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.
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.
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.
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.
Around midnight on July 11, 1995, word reached Srebrenica that Dutch peacekeepers had abandoned their observation posts on the outskirts of town.
The soldiers had arrived in the Eastern Bosnian “safe haven” just over two years earlier, ostensibly to provide a buffer between local Bosniak Muslims and encircling Bosnian Serb forces.
When 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic heard that the United Nations troops had retreated to their base he knew he had two choices: escape or die.
“I decided to flee through the forest with my father and my brother trying to survive,” says Hasanovic in flawless, clipped English.
He had bartered sugar for English lessons from a local teacher during the three-year-long siege of Srebrenica that ended in July 1995, in the largest act of mass murder on European soil since the Second World War.
Twenty years later Hasanovic works at the Srebrenica Memorial centre, a small museum attached to the sprawling battery factory that once housed the Dutch contingent.
Everyday Hasanovic recounts the same terrible story, nervously turning his wedding ring around his finger as he describes that hot July night when he set off with some 15,000 men to walk more than sixty miles through thick forest to the nearest Bosniak-held town, Tuzla.
The ad hoc human column gathered around six miles outside Srebrenica.
When they started to move Bosnian Serb army units on the overhanging hills began shooting indiscriminately. Hasan Hasanovic was among the crowd pushing forward in panic, desperate to escape the hail of bullets. “I lost sight of my father and my twin brother. Since then I have never seen them,” he told me.
Hasanovic kept walking. A man offered him sugar and water, which he hungrily accepted. The further they walked, the less the men looked at each other, fearful of seeing death etched in one another’s faces.
The following day, around forty miles from Tuzla, they came to rest on a hillside. They had been walking for hours. Some kicked off their shoes, others closed their eyes. Then gunfire ripped through the air.
A thousand men were killed in a matter of moments. Hasanovic managed to break away, seeking shelter in the forest. Below, Serb voices on loudspeakers promised food and safety. Those who surrendered were killed.
Hasanovic walked on. The rubber boots and the hours of wading through streams and forests tore the skin off the soles of his feet. More than once he narrowly escaped Serb militiamen.
“On July 16, after days and nights of being hunted like animals, we reached Tuzla,” he says. The tall chimneys of the industrial city framed a makeshift refugee camp.
The field of white tents seemed to go on forever. People flocked to Hasanovic when they heard he had come from Srebrenica. Had they seen their son, their uncle, their father?
Each time he shook his head dolefully.
Amidst the crowd he spotted his mother, his younger brother and his grandparents. They gripped each other tightly. But there was no sign of his father or his brother.
Of the 15,000 men who set off on the “Death March”, only 3,500 survived. The fate that awaited those that remained in Srebrenica was, if anything, even worse.
Although just a few miles from the Serbian border, Srebrenica had long been a predominantly Bosniak area.
When war broke out, in April 1992, after Bosnia declared its independence, the town’s population swelled as Muslims in the surrounding villages fled the Bosnian Serb offensive to carve out a state of their own from the ashes of the disintegrating Yugoslavia.
Within months some 65,000 refugees had sought refugee in Srebrenica, more than doubling its prewar population.
The Srebrenica enclave was an easy target for the Bosnian Serb army. Attacks were frequent. On April 12 1993, artillery fire hit a school playground. Seventy-four were killed and over a hundred wounded.
Four days later, the United Nations declared the establishment of a “safe haven”.
Life was hard – food was scarce – but the arriving peacekeepers offered protection from the Bosnian Serb forces. Bosniaks gave up their weapons. Fatefully, they were promised they would not need them.
It was beyond our contemplation that the United Nations would betray the people of SrebrenicaHasan Hasanovic
“Everyone had the feeling that they lived in a big concentration camp,” Hasan Hasanovic recalls. “But people were still happy to have anything, to survive. It was beyond our contemplation that the United Nations would betray the people of Srebrenica.”
Srebrenica occupied a crucial strategic position. Without it, the Bosnian Serb dream of creating an ethnically pure state would be stymied. In early 1995, the attacks intensified. Hasanovic’s school was closed again. “Something wrong was coming. People could feel that there was evil in the air.”
This “evil” arrived in early July 1995. The shelling of Srebrenica got worse, much worse. Dutch troops retreated in the face of the Serb offensive.
United Nations commanders initially refused their requests for airstrikes against Serb positions. By the time they relented – dropping just two bombs – Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic had taken peacekeepers hostage.
There would be no full-scale attack on the Bosnian Serb lines. Emboldened by the success, Radovan Karadžić, President of the Serb Republic, ordered his forces to take the town.
In Srebrenica, people began to flee. Almost all able-bodied men began the “Death March”. More than 20,000 sought refugee at the UN compound at Potocari a few miles outside the town.
On July 12, Mladic walked through Srebrenica, handing out sweets to children and mugging for watching television cameras. “No matter if you’re old or young you’ll get transport,” he said. “Don’t be afraid – women and children first.”
The Serb army began separating all men aged 12 to 77, putting them onto buses. At Potocari, Dutch soldiers expelled the Bosniaks sheltering in their base, leading them directly into the hands of the waiting Bosnian Serb military.
Over the next four days, Mladic’s forces killed more than 8,000 men, in Srebrenica.
In a brutal, systematic massacre, victims were shot and clubbed to death in fields and behind houses, in warehouses and abandoned buildings.
Recently released documents suggest the involvement of Greek and Russian far-right fighters in the slaughter.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Bosnian Serbs committed genocide at Srebrenica.
Srebrenica changed the course of the Bosnian war. NATO’s subsequent intervention led to the Dayton peace agreement in December 1995.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was effectively divided into two, between the Croat-Bosniak Federation and “Republika Srpska”. Srebrenica became part of the new Serb Republic.
It took Hasanovic years to find out what happened to his family.
In 2003, his father joined the rows and rows of brilliant white marble headstones at the Potocari graveyard, across the road from the former Dutch base. “In 2005 I buried my twin brother which was the hardest thing in my life.”
A skull missing a mandible sits bolt upright on a stainless steel mortuary slab. Scattered around the head are fragments of bone shaped into a skeletal form. A few ribs, a fibula, two tibias, a handful of fingers. A humidifier hums in the corner.
On the opposite wall, a poster begs “Help Identify Your Loved Ones. Give Your Blood Sample”. The message is written in Bosnian and English.
This small office, in a nondescript business park on the outskirts of Tuzla, is the forensic laboratory of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Funded by international donors, the ICMP was founded at the behest of Bill Clinton at the G-7 summit in 1996.
The commission task was to bring order to the chaos of war by assisting formerly hostile Balkan governments identify and trace some of the 40,000 people missing at end of the Yugoslav wars.
Around 70 per cent of those missing were from Bosnia. In Srebrenica and elsewhere, Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers to push bodies into unmarked mass graves, which were subsequently exhumed, sometimes multiple times, to hinder identification. Consequently forensic scientists were regularly faced with the kind of scattered remains lying on the Tuzla mortuary table of tenacious Serbian forensic anthropologist Dragana Vucetic.
“When they removed those skeletal remains, often with big trucks, they destroyed the integrity of individuals so very often we don’t find complete bodies, maybe only in 10 per cent of cases,” Vucetic told me.
In the first five years, the ICMP identified just 140 Srebrenica victims, mainly through clothing and body parts. “We had to find another method for investigation. So we made a DNA lab,” says Vucetic.
Blood was collected from tens of thousands of Bosnians, both in the Balkans and across Europe where they had fled as refugees. Within months of the DNA lab opening in 2001, the ICMP had its first positive match. By the close of the following year, it had over 500 more. So far ICMP has identified over 85 per cent of those who died in Srebrenica.
Most victims are buried in the cemetery at Potocari, often during the annual July 11 commemoration.
The process of identification is arduous. Bone samples from victims are taken for DNA testing and matched with profiles on the ICMP database. “We don’t test each bone because that is very expensive. We only test one bone from each sample or each body part,” Vucetic explains as she lifts the heavy door that leads into the cold storage unit. Inside, shelves are lined with the remains of Srebrenica victims, thick plastic body bags on the lower rungs, brown paper bags for clothes and personal possessions above them.
The room has a pungent smell of raw flesh. It reminds me of a long forgotten summer job in a meat factory.
Scattered among the body bags are the remains of 300 individuals awaiting identification. The burden of proof is heavy.
Courts require that DNA matches are 99.95 per cent probability or above. Once a body has been formally identified it is pronounced dead. Family members are contacted.
The ICMP facility is open to the public but they are discouraged from coming to see the remains. “It is very emotional for them to see skeletons. Usually they expect that they will see something else. After 20 years it is still stressful when they come here and see bones,” says Vucetic.
Despite the ICMP’s efforts, almost a thousand people are still missing. It is “most likely” that there is another, so far untraced, mass grave lying amid the verdant Bosnian countryside, says Edin Jasaragic, who works at the ICMP’s main administrative centre, in an old basketball stadium in downtown Tuzla.
Some of those who survived the “Death March” from Srebrenica were inside this austere, Communist-era concrete building. The hard plastic windows are still riddled with bullet holes. On the ground floor, there is a shop that specialises in prosthetic legs. Landmines kill around 20 Bosnians every year.
As well as identifying victims, the ICMP has played a key role in criminal prosecutions. So far 46 individuals have been put on trial at Bosnian state courts for their role in the Srebrenica massacre, including 38 people charged with genocide.
The ICMP’s forensic evidence has also been crucial in the 21 trials related to Srebrenica at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, among them Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic.
Despite these successes, justice has been “very slow” says Muhamed Durakovic, a Srebrenica survivor who now works for the ICMP in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. “There are hundreds of people roaming the streets of Srebrenica who are war criminals.”
Someone who took away your child is now working as a police officer or a public official in Srebrenica.Dragana Vucetic
Nevertheless, the ICMP is one of the few genuine success stories to emerge from the impoverished, fissiparous post-war Western Balkans states. Their innovative DNA approach has been exported around the world, helping to identify victims of natural disasters and political violence everywhere from the United States and the Philippines to Chile and Iraq.
“The ICMP has learned a lot in Bosnia over the past twenty years, it has a pool of experts that can deploy anywhere in the world to assist in cases of disaster or war, any time a government needs to identify a large number of individuals” says Muhamed Durakovic, who until recently was stationed in Libya.
Since the ICMP opened, the crucible of human suffering has shifted, to Ukraine, to Syria and numerous other conflagrations.
Silently, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a comparatively small conflict in a relatively unimportant part of the world, has slipped down the international community’s list of priorities.
The ICMP is due to follow the diplomats next year, moving its main operations out of Bosnia. The impecunious Bosnian government is unlikely to step into the breach to fund expensive DNA laboratories.
In a grim irony, the facilities at Tuzla are only likely to remain open if another mass grave is discovered at Srebrenica.
In the 1970s, the Yugoslav government released a promotional video to encourage people to move to the spa town of Srebrenica. Grainy footage shows a gym filled with healthy Bosnians. There is no distinction made between Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.
The streets, bounded by tree-lined escarpments, are neat and well tended. It looks for all world like a socialist paradise.
Srebrenica today is a very different place. The once modern apartment blocks are crumbling. Overgrown branches hang across the main thoroughfare. The red, blue and white Serbian tricolour of the Republika Srpska flag hangs limply from a municipal building.
As we drive slowly through town a table full of middle-aged men outside a bar all turn in unison to stare. Srebrenica, on the way to nowhere, is now a by-word for our darkest instincts.
The white minaret of the local mosque still looks down over Srebrenica. Before the war, the vast majority of the town’s 36,000-strong population were Bosniak. Now Srebrenica and the surrounding villages is overwhelmingly Serb.
Some Muslims, however, did take up the option of returning to their former homes afforded under the Dayton agreement, even if it meant living cheek-by-jowl with the men who murdered their loved ones.
In 2002, Hatidža Mehmedović came back to Srebrenica. Her family home had been burned down. Her husband and two sons had been killed. But she was determined to return. “We came here for one reason only, to live with our memories,” Hatidža Mehmedović tells me when we meet under the shade of a large wooden gazebo in the graveyard for Srebrenica genocide victims at Potocari.
Her family’s remains, identified by the ICMP in 2010, are buried nearby.
“They killed everything I had in this world. These are wounds that will never heel,” says Mehmedović, who wears a white headscarf. “This is not a life. This is hell. We returnees, we lost everything.”
Mehmedović is president of Mothers of Srebrenica, an association that represents victims of the massacre. “Many mothers have been left without joy. Our hearts are cold. We will never live to see how it is to see your sons marry. We will never have the joy of holding our grandchildren on our knee, thanks to the United Nations and the great powers.”
The Mothers of Srebrenica launched a legal case against the Dutch peacekeeping forces, arguing that they did not do enough to protect the people in their charge. Last year, a district court in The Hague ruled that the Netherlands is liable for the deaths of more than 300 Bosniak men and boys expelled from the UN base in July 1995.
The onetime Dutch military compound still stands at Potocari, across the road from the field filled with slender white gravestones. The Mothers of Srebrenica and others hope to eventually create a huge memorial on the site of the base, but for now it largely stands empty. I climb through an open window into what were once the soldiers’ quarters.
On the walls are crude drawings of naked women and Dutch phrases, untouched in twenty years. In one scrawling, just below a naked couple in bondage gear, there is red heart pierced by an arrow, slowly bleeding.
On July 11, the annual commemoration for the victims of Srebrenica is held at Potocari. This year’s 20th anniversary service was thrown into doubt after Naser Oric, a wartime Bosniak leader in Srebrenica, was arrested in Switzerland.
Oric, a former bodyguard of notorious Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, is accused of war crimes against local Serbs. The Srebrenica organising committee said the event would be postponed until Oric’s release.
Last week, Swiss authorities announced that Oric would be extradited, but to Bosnia rather than Serbia. The decision caused uproar. Mladen Ivanic, who represents Serbs in Bosnia’s unwieldy tripartite presidency, said he would not be attending the Srebrenica commemoration “in this atmosphere”.
The political wrangling “is setting Bosnia-Herzegovina back to the state of war”, Ivanic added. Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic’s visit to Sarajevo has been cancelled.
Republika Srpska’s president Milorad Dodik went even further. Last week, the pugnacious Bosnian Serb leader, called the Srebrenica massacre ““the greatest deception of the 20th century”.
Previously Dodik, who has ruled Republika Srpska almost unopposed for a decade, has said that, “if a genocide happened, then it was committed against Serb people of this region, where women, children and the elderly were killed en masse.”
Such denial of what happened at Srebrenica, and across Bosnia, runs deep. “Srebrenica hoax” is a popular search term on Google.
Videos on YouTube promise the “real” story of what happened in July 1995, often using language and arguments familiar to Holocaust deniers.
“It is always very difficult to hear stories of denial when we all know what happened, especially those of us who were eyewitnesses to the atrocities and the killings,” says Srebrenica survivor Muhamed Durakovic. “We know what happened to these people. We have seen and witnessed their executions.”
Near Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs recently put up anti-European Union posters on a warehouse where Bosniaks were killed in protest at a leaked draft United Nations resolution that suggests July 11 should be a memorial day. The resolution, penned by the UK, was vetoed at the UN this week by Russia.
Arguments over Srebrenica are symptomatic of the “polarised” nature of contemporary Bosnia, says Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. “This country, this entire region, never initiated its reconciliation process.”
The various international courts established to deal with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia focused too much on legalistic definitions and not enough on building bridges on the ground, says Latal.
The Dayton peace accords created an awkward state structure in which the three ethnic blocs – Bosniak, Serb and Croat – all have effective veto.
In the two decades since the fighting stopped, the recent past has become a political tool, pushing competing ethnicities further and further apart.
“This country is ethnically cleansed,” says Latal. “You don’t have any ethnic mixing anymore in big towns. In schools a majority are mono-ethnic. Kids learn about other ethnic groups from the media and history books and they are all tainted.”
Srebrenica, although fading from many Western memories, still has a resonance beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina’s contested borders.
Less familiar are the countless other massacres: over 5,000, mainly Bosniaks and Croats, were killed in Prijedor in 1992 alone; that same year 3,000 went to their deaths in the eastern town of Visegrad, some of them thrown alive from the town’s bridge; in Zvornik a further 2,000 were killed. The vast majority of this “ethnic cleansing” took place in what is now Republika Srpska.
Last spring, I visited a village called Carakovo, a few miles outside Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia. Before the war, Carakovo’s population was 1,200. Now it is 300.
The only thing that is growing is the graveyard, as more remains are identified and more mass graves discovered. “I feel like the last Mohican here,” Sudbin Music, a community worker who miraculously survived the Serb death camps, told me. “I ask myself, ‘What are you doing? Are you waiting for the next disaster?”
Elmina Kulasić was just a child when she was forced to leave the nearby town of Kozarac. After growing up in Chicago, Kulasić came back to Bosnia three years ago to work with other “returnees”.
The policy of re-settling people in their former homes has been a “failure”, she says. Only a fraction of those who left during the war have returned. “Everyone is ignoring survivors.”
Instead survivors of Bosnia’s vicious war are often used as political footballs.
On July 11, Bosniak politicians will line up with international diplomats and foreign correspondents in the VIP section at the cemetery in Potocari. Afterwards they will make speeches promising “never again.” Then, when the television cameras have stopped rolling, they will get back in their expensive cars, leaving Srebrenica, and its now childless mothers, until next year.
Dayton ended the war but bequeathed a labyrinthine political system structurally disposed to gridlock and stasis. Corruption in Bosnia is rife, according to Transparency International. Political tensions have increased. Dodik regularly threatens Republika Srpska’s secession, potentially splintering Bosnia. Croat politicians agitate for the creation of a “third entity”, centred on Herzegovina with a capital in Mostar. Bosniaks look east for patronage, to Turkey and the Gulf states.
“The political, economic and social situation has got worse since the war,” says Srecko Latal. Meanwhile, the international community has largely switched off. “The European Union is still ignoring that part, if not all, of the Balkans is a boiling powder keg once again.”
Last February, Bosnia did erupt – but not along ethnic lines. Tens of thousands took to the streets demanding jobs, higher wages and a better future. The municipality headquarters in Sarajevo was set alight, as was a government building in Tuzla.
The protests eventually petered out, but the frustrations that underlined them have not. Bosnia’s official unemployment rate is over 40 per cent, even higher among the young.
Average monthly salaries are less than €400. “There is not much hope here,” says journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic, who lived in Sarajevo throughout the three and a half year long siege of the city.
“During the war it was easier than now. It was simpler. It was a war. They were shooting 24-7. You were scared. You lived like an animal but it was easier. Now you feel all the time under pressure. You feel like you are going to explode but nothing is exploding.”
Resad Trbonja was just 19 when he swapped his Converse trainers and Levi’s t-shirt for a Bosnian army uniform and a place on the frontline defending his native Sarajevo. More than two decades later, he is pessimistic about the future of the country he took up arms to defend.
“We are not going in the direction I was fighting for,” he says. “I didn’t fight for a Muslim country. I fought for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for all its citizens regardless of their faith. I wasn’t prepared for this ethnic division.”
Back at Potocari, a Bosnian state police car is permanently stationed outside the graveyard. On a warm summer’s afternoon there seems little need for such measures. Shirtless workmen toil in the fields beside empty roads. The air filled with the smell of freshly mown grass. Birds sing in the trees.
This idyllic scene belies the political reality. Srebrenica now belongs to Republika Srpska, a state-within-a state whose leaders continue to deny what happened two decades ago. “It is a big hypocrisy that this part of Bosnia where the genocide happened belongs to Republika Srpska,” says Hasan Hasanovic, as a group of Bosnian schoolchildren walk through the Srebrenica memorial. Many are crying.
Six years ago, Hasanovic returned from Tuzla. He now lives in Srebrenica with his wife and young daughter. “Our lives are now a sort of mission. We live everyday trying to bear witness to genocide and all the people who don’t know.”
Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina – The violent breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War left a painful legacy. It is estimated the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives, with thousands more missing, amid the chaos of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Many are still struggling to deal with the pain and to find closure.
Founded at the behest of then US president Bill Clinton at the G-7 summit in 1996, the ICMP was tasked with the almost impossible – to trace and identify the 40,000 people missing at end of the Yugoslav wars.
A skull missing a mandible sits upright on a stainless steel mortuary slab. Scattered around it are fragments of bone shaped into the form of a skeleton. A few ribs, a fibula, two tibias, a handful of fingers. A poster poster on the wall pleads in Bosnian and English, “Help Identify Your Loved Ones. Give Your Blood Sample”.
Among the unaccounted were the more than 8,000 killed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
The massacre that took place at Srebrenica was the largest atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War. Men and boys, overwhelmingly Bosnian Muslims, were shot in warehouses and bludgeoned to death on fields and football pitches.
A US soldier serving with the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia patrols while Bosnian forensic experts inspect bodily remains found in a mass grave in the eastern village of Kamenica, near the town of Zvornik [Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters]
Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers to push the bodies of their vicitms into unmarked mass graves. The bodies were subsequently exhumed, sometimes multiple times, to hinder identification.
The international community is still struggling to define the extent of the killings, 20 years later, and Russia vetoed the UN genocide resolution on Srebrenica on July 9.
Now these scattered human remains lie on the mortuary table of Dragana Vucetic, a tenacious Serbian forensic anthropologist at the ICMP Tuzla lab.
“When they removed those skeletal remains, often with big trucks, they destroyed the integrity of individuals. So very often we don’t find complete bodies,” Vucetic said.
Many bodies were so badly decomposed that the ICMP identified just 140 Srebrenica victims in its first five years, mainly through clothing and body parts.
“We had to find another method for investigation. So we made a DNA lab.”
Blood was collected from over 70,000 Bosnians, both in the Balkans and across Europe where they had fled as refugees.
Within months of the DNA lab opening in 2001, the ICMP had its first positive match. By the close of the following year, it had found more than 500 additional matches.
So far ICMP has identified nearly 7,000 people who died in Srebrenica.
Hasan Hasanovic was just 19 when Bosnian Serb forces led by the notorious general Ratko Mladic overran the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995, without the Dutch peacekeeping forces firing a shot.
Along with around 15,000 Bosnian Muslim men, Hasanovic fled to the hills, walking more than 100 kilometres to safety. Just 3,500 survived “the death march.” Hasanovic’s father and his twin brother did not make it.
His father’s body was identified in 2003, and interred among the rows and rows of brilliant white marble headstones at the graveyard for Srebrenica victims, located across the road from the former Dutch base at Potocari.
In 2005, Hasan Hasanovic buried his twin brother, too. “That was the hardest thing in my life,” he told Al Jazeera.
The process of identifying the Srebrenica victims is arduous. Bone samples from victims are taken for DNA testing and matched with profiles on the ICMP database. Courts require that DNA matches are of 99.95 percent probability or higher.
Once a body has been formally identified, the person is officially pronounced dead.
The ICMP facility is open to the public but relatives are discouraged from visiting to see the remains. “It is very emotional for them to see skeletons. Usually they expect that they will see something else. After 20 years, it is still stressful when they come here and see bones,” said Vucetic.
In 2010, the ICMP contacted Hatidza Mehmedovic. The remains of her husband and two sons – both killed at Srebrenica in July 1995 – had been identified.
“They told me my younger son was a complete body but I wasn’t brave enough to go and see him,” she told Al Jazeera.
Now Mehmedovic has just one wish – closure for all those who lost loved ones when Bosnian Serb forces took Srebrenica.
“All we want is justice so the criminals get punished and we find those that are still missing so mothers can at all least get the satisfaction of finding their sons. Many mothers have died – and will die – without being able to bury a single bone.”
Many women in Srebrenica are still awaiting to hear about the whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during the war [Damir Sagolj/Reuters]
Almost 1,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacres are still missing and experts believe that at least one mass grave remains hidden in the verdant countryside in eastern Bosnia.
At the ICMP’s Tuzla facility, the remains of around 300 individuals await identification.
After identification, most will be interred during the annual July 11 commemorations at the Srebrenica victims’ graveyard. This year more than 100 people will be buried here.
In addition to identifying victims, the ICMP has played a key role in criminal prosecutions.
So far, 46 individuals have been put on trial at Bosnian state courts for their role in the Srebrenica massacre, including 38 people who have been charged with genocide.
The ICMP’s forensic evidence has been crucial in the 21 trials related to Srebrenica at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, among them, the trial of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Despite these successes, justice has been “very slow” said Muhamed Durakovic, a Srebrenica survivor who now works for the ICMP in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
“There are hundreds of people roaming the streets of Srebrenica who are war criminals… Someone who took away your child is now working as a police officer or a public official in Srebrenica. To the victims that is totally unacceptable,” Durakovic said.
Meanwhile, a Srebrenica denial movement has sprung up. “Srebrenica hoax” is a popular search term on Google. Videos on YouTube promise the “real” story of what happened in July 1995, often using language and arguments familiar to Holocaust deniers.
Many of these denials emanate from Republika Srpska, an autonomous, majority-Serb region within Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which brought the conflict in Bosnia to an end, Srebrenica became part of Republika Srpska.
Recently Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president, called the Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century”.
Workers dig graves at a memorial centre for Srebrenica Massacre victims in Potocari. Nearly 136 identified victims will be buried at a memorial cemetery during the ceremony, their bodies found in some 60 mass graves around the town [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
Arguments over Srebrenica are symptomatic of the divided nature of contemporary Bosnia. “The political, economic and social situation has gotten worse since the war,” said Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
The country’s patchwork of ethnicities are drifting further apart.
“You don’t have any ethnic mixing anymore in big towns. In schools a majority are mono-ethnic. Kids learn about other ethnic groups from the media and history books and they are all tainted,” said Latal.
The prospect of European Union membership, once held up as the goal that could unite post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, looks increasingly remote. In recent years, much of the international community has pulled out of the country.
Meanwhile, the ICMP is one of the few genuine success stories to emerge from the impoverished, fissiparous post-war Western Balkans.
Their innovative DNA approach has been exported around the world, helping to identify victims of natural disasters and political violence everywhere from the United States and the Philippines to Chile and Iraq.
Next year, however, the ICMP is set to move its main operations to The Hague.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cash-strapped government is unlikely to step into the breach to fund expensive DNA laboratories.
In a grim irony, the future of the forensics lab at Tuzla could depend on discovering another Srebrenica mass grave, and soon.
Belfast, Northern Ireland – Political allegiances are hard to miss on the Shankill Road, a short drive from Belfast’s city centre. Red, white, and blue bunting and union flags line the street.
Shoppers pass a peeling mural depicting a pair of men holding rifles. Their blackened, hooded heads are bowed in honour of slain members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant armed group.
Northern Ireland’s 30-year-long “Troubles” ended with a peace agreement in 1998, but on the Shankill Road the scars of violence remain. Corrugated iron “peace walls”, up to eight-metres high, separate residents from nearby Catholics. The area is among the most deprived in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Now Shankill Road, and the rest of this country of more than 1.5 million people, is bracing itself for further economic woes amid a deepening impasse over proposed welfare reforms, which some fear could bring down the devolved power-sharing Stormont assembly in Belfast.
Northern Ireland’s rival nationalist and unionist blocs are divided over hundreds of millions of pounds worth of budget cuts, mandated by the UK government in Westminster.
On Tuesday, cross-party talks in Belfast aimed at preventing the collapse of the power-sharing executive failed to resolve a standoff over welfare cuts. Unless a deal is found soon, Northern Ireland faces the prospect of bankruptcy.
“Welfare reform is a huge issue right across Northern Ireland, it cuts across social boundaries,” says Winston Irvine, a community worker on the Shankill Road and a spokesman for the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).
“We are talking about a £600 million [$922m] black-hole in the Northern Ireland budget that has huge ramifications for people who are already struggling with huge inequalities,” Irvine says.
“Unemployment here is above average. Educational attainment is obscene in some Protestant working-class communities. We have high rates of suicide.”
Age of austerity
The nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein, the political voice of the Irish Republican Army during the conflict, oppose spending reductions, which they say would hurt the most vulnerable in society. Both major unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists, have warned that cuts are inevitable.
“The current crisis has come about solely through the actions of the British government, it could only be resolved by the actions of the British government,” Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said recently.
Democratic Unionist leader and Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson has insisted if no deal is struck he will ask the UK secretary of state to repatriate control of welfare policy back to Westminster. Such a move could destabilise the power-sharing government in Belfast.
“The crisis around welfare and the economy has tested even the most stable of states. Here it is tearing us apart,” says Duncan Morrow, professor of politics at the University of Ulster.
Welfare reform is particularly sensitive for Sinn Fein, which is wary of damaging its standing in the Irish republic, where the party is riding high in polls on a platform opposed to spending cuts.
A British soldier foot-patrols Shankill Road, west Belfast, in 2001 [Reuters]
“Sinn Fein want to be the peace party and the anti-austerity party, but those things are moving apart in the north,” says Morrow.
The current crisis is a reflection of the continuing dominance of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland more than a decade-and-a-half on from the end of the Troubles, says John McCallister, an independent unionist member of the Stormont assembly.
“We live in this bubble, a policy-vacuum bubble with no ideas. Our only policy is ‘the Brits ought to send more money’,” says McCallister.
Little to gain
Ahead of the recent UK general election, both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists called for significant increases in government spending in the region.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements require both nationalists and unionists hold power in government. With no formal opposition and little threat of losing support to parties on the opposite side of the sectarian divide, politicians often have little to gain by reaching effective compromises on big issues.
“The Northern Ireland government is great at opening things, great at going to New York [on trade visits], but when it comes to governing, making decisions that are tough and unpopular, they haven’t been up to it,” says McCallister. “We haven’t matured into a functioning democracy.”
Certainly traces of the dark days of the Troubles remain. Paramilitary groups are still active in many parts of Northern Ireland. In working-class urban communities so-called “punishment beatings” are all too frequent. Intimidation and forced evictions are common, particularly in loyalist areas of Belfast.
Neil Jarman, Institute for Conflict Research [Peter Geoghegen]
“The question nobody is asking is 20 years after the ceasefires, why are the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] and the UDA [Ulster Defence Association] still there? What is their role?” says Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research, in Belfast.
Rather than addressing the presence of former combatants in communities, paramilitaries are increasingly being treated as legitimate, says Jarman. “We talk of them as civil society organisations, rather than uncivil society organisations.”
Wanting to move on
Political life in Northern Ireland remains framed by the Troubles. Almost every senior figure at Stormont was involved in party politics during the conflict. There have been few new faces on government benches, particularly on the nationalist side.
Signs are emerging that the electorate is tiring of this staid status quo. At just 58 percent, turnout in Northern Ireland was the lowest of the four UK nations in last month’s general election.
There were few major surprises, but Sinn Fein did see its vote fall slightly, losing a seat in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. In the republicans’ West Belfast stronghold, a left-wing candidate took almost one-fifth of the vote. Despite losing its sole seat, the avowedly cross-community Alliance Party polled a record high in east Belfast.
Northern Ireland is increasingly Janus-faced. The paramilitary insignia and national flags are unlikely to be taken down on Shankill Road and its republican equivalent across the peace line any time soon. But a kilometre or so away in Belfast city centre, young people mix freely without any talk of religion or politics.
“What gets in the news is the Northern Ireland that is stuck in the past,” says Jarman. “What doesn’t get in the news is the younger generation wanting to move on from it.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paisley has more than its fair share of attractions. There’s the medieval Abbey, cradle of the Royal House of Stewart. The art deco Russell Institute and the recently renovated Victorian town hall. But it’s not architectural history – nor this weekend’s Paisley Beer Festival – that has drawn the world’s media to Renfrewshire. CNN, The New York Times and countless others have come in recent weeks to witness a contest that could define this General Election: the– 20-year-old novice going toe-to-toe with the shadow Foreign Secretary.
Mhairi Black admits that the press attention has been “a bit bizarre”. But the SNP candidate for Paisley and Renfrewshire South appears largely unfazed. Wearing a button-up blue shirt with her blonde hair tied back, she looks like a quietly confident final year Glasgow University student on her way to her first proper job interview. And in a way she is.
Black, an SNP member since 2011, has only been involved in one previous political campaign, last year’s referendum.
She is up against Douglas Alexander, a Labour heavyweight with a national profile and a majority well north of 16,000. The latest Lord Ashcroft poll put Black 11 points ahead. Scotland stands on the cusp of its “Portillo moment”.
“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” says Black when we meet in a busy coffee shop on Gauze Street, the name an echo of Paisley’s prosperous industrial past. “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.”
Across the table sits her father and election agent, Alan. The 54-year-old used to vote Labour before joining the SNP.
His daughter is appealing directly to voters to follow suit. “Now people are focusing on what Labour are offering or what Labour are not offering and they are saying ‘that doesn’t represent me’,” says Mhairi.
She describes Douglas Alexander, pictured right,
as “quite disappointing” and “a careerist”. “I’m sure he’s been good to some people but he has not represented this area half as well as he should have.”While Japanese reporters and Brazilian television crews have been a pleasant novelty on the campaign trail, Black has faced some harsh headlines closer to home. Old tweets and videos have been dredged up.
There have even been accusations of anti-Catholicism – even though she was baptized in the faith.
But Black is not the wild youth she has at times been depicted.
Behind the callow exterior lurks a definite steeliness. When she says she “wants to help people” only a churl could doubt her. Her belief in independence is steadfast but, like Nicola Sturgeon, insists that this election isn’t about the break-up of Britain. Top of her concerns is poverty. “The fact that in this day and age you have people relying on food banks is disgraceful,” Black says. Close your eyes and you can almost picture her mentor Jim Sillars.
That message resonates in Paisley, a town of contrasts. With 75,000 people, a university, a cathedral and an abbey, by rights it should be a city.
Singer Paolo Nutini lives in one of the numerous avenues lined with trees and palatial Victorian residences. Less than half a mile way is the local food bank. There is a soup kitchen, too.
On a warm spring day, an accordion duo plays outside Bargain Buys on Paisley’s pedestrianised high street. The high street is littered with To Let signs. Eddie Nardini’s ice-cream stall is doing a roaring trade but he complains that his nearby shop is struggling. “Scotland is not getting its fair share from the UK,” says Nardini. There is a yellow SNP sticker on the side of the cart. What will happen in the General Election? “The SNP will get the most seats.” He looks confident.
The crowd on the high street is evenly spread between shoppers and over-enthusiastic salespeople, mainly from mobile phone companies and charities. Sean Duffy is distributing leaflets, too, but for a rather different product. “We believe that capitalism is the problem,” Duffy, a warehouse worker, says handing me a Communist Party flyer with a cartoon of an over-sized cat smoking a cigar. “We believe that capitalism has to be taken away from the people.”
The Communists are not running a candidate in Paisley and Renfrewshire South but Duffy and his comrades come out once a week to sell the Morning Star and spread the word. Since the referendum people “people are talking to you more”, says Duffy. He comes from a family of Labour supporters, but when I ask if they will be sticking with the party he makes a face that says “maybe”.
Douglas Alexander was not available to speak with me, but I did call into the local Labour campaign headquarters, a large store-front on Causewayside Street festooned in red. Inside, more than half a dozen volunteers and party officials are busy drawing up campaign rotas and stuffing envelopes with personalised letters from Alexander, who has represented the area since 1997. “We are confident but not complacent,” says one staffer who asks not to be named.
Maureen Pollock, chairwoman of Labour’s Paisley branch, admits that there has been “a national trend” away from the party. In 46 years as an activist this election is “different to anything I’ve seen before”. But, she insists, “Douglas can win”.
Despite the lugubrious polling numbers, Labour has reason to be optimistic.
The party won the local elections here in 2012. Alexander has a particularly high profile – the former Scotland Secretary is overseeing Labour’s UK election campaign. Such a national presence is an “advantage” for the local area, says Hugh Henry, Renfrewshire South MSP. “People recognize that he is an asset.”
Alexander’s public stature counts for little, however, in the legal high shop next door to Labour’s campaign office.
“Labour had their chance and they never done nothing,” says Billy, who is looking after the shop for a friend. “No point putting your money on the same horse if they don’t do anything.” He wears a Rastafarian hat and sits surrounded by huge clear plastic bongs, boxes of over-sized cigarette papers and Jamaican flags.
He will be voting SNP. “Independence is going to happen,” he says as a disheveled middle-aged man hands over a £10 note for “a gram” of an undecipherable substance in a shiny wrapper. As I leave, three more customers arrive.
Paisley’s social problems have been acerbated by the recession, says Sandra Webster, the Scottish Socialist Party candidate. A carer with two children with autism who lives in a council house, Webster has
“experienced austerity first hand”.
Her one night a week respite has been cut.
Webster has no grand designs on a Westminster career. Indeed, the Scottish Socialists only stood in the seat because the party – like everyone else – assumed Alexander’s majority was unassailable. “We thought the SNP don’t have a chance, so we wouldn’t be splitting the Yes vote,” she says. But the SSP is keen to build on its own membership surge since the referendum. “We are the original anti-austerity party, not the SNP,” she says.
In 2010, Paisley and Renfrewshire South was stony soil for both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, and there is little sign of the Coalition parties seeing a revival in their fortunes this time around.
Eileen McCarten, a LibDem councillor with 27 years’ experience, is well liked and quick witted but admits that she has “not been packing my bags to go to London”. Her task, instead, is “to highlight the huge amount of good work we have done in the last five years.”
At 26, the Conservative’s Fraser Galloway is positively geriatric compared to Mhairi Black. An Edinburgh lawyer in a field dominated by candidates with strong local connections, Galloway’s pitch is firmly to Unionists. “We are the only party that is standing up for the Union,” he says. “We are proud of the role we played in Better Together. If you want a strong Unionist voice vote for me.”
But the indications are that few “Buddies” are looking for a strong pro-UK voice. Rona Rice was one of the majority of Renfrew folk who voted No last year. She has no intention of voting SNP next month but is swithering about whether to back Labour. “I’ve always been Labour but I’m not that happy. They don’t seem to be the same as they were. They don’t seem to be that working class any more,” Rice says sitting in the sun outside the town hall.
On a nearby bench, Patrick sits with his partner Isabella. He “will definitely be voting Labour”, but she is switching to the SNP. “I voted Labour all my days and what have they done? They’ve had their chance. Although my grandfather would be turning in his grave at me.”
Before I leave, taxi driver Hugh Hunter takes me on a scenic tour of Paisley. “It is overshadowed by the big city seven miles away [Glasgow]. But there is a lot of renewal. Paisley is coming back,” he says as we pass the last remaining mill, now turned into a business park. In the distance the magnificent neo-gothic red standstone Thomas Coats Memorial Church – known colloquially as the Baptist Cathedral of Europe – sparkles in the sunshine.
A onetime Labour voter, Hunter was swept up by the independence campaign. “The message just resonated with me. Socially progressive, honest, sincere. I just got caught up in the Zeitgeist.” If the post-referendum mood sweeps Mhairi Black into the House of Commons on May 8, Paisley will find itself firmly on the UK’s new political map.
‘WE didn’t obtain the result we wanted but sooner or later we will get the result we want,” says Norman Will, leaning back on a comfy armchair in the Yes shop in the centre of Inverness. Saltires, Basque and Catalan flags compete for space on the wall behind him.
The atmosphere in here is upbeat to the point of giddiness. The first day I try to visit it is so busy I decide to come back. The following lunchtime is a little quieter, but the flow of people is still steady. Some pick up SNP posters and election material. Others just come for a chat.
Alongside the Yes badges and keyrings, there are dog neckerchiefs, SNP high-vis jackets and tote bags made out of old copies of The National. A lending library stocks books by Jim Sillars, Tom Devine and Lesley Riddoch.
It feels rather churlish but I have to ask: Why is there a Yes shop in Inverness? The referendum was lost more than seven months ago. “This came from the community spirit that developed between independence supporters during the referendum. We decided to keep going,” says Will, 58, who also manages the office of local SNP MSP Fergus Ewing.
Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh, 32, who works in the nearby Marks & Spencer, is a regular visitor. A small blue Yes badge is pinned to the lapel of his leather jacket. “I really enjoyed the energy of the referendum especially on the street in the final week,” he says. Pinned on the walls of the shop are photographs of dense Inverness crowds, waving flags and placards, in the days leading up to September 18. “It was amazing.”
The Yes shop, which reopened in October after a brief hiatus, is supposed to be an ecumenical space. There are posters on the wall for the Green party, who are running in the constituency, but there is little doubt about where the General Election allegiances lie.
“The reality is [the SNP] are the only ones who can beat the Unionists,” says Will. A larger-than-life placard of local council leader and SNP candidate Drew Hendry leans against a nearby wall.
Hendry, well-built with a regulation army haircut, pops in briefly before heading back out on the campaign trail. A woman at McDonald’s wants to have her picture taken with him.
For decades the Highlands has been a bastion of liberalism. From Aviemore to the tip of Shetland is all shaded Liberal Democrat yellow on the UK electoral map.
The vast Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency – which borders former LibDem leader Charles Kennedy’s Skye and Lochaber seat to the west – has rarely been fertile ground for the Nationalists. Danny Alexander won the seat for the LibDems with more than 40 per cent of the vote in 2010; the SNP finished a distant third on less than half that.
But this time around the polls – and the rows of posters attached to lampposts on Inverness’ blustery main street – suggest it is a straight fight between Hendry and Alexander. It is a battle between a party in the ascendancy and one trying to cling on in its one-time strongholds.
“I am pretty confident,” Alexander says during a weekday morning meet-and-greet on the streets of Inverness. I am finding that people here like the fact that we have had a Highland MP at the top of government for the last five years who has been able to get a lot of things done for this area.”
Frequently caricatured as the Conservatives’ lackey during his time in the Treasury, in the flesh Alexander is disarmingly articulate. The exchanges with Inverness voters are at times testy. One man, visibly worked up, says he will never vote liberal again. But Alexander never looks flustered. He just keeps smiling, cleaving tightly to his core message: without the LibDems in coalition, the country would be in a far worse state.
Whether that pitch will be enough for Alexander to keep his seat remains to be seen. “He definitely gets my vote,” says pensioner Ken Mackenzie. “He takes an interest in the local aspect of things, which is important, I think. Even though he spends a lot of time in London he spends a lot of time here.”
Alexander admits that the volte-face on tuition fees “does come up” – in 2010, the LibDems, having pledged to abolish university fees, promptly raised them to £9,000 a year – but says local voters are more concerned about the centralisation of power in Edinburgh. “People see that the SNP is a party that has taken power away from the Highlands,” he says, identifying the creation of a unified Police Scotland as a particular cause of alarm. Personalities have often played a bigger role in Highland politics than elsewhere in Scotland. Alexander remains well liked by many constituents. That, however, does not mean they will all be voting for him. “I don’t believe in them anymore. I used to but not now,” says Avril, a former LibDem voter in Inverness. “There are other parties that I think can do a better job.” In Inverness, the SNP is well placed to profit from the decline in LibDem support nationally and the energy generated by the referendum. The Highlands rejected independence but the result was closer than the national average and sample polling suggests the city of Inverness voted Yes.
“The SNP are doing things for Scotland, not just Westminster,” says Iona McMurtrie, 20, after a mid-week meeting with Hendry at the Iron Works, an impressive live venue in the centre of Inverness. Her friend, Roslyn Keane, 48, a support practitioner, voted for the very first time in the referendum. She will be voting SNP next month, she says. “People are seeing we are offering an opportunity for a different way of doing things,” says Hendry.
Inverness is in need of regeneration. In the city centre, To Let signs are as common as adverts for Highland tours and Loch Ness cruises, and about 30 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Retaining young people is a problem. Technology, oil and gas and renewable energy offer “a great opportunity” for the Highlands that is not being realised, says Hendry.
A City Deal is set to deliver £300 million in investment for Inverness. Hendry says that it has been local pressure, not the ear of the Treasury, that has brought an agreement on more cash for the Highland capital to the brink of completion. He adds: “I would be quite happy for Danny [Alexander] to take the credit to get the deal over the line. But so far all we have had from him is warm words.”
There is a marked urban/rural divide in the seat, too. Hendry’s own Aird and Loch Ness ward is the size of Luxembourg. More than half the electorate is in Inverness city, with the remainder dispersed across the constituency. That demographic breakdown has meant that, despite finishing second in the seat in 2010, Labour has often struggled to make inroads. Mike Robb, runner-up last time out, says Inverness “has the same difficulties as Glasgow or Edinburgh” but in the rural hinterland public transport, broadband and wind farms are pivotal issues.
A Labour member for more than 30 years, Robb says the SNP are “picking up a strong vote on the back of the referendum” but that there is also a “silent majority” in favour of Unionist candidates.
“The Yes supporters are very visible, but there are a lot of people out there who very quietly don’t agree. They don’t put up posters but they are there,” he says. Conservative candidate Edward Mountain believes that Inverness, and Scotland, need to “move on” from the referendum. “It was an unpleasant time. We don’t need to re-fight old battles,” he says.
A soldier turned farmer, Mountain is a textbook case of nominative determinism; rugged, broad-shouldered and amiable as an episode of The Archers.
Inverness has been at the heart of another election battle in Scotland – that between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over tactical voting. Mountain supports his party leader Ruth Davidson’s calls to resist the urge for Unionists to vote for incumbents in liberal-held seats.
“You are much better off voting for what you believe in,” he says, when we met in the local Conservative office in Inverness. On the wall are photographs of David Cameron and some of his predecessors, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Alec Douglas-Home. The Conservatives finished a distant fourth here in 2010, but are hoping to build for the future in a region where they already have two list MSPs.
In a a measure of how constitutional politics has come to the fore, even Scottish Christian Party leader Donald Boyd says that he “a local man who wants to retain the Union” – albeit with an added emphasis on “the Christian voice”. Boyd, a minister and doctor in the local hospital, finished ahead of the Greens and Ukip in 2010. His party’s policies are closer to the latter: keep Trident, reduce immigration, pay off the national debt.
“We have a Christian attitude that begins with love your neighbour, but we also have an attitude of Christian prudence towards what the country can sustain,” says Boyd.
The Nationalists, however, seem to have a monopoly on evangelical zeal. Back in the Yes shop the glass-plated front door squeaks open. A young boy decked out in SNP yellow bounds into the centre of the floor. He is “eleven and a half” and grinning from ear to ear. He has just come back from his first ever canvass: “It was great.”
In the Highlands, as across Scotland, politics is changing. The question now is what that change will look like on May 7.
‘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. “We’re all Labour,” says one man with a broad smile, his shoulders noticeably hunched from almost three decades down the pits. “Are we f***!” roars his drinking companion across the table.
The sound of televised horseracing fills the room. A barrel-chested man with a booming voice breaks the momentary silence. “Never talk about religion or politics in a pub.” His warning goes unheeded.
“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry.
He worked in the colliery at nearby Bilston Glen until waves of closures hit in the mid-1980s, decimating parts of
Midlothian. Across the table Bill, an SNP supporter, shakes his head.
“No way, no way.”
Thirty years ago, Loanhead miners club was at the coalface of the battle against Margaret Thatcher to keep Scotland’s mining industry alive. Today, it is quieter, more sedate. There is a flawlessly manicured bowling lawn; posters in the club’s squat, modern community centre advertise Thai Chi and country music.
In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.
A band plays a brisk polka to mainly grey-haired older women. There is no blue plaque, but this unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 last year, that Gordon Brown made his promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. Just days earlier that poll appeared showing a narrow Yes lead.
The UK would, the former Labour leader said, “move as close to federalism as you can in a country where 85 per cent of it is one nation, England”. Brown pledged to deliver “the equivalent of what Keir
Hardie asked for when he called for Home Rule for Scotland”.
Academic research suggests the significance of “the Vow” has been overstated, but in the bar at Loanhead miners club there is little doubt that the former Chancellor’s intervention was a pivotal moment.
“Gordon Brown came in here, promising this and that. That swung the vote,” says Bill. For once Henry agrees. “Brown was the best man we had.”
The connection between mining and
Labour runs deep in this corner of
Scotland. Midlothian Labour MP David Hamilton introduced Brown in the miners club last September. A former mine worker, Hamilton spent months on remand during the 1980s strike – only to be acquitted in less than a quarter of an hour at trial.
But Hamilton is standing down this time. And while the politics of the pits are not gone, they are fast disappearing. “It is still Labour here but not as staunch as it was,” says a former miner in Loanhead.
Midlothian itself is changing, its undulating hills increasingly populated by commuters who work in nearby
Edinburgh. Some of the one-time pit villages have struggled to reinvent themselves, but expectations are high that the new
Borders railway will transform towns such as Gorebridge and Bonnyrigg when it opens in September.
Midlothian now has two SNP MSPs and its first-ever nationalist council, elected in 2012. Council leader Owen Thompson is hoping to make it another first in May, by becoming the SNP MP.
Thompson grew up in Loanhead, and in the SNP. His father, a local minister, was a passionate party advocate. His mother supported Margo MacDonald’s seismic 1973 Govan by-election victory. “I probably put my first leaflet out when I was seven or eight,” says Thompson, now 37, when we meet in Midlothian House, the council’s bright, airy offices in Dalkeith. A copy of the Declaration of Arbroath on faux parchment hangs over his desk. Beside it is a Loanhead Miners’ Youth football pendant.
His election pitch is squarely aimed at Labour voters. “Many traditional Labour people are seeing that the party has gone so far from the traditional principles that the SNP is now their natural home,” says Thompson.
There is no mythical “middle Scotland”, but if there was it might be Midlothian. Just over 56 per cent of voters said No to independence.
David Hamilton’s majority is north of 10,000 but the swing needed for the SNP to take the seat is well within current nationwide polling.
Over the reception at Midlothian council offices hangs a woven tapestry bearing the inscription: “Change Comes”
Thompson is hoping the words prove prophetic.
There are, however, local considerations that could stymie the nationalist surge. The SNP council has hardly been universally popular. Cutbacks have cost jobs across the community sector and even led to the introduction of charges for care alarms.
“Every decision we have made hasn’t been easy, but there were good reasons for every decision,” says Thompson, who cites the introduction of the living wage for council employees and a sharp increase in Midlothian’s popularity as a destination for school leavers as his most significant achievements in just over a year in charge of Scotland’s second smallest council.
Labour candidate Kenny Young says that the SNP “will pay the price at the ballot box” for failing to protect the most vulnerable from council cuts.
HE says: “The nationalists are working with an independent Tory [Peter De Vink] here. The SNP say
‘we are against the Tories’ but they are working with the Tories here. That’s the big issue.”
If there is one central issue in Young’s campaign, it is health. A diabetic, he is “passionate about” the promise of 1,000 extra nurses for Scotland that Labour have pledged to fund through a so-called “mansion tax” on the UK’s richest homeowners. Young has lobbied government to have disability benefit extended to suffers of Dupuytren’s Contracture, a condition caused by operating vibrating machinery that affects the hands and fingers of many former miners. He also wants to see a
Scottish government inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strikes.
In some respects, Young and his SNP opponent are not that dissimilar.
Both grew up locally, graduating almost straight into politics. After studying history at Edinburgh University – emulating his hero Gordon Brown – Young was elected Labour student chair. He went to work on Ed Miliband’s successful leadership campaign, subsequently joining his staff before returning to Scotland to run for public office.
Young has demonstrated a steely political resolve that belies his fresh-faced
29 years. In November, he won a council by-election for Labour in the midst of the post-referendum SNP groundswell. He is confident of holding Midlothian in May.
“I would rather be the Labour candidate than the SNP candidate,” says Young. “There is no doom and gloom in the
Labour party in Midlothian.
“Part of that is we are buoyed by what people are saying on the doorsteps. We are talking about what people care about.”
Midlothian has been cited as the birthplace of the modern political campaign; it was in Dalkeith, in 1879, that William Gladstone relaunched his career, unifying the liberals and spectacularly defeating the incumbent Tory prime minister Disraeli. Nowadays, the battle on Dalkeith’s wide High Street is firmly between Labour and the SNP.
Outside a discount store, a man with a union flag pin on his flat cap will be voting “tactically” for Labour. “I don’t want another referendum. Whatever happens we need to stay together,” he says.
Elsewhere, Jim, a retired vicar, supported independence but is “expecting” to vote Labour next month.
Englishwoman Sue Kinloch is voting SNP for the first time next month.
“I want to vote with my mind and my heart,” says Kinloch, who previously backed Labour. “Scotland and Wales get sidelined. I’m not nationalist really but the only way to get Nicola Sturgeon a voice is to vote [SNP].”
Outside Dalkeith library, 18-year-old Aaron Thompson waits for a bus to take him to the nearby college. He voted
Yes in September and is divided between the SNP and the Greens this time around. But he thinks Labour’s message that only they will be able to prevent a Conservative government could sway
Midlothian voters because “people here hate the Tories, hate them with a passion”.
Back in Loanhead miners club, Alan is in two minds about his vote. The 63-year-old says he has been “Labour all my life” but is thinking of switching to the SNP. “I’m that close,” he says, holding his thumb and index finger barely an inch apart.
“I voted against independence. I want us to be together, but Labour have lost the vision that they had. Labour are finished in Scotland.”
Around the table a couple of heads nod in agreement. Just as many shake vigorously from side to side. As the bar closes up for the afternoon, the debate goes on.
ON the last Friday of every July, Langholm hosts the Common Riding. In a throwback to the days of vicious Reiver battles with the English across the Border, the neat streets of brick houses and busy shops selling artisan chocolates and colourful tweed resound to a cacophony of horses’ hooves on asphalt and cheering crowds.Like many children growing in Langholm, Laura Ellis’s daughter loved the Common Riding. She dreamed of being the “principal”, carrying aloft a blue banner at the head of the party. Her mother, who owns a craft shop on the main street, told neighbours about the young child’s wish. They laughed and said: “The principal has to be man.” But why, pressed Ellis, is it always a man? The answer came: “Because it’s aye been.”
This sense of unbending Borders tradition – “It’s Aye Been”, meaning “it’s like that and it has always been” – extends to politics too. Where the rest of Scotland fell out of love with the Conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, the tree-lined valleys here have remained solidly blue.
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale was the only Scottish seat to return a Tory MP, David Mundell, in the 2010 General Election. This sprawling constituency, created in 2005, crosses three local authority boundaries, taking in everything from the sparsely populated farming country around Langholm to the Edinburgh commuter towns of Peebles and Biggar and even a thin slice of urban Dumfries. Before David Mundell, one-time Tory chief whip Sir Hector Munro was the Westminster representative here for more than 30 years before stepping down in 1997.
While the battle between the SNP, Labour and, in places, the Liberal Democrats rages across Scotland, there seems little appetite for political change on a weekday afternoon in Langholm. Near the imposing town hall, formerly a tollbooth, which sits bang in the middle of the main street, forcing cars to weave around it, one woman nods emphatically when I ask if she will be voting Conservative.
“[Mundell] looks after the area,” she says. “You want anything done, you phone him and he does it.” Her friend agrees. He is worried about another referendum. “We are too close to England for that [independence]. It’s alright for the people in the north of Scotland, but our hospital is just over there.”
But the sense of sleepy permanence can be misleading, too. For four centuries, Langholm lay at the heart of the Debatable Lands, a 40-square-mile tract of territory that, as the name suggests, was claimed by both England and Scotland. The cross-Border banditry only ended with the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the wild men of the Marches came up against King James VI & I’s iron fist.
The radicalism did not end with the Reivers swinging from the gallows. The Covenanters found fertile ground in the soft Border soil. But over time the Debatable Lands were pacified. The belligerent reputation was replaced by a softer image of soporific bucolicism. The Borders, in the popular imagination, became a place where change happened slowly, if it happened at all. The area overwhelmingly voted No in the independence referendum last September. The bookmakers do not expect anything dramatic in May, either. Mundell is firm favourite to hold on.
On the winding road between Gretna and Annan, the car stereo is interrupted by traffic reports from BBC Radio Cumbria. There’s a tailback on the road to Keswick. An accident near Windermere. The names seem familiar yet foreign to my adopted Glaswegian ears. This is Border territory. Whatever Scotland’s future constitutional settlement, England will remain an integral part of life in this corner of the country.
In Annan, a tractor trundles down the main street, past solid terraces hewn of red sandstone. In the car park of the local Co-op almost a dozen SNP canvassers are gathered. It’s not even 11am and they have already been out delivering leaflets for the local candidate, Emma Harper. In normal election times the flame-haired nurse who lives outside Annan would have no hope in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale – the Nationalists barely scraped 10 per cent of the vote here last time around – but these are not normal times.
“The other candidates aren’t at the races at all. We are the only optimists who want a better Scotland,” says Harper, who returned to Scotland just over a decade ago after 14 years in California, bringing with her a US west coast sense of energy. The metallic SNP and CND badges on her jacket twinkle in the bright morning sun.
Harper’s election material stresses her 30 years’ nursing experience. She says: “I see the struggles that nurses have on the ward everyday. It is really challenging to be a nurse in the NHS right now.”
There are also particular local concerns at play: the unemployment that sends so many over the Border to work in Carlisle and further afield; food poverty; the ongoing decommissioning of Chapelcross. The plant, a few miles outside the town, used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Landowners are powerful in this part of Scotland, too. The Duke of Buccleuch controls some 270,000 acres, much of it running through the constituency. In 2008, Buccleuch was granted planning permission for 22 drilling sites in Canonbie, a picturesque village bisected by the River Esk. Extraction of the coal bed methane is on hold but locals worry that it could start soon.
“And that’s just phase one,” says Bill Frew, chairman of Canonbie and District Residents Association. “It’s feudal. The Duke owns everything. People work for him, or they live in his houses, or they’re tenant farmers. So they are disenfranchised and afraid to speak out.”
The SNP has become the party of protest for many fed up with the old ways. In Annan, SNP membership has soared since the referendum. A local party branch was recently reformed, having disbanded in the 1960s. The new chairman will be businessman Henry McClelland. A stocky, middle-aged man with a broad smile, McClelland is also in charge of Annan’s most famous institution: Annan Athletic football club.
Annan Athletic has “given the town profile” he says proudly. “On Sky Sports every Saturday you see Annan.” The side has reached three national semi-finals and two playoffs since joining the Scottish league in 2008, but more than that it has become a focal point of the community. McClelland is a firm believer in independence for Scotland. He says that he cried on September 19.
“The referendum isn’t going to go away,” he says. “There is going to be opportunities in the future. It won’t go away.”
Despite the strong vote for the Union in the constituency, Harper is profiting from the energy of the referendum. Her canvassers carry bright blue “Yes Scotland” clipboards. Many became politically active last year. Val is typical. Originally from Lancashire, she voted Labour for 35 years. Now she is firmly behind the SNP. “The Labour Party has diluted, diluted until it is just a shadow of the Tory Party,” she says.
But if Labour really are Tories in disguise, nobody has told Archie Dryburgh. The hirsute former union organiser at Chapelcross sits firmly on the left of the party. He supported Neil Findlay’s leadership campaign and speaks of his concerns about TTIP, the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that many fear could lead to the privatisation of vast swathes of the NHS.
He is worried about unemployment, the threat of community hospital closures and lack of broadband investment (“Never mind superfast broadband, some of the families just want broadband!”).
We meet outside a cafe in Gretna Green, a bagpiper playing as small groups of tourists drink tea in the sunshine. Just half a mile away lies the site of the worst rail disaster in UK history. On May 22 1915, signalmen’s error led to the catastrophic crash that claimed an estimated 226 lives. Many were members of the Leith Battalion of the Scots Guard, bound for Gallipoli. Dryburgh, an army veteran himself, is spearheading the centenary commemorations. “It’s going to be a poignant time around here,” he says.
Dryburgh is unlikely to be attending the Quintinshill disaster commemorations as the local MP. But the Dumfries and Galloway councillor says he will fight hard, and rejects any suggestion that Labour supporters should vote tactically to keep the SNP out. Mundell, he says, “has a great PR team behind him. [But] people want to see action, not words.”
Dryburgh is hoping to pick up disaffected LibDem voters; the party took almost a fifth of the vote in 2010 but are nowhere to be seen this time around. Ukip polled strongly in the region in last summer’s European Parliament elections but the party is not expected to pull up any trees in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale come May. Despite the party’s fiery anti-Conservative rhetoric, their candidate, Kevin Newtown, stood numerous times – unsuccessfully – for the Tories. Mundell remains the man to beat.
The assistant secretary of state for Scotland says: “I am making a case for why we need a strong UK Government with a clear economic plan, but also we need to speak out for this area because people here often feel marginalised from central government, whether it is in London or Edinburgh.”
Earlier this week, the House of Commons’ Scottish affairs committee reported that the tendency for Whitehall departments to neglect devolved issues in Scotland and for Holyrood to centralise power in Edinburgh had created “negative consequences” for the Borders.
Mundell says the SNP represent his strongest challenge. While there is a strong Tory vote in Tweeddale, the former Social Democratic Party councillor in Annandale and Eskdale (“I was young”) can also expect to win Unionist votes in Clydesdale, long a bastion of liberal leader David Steel, and Labour-leaning Dumfriesshire.
Being Scotland’s only Tory MP has unlikely advantages. “There has never been a disagreement within our Westminster Scottish Conservative group,” Mundell chuckles. But there are real difficulties too. The Tories’ recent adverts depicting Ed Miliband as Alex Salmond’s puppet have riled many. The campaign, orchestrated from London Conservative headquarters, is aimed squarely at marginal English seats. Mundell, however, is at pains to stress: “I don’t find on the doorstep people seeing it as an anti-Scottish message”.
Ironically, the Conservatives, implacably opposed to electoral reform, are hamstrung in Scotland by first-past-the-post. The party took more than 412,000 votes in 2010 General Election – barely 80,000 fewer than the SNP – but won just one seat. The LibDems, whose vote was far more concentrated, took 11 seats with just over 465,000 votes.
“Sometimes when people look from outside they think Conservative support in Scotland is one in 59 when it reality it is around one in six,” says Mundell.
But he admits that there is “no silver bullet” for Scottish Conservatives.
“It is about talking about the issues that are important to people and having a clear set of policies and a case to make”. Nevertheless, come May, the likelihood is that there will still be more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland.
LAST July, Rory Stewart, a former Black Watch officer and current Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, opened the Old Acquaintances Cairn in a field on the Scottish side of the Border at Gretna. The idea was to give “ordinary people the chance to show how they feel”. The cairn still stands, and is more impressive than in the weeks before the referendum. The piles of rocks painted red, white and blue reach up to 12 feet.
There have been reports of vandalism but the only trace of this on my visit was a single profanity scrawled on a rock that said, “thanks you all”.
Inside the cairn, a stone slab says Scotland and England should not be divided “like snarling curs”. Another proclaims “we’re better far together [sic]. United we must stay.” In the corner of a molehill-filled field the River Sark burbles away. You could toss a coin and hit England.
The cairn is deserted, but in the car park of the adjacent hostelry I meet Deirdre, a Northern Irish woman who lives near Annan. She is no fan of Mundell. “I’ve never seen him. Never met him. He sends a little newsletter every now and then saying ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that’. I just bin it.”
In May she will be sticking with Labour. “Ed Miliband isn’t a brilliant leader, but he beats David Cameron. And that’s what matters.”
While across Scotland voters seem to be turning away from once steadfast political beliefs, in the Borders it seems old certainties still hold. It’s aye been.