Scotland bangs the drum for Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.

In Scotland, ‘no’ means ‘yes’

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

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

McGarry’s despondency did not last long, however.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

How Labour Lost Ground to the Scottish National Party

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

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

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

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

Midlothian has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. Thirty years ago, Loanhead Miners club was at the coalface of the ultimately futile battle against Margaret Thatcher to keep Scotland’s mining industry alive. Today, it is quieter, more sedate. There is a flawlessly manicured bowling lawn. Posters advertise Thai Chi and country music. In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Vice.

Scotland’s Labour party dominance and UK vote tumult

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Scotland’s Labour party leader Jim Murphy [Reuters]

Glasgow, Scotland – There is an old adage that in Glasgow, Labour votes are weighed not counted, such is the party’s historical dominance of Scotland’s largest city.

Labour has controlled Glasgow city council for all but five of the last 63 years. All seven Glasgow MPs were elected with a red rosette pinned to their lapel.

But there are signs that Labour’s supremacy in Glasgow – and Scotland – could be coming to an end, with huge repercussions for the whole of the United Kingdom.

In the 2010 general elections, Labour won 42 percent of the vote in Scotland, and up to 68 percent in some Glasgow constituencies.

But recent polls put the Scottish National Party (SNP) on course to win a crushing victory in May’s UK vote, ending Labour’s monopoly on power north of the border and jeopardising Labour leader Ed Miliband’s prospects of becoming prime minister.

Glasgow Central is the kind of seat Labour once held almost without trying. A diverse constituency taking in the luxury flats of the Merchant City and the tower blocks of the Gorbals, Glasgow Central has been united by one factor – Labour.

Crumbling support

In the last general election, Labour’s Anas Sarwar won more than half the vote.

People in Glasgow have voted Labour for generations and finally they are starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party are not the party they thought they were.

Alison Thewliss, SNP candidate

In Glasgow Central, the SNP polled barely one-third of the Labour vote in 2010. A recent poll, however, puts the nationalists 10 points ahead in the seat.

“People in Glasgow have voted Labour for generations, and finally they are starting to wake up to the fact that the Labour Party are not the party they thought they were,” said the SNP candidate, local councillor Alison Thewliss.

The most obvious reason for this dramatic turnaround is September’s independence referendum.

Although Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom, every constituency in Glasgow voted to leave.

Labour was at the forefront of the pro-union “Better Together” campaign, but some 190,000 Labour supporters backed independence.

Most are now expected to vote Scottish nationalist, turning a raft of once-red Labour heartlands to SNP canary yellow.

“People say Labour ganged up with the Tories during the referendum. That has really sickened them,” said Thewliss.

Defeat for Labour in seats such as Glasgow Central would make the task of winning control in Westminster much more difficult.

But on a cold weekday afternoon, there is little enthusiasm for the traditional party.

“I’m voting SNP. Labour seems to have the same policies as the Tories,” said a middle-aged Asian man, who requested anonymity, in Govanhill, home to one of Scotland’s largest immigrant communities and once a bedrock of Labour support.

Even those who voted “no” to independence are uncertain about Labour.

“I always voted Labour – but not now,” said Anne, who returned home to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She said she likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Interests of Scotland

Across Scotland, Labour faces similar problems.

The SNP enjoy leads of up to 20 points in the polls. Recently elected Scottish leader Jim Murphy has not brought the electoral bounce many expected.

Ed Miliband has refused to rule out a deal with the SNP after the general election, much to the chagrin of many of Labour’s 40 Scottish MPs who face being washed away in a nationalist tsunami on May 7.

Writer Gerry Hassan said the stark decline of Labour in Scotland has deeper roots than just their alliance with the Conservatives in last year’s referendum campaign.

In an upmarket café on the edge of Pollokshields East, one of Anas Sarwar’s strongest areas in the constituency, the author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland explained: “This is a long-term thing. Getting into bed with the Tories has hurt Labour, but it’s not the biggest thing.

“They haven’t answered the question of what Scottish Labour is for, beyond its own self-preservation.”

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Hassan.

“Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP.

“They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour party doesn’t understand that.”

Glasgow and Labour have long been synonymous in the Scottish political psyche, but Hassan said the party’s grip on the city has often been more imaginary than real.

“I don’t think there ever was a golden age for Scottish Labour. The Labour vote has died and moved,” said Hassan, citing the halving of Glasgow’s population since World War II, and dwindling election turnouts.

Labour’s Anas Sarwar succeeded his father Mohammad, Britain’s first Muslim MP, in 2005. The 32-year-old dentistry graduate said he is “confident, not complacent” of holding his seat in two month’s time.

Sarwar’s pitch is an unambiguous one – vote Labour to keep the Conservatives out. The Tories, who draw most of their support in the south of England, are unpopular in Scotland, and practically toxic in Glasgow.

Just one of Glasgow’s 79 councillors is Conservative.

“I know a Tory government is bad for Glasgow. I know what Glasgow needs is a Labour government, not a Tory one, and I want to make sure by accident that we don’t end up a Tory government,” said Sarwar.

But Cass MacGregor, Scottish Greens candidate in Glasgow Central, said voters are “fed up” being told to back Labour to keep the Tories out.

“People have to vote for what they believe in. Trying to vote based on the people you don’t want to win is what has got us into this mess in the first place,” said MacGregor.

The Greens are unlikely to win but could attract plenty of support, particularly from students in a constituency that includes a large student body.

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Nationalist supporters demonstrate outside a Scottish Labour party conference [Getty Images]

Alex Mosson is testament to how much politics in Glasgow has changed. The former Lord Provost spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in the city, but no longer backs the party he joined as a Clyde shipyard worker in 1978.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the Labour party,” said Mosson, who left the Labour party and voted for independence last year.

“They want someone who speaks for their views. There has been a sea-change in people’s thinking.

“In the months leading up to the referendum, there was a mood among people. There was a feeling that something could be done. That will not change now.”

Whether this shift will be enough to deliver a sweeping SNP victory in May remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain – the days when scales were needed to tally Labour votes in Glasgow are coming to an end.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Election Posters Banned Across Scotland

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

Experts fear that the lack of posters could depress turnout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland’s Independence Generation

On Wednesday lunchtime, a bagpiper heralded the arrival of Gordon Brown at a community hall in Glasgow. Once the music faded out, the former prime minister launched into a speech that has already been hailed by some as the oration that saved the union. Amid a cheering crowd waving ‘no thanks’ placards Brown, with a fiery intensity often missing in office, called on supporters “to stand up and be counted”.

The following day, Scots did just that, voting stay in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55 to 45 on a record high turnout of over 84 per cent.

Historians might credit Gordon Brown’s late intervention with swinging the vote back to the unionist side, but throughout Scotland’s two-year long campaign nationalists consistently failed to convince Scots that they would be better off in an independent state. What the yes side did do – in towns and villages across the land, often using social media – was persuade thousands of political neophytes and old stagers to become actively involved in probably the biggest grassroots political campaign Scotland has ever seen.

yesOn Wednesday, as the crowd was on its feet applauding Gordon Brown in Glasgow, councillor Willie Clarke and Michael Payne sat chatting about the referendum vote in the backroom of the Benarty community centre, fifty miles, away in the former Labour leader’s Fife constituency. Both men had spent the past six months campaigning for a ‘yes’. Almost every week hundreds of locals – some who had not voted for years – packed into the centre in this small, former mining village to hear visiting speakers and participate in debates.

“I’ve not seen anything like this in terms of public meetings. The last time I saw this community galvanized like this was the miner’s strike,’ said Payne, the community centre’s manager. The 1984 miners strike – and its defeat – cast a dark shadow across Benarty. Unemployment is high and jobs are scare for those living in Benarty’s rows of pebble-dashed terrace houses set on an escarpment below low, tree-topped hills. “The solidarity is still there. It died a bit after the miner’s strike but it’s back now,” said Payne.

Scotland’s referendum was a direct result of the Scottish National Party winning a majority in elections to the devolved parliament in 2011. But the roots of the disquiet that led almost half of Scots to vote to leave the 307-year-old union with England are etched in the landscape in places like Benarty. Deindustrialization has left this once self-sufficient community reliant on welfare and public sector jobs. Politics has changed, too. Labour no longer enjoys a monopoly on power in the old pit towns; Scottish nationalists, and the very idea of independence, has caught the imagination of a long-neglected population.

As everywhere else in Scotland, the pro-independence side was by far the most visible in Benarty on the eve of the referendum. Saltires hung in the breeze out of second floor windows. In the car park, half a dozen vehicles sported blue ‘yes’ stickers on their windows. There was just a solidary ‘save the union’ badge.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. You’re going back to the 40 and 50s for a campaign like this,’ said councillor Willie Clarke. When we last met in the spring, Willie Clarke seemed friendly but tired. On Wednesday, he was ebullient, taking at length about the campaign – and its aftermath. “I’m very encouraged by what’s happening,’ he said as we drove through the former mining towns of central Fife. Shops were boarded up. “I believe that Scotland will be an independent nation, if it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it but it’ll happen.”

That evening, just twelve hours before polls opened, several thousand independence supporters filled Glasgow’s George Square, transforming this normally rather staid collection of statues and grey asphalt into a carnival. A middle-aged woman meandered slowly through the crowd with a sign that read, ‘Scotland don’t be scared’. Hipsters walked across the square with ‘yes’ stickers in their beards, a young couple wearing matching ‘Ja’ badges pushed a pram. Conga lines started up; people chanted ‘Scotland’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’. At one end of the square, political speeches gave way to rave music in the gloaming. Near the city chambers, rows of uniformed police separated a small group of far-right protesters waving Union flags from the much larger mass of yes supporters.

Few were talking about the referendum itself. Those that were thought the latest polls – showing a four-point lead for the no campaign – had underestimated the size of the yes vote. ‘We can win this,’ said a topless busker in a kilt.

Scotland’s yes campaign was often characterised by an optimism that bordered on blind faith. Many supporters were drawn less to a Braveheart vision of Scottish nationhood, and more to a belief that the political system in London was beyond reform. The 20-somethings clambering on the George Square statues, chanting ‘yes, yes, yes’, on Wednesday looked like protestors in Puerta de Sol in Madrid or Istanbul’s Gezi Park – with added Saltires and Scotland football tops.

“I’m absolutely disgusted by Westminster. Not by the UK, not by England, I’m disgusted by Westminster,’ said June Dickson, 50, from Livingston in central Scotland. A Scottish flag by her side, Dickson complained about the expenses scandals and the war in Iraq. (Iraq was a turning point in modern Scottish political history: just over a decade ago, over 50,000 people marched in Glasgow against the war. Alex Salmond rarely failed to mention the Scottish National Party’s opposition to the invasion – or Labour’s support of it).

Ms Dickson’s brother, Lawrence, was killed by the IRA in sniper in south Armagh in 1993. “My brother fought and died to protect his people, the people of the UK, a UK he thought was an equal, just country. I don’t see how anyone can look at the UK now and say it’s any of those things,” she said, holding back tears.

Irish-born SNP Glasgow councillor Feargal Dalton stood under a plinth in the middle of George Square waiting for his teenage son to emerge from a sea of blue and white Saltires, peppered with Basque, Catalan and even Serbian flags. Nearby people posed for photos beside a life-size Loch Ness monster cuddly toy. “I’m nervous,” Dalton admitted.

He was right to be. That the George Square party was more wake than celebration would only become clear in the small hours of Friday morning – as the results began to pour in from across Scotland – but even on Thursday morning, as polls opened, there were signs that the visibility was not the same as support for the yes campaign.

In Easterhouse, a sprawling 1960s—era housing estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, yes placards hung from almost every lamppost and seemed to occupy every second living room window. But most of the people trickling in and out of the St Rose of Lima primary school seemed, quietly, to be voting for the union.

“I think we’re better together,” said Marie Doherty, a local mother. She was worried about the prospects for North Sea oil and the economic stability of an independent Scotland. “My husband has voted no, too,” she said.

Easterhouse is Scotland’s political apathy capital: less than 35 per cent here voted in the 2011 Holyrood elections. The yes campaign hoped to win the day by coaxing the apathetic out of their stupor with promises that ‘Another Scotland is Possible’. But for some the no campaign’s negative messages – warning of the dangers of independence – won the day. “I don’t normally vote at all but I was worried about this so I came out to vote no,” said one local woman.

On Thursday, Easterhouse, like the rest of Scotland, was a story of quiet nos, and loud yeses. Just after lunch, a cavalcade of mothers pushing prams turned up the path to the polling station. In unison they sang “Flower of Scotland”. They wore ‘yes’ t-shirts and badges, and waved flags as small children ran among their buggies.

“These past few weeks I think Scotland’s found a voice. We know now that we don’t have to settle for what the government give us,” said Tracy, a mother who had organsied the group to come en masse to vote.

“I want to have a better future for my kids, for my grandkids,’ she said. “Scotland is going to be very different tomorrow either way. If it’s a no vote it gives these kids the chance to say “we can do it”. If we don’t do it they will.’

As Thursday night slipped into Friday morning, even the most ardent independence supporters were forced to admit defeat. No scored victories in all but four of Scotland’s more more than 30 electoral areas. (Glasgow, however, did vote for independence). On Friday morning, a dozen or so independence supporters sat drinking beer and waving their flags in an empty George Square. “I’m devastated,” said one teenager, in between sips of Tennent’s. The mood was one of quiet despondency, not riotous anger.

The question now is where Scotland, and its newly mobilized generation, goes from here. It is too early to tell if Westminster can offer a devolution settlement to satisfy Scotland’s growing sense of self-determination. If it can’t, the Scots may be on the streets again, and next time rousing cries to ‘stand up and be counted’ might not be enough to save the union.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 21/09/2014.

‘Is It Worse to Be Run from Edinburgh or London?’

In his book, the Making of the Crofting Community, the Scottish historian James Hunter quotes a small farmer in the Highlands as saying they “hate us in London but ignore us in Edinburgh.” Standing on the windswept pier at Stornoway, the main town on the isle of Lewis, both metropoles feel like a world away. The twice-daily ferry takes almost three hours just to reach the mainland. From there, it is another 200 miles to the Scottish capital.

There are few places in the United Kingdom further from the corridors of power than the Western Isles, the scenic archipelago of fifteen inhabited ribbons off Scotland’s west coast. Many of the islanders speak Scots Gaelic and rely on farming, fishing and tourism for their income. So what does the prospect of Scottish independence – or staying in the union – mean so far away from Westminster and Holyrood?

The Western Isles is a Scottish National Party stronghold. Both the sitting MP and the member of the Scottish Parliament are nationalists. But when it comes to the referendum Lewis, where the majority of the islands’ population of around 30,000 live, seems as split as the rest of Scotland. “The island is 50/50,” says one local journalist. “People seem pretty settled in their minds. I don’t think the campaigns have made much impact.”

One of the reasons the yes and no sides have struggled to make inroads on Lewis is that the major national concerns are not always the most significant for this island community. Ask someone walking the narrow streets of Stornoway what the big issues are for them and they will most likely mention fuel poverty, the removal of tax relief on ferry freight and local control of revenue levied on using the seabed.

For some there is wariness about whether independence would actually mean more local power for places such as Lewis. The SNP administration at the devolved parliament in Holyrood has displayed a fondness for centralization, bringing policing, emergency services and European funding under central government control. A council tax freeze mandated from Holyrood has left officials in the pebbledashed council offices, built in the 1970s to house a newly created Western Isles local authority, with less control over local affairs than they used to have.

“One of the worries is that it is worse to be run from Edinburgh than London,” says Fred Silver, former editor of the Stornoway Gazette when we met for a balti in Lewis’s only curry house. An Englishman who has spent more than two decades in the Western Isles, Silver sports a blue “Yes” badge but concedes that Edinburgh has not always done right by the islands.

“You can actually demonstrate that the best period for the island was under the Tory government in the 1980s,” he says, citing the creation of a Gaelic television fund, the spread of Gaelic medium education and the establishment of a local enterprise company that has since been disbanded.

Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister in Westminster in Tony Blair’s first administration, has long been one of the strongest critics of the SNP. “Nationalism believes in taking decision making to the centre. Their localism is Scotland,” he says. “There is a very strong philosophy in Scotland just now of centralizing in order to bring everything under ministerial control.”

“There are large areas of public policy that need completely different perspectives in island communities or in very peripheral communities and to be honest there is not a lot of interest in any of that. They will tick the boxes but there is no real understanding of how difficult things are or what is needed,” says Wilson, who was a Labour MP in Ayrshire.

But Alastair Allan, local SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, says that only a “yes” vote would guarantee more powers for island communities. “The decision about what Scotland’s budget is is not ours to make. We pay our taxes to the UK government and they decide what Scotland gets to spend.”

The islands have certainly benefited from the creation of a separate Scottish Parliament, particularly when it comes to changing Scotland’s almost feudal system of land ownership. Around 2500 people own about three-quarters of all private land in Scotland. Take a drive almost anywhere beyond the housing schemes of the Central Belt and you will soon run into vast private estates. The Duke of Buccleuch alone owns some quarter of a million acres.

In 2003, the Labour government in Holyrood introduced the Land Reform Act, which allows local communities to buy the land they live on. While the act has had little impact on the baronial estates on the mainland, it has transformed many island communities. Since its introduction, around 70 per cent of the Western Isles has come under direct community ownership. On islands like Eigg, the local community has been able to raise money to buy the entire island.

For some the community buy-outs on islands like Harris and South Uist are evidence of why Scotland needs independence to fulfil its potential. David Cameron (not the British prime minister – the chair of Community Land Scotland) disagrees. “We have community empowerment now and that has got cross-community support. Whatever happens next week won’t make a whit of difference to us,” he says at the end of a day-long conference on land reform held in the function room of a Stornoway hotel. Among the delegates are representatives from communities across the Western Isles that are at various stages in purchasing the land they live on.

For many on the Scottish islands, the referendum on Thursday is not so much about currency or European Union membership but what the communities themselves will gain either from staying with the UK or being part of an independent Scotland. In 2013, the Western Isles teamed up with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, as part of the “Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign” aimed at securing a better deal for island communities whatever way the vote goes.

In June, the Scottish government in Edinburgh offered island communities control of all income that comes from leasing the seabed for wind farms, piers and boats moorings – money that currently goes to the UK’s Crown Estate – and the devolution of planning to local partnerships. The London government, so far, has promised little.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line”. On such modest proposals, perhaps, are islands (and nations) won and lost.

This piece originally appeared on Vice. 

The View from Scotland’s Islands

DISPATCH

STORNOWAY, ScotlandChange comes slowly on the island of Lewis, 50 miles off Scotland’s west coast. The island of 20,000 people has been a stronghold of evangelical Christianity for more than a century and a half. It was only five years ago that the first Sunday ferry docked at the quayside that dominates Stornoway, the windswept town that is home to around half of Lewis’s inhabitants. Shops still obey the Sabbath. And beyond Stornoway’s narrow streets mobile phone service is patchy and broadband more the exception than the rule.

But change could be on the way for this island community, suddenly and soon. On Thursday, Lewis, along with the rest of Scotland, will vote on independence from the United Kingdom.

The main focus of the referendum debate might be hundreds of miles south in the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Lewis has not been left behind. Bright blue Yes signs are strapped to practically every second lamppost along the pier. Independence supporters are not the only ones displaying their colors: “Proud Brit Proud Scot” reads a sign in an upstairs window of one of the town’s numerous pebble-dashed terrace houses. Nearby the red, white, and blue of the British flag flutters in the firm breeze.

When it comes to independence Lewis, like the rest of Scotland, is split. Nationwide, the no side has a slender lead, according to most recent opinion polls. A straw poll taken after a referendum debate in Stornoway earlier this month finished in a dead heat: 99 in favor of leaving the 307-year-long union with England, 99 against.

The national debate has been dominated by big-ticket issues, such as what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether it would be allowed to join the European Union, but for many here on Lewis the key question is what the islands themselves would gain, either from staying with the United Kingdom or being part of a new state.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent.

Scotland’s island communities all want more powers to be devolved to them and to have a greater say in how revenue raised in their areas is spent. Last year, the Western Isles, along with Scotland’s two northerly island chains, Shetland and Orkney, launched the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign to bring the islands more autonomy during the referendum.While both sides appealed directly to the islands, Yes has certainly been the more energetic of the two campaigns, attracting political neophytes with promises of a new politics and a fairer Scotland. Stornoway, like many towns, has its own pop-up “Yes” shop, housed in an old storefront beside a bar on the main shopping street. Inside, Alasdair Allan, the area’s local member of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, is confident of victory.

“There has been a real change in mood in the last month,” says Allan, who moved hundreds of miles from Scottish Borders, which abuts England, to Lewis in 2006 specifically to contest the seat. The following year he was elected to represent Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles), a constituency of less than 30,000 people that stretches almost 130 miles from the tip of Lewis in the north, to the remote island of Barra in the south.

A giant foam Yes sign sits on the floor underneath Allan’s desk. “Vote Yes 18-09-14” is painted in blue on the shop window. In the space of half an hour, three local activists arrive for supplies, eating into a stack of campaign literature and stickers, fuel for their door-to-door canvasing.

When Allan joined the Scottish National Party in 1989, Scottish independence was a fringe pursuit. By this time next week it could have could have created Europe’s newest state. “I’ve spent my entire life campaigning for this week. I have an enormous emotional interest in what happens,” says Allan.

Next door, an elderly lady sits outside her house drinking tea, a copy of the fiercely pro-union London-based newspaper the Daily Mail on her lap. Above her door is a homemade poster in red with a single word: No.

There is no sign of discord between neighbors on the two sides of Scotland’s constitutional debate, but the referendum has created tensions on the island, says Iver Martin, a local minister in the Free Church, a smaller Scottish denomination that split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 over the role of the state in religious affairs. “For some people it has really become an obsession to them,” he says. “There will be a continual agitation for some time to come. I don’t think that makes for a healthy society.”

The minister is a committed no voter but his congregation is free to make up their own mind, he says. Martin has no problem entertaining opposing views, as the copies of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusionand Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes on his bookshelf attest. “The tradition I represent is not afraid of debate, not afraid of openness and honesty,” says the minister.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom.

In many respects, the Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, typify the diversity of culture and identity in the United Kingdom. Of the 15 inhabited in the chain, those north of Benbecula are predominantly Protestant, those to the south Catholic. There is a strong Gaelic tradition on the islands; road signs are bi-lingual. And the islands bear traces of not just Scottish and British culture but also Norse influence dating back more than a millennium.For centuries, Lewis was the redoubt of small farmers and fishermen. Life here, as close to Reykjavik as to London, is still hard. Winters are long, and the flat, boggy plains around Stornoway offer little respite from the elements. Incomes are still below the Scottish average and more than one in four live in poverty, according to official statistics. Many struggle to afford fuel to heat their homes. Lewis’s economy remains heavily reliant on the public sector — the Western Isles council and the local health board remain two of the largest employers despite shedding jobs in recent years due to decreased funding from the central government.

Still, there have been improvements in some areas. Harris Tweed, which by act of parliament can only be made on the island, is going through a renaissance: Once the preserve of elderly gents, everyone from Madonna to Gwyneth Paltrow has been spotted wearing the iconic hand-woven woolen fabric. Tourism has increased, too.

On the far side of Lewis, where flat bog gives way to sea cliffs and isolated sandy beaches, the biggest tweed mill on the island, Harris Tweed Hebrides stands a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. The mill’s chairman, former Labour minister Brian Wilson, says he is worried that independence could undermine the tweed industry across the island. Last week a number of business leaders including representatives from BP and Standard Life warned about the consequences of Scotland leaving the union.

Wilson, a longtime critic of the nationalist government in Scotland, is sure Scots will reject independence on Thursday. “I have to believe that the society I live in is not going to march to the precipice without noticing what is over the edge. It’s taken a long time but now the economic realities are bearing in quite rapidly,” he says.

For many on Lewis, the decision could come down to whether they believe staying in the union or going it alone will best serve the island’s interests. So far neither the UK government nor the Scottish National Party (SNP) that is leading the Yes campaign have struck a formal arrangement with the trio of the Western Isles, Orkney, and Shetland on more powers for the islands but there have been talks. Revenue from the Crown Estates, a public trust that owns and levies a tax on the seabed, is crucial.

“The SNP has promised ownership of the sea bed,” says one local. Westminster, on the other hand, has offered “an office and a phone line,” he says. Last week, in an attempt to block the independence surge, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed that more powers would be devolved to the parliament in Edinburgh if Scotland decides not to go it alone.

Whether warnings from business leaders or the promise of more Scottish autonomy are enough to convince voters to back the union will become clear early on Friday morning. On Lewis, the expectation is that life will revert back to normal whatever the outcome.

“It’s in our nature to just get on with it,” says a journalist who has worked on the island most of his life. “Whatever happens you take it on the chin and you get on with it.”

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

Cameron heads north to woo Scotland. But is he his own worst enemy?

With his Eton education and clipped vowels, David Cameron is often seen as quintessentially English. But lately the British prime minister has been talking up his Scottish heritage – with particular emphasis on Clan Cameron’s motto, “Let us unite.”

As September’s referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom draws closer, Mr. Cameron is becoming increasingly concerned about a burgeoning shift among Scots towards the pro-independence side, which prompted a rare visit to Scotland today to press the unionist case in person.

But observers warn that the Conservative prime minister may be in a no-win situation north of the border, where he crystallizes Scotland’s nationalist and anti-Tory sentiments while not yet offering a constructive alternative to undecided Scottish voters.

“These token trips mean virtually nothing,” says Karly Kehoe, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. “What the politicians at Westminster need to demonstrate to the Scottish public is that they understand the level of debate taking place here and that they are engaged with the issues.”

A Tory in a Scottish land

Cameron told reporters in Glasgow today that he would be making an “unrelentingly positive” case for the union over the coming months. Speaking at the start of a two-day visit, the Conservative party leader said: “My message is simple. We want Scotland to stay. We are all enriched by being together. Scotland puts the great into Great Britain.”David-Cameron-001

But his appearance in Scotland’s largest city was a low-key affair – hardly surprisingly given his party’s travails in Scotland. The Tories, the largest party in England, holds just one of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament at Westminster. Many Scots still blame Margaret Thatcher for the deindustrialization that ravaged many Scottish cities. When the former Conservative leader died last year, hundreds attended a celebratory street party in Glasgow’s main square.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, has described independence as an opportunity to end Tory rule in Scotland forever. SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon dismissed Cameron’s visit, saying “We will be better off if all decisions on our future are made here in Scotland rather than by an out-of-touch Tory elite at Westminster.”

Although polling has consistently put the unionists ahead so far, there has been disquiet about Better Together, the cross-party “No” campaign supported by Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Opponents of independence have been accused of relying on a lugubrious message and of failing to make a compelling case for maintaining the union.

Recent reports that Westminster suppressed the findings of a government-funded opinion poll thatindicated a rise in nationalist sentiment have fed this narrative.

Bane or boon for the “no” vote?

But with the Sept. 18 vote to end the Union of 1707 only months away, Cameron is caught in an awkward position when it comes to Scotland, says James Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator at the New Statesman.

“The SNP accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say. Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing. [The SNP] are quite good at playing that populist anti-Tory card.”

While Cameron’s visit could possibly be a boon for his independence-supporting opponents, the British leader had no choice but to risk an appearance, says Maxwell. “If [Cameron] just systematically avoids Scotland for four months it would be awfully embarrassing, not just for him and for the conservative party but for the no campaign more broadly.”

Cameron has consistently rejected calls from Yes Scotland to participate in a live TV debate with SNP leader Alex Salmond. Some, like Arthur Midwinter, visiting professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh, believe that Cameron should go further and keep out of the independence campaign completely.

“My view is that Cameron should leave it to the Scottish secretary [Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael] to argue on behalf of the UK government and for [Labour MP and Better Together leader] Alistair Darling to speak for Better Together,” says Professor Midwinter. “Cameron should stay away from the campaign. I don’t think it’s helpful to have him coming here and presenting arguments. This is really a matter for Scots.”

But the prime minister’s visit could end up benefiting both sides in the independence debate, says Alex Massie, an experienced watcher of Scottish politics and a commentator for the Spectator.

“We are accustomed to viewing politics as a zero-sum game in which there is an identifiable winner and an equally identifiable loser. But the prime minister of the United Kingdom coming to Scotland to talk about the strengths and the advantages of the union is an exception to that general rule of political punditry,” Mr. Massie says. “I think it’s actually a win-win for both sides. Both sides will get out of it what they want.”

Nonetheless, he doesn’t expect Cameron’s visit to move the needle much overall. “The notion that this will have a major impact on the referendum is, I suspect, exaggerated.”

This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Why David Cameron is finding it difficult convincing Scotland to stay in the UK

EDINBURGH, Scotland — When David Cameron was here last week to call on Scots to reject independence from the United Kingdom, he did it by promising more powers for the devolved Scottish parliament.

Scots could have the “best of both worlds,” the prime minister argued. Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would be “stronger, safer, more secure and more successful” inside the union if they vote “no” in a referendum planned for September, he said.

But that’s a message he’s struggled to get across.

With polls suggesting support for leaving the UK is slowly growing — even though the opponents of independence still maintain a clear lead — many are asking why the prime minister appears to be doing the minimum to save a three-century-old union.Cameron

Some of his obstacles are obvious.

The Conservative Party leader, who was privately educated and has a background in public relations, is often caricatured here as aloof and remote from Scottish concerns.

The Conservatives hold just one of Scotland’s seats in the British parliament in London and are deemed irrelevant in the devolved parliament here, which is dominated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

The internal party politics are less visible.

Cameron’s allies among Scottish Conservatives — whose official title is the Conservative and Unionist Party — have traditionally resisted the kind of devolution the prime minister is offering Scotland. The party called for a “no” vote in the 1997 referendum that led to the establishment of a Scottish parliament.

Pro-union parties have also been unable to agree on the shape further powers for Scotland would take in the event of a “no” victory on Sept. 18.

Independence supporters, for their part, point to history to argue the case that the prime minister can’t be trusted to keep his word: When Scots voted in an unsuccessful referendum on devolution in 1979, then-Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher promised to deliver an improved home-rule settlement if they voted “no.”

In the end, Scotland had to wait almost two decades for its devolved parliament.

“If a bearded transvestite can win Eurovision, I suppose anything is possible,” commentator Iain Macwhirter wrote in last weekend’s Sunday Herald about this month’s popular Europe-wide song contest. “But believing in more powers is a bit like believing Scotland could win the World Cup: it’s theoretically possible, but vanishingly remote and ruled out for the time being.”

The Scottish National Party (SNP) says only a vote for independence would guarantee more powers for Scotland.

“Nobody will believe Tory promises of more powers for Scotland because the last time that happened the only thing Scotland got was Thatcherism and 18 years of Tory governments we didn’t vote for,” Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond said last week in response to Cameron’s pledge.

The prime minister has also been put in a difficult position by the way the referendum campaign is shaping up.

While he’s refused to become seriously involved — maintaining the decision is for the Scottish people to make — and has rejected repeated offers to participate in a televised debate with Salmond, a “yes” vote would seriously damage his credibility.

Cameron is “caught in an awkward position,” says James Maxwell, a political commentator for the New Statesman. “The government don’t quite know how involved to get.”

The SNP has been good at playing the populist anti-Tory card, Maxwell adds. “They accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say,” he says of the UK parliament in London. “Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing.”

Although Cameron has a “clearer ear” for the Scottish debate than many of his Conservative colleagues, Maxwell says, “he is a right-wing patrician Tory with little or no electoral legitimacy in Scotland, so he is never going to play particularly well with the electorate here.”

Not everyone’s a critic, however.

Some have welcomed Cameron’s cautious approach to the referendum, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish Conservative MP who’s called it “extremely wise.”

“Alex Salmond wants to turn this into a Scotland versus England issue, and particularly an SNP versus the Conservatives issue,” says Rifkind, a onetime Tory defense minister. “There’s no reason why the rest of us should play that game.”

Paradoxically, the independence vote may offer Scottish Conservatives their best chance in a generation to improve their dismal electoral fortunes at home.

A party commission is due to publish its proposals for further devolution in Scotland in the event of a “no” vote.

With previous proposals from the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties having received decidedly lukewarm receptions, the Scottish Tories have an opportunity to put some eye-catching suggestions on the table.

Measures thought to be under consideration include the full devolution of income tax.

“The Tories have a chance to stake out the radical ground,” Maxwell says.

Of course, any new powers for Edinburgh would depend on Scots heeding Cameron’s pleas and saying “no” in September.

This piece originally appeared in the Global Post.