Scotland’s Revenge

Scotland’s Revenge

INVERNESS, Scotland — Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The campaign was lively, colorful and, it seemed, decisive: Scots voted by a 10-point margin to stay a part of Britain. But just seven months later, another nationalist earthquake looks set to hit Scotland, shaking the foundations of British politics and even the union itself.

On a pedestrian street in the heart of Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands, a small shop shows the extent to which the independence movement is still alive in many hearts and minds — and, soon, ballot boxes. The “Yes shop,” as it’s known, is still selling badges, key rings, and even dog neckerchiefs bearing the blue-and-white “Yes” to independence logo. Basque and Catalan flags (fellow long-sufferers) hang in solidarity with the St. Andrew’s Cross on the wall. The foldout tables that run along one side of the store are stacked with posters and election leaflets for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). On a recent weekday at lunchtime, the store was packed with volunteers and activists.

“People sometimes come in with their children,” said Norman Will, the force behind the shop. “In cold weather people bring in soup and stovies [a Scottish dish made with meat and potatoes]. We have collections for the local food bank and political discussions.”

The SNP may have lost last September’s referendum but it’s emerged energized as Britain gears up for a big, national election. Indeed, the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is just about the only popular politician in the country. Despite holding power in the devolved Scottish Parliament for eight years, the nationalists have profited from a disenchantment with established parties that persists across Europe. And now the SNP is poised to translate that frustration into political power.

The U.K. general election is scheduled for May 7. The SNP is poised to become kingmakers. In the last general election, five years ago, the nationalists won just one-fifth of the Scottish vote and only six of Scotland’s 59 seats. Now, opinion polls give the SNP almost half the Scottish vote and put the party on course to win up to 50 seats.

Such an unprecedented result would have ramifications far beyond the corridors of Westminster. The SNP surge would virtually wipe out Scottish Labour, which has won every Westminster election in Scotland since 1955. The rise of Scottish nationalism greatly increases the likelihood of a hung Parliament, too, but even more significantly it has put the question of Scottish independence — and the future of the union — front and center once more.

Since the referendum, SNP membership has quadrupled to over 100,000, making the nationalists Britain’s third-largest party, despite the fact that Scotland has only around one-twelfth of the U.K.’s total population. Among the SNP’s new supporters is Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh. The 32-year-old supermarket worker has become a regular visitor to the Inverness “Yes” shop. The referendum “was amazing,” he told me. On May 7 he will vote for the SNP, in part because he wants another referendum on independence, but he also believes that the party is best placed to “stand up” for Scotland at Westminster.

Inverness, a small, picturesque city popular with tourists setting out to explore the Highlands isn’t historically a stronghold for Scottish nationalists. The Highlands voted against independence in September, and the SNP received less than one-fifth of the votes cast here in 2010. But polls put SNP candidate Drew Hendry well ahead of the incumbent, Danny Alexander of the Liberal Democrats. Alexander, who has been the second highest-ranking official at the Treasury for the past five years, is one of the most recognizable faces in Scottish politics. His profile, however, might not save his seat.

Such unlikely electoral challenges are being repeated across Scotland. The Labour Party, in opposition in London for the last five years, have long dominated Scottish politics. Labour currently holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But the nationalist tsunami now threatens every Labour constituency in Scotland, potentially robbing Labour leader Ed Miliband of seats he would need to form a majority government after May 7.

The town of Paisley, seven miles southwest of Glasgow, is illustrative of the scale of the challenge facing Labour. A once prosperous industrial town whose Victorian grandeur has faded since the textile mills started closing in the 1960s, Paisley has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. The party has won every general election contest here since the end of World War II, often without much of a fight.

Paisley’s MP is Douglas Alexander, a well-respected former Scottish secretary under Tony Blair and the current shadow foreign secretary. Last time out, Alexander won just short of 60 percent of the vote. Now he is trailing Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student with no political experience.

“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” Black told me. “What we witnessed during the referendum was a political awakening across the country. It was always going to be the case that the general election was going to be different.”

Labour’s popularity in Scotland has plummeted after joining forces with the politically toxic Conservatives to campaign against the independence referendum. Around 180,000 Labour supporters voted “yes” last September and many of them are now expected to switch their allegiances to the SNP in the general election. Labour is now on the defensive: The party has withdrawn resources from some seats in order to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. “I’m set to Defcon fucked,” a sitting Labour MP from Scotland recently said.
While Labour comfortably won every Westminster election, the party’s standing in the Scottish Parliament has fallen steadily over the last 15 years. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of 73 seats. The party won just 11 seats in 2011. At the same time, the SNP’s share in the Scottish Parliament continued to rise. Now Scottish voters seem set to repeat their devolved preferences in a Westminster election for the first time, which could produce a nationalist landslide under the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system.

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Gerry Hassan, a research fellow at the University of the West of Scotland and author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. “Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP. They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour Party doesn’t understand that.”

Under Sturgeon, who took over as the party’s leader last November, the SNP has tacked leftwards, directly appealing to disgruntled Labour voters who increasingly see little difference between the party of their grandfathers and the Conservatives. At a recent event in Edinburgh launching the SNP manifesto, Sturgeon promised to “end austerity,” by increasing government spending by 0.5 percent a year. The SNP’s manifesto backs a 50 percent top tax rate, an extra tax on homes worth over £2 million, new levies on bankers’ bonuses, an increase in the minimum wage, and formal recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The SNP has ruled out joining a formal coalition with Labour as long as Miliband’s party continues to support the Trident nuclear submarine program, which is housed near Glasgow. But Sturgeon has called for a looser “progressive alliance” with Labour to keep the Conservatives out of office. Meanwhile, Labour, wary of losing English voters, has insisted that there will be “no deal” with the SNP. Such obdurateness might play well in London but it is doing Labour no favors in the Scottish heartlands. Critics have accused both Labour and, particularly, Conservatives of alienating Scottish voters by demonizing the SNP.

The post-election arithmetic in Britain looks increasingly complicated. Every poll suggests there will be no clear winner, which makes a Labour deal with the SNP more likely. The Conservatives — sensing an opportunity to make gains from Labour in up-for-grabs English constituencies where Scottish nationalism is looked upon with disdain — have decried any deal with the SNP. Home Secretary Theresa May even said an arrangement with the nationalists would spark the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Even if the SNP was invited into a coalition with Labour, the Scottish party might have good reason not to join. The SNP’s primary focus remains on Scotland, in particular the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. The party is unlikely to want ministerial seats in London, which would make the task of differentiating themselves from Labour more difficult next year. At the same time, the SNP are wary of facilitating the formation of another Conservative-led government by failing to support Labour. “The SNP can’t sign a blank check to Labour, but they can’t be seen to bring a Labour government down so they have to play a very careful hand,” said Hassan.

The SNP’s record-high poll ratings have fueled speculation that Sturgeon would like to hold a second vote on independence. In order for that to happen, the party would need another majority in Edinburgh next year. But that’s still a long way off. The SNP will not go to the polls again until they know they can win, said Paul Cairney, professor of politics at the University of Stirling.

“The SNP won’t win enough votes [in the general election] if they look like the independence party and nothing more,” said Cairney. “And they have dealt with that problem well. Long-term referendum chances hinge on them remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the U.K.”

Nonetheless, pro-independence sentiment remains energized ahead of the election. In the “Yes” shop in Inverness, Emma Roddick, a 17-year-old student, said she has “lost count” of the number of hours she has spent making pro-independence badges and pins. She is too young to vote but has no doubts about Scotland’s political destiny.

“The union is always going to lose its purpose,” she told me. “The only argument is not are we going to be independent but when are we going to be independent..” For its supporters, a resounding SNP showing on May 7 will be another important milestone on the road to the break-up of Britain.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

How Labour Lost Ground to the Scottish National Party

“Which way will you be voting in May?” I ask a table laden with lunchtime half pints and nips in the members’ bar at Loanhead Miners Welfare and Social Club in Midlothian, half a dozen miles or so from Edinburgh. “We’re all Labour,” says one man with a broad smile.

“Are we fuck!” roars his drinking companion across the table. The sound of televised horse racing fills the room, breaking the momentary silence.

“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry. His shoulders are noticeably hunched from almost three decades down the pits.

Across the table, Bill, a Scottish National Party supporter, shakes his head. “No way, no way.”

Midlothian has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. Thirty years ago, Loanhead Miners club was at the coalface of the ultimately futile 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 advertise Thai Chi and country music. In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.

This unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 of last year, that Gordon Brown made a promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. What became “the Vow” was credited by many with swinging the referendum in the union’s favor.

But just seven months later, Midlothian is an SNP target seat. Local Labour MP David Hamilton, who spent months on remand 1980s miners’ strike, is standing down. Polls suggest it is a straight two-way tussle between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists next month.

Such unlikely electoral clashes are being repeated across Scotland as tens of thousands of one-time Labour supporters flock to the SNP. Labour has long been the dominant force in Scottish politics. The nationalists currently have just six MPs. Labour has 40.

Labour’s popularity has plummeted after joining forces with the Conservatives—a toxic brand in Scotland—to campaign against independence. This earned them the moniker “Red Tories.” Recent polls suggest the SNP could win 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Today, a poll suggested they could win 57 seats, leaving Labour with just one MP.

Scottish Labour, increasingly cash-strapped, have withdrawn resources from some seats they hold to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. A sitting Scottish Labour MP recently described the state of the party as “now set to defcon fucked.”

Among the former Labour voters now swinging behind the SNP is Keith Aitchison. As a young man growing up in Glasgow, Aitchison was a staunch Labour supporter. At general election time he even campaigned for the party. Now retired and living in the Highland city of Inverness, Aitchison will be voting Scottish Nationalist on May 7.

“I came to the conclusion that within the Westminster political system you can’t change things because everything is pointed towards the need for votes in the south of England,” says Aitchison in Inverness’s “Yes” shop—a city center store created before last September’s independence referendum.

Despite that defeat, the shop is still open, selling badges and key rings, and even SNP dog neckerchiefs and high-vis jackets. “The only party around that has a proper attitude towards creating social justice seems to be the SNP,” he says.

Alex Mosson spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in Glasgow but no longer backs the party he joined as a Clyde shipyard worker in 1978.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the Labour party,” says Mosson, a former Lord Provost of Glasgow who supported independence. “In the months leading up to the referendum there was a mood among people. There was a feeling that something could be done. That will not change now.”

Even Labour supporters who voted no in September seem uncertain about the party. “I always voted Labour but not now,” says Anne, who returned to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, appointed late last year, has been unable to stem the bleeding. Polls suggest that Sturgeon is far more popular with voters than the former Blairite Scotland secretary.

The SNP has aimed its election pitch squarely at Labour supporters. Nicola Sturgeon has promised an end to austerity and a greater rise in the minimum wage than Labour. At the SNP manifesto launch in Edinburgh last Monday, the Scottish First Minister Sturgeon pledged that nationalist MPs would “lock out” the Conservatives from government and “help Labour be bolder.” That message chimes with many Scottish voters.

“The SNP is a soft-left, social-democratic party on the mainstream European model and they have a constitutionally radical position. The combination of these two things is an attractive proposition,” says the New Statesman’s Jamie Maxwell.

“Labour in Scotland has one election slogan and one election platform: ‘Vote SNP, Get Tories.’ I think they’ve miscalculated this.”

Labour’s sudden decline in Scotland looks stark. The party won 42 percent of the vote here in the last general election, in 2010. The SNP finished third on barely a fifth.

But Labour’s supremacy in the devolved Scottish parliament has been on the wane for over the last decade and a half. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of the 73 Scottish Parliament constituency seats. In 2011, the party won just 11, with only “top up” list seats saving it from annihilation.

Meanwhile, many of Labour’s Scottish “big beasts,” including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are leaving the Westminster political scene. Their departures have further weakened the party’s appeal to its one-time supporters as it looks like a sad tribute act.

The weakening of Labour in Scotland might not be all bad news for the party, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Labour has long been over reliant on its Scottish contingent, he says. “Some Labour people think that if the party was more English it would help it.”

Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP who left the party in the mid 1970s and eventually joined the SNP, says that defeat for Labour in Scotland next month could hasten independence. “If we can remove Labour from central Scotland this will be transformational and could lead to independence in a much shorter time frame than people realize.”

That’s something Labour will be keen to avoid, but the more immediate problem for Scottish Labour isn’t the death of the union, so much as staying alive as a political force.

This piece originally appeared on Vice.

UK elections and the shift from ‘tribal’ politics

feafea349263405dad36c9ac9efa79df_18The historic multi-party debates in the UK have rekindled political diversity [Reuters]

Glasgow, UK – Some seven million viewers across Britain tuned into the first, and only, televised multi-party debate ahead of May’s general election. What they saw on April 2 was a stark illustration of how much UK politics has changed in recent years.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron fielded questions from the live studio audience, and parried blows from opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But the real winners were the five smaller parties also on the stage.

Polls declared Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon the victor of the night, followed by the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage.

British politics has long been a two-horse race. But the field for May’s general election is increasingly open, potentially spelling a permanent end to centuries of single-party majority rule at Westminster.

In 1951, 97 percent of the UK electorate voted Labour or Conservative. At the last general election, in 2010, that figure was just two in three, leading to a historic coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

This time around, the prospects of one party winning overall control look even slimmer.

We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern.

John Curtice, Strathclyde University professor

Labour and Conservatives are tied at 34 percent each, according to aBBC poll of polls.

The Labour party would need a lead of around five points to win a majority, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

Due to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the Tories, who draw most of their support in the richer south, would require a seven-point margin of victory to emerge with the 326 seats needed to command a majority in the House of Commons.

The reality, said Curtice, is there is unlikely to be a clear winner on May 7. “We have never seen an election like this.”

“We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern. You can go all the way back to 1832 and you won’t beat it,” Curtice said.

Horse-trading and deal-brokering

A hung parliament would necessitate something on which British politics has traditionally not been strong: horse-trading and deal-brokering.

The coalition government has long been the norm on the continent, but in the UK it is still a relative novelty. A predicted collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote – and theFixed Term Parliaments Act introduced in 2011 to make dissolving Westminster almost impossible – could make the business of forming a new government even more tricky.

This all means that the party that emerges in the strongest position may have to reach an arrangement – either a formal coalition or a looser deal – with one or more of the UK’s insurgent parties.

The most likely kingmaker is the SNP, which is campaigning on an anti-austerity message. Despite defeat in last September’s independence referendum, the nationalists have seen their support surge.

Membership has quadrupled to more than 100,000. Polls suggest that the SNP may win dozens of seats from Labour, making it far more difficult for Miliband to secure a majority.

Last year’s independence referendum fundamentally changed Scottish politics, said political commentator Gerry Hassan.

“Something has profoundly changed about how the Scottish public see and do politics and their role in the union. Passivity, acceptance and belief in traditional elites – Labour included – now seem a thing of the past.”

UK parties have struggled to understand the SNP surge.

Last weekend a leaked memo purportedly revealing that nationalist leader Sturgeon had told a French diplomat that she would prefer another Tory administration, appeared in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

But the smear appears to have backfired, with both sides flatly denying the claims. Questions have been raised about how the civil service document was released. An inquiry will now be held.

 


While the SNP will take votes from Labour in Scotland, the Conservatives in particular face a threat from the UKIP. The party, which campaigns on a hard-right platform based on clamping down on immigration and leaving the European Union, is particularly popular with socially conservative, white working class voters.

Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to stem the UKIP tide. UKIP’s best chances of success rest with its colourful leader Farage in South Thanet.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Greens believe this could be their breakthrough year. Having polled barely one percent in the 2010 general elections, the left-wing environmentalists are hoping to add to their solitary seat in Brighton Pavilion. 

However, the winner takes all nature of the British electoral system means both UKIP and the Greens are struggling to win more than a handful of seats.

All the same

Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society, says that the “lottery” nature of the May’s election shows that the time has come to replace first-past-the-post with a more proportional voting system.

Regardless of the prospects of electoral reform, the duopoly in British politics could be coming to an end as voters leave Labour and Conservatives for small, identity-based parties.

Across the UK, traditional class structures, and the political affiliations that went with them, are breaking down, says Professor Curtice.

“Fewer people now feel a strong sense of identification with a political party. There are fewer people who say ‘I am Labour, I am Tory or whatever.’ We are less tribal about our politics.”

At the same time, voters see little to choose between Miliband and Cameron, or between their respective parties.

“The Conservatives and Labour in recent elections have tended to look more similar to each other in the eyes of the electorate,” says Curtice.

Whoever wins in May, the likelihood is that when the UK general election next swings around in 2020 television producers will need to invest in larger studios. The panel of party leaders could be even bigger.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Election Posters Banned Across Scotland

Competing “yes” banners and “no thanks” posters were among the most colourful features of the referendum campaign, but as May’s general election hoves into view there will be less political posters than ever on Scotland’s streets.

Experts fear that the lack of posters could depress turnout.

Just a handful of Scottish councils permit candidates and parties to display election material on lampposts and other “street furniture”.

Of Scotland’s 32 council areas just four – Shetland, the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Argyll and Bute – now allow political posters on council property.

The number of councils passing legislation banning political material on their property has increased dramatically since the last general election in 2010.
lamppost posters
Last year, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire and North Ayrshire all moved to outlaw election posters. South Lanarkshire will follow suit in a matter of weeks.

The main reason cited for the bans is the expense of removing election material from council property after the country goes to the polls.

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

There is a strong link between the visibility of political campaigns and higher turnouts, says Clark.

The decision to ban political posters is “a peculiarly self-denying ordnance from councils,” Clark says.

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

“Most Scottish councils are run by a mix of parties and coalitions. You can’t say it is one party against another,” says Clark. “It is a broader council issue. It just seems to be that this will cost us money.”

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

“Northern Ireland in the run-up to May you’ll find is postered from one end of the street to another,” says Clark.

“Scotland somehow has become an outlier here. It is strange given the democratic experience of the referendum that this is something that is being allowed to happen.”

Juliet Swann, campaigns and research officer at Electoral Reform Society Scotland, says that election posters add colour to political campaigns but that the best way to ensure that the enthusiasm of the referendum is not lost is to make sure people feel that their vote counts.

“Perhaps celebrating elections more as a carnival of democracy, complete with colourful election posters would bring some public enthusiasm back into politics. But the only way to be sure of re-engaging the people in politics is to make them feel like their vote counts for something,” she said.

Alistair Clark called on Scottish councils to overturn the ban on election material on their property.

“The danger is that people just won’t go out and vote. It is pointless complaining about turnout unless people are given every encouragement to vote. And among that encouragement are posters being permitted to be placed in places where people might see them.”

Britain’s last communist

Councillor Willie Clarke …
Councillor Willie Clarke … Photograph: DC Thomson & Co Ltd

Clarke is the only self-described communist holding elected office anywhere in the UK. Although now technically an independent, Clarke has for more than 40 years sat as a communist councillor for Ballingry, a former mining town of pebbledashed terrace houses laid out on the escarpment of Benarty Hill near Cowdenbeath in Fife. The craggy-faced septuagenarian’s politics have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of his left ear to cancer. “I am still a communist. My beliefs haven’t changed,” the former miner says as his small grey Renault Clio trundles through the pit villages ribboned along the low hills of central Scotland.

Cowdenbeath was once the centre of the Britain’s largest mining enterprise, the Fife Coal Company. For decades, the most serious threat to Labour’s electoral supremacy here came not from Scottish nationalists, but the communists. West Fife returned Britain’s last Communist party MP, Willie Gallacher, between 1935 and 1950. A housing estate on the outskirts of Cowdenbeath with a street called Gagarin Way is nicknamed “little Moscow”.

The Communist Party of Great Britain soon declined from its postwar peak of 50,000 members and over 200 councillors. But in West Fife “the Party” remained a political force. In 1973, the Communists won 12 seats on the then Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath council. Clarke was among those elected. There is footage of him during that election night. The Communist candidate looks tired, his tie askew, his face puffy and red. But he smiles and receives the interviewer’s congratulations on his unexpected victory over the Labour incumbent in a firm, bass-heavy voice that had by then already become a fixture at miners’ rallies.

Two days after his election, Clarke received a phone call. He had to come to the Seafield Colliery right away. A roof in a steeply inclined coalface beneath the Firth of Forth had collapsed. Five miners were dead. It took rescue workers a week to reach the last three bodies. “You were away up here. And then bang, you were back to reality.” Clarke lifts his right arm in the air. The sleeve of his jumper falls away slightly to reveal a thin, bright blue scar caused by trapped coal dust in a five-decade-old wound from his own stint in the mines.

Clarke began working in the pit at 14. His first job was separating stone from coal on the surface for 40p a shift. He soon joined the Communists. “I was always rebellious. Always asking, ‘why?’. ‘Why should that happen? Why has that not happened? [The Communists] caught your imagination. They were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.”

Clarke grew up in an unconventional home. His mother was a young, unmarried domestic servant when she became pregnant. In school, classmates would tease: ‘Who is your father?’ The Clarke house, like many in the area, had a subscription to the Daily Worker and during the war his uncle, also a miner, collected short paperback biographies of Russian generals and pinned up two maps of Europe on the wall so that he and his nephew could mark the progress of the allied and axis forces.

Clarke’s uncle died in 1947. That same year, the coal industry was nationalised. Its future seemed as steadfast and dependable as the hard Fife soil on which it rested. In 1957, the Queen travelled to the Fife town of Glenrothes to open a new colliery. Mining seemed in rude health but, beneath the surface, the ground was starting to shift.

The Glenrothes colliery was a failure, and by the time it shut the following decade, mines across Scotland were being closed. In 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers declared a work-to-rule. By then most of the pits in Fife were closed. Nevertheless, Clarke and his colleague kept the communist faith.

Clarke still speaks fondly of weeks spent in Moscow at the height of the cold war. Denunciations of the Soviet Union, he maintains, were motivated by anti-communism, not a desire to shed light on repression. “They just wanted to attack it. We saw the Soviet Union as the vanguard of the working classes of the whole world.” Today, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order but because of his tireless work for the local community.

Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012.

Pinterest
Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012. Photograph: Fife Council/Fife council

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the Benarty community centre in Ballingry. The Benarty centre is, in part, a testimony to the ageing communist’s political effectiveness. Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for the state-of-the-art facility that replaced a series of disparate, often dilapidated facilities dotted across the pit villages.

As we sit in the centre’s cafe before one of Clarke’s weekly constituency meetings a mobility scooter silently sidles up to our table. An elderly woman in a heavy coat complains that her front door was so stiff she could barely open it. Clarke nods. He takes out a scrap of paper and a small, stubby bookmaker’s pen. (He likes a bet on the horses.) “Leave it with me, I’ll get it sorted.”

Later Clarke takes me to a picturesque lakeside park built on what was the former dump for the pits. “The Meedies” was once the largest land reclamation scheme in Europe. Now it is Fife’s most popular tourist attraction. A group of teenagers on mountain bikes cycle across what had been a rail line for coal wagons. The white wooden frame of the old pit shaft peeks out behind a smattering of trees and brambles. When the park was built many locals wanted all traces of the mines removed. Clarke successfully lobbied for the shaft to remain: “Now if you tried to take it away there’d be a revolution.”

Clarke has not lost hope of a communist insurrection, but these days his main political goal is probably more achievable: Scottish independence. In the months leading up to September’s referendum he worked flat out facilitating meetings and debates, organising canvasses and leaflet drops. “Independence will come, whether it comes now or in 20 years. It’s like the tide you cannot hold it back, it’s going to happen. People will have to look at what is going to provide a fairer society, and it’s certainly not the capitalist system.”

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian.

Britain’s Green Party surge

Once a marginal political player, the UK Green Party has growing popularity amid dissatisfaction with the majors.

The Green Party is expecting to make gains at the United Kingdom general election in May [Getty Images]

As 2005 turned into 2006 in London, journalist Natalie Bennett did what many of us do at New Year’s. She cast a critical eye on her life – and the world around her. She didn’t like what she saw.

“I looked at the state of the world and said, ‘this doesn’t look very good, I should do something'”.

Bennett’s response was far from typical, however. With more time on her hands after finishing working nights, the 39-year-old Australian made a New Year’s resolution to join the Green Party of England and Wales.

Less than a decade later, Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Greens in Britain. Her party is party riding high in opinion polls. Membership has more than doubled in the past year.    

“I never would have predicted it would end up with this,” says Bennett with a laugh as she recalls her 2006 New Year’s pledge.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been the big insurgent political story of British politics this year. UKIP’s stridently anti-European Union message and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage have attracted countless column inches and record levels of support.

But, quietly, the Greens have been making inroads at the opposite end of the British political spectrum.

Growing green

Having polled barely 1 percent in the 2010 general election, the Greens have consistently been registering 5-6 percent ever since this summer’s European elections. One recent poll put the party on course to win 8 percent when Britain goes to the polls next May. Party membership stands at more than 30,000 and growing by the week. 

Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales Natalie Bennett on the right [Getty Images]

Bennett says the party is fast becoming an accepted part of the British political landscape. 

“About a month or so I got a phone call [from a British morning television show] at 11:30 in the evening asking if I could do a pre-record in the next hour for their morning programme. I thought ‘this is a step forward in recognition for the Green party.'”

While UKIP is doing particularly well among older working-class Britons, the Greens draw support from younger, university-educated middle-class voters attracted by the party’s commitment to social justice and the environment.

“Our message is there is a need for real change. Our current neo-liberal, neo-Thatcherite approach, greed is good, don’t worry about inequality and assume that the planet’s resources are infinite. That’s now clearly dead, and failed. We need a new kind of approach,” says Bennett, who took over as party leader from the Greens’ sole MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2012.

The Greens are profiting from the further decline in the Liberal Democrat vote since the party went into coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives in 2010, and are also attracting some Labour voters, says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university and a researcher on UK political polling.

“The Greens are the only game in town for disenchanted voters on the left. They are profiting from those who are looking for something a bit more radical and don’t believe the Labour party can deliver it,” says Curtice.

The Green party in the UK was founded in the 1970s but has long been a marginal concern. In 1990 the party split into the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland. 

Northern support

So far the Greens have enjoyed their greatest success in Scotland. In 2003, the Greens won six seats in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, and while that number has dwindled, the party has been transformed following its support for a “yes” vote in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

In the early hours of September 19, as it became apparent that Scots had voted to stay in the UK, the Scottish Greens’ computer systems collapsed under the weight of new members trying to register. The party’s membership more than quadrupled in a matter of weeks. Meetings that were once held in back rooms of bars now take place in conference halls.

“We have the green surge [in England], they got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland],” says Bennett.

Last week, the Green leader met with her Scottish and Welsh nationalist counterparts to discuss the possibility of joining forces in a future coalition government after the 2015 general election. The Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Plaid Cymru have all said they will oppose the austerity policies of the three largest UK parties.

“The SNP says – and all their actions indicate – that they are an anti-austerity party, they are roughly opposed to Trident [Britain’s nuclear deterrent], and they want to get rid of the Tories. We roughly agree on all of those things,” says Bennett of Scotland’s largest party.

But while the SNP is on course to make significant gains next May, the Greens face a major challenge if they are to build on their solitary member of parliament. Britain’s first-past-the-post system overwhelmingly favours the two largest parties, Labour and Conservative. 

Major party decline

That duopoly is crumbling, however. In 1951 Labour and the Conservatives combined won nearly 97 percent of the overall UK vote and all but nine MPs. In 2015, less than two-thirds of British voters are expected to vote either Labour or Conservative.

This shift away from the major parties and a wider sense of disillusionment with mainstream politics could help the Greens, says Bennett.

“In 2010, the basic feeling was ‘oh, we’ve had a financial crash but capitalism has financial crashes, things will go back to how they were at the start of 2007 and things will continue on much as they were before’. Whereas now, practically nobody thinks that where we are is economically, socially or environmentally sustainable.”

The Greens have identified 12 potentially winnable seats from York and Cornwall to Sheffield and Liverpool, says Bennett. The party’s best chances are in Brighton Pavilion, which they hold, Bristol West and Norwich South.

Professor Curtice, however, says while the Greens are on course to win a record share of the vote, they are unlikely to take enough seats to become kingmakers in a potential coalition government.

But Bennett says September’s Scottish referendum could provide a template for a new, more engaged form of politics that could radically change the electoral map of Britain.

“If we had a general election in May where we had a turnout of 85 percent of eligible voters turning up to vote – we had a whole environment of strangers at bus stops talking politics to each other as they were in Scotland -then there is a real potential to blow politics utterly wide open.

“We might wake up the next morning in an entirely different political world.” 

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

UK communists and the fall of the Berlin Wall

Once a hotbed of left-wing agitation, socialists in Cowdenbeath still mourn the beginning of the end of communism.

A November 1989 image shows people celebrating the opening of the border between East and West Germany [EPA]

Cowdenbeath, Scotland Twenty-five years ago the heavy thud of the Berlin Wall falling resonated around the world. The Cold War was over. There were parties and celebrations, laughter and tears of joy.

But among communist supporters in Western Europe, images of armed guards standing idly by as elated East Germans danced on the barricades were a source of consternation, not jubilation.

More than a thousand kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate, in the Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath, Mary Doherty sat sobbing in front of the evening news on November 9, 1989. For decades she ran the weekly Socialist Sunday School.

“Her world was shattered,” recalls veteran local communist Jackie Allan. “Everything was the Soviet Union, then it was gone.”

A few kilometres away in Ballingry, a small hamlet of post-war suburban pebbledash terrace houses at the foot of green hills, councillor Willie Clarke remembers being “stunned” when the Berlin Wall fell.

“It was something you didn’t see happening, and it happened so quickly. It took a long time to recover,” says Clarke.

[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.

– Willie Clarke, councillor

Standing in Cowdenbeath today, its quiet streets dotted with “to let” signs and bargain stores, it is hard to imagine that this was once a hotbed of communist agitation. In the 1920s, the red sandstone town hall – still the most impressive building on High Street – flew the Red Flag on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. At the time, the government in London feared that any left-wing insurrection in Britain would start in Cowdenbeath.

As late as 1973, communists won 12 council seats in Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath. Clarke was among the councillors elected that day. Remarkably, Clarke, now in his late 70s and having lost his left ear to cancer, is still a local councillor for Ballingry.

Clarke is technically an independent, but he campaigns on an avowedly communistic platform. “All the literature that goes out is communist,” says the craggy-faced septuagenarian. “Nobody can say I’m trying to gild the lily. I’m still a communist.”

In the last local elections in 2012, Clarke was returned on the first round of voting.

Communist curiosity

Communists were not always a curiosity in UK politics. In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party of Great Britain took 14.6 percent of the vote and two seats, including Willie Gallacher, whose constituency included what is now Ballingry. In local elections the following year, the number of communist councillors increased from 81 to 215.

This was proven to be an electoral high-water mark for the party. Members left in droves after the Soviet invasion first of Hungary in 1956, and then of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, the communists remained a presence in outposts of industrial Britain, in South Wales, East London, and in the coalfields of Scotland.

In Cowdenbeath, communism was inextricably linked with the local coal mining industry. In the early years of the 19th century, rich deposits of coal were inadvertently discovered when iron ore shafts were sunk. Almost overnight Cowdenbeath, a tranquil cluster of farmers’ cottages, was transformed into a noisy, dirty, ramshackle settlement. By the turn of the 20th century, the town’s population had swelled to 14,000. Three-quarters of the menfolk were employed by the Fife Coal Company, Britain’s largest mining enterprise.

Willie Clarke was born in Glencraig, a “very militant” village with a reputation for communism. Active communists included Laurence Daly, a prominent miners’ leader who would leave the Communist Party in 1956 in protest at Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Aged 14, he began working in the mine, and not long afterwards he joined the Communist Party.

“[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were,” says Clarke.

‘Opium of the people’

Communists were renowned for their iron discipline. Local MP Willie Gallacher, the last communist in the House of Commons, was a lifelong teetotaller.

Willie Sharp, the first communist provost in Britain when he was elected in Cowdenbeath in 1973, did not smoke or drink. Communists decried religion “as the opium of the people”, but party and church often operated along similar lines. Both organised community events and Sunday schools – one teaching the bible, the other political economy and the works of Karl Marx.

The legacy of Cowdenbeath’s communist past can still be seen today. In the adjacent suburb of Lumphinnans, people live on streets named “Gallacher Place” and “Gagarin Way”. Locals call this “Little Moscow”.

Former communist activist Jack Allan recalls asking his father why the family always voted communist. “His answer was simple: ‘They’re the people who help ye the most.’ I still believe that.”

The demise of communism in Cowdenbeath and the surrounding pit villages was a product of rapid economic and political change. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and gas in the North Sea hastened the demise of smaller, less productive mines across Britain. By the 1970s, most of the mining jobs in Cowdenbeath were gone. Nowadays, the region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Scotland.

Demise of communism

The fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death knell for British communism. By the time the party voted to disband itself in 1991, there had already been numerous splits and its vote had collapsed.

People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done.

– Michael Payne, Cowdenbeath resident

For communists in Cowdenbeath, the fall of the wall was “like telling a Christian there was no God”, as former communist councillor Alex Maxwell put it.

With the barrier between East and West gone, the brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union could no longer be dismissed as anti-communist propaganda.

“What you believed was happening in the Soviet Union wasn’t happening at all. It was something different,” says Clarke.

Four decades on, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. The mines are closed and Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order, but because he works tirelessly to get council houses renovated and community centres opened.

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the local community centre in Ballingry.

Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for this state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2012 to replace a series of diffuse, dilapidated facilities dotted across the adjacent pit villages.

Clarke has one last political wish: Scottish independence. He was very active in the “yes” campaign in the recent referendum. Although the vote was lost, he says Scotland will become independent someday.

“If it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it, but it’ll happen,” Clarke says.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Spain’s Catalans set to vote on independence

Catalans expected to turn out in droves on Sunday for what is now a ‘symbolic’ independence referendum.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in what is seen as an attempt to curb Catalan power [Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain Sleep has been hard to come by in Barcelona this week – but not on account of the city’s fabled nightlife.

Instead, the narrow streets and old squares of Barcelona have reverberated to a crepuscular cacophony of banging pots and pans. These noisy protests – called cacerolazo, literally “casserole” – started recently after Spain’s constitutional court suspended a proposed non-binding poll on Catalan independence.

A vote, however, will go ahead as planned on Sunday, Catalan President Artur Mas has said. In Barcelona, cacerolazo protesters have vowed to keep beating their kitchenware until it does.

“All peoples have the right to decide their future,” Mas told reporters on Wednesday. The vote was initially intended as a legally binding referendum on independence from Spain, but was downgraded to a symbolic “consultation” after an intervention from the country’s constitutional court.

Now, it has been watered down further. Sunday’s poll will be “a participatory process” with no formal standing, run entirely by volunteers instead of the Catalan government.

Future of Catalonia

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called any attempt to hold a vote on leaving Spain “anti-democratic”, saying Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards.

Madrid and Barcelona have been at loggerheads since July 2010, when a new statute on Catalan autonomy was struck down by Spain’s constitutional court.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in the wake of what was widely seen as an attempt to curb the power of Catalan’s regional parliament. Just under half of Catalans are in favour of leaving Spain, according to opinion polls last month. More than one-fifth of respondents said they were recent converts to the nationalist cause.

Rocio Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, a socialist parliamentarian at the Catalan assembly, is opposed to independence but says a referendum is needed to settle the future of Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that stretches for 400km from the French border to neighbouring Valencia.

The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned.

– Rafael Lopez, Catalan Popular Party MP

Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, who favours a federal arrangement for Catalonia, blames the Spanish prime minister for unwittingly building Catalan support for leaving Spain.

“Rajoy has never approached this in a political way, he is just saying ‘no, no, no’ to everything,” she told Al Jazeera. “If you say ‘no’ to everything, people will say the only solution is independence.”

But Rafael Lopez, a Catalan member of parliament from Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, said any referendum on independence would be illegal.

“The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned,” Lopez said.

Sunday’s poll will have “no legal validity nor democratic guarantee”, Lopez added.

Nevertheless, Catalan nationalists have been busy preparing for the vote. Television adverts and mailshots have carried election information. Pro-independence memes have ignited on social media.

Widespread frustration

An estimated 40,000 people have volunteered to staff polling centres across Catalonia. Expatriates in around 40 cities worldwide – including London, Paris, Mexico City, and Montreal – will be able to vote at offices of international Catalan delegations.

The ballot will have the same two-part question that was planned for the suspended referendum. The first is whether voters want Catalonia to be a state. The second is whether they want it to be an independent state. As in the recent independence referendum in Scotland, 16 and 17-year olds will be able to participate, too.

The clamour for Catalan independence has grown amid Spain’s financial crisis and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980. Recent attempts by Madrid to interfere with Catalan education have further stoked passions.

Catalonia is the country’s most prosperous and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of Spain’s taxes – far more than its share of Spain’s population.

Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – runs at between 7 and 10 percent of the region’s GDP. Such disparities have deepened resentment.

‘V’ for vote

On September 11 this year, Catalonia’s national holiday, hundreds of thousands of independence supporters converged on Barcelona, forming a huge “V” – for vote – in Catalan red and yellow. Now nationalists are hoping a large demonstration of strength on Sunday will show both Madrid and the world that their demands are not going away.

“The goal is to keep the pressure on Madrid and to demonstrate to the world that the process is alive and it’s not just an invention of Artur Mas,” said Marc Vidal, foreign editor of pro-independence Catalan newspaper ARA.

I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote.

– Liz Castro, supporter of Catalan independence

The vast majority are expected to vote “yes”, but turnout will be crucial. Two million votes, about 30 percent of the electorate, would be a “big result” for the nationalists, said Vidal.

Liz Castro, a supporter of Catalan independence in Barcelona, said the attitude of the Spanish government will only strengthen nationalists’ resolve to turnout on Sunday.

“I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote,” Castro said.

Supporters of the union with Spain argued independence would be disastrous for Catalonia – and for Europe.

“If regions like Catalonia, the Flemish region, Lombardy, Veneto, some German states or Corsica decide to secede, Europe would be cut into pieces, and that would go against its philosophy,” said Josep Ramon Bosch, president of pro-union association Societat Civil Catalana.

While there is little doubt about the outcome of Sunday’s consultation, a long-term solution to the Catalan question is much less clear cut. Spain’s national politics has been turned on its head following a poll this week that put Podemos, a youthful leftist-only party formed in January, ahead of both Rajoy’s Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party nationally.

Some Catalan commentators expect Artur Mas to call early elections to the Catalan parliament, in an effort to secure a resounding majority in favour of independence and increase pressure on Madrid. But Mas himself has been weakened by a tax-evasion scandal involving the founder of his ruling Convergence and Union party. A recent poll showed the more fervently pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia well ahead among Catalan voters.

For Catalan nationalists, however, the big question is how Madrid will react to the latest salvo in the campaign for a referendum on independence.

“There is a general feeling that the Spanish government doesn’t know what is going on here,” said independence activist Castro. “I don’t think they really realise what people are ready to do here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Rape allegations and IRA paramilitary justice

Group’s culture of summary justice is back in Northern Ireland’s spotlight after new sexual assault accusations.

Mairia Cahill claims republicans tried to cover up her rape allegations against an IRA figure [Getty Images]

Maintaining law and order in Belfast during the violent days of the Troubles – the 30-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland – was no easy task.

Anti-police graffiti was a common sight on walls across the city. Many hardline Irish republican neighbourhoods were no-go areas, where police officers would seldom tread, and even more rarely be called in by locals to investigate crimes.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland. Their justice was often rough and ready. Suspects were tried in secret without legal protection. Sentences could range from a curfew to a bullet in the head.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are over. Former rivals Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the staunchly pro-British Democratic Unionist Party now share power in Belfast.

But more than a decade and a half since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the issue of paramilitary justice is back on the Northern Irish political agenda.

Earlier this month, Mairia Cahill, a 33-year-old former junior Sinn Fein official and relative of former IRA chief of staff Joe Cahill, went public with claims that a prominent republican in west Belfast had raped and sexually abused her when she was 16. Shortly afterwards the IRA, Cahill said, conducted its own inquiry into her accusations, acquitting her alleged attacker, and warning her not to go to the police.

The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods.

– Anthony McIntyre, former IRA prisoner

Knee-capping suspects

Such IRA-led extra-judicial investigations were part of life in Belfast during the Troubles, says Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner in the 1980s.

“The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods,” says McIntyre, author of Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism.

“Hoods” in Belfast parlance means anybody engaging in anti-social behaviour, from minor thieves and joyriders to drug dealers and, in some cases, perpetrators of sexual crimes. In republican areas, the IRA’s “Civil Administration Team” was charged with dealing with suspected offenders, and handing out sentences that had been approved in advance by the organisation’s Army Council. Punishment included expulsion from the area, to having kneecaps shot, and also summary execution.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams joined the IRA Army Council in 1977. Last year, Adam’s younger brother, Liam, was jailed for 16 years for raping his own daughter.

McIntyre says sexual abusers were often moved out of republican areas to safeguard the reputation of the movement. “The IRA could have publicly tarred and feathered sexual abusers, but they didn’t. They spirited them away not because they liked them, but because they wanted to protect the organisation.”

“Community policing” was not a role the IRA welcomed because it diverted time and resources, says McIntyre, but the organisation felt “that if they didn’t respond [to criminal behaviour], they would risk losing support”.

The Cahill case is not the first time that attention has focused on the IRA’s role as community enforcers since the peace process began in 1994. In the mid-1990s, an IRA front organisation, Direct Action Against Drugs, was responsible for a spate of killings of major players in the Irish drug scene.

In 2005, the murder of Robert McCartney following an argument in a Belfast bar provoked outrage. The killing of west Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972, and subsequent IRA cover-up, remains a live issue. Community leaders frequently decry the so-called “punishment beatings” that are still prevalent in some republican areas.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland [EPA]

‘Republican royalty’

But the detailed allegations made by Mairia Cahill are of a different order to previous criticism, says Paddy Hoey, a lecturer in media at Edge Hill University in London.

“This is republican royalty going against one of the top men in republicanism. It is an expression of the thought policing that goes on in west Belfast. Someone who could have gone to the police but didn’t because she was worried about the damage it would have done,” says Hoey.

By the late 1990s, when Cahill’s alleged abuse occurred, west Belfast had effectively been a “state-within-a-state” controlled by Sinn Fein and the IRA for almost two decades. The area even had its own radio stations and newspapers that were used to maintain discipline and were turned against anyone who spoke out.

“The full force of the republican movement as a pseudo-state in west Belfast or Derry would come down against you,” says Hoey. “Part of the reason that victims of these kind of crimes didn’t come forward was because of the power that was centralised in an elite [in the republican movement].”

Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.

– Mick Fealty, journalist

McIntyre says he remembers when his home in west Belfast was picketed in 2000. “My wife was six months pregnant and we had the IRA outside the door. It was all because I had said that the IRA had killed Joseph O’Connor [an anti-peace process republican shot dead in 2000].”

This kind of “direct policing” is less widespread in Northern Ireland now. The IRA has disappeared off the streets of Belfast. Since 2007, Sinn Fein has officially supported the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein is fabled for its loyalty and discipline. But these characteristics, so essential in a war setting, have proved damaging in peacetime.

“The main threat to republicanism in the age of the peace process hasn’t come from the government. It’s come from within the republican movement, from control and abuse and cover-up,” says Hoey.

Culture of summary justice

The vicious beatings and intimidation that characterised “community policing” have returned to some areas where anti-peace process republicans have a significant presence. About half of paramilitary-style punishment shootings in Northern Ireland in 2013-14 were carried out in west Belfast, according to police statistics.

In Derry, dissident group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) has carried out dozens of punishment attacks in recent years. The group claimed responsibility for the murder of Derry man Andrew Allen across the border in Donegal, in the Irish Republic, in 2012. RAAD has even carried out non-lethal punishment shootings by appointment, with parents instructed to drop children off and wait while they are shot.

Mairia Cahill’s testimony has shone a spotlight on the culture of summary justice in republican areas. Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams has acknowledged that the IRA passed judgement on sexual offences, but has denied Cahill’s allegations.

It remains to be seen whether memories of the brutal Troubles-era violence stirred by the latest charges will have lasting repercussions for Sinn Fein, says journalist and commentator Mick Fealty.

“[The story] is going to go away at some point. People I speak to close to Sinn Fein are saying that it’s like the McCartney sisters. Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Scotland’s new SNP leader takes the reins

Since she was 16-years-old, Scottish Nationalist Party’s Sturgeon has strove for independence from the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon poses with supporters of the ‘yes’ campaign in Perth, Scotland in September [EPA]

Glasgow, Scotland – When the Scottish National Party meets for its annual conference next month, members will have plenty to celebrate. Defeat in September’s referendum on independence from the UK was narrower than many commentators had expected, and 60,000 have joined the nationalists since then.

But the highlight of the conference weekend will be the coronation of the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

Political leadership contests are normally grueling affairs. Backstabbing and double-crossing are common as candidates vie for power. Not so in Scotland last week.

Sturgeon, a slight-framed 44-year-old Glasgow lawyer with a penchant for Scandinavian television dramas, was confirmed last Wednesday as Alex Salmond‘s successor without a contest. She will formally take over the reins of the Scottish National Party (SNP) next month, in the process becoming the first female leader of Scotland’s devolved parliament in Edinburgh.

For Sturgeon, the mantle of first minister is the culmination of a life dedicated to Scottish nationalist politics. Born in 1970 outside Irvine, a new town on the coast south of Glasgow, Sturgeon became a member of the SNP at the age of just 16.

She decided when she was 16 that Labour didn’t offer a strong enough challenge to Thatcher, and it was only with independence that Scotland could be rescued from Thatcherism.

– James Maxwell, Scottish commentator

Countering ‘Thatcherism’

It was another mould-breaking female politician that inspired Sturgeon to join the Scottish nationalists. Margaret Thatcher – the then UK Conservative prime minister – was a hated figure in industrial Scotland, held responsible for massive job losses.

“Lots of people around me were looking at a life or an immediate future of unemployment, and I think that certainly gave me a strong sense of social justice and, at that stage, a strong feeling that it was wrong for Scotland to be governed by a Tory government that we hadn’t elected,” Sturgeon later said of her formative years in Irvine.

Scottish commentator James Maxwell said at a young age Sturgeon felt compelled into politics in order to counter Thatcher.

“She decided when she was 16 that Labour didn’t offer a strong enough challenge to Thatcher, and it was only with independence that Scotland could be rescued from Thatcherism,” said Maxwell.

Sturgeon didn’t wait long to cut her political teeth. In the 1992, UK general election she stood as as the SNP’s candidate in the solidly Labour Glasgow Shettleston constituency. Although she failed to win the seat – and was defeated again in 1997 – the Glasgow University law graduate was elected to the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh in 1999. She was just 29. 

In parliament, Sturgeon won plaudits as the SNP’s spokeswoman on justice, and later on education and health. In 2004, aged 34, Sturgeon announced she would stand as a candidate for the party leadership following the resignation of John Swinney. She later withdrew from the contest, however, standing instead on as deputy leader on a joint ticket with the pugnacious Alex Salmond.

Both were subsequently elected, transforming the shape of Scottish nationalist politics.

Rise to power

In 2007, with Salmond at the helm and Sturgeon by his side, the SNP won its highest ever share of the vote in devolved elections, and enough seats to form a government for the first time. In 2011, the party went one better, scoring an unexpected landslide that gave the nationalists both full control of the Scottish parliament, and the long-cherished dream of a referendum on independence. 

Although the nationalists lost last month’s referendum on independence, a “yes” vote of almost 45 percent was a significant improvement on previous levels of support for leaving the United Kingdom. Sturgeon was widely seen as having enjoyed a successful campaign and when, the day after the defeat, Salmond announced his surprise resignation, all eyes turned to his capable deputy.

Sturgeon – who has called for maximum devolution to the Scottish parliament in the wake of last month’s defeat – is the “poster girl for civic nationalism”, said her unofficial biographer, journalist David Torrance. She believes in independence because it will make Scotland a fairer, more equitable place, he said.

The thing that brought her to [the SNP] was predominantly policy, not tartan and saltires,” said Torrance.

Sturgeon certainly takes her politics seriously. “I prepare very carefully for everything I do in politics: maybe it’s a bit of that working-class ethos, you’ve got to work hard,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

‘Authentic language’

Increasingly, the SNP has usurped Labour as the party of working class Scotland. Many expect this trend to continue under Sturgeon’s leadership. “She speaks an authentic language of social justice and old Labour, while accepting all the modern techniques of a centrist, post-ideological party,” said Torrance.

But there are signs of a leftward shift in SNP policy. Last week, the party’s finance secretary, John Swinney, announced a radical overhaul of property taxes that will predominantly hit the most well off in Scottish society. The party has also reiterated its support for the recognition of Palestine.

One of Sturgeon’s early decisions will be how to engage the 60,000 new members that have joined the SNP since last month’s referendum. Scotland’s first minister elect has already announced plans to embark on a series of rallies across the country next month.

“I am looking forward to meeting as many of our new recruits as possible and sharing with them my vision for the future,” Sturgeon said.
“The SNP cannot advance the argument that a vote for them is a vote for independence, that would be a significant step backwards,” he said. “It would be electoral suicide to go back to the old position that if the SNP got a majority of seats in Westminster, or at Holyrood, it could declare independence.”But the new followers could cause a headache for the nationalists, with many demanding another referendum on independence sooner rather than later. Sturgeon has refused to rule out another referendum, but must be wary of pandering to a vociferous minority, said Maxwell.

Position of strength

Sturgeon inherits the party leadership in a position of real strength. SNP is widely predicted to win a historic third consecutive Holyrood election in 2016, and the party is on course to do well in next year’s Westminster vote. Sturgeon herself is the most trusted politician in Scotland.

Away from the spotlight, the new SNP leader seems wedded to politics. Her mother, Joan, is a serving SNP councillor in North Ayrshire. Her partner for the past decade is the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell.

Now having reached the summit of Scottish politics, Sturgeon is unlikely to climb down anytime soon.

“This is someone with massive ambition. She won’t want to only serve one full term as first minister,” said Maxwell. “She will want to ensure that she is in power for a long time. She will be thinking long term.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.