The sound of televised horseracing fills the room. A barrel-chested man with a booming voice breaks the momentary silence. “Never talk about religion or politics in a pub.” His warning goes unheeded.
“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry.
He worked in the colliery at nearby Bilston Glen until waves of closures hit in the mid-1980s, decimating parts of
Midlothian. Across the table Bill, an SNP supporter, shakes his head.
“No way, no way.”
Thirty years ago, Loanhead miners club was at the coalface of the battle against Margaret Thatcher to keep Scotland’s mining industry alive. Today, it is quieter, more sedate. There is a flawlessly manicured bowling lawn; posters in the club’s squat, modern community centre advertise Thai Chi and country music.
In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.
A band plays a brisk polka to mainly grey-haired older women. There is no blue plaque, but this unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 last year, that Gordon Brown made his promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. Just days earlier that poll appeared showing a narrow Yes lead.
The UK would, the former Labour leader said, “move as close to federalism as you can in a country where 85 per cent of it is one nation, England”. Brown pledged to deliver “the equivalent of what Keir
Hardie asked for when he called for Home Rule for Scotland”.
Academic research suggests the significance of “the Vow” has been overstated, but in the bar at Loanhead miners club there is little doubt that the former Chancellor’s intervention was a pivotal moment.
“Gordon Brown came in here, promising this and that. That swung the vote,” says Bill. For once Henry agrees. “Brown was the best man we had.”
The connection between mining and
Labour runs deep in this corner of
Scotland. Midlothian Labour MP David Hamilton introduced Brown in the miners club last September. A former mine worker, Hamilton spent months on remand during the 1980s strike – only to be acquitted in less than a quarter of an hour at trial.
But Hamilton is standing down this time. And while the politics of the pits are not gone, they are fast disappearing. “It is still Labour here but not as staunch as it was,” says a former miner in Loanhead.
Midlothian itself is changing, its undulating hills increasingly populated by commuters who work in nearby
Edinburgh. Some of the one-time pit villages have struggled to reinvent themselves, but expectations are high that the new
Borders railway will transform towns such as Gorebridge and Bonnyrigg when it opens in September.
Midlothian now has two SNP MSPs and its first-ever nationalist council, elected in 2012. Council leader Owen Thompson is hoping to make it another first in May, by becoming the SNP MP.
Thompson grew up in Loanhead, and in the SNP. His father, a local minister, was a passionate party advocate. His mother supported Margo MacDonald’s seismic 1973 Govan by-election victory. “I probably put my first leaflet out when I was seven or eight,” says Thompson, now 37, when we meet in Midlothian House, the council’s bright, airy offices in Dalkeith. A copy of the Declaration of Arbroath on faux parchment hangs over his desk. Beside it is a Loanhead Miners’ Youth football pendant.
His election pitch is squarely aimed at Labour voters. “Many traditional Labour people are seeing that the party has gone so far from the traditional principles that the SNP is now their natural home,” says Thompson.
There is no mythical “middle Scotland”, but if there was it might be Midlothian. Just over 56 per cent of voters said No to independence.
David Hamilton’s majority is north of 10,000 but the swing needed for the SNP to take the seat is well within current nationwide polling.
Over the reception at Midlothian council offices hangs a woven tapestry bearing the inscription: “Change Comes”
Thompson is hoping the words prove prophetic.
There are, however, local considerations that could stymie the nationalist surge. The SNP council has hardly been universally popular. Cutbacks have cost jobs across the community sector and even led to the introduction of charges for care alarms.
“Every decision we have made hasn’t been easy, but there were good reasons for every decision,” says Thompson, who cites the introduction of the living wage for council employees and a sharp increase in Midlothian’s popularity as a destination for school leavers as his most significant achievements in just over a year in charge of Scotland’s second smallest council.
Labour candidate Kenny Young says that the SNP “will pay the price at the ballot box” for failing to protect the most vulnerable from council cuts.
HE says: “The nationalists are working with an independent Tory [Peter De Vink] here. The SNP say
‘we are against the Tories’ but they are working with the Tories here. That’s the big issue.”
If there is one central issue in Young’s campaign, it is health. A diabetic, he is “passionate about” the promise of 1,000 extra nurses for Scotland that Labour have pledged to fund through a so-called “mansion tax” on the UK’s richest homeowners. Young has lobbied government to have disability benefit extended to suffers of Dupuytren’s Contracture, a condition caused by operating vibrating machinery that affects the hands and fingers of many former miners. He also wants to see a
Scottish government inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strikes.
In some respects, Young and his SNP opponent are not that dissimilar.
Both grew up locally, graduating almost straight into politics. After studying history at Edinburgh University – emulating his hero Gordon Brown – Young was elected Labour student chair. He went to work on Ed Miliband’s successful leadership campaign, subsequently joining his staff before returning to Scotland to run for public office.
Young has demonstrated a steely political resolve that belies his fresh-faced
29 years. In November, he won a council by-election for Labour in the midst of the post-referendum SNP groundswell. He is confident of holding Midlothian in May.
“I would rather be the Labour candidate than the SNP candidate,” says Young. “There is no doom and gloom in the
Labour party in Midlothian.
“Part of that is we are buoyed by what people are saying on the doorsteps. We are talking about what people care about.”
Midlothian has been cited as the birthplace of the modern political campaign; it was in Dalkeith, in 1879, that William Gladstone relaunched his career, unifying the liberals and spectacularly defeating the incumbent Tory prime minister Disraeli. Nowadays, the battle on Dalkeith’s wide High Street is firmly between Labour and the SNP.
Outside a discount store, a man with a union flag pin on his flat cap will be voting “tactically” for Labour. “I don’t want another referendum. Whatever happens we need to stay together,” he says.
Elsewhere, Jim, a retired vicar, supported independence but is “expecting” to vote Labour next month.
Englishwoman Sue Kinloch is voting SNP for the first time next month.
“I want to vote with my mind and my heart,” says Kinloch, who previously backed Labour. “Scotland and Wales get sidelined. I’m not nationalist really but the only way to get Nicola Sturgeon a voice is to vote [SNP].”
Outside Dalkeith library, 18-year-old Aaron Thompson waits for a bus to take him to the nearby college. He voted
Yes in September and is divided between the SNP and the Greens this time around. But he thinks Labour’s message that only they will be able to prevent a Conservative government could sway
Midlothian voters because “people here hate the Tories, hate them with a passion”.
Back in Loanhead miners club, Alan is in two minds about his vote. The 63-year-old says he has been “Labour all my life” but is thinking of switching to the SNP. “I’m that close,” he says, holding his thumb and index finger barely an inch apart.
“I voted against independence. I want us to be together, but Labour have lost the vision that they had. Labour are finished in Scotland.”
Around the table a couple of heads nod in agreement. Just as many shake vigorously from side to side. As the bar closes up for the afternoon, the debate goes on.