Scottish Politician of the Year: Host discusses 2023

The year 2023 is set to be a ‘pivotal’ year in Scottish and UK politics with voters ‘falling out of love’ with the two parties of government, according to the legendary political journalist and broadcaster Bernard Ponsonby.

Mr Ponsonby, the former political editor of STV, gave his assessment of the dramatic shifts which have taken place in the mood among voters since January as he prepares to host The Herald’s Scottish Politician of the Year in association with ScottishPower tomorrow night.

He said Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was facing a “landslide” defeat at the general election, expected next year, while evidence suggested Humza Yousaf’s SNP has passed its “electoral high point”.

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“This year has been a story of two leaders Humza Yousuf and Rishi Sunak having real difficulties to assert their authority, their parties struggling in a way that they haven’t struggled in the past,” Mr Ponsonby told The Herald.

Celebrating their 25th anniversary, the awards, held in conjunction with Scottish Power, salute the politicians and campaigners who have fought to make a difference and changed lives over the previous 12 months.

As well as the main category of Scottish Politician of the Year, the evening awards also includes Best Scot at Westminster, the Donald Dewar Debater of the Year, One to Watch and Politics in Business.

“I think this is a year of two Parliament’s I think it’s a year of two leaders. And I think it’s a year of two parties where, and there’s quite a lot of evidence for this, [the electorate is] falling out of love with them,” Mr Ponsonby said.

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“If we look at the opinion polls, if we look at the by-elections, south of the border, it is very difficult indeed to construct any argument for Rishi Sunak, winning a general election next year. The Electoral calculus looks absolutely horrific from his point of view, and Labour are absolutely now in the electoral game, not only in England, but in Scotland as well.”

He noted the result in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West which saw Labour’s Michael Shanks storm to victory with a 20.4% away from the SNP as well as consistently good opinion poll ratings for the party led by Anas Sarwar.

“I think we can conclude that the electoral high point of the SNP has now passed. This year has been a story of two leaders Humza Yousuf and Rishi Sunak having real difficulties to assert their authority, their parties struggling in a way that they haven’t struggled in the past,” he said.

“What it means is that we look ahead to 2024 is the real possibility that the Conservatives will not only lose throughout the UK, they will go down to a landslide defeat and also the possibility that that potential Labour victory will also be made in Scotland. [If] the kind of swing that Labour got in Rutherglen and Hamilton West were to be replicated the SNP would probably be losing most of their seats.

“So it’s been a big year. It’s potentially a pivotal year. How pivotal is it? Well, if 2023 is really pivotal. We’ll know in 2024, because we’ll have a general election.”

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Mr Ponsonby has many excellent memories of The Herald’s Scottish Politician of the Year over the years, covering the event on a number of occasions for STV and also attending as a judge and a guest at other times.

As well as the excitement of the awards, he says the event, held at the stunning Prestonfield House in Edinburgh, is also a wonderful social occasion.

“What I remember about most it’s a convivial evening that brings politicians together business leaders, civic leaders, gives them the opportunity – in that horrible word – network.

“It just means basically talking to people, having a good time. It also recognises the achievements not only of politicians on the night, but people who have made a real contribution to their communities,” he said.

Mr Ponsonby reflected on the roll call of previous winners who included have Donald Dewar, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. But he added that over the years it was often the awards given to people in the community who had campaigned on particular issues which had stood out for him.

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“For me, the standout winners are not the politicians,” he said.

“If we go back to 1999 it was almost inevitable that the Scottish politician of the year on the first year was Donald Dewar; Secretary of State of Scotland after the Labour landslide in 1997, took the devolution legislation through the House of Commons, spearheaded the referendum in September 1997, won the first election for Labour coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

“Donald Dewar’s entire career was almost leading to establishing of a Scottish Parliament. It was the one thing in his life that he really felt very, very strongly about. So I remember that very, very well because it was very well deserved. He spearheaded and led the campaign with a real sense of statesmanship, dare I say it a sense of statesmanship which appears to be disappearing in politics now.”

He added: “We all remember the Glasgow Girls, for example, who put the whole issue of the way in which asylum seekers were treated here. That was an example of ordinary young women who basically had a perspective that was saying that the political classes were not getting this right, and started campaigning and they were recognised one year in the awards ceremony.

“I was also delighted that again, a campaigning group that was awarded a gong was the Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which has done terrific work for people that have suffered as a result of working with asbestos.

“So the fact that the awards not only recognise politicians, but they recognise the contributions that ordinary folks make, not only to causes but to the communities is the stuff that I’ve liked the best.”

Catherine Salmond, Editor of the Herald, chaired the panel of expert judges who went through long and detailed deliberations before coming to their conclusions.

The awards take place at Prestonfield House in Edinburgh tomorrow evening with The Herald’s team of journalists announcing the winners in regular updates on our live blog and social media channels. Further coverage of news and pictures from the event will appear in The Herald.