Voting For A New Britain: Smaller parties could be Holyrood king makers

View From Scotland

THE NATIONALISTS describe it as "Scotland's first general election", and with two and a half weeks to go that is exactly how it is being fought - black propaganda, abuse, leadership crises, stunts, resignations and wild statistics. And this was supposed to be the dawn of New Politics.

The Independent's soundings, from the drawing rooms of Morningside to the tenements of Govan via the farthest hills and glens, suggest the electorate has already taken a view. They may not be too clued-up on the actual powers of the Scottish Parliament, and certainly not on the workings of the new voting system, but most know the future direction of their country is at stake.

"They believe it's independence they're voting on and they're very clear whether they want it or not," said Gaille McCann, a Labour councillor in Easterhouse, a poor eastern suburb of Glasgow. "Many old people are extremely frightened about it."

Scots will be voting for a 129-member parliament to take control of the existing functions of the Scottish Office - education, health, transport, local government and law and order. The Parliament also offers a bridge to independence, if the Scots choose to take it by voting SNP in sufficient numbers.

The use of a proportional representation voting system is likely to result in no party having overall control of the parliament. Opinion polls suggest Labour will win about 60 seats and the SNP around 40. The Liberal Democrats could get 15, the Tories perhaps a dozen. Tommy Sheridan, the Glasgow councillor and former poll-tax convict, is predicting up to 10 seats for his Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Wildly optimistic perhaps, but a fringe party with only a handful of seats could conceivably hold the balance of power.

If Labour emerges as the largest party, Donald Dewar, as First Minister, will look to the Liberal Democrats for a coalition partner. But if the SNP does well it could be Mr Salmond who makes the marriage overtures. Before the campaign it was not an unlikely prospect. Not far adrift of Labour in the polls, all the SNP seemed to need was a burst of patriotic fervour in the final days, fanned by the party's king over the water, Sean Connery. The SNP is normally a media-savvy operation, but the wheels have fallen off the party campaign.

Mr Salmond gambled by proposing Scots stump up a penny in the pound more on tax than the English to bolster public services, and attacked the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia as "unpardonable folly".

SNP policy is to hold a referendum on independence if it wins sufficient power at Holyrood. But the promise was played down in its manifesto and there were hints Mr Salmond might let it slip altogether.

While the SNP leader has lost his cheeky-chappie bounce and strain shows on the faces of his team, the Labour machine looks formidable. Scottish Labour has been beefed up by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, his adviser Ed Milliband, who temporarily resigned from the Treasury to help at the party's Glasgow headquarters, and Douglas Alexander MP, a former Brown speech writer.

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