Aberdeen’s oil curse

ABERDEEN, Scotland — The Aberdeen Food Bank Partnership is housed in a former fish-filleting warehouse a stone’s throw from the docks, its shelves lined with boxes of tea and porridge oats, packets of pasta and fresh fruit. In a city once known as “Europe’s oil capital,” former oil workers are now queuing for food parcels.

“One man came in with a Porsche recently. He had lost his job, his house,” says Dave Simmers, chief executive of Community Food Initiatives North East, the food bank’s parent body.

“Oil companies used to be our biggest social enterprise customers and the profit from that supported our charity work. That’s completely changed,” Simmers adds.

Aberdeen, a city of around 200,000 in north-east Scotland, has long been dividedbetween the haves and have nots. Extravagant mansions are often within walking distance of high-rise housing projects. But a sharp downturn in the multi-billion-euro North Sea oil industry has sent the local economy into a tailspin.

“I think there is a lot more pain to come” — Jake Molloy, a regional union organizer and former offshore worker

Plunging oil prices — the cost of a barrel is barely a third of its June 2014 high of $114 — have changed the face of the “Granite City.” Streets in the city center, hewn from hard, gray rock, are pockmarked with empty retail units and “To Let” signs. Amid widespread job losses, many are struggling to make ends meet.

AT SEA - FEBRUARY 24: A general view of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea on February 24, 2014, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The British cabinet will meet in Scotland for only the third time in history to announce plans for the country's oil industry, which it warns will decline if Scots vote for independence. The fate of North Sea oil revenues will be a key issue ahead of the September 18 referendum to decide whether Scotland will end its 300-year-old union with England, and is expected to be the focus of Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet meeting.  (Photo by Andy Buchanan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
AT SEA – FEBRUARY 24: A general view of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea on February 24, 2014, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The British cabinet will meet in Scotland for only the third time in history to announce plans for the country’s oil industry, which it warns will decline if Scots vote for independence. The fate of North Sea oil revenues will be a key issue ahead of the September 18 referendum to decide whether Scotland will end its 300-year-old union with England, and is expected to be the focus of Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet meeting. (Photo by Andy Buchanan – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

“If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be able to survive,” says Hazel Burgess as she carefully lays a loaf of white bread on top of her wheelie bag on her weekly visit to the food bank. The mother-of-two has been receiving food parcels for three months, since money became tight when her son, who suffers from autism, had his benefits reduced.

Simmers estimates the food bank will have given out 500 tons of food by December, up from 280 tons last year.

* * *

Since late 2014, nearly 100,000 people have lost their jobs in the oil industry and its supply chain. Another 360,000 have taken pay cuts of, on average, 15 to 20 percent. Workers are giving away cars they can no longer afford to run. Changes to shift patterns mean workers often spend less time on land, which exerts a heavy toll on their families.

Jake Molloy, a regional organizer for the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, and a former offshore worker, blames the government for “failing” an industry that has contributed some £300 billion to the British exchequer since oil was discovered in the area in the 1970s.

When it comes to oil, successive U.K. administrations have followed a simple policy: Tax heavily in the good times, loosen purse strings in the bad. Now with exploration at lows not seen since the 1960s, Westminster “doesn’t seem to have a strategy” for reinvigorating the industry, says Molloy.

“I think there is a lot more pain to come.”

* * *

For years, particularly as oil hovered around $100 a barrel after the 2008 financial crisis, prices in Aberdeen only went in one direction: up. Now gravity has re-exerted itself. House prices, which rose by 17 percent in 2013, have fallen sharply in the last year, according to a report from the Aberdeen Solicitors’ Property Centre.

Aberdeen’s population has declined by about 15 percent since the oil market crash, and a majority of students and young professionals are considering leaving the city in the next few years, according to a recent PwC report. The market crash has largely been attributed to a price war waged by Saudi Arabia against the U.S. shale industry.

Hotel rooms were once so hard to come by that offshore workers were put up in Edinburgh, more than 100 miles away. Now, vacancies are the new normal.

“What we are experiencing now is here to stay,” says Stewart Spence, owner of the five-star Marcliffe Hotel. “When we had $100 oil, we had 100 percent occupancy. Now we have $40-$50 dollar [oil], we have 40-50 percent occupancy. That’s what we have to live with for the future.”

The Scottish share of tax receipts from the North Sea shrank from £9.6 billion in 2011-2012 to £1.8 billion in 2014-2015.

Most North Sea staff are employed not by Big Oil, but by smaller, local contractors. The downturn has taken a heavy toll on these local businesses across the board. Even the city’s few success stories are illustrative of a deeper malaise.

Michelle Clark spent a decade working in recruitment and training for an Aberdeen-based firm before being made redundant in 2014. Fifteen months later she lost her job again. After unsuccessfully interviewing for 60 posts she decided to try something different — and opened her own business.

“I always wanted to do this,” Clark says from behind the counter of Melt, a small take-out restaurant in Aberdeen’s leafy west end. The premises, formerly a check cashing outlet, has a self-consciously 1970s feel: laminated floors, retro floral wallpaper, vintage tea sets. A chalk board advertises special Nutella and cheese toasties.

Since opening in March, business has been brisk. “It’s an affordable luxury at a time when everyone is struggling,” explains Clark. Her husband recently lost his job at a specialist musical instrument store.

“I probably speak about oil and gas more in here than I did when I worked in oil and gas,” she says. “It seems to affect everyone who comes in and they want to speak about it.”

Across town, native New Yorker Stephen Dillon closed his steakhouse, Prime Cuts, after a decade in business. Midweek sales had fallen by almost 70 percent. “The corporate business just disappeared.”

Dillon and his French wife, Pascaline, opened a new BBQ restaurant but have little hope for the future.

“Even if the oil industry does come back to a reasonable level, for us it won’t be enough,” he says. The stress has taken its toll on the salt-and-pepper haired American: He has recently suffered from depression. “You try to be optimistic but it’s tough.”

* * *

Beyond its boom effect on the local economy, oil has also been inextricably linked to Scottish independence in the national imagination. In the 1970s, the Scottish National Party (SNP) ran on the acerbic slogan: “It’s Scotland’s Oil.” In those days, Texans in Stetsons sauntered down Aberdeen streets and the nationalists were a minor concern.

Now, the SNP is the dominant power in Scottish politics, and oil remains a key part of their platform. The 2014 prospectus for leaving the three-centuries-old union with England proposed setting up an oil fund in the Norwegian mold.

Mark McDonald, an SNP member of the Scottish parliament for Aberdeen, says an independent Scotland would be best placed to guide the North Sea through turbulent waters: “We have left other people to deal with our economic situation for quite some time and there are plenty of people who haven’t got a good deal out of that.”

The oil industry’s recent travails, however, have not helped the independence cause. The Scottish share of tax receipts from the North Sea shrank from £9.6 billion in 2011-2012 to £1.8 billion in 2014-2015, and is likely to fall to zero in the coming months — undermining the argument that the Scottish economy can stand on its own.

“The EU referendum added to the uncertainty that we already had with the oil industry” — Lynn Bennie, reader in politics at Aberdeen University

In spite of the downturn, Aberdeen’s skyline is littered with cranes. Construction for new shopping centers and hotels planned in the boom years is still going ahead. A recently signed “City Deal” is expected to fund a new harbor development. At Marischal Square, workmen lower girders into place on a £50 million development built under a controversial, complex private finance deal that could leave the local council with a significant black hole in its budget. The development was dogged by protesters, many of whom argued that the city could not afford — and did not need — another glass-and-steel retail complex.

Across the street, in Aberdeen’s council offices, local representative Barney Crockett says the city has been forced to be “creative” to support new projects. “We are the lowest funded local authority and the lowest funded health board in Scotland,” the Labour councilor says.

Crockett, who is “old enough to remember Aberdeen before oil,” says the city will bounce back. But he admits to being “worried” about the recent Brexit vote.

Aberdeen has often relied heavily on links with Europe, and particularly nearby Norway.

“We often feel we don’t get a fair look from Scottish or British governments so Europe has been really important,” Crockett says, pointing to the city’s hydrogen-powered bus fleet, partly funded by the EU.

A section of the BP ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) oil platform in the North Sea, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland | AFP photo / Pool / Andy Buchanan

Brexit could heap more woes on the already-stressed oil and gas industry. The North Sea’s mainly mature fields have far higher production costs than places such as Saudi Arabia or Equatorial Guinea. Last month, analysts at S&P Global Plattswarned that for the North Sea, fears over Britain’s EU exit “could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Most Aberdonians, however, seem more concerned with fluctuations in oil prices than the political machinations in Brussels or Edinburgh.

Influential Aberdeen oil magnate Ian Wood has been a vocal critic of calls for a second independence referendum — a vote Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called “highly likely” in the wake of Brexit.

Aberdeen also voted ‘No’ to independence in 2014 and there is little sign of a shift in mood, even though the SNP holds all the Westminster seats in the region. Recent opinion polling suggests that despite voting overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, most Scots still favor being part of the U.K.

“The EU referendum added to the uncertainty that we already had with the oil industry,” says Lynn Bennie, reader in politics at Aberdeen University. “Most people just want that uncertainty to end.”

***

Back at the Aberdeen Food Bank Partnership, volunteer Ingrid Pringle is concerned about the city’s future. The retired social worker recalls moving to Aberdeen from south-east England in 1981.

Four decades ago, oil transformed Aberdeen from a rough fishing town into a key player on the global market. But the city has little to show today for the billions that passed through it, says Pringle.

“Back then it was a city on the up. It doesn’t feel like that now,” she says as she fills plastic bags with fruit and vegetables during her weekly six-hour shift.

“I assumed that the oil industries would invest in Aberdeen, but aside from sponsoring the odd roundabout they haven’t really done anything.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Scotland bangs the drum for Europe

GLASGOW — As hundreds of people gathered outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh last week, there were flags of every European Union state, in a sea of Scottish Saltires. “Scotland loves Europe,” declared one placard. “Don’t EU want me baby,” read another.

“We want to find a way to respect the democratic mandate for the people of Scotland to stay in the EU,” said Sarah Beattie-Smith, a Scottish Greens activist. “We want to explore every possible option for how to stay in the European Union. Of course, that includes independence.”

And as a piper played at the “Keep Scotland in Europe” rally, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was hundreds of miles away in Brussels, trying to make the case for Scotland to remain in the European Union.

There was sympathy for the Scottish National party (SNP) leader in Europe’s political capital after Scots voted by a large margin to stay in the EU — but little concrete support for her desire to see Scotland retain EU membership even as the U.K. heads for the exit door.

Both French and Spanish prime ministers made clear their opposition to Scotland retaining EU membership.

Ahead of their meeting Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that while Sturgeon had “won the right to be heard in Brussels,” he did not intend “to interfere in an inner British process.”

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he had “listened carefully and learned a lot” from his conference with the Scottish first minister. But European Council President Donald Tusk turned down Sturgeon’s request for a meeting.

The reception from EU heads of state was equally mixed. Irish premier Enda Kenny made an unexpected intervention at the European Council “on behalf” of the Scottish first minister.

Both French and Spanish prime ministers made clear their opposition to Scotland retaining EU membership.

The options available to the Scottish nationalist government are uncertain. The parliament in Edinburgh, contrary to reports, cannot veto Brexit.

“If the United Kingdom leaves … Scotland leaves,” said Spanish acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has separatist forces of his own to contend with in Catalonia.

In an interview published Saturday, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel toldGerman newspaper Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung that the EU would certainly accept Scotland as a member in its own right if it were to leave the U.K. and move to join the Union.

Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity — and the standing ovation SNP’s Alyn Smith won in the European Parliament when he begged his fellow MEPs to not “let Scotland down” — the course Sturgeon is pursuing is far from clear, and largely without precedent.

Sturgeon has formed a council of prominent experts to advise the Scottish government “on how best to achieve our EU objectives.” The group is far from a nationalist sock puppet. Members include former judge at the European Court of Justice Sir David Edward, economist John Kay, and Labour MEP David Martin.

But what options are actually available to the Scottish nationalist government are uncertain. The parliament in Edinburgh, contrary to reports, cannot veto Brexit. Westminster remains sovereign and can sign the exit triggering Article 50 on behalf of the U.K.

The main possibility discussed in Scottish circles would be for the U.K. to stay in the EU, but stipulate that European legislation apply only in Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain). The option was floated as a “reverse Greenland,” a nod to the large Arctic territory that chose to sit outside the European Union but still remains part of Denmark, an EU member.

But such a settlement could prove practically and politically impossible. Scotland represents barely an eighth of the U.K.’s population. It is hard to imagine Westminster politicians, fresh out of a divisive Brexit campaign, choosing to remain in the EU to placate Scottish nationalist demands.

Experts warn that a bespoke Scottish settlement is unlikely. “I don’t see how Scotland could get a significantly different deal from the rest of the U.K.,” said James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh University. “The big question for all of us will be around free movement. While Scotland wants free movement, elsewhere in the U.K. this is clearly not wanted.”

* * *

If Scotland is not able to secure a deal to remain in the EU, the issue of independence is destined to return. The terrain has changed since Scots voted by 10 points to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014.

The SNP campaigned to remain in the EU — and few doubt Sturgeon wants Scotland in Europe — but Brexit has damaged her opposition. The alliance between Scottish Labour and the Conservatives that emerged victorious last time out has frayed, probably beyond repair.

During an at times bad-tempered emergency debate in the Edinburgh parliament last week, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused the SNP of using the Brexit vote to push for independence. But her opposite number, Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, agreed with a nationalist motion to explore “all options” to keep Scotland in the EU and condemned the Conservatives for holding the referendum “to resolve an ego contest in the Tory party.”

Davidson was rightly lauded for reviving the seemingly moribund Scottish Toriesand leading the party to second place in the May elections. But she has appeared ill at ease since last week’s vote, unsure of whether or not to argue for a separate deal for Scotland that could help to secure its place in the United Kingdom.

Labour, long the dominant force in Scottish politics, is in turmoil. The party is cash-strapped and weary. Sources privately admit the party would take a much softer line on leaving the U.K. in any future vote. On Sunday, former Labour first minister Henry McLeish said Scottish independence was “something I could now vote for.”

Scottish nationalists, however, would not be guaranteed to win a second referendum, at least not at present.

Support for ending the three-centuries-old union with England has risen in opinion polls taken since the Brexit vote. But the energy unleashed by the referendum could trail off, especially if the U.K. negotiates a deal that looks more like Norway’s agreement than a full-blooded clamp down on free movement.

Economic issues that dogged the Yes campaign in 2014 have not been resolved (although JP Morgan has given its imprimatur to a new post-independence Scottish currency.) Much of the Scottish electorate is fatigued after four national votes in less than two years.

Despite her forceful role since the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon is by nature a cautious politician. The nationalist leader will only go to the polls when she feels confident of victory.

“If the SNP go for a second independence referendum then they have to win it,” said Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

While Brexit is being negotiated, Sturgeon will have to maneuver her way through a political storm that is beyond her control.

The European Union would weigh on voters in a different way in a new referendum on Scottish reference. In 2014, Scots were warned that if they left the U.K. their place in the EU could be under threat. That looks far less likely now.

“The EU historically always has been remarkably flexible,” said James Mitchell. During the last independence referendum, EU member countries were fearful of interfering in British internal politics.

“Now the thinking in places like Berlin, Brussels and Paris is the U.K. is no longer a member so what is the problem if Scotland wants to become independent,” says Mitchell.

Talk of another referendum could yet prove premature. What Brexit will look like in practice remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Sturgeon will have to maneuver her way through a political storm that is beyond her control.

“She is going to have to be very fleet of foot and nimble, and at the end of the day circumstances might work against her,” said Mitchell. “[But] what’s she is doing is building relationships that could be useful in the future.”

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.

Scottish island prepares for Syrian refugees

Rothesay used to be called ‘the Madeira of the North,’ back in the days when paddle steamers sailed up from the Glasgow coast bringing holidaymakers to the island of Bute. While the palm trees remain, Rothesay now looks like most faded British seaside towns. Paint crumbles on the façade of the Esplande hotel; many of the promenade shop fronts are empty as west coast Scotland rain lashes down.

Rothesay may not be the popular holiday destination it once was, but this town of around 6,000 people is preparing to welcome some new, and very unusual, arrivals – Syrian refugees, fleeing conflict at home to start a new life on a Scottish island 15 miles long and an hour’s ferry ride to the mainland.

While the House of Commons was voting on military action against the “Islamic State” (IS) group in Syria, 450 miles away on Bute locals were getting ready to welcome 15 Syrian families – the first substantial arrival in Scotland under new government plans.

four people pulling luggage along a street

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

A long, long way from home

Locals looking forward

“I’m excited. I’ve already started to learn a few words of Arabic,” Alison Clark, who works as a development officer at a local church, told DW. A former English teacher, Clark hopes to be able to offer English language support to the refugees once they have settled in.

The refugees – around 60 in total – are coming from camps in Lebanon, with a second batch due to arrive early in the New Year. All are being housed by the local council in and around Rothesay, which is the main settlement on Bute. The council estimates that there are around 40 empty properties on the island.

The decision to house the Syrian refugees on Bute is part of a wider Scottish Government commitment to take a third of the 1,000 Syrians that UK Prime Minister David Cameron says will be brought to the UK before the end of this year. The refugees are arriving on five-year humanitarian visas and will be free to travel. Each family has been vetted and given a medical assessment by the UK Home Office and the UNHCR.

With only three Arabic speakers on the whole island, setting up translation services has been a priority on Bute. Around 20 Syrian children will be attending the local school, Rothesay Joint Campus, which has a student body of around 600. A video showing a child’s view of living on Bute has been produced and will be shown to the refugees on the flight to Britain.

a child standing between adults

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

The start of an adventure?

Perfect opportunity

“The majority of the children who are coming over are younger, so it’s the perfect opportunity for them to pick up the language,” Julia Fisher, head teacher at Rothesay, told DW. “Parents have been really positive. They are going to organize a uniform collection to ensure they have all got uniforms for starting in January.”

Local council workers have spoken to a Scottish imam to find out about the religious requirements of the refugees, who are all Muslim. A source of halal meat has been identified and one of the local churches has offered its hall for new residents to worship.

Meanwhile, around 60 locals will run a “pop-up” community center to support the refugees. “We will be there during the day in the background as and when the families want us – but we will very much take our cue from them and what they want to do,” says one of the volunteers, John Duncan.

Bute has an elderly population, and like much of the rural west of Scotland has a major problem with depopulation. Many young people leave to be educated on the mainland. Few return and jobs on the island are scarce. Rothesay is among the poorest places in Scotland and there is even a food bank on the island, giving out supplies to those struggling to make ends meet.

The local council sees the refugees as part of an attempt to repopulate the area. “Rothesay is not full up, Argyll and Bute is not full up, Scotland is not full up,” says local SNP MSP Mike Russell.

Migration history

Bute itself has a history of migration – Poles came to settle there during World War II with Germans and Russians arriving soon after. Clelland Sneddon, executive director of community services for Argyll and Bute Council, said the families have been selected to try to make sure that there is not too much of a culture shock.

two women on a street

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

The islanders have been very positive about the new arrivals

Sneddon said that the refugees were not “city dwellers” from Damascus so hopefully won’t find it too difficult “suddenly pitching up in Bute in a rural idyll. We have got people who are from smaller towns or rural backgrounds and therefore we think the transition, the match, is a little better,” he said.

Not everyone is convinced that Bute will benefit from the new arrivals. Grace Strong, convener of the local community council, says there are “a couple of concerns” about the Syrian refugees, mainly around healthcare provision. Others complain that the local council has not provided enough information about the plans for the new arrivals.

But pupils in the local school are looking forward to sharing their classroom with young people from a completely different part of the world.

“It is such an interesting thing and it is great to be a part of it,” 17-year-old Jamie Murray told DW. “There is genuine excitement in the school. I didn’t understand the scale of the refugee crisis before – I was quite naïve in that sense. You just don’t realize how big it is.”

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Donald Trump Kicked off the Scottish Green

GLASGOW, Scotland — “My mother was born in the Hebrides, in Stornoway, so that’s serious Scotland,” Donald Trump told an interviewer in 2010.

The U.S. presidential candidate has long made much of his Scottish roots. He likes Scotland so much that he chose Aberdeenshire as the location for a controversial £1 billion golfing complex.

But the plutocrat’s relationship with his adopted home has been a rocky one. The Scots appear to be turning on him in the wake of this week’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

The Herald, one of Scotland’s largest newspapers, carried a front page advert Tuesday for another of Trump’s Scottish golfing interests, at Turnberry. By Wednesday, almost all of Scotland’s political establishment, and even its universities, had made clear their disapproval of Trump’s latest outburst.

US tycoon Donald Trump (C) is escorted by Scottish pipers as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012. Work on the course began in July 2010, four years after the plans were originally submitted.  AFP PHOTO / Andy Buchanan        (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/GettyImages)
US tycoon Donald Trump (C) is escorted by Scottish pipers as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012. Work on the course began in July 2010, four years after the plans were originally submitted. AFP PHOTO / Andy Buchanan (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/GettyImages)

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced she was withdrawing the U.S. mogul’s membership of GlobalScot, an international business network, with “immediate effect.”

Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen stripped Trump of an honorary degree awarded in 2010, describing his comments as “wholly incompatible” with its values.

The Scottish government’s International Development Minister Humza Yousaf, himself a Muslim, called Trump’s comments “hate speech” and warned that his proposed policy, if implemented, would transform the U.S. into an “apartheid state.”

By Wednesday, almost all of Scotland’s political establishment, and even its universities, had made clear their disapproval of Trump’s latest outburst.
Trump’s comments were “divisive, hateful and designed to cause division between communities,” Yousaf said.

Patrick Harvie, a Scottish Green MSP, lodged a motion at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, condemning Trump for comments which he said appear “increasingly fascist.”

“This bigoted blowhard of a man is being rightly condemned far and wide, and I’m confident that Scotland will reject his extremist rhetoric,” said Harvie, who had previously clashed with Trump over a proposed wind farm near the Aberdeenshire golf course.

In light of the Republican hopeful’s latest remarks, Harvie said he could not imagine any “self-respecting person wanting to spend money” in any of Trump’s business interests in Scotland.

Scottish ministers and Scottish National Party MPs urged Theresa May, the U.K. home secretary, to consider banning Trump from traveling to the U.K.

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP’s trade and investment spokeswoman at Westminster, said Trump should be barred for “hate preaching.”

“While we cannot control what he says on U.S. soil, we can demonstrate leadership in relation to this issue and say: Not in the United Kingdom do we want people making Islamophobic, racist, anti-Muslim remarks that are completely unfounded and unhelpful when we continue our fight against terrorism,” the Scottish MP, who is Muslim, said.

* * *
The Scottish government, and the Scottish National Party, have not always held Trump in such low esteem. Back in 2008, the Edinburgh administration stepped in when Aberdeenshire Council rejected Trump’s bid for planning permission for his £1 billion luxury golfing complex.

Construction of the sprawling development on the scenic Aberdeenshire coast went ahead in the face of vociferous local opposition.

In 2012, Michael Forbes, a farmer who refused to sell his land to Trump, won the Top Scot award at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards. Trump responded by calling the awards a “terrible embarrassment to Scotland.”

Forbes’ struggle with Trump became the centerpiece of an award-winning documentary by the name of “You’ve Been Trumped.”

Trump and then Scottish first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond were on good terms, with the pair photographed together on a number of occasions. But the relationship turned sour after a decision was made to build 11 wind turbines near the golf course.

Trump didn’t hold back, and accused Salmond of being “hell-bent on destroying Scotland’s coastline and therefore Scotland itself.”

The Apprentice star went on to take out adverts comparing the development of wind farms to the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 259 passengers on board Pan Am Flight 103 and 11 residents of the Scottish town in 1989.

In June, an Edinburgh court dismissed Trump’s request for a public inquiry into what he says was the Scottish government’s unfair approval for the wind power project.

Scottish judges concluded Trump’s lawyers had not come “anywhere near” substantiating his suspicions.

Here too, Trump claimed that the wind farm project — which is intended to test offshore wind technologies while producing electricity for commercial sale — threatened “the destruction of Aberdeen and Scotland itself.”

Trump’s investment in Aberdeenshire has so far been much less substantial than originally billed and he has repeatedly declined to say when he might start planned construction on a second golf course, hotel expansion and more than 2,000 holiday and residential homes.

Following the June judgement, Salmond, now MP for Gordon in Aberdeenshire, said he was “delighted by the decision of the highest court in Scotland to turn down Mr. Trump’s case.”

“The Trump organization has now been beaten twice in the Scottish courts and I hope that he will now accept the decision with good grace,” he said.

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.

In Scotland, ‘no’ means ‘yes’

GLASGOW — At 6:30 a.m. on September 19 last year, Natalie McGarry sat alone on the pavement outside the glass-fronted Emirates Arena in this city’s East End. Inside, the counting of votes in Scotland’s independence referendum had ended a couple of hours earlier — Yes had won Glasgow but lost overall, by just over 10 points. Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom.

“I was the last person left in a very sad and lonely Emirates,” recalls McGarry, who spent months campaigning with Yes Scotland in the run-up to last year’s ballot. “I was devastated.”

McGarry’s despondency did not last long, however.

A few days after the vote, the then-33-year-old policy advisor was due to speak in Brussels, at a meeting of stateless nations from around the world. As she prepared her speech, the big story in Scotland moved from the 55/45 referendum result to the tens of thousands joining the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

“I had prepared to talk about this heartbreaking loss but instead I was talking about this huge new engagement in politics,” says McGarry.

* * *

A year on from the independence referendum, Scotland and its politics has “changed, changed utterly” — as former SNP leader Alex Salmond, paraphrasing W.B. Yeats, remarked in his resignation speech last year.

On September 18, 2014, the SNP’s rolls numbered just more than 25,000. Today the nationalists have more than 110,000 members — and, in May, increased their representation at Westminster from just six seats to 56, winning all but three Scottish constituencies.

“The political landscape across Scotland has changed completely,” says McGarry, who is now the SNP MP for Glasgow East, overturning a Labour majority of more than 10,000 to win with a swing of more than 32 percent on a greatly increased turnout, a post-referendum trend repeated across Scotland.

In May’s general election, the SNP managed to attract the support of the vast majority of the 1.6 million Yes votes, including many in traditional working class areas disillusioned at the inability of Labour governments to solve the problems that plague much of post-industrial Scotland. Polls put the nationalists on course to win an unprecedented third consecutive term in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh next year.

“It is now self-evident to most Scots that decision-making should happen — on most issues — in Holyrood not in Westminster,” says Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter.

Although Scots voted No, the referendum hastened the unraveling of the Act of Union that joined Scotland and England in 1707, says Macwhirther.

“The independence referendum of 2014 was the most transformative political moment in Scotland in 300 years. It marked the beginning of the end of the Union of 1707, the consolidation of a distinct Scottish political culture, the end of Labour’s political dominance of Scotland.”

* * *

Alex Salmond previously declared last year’s vote a “once in a generation” opportunity. But, in the febrile arena of Scottish politics, a generation could prove as short as a few years.

Calls for another referendum are growing. Thousands of Scottish nationalists are due to rally in Glasgow this weekend.

Amid polls showing support for independence gaining strength, Scottish First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure to include a commitment to a second referendum on the party’s manifesto for next year’s devolved elections.

A loose pledge on another vote is likely, but having built its success on a “gradualist” strategy, the SNP is unlikely to rush a second referendum. Sturgeon has said that a “material change” in Scotland’s constitutional position would trigger a ballot — if the U.K. votes to leave the European Union and Scots chose to remain, for example, or even the election of another Conservative government in 2020 with no mandate north of the border.

While British Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that he would not countenance another referendum, last year’s vote “will be the focal point of Scottish politics for the future and will continue to be until the next referendum,” says David Torrance, the biographer of both Salmond and Sturgeon.

Nationalists are highly unlikely to risk a second referendum until polls show a consistent support of at least 60 percent for leaving the U.K., but independence “is now the inescapable prism of politics” in Scotland says Torrance.

“Once things are framed in those terms [independence or the union], it is very hard to shift the focus back onto “normal” politics. That is reflected in the fact that the Scottish government doesn’t have that fantastic a record in areas like health and education but is wildly popular.

* * *

In 1995, then Labour Shadow Secretary for Scotland George Robertson predicted that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.” Two years later, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh — but far from ending demands for independence, the clamor to leave the United Kingdom has grown stronger in the almost two decades since.

Westminster has struggled to accommodate growing demands for Scottish self-determination. The cross-party pro-U.K. campaign during the independence referendum — so negative that it was nicknamed “Project Fear” — began with a commanding 40-point lead and ended up relying on last minute promises of fresh powers for the Scottish Parliament to secure victory.

The Smith Commission, established in the wake of last September’s vote, recommended more devolution, but for many nationalists the new levers proposed do not go far enough. Meanwhile, Conservative plans to introduce specific voting rights for English MPs in Westminster have drawn the SNP’s ire.

Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University and a Conservative candidate in next year’s Scottish elections, says that “the union isn’t going away anytime soon” but unionists need to make more of the benefits of the three centuries-old relationship between Scotland and England.

“People need to know what the union does for them. The union feels very abstract; it feels very distant from the life of, say, a working class man in Glasgow.”

Tomkins’ solution is two-fold: to nurture common cultural bounds across the border through proposals such as twinning pupils in English and Scottish schools; and to build an “architecture of shared rule” that would give Scots greater representation in the institutions of Whitehall and the British state.

“The ingredients that held the union in the 20th century are not going to be the ones that held the union together in the 21st century,” says Tomkins. “But some kind of replacement glue is going to be needed.”

* * *

Despite the SNP surge, victory for nationalists in a second referendum is not a given. The economic and political uncertainties that contributed so much to the Yes side’s defeat — particularly over what currency an independent Scotland would use — are no closer to conclusive answers.

Political developments elsewhere in Britain might also change the dynamic in Scotland. The SNP’s social democratic rhetoric has played well at the ballot box, but with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Scottish nationalists could face a threat from the left.

“Corbyn is a huge black swan that has sailed into the middle of the constitutional debate. Suddenly, the SNP cannot claim to be the sole inheritor of social democratic politics in Scotland,” says Macwhirter.

“The nationalists have done very well by adopting all the policies — like free tuition fees, council housing, prescription charges — that Labour abandoned under Blair. But now Corbyn is coming along and reappropriating them, which is a fascinating development.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Dundee: from black sheep of Scottish cities to ‘living cultural experiment’

Chris Van Der Kuyl set up his first video game company in Dundee in the mid-1990s. “It was an industrial landscape,” he says of the city, which had been bled of heavy industry from the 1970s onwards. “Everything was closing, everyone was leaving.”

Van Der Kuyl’s 4J Studios would go on to help develop the global gaming sensation Minecraft; next year he will open a new digital headquarters on the city’s docks. “It’s not the V&A but it will cost a few million,” he laughs.

In its imperial heyday, Dundee was known as the city of “jute, jam and journalism”. Now, with the mills gone and the printing presses quieter, Scotland’s fourth city has a rather different claim to global fame: not just Minecraft but Grand Theft Auto and other classic video game titles were born or raised on the banks of the River Tay. What’s more, as Van Der Kuyl referred to, the only branch of the V&A museum outside London will open soon on the once-thriving docks.

Indeed, despite pockets of severe deprivation, Dundee’s story is that of a city increasingly defined by its culture and creativity. With a population of just 150,000, it was long seen as the black sheep of Scotland’s cities, languishing behind the architectural drama of Edinburgh and the wealth of Aberdeen, its post-industrial problems often overshadowed by those of much larger Glasgow. But this image is changing.

Some 3,000 people now work in Dundee’s creative economy, generating turnover of almost £200m. Last year, Dundee received the UK’s first Unesco City of Design award, fitting recognition for a city that gave the world everything from Aspirin and orange marmalade to ZX Spectrum. Publisher DC Thomsons are major employers here; an 8ft bronze statue of Dandy comic book hero Desperate Dan stands tall on the high street, his faithful mutt Dawg in tow.

The V&A at Dundee may be over budget – £80m and counting – and behind schedule, but it is expected to open in 2018. And actor Brian Cox is now backing a £120m project to bring a film studio to Dundee.

“What was a post-industrial city now has multiple indicators of inward investment,” says professor Paul Harris, dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. “There has been a massive transformation for the citizens of Dundee and their ambition.”

The Birmingham-born Harris “hated” Dundee when he arrived in 1991, to work in the local television industry. “The notion in ’91 of three cycle cafes and the V&A? You wouldn’t have believed it,” he says over coffee in an upmarket hotel by the docks. Nearby stand a phalanx of apartments with views over the Tay.

A couple of hundred metres away, along the river, a placard attached to plywood hoarding proclaims: “Your Waterfront Your Future”. Articulated lorries ferry earth from what will be the site of the V&A, located just next to where the RSS Discovery, the Dundee-built research ship used by Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901, is moored on the Tay. There are plans for a hotel, retail units and apartments, all part of an ambitious regeneration project to connect Dundee city centre to the water.

The decision to open the V&A at Dundee stemmed in large part from long established links between Duncan Jordanstone of College of Art and Design and the pater familias in Kensington. Similar links have been forged between Dundee’s universities and creative industries is many areas, notably gaming. In 1997, Abertay University created the world’s first degree in computer games technology. Today, Dundee is the heart of Scotland’s thriving gaming industry: Rockstar North, creators of Grand Theft Auto, may have since moved to Edinburgh, but there some 40 gaming firms based in Dundee.

Not all have multimillion-pound offices or household name titles. In an alcove in the roof of the Victorian-era City Chambers, a team of designers from a start-up called Spacebudgie is building an educational platform game. “We decided to form our own company rather than just getting jobs with other companies,” says designer Ronan Quigley, whose team are all recent Abertay graduates.

Spacebudgie share their enviable workspace – stained-glass windows, bare rafters, stickers that say “Fundee” dotted on walls – with a handful a small companies. They are part of the Fleet Collective, a community of artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs who work separately or collaborate on different projects. Desks are just £100 a month.

“In Dundee you have to make your own fun. You’re forced to do it yourself,” says Ed Broughton, a 37-year-old Londoner who runs the film outfit Bonnie Brae Productions at Fleet Collective. “It never really crossed my mind to set up a company before I came to Dundee.”

Dundee has made a virtue of its size. The local council convenes a quarterly Cultural Agencies Network, which meets to discuss strategy and concerns. A short walk from Fleet Collective is the impressive curved glass and steel building of Dundee Contemporary Arts. When the DCA was opened in 1999, on the site of an old garage that was being used as an impromptu skate park, the city had no real national cultural presence. Now the DCA boasts a print studio, cinema, gallery space, and one of the best cafes in town.

DCA director Clive Gillman says he looks ahead to the coming of the V&A but, like many in Dundee, mixes optimism with concerns about what he calls “irritable Bilbao syndrome”.

“We have to make the V&A work for the city. And we have to make the V&A work for us in the city,” says Gillman, who will soon take over as director of creative industries at Creative Scotland. “How do you make a massive institution like the V&A work within the context of the local strategy? That’s the really exciting thing. But that’s not easy either.”

The DCA has been widely praised for helping to transform the city’s cultural life. “Dundee Saved My Life” says a T-shirt on sale in the gift shop. “Across Europe there are hundreds, thousands, of small, post-industrial cities trying to understand what their future is. What Dundee has done is shape its future – partly by accident, partly by design, building on what was already here. This is a living experiment of what culture-led regeneration could look like,” says Gillman.

Every year, DCA buses in thousands of kids to attend screenings at the two-week Children’s Film festival. Local communities have long been at the heart of Dundee’s cultural strategy, but Gillman admits that reaching out remains “a fundamental challenge”.

The V&A will have to work hard to connect with the people of Dundee, too, not just the well-heeled visitors who will inevitably flock to it. Despite millions in outside investments, Dundee remains one of the most deprived places in Scotland. One in four children live in poverty. For many children growing up in places such as Lochee or Kirkton, lucrative careers as game designers or visual artists remain a distant dream.

There are significant economic barriers preventing poorer citizens from accessing Dundee’s cultural offerings, says Philip Howard, chief executive of Dundee Rep, the only repertory theatre left in the UK. Howard has worked hard to make Dundee Rep a more national, and indeed international, company. “But you have to offset that with wider, deeper and – crucially – more targeted work in the city.”

That includes taking plays out into Dundee’s small, closely knit communities. Each year, the Rep tours small venues across the city. The material started off relatively light with a collection of Alan Bennett monologues, but has progressed to plays about teenage pregnancy and social problems.

Anna Day, director of Literary Dundee, is all too aware of the “danger of polarisation” that can happen if a wealthy creative sector becomes disconnected from the city it inhabits. “It is about reaching these children at a young age and showing them how design and culture can change their lives,” says Day.

One attempt to do this is Comic School, a joint initiative between DC Thomson and the city’s universities. Due to open this year, it will host resident comic book artists who, in return for reduced rent in the building, will mentor young people. “We need to show people how (culture) can change their lives,” says Day.

Day grew up in Dundee, then left for London and a job on Fleet Street. She swore she would never return, but “then I came and saw how much was happening.” That was nine years ago. A shiny new museum, or a fleet of hipster office spaces, will not solve many of Dundee’s post-industrial problems, but Day believes something profound has changed. “The city is optimistic. How people feel about themselves has changed.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Shame in the Shetlands

Shetlanders are fond of saying that their nearest train station is the Norwegian city of Bergen, such is the islands’ distance from the British mainland. Perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the wild, oil-rich North Sea, the U.K.’s most northerly archipelago has a very distinctive history and identity.

But windswept Shetland — population circa 25,000 — has not escaped the political gale that blew across Scotland and the rest of Britain in the wake of last year’s defeated independence referendum.

In May’s general election, Shetland and Orkney was one of only three Scottish constituencies not to return a Scottish National Party MP. Incumbent Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael held on, by less than a thousand votes, as the SNP took 56 seats across Scotland.

The former Scottish secretary’s political future — and the future of his party in their last Scottish redoubt — now hangs in the balance.

Carmichael is under investigation by Westminster’s parliamentary standards commissioner after he admitted to approving the leak of a Whitehall memo suggesting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told a French diplomat she would like to see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister ahead of the general election. He had previously denied any involvement.

Recently passed legislation that allows the recall of MPs is not yet in force, but, if the commissioner finds against him, Carmichael’s position could become politically untenable. At the same time, a separate public petition crowd-funded over £55,000 to launch a legal challenge against the Lib Dem’s election victory. An Edinburgh court is expected to hear the case in September. Either outcome could result in a by-election.

Such political skullduggery is almost unheard of in the Shetland Islands.

“It’s not a particularly political place. People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things,” says former BBC journalist Tom Morton over coffee in a busy café near the harbor at Lerwick, the Shetlands’ largest town.

Liberals have dominated Shetland politics for more than half a century. Jo Grimond, who first became MP in 1950, is still revered for brokering a deal with international oil companies in the early 1970s that saw the construction of a massive refinery at Sullom Voe under unusually favorable terms for the local community. Almost overnight, the impoverished fishing community was transformed into a prosperous mini-state with local control over its own oil fund.

“People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things” — Tom Morton, former BBC journalist.

But the Liberal Democrats hemorrhaged support in May, and the Carmichael affair has sparked indignation among many in Shetland. More than once I was told that the MP had “brought shame” on the islands — not by leaking the “Frenchgate” memo, but by lying about it.

“The ordinary Liberals feel betrayed by what he did because they trusted him,” says Shetlander Mary Blance.

Even Tavish Scott, the sitting Liberal Democrat member of the devolved Scottish parliament for Shetland, admits that voters feel let down. But Scottish nationalists went over the top in their campaign to oust the MP, he says, adding: “I think it will rebound on the SNP.”

Scott and his party hope so — Shetland is one of just two Lib Dem constituencies to have survived the SNP tsunami in the 2011 Scottish elections. Polls suggest the nationalists could win almost every seat in Scotland next year. With the Lib Dems currently polling in the low single digits, the party needs all the support it can muster.

* * *
On a blustery summer’s evening on Lerwick harbor, a brass band decked out in British Legion livery plays to a small crowd. The event commemorates more than 250 men who left the islands a century ago to fight in World War I. Many never returned.

As the band plays, a Shetland flag swirls in the breeze. The ubiquitous standard — the colors of the Scottish saltire in the form of a Nordic cross — reflects the islands’ own complex ties.

The islands were under Norwegian control for centuries. In 1468, the King of Denmark pawned Shetland, along with Orkney, to Scotland as part of a dowry for a royal marriage. The Danes never managed to repay the debt.

The Act of Union brought the Shetlands into the United Kingdom, but traces of the Viking heritage remain: St Magnus, St Olaf and King Harald are among the names of Lerwick’s pretty Victorian streets. Udal law, an ancient Norse legal system, still holds sway in the Shetlands’ courts. Solid Scandinavian-style timber houses are dotted across the islands.

With such a rich history, identity is a particularly thorny issue, says Shetlands-born writer Malachy Tallack.

“Most people would say they are Shetland first. Most people would say they are Scottish too, and probably British. There is no contradiction.”

Although a short-lived movement for greater autonomy emerged after the discovery of oil, the Shetlands have long been stony soil for Scottish nationalism. In 1979, the Shetlands voted against Scottish devolution. In the 2010 general election, the SNP finished a massive 41.4 percent behind the Lib Dems here.

But Shetlanders’ antipathy towards the nationalists seems to be softening.

Last September, the pro-independence vote was lower in Shetland than the national average but, at more than 36 percent, was still significant, says Tallack. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found 5 to 10 percent who would have voted yes.”

Since the referendum, the SNP’s membership in Shetland has risen more than five-fold.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room” — Ella Gordon, textile maker.
Often accused of centralizing power, the Scottish nationalist government in Edinburgh has set out a new agenda for the islands, promising more local powers and appointing Scotland’s first dedicated islands’ minister. This approach is proving popular in Shetland, says Mike MacKenzie, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands.

“In the past they have felt neglected by the Scottish government (and) by the SNP. That has changed,” says MacKenzie. “I’ve been warmly received. That’s partly the natural island hospitality but also we’ve been taking a pretty good message to the island.”

Shetland News journalist Neil Riddell agrees. “People always say, ‘We are as remote from Edinburgh as we are from London,’ but that isn’t strictly true. We have much more access to Scottish ministers. Before devolution there was just one U.K. minister for the whole of Scotland.”

Ostensibly Shetland has done well from the union. Oil has paid for a road network that is the envy of rural Scotland. Even small hamlets have heated swimming pools and leisure centers. Lerwick boasts both a state-of-the-art performance space and a museum that rivals those of many larger nations.

Meanwhile, a massive gas plant is being built at Sullom Voe. Many of the workers live in huge, static ocean-liners moored in Lerwick and Scalloway.

Some Shetlanders, however, question whether this so-called “second oil boom” is benefiting their community. Beyond the bar owners and the hoteliers, there is little sign of oil money trickling down. House prices have risen sharply, and a new generation of locals find themselves forced to leave.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room. A friend of mine was renting a one bedroom flat for £900 a month,” says Ella Gordon. The 24-year-old textile-maker lives with her parents.

Most of her friends now live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, hundreds of miles, and an expensive day’s journey, away. “Growing up in the 90s we had it so good. We could do anything we wanted. Now it’s like life is going backwards.”

Bob Gillespie, the SNP and Labour’s primal scream

It’s a bank holiday Monday afternoon in a Glasgow boozer. Busy tables are littered with discarded yellow raffle tickets and half-empty pints. On the small stage, a heavily pregnant woman belts out Purple Rain.

Bob Gillespie stands by the entrance, shoulders filling out a tweed jacket, silently mouthing Prince’s words. The 77-year-old passed his love of a singalong on to his son, the raucous Primal Scream frontman who bears his name. In a gap between numbers, a middle-aged woman with tightly pursed lips stops for a chat. “Don’t worry, I can help,” Gillespie says in a low, gravelly voice, flicking a hand through his white hair. She smiles, reassured.

In his native city, Bob Gillespie’s reputation goes before him. He is the union firebrand who took on Robert Maxwell. He is also probably the most famous Labour MP that Glasgow never had, the man whose defeat in a supposedly unlosable 1988 byelection in Govan was a watershed moment for Scotland, and Scottish nationalism.

Bob Gillespie
Outside the bar, the street is bathed in sunshine, illuminating a series of bright blue posters tacked up in the windows of a council flat. All say just one word: “Yes.” Glasgow voted for independence last year. Now Labour seems set to lose dozens of Westminster seats in its onetime heartlands to the Scottish National party. If anyone knows what that feels like, it’s Bob Gillespie.

In 1988 it was no summer of love in the shadows of the shipyards on the southern lip of Glasgow’s Clyde. Rangers had finished a lowly third in the league, behind bitter rivals Celtic. Margaret Thatcher was in the process of denationalising British Shipbuilders. Govan’s Fairfield yard would soon be sold off. That July, Labour leader Neil Kinnock nominated Govan MP Bruce Millan as a European Commissioner. The ensuing byelection would be a formality. In the previous year’s general election, Labour won a record victory in Scotland, returning 50 MPs. Millan took more than five times the vote of his nearest challenger in Govan. Scottish nationalists finished a distant fourth.

Labour chose Gillespie as its candidate. Gillespie, a vivacious product of Glasgow’s docks, seemed a neat fit with working-class Govan. After returning from the navy with “Hong Kong” tattooed on his knuckles – a memento of a drunken escapade in the entrepot – Gillespie had built a formidable union career. By 1988, he was negotiating with print bosses across the UK.

But it soon became apparent that Govan would not be as straightforward as the Labour hierarchy assumed. Labour was slumping in the polls. The self-styled “fighting fifty” Scottish Labour MPs elected in 1987 were powerless in Tory-controlled Westminster. Split on the issue of a devolved Scottish parliament, the party was equally divided about how to respond to the poll tax. The newly minted levy was to be implemented in Scotland first before being rolled out across the UK. Labour rejected proposals for mass non-payment. The Scottish National party saw its chance.

“Our strategy in Govan was absolutely clear, to pin the Labour party on two points: they didn’t know what to do about the poll tax and they weren’t the party they were,” recalls Jim Sillars, the SNP’s candidate and himself a former Labour MP.

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Jim Sillars, SNP candidate in the 1988 Glasgow Govan byelection. Photograph: Guardian

The SNP had form in Govan. In 1973, a glamorous 30-year-old publican named Margo MacDonald – nicknamed “the blonde bombshell” by an enraptured press corps – overturned a massive Labour majority to win a historic nationalist victory. By 1988, Sillars and MacDonald were husband and wife.

But the political landscape in Govan had shifted in the decade and a half since MacDonald had shocked the Labour establishment. The defiant radicalism of Jimmy Reid and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was a fading memory. The SNP was openly loathed, blamed for ushering Thatcher into power after its support for a no-confidence motion precipitated the collapse of the James Callaghan administration in 1979.

“We were despised,” says Sillars, leaning back on a tan easy chair in his ground-floor flat on Edinburgh’s southside. Near his slippered feet lie copies of Marx’s Capital, biographies of Hitler and Stalin, and Alex Salmond’s recent referendum campaign diary.

Initially, the SNP’s aims in Govan were timorous. Reduce the Labour majority to a few thousand. Give the party a scare. But as the short byelection campaign began, the mood changed. Nationalists descended upon Govan. More than 500 turned out to canvass in one day alone. Sillars’s call to refuse to pay the poll tax chimed with an angry electorate. A Labour press officer drafted from London for the campaign later recalled the Proclaimers “driving round Govan on the back of a flatbed truck urging everyone to kick Labour where it hurt”.

Bob Gillespie was struggling. Local Labour party membership numbered just 170. Many were of retirement age. Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell used his titles – notably the influential and traditionally Labour-leaning Daily Record – to launch withering attacks on his union nemesis.

“Maxwell always put gagging orders on people. He would never have been able to do that if you only spoke as an MP in the Palace of Westminster. So he went after me,” says Gillespie, with a rueful shake of his head. He offered to stand down. Kinnock would not hear of it: “He said: ‘You just have to do the best you can and I’ll have a go at Maxwell.’” The Labour leader would regret not heeding the warning.

Days before the byelection, Gillespie floundered in a live debate on Scottish Television when asked a question about subsidiarity in the European Union. “Bob didn’t want to show his ignorance,” recalls Sillars. “He got so distracted trying to answer that he knocked over the microphone. That television debate was a disaster for Bob. So it was good for us.”

On 10 November 1988, two days after George HW Bush was elected US president, Govan went to the polls. Jim Sillars appeared on the ballot paper as “SNP Anti-Poll Tax Candidate”. He won a majority of 3,554 on a massive 33% swing.

A BBC exit poll showed that 32% of Govan voters thought “representing Scotland’s interests” was the most important issue, followed by 21% citing the poll tax. More than half rated the performance of Scotland’s Labour MPs as “poor” or “very poor”. In London, Tony Benn took to his diary. The Govan defeat, he wrote, was “a reflection of our failure to discuss constitutional questions, which are at the core of the devolution argument”.

I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

Bob Gillespie is a talkative man but he grows quiet, even sullen, when asked about what happened in 1988. “I don’t feel anything about it at all,” he says, cradling a can of sugar-free Irn Bru. “That was only six weeks, seven weeks of my life. I went back to work.” Gillespie never stood for public office again. After Govan, he raised over £1m for victims of Chernobyl. Dozens of Belarusian children were brought to a convalescing home in Ayr. “I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’”

Labour subsequently tried to blame Gillespie for his loss. Selection rules were tightened. But some close to the Govan campaign complained they were hamstrung by “the shambolic organisational abilities of those sent up from London”.

Govan 1988 changed Scottish politics, and Scotland. Although Sillars lost the seat at the next general election, he believes his victory put the nationalists back on the political map. “It ended the period of vicious animosity among people towards the SNP. We were back with some credibility.” In the wake of its Govan defeat, Labour finally decided to join the constitutional convention, paving the way for devolution in 1997.

Ten years later, the SNP won its first elections to the Edinburgh parliament. Now the nationalists stand on the verge of unprecedented general election success. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has energised the nation. As a teenager, the future first minister had a poster of Jim Sillars on her wall. Govan 1988 was her very first political campaign.

The problems that plagued Labour in Glasgow more than two and a half decades ago are even worse now. The traditional party of industrial Scotland lacks members, drive and momentum. Gillespie, however, is still unflinching in his support. He campaigned against independence last year. Gillespie’s photograph appears on local Labour party election leaflets. He is smiling, his beloved bichon frise Pepe in his arms.

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Bob Gillespie (left) with Michael Foot, Helen Liddell and Denis Healey at Central America fundraiser event in the 1980s. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

These days, however, Bob Gillespie spends more time surrounded by music than politics. “I’ve always loved music,” he says. In the 1960s, he ran a Glasgow folk club. Billy Connolly was a floor singer. (“He was never a singer, never.”) His son, Bobby Jr, used to lie awake at night listening as the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Muddy Waters spun on the turntable at the parties his parents threw in their council house.

The Primal Scream singer has credited his father with introducing him to rock’n’roll and socialism. “My dad was an activist, he was a trade unionist and he was a Marxist and he was always involved in that struggle and it took up his life,” he said in 2013.

Today, Jim Sillars is on the fringes of the SNP. His wife, Margo, died just months before the referendum. In his spare time he tutors novice SNP general election candidates, including Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old student whose audacious bid to unseat Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in Paisley has unmistakable echoes of Sillars’ win in Govan.

In 1988, there were only a handful of SNP-Labour marginals. Last month, the Electoral Reform Society classified all seats in Scotland not held by the SNP as marginal. Now there are Govans right across the country.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

The People’s Election: The final chapter … Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

TOM Clarke is angry with the media. Last week, The Guardian followed the Labour MP as he canvassed Coatbridge and its environs, the North Lanarkshire patch he has represented since 1982. The resulting video – entitled “the strange death of Labour Scotland” – painted a less than flattering portrait of a politician and a campaign out of touch with its electorate.In the short film, St Patrick’s Day drinkers promise Scotland’s longest-serving MP their vote but prevaricate after he moves on. At one remarkable point, the 74-year-old MP accuses journalist John Harris of trying to get a middle-aged man in Moodiesburn “to say things that are anti-Labour”. The Guardian man reacts with shock: “I’ve never had that experience before,” he tells the camera. “Looks to me like under that confidence is a little bit of insecurity. Doesn’t want people talking abut the SNP on his patch.”

Clarke says he is “disappointed with The Guardian” when we speak on the phone just a few days before what is probably the first serious electoral threat he has faced in 33 years at Westminster. The swithering St Patrick’s voters, who looked pretty genuine to me, “were only kidding” Harris and his camera crew. “We thought he knew that.”

Clarke, however, does little to dispel Harris’s sense that there is anxiety beneath the confident assertions about the campaign “going extremely well”. Polls that suggest that it could be a very tight race between Labour and the SNP in North Lanarkshire are “inaccurate”, Clarke says, hinting at a nefarious stitch-up between “the pollsters” and “the media”.

“We have not examined who owns the pollsters? What regulation is there? What link is there between them and the media?” Clarke rails. Such “blame the media” conspiracy theories are familiar to anyone who floated around the margins of the Yes campaign in last year’s referendum.” Clarke even suggests dark forces at play. “If you spoke to Rupert Murdoch you might get an explanation.”

But the SNP posters in back windows of cars on the edge of town are testament to a different reality, one that is at once both far more prosaic and far more incendiary. The residents of Coatbridge’s pebbledash-studded terraced houses and vertiginous multi-storey flats have voted Labour en masse for decades. In 2005, Clarke’s Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill seat was the safest in all of Britain. Last time out, the one-time shadow Scottish secretary polled 67 per cent of the vote. Those days are over. The SNP are now a serious challenge to Labour’s dominance.

North Lanarkshire was one of just four councils in Scotland that voted Yes. In the electoral area encompassing Coatbridge, the result was decisively in favour of independence. The day after the referendum, retired schoolteacher Eddie Hagerty organised a party in his house. Along with friends made during the long campaign he decided to form a community group “to improve the quality of life in the town”.

“We decided we had won in Coatbridge so we were going to keep that going in Coatbridge,” Hagerty says when we meet on the pedestrianised main street. He wears a bright yellow high-vis jacket with “Stronger for Scotland” printed on the reverse. Hagerty used to vote Labour – “once” – but is now firmly behind the SNP. The local party has gone from 120 to 1300 since the referendum.

“The Labour party is like a dried seed that has no life in it. Look around this town centre, look at what has happened under a Labour administration; there is no chance for people to be motivated, innovative.”

True, Coatbridge has seen better days. The Iron Burgh’s mighty works, and the jobs they provided, are long gone. The scars of the bleak Thatcher years are all too visible. Main Street is pockmarked with “To Let” signs. Business seems brisk in the bookies and the pubs, but the few bank holiday shoppers are outnumbered by SNP activists, toting stickers, leaflets and even lollipops. All sing from the same hymn sheet: Only the SNP can save the working-class soul abandoned by Labour.

EVEN SNP candidate Phil Boswell harks back to a Labour past. The 51-year-old quotes Jimmy Reid and says: “When I went out to vote first my mum said vote Labour, your grandfather would turn in his grave if you didn’t.”

Boswell has the look of a used car salesman but that seems to be just about the only job he has not done. He has worked everywhere from Hong Kong and Egypt to the Falklands. (“I’m under the Official Secrets Act,” he says with a smile.) For more than a decade his business has been oil and gas. After organising the Yes campaign in Aberdeenshire West, Boswell decided to take a run at the Westminster seat in his hometown.

Boswell’s message, somewhat ironically, is redolent of a famous Tory election slogan: Labour isn’t working. “Walk through Coatbridge, use your eyes, you don’t need politicians to tell you there is something wrong here,” he says. “People are waking up to the alternative, that alternative is the SNP.”

On September 19, Alexandra McArthur woke up and did something she had never done before. She joined a political party. “I’d never been as politically involved as now,” McArthur says, twirling a miniature yellow SNP windmill in her hand while her son, Daniel, plays outside the busy store on the main street. I ask where the Labour equivalent is. McArthur laughs. There doesn’t seem to be one.

Incumbency, however, could be a major factor tomorrow. Clarke is well known across the constituency, held in high esteem by many for his role in negotiating pay settlements for workers in Ravenscraig and some of the other plants that shut in the 1980s and 90s. Clarke’s personal vote could yet win the day in what is likely to be a close contest.

“I always vote Labour,” says Silvia, who asks me not to use her surname. “I’m still going to vote for Labour.” She likes the SNP’s anti-austerity message – “it’s a pity we are not hearing that from Labour” – but says: “I just don’t trust the nationalists.”

Coatbridge is sometimes called “Little Ireland”. In the middle of the 19th century, thousands of Irish emigrants arrived in Glasgow, their search for work often ending in North Lanarkshire. At the time, the Glasgow Free Press called Coatbridge and Airdrie “the nearest thing possible to two Irish colonies”. A century-and-a-half on, around 70 per cent of Coatbridge residents claim Irish descent. The town boasts a Gaelic football team, Irish dancing schools, 10 Catholic churches and republican flute bands that march every summer in Belfast.

The Irish community and the Labour party were once synonymous, but that bond is weakening. Last year, I attended a referendum debate as part of the Coatbridge St Patrick’s Day festival. Tom Clarke told the packed hall beside the local church that leaving the UK would make Scotland poorer and more vulnerable. Some cheered, others booed. Beside him a red-faced man started shouting about Tony Blair and Labour’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That constitutional ambivalence, if anything, is even more pronounced a year later.

IN the St Columba Club, horse-racing plays on the television. Tables are filled with betting slips, bookies’ pens, and pints of lager. Most of the predominantly older drinkers are backing Tom Clarke, but old certainties about Labour and Coatbridge don’t seem as steadfast any more.

“This town was based on Labour. Iron, coal, steel,” says Sammy McCabe. “I would never have envisaged in my lifetime that Coatbridge would have changed tactics from Labour to SNP.” But most of the former British Steel worker’s family will be voting for Boswell. “They’re going to swing it, the younger element is going to swing it.”

Willie Cosgrove disagrees: “The Labour party are the only one who got the National Health Service, the minimum wage, the welfare system. How can you vote against that?”

Quite what people in Coatbridge, and across Scotland, are voting for – or against – is not exactly clear. Is it about “standing up for Scotland”? Or is it for social justice and a new sense of purpose for long-neglected post-industrial landscapes? Is it about independence? Or punishing the “Red Tories” for joining the toxic Tories during the referendum campaign?

One of the most salient features of the polls is that Labour is weakest in seats with the largest majorities, hinting at decades of ossification hiding below the barrel-load of votes that were, as the cliché goes, weighed not counted for so long.

Outside the Columba Club, a group of men stand puffing on e-cigarettes and squinting in the afternoon sun. They are all keen to talk, giddily shouting over each other.

Tom Clarke’s campaign slogan – “there is hardly a family in is this constituency that I haven’t helped” – does not go down well.

“He’s not helped my family,” says a man with a pronounced scar on his face. “Or mine.” “He’s helped his own.”

One man in particular is anxious to get his point across. A few weeks earlier, he says, Labour came campaigning in his neighbourhood. “All of a sudden this guy from out of the ashes appeared. Tom Clarke. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years.” The rest of the group all laugh.

The People’s Election: Part 9 – Edinburgh South

THIS is supposed to be the social media election. But nobody seems to have told the good people of leafy Morningside. On a blustery weekday afternoon in the land of Miss Jean Brodie few voters seem particularly au fait with the latest Twitter stramash. “I’ve not heard anything about that,” nurse Zoe Gornal, 27, says shaking her head when I ask what she thinks of tweets sent by Edinburgh South SNP candidate Neil Hay about “non Scots accents” on TV and elderly voters who can exercise their franchise “but barely know their name”.Linda, 60, looks bemused when I mention the word “Quisling”, which appeared in the headline of a spoof news piece that Hay also tweeted from a pseudonymous account in 2012. A rather tortured couple of minutes follow. “It basically means a traitor,” I say. Blank look. “It’s from Norway originally.” Another blank look. “I’m SNP,” Linda says firmly. “I want independence and they are the only ones who will get it.”Not everyone is quite as blasé about Hay’s online activities. My formal requests for an interview are turned down. Undeterred, I try tweeting Hay, but he seems to have gone quiet on social media of late.

Funny that.

Nicola Sturgeon has, however, been less reticent on the question of her candidate’s Twitter alter ego. “I do condemn the language used and I condemn the comments made – as I always do when anybody steps out of line on Twitter, on Facebook or any medium,” the First Minister said last week.

“Neil Hay has rightly apologised. I think, given that we face an election two weeks today, it’s now up to the voters to decide.”

The storm in a Tweetdeck threatens to overshadow the fascinating contest that is brewing in Edinburgh South. This is one of the most marginal seats in Scotland. In 2010, Labour’s Ian Murray won by just 316 votes, from the Liberal Democrats. The SNP finished a distant fourth.

No prizes for guessing the current state of play. An Ashcroft poll two weeks ago put Labour six points behind the SNP. The Conservatives – who held the seat for almost 70 years before Michael Ancram was unceremoniously deposed in 1987 – were on 15 per cent, with the LibDems’ paper candidate limping home on just 6 per cent.

The good Lord’s polling has been a central feature of this election campaign, pointing to unprecedented shifts in support to the SNP in the most unlikely of places. But buried among the banks of figures, the Ashcroft polls also carry write-ups of focus groups with voters in various Scottish constituencies. These, if anything, are more fascinating than the headline-grabbing numbers. Many participants tell Ashcroft’s pollsters that they like their Labour MP. (“A very, very good local MP”, is the kind of phrase that recurs.) But they are still going to vote SNP.

That seems to be the central problem facing Murray. Before we meet in a chi-chi hotel bar overlooking Bruntsfield links, I phone a couple of friends who live in the constituency I once called home. “He’s a really good local MP” (that phrase again) says one. “So you’ll be voting for him?” “Oh, no. I’m voting for Neil Hay.”

When I lived here, my old amigo was a card-carrying Labour Party member. He voted No in September.

Murray is the kind of local MP many of us would be happy to have. He comes across as diligent, approachable, and hard-working. Raised in the Wester Hailes scheme, his mother was a cleaner, his father died when he was just nine: “We were just a very working-class family. That’s where my politics come from.” Murray’s life since has been more rarified – a degree in social policy and law from Edinburgh University, a successful management company, a council seat followed not long after by the nod for Westminster – but he has always maintained close links to the area. He was at the forefront of the campaign that transformed Hearts from a football club on the brink of extinction to a model of how a community businesses can thrive.

That Murray faces a battle to hang on to his seat is yet more evidence of the sea change in Scottish politics. In September, Edinburgh South voted by an overwhelming margin to stay part of the union. Now, in an effort to sway swithering voters, Murray is trumpeting his anti-Trident credentials. “I would not support the renewal of Trident. I would not vote to support it,” he tells.

Murray admits that many voters tell him they want a Labour government but are voting SNP. This is Labour’s quandary. The Nationalist pitch is, essentially: “Vote for us to get a Labour government.” Labour’s failure to counteract that – surely the best way to get a Labour government is, well, to vote Labour? – attests to the depth of anti-Labour feeling in large parts of this country. Certainly you would be forgiven for thinking it was Labour that had been in power in London for five years and in Edinburgh for eight.

“We need to transform our narrative,” Murray says quite candidly.

Labour has failed to make the SNP’s record in government a major election issue. “The SNP are able to take credit for everything that goes well, but blame somebody else for everything that goes wrong.”

And what of those tweets from his SNP opponent? “Some of the things he has said suggest he might not represent everyone here regardless of how they vote”, says Murray, who stops short of calling for him to stand down.

Hay, for his part, has apologised for the missives, which were sent from an account named Paco McSheepie in 2012. “The words in these old tweets were poorly chosen, and I apologise for any offence caused. They are not in keeping with the way I would express myself now,” the SNP candidate told the Edinburgh Evening News recently.

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But are would-be constituents really concerned about Hay’s Twitterstorm? Beyond the social media echo chamber is anybody really listening? Murray says he has received emails and comments on doorsteps, but Scottish Socialist candidate Colin Fox believes voters in Edinburgh South are not going to be swayed by 140 errant characters. “It’s only going to influence those people who weren’t going to vote SNP in the first place,” the former MSP says.

Edinburgh South is often caricatured as the epitome of stolid middle-class affluence, home to JK Rowling and Edinburgh University, but some of the country’s most deprived areas lie within its boundaries, too. “It is a microcosm of Scotland,” says Fox. “65 per cent of the constituency lives in big working-class schemes. Labour’s support there is haemorrhaging.”

Not far from one of those schemes, Inch Park, a Yes café has sprung up in a former Indian takeaway by the side of a busy road. Cars whizz by outside, almost shaking the “Hope Over Fear” Saltire flag off the wall. It feels a bit like a cross between a truckers’ stop and a community centre for the mainly older people who sit drinking cups of tea. A table sells Scotland car flags and copies of books by Stephen Maxwell and Gerry Hassan.

“I’ve got a 10-year lease,” says Mike Blackshaw, the moving spirit behind the café. A larger than life character with a sharp sense of humour, honed over decades on the cricket pitch, Blackshaw is originally from Grantham, home of one Margaret Thatcher (“I did shop in her father’s shop. Her mother was a gem. He father was awful.”). At 18, not long after moving to Scotland, he joined the SNP. That was 48 years ago.

On the café whiteboard is an exhortation based on the latest polling: “Only 3 per cent ahead. Maximum effort required.” Blackshaw is confident that Hay will emerge victorious despite his recent travails. “We’ve canvassed a lot of people since Neil’s things in the papers. We have only had two or three comments and two of those took posters,” he says.

At a nearby table, Pat, 66, is enjoying a slice of homemade chocolate cake.

She “got so politically motivated during the referendum that I didn’t know what to do with myself.” She comes to the café twice a week, a 25-minute journey in her mobility scooter.

Across the room, Gordon Wright, 73, complains that the local papers have been “hammering Neil”. “But it might have the very opposite effect. It might make people feel sympathy for him.”

An SNP man for 55 years, Wright is the man who took the famous photo of the 11 newly-elected Nationalist MPs standing outside the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh in 1974. That remains the SNP’s best Westminster showing – well, at least for the next week.

Back on Morningside Road, the fabled ladies who lunch are “fed up” with all the talk of politics. “I’ve had enough of it,” says one woman as she browses the rails of scarves in Meander. Her friend agrees.

Both are “not Labour” but they are worried about the prospect of another independence referendum.

Owner Julie Brechin is more sanguine: “We’re feeling more enthused. There was a real bounce from the referendum and that has carried through to the general election. People are more knowledgeable and more comfortable talking about politics.” What about Ian Murray? “He’s a good guy”.

I feel like I barely need to ask what way she will be voting, but I do anyway. SNP. I ask about Neil Hay’s tweets. Another blank face.