Preview of the Scottish local government elections

(Originally published in the Scotsman on May 5, 2022)

When Andy Murray announced his support for Scottish independence, we in the No campaign breathed a sigh of relief.

Not because we didn’t think he could influence thousands of voters, or that such stellar backing wouldn’t boost our opponents.

But by virtue of the fact he chose to tweet his backing at the worst possible time for those he was seeking to help, in the very early hours of election day.

He wrote merely hours before the polls opened: “Huge day for Scotland today! No campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. Excited to see the outcome. Let’s do this!”

The Yes campaign could do nothing with it. They must be fizzing, we grinned.

It came too late for the newspapers to report on September 18, 2014, and by that point all major broadcasters are bound by rules forbidding them to report anything political while voters go to the polling stations.

Headlines like ‘Game, set and match – Muzza serves up ace for Yes campaign’ were never written as a result, and many who could have been influenced by him didn’t know about the intervention until it was too late.

The only people who saw it were among Scotland’s active but numerically insignificant Twitter fanatics who’d long made up their minds on Scotland’s constitutional future anyway.

Would Andy Murray’s earlier support for the cause of independence have had the sufficient oomph to change the result of the independence referendum?

Probably not on its own, but Better Together feared the impact such a big name would have on others toying with choosing a side publicly, and the knock-on effect for a campaign which was gathering its own frightening momentum.

Some senior figures in the pro-UK had previously made tentative approaches to see if the Davis Cup hero and Team GB Olympian could be interested in calling for the country to reject separation, but no progress was ever made.

After all, who wouldn’t want one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes and paragons of dedication and self-improvement on their side?

It all underlines the challenges that face political parties and campaigns as soon as polling stations open. They can’t do anything.

As of this morning, there is no campaigning allowed, and so very few minds can be changed.

The only meaningful action that can be taken is “getting out the vote” – persuading those you think are going to vote for you to get their backsides out the house and put a cross in the box.

The uncertainty continues long after 10pm too, and many senior politicians have to perform amid that uncertainty live on television as the results drop.

Local government elections are slightly different in that the results come in more gradually, which takes some of the adrenalin out the aftermath.

All the same, with these elections in which no party seems like they can really have a slam-dunk win, what they say about the results will be more important.

How they spin them could be as telling as the make up of Scotland’s local authorities themselves.

As the SNP knows to its cost in Glasgow, there’s actually little to be gained politically at national level by running the show in town halls.

All the nationalists have got is severe stick for rats, unemptied bins and fly-tipping after five years controlling Scotland’s biggest city, something that will only hinder the party next time there’s a national or constitutional reckoning.

No wonder city leader Susan Aitken looks fuming every time she’s asked to explain why so many people see fit to dump their unwanted belongings on the streets she governs.

Once 10pm tonight comes, all parties would be well advised to keep their cool until the outcome is abundantly clear.

In the 2021 Holyrood election jilted Scottish Conservative candidate (and slayer of Alex Salmond in the 2017 General Election) Colin Clark made that very mistake live on air.

As the constituency results rolled in, the SNP appeared to have another landslide on the cards, even though everyone knew (including nationalist commentators on the same sofa) that once the regional list scores were considered things would level up.

All the same, Mr Clark slaughtered the party for the months and years leading up to the elections, saying its leaders hadn’t been imaginative enough and spent too much time focusing on the threat of independence.

He was the first to break rank that night, and one of the only ones it turned out, as it later emerged the party had equalled the good result it achieved five years earlier, and under arguably tougher circumstances.

The reality is no-one ought to be in real trouble after the votes are counted and announced.

There is enough wriggle room in the interpretation to ensure there’s something for everyone.

They can focus on the percentage share of the vote, the number of councillors elected, the number of councils they control, or even the amount of progress they made in one area to mask shortcomings in another.

If they’re really struggling we might hear talk of record female and ethnic minority candidates.

The SNP will argue the result is a mandate for a second independence referendum, Labour will say they’re on the road to recovery as Scotland’s second force, and the Tories will point out key areas in which they’ve held ground despite the appalling backdrop of partygate.

Those lines will be pushed accordingly and, by the summer, we’ll be looking ahead with the rhetoric formed from the results of this election campaign laying the ground for the next.

And of course these lines will have been long in the preparation, as ours were for the dreaded eventuality that Andy Murray may come out in support of the Yes campaign.

“We respect Andy Murray hugely, but he should stick to breaking serves instead of breaking up the world’s most successful social and economic union.”

Adam Morris is the former head of media for the Scottish Conservatives and director of Shorthand PR.