less realisable than they were midway through the campaign. Yesterday's Scotland on Sunday poll showed a sharp increase in support for the SNP at the expense of Labour, giving the nationalists 41 seats compared with Labour's 57 in the new Parliament, and depriving Labour of an overall majority.

So what would this mean for the future of Scotland - and for the UK as a whole? We won't, of course, know until Friday. It's possible that this is the beginning of a new SNP surge and that Labour, under pressure over splits on the relatively unpopular use of the Private Finance Initiative, and harried by its opponents in rural Scotland because of petrol duties, will be run much closer than it looks to be at present.

Conversely, it's possible that Alex Salmond's announcement that an SNP administration would reverse Gordon Brown's planned 1p cut in income tax will make no impact on west Central Scotland, where it is meant to erode Labour support. Instead it will alienate its own strong support in the once-Tory territory of Perthshire, Galloway and parts of the north east. But if the Scotland on Sunday poll - which is the best of the three from the nationalists' point of view - is realised in practice, it means that Donald Dewar will almost certainly be obliged to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats after this Thursday's election.

A common assumption in Scotland is that this will be a blow for Dewar, and that he was determined to eschew coalition if he possibly could. That is understandably the Labour spin at present. But I am not quite so sure. It's true that the statesmanlike promise by David McLetchie, the rather capable Scottish Tory leader, that the Conservatives would not use their power to stop Donald Dewar governing, makes going it alone a realistic possibility even if Labour fails to win an overall majority.

Dewar, a naturally inclusive politician, must realise as clearly as anyone that he needs some protection from potential dissidents within his own ranks, and that a consensus with the Lib Dems, very much in the spirit of the Convention that agreed on the Parliament in the first place, could be desirable for its own sake, whether he wins an overall majority or not.

A coalition would mean compromises, of course - for example on PR for local Scottish local government, which the Liberal Democrats are almost bound to gain, and even more notably on tuition fees. A possible first step might be to end the anomaly whereby English students at Scottish universities will be charged for their fourth year, and possibly a gentler repayment system. It is surely doubtful that tuition fees would be abolished at a stroke as the price of a coalition.

The Liberal Democrats would be unwise to make so many demands that they fail to achieve any of them. But whatever concessions are made, it will create pressure for the same to happen in England, if only because it would create such inequalities between English and Scottish students. That's devolution for you - and in time it will matter to England just as much as it does to Scotland.

Having said all that, the likeliest outcome for the Scottish elections looks reasonably healthy. A new pluralist politics could in time prove a benchmark for the rest of the UK - and can surely only be good for the Labour Party in Scotland, which has exhibited the faults of a party that has been ingrained as the unchallenged establishment in Scotland for all too long.

But make no mistake. The fact that Labour will nevertheless be the winners is a resounding victory for the union. Not only because the SNP threat will have been contained - but because, in the end, it will be the positive performance of the UK Government that will have secured that victory. The good people of Saltcoats may not be wholly typical. But it looks as if they are a good deal more so than the separatists would like.