Electoral Calculus and the New Gold Dream: 50, 51, 52…

I cannot deny that yesterday was amusing. Jim Murphy announced his candidacy for Scottish Labour leader outside the BBC’s Pacific Quay in the morning in typical swaggering style, and STV released their IPSOS-MORI poll at lunchtime, when Labour MPs were starting to arrive in Glasgow for a gala dinner that evening. The poll surveyed Westminster voting intentions in Scotland, the SNP soaring from its 2010 figure of 19.9% to 52% of the vote, with Labour falling from 42% to 23% of the support of the electorate.

The comedy gold was to be found when those levels of support were translated (using some arcane and eldritch package called ‘Electoral Calculus’) into Westminster seats. The Labour MPs from Scotland collapsed from 41 to 4 MPs – and Big Jim was not one of them. Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy), Ian Davidson (Glasgow SW), Willie Bain (Glasgow NE, he of the Bain Principle) and Tom Clarke (Coatbridge) were th projected survivors – as one Westminster wag put it on STV last night, ‘that would make a very interesting Labour parliamentary group’… In that context, the decision of the odious Anas Sarwar to step down as Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour on December 13th, announced at that same gala dinner last night, could be viewed as a means of clearing the way for another candidate to stand with Big Jim, perhaps to take the edge off his pro-war, pro-Trident credentials. But it could also be read as a pragmatic decision to be far from the poisoned chalice of being Deputy Leader of a political group looking at annihilation in just over 6 months.

With an almost audible ‘harumph’, the BBC – perhaps predictably – all but ignored STV’s lead news story, brushing over it in a passing end comment to their coverage of Ed speaking in Glasgow, Brian Taylor being far more interested in talking about Jim Murphy’s (less than surprising or particularly newsworthy) announcement of his candidacy. Indeed, the burden of messenger fell more to one Laura Bicker (who was looking more than a little startled at people protesting outside the Labour Gala Dinner describing them as ‘Red Tories’) to refer more pointedly to the poll and how everyone there was talking about it.

One STV pundit described the poll as being as seismic in its impact as the 1992 ITN poll that showed over 50% supported Scottish independence, and the September 2014 Sunday Times poll that indicated support for ‘Yes’ was on 51%. You may recall that I referred to the 1992 poll before (I remember it being on the front page of the Scotsman – under somewhat different editorial times…), drawing attention to the chasm between the level of support for the SNP, which at the time was less than half of the (albeit marginal) majority in favour of an independent Scotland. As a friend said to me, the translation into Westminster seats might generously be described as ‘fanciful’, and that is a fair point. The fact that the poll was taken during the period of Johann Lamont’s resignation and the resulting fallout, also needs to be taken into account – the results might have been markedly different with a Scottish Labour leader in post, even one as right-wing as Big Jim. But it does also tally with many other polls that show Labour losing support and trust.

YouGov also conducted a poll for The Times over the same week as IPSOS-MORI’s for STV, that showed similar – if not quite so emphatic – results (instead of SNP/Labour being 52/23, it was 43/27 – which would translate into 10 Westminster MPs for Labour, rather than 4, and 47 for the SNP). Some time back before the Referendum, I also referred to an October 2013 poll of Holyrood voting intentions in the scenario of both ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ votes (see post: ‘All Those Wee Things’: The Loss to Labour). The poll indicated that Labour in Scotland would be in for more of a hiding with a ‘No’ result than a ‘Yes’, with only 47% of their voters choosing to vote for them again for an ongoing devolved parliament. The fall to 23% in the very different bunfight that is a First Past The Post Westminster election, is equivalent to 54.7% (64.3% for The Times’ poll) of their 2010 support.

Similarly, a recent TNS poll for the Herald showed trust ratings for Labour were less than half that of the SNP in terms of delivering more powers for Scotland (SNP 37%, Labour 15%, Conservatives 8%, LibDems 1%). That same poll also showed the same patterns of distrust for the Westminster leaders that were signatories to the Daily Record’s political ‘The Vow’ stunt, all of them being well below double figures (Cameron 6%, Miliband 1%, Clegg <1%), with Nicola Sturgeon on 24%. In that context, the fact that Gordon Brown was rated as the most trustworthy (on 15%) Westminster politician to deliver more powers for Scotland perhaps supports the Electoral Calculus projection of his survival after next May’s general election. Notwithstanding the outlier of Gordon, the lack of trust does seem compatible with the drop in political support for Labour in Scotland.

Of course, these are only polls, and as anybody who followed the Referendum campaign knows very well, a lot can happen in 6 months to erode a lead. But perhaps the crucial result here (beyond the undeniably pleasant comedy gold), is that public support for the SNP is actually finally aligning with support for independence. That – arguably – the numbers of those in the electorate supporting the SNP now slightly exceeds those confidently supporting independence. Because, self-evidently, it does not matter how many people want political independence, if people are not going to vote for a political party committed to giving it to them.

In the wake of the Referendum, the surge in support for the SNP (what are we at now, 84,000?) has been a translation of many ‘Yes’ activists into that political party, whereas before they had held back from doing so. It also – if yesterday’s two polls are to be believed as any sort of indicator – seems to have seen a translation of the Scottish population’s Westminster voting intentions.


“maybe in twenty years time” (Jim Murphy, 2011, on standing for Scottish Labour Leader).


The Bran Seer at the Sunday Herald: A Thousand Days of Yes?

I admit that it is a difficult time for me: I have to get my attention back to my work, and away from referendum-related issues – and yet the vibrancy of the Referendum 6 weeks on just keeps building, in a way that makes it very hard to walk away from: as someone put it, you would think that Yes had won, especially given the week we have just had.

Ok, the Sunday Herald did not have to have the Bran Seer working for them in order for them to put out last week’s front page of ‘Lamont in Freefall’ in order to see that one coming. Perhaps that image was only emphasised to Johann with the Google Executive’s free jump from space this week, achieving 822 miles per hour during his freefall of almost 26 miles. Has Labour in Scotland deployed the chutes yet? Or is it still in gravitational denial as it heads towards the ground in May next year? I guess that comes down to their prospective leader choice – and from their supposed shortlist, it looks like a masterstroke, with central office going for a Westminster Labour MP (perm one from Murphy, Sarwar and Brown) to lead Scottish Labour, just after their leader has resigned over too much London control of Labour in Scotland. (Good luck selling that one on the doorsteps, guys.)

Certainly Johann’s sonic boom on Friday evening was heard in Westminster and Holyrood very clearly indeed, and the usual frenzy of Labour leaks as the Special Advisors brief and counter-brief against each other’s candidates for the coming leadership contest ensued. Leak: Margaret Curran briefed against Johann, as one of her oldest friends for decades. Counter-leak: Miliband told Johann not to say anything against the Bedroom Tax while he ‘had a bit of a think’ about it (for a year). McConnell and McLeish, both generating column inches last weekend for the woeful condition of Scottish Labour and its lost direction, were back out again this weekend, in the wake of Johann’s resignation, criticising the failure of London to respect Labour’s autonomy in Scotland. Sarwar is an intellectual lightweight and stupid, so not really a threat of any kind as a leader, except to himself. Murphy is aggressive and bullying and I would think that he would have the instinct to try and poison the Scottish political scene with his attitude, which might make it a more comfortable playing field for him. Brown is a slightly unknown quantity – he may have the highest trust ratings of anyone in Labour in Scotland right now, but whether people will see him as egotistical, arrogant and someone who blocked Scotland’s future for reasons of utter personal conceit by the time of next year’s general election, is another matter. He was hugely unpopular in Scotland by the time he left office (Iraq being the biggest slap in the face to Labour’s core supporters, with their membership now rumoured to be down to 8,000), which was one of the reasons that Labour support dropped the following year for the Holyrood election – he may well have done enough in the last months to ‘rehabilitate’ himself in the eyes of enough of the Labour electorate…especially those ‘Hangover Nos’ who wondered if they had done the right thing with a No vote, the morning after.

Elsewhere, I was reminded of the fabulous Dateline Scotland’s item with Briony Laing reporting on the ‘Nuclear Submariners for Yes’ group launch ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee0VUW1laRo ) saying that nuclear weapons kept the world safe, therefore the west coast of Scotland was the safest place in the UK. And yet – less satirically – the Sunday Herald reports this morning that Faslane has apparently had 316 ‘nuclear safety events’ in the last 5 years, making it sound as though there is plenty of scope for nuclear disaster around Coulport, without the need for the base to sustain a direct attack.

And then there was the EU story of the week, which had Nigel Farage so relaxed in Andrew Neil’s BBC studio a week before the Rochester by-election, that he did not even have to smile. (Well…not much.) It seems that Barroso had a final kiss goodbye for David Cameron, as a consequence of the Prime Minister not backing his candidacy for NATO Secretary-General (in spite of Barroso happily coming on the Andrew Marr show to declare that Scotland would be in the same position as Kosovo when it came to being a member state of the EU, as part of his side of the bargain – a shame did not quite deliver his side). Firstly, he rubbished the idea that the free movement of people could be abandoned as a UK exception in the EU, and then left behind a 1.7 billion pound bill for Osborne to stump up, as part of backdated dues (apparently a consequence of the UK’s burgeoning black market including prostitution – who knew it was doing more to make the economy recover than the housing bubble?). It is of course a gift to UKIP – Farage said that he was fairly confident about winning Rochester before this announcement came out, but clearly sitting next to Andrew Neil he is way beyond that position now.

Whether that is a bad thing for the Prime Minister or not is arguable. UKIP drives the electorate’s agenda further to the right, making Labour look even more desperate to catch-up, at a time when they are looking to be yet again failing to find the plot in Scotland. If Labour is weakened, Cameron’s chances of retaining the reins of power (whether in a coalition or not) look even more convincing, and stapling ‘extended devolution’ on to the back of English votes for English laws (the hilariously abbreviated EVEL – if only he was a doctor…) again looks like reducing the number of MPs in Westminster from Scotland that he would have to contend with. But I do get the feeling that as much as he might gain support from the electorate by posturing as the defender of ‘Little England’ against those Bad Foreign People on the continent, that this whole charade might be starting to get away from him a little bit. If he is not writing the script, and control is elsewhere, then it becomes highly risky to hold that referendum on EU in/out – as much as you can phrase the question in such a way that people would vote to stay in the EU, if you make it a fast and thoughtless campaign, then that syntax just might not have enough attention paid to it, and accidentally deliver an Out vote: Farage a week ago was saying a condition of his support for the Conservatives in May would be a referendum in July – a snap poll, effectively, and in such contrast to a considered decision. Operate on that timescale, and you can poll for a knee-jerk reaction that stops the question becoming ‘fogged’ by such tiny details as economic collapse if the UK leaves the EU.

Which brings me back to my problems with this blog. I had been thinking about slowing it up, as I said, as it is a little difficult right now to get the time to consume the amount of output necessary for these words (believe it or not, a modicum of research does go into it…). In the context of the 3 year timetable until the next independence referendum (i.e. following the previously-expected timetable with a 2017 EU referendum), I had thought of renaming the blog as ‘A Thousand Days of Yes’ – a bit Arabian Nights, but then, that was hardly a failure on the bestseller list, so steal from the best, I thought.

But now I find myself wondering…is it really a thousand days to go? If Farage gets his July honeymoon wish, it could be an awful lot sooner than that.

So. Should I give up the blog, Dennis?


“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” (Dennis Beynon Lee, Canadian Poet)


Oh. Ok, then…

A Palatable Brutality: The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil

One of the things that we were giving away on the Marchmont stall in the months leading up to the Referendum, was a DVD compilation of TV programmes. Amongst the predictable and usual suspects such as Diomhair from BBC Alba on the McCrone Report, the first item was a 1974 BBC Scotland broadcast of the 7:84 (the name comes from 7% of the population controlling 84% of the wealth in 1966 – that seems almost egalitarian by today’s standards) theatre company’s performance of ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil’ for the ‘Play for Today’ series, starring Bill Patterson and Taggart’s Alex Norton. I had heard of the play, but had not seen it, so towards the last days of the stall, I picked up a copy, finally getting a chance to watch it at the weekend.

Using narration from historical documents mixed in with reenactments, it deals with the story of the post-Act of Union Highlands, through the themes of the three great means of exploitation. It starts with the clearances, in the wake of the Marquis of Staffordshire marrying the Countess of Sutherland, and the simple equation of profitability of the land by removing the tenants in order to bring in herds of Cheviot sheep to withstand the winter weather of the Highlands. It then moves on to show the landowners trying to encourage remaining residents to sign up for the war in Crimea against the ‘evil Russian Tsar’ – only to be told that given the record of the landlord’s family over the preceding fifty years, that it could not be imagined that rule by the Russian Tsar would be any worse. It dealt with the promises by landlords of land – later unfulfilled, or reneged upon – for residents who went off to fight in such wars. Then there was the widespread introduction of deer so that landlords could mimic Victoria’s hunting trips, transforming large stretches of the Highlands into a form of bloodsport theme park. Then there was the 1962 discovery of oil in the North Sea (when the explorers were actually looking for gas) which led to the Westminster government opening the doors to a wave of Texas oilmen.

Although familiar with the general concepts of each of the three drivers for exploitation of the highland people, witnessing them retold within the context of this work was strangely sobering – perhaps particularly so in the grey post-Referendum light. The historical accounts and quotes brought the brutality of the evictions vividly home in a different way to the statistics of emigration, and made the lack of choice available to those who left, self-evident. As a tale of how the people of the Highlands have been successively and repeatedly victimised since the time of the Union (or, more specifically, Culloden) it is potent, poignant and tragic in equal measure.

As a 1974 production, the filmed interviews with oil industry workers in Aberdeen now have a similarly historical (as well as slightly chillingly prescient) feel to the other aspects, most of them no doubt long dead. But I did find myself wondering about its relevance as a production to the modern Yes movement. Inasmuch as it was undoubtedly a core cultural element within the 1970s and 1980s independence movement, Yes is now an extremely broad church of people who would have a great deal of difficulty in identifying themselves as Highlanders, or part of that heritage. There are a lot of ‘sassenachs’ – sensu stricto, lowlanders, from both north and south of the border, amongst which I count myself – in ‘Yes’ these days for which it does not have a direct cultural relevance. So is it a production that has lost its time, or even now is simply alienating? Or does it tell a broad story of people being taken advantage of, that is more directly transferrable to the present day? The story is one of the victimisation of the people of the Highlands, rather than the people in Scotland as a whole – although there are lessons there for all. However in microcosm there is a story of the pursuit of wealth by the few in power at the expense of the many with no voice.

There is a question of balance that comes in here, which I found myself reflecting on when I watched, in contrast, the telling of ‘Scotland’s Story’ at the National Museum of Scotland – there, the story of Darien is presented not as the consequence of the economic sanctions of a hostile neighbour, but as ‘entrepreneurship’. The mass emigrations in the wake of the clearances are reflections of the ‘enterprise’ of individuals, rather than a bleak consequence for those who had little choice. I watched this museum educational film, thinking about how the dark causal forces had been lightly airbrushed out of the story, to present it as simply a tale of a people ‘who liked to leave’, and I could not help but think that there would have to be a revisiting of such films in the wake of a vote for independence. It is all very well presenting things positively, and I can certainly understand that there is likely to be a certain political will to present the events leading to the Union (as well as in the immediate wake of it) in a positive light that is uncritical of the government, but omitting the motivations that underlay such desperate decisions does radically misrepresent why it happened, and misleads people’s understanding. I was reminded of the words of a political émigré interviewed after having settled in the UK, saying that you move city in order to get a better job, but you move country because you have no choice.

The nakedness of the discrimination shown to the tenants from that period makes it shocking to us, in a time when we are used to such measures being prepackaged by PR companies to make the brutality more palatable. Indeed, from the events of this last week in Westminster, one can look forward to a packaging of new devolution measures from the Smith Commission as a ‘great increase in powers for the Scottish people’, when it involves reduction in representation at Westminster and a massive cut in the budget for Scottish public expenditure. Of course, we live in an ‘age of spin’ – to an extent that I find it hard to imagine that today’s BBC Scotland would really rebroadcast its 1974 programme. The regime’s refusal to criticize aspects of Union and Britain (beyond the ‘Britishisation’ of so much BBC output in the last three years, as commented on before) makes it very hard to see that programme coming out in a primetime slot again (indeed, one wonders if the content of that episode of Diomhair referred to earlier would have been made by the BBC if it had been in English rather than Gaelic) – and not just because of a snooty attitude to 1970s production values.

Maybe it is in response to this different broadcasting climate, that a recent poll showed 54% support for broadcasting control to be devolved to the Scottish parliament. However I can see that as far less likely to happen than 100% of income tax. In fact, probably as unlikely as oil revenue control being devolved – because one could theoretically lead to the other (from the perspective of London) if broadcasting in Scotland did not continue to be celebratory of London, or – heaven forfend – critical of the Union.


“You move city or town for a better job. You move country because you have no choice.” (African political émigré)

Conditional Yes and Conditional No: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Unconditionally Love ‘The Vow’…

‘The Vow’ put together by Gordon Brown and promulgated by the Daily Record in the 48 hours prior to the Referendum allegedly was responsible for 25% of No voters casting their vote the way that they did. This intangible ‘guarantee’ would seem therefore to have made the election result a ‘Conditional No’, according to some observers (although see George’s comments in yesterday’s post for a perfectly valid alternative interpretation). A condition which – if not fulfilled – legitimises a rerun of the Referendum in extremely short order, given that the leaders that made it will have signed up for new promises and priorities by the time of the general election in May next year. In other words, the terms and conditions of their vow will have expired.

So is there an inherent hypocrisy in Yes campaigners arguing that a ‘No’ vote’ was a conditional one? I mean, could you not argue that a Yes vote would have been ‘conditional’ as well? I guess the main difference is the nature of what each side was ‘offering’…if that is not too strong a word. The No campaign was very much predicated on not offering anything at all – that everything was fine and dandy in the garden, and that any ‘wee things’ that needed changing could easily – oh, SO easily – be done within a continuing Union. Project Fear delivered what it promised to – a deterrent to change, without arguing a positive reason to not change. That only changed within the last week of the campaign, when a blustered pretense at extended devolution (shamefully packaged by the BBC’s Jackie Bird as ‘DevoMax’) emerged at the last minute – supposedly subscribed to by all parties. This became the ‘condition’ – voting No had ceased to be about the mythical retention of any status quo, and now was muddied with a promise to fundamentally reform the existing arrangement for the betterment of Scotland.

In contrast, ‘Yes’ were always keen to avoid promises beyond the most conservative (with a small ‘c’) – an end to Trident and protecting the NHS as a public service. Everything else was about what would be possible, what could be done – and a series of very different visions emerged from the different political parties that were a part of ‘Yes’. Noone argued that there would be any land of milk and honey at the end of a Yes vote (although No were keen to use the phrase as though people from Yes at some point had said that) – indeed ‘it will be hard work’ was the most common phrase about what would be entailed by making such a decision for change. Bluntly, as we would be taking responsibility for our own actions, we would be creating that new nation ourselves, therefore responsible for it. In that sense we would not be able to blame the SNP or anyone else in that context. As multiple groups agreeing on little beyond ‘we should be independent’, it is more difficult to assert a ‘conditional’ Yes vote that could be ‘defaulted’ on, beyond a new administration in an independent Scotland making moves to retain Trident or privatise the health service – which would have been so directly antithetical to the core of a Yes vote, that it would stand as a betrayal.

In this regard, No had a distinct advantage. Having insisted that there be no extended devolution option on the ballot paper, they were not obliged to define an offer at any stage in the campaign, let alone 2 days before the vote (sigh – so much for the purdah period…). Therefore they have to do very little now in order to have ‘claimed’ to deliver what they said they would – because the substance of their statements was so vacuous, that they could claim to have delivered them with a minimum of action…even if the bulk of the No-voting electorate might have understood that they were voting for something very much more substantial when they gave their conditional vote. Or – as Ian Bell more succinctly puts it in today’s Sunday Herald – “By promising more while failing to say what more might mean, they promised nothing.” The waters were nicely muddied, it appears, by Gordon Brown attempting to upstage his nemesis Alistair Darling at the eleventh hour, through posing as a representative for all three main parties, and supposedly getting them to agree to ‘effectively federalism’. Pity Nick, Dave and Ed didn’t get that memo, Gordon – as they seem to feel strangely unbound by your superbly brokered deal.

One final thought. It was noted that by the time of the vote, not only had support for independence risen when placed next to ‘no change’, but support for DevoMax had also fallen as the preferred option over the period of the campaign. This would seem to indicate a falling trend in support for extended devolution during the campaign, with those that began as its supporters, not just embracing independence as the closest thing to DevoMax that was on offer, but actually starting to reject DevoMax in favour of independence as a better way of delivering what they wanted. It remains to be seen whether, in a post-Referendum Scotland with expectations greatly raised by Brown’s verbiage and hyperbole, that trend continues over the next 6 months – or beyond.


“The party leaders puzzle as to why their support slips away to a new bunch of parties. Maybe one way they can reverse this is to try a more forthright approach, and to start with they could say: ‘If the Scottish are so daft as to believe our vow, maybe that proves they’re not fit to run their own country anyway, the idiots.’” (Mark Steel in The Independent, 17/10/2014)

An End to Scottish Labour’s Grievance Politics, with an End to Scottish Labour?

Scottish Labour has been driven by grievance politics against the SNP ever since they started losing ground to them. In the process, this has perhaps exposed the degree to which they sincerely believe that Scotland is their fiefdom by right – regardless of the decades of neglect that their custodianship has resulted in (long-term Labour seats have an interesting correlation with declining health and life expectancy). This blind opposition to anything SNP (see the ‘Bain principle’ referred to in ‘The Bain Principle, the old Royal High School building on Calton Hill, and 30% of Labour Party Members going for Yes’) of course resulted in them prepared to act as the stooges for a Conservative-driven Westminster government in the Referendum, seeing it as a way of facing down the SNP to reassert their dominion over Scotland. But that strategy may just have backfired on them.

I met up with a colleague the other night in The Harbour Inn – I had not seen him for 6 months, so was unsure of his political position. I knew George was a traditional socialist, and had supported Labour, but as a consultant had experienced disillusionment over Malcolm Chisholm’s failure to save Leith Hospital. We had also worked together to try to restore a local museum. Instinctively, I had felt he would be a ‘Yes’ man, but given his previous loyalties, I was not absolutely certain. But I was open enough to say that I had been campaigning in the referendum, as a way of opening the door should he want to say either way. ‘Dear Christ, man’ he said ‘TELL me you were working for Yes!!’ I smiled and reassured him: ‘What do you take me for?’, I said. We then went into ‘the referendum conversation’ that so many people have had in the past month, reviewing what had happened, and when we might get another chance at it. I raised with him my reservations that he might have felt some loyalty to Labour, but he dismissed that instantly: ‘The priority at the next general election has to be the destruction of Labour in Scotland’.

I was shocked by his vehemence, but could not help but agree with him – in the same way as the Conservatives had been stripped down to 1 Westminster MP in the 1990s, and both the LibDems and Labour had experienced hits in post 2010 Holyrood and council elections, so Labour needed to have their complacent Scottish powerbase significantly weakened. As much as the polls a year ago showed that Labour in Scotland would suffer in the wake of a No vote (far more than after a Yes vote), it remains to be seen whether that will manifest itself in a real vote against them come May. Gordon Brown is already positioning himself in a new brand of Labour’s grievance politics – except this time Labour’s grievance politics aren’t about mindless tribalism against the SNP, but against their recent intimate bedfellows, the Conservatives. Having ‘brokered the deal’ of the Daily Record’s ‘Vow’ between the three Westminster party leaders, Gordon feigns surprise that this is not translating into real powers for Scotland (or that it involves a drop in representation for Scottish MPs – should have used a longer spoon, Gordon…) and that within 24 hours of the Referendum result they were backtracking. Gordon is arguing that it is the Conservatives (rather than Scottish Labour, or himself more specifically) that have duped people in Scotland. Perhaps he really does want that ‘return to frontline politics’ which Ed Miliband has stated ‘is not going to happen’ – perhaps because Gordon wants to take his job back from Ed.

I asked George about the polling that said about a quarter of No voters had done so on the basis of the promises in ‘The Vow’. He dismissed that: ‘it was just an excuse for them’. He might well be right – although that does not necessarily help us in terms of how we get more people voting Yes next time. Certainly, the grim likelihood of increasing levels of poverty across Scotland over the next few years (coupled with the supposed link between support for Yes and poverty) does give some cold reason for believing in the possibility of a larger Yes vote next time.

But George – although keen not to dwell on ideas of the vote being rigged – drew attention to one thing that he wanted to look at: a suspicion of weirdly low turnouts in the two Yes majority cities. He had wondered if there was a statistical test one could do, like Chi-square, to see if the unusually low levels of voter turnout were significant. In terms of possibly indicating a disappearance of votes before the count. I keep thinking of the two fire alarms that evacuated the Dundee building during the count, and at the time thinking that if anyone was getting in to ‘disappear’ Yes votes in the confusion that, comedically, they either had taken the wrong bags (I imagined that the second alarm was to return the No bags accidentally removed, then take the Yes bags), or had not taken enough of them the first time. That was before I really saw the disparity in the turnout at Dundee, compared to everywhere else.

In terms of Scottish Labour’s chances of avoiding the predicted large reduction in their electoral support in May, I guess to an extent that that will be down to Gordon, and whether he can effectively reinvent himself as representing a tricked Scotland by then.

Alternatively, we can go back to George for the last word: “We have to get the buggers out.”


“They have found it far too difficult to get over their anger at losing, their anger at Alex Salmond being First Minister…We must rediscover our sense of purpose, our vision for Scotland, our ability to stand up and articulate the concerns of the people we most represent. We need policies and ideas that reflect that – and we’re running out of time.” (Jack McConnell, The Times, 18/10/2014)

From Nicola Sturgeon to Nigel Farage: Proud Parents-to-be Haggling Over 3 Years or 9 Months Gestation for Referendum Rerun

Well, it appears that my old list MSP is to be the next First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon could not be a more striking contrast with the MP that serves part of her ward (Ian ‘bayoneting the wounded’ Davidson), and not just because of her commitment to preserve shipyard jobs when Ian was arguing (along with Alistair Carmichael) that Glasgow’s yards should lose contracts in the event of a Yes vote.

I can remember first seeing her about twenty years ago, before the 1997 general election. I was getting a bus back from the city centre to Shawlands at night, and this figure got on board just across the road from Glasgow Central station. She was carrying a huge duffelbag, wearing a large padded anorak and jeans, and looked exhausted, as though from a long journey after tiring days. We made eye contact, and she saw the recognition in my eyes as she hauled her bag into the storage area. Subsequently she became my MSP through the regional list, and with one exquisite letter managed to get a commercial property to contribute to the costs of tenement roof repairs that were around twenty years overdue (if you have ever lived in a tenement with a commercial unit, you will know how impossible a feat this actually is).

I remember going to see her in her surgery, and the quiet, focused and efficient woman seemed far away from the exhausted figure on the 38 bus. She knew exactly what she was doing, and deftly resolved the logjam of years with the Bolton based owner of the pub that was causing such a problem.

Fast forward a few years, and she is about to become First Minister – and at a toxic time. The Holyrood branch officers of the Westminster parties are trying hard to urge her to distance herself from Alex Salmond and independence – something of a tall order since she has been his deputy for 7 years, and leads a party committed to (guess what?) Scottish independence, at a time when support has never been greater. Mixed in with this are some familiar slights – the Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone referring to her ‘coronation’, recalls those bizarre claims that the other Alex wanted to be King of Scotland…trying again to make that connection between grandiosity as a dimension of leadership, rather than any legitimate democratic mandate. How long before the more explicit suggestions that she wants to become ‘Queen Nicola’ start being made, as the predictable repeat of the demonization of an SNP First Minister starts up again?

Nicola – like the other Alex – is not daft. She knows what they will try to do, and as watched Salmond endure the fire and scorn of an implacably opposed media for these 7 years. She has also worked as a leader in the rainbow coalition of the Yes movement. Yes, she has the opportunity to distance herself – slightly – from Alex, but that is hardly likely to be substantive. I would suggest that the greatest thing that she is likely to distance herself from, is Alex’s statement that September 18th will settle the issue for a generation, if not a lifetime. She knows (if polling is to be believed) the degree to which the No vote was conditional on ‘more powers’ (around a quarter of No voters giving the nebulous ‘promises’ in ‘The Vow’ as their reason). She also knows that acting to secure as great a degree of powers as possible in any extension to devolution, in the process showing the shortfall between what is delivered as opposed to what should be, is the best way to demonstrate to conditional Nos that they were conned. Which is also the best way to persuade them that they should vote differently next time.

And the next time might not be so far away. The 3 year plan for a rerun of the referendum, which I have heard people earnestly discussing, was predicated on an EU in/out vote, whereby Scotland votes to stay in the EU, against the wishes of the rest of the UK, which prompts an emergency referendum in Scotland. Only this week, Farage (ever keen to offer new column inches to those voracious journalists)argued that his condition for supporting a Conservative government following the general election next year would be the holding of an EU referendum in July. Not the 2017 July – the one that is 2 months after the general election. As in…9 months from now.

The first thing that strikes one about this is the contrast with the Scottish Government’s approach: they knew they had to take the best part of 3 years to try to inform and persuade the population that independence was the best course. Farage wants no informed decision (which I think was reflected in the Westminster desire to hold the Scottish Referendum swiftly without any long campaign) – he just wants a kneejerk reaction. You may argue as to whether he actually wants to come out of Europe, or just to be able to posture as the man that gave ‘the British people’ the choice – but certainly the best way to get an ‘out’ vote would be a short emotive and insubstantive ‘content-lite’ campaign.

I confess that I had been toying with the idea of issuing referendum ballots along with the EU ones – so that actually a clear picture would come through on both issues at the same time…AND it would save time and organizational issues – sort of a second ‘Yes Yes’ to mirror the 1997 referendum on a Scottish Parliament and tax-varying powers. The other argument would be to hold the independence referendum afterwards, so that people in Scotland would be aware of the form of the UK that they were voting to be part of – an EU-free one.

One can certainly envisage the nightmare scenario that could result from such a combined poll – that of Scots voting Yes to being in Europe and No to being out of the other union – voting effectively for a country and concept that did not exist outwith the ballot paper (as one would assume that the UK would vote to leave Europe). But with two staggered polls, and in the aftermath of a No vote to Europe, when faced with the cold sobering reality of a UK heading for the exit door from Brussels, it is easy to imagine that many more Scots opposed to independence would choose to cast their lot with a Scotland independent within Europe, than joined only to the British union.

And in the wake of such a UK vote, who knows – perhaps even the EU would give slightly more clarity on the possibilities of parts of the UK being able to remain in Europe if they vote to become independent. After all, by that stage, Europe will no longer have vested interests in appeasing a member state that has just decided to leave – so might just be a little bit more open.


“Alex Salmond was essentially a right-wing populist, posing as social democrat. Nicola Sturgeon is a social democrat. So, if we’ve had a challenge over the last few years…Scottish Labour needs to be very aware of the scale of the challenge it now faces.” (Jack McConnell)

Jim, Margo and Me: Starstruck, and Holding on for Three More Years

I was talking to Jim Sillars this week….would be a great way to start a blogpost – but a little context might be better rather than a fraudulent attempt at name-dropping. 🙂

I first had contact with Jim when he was Glasgow Govan MP, and I was working for the University of Edinburgh Students’ Representative Council. Within the SRC there was what was called the ‘External Committee’ – basically it was the political section, for international or more national political issues, so we organized campaigns against student loans as well as apartheid. A standard fixture was ‘International Week’, where something ill-defined (largely whatever the External Convenor wanted it to be – if they wanted it to happen at all) could be organized by the External Committee for a given week. As I have written before, I had become particularly politically aware around 1988 with the twentieth anniversary programmes on Channel 4 dealing with the Prague Spring, Danny Cohn-Bendit in Paris, and other related issues – which subsequently fed into my interest in Croatian self-determination. So I wanted to hold an International Week that would reflect these interests, and I arranged a variety of speakers to talk about different political aspects – including some active for the campaign for Ukrainian independence. I saw Scottish independence very much in the context of these political events, so having seen Jim Sillars speak at the University before, during which he talked about the idea that devolution had never been a road to independence for any nation (see earlier post on Sillars, Synergy…), I saw it as an opportunity to subversively place Scottish independence within an International Week agenda, and had received his agreement to speak during the week of events.

It was summer 1990, and with only a few days to go to International Week, I took a call in the office. It was Jim, saying that he was going to have to cancel his talk, because Westminster had been recalled due to the imminent Gulf War, and as SNP foreign affairs spokesperson, he really had to be present that night for the debate. I laughed at the idea that a puny little Students’ Representative Council talk might even hope to compete with such a matter, and told him that of course I understood, and wished him luck in the debate. We did not reschedule, and did not speak again.

I came very close to meeting his wife once – but suffered from a ‘fanboy paralysis’ which I deeply regret. It was the week after the first Yes September Rally, in Princes Street Gardens in 2012. I was working in the Scottish Parliament (long boring story about paving stones and fossil fish, believe it or not) and was just exiting the private area back into the public lobby, when I realised that there was a figure following me. As I made way for her and held the door, I realized it was the legend that is Margo MacDonald. I had this surge inside me – I wanted to tell her how much I had loved her speech the previous week, where she had urged people to just each convince one other person to become Yes (she also noted Frankie Boyle’s alternative message, that each person should convince 10,000 people…), and we would win this at a trot, how she had talked about the importance of everyone living together afterwards no matter the result, and how nice it was to be on “the side of the angels” for a change. But I completely dried up – nothing came out. As she walked past, she looked up at me from the walking sticks, and I saw this gentle smile cross her face. She could see my expression, and I fancy that she saw exactly what I was going through. The moment passed.

Fast forward to this week, and I was walking up North Bridge, when I recognised a figure standing outside the former ‘Scotsman’ offices. I nodded and smiled at him as I walked past, knowing that he would get a lot of such contact, and made to keep walking, rather than take up any of his time. And then I stopped. I had spoken to Jim Sillars before on a 1 to 1 basis – maybe that entitled me to approach him again. (And I know I was thinking of that much regretted missed moment with Margo.)

I walked back to him, apologising for the intrusion, and gave a cursory summary of where he would not remember me from, almost 25 years earlier. I asked him if he still believed that devolution was not a viable route to independence, and he averred that he did – perhaps, in a way, the No vote had vindicated his position entirely. We talked briefly about the prospects for independence, and – like so many others – he hinted that there might be a chance for a rerun of the referendum in around three years time. “They’ve given so many hostages to fortune”, he said – that it will be more difficult to fob off the people of Scotland with not delivering, I interjected? He agreed, and I was about to question him further, when his lunch appointment showed up, and so I excused myself and left.

And there I felt such a strange upwelling of emotion as I walked away up towards South Bridge – a combination of the bitter regret about not speaking to Margo, a sense of wanting to express my regret in some way that maybe ‘we’ let her down…all mixed in with a final emergence of sadness about the result. There I was in my last post, proclaiming to have not had the obligatory ‘wee greet’ after the Referendum result, and no sooner had I posted it than…..well. That was definitely the closest that I have come since the 18th.

But, more interestingly, Jim had moved so much further on than I had. He is part of the movement going forward over these next 6 months – part of the group that Westminster seems keen to nervously urge to ‘forget about independence’, just as SNP membership goes over 80,000, and the Hope Over Fear Rally takes place in Glasgow today.
As has been said by so many, we have three years to a possible rerun, to try and turn around the ‘Conditional Nos’, and avoid repeating the same defeat. We cannot expect ‘No’ to run as execrable a campaign the second time around – we can’t be so lucky – or they be so arrogant – twice.

I remember watching the leaves start to heavily fall on the morning of the vote as I stood outside a polling station – a Caledonian Autumn may have come, but there is a chance that maybe Spring will come again soon, even if we are just about to head into a bitter winter.


“We’ve got one more chance” (Jim Sillars, October 2014)