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.

Shame in the Shetlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland’s Revenge

Scotland’s Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

How Labour Lost Ground to the Scottish National Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Vice.

UK elections and the shift from ‘tribal’ politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Curtice, Strathclyde University professor

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

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

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

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

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

Horse-trading and deal-brokering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK parties have struggled to understand the SNP surge.

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

All the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Scotland’s new SNP leader takes the reins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– James Maxwell, Scottish commentator

Countering ‘Thatcherism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise to power

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

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

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

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

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

‘Authentic language’

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

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

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

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

Position of strength

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Showdown in Scotland

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead.

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, theSun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

***

What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” — but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked upon the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that most Scots favor enhanced devolution (that is, more powers for the Scottish Parliament) over full independence, but the three main parties — Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats — that comprise Better Together have failed to present a common program for greater devolved powers after a No vote. Instead, the parties’ marriage of convenience has become increasingly strained as the referendum campaign has dragged on: Traditionally the dominant force in Scottish politics, Labour has been forced to share platforms with their gravest political foes, the Conservatives. David Cameron’s Tories are pariahs in Scotland, holding just one of 59 seats representing Scotland in the UK’s parliament and blamed for the savage de-industrialization of the Margaret Thatcher years that still scars the country today. The Liberal Democrats, once a significant presence north of Hadrian’s Wall, were routed in the 2011 elections to the devolved Scottish parliament — punishment for their decision to go into a coalition with Conservatives in London.

Meanwhile, “Yes Scotland,” the official independence campaign, has not exactly set the pulses racing. Its messaging has been vague and reports of internal splits have been rife. But pro-independence forces have something their unionist opponents largely lack: a dedicated, highly motivated grassroots political movement the likes of which Scotland (and possibly even Britain) has not seen in generations. In places like Easterhouse, a sprawling housing estate (or project) on the outskirts of Glasgow, the independence message is being driven not by the SNP, but by new groups such as the Radical Independence Campaign, a left-wing organization formed in 2012 that has proved effective at mobilizing disenfranchised voters.

Canvas returns now suggest that most Scots in working-class communities intend to vote Yes.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking.

For many of those let down by the established political system, independence is seen as a risk worth taking. (Glasgow, for example, hassome of the worst mortality rates in the whole of Europe. In the Calton district, infamously, male life expectancy is just 59 years.) That said, the nationalist clarion call to abandon a “broken Britain” does not just play in housing estates: Polls suggest that younger voters are coming over to Yes in ever-increasing numbers. Thousands of grassroots activists have been mobilized, many for the first time.How is the movement gathering activists and achieving these gains? The SNP has long aped the 2008 Obama campaign, asking whether Scotland wants hope or fear. In reality, the nationalists have used a liberal amount of both, seasoning the optimistic vision of an affluent, nuclear-free, Nordic-lite independent Scotland with a salutary dose of doom-laden rhetoric about never-ending Tory rule and the erosion of the devolved parliament’s powers. But the key difference between this approach and that of Better Together is that the nationalists waited until the last month of the campaign to go negative — a tactic that seems to be working, judging by opinion polls.

Additionally, while unionists have the weight of the status quo behind them — and the advantage of incumbency — the nationalists have attempted to make this a referendum about not just Scottish independence, but also the Westminster political system. In calling for “Independence in Europe,” the Yes campaign is expressing a populist opprobrium of establishment politics that resonates with many voters.

***

In late August, I spent an afternoon in Gretna, in southern Scotland. For centuries, this border town was a haven for eloping English couples taking advantage of Scottish law to legally wed at 14 (for boys) and 12 (for girls) without parental consent. Nowadays, a huge outlet store is the main attraction.

In a field just behind the shopping center stands a small pile of rocks. Some are colored in red, white, and blue — the shades of the union flag — and carry slogans like “Stay Together” and “Never Apart.” Passersby are invited to stop a while and add a stone in honor.

This is the “Auld Acquaintance Cairn,” the brainchild of Rory Stewart, erstwhile deputy governor in Iraq and now a Conservative member of parliament on the English side of the border. It is meant to symbolize the connections between the different parts of the United Kingdom. Stewart had said he hoped it would reach nine feet tall. But it was barely a third of that with less than three weeks to polling day. In the half an hour I spent at the cairn, nobody else stopped by.

The message is clear: The No side might still be the favorite to stumble across the finish line first in the coming referendum, but it has singularly failed to make an emotional case for the United Kingdom. A Better Together activist told me recently, “It is like a business transaction. I look at the sums; they don’t add up, so you don’t do it.” This might be a good reason to reject independence, but such instrumentality hardly bodes well for the union’s future health — and such sentiments leave plenty of room for uncertainty about what will happen on Sept. 18.

Nationalists have won the argument that Scotland could be a separate state. The question now is whether they can persuade their fellow Scots that it should be. If they can, what seemed unimaginable just a few months ago could become a reality.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

On the Campaign Trail

On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.

Elements of the Yes campaign – including the egg-throwing and name-calling – are disquieting. The Panglossian vision of a post-independent Scotland has been accused of silencing dissenting voices. But on the other side of the fence, Better Together has run one of the most vacuous, cynical campaigns in British political history. Beyond the tawdry threats to erect border posts at Coldstream or the ludicrous suggestion that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo would be deported if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, the No campaign has failed to make a case for the union that wouldn’t fit in the ledger of a Fife accountant. The ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday was treated with contempt by everyone I met in Glasgow. ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

On Sunday, I visited a stall festooned with blue Yes balloons on a street corner a mile from my flat. Passing cars beeped their horns. The organiser was a local SNP councillor, helped by a middle-aged woman who worked in a bio-tech firm. She said she’d never been involved in a political campaign before but had spent months knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and standing in the cold talking to people. Thousands of political neophytes with little or no party allegiances have mobilised in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Activists at my local train station have been handing out flyers, balloons and stickers. I recently spent an afternoon in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing schemes, with an eloquent 17-year-old socialist. He has spent months canvassing and organising voter registration drives in an area where fewer than 35 per cent voted in the 2011 Holyrood election.

On Monday, the former home secretary John Reid and the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont held a press conference with shipyard workers and union leaders across the Clyde from BAE Systems’ Govan yard. On a dreich morning, Lamont and Reid descended from ‘the indyref express’ to be met by banks of photographers and party hacks in matching blue Better Together rainwear trying to pass as concerned citizens. Reid did most of the talking to the press. Afterwards I grabbed a word with a ‘continuous improvement coach’ at BAE. He was voting No, but not because he thought he would lose his job: ‘I’m saying no to division. I don’t like the concept of nationalism.’

But what are the seemingly unending stream of ‘emotional pleas’ that David Cameron et al have inflicted on Scots in recent weeks if not nationalism? On Monday night, Tom Nairn made a rare public appearance, in a haar-enveloped Edinburgh. ‘The moment is right for Scotland to have, in a relatively short time, the chance to contribute to nationality politics and not nationalism in the old, traditional sense,’ he said. There was lots of passion from the floor, but a feeling, too, that most people there were preparing themselves for disappointment.

The choice tomorrow didn’t have to be binary, but the third option – more powers for Holyrood without full independence – was left off the ballot paper. Then on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, Scotland woke to news that ‘devo max’ was back on if they voted No. The specifics of the additional powers seem both vague and unworkable, but the medium was more important than the message. The pledge, which could effectively usher in federalism across the UK, was delivered not after months of discussion, or even in person by the prime minister. Instead, ‘the vow’ was splashed across the Daily Record. If Westminster thinks that the front page of a tabloid is the best way to talk to Scotland in 2014 then it really has learned nothing from the referendum.

This piece originally appeared in the London Review of Books.

LRB Blog: Yes Scotland

‘Go on, Dougie,’ the man beside me shouted. His silver and blue lapel pin twinkled in the wan light of Screen 7 at Cineworld in Edinburgh. To my left, a woman beat her foot as Dougie MacLean shuffled with his guitar across the makeshift stage at the launch of Yes Scotland last Friday. In the front row, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister sang along to ‘Caledonia’; Alex Salmond grew lachrymose, or at least appeared to in the footage broadcast on the evening news.

Half an hour earlier, the first minister, in an uncharacteristically subdued speech, had told around 500 cheering supporters packed into the multiplex that he wanted one million Scots to sign a rather bland declaration of support for independence before autumn 2014: ‘I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland’. Salmond was the first to put his name to it, signing a ten-foot high replica of the declaration at the front of the stage before a scrum of photographers.

Young volunteers in light blue ‘Yes’ T-shirts shepherded press and supporters past the ticket booth and concession stand and into the cinema. From behind a blue lectern, assorted well-known Scottish phizogs made impassioned calls for independence. The political rhetoric was interspersed with singers, poets, playwrights and a short film featuring shots of Edinburgh Castle, Scottish rivers and children at play, all set to the sound of Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’ (previously used, like ‘Caledonia’, in an ad campaign for Tennent’s lager).

The biggest challenge facing the SNP and the Yes campaign – the two are practically synonymous, although the Green leader Patrick Harvie, who shared the stage with Salmond, was among the morning’s most impressive speakers – is that the party is more popular than its flagship policy: the SNP holds 69 of 129 seats in Holyrood, but a recent YouGov poll (commissioned by Alistair Darling, a fervent opponent of independence) found only 33 per cent of Scots in favour of secession.

Yes campaigners evidently hope a post-national appeal to Labour values and voters will reverse this trend. Half a dozen speakers invoked Thatcher. For Dennis Canavan, the former Labour MP for Falkirk West, who won a seat in the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as an independent after New Labour mandarins rejected his candidacy as far too old Labour, independence is ‘a means of achieving greater social justice here in Scotland’.

Among the new supporters unveiled by Yes Scotland, Tommy Brennan, a former shop steward at Ravenscraig steelworks in Motherwell, spoke most directly to the former industrial heartlands that are still largely the bailiwick of Scottish Labour: ‘As a life-long trade union member with no political affiliation and speaking in a personal capacity, I am happy and comfortable to say yes to an independent Scotland.’ Brian Cox was less circumspect. ‘I come to this campaign as a democratic socialist,’ he said, before berating the ‘betrayal’ of ‘the self-serving Ramsay MacDonald’, and lauding Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party he founded.

Business voices were muffled, if they were heard at all: I recognised only George Mathewson, the former CEO of RBS, among a plethora of artists, athletes, environmentalists and socialists in a lengthy endorsements video. There was no mention of the SNP’s long-stated desire to lower corporation tax in Scotland (although, in fairness, there was little substantive policy discussion of any kind); no name check for such multimillionaire backers as Brian Souter, the owner of Stagecoach.

‘That was great, really great,’ said Paul, a retired social worker from Perth, as we stood in the cinema aisle waiting to leave. Paul is that rare thing: a Scottish Tory. He campaigned for Thatcher in Finchley, supported Hague and Howard, but last year gave his vote to Salmond. I asked if he was worried by all the talk of socialism. ‘Oh no, not at all. We’ll just need a healthy, active centre-right party after independence. But first we need to get independence.’

This blog originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

 

Referendum fever is crossing the Irish Sea

LAST Saturday, Tyrone defeated Derry in the final of the McKenna Cup at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Among the sell-out crowd was an unlikely acolyte of Ulster GAA: Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. While right-wing unionists decried the DUP leader’s first trip to a GAA match as treachery, Robinson appeared to enjoy the game, even signing autographs inside the stadium.

Robinson’s companion at Saturday’s match was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Judging by the shared smiles and chatter inside the VIP area at the Athletic Grounds, it seems fair to say that the deputy and First Minister were talking more about sport than politics.

Whether McGuinness mentioned his intention to push for a referendum on the constitutional future of the north to Robinson during the half-time break on Saturday will probably never be known, but in an interview published in Monday’s Irish Examiner, the deputy First Minister stated clearly for the first time his party’s desire for a vote on Irish unification in the near future. “It just seems to me to be a sensible timing,” he said. “It would be on the question of whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland.”

Referendums, it seems, are in the Irish Sea air. Both emboldened by and envious of the SNP’s recent success, Sinn Fein is keen to capitalise on the new, more fluid dispensation towards the UK’s constitutional future by putting the issue of Irish unity firmly on the political agenda.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum on Irish unification can be held no more than once every seven years. Any decision on such a plebiscite rests with the British secretary of state, although in practice it would require support from the DUP and even the Ulster Unionist party if it were to be given the green light.

McGuinness outlined a provisional timetable for such a referendum, saying that the vote could take place in the next Assembly term, possibly as early as 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising, the republican revolt that, eventually, paved the way for Irish independence. Comparisons with Bannockburn and 2014 have, unsurprisingly, not taken long to surface.

And yet, the political reality of Sinn Fein’s referendum gambit is very different to that of the SNP. Barring an act of God, a referendum on Irish unity in 2016 would be roundly rejected by Northern Irish voters. According to the 2001 census, just over 53 per cent of the population hails from a Protestant background, with 44 per cent from a Catholic background. However, the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 73 per cent backed the union with Britain: among that figure were 52 per cent of Catholics.

Putting the debate about a united Ireland on the political agenda appears to be the driving logic. Sinn Fein has watched with no little interest as the tenor of the independence debate in Scotland has shifted from process to specifics.

The ripple effects of the Scottish referendum are being felt across the UK: from Liberal Democrat power-broker Simon Hughes’ calls for an English parliament, to the wary glances being thrown northwards by Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones. But it is in Northern Ireland, with its long-established nationalist and unionist tribes, where any moves towards independence in Scotland are likely to be most keenly felt, and politically exploited.

Ironically it was McGuinness who cautioned Northern Irish politicians against getting involved in Scottish politics. Speaking before the Stormont Assembly last month he described Scottish independence as “an issue which could be used to create divisions in this house or even in our Executive or even between the First Minister and myself”.

For their part, Northern Irish unionists have made little secret of their position on the Scottish question. Speaking at a British-Irish Council summit in Dublin earlier this year, Peter Robinson spoke of his own Scottish roots and his desire for “Edinburgh to remain within the United Kingdom”. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that “this is a time for us all, as unionists together, to support a continuance of a strong United Kingdom”.

A referendum on Irish unity would place Westminster in a bind. The Good Friday Agreement avers that the future of Northern Ireland will be settled by a majority vote of its people. Given the north’s turbulent history and its fractious relationship with Westminster, it would be difficult to countenance a Conservative or Labour leader wading in on the side of the union. Any repeat of the cross-party support marshalled against Scottish independence could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences in Northern Ireland.

All this talk of constitutional change omits one key player: the Republic of Ireland. In Dublin, appetite for unification is scant and getting scanter. The economic cost of absorbing the heavily subsidised Northern Irish state would almost certainly be beyond the Irish state in its current hairshirt incarnation. Indeed Sinn Fein owes its recent electoral success south of the border more to its left-wing position on social justice and employment than any tropes of republican history.

In Ireland right now, it’s a referendum that might not happen that’s prompting the most public discussion. A recent Red C poll showed that 72 per cent of the Irish electorate wants a plebiscite on the latest EU treaty. If Irish voters do get their wish, this’ll be one political game Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont will all be watching with interest.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, February 1.