Why Boris should refuse Sturgeon a referendum

Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, May 10, 2021.

After all that, they missed by one seat. The SNP’s victory in the Scottish Parliament election was handsome, yet it is undoubtedly soured by their falling short of an overall majority — and by such an agonisingly narrow margin. In a cruel case of the butterfly effect, the SNP’s all-out war on Jackie Baillie brought Tories out to back her in Dumbarton, which brought her the votes to hold the seat, which brought the guillotine down on the Nationalists’ chances of a majority.

The impact of tactical voting was uneven but very real. In Aberdeenshire West, where the SNP was confident of overturning Alexander Burnett’s 900-vote majority, a big dip in the Lib Dem vote saw Burnett not only hold on but more than triple his majority. Conservative voters returned the favour in Willie Rennie’s North East Fife seat, where the Tory vote plummeted by 11 per cent and, coincidence of coincidences, Rennie’s went up by 11 per cent.

The SNP talk about democracy as though they hold the patent on the idea, but this was democracy in action. Unionists and those simply sick to the back teeth of hearing about independence set out to deny Nicola Sturgeon the majority she yearned for, that her vanity demanded and that her political circumstances required.

Unfortunately, the chances of that being the end of the matter are tinier than Alba’s share of the vote. In fairness to Sturgeon, she won and won clearly, gaining one seat overall on 2016; taking East Lothian, Ayr and Edinburgh Central; and marginally increasing her first-past-the-post vote. She is only the second female leader of the devolution era to win two elections, after the DUP’s Arlene Foster. That is a signal achievement and an indication of social progress.

What the First Minister did not achieve was a mandate for a second independence referendum, either solo or with the Scottish Greens. Regular readers will know that I do not believe it is possible to acquire such a mandate at a Holyrood poll. My email inbox attests that I am not alone in that view. Constitutional referendums are a reserved power and what took place last Thursday was a devolved election.

The SNP manifesto also stated the party’s ‘firm and unequivocal opposition to nuclear weapons — both in principle and to their location in Scotland’, and the Greens’ policy platform said much the same. No one would credibly claim that an SNP-Green coalition government, if one is indeed formed, had a mandate to direct the Vanguards to set sail down the Firth of Clyde.

No one’s words damn the SNP’s post-election prattling as thoroughly as those of its leader. At her November 2020 party conference, Sturgeon declared: ‘As an independent country, we can be decision-makers, partners, bridge-builders. And we have a right, if a majority of us want it, to choose that future.’ Eleven of the last 15 opinion polls have shown majority support for the Union.

In March, Opinium asked voters about a second referendum. The most common response (33 per cent) was that there shouldn’t be one, followed by 32 per cent who wanted one in the next two years, 15 per cent who backed one ‘at some point in the future, but not in the next five years’ and 14 per cent who opted for the next two to five years. There is no way to slice those numbers to arrive at a majority for the SNP’s position of indyref2 within the first half of the new parliament.

Having failed to reach the all-important 65 seats, the Nationalists have pivoted to talk about a ‘pro-independence majority’, but there was no doubt during the campaign that a specifically SNP majority was their goal. In April, Sturgeon said: ‘A simple majority for a referendum is all that is needed and all that is ever required for a democratic mandate to exist, so a simple majority is what we are aiming for, even though achieving it is very difficult given the electoral system.’

That is the First Minister’s test, no one else’s. She failed it.

Surely, however, no one could quarrel with the assertion that the SNP won 1,291,204 constituency and 1,094,374 list votes for independence. Again, we need consult none other than Nicola Sturgeon. During the final TV hustings of the campaign, the BBC’s Glenn Campbell relayed to the Nationalist leader a conversation with a voter who favoured another five years of the SNP government but not a second referendum. ‘What are they meant to do if they want you but they don’t want independence?’ Campbell enquired. ‘They should vote for me,’ Sturgeon shot back.

Behold Schrödinger’s Nat: the elector who is for and against independence at the same time.

What should the Prime Minister make of this cavalcade of claptrap? No doubt about it, he will need a strategy for the medium-to-long term, but the first step is to say No. He need not — and really ought not to — get into the thickets of the debate about mandates and majorities. He speaks as the Prime Minister of a government with an 80-seat majority in the parliament with the legal authority over the constitution.

He can say No on those grounds alone, though it might be politic to make a nod to the pandemic. Scotland is gradually emerging from a crisis that claimed more than 10,000 lives north of the border and will soon have to jump-start the economy and get shutters up and people back to work. This would be an opportune time to remind everyone of what the Union has done for Scotland in the last 12 months alone. Almost £10 billion in additional cash, more than 900,000 Scots kept off the dole queue and a beneficiary of one of the world’s vaccination success stories.

The Union has been more than pulling its weight in the pooling and sharing stakes.
The SNP and its satellites in civil society, academia and media will huff and puff. Candidly, they would find an excuse to huff and puff anyway. The Prime Minister should not allow himself to be frightened by talk of sovereign wills and democratic imperatives. Westminster is sovereign and the only imperative is that the SNP gets on with governing in the interests of the whole of Scotland, not just its increasingly fundamentalist base.

Of course, Sturgeon won’t stop pushing until Westminster settles this matter once and for all, either by allowing another referendum or legislating to put the matter beyond all doubt. This particular can has been kicked almost as far as it will go. That, however, is a constitutional argument and as a matter of politics the Prime Minister is in a strong position — perhaps stronger than he thinks. His own party has performed better than anyone expected (including yours truly), albeit it did so by keeping him on the other side of the Tweed. The Tory flame is undimmed and the Unionist cause livelier than ever. Nationalism is about destruction and while destruction has a certain appeal, working together to build things up will always be more rewarding in the long-run.

Boris Johnson has already demonstrated his commitment to building up Scotland through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is circumventing the sanctum of sanctimony at the foot of the Royal Mile and spending directly where it matters in local communities. This is the kind of positive action that is worthy of a government, and a welcome contrast to the grievance-rousers and wound-pokers who line the benches at Holyrood. There is no moral force to an argument that says a government trying to build something from the constitutional hodge-podge of Britain in 2021 must give way to wreckers bent on tearing it all down. Least of all wreckers who cannot meet the indicia of victory they set for themselves.

The Prime Minister has invited Nicola Sturgeon to work together. It is up to her if she accepts his offer in the spirit in which it was intended or if she seeks fresh avenues for dividing people in the hopes that some day, eventually, the numbers will fall in her favour. If the First Minister does agree to sit down with the Prime Minister, he should congratulate her on retaining the trust of Scotland’s voters, then he should ask her how she intends to live up to it. Another five years of setting Scot against Scot when what we need is common purpose is not the way to go about it. That is why Boris should say No: because Scotland deserves better than a First Minister whose only interest in the country is whether it can deliver her political ambitions.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Nicola Sturgeon’s Disney nationalism

NO ANSWERS: Nicola Sturgeon lacks basic details about independence.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, April 26, 2021.

*****

To understand the central dynamic of Scottish politics, you needed to do only two things yesterday.

One was watch Nicola Sturgeon’s rambling performance on Andrew Marr, in which she admitted both that independence would erect a physical border between Scotland and England — contradicting her own statement 48 hours earlier — and that she had ‘not yet’ modelled the economic impact of secession on people’s incomes.

The other was consult the latest poll for Survation, which shows 50 per cent of Scots planning to give their constituency vote to the SNP on May 6 and with it, potentially, an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament.

The clearer it becomes that the Nationalists have no credible plan for achieving their solitary goal in politics, the higher their poll numbers climb. Or at least that’s how it seems.

There could be various reasons for this situation. The polls could be wrong. This is the wishful thinking option for Unionists. Yes, faulty sampling and modelling can lead pollsters to over- or under-estimate this party or that, but this would not account for the 25-to-30-point advantage recorded for the SNP across the different polling companies. The SNP is popular with a large segment of the Scottish electorate, however much that fact might baffle or frustrate its most trenchant critics.

Alternatively, the evidence of Scottish Government failure and SNP ill-preparedness on independence might not be cutting through. There could be something to this, but it is not because the electorate is ‘brainwashed’ or unintelligent, as some echo-chamber dwelling Unionists can be heard to pronounce.

Most voters pay only occasional attention to politics — they have lives to live — and in the short timespan they dedicate to it they see, on the one hand, Nicola Sturgeon speaking confidently and with authority from her public office and, on the other, a divided opposition with a revolving door of leaders who split their time between incompetent attacks on Sturgeon and much more studied assaults on each other.

‘Better the devil you know’ served Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair well and it is doing the same for Sturgeon.

A third possibility is the one to which I’m drawn. Namely, that the voters have picked up on Sturgeon’s own reluctance to push ahead on independence and understand that she is going through the motions because she must. They don’t necessarily believe education, health or the economy are doing well under her stewardship but they see no viable alternative. They’ll stick with her until something better comes along but, if push came to shove, they’re not sure if they would take the leap in the dark with her that independence requires.

This electoral cushion has made the SNP complacent and even lazy. In days gone by, the party didn’t have to worry about thinking. It contracted out the cerebral stuff to the likes of Sir Neil MacCormick and Stephen Maxwell and though the Nationalists were nowhere electorally back then, their constitutional propositions were admirably robust.

Academic sympathisers are more numerous these days but, with a few honourable exceptions, more intellectually lightweight, and even if they weren’t, the party hierarchy is plainly uninterested in ideas. Its nationalism is vapid and contentless, driven by the results of the last focus group and underpinned by nothing more enduring than the exigencies of the moment.

Sturgeon’s volte-face on the border is a case in point. On Friday, she told a radio interviewer: ‘Nobody in the SNP wants to see a border between Scotland and England.’ Yesterday on the BBC, she acknowledged ‘the practical difficulties for trade across the England-Scotland border’ and pledged to ‘work with others to make sure we keep trade flowing’.

Sturgeon was bounced into her Friday statement after one of her MSPs suggested a border after separation would create jobs. Emma Harper, standing in Galloway and Dumfries West, told a local reporter that ‘jobs can be created if a border is created’. Harper is the sort of Nationalist who makes you wonder if MI5 has indeed infiltrated the SNP.

Even so, Sturgeon only has herself to blame for her dismal turn on Andrew Marr. For a politician endlessly spun in fawning profiles as well-briefed, collected and in command of detail, she let slip just how shallow her thinking is on the most basic matters of statecraft.

No one in the SNP wishes there to be a border between Scotland and England? The SNP was founded to achieve such a border. It is the sole reason the party exists. It is why it contests elections. It is why it demanded a referendum in 2014 and why Sturgeon wants another one. The SNP is against borders in the same way that the GDR was against walls.

This contradictory mush, which gets mushier and more contradictory by the day to serve Sturgeon’s own political ends, is a pitiful sight to behold. Nationalism can be a respectable creed in some instances but the current leader of Scottish nationalism demeans the movement by pretending it involves a change no more momentous than switching your energy supplier.

If you think Brexit was sold to the public on false pretences, at least Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage accepted that things would be different once the UK left the EU. Sturgeon affects to believe that Scotland can become independent without actually separating from the UK — and conceding the obligations that brings as well as the new freedoms.

She is selling the voters Disney nationalism, in which we drive the ogre from the kingdom but the ogre continues subsidising our public spending and waving through our goods — and we all live happily ever after. This is not how you secure a mandate for statehood. It is how you store up resentment and disappointment for the early days of a bitter nation.

There are two nationalist parties standing in this election, each led by a first minister. Alba, with Alex Salmond at its helm, is generally regarded as the less credible of the two. Its figurehead is yesterday’s man, out for revenge against the woman who stopped standing dutifully behind him and bawling about ancient feuds with the next-door neighbours.

Alba’s attention-seeking and sense of victimhood mark it out as the Fathers4Justice of political parties, as does the impotent tantrum-throwing of threatening to pursue independence outwith the framework of a referendum. It is, as the kids say, pure cringe.

However, Alba is not alone in its fundamental unseriousness. It is less concerned about hiding it — indeed, it flexes its contempt for gradualism — but Salmond’s outfit is no more risible than the party from which it split. The other nationalist party vying for Scotland’s votes is as committed as Alba to the cause over the country, nationalism above the nation, the party before the people.

The SNP is the ultimate chameleon of Scottish politics, adapting over the years to whatever circumstance it found itself in. When radicalism was in the air, it was a radical party; when it came to hold former Conservative seats, it became a conservative party. When there were left-wing votes to be had in Euroscepticism, the SNP was for sovereignty; when the left drifted Brusselswards, ‘independence in Europe’ was the new policy. When oil seemed to promise economic viability for an independent Scotland, petro-nationalism was the order of the day; when the oil price fell and attitudes changed, the party pivoted to eco-nationalism.

Traditional parties of left and right change their stances, their policies, even their central tenets as the result of hard-fought debates about principle and strategy. The SNP has only one belief and glaums onto whatever passing political, social or economic vehicle it thinks will carry it closer to independence. The destination matters, not the journey or the mode of transportation. Independence is everything and it justifies anything.

The polls look good for the SNP now but, whether on the border, the EU, currency, public spending, taxes, the economy or the many more questions that loom over independence, it is becoming more evident by the day that Nicola Sturgeon is making it up as she goes along.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk

New Nats on the Block

LET’S TRY AGAIN: Alex Salmond unveils his new party’s first manifesto.

Alex Salmond spoke at the manifesto launch for his new Alba Party on April 21, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of the speech. 

*****

Alba, a party which has had a reception only slightly warmer than the European Super League, launched its manifesto yesterday. ‘Launched’, with its connotations of rockets blasting off into space, may not be the most apt term for an event that lasted exactly 4 minutes and 46 seconds.

Given one of the party’s pledges is to set up a second Scottish Parliament chamber comprising 100 people plucked off the street, it’s fair to say Alba is already in another galaxy.

Speaking from Ellon, Alex Salmond pulled out a copy of the manifesto, complete with a cover photo of a dripping-wet dog shaking itself dry. Nicola Sturgeon famously has a phobia of dogs. The document bears the legend: ’Shake Things Up’.

‘A highly appropriate title for the new kid on the block, the plucky underdog of Scottish politics,’ said Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (2007-2014), SNP leader (1990-2000, 2004-2014), MP (1987-2010, 2015-2017). Then again, he might have been comparing Alba to New Kids on the Block, an Eighties pop quintet also known as NKOTB. A similar word often comes to mind when I think of Salmond.

He restated the raison d’etre of the party: ‘We were established to bring urgency into the timetable for delivering independence for Scotland by maximising the list vote to build a pro-independence supermajority at Holyrood and to use our place as part of that supermajority to make sure there’s absolutely no more backsliding on timetables.’

This was a none-too-subtle jab at Sturgeon, who is seen as too gun-shy (or perhaps too claymore-shy) in her approach to indyref2. In fact, the launch speech contained the most explicit threats so far to make life difficult for the SNP, with Salmond describing Alba’s mission as ‘pressuring a pro-independence Scottish Government to get a move on and holding it to account if it doesn’t’. The party was, as he put it, ‘standing to be in a position to push the government further than they would otherwise go’.

No wonder the Nationalists are blanketing Facebook with adverts showing how ‘both votes SNP’ could have won them a (bare) majority in 2016. You don’t need to have put in a shift at Bletchley Park to break that particular code: the SNP would rather be governing with a precarious majority than have the backing of Salmond and half a dozen of his mates.

Despite the emphasis on the constitution, ‘that doesn’t mean Alba are a single-issue party,’ he said, standing in front of a backdrop that read ‘Alba… for the independence supermajority’. No, technically they’re a single-ego party. Five thousand had joined up so far because they wanted to see ‘more courage and less caution’ at Holyrood. Courage is climbing Everest; caution is knowing not to try doing it on a pogo stick.

Alba’s programme was for ‘a Scotland where the search for equality is reconciled with hard-won women’s sex-based rights’, he said, in a nod to the SNP’s gender identity wars. In fact, the manifesto had given ‘the strongest commitment to women’s rights’ of any of the parties. It was even, he ventured, ‘social democratic’. Alex Salmond claiming to be a social democrat is the most daring self-identification of all. He’s a tax-cutting former oil economist. His pronouns are: IMF and RBS.

‘In Alba’s short life, we’ve already held three policy conferences, he chuckled to himself with immense satisfaction.

This was the tone for much of the presentation: the phoney bonhomie of a Seventies game show host unveiling your big prize — a self-catering weekend in Bognor Regis and a constitutional convention on Scotland. A sparser, almost menacing, tenor crept in during swipes at Sturgeon so obvious they could have been accompanied by canned booing.

Thus was Alba’s plan for ‘an ambitious and radical Scotland that doesn’t just set targets but takes real steps forward’. The prospectus he was presenting was ‘the one manifesto that is taking Scottish independence seriously, with urgency, with a proper plan on how to deliver independence for Scotland through a referendum or another agreed democratic test’. For a man who was waxing yesterday about how much he ‘loves’ the SNP, he was getting in a power of digs at the party and its leader.

‘With this manifesto,’ he beamed, having reverted to Affable Eck, ‘everyone can see the direction we hope to urge Scotland’. Peer into the near distance and you can make out the contour of a cliff edge.

From Aberdeenshire to the Lowlands, where Salmond kicked off Alba’s Central Scotland campaign at the Falkirk Wheel, the boat lift that services the agreeably named Union Canal. The Wheel is a grand feat of modern engineering and, at 115ft in height, almost as towering as Alex Salmond’s self-regard.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk

How to hold Nicola Sturgeon accountable

TEFLON: Criticism never seems to stick to the First Minister.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, April 19, 2021.

*****

The problem with ‘lines’ taken by politicians and parties is that they are all written by political strategists. These characters live, breathe, eat and sleep politics. Their idea of relaxation is catching up on other countries’ politics.

They seldom encounter regular people yet part of their job is communicating ideas to the general public in a way that chimes, that sticks in the mind and, ideally, convinces electors to vote for their party. Results are necessarily mixed.

Margaret Thatcher’s defiant cry, ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’ — written for her by the playwright Ronnie Millar — cut through because it wittily lampooned media jargon while serving as a blunt statement of intent that everyone could understand.

A quarter-century later, the Tories’ 2005 campaign slogan, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, dreamed up by Aussie political bruiser Lynton Crosby, failed because it framed the election not as a question of whether Labour deserved another turn in government but whether the Tories did. The country might have fallen out of love with Tony Blair but it wasn’t ready to see eye-to-eye with Michael Howard.

Nicola Sturgeon’s explanation for Scotland’s drugs death scandal, dropped into the STV debate with faux candour, very much belongs to the latter category. Challenged by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, the First Minister replied: ’I think we took our eye off the ball on drugs deaths and I’ve said as much to the Scottish Parliament.’

Her expression as she spoke these words let slip that Sturgeon deemed this a clever and effective line. In fact, the First Minister is as divorced from reality as the advisers who scribbled that talking point for her. It did not come across as a moment of frankness or a refreshing acceptance of responsibility by a politician. It sounded cursory, glib — even callous.

Since the SNP came to power, 8,869 Scots have lost their lives to drugs, not counting the 455 who died in 2007 (the SNP only took over the reins on May 17 that year) nor 2020, for which no figures are yet available.

For almost 9,000 people to die on your watch and for you to take 14 years to notice is not taking your eye off the ball. It is systemic failure on a mass scale. This complacency and misgovernment was paid for not with the careers of the politicians responsible — one solitary minister, Joe FitzPatrick, was chucked overboard to save Sturgeon — but with the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet Sturgeon and her colleagues past and present are guilty of more than mere neglect. The government she leads and the government in which she was second-in-command cut drug and alcohol support funding in real terms from £114 million to £53 million, a reduction of 54 per cent. Over that same period, drug-related deaths in Scotland rose 178 per cent.

This was no oversight. It was a conscious choice to slash resources from one of our most grievous social problems at the expense of people’s lives.

That is not a blunder, a gaffe, a cock-up or any of the other euphemisms we use to describe governmental error. It is a moral abomination, an abdication of responsibility carried out by ministers who knew they would not be the ones to do the body recoveries, the death knocks, the comforting of bereft parents or the piecing back together of shattered families.

A similarly blase attitude has been on display over the transferring of elderly patients from hospital wards to care homes, many without testing and some after having tested positive, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the more than 10,000 deaths related to the virus, one-third have been residents of care homes. The closest to contrition we have heard was Jeane Freeman admitting ‘a mistake’ was made — on a podcast, one year after the fact.

Peter Smith, the Scotland correspondent for ITV News, interrogated Sturgeon about this in an interview last week in which the First Minister seemed alternately offended and bored by questions about her government’s conduct. Smith put to her a query he had heard from families suffering as a result of both drugs and care home deaths: ‘Why is no one accountable? Why is no one ever losing their job over mistakes that are made with the gravest of consequences?’

Sturgeon cited the election as the forum for accountability, a line she deployed to bet-hedging effect before her independent advisor cleared her in the Salmond inquiry. It was crass then and it is crass now. Accountability is about more than whether you can secure a certain number of crosses at the ballot box. It is about process, not popularity.

In a healthy democracy, government must be held to high standards every day, not just one day every five years. Whether on drugs, care home deaths, hospital waiting times, the attainment gap, and much else besides, this government is interested not in what is right or proper or good for the public, but in what it can get away with.

One of the striking features of this election is how honest the opposition leaders are being about their predicament. None is standing to be First Minister because none is foolish enough to believe they can beat a political system in which the SNP begins every campaign with the baked-in support of around 40 or 45 per cent of electors — the separatist bloc vote. When almost half the country will give at least one, if not both, ballots to the ruling party — no matter its record, no matter its failings, no matter its broken promises — accountability becomes all but impossible.

There is little the Holyrood opposition can do to disrupt this set up. It is Westminster which has allowed the dangerous fantasy to fester that independence lies over the next horizon, all because Downing Street would rather avoid the problem. The Prime Minister or one of his successors may come to pay the price for this cowardice.

Fully aware of their glum situation, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have spent the campaign thumping each other at least as mercilessly as they have the SNP. If they cannot defeat nationalism, they may as well vie for chief opposition to it.

But there is something they could forge common cause on, something that would make the remainder of the election very uncomfortable for the SNP. They should draw up an accountability pledge, one with clearly defined commitments and consequences, and have their own leaders sign it. Then challenge Nicola Sturgeon to do the same.

One possible template might be: 

  1. The Scottish Government will comply with parliamentary votes which direct ministers to appear before MSPs, release documents and cooperate with inquiries. Any minister who loses the confidence of parliament will be expected to resign.
  2. If the SNP’s treatment time guarantee isn’t met within the first 18 months of the next health secretary’s tenure, he or she will be asked to resign by the First Minister.
  3. If there is no significant narrowing of the attainment gap between wealthy and poor schoolchildren within the first 18 months of the next parliament, the education secretary will be asked to resign.
  4. If there is no significant reduction in drugs-related deaths by the midpoint of the next parliament, the minister for drugs policy will be asked to resign and an independent public inquiry established into the government’s handling of this scandal.
  5. The First Minister agrees that, should she fail to uphold any of the provisions of this pledge, she should no longer enjoy the confidence of parliament.

Of course, there is no incentive for Sturgeon to put her name to such a document — it concedes the failings her opponents highlight and shifts the fight to their territory. However, to refuse to put her name to a seemingly bland, uncontroversial statement — ministers will resign if they don’t do their jobs properly — would be an admission either that she considers her own promises unachievable or that she simply believes herself and her government to be above accountability.

The latter is closest to the truth. Sturgeon thinks she should be answerable to no one but herself. The opposition should force her to admit it.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

The Declaration of Eck

LAUNCH: Salmond set out his party’s stall from Aberdeenshire.

Alex Salmond spoke at the campaign launch for his new Alba Party on April 6, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of the speech. 

*****

Alex Salmond is modest to a fault and so what better way to launch his Alba party’s election campaign than by issuing a new Declaration of Arbroath. If anything, he was being under-ambitious. The Ten Commandments could do with a Doric translation.

The former First Minister was speaking on the 701st anniversary of the original declaration. Nationalists get very excited about this document for, although it was an assertion of the divine right of kings, the asserting was being done in a Scottish accent.

The Declaration of Aberdeenshire, from where Salmond was pontificating, stated: ‘We hereby proclaim the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and declare and pledge that, in all our actions, their interests will be paramount.’

This new season of Outlander sounds a bit heavy-going.

The declaration aimed ‘to assert the sovereign right of the Scottish people, acting through their parliament, to secure independence, to mobilise Scottish and international opinion and to ensure that this right is respected and acted upon’.

I’d settle for getting a £20 note accepted in a London boozer.

Some electioneers toss red meat to their voters, Salmond planted the fatted calf at their feet. If Alba was elected to a separatist-majority Holyrood, MSPs could ‘issue a clear and unmistakable instruction to the Scottish government to open negotiations with Whitehall on independence’.

In fact, he wanted them to do it in ‘week one’ of the new parliament, perhaps in between finding out where the pencils are kept and learning to avoid the canteen coffee.

This was one of the benefits of the nationalists holding a ‘supermajority’, which is defined in statute as two-thirds of seats at Holyrood. When this was pointed out to Salmond, he riposted: ‘That is not the definition of supermajority we are using’. They’ve never been good with figures, this lot. They still don’t get that 55 per cent is higher than 45 per cent.

For all his chuntering about the Scottish people being ‘sovereign’ (spoiler: they’re not), what Salmond is arguing for is amassing moral force for a campaign of pressure on the Prime Minister. ‘Even if he can ignore a party, he cannot ignore a parliament and a nation,’ he insisted. If Downing Street didn’t back down, there could be court actions and even ‘peaceful and popular demonstration’.

Asked whether Nicola Sturgeon could work with him after the bad blood of the past few years, he ventured: ‘I expect all politicians, Nicola included, to accept the verdict of the people and to work with the parliament that the people give us.’ They were at each others’ throats five minutes ago, now they’re getting the band back together.

Once again, women were to the forefront, with Salmond’s speech teed up by a succession of females explaining why they had joined Alba. Salmond touted the sex balance of his candidates: ’18 women, 14 men!’ He talked about ‘a paper on women and inequalities, which will go to our women’s conference this coming weekend’.

Of all the upheavals in Scottish politics in recent years, none has been so dramatic or so bold as Alex Salmond’s emergence as a radical feminist.

The presentation was several leagues above the past few weeks of cringe: videos freezing, streams going down, Zoom contributors left on mute. Salmond even joshed that the absence of technical hiccups was ‘showing our developing experience as a new political force’.

Where before he had sounded like an ageing end-of-the-pier stand-up down on his luck, now his voice thundered with the righteous cry of an oppressed nation. Or at least in his head. This was classic Salmond. First Minister Salmond. Trouble-beckons-for-Sturgeon Salmond.

His speech was a reminder that, for all his deficiencies, he is a consummate politician. He sells bargain-bin politics as though it were a case of the finest claret in Harrods. There are nationalists out there fed up with Sturgeon and ready to buy his wares.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk

Nicola Sturgeon deserves to lose

FAILURE: First Minister’s record leaves a lot to be desired.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, April 5, 2021.

*****

There are no moral victories at the ballot box and no consolation prizes. The losing side sometimes tells itself otherwise to cushion the blow of another rejection. Neil Kinnock is said to have won ‘the battle of the campaigns’ in 1987, because his ground operation was savvier and his presentation slicker, but come election night Mrs Thatcher was returned for the third time in a row with another landslide majority. Democracy is not a morality play, it is cold, hard numbers.

The cold, hard numbers tell us that the SNP won more than double the constituency vote of the Conservatives and Labour in 2016. For the Tories to become the largest party after May 6, they would have to hold on to every seat they took last time then take a further 17 from the SNP. To say this is a prospect not entertained by current polling would be an understatement.

No political party is entitled to win an election but oftentimes governments deserve to lose them. No government in the devolved era has deserved to lose quite as thoroughly as this one.

Nicola Sturgeon’s response to Covid-19 has been spun as a triumph but when the lights go down on her daily BBC Scotland slot, the facts remain the same. As of last week, Scotland has a higher infection rate than England or Wales and a higher daily mortality count than any other part of the UK. The UK Government has serious questions to answer over its handling of the pandemic but at least it gets asked them. The SNP has been underscrutinised for its lack of preparedness ahead of the pandemic and its management in the early weeks and months of the crisis.

Health chiefs warned during a 2016 pandemic planning exercise that there were ‘significant business-as-usual staff shortages, making stepping up in an emergency even more challenging’. Internal emails have also shown that the Scottish Government was aware of shortages in PPE supply before the pandemic hit. In the event, hospital staff were issued with expired equipment, including out-of-date respirators.

Patients were transferred from hospitals to care homes before a testing regime was put in place. Health Secretary Jeane Freeman told Holyrood only 300 patients had been moved under these circumstances when the actual figure was 900. More than 3,000 people have died in care homes where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, a third of the overall total.

The SNP failed to provide supermarkets with lists of persons shielding in time for the launch of special delivery slots; mistakenly told 9,000 to shield when it was unnecessary; and missed its one million vaccinations target by ten days. The Office for Statistics Regulation reproached Sturgeon for claiming ‘the prevalence of the virus in Scotland, right now, is five times lower than it is in England’. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told MSPs last June that ‘approximately 20 per cent of travellers’ had undergone spot-checks upon entering Scotland. No such checks had taken place. A Covid outbreak in Edinburgh city centre was withheld from the public and only came to light thanks to a journalistic investigation.  

Margaret Ferrier remains a member of the SNP despite having travelled across the country by train after being diagnosed with Covid-19. So far three ministers in Sturgeon’s government have been caught breaking social distancing rules during the election campaign, with Sturgeon herself having violated the regulations in December. Her chief medical officer, who was forced to resign after contravening travel restrictions to visit her second home, has since been appointed to a top job with NHS Scotland.

The pandemic has become a convenient excuse for the Nationalists whenever their lacklustre record is questioned. Yet in health in particular the statistics show that problems long preceded Covid-19. True, more than 1,500 children have been waiting over a year for a mental health appointment and 25,000 calls to a crisis helpline have gone unanswered since last March, but this isn’t all that new.
SNP ministers introduced a target in December 2014 that said 90 per cent of patients referred to psychological therapies had to begin treatment within 18 weeks. That target has never been met. Before the pandemic, A&E waiting time targets were last met in 2017 while the 62-day standard for cancer treatment has not been achieved since 2012.

Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Children, first pencilled in for winter 2012, finally opened its doors last month. The St John’s children’s ward in Livingstone was forced to operate part-time between 2017 and 2020 thanks to staff shortages. An inquiry into the £842 million Queen Elizabeth ‘super-hospital’ in Glasgow found cancer patients were ‘exposed to risk’ by flaws in the building’s design.

Before coronavirus made its way to Scotland’s shores, education was sold as Nicola Sturgeon’s number one priority. The reality is very different. Her Curriculum for Excellence has been branded ‘vague’, ‘lacking in clarity’ and ‘wishy-washy’ by one leading educationalist while another says ‘a whole generation’ has been ‘betrayed’ by it. CfE has driven down subject choice, standards and performance. Almost four in ten of the poorest pupils leave primary school without attaining the requisite reading and writing skills. Scottish schoolchildren perform worse in maths than students in Estonia, Czechia and Slovenia.

The attainment gap between the best- and worst-off pupils ought to be a source of deep shame for the Nationalists. An Audit Scotland report published last month warned: ‘Progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap between the most and least deprived school pupils has been limited.’

The government’s concern for the educational interests of children from poor backgrounds was on display during last year’s marking scandal, when thousands of youngsters had teacher-predicted grades adjusted downwards by the SQA. Poorer pupils were disproportionately affected, yet it took Education Secretary John Swinney five days to act.

Swinney also played a central role in another grim saga of Nationalist rule. After the Scottish Government ignored the advice of counsel and pressed ahead with its defence in Alex Salmond’s judicial review, the Court of Session found that a harassment procedure had been used against the former First Minister in a manner that was ‘unlawful’. Salmond was awarded costs in excess of £500,000, met by the taxpayer.

Despite MSPs twice voting for Swinney to publish the relevant legal advice, he twice failed to comply and only later, when his own job was on the line, did he agree to release a partial version of events. He also refused to allow certain witnesses to appear before the inquiry while four senior civil servants who did testify later had to ‘clarify’ their evidence — despite the government having spent more than £75,000 preparing witnesses.

While the James Hamilton review appeared to clear the First Minister, the parliamentary inquiry found that she misled MSPs. Serious questions remain about who leaked information to a Sturgeon-friendly newspaper, the inconsistencies between Sturgeon’s testimony and that of SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and whether, as has been alleged, the name of a complainer was shared with one of Salmond’s representatives.

Despite a hectic few years, one item has clung to its place at the pinnacle of the SNP’s agenda. No matter how long waiting lists grow, how far behind poor children fall, or how many Covid infections are recorded, there is always time for independence. One of the last things the Nationalists did in the parliament that has just risen is publish a draft Bill for a second referendum. One of the first things they will do in the next parliament is press ahead with that Bill.

I write this column from my parents’ house, where I have been living throughout the pandemic. It is in a constituency where the SNP can be relatively relaxed about victory. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation listed this area among the 20 per cent most deprived in Scotland in 2020. And in 2016. And in 2012. These are cold, hard numbers too.

From here, 14 years of the SNP has meant 14 years of indolence, triangulation and savvy media management. Fourteen years of clamouring for more powers, then failing to use them for anything transformative or that even approaches Nicola Sturgeon’s social democratic posturing. Fourteen years in which the thing that has mattered most to the people running Scotland is the thing that will matter most to them for the next 14 years and the 14 after that. If only we had a government as invested in the nation as this one is in nationalism.

Elections are not a matter of morality or desert and, in that, the SNP is fortunate. This government not only deserves to lose on May 6, it deserves never to see the inside of a government building again.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

For as long as 186 of us remain online

Alex Salmond addressed his new Alba Party’s first conference on April 3, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Mail on Sunday sketch of the speech. 

*****

Alex Salmond’s conference speech lasted exactly five minutes and 20 seconds and although it was free I would still like my money back. This was meant to be his first great address to his new party, whose name he has finally learned to pronounce correctly. (It’s Alba as in ‘Al-a-buh’, not Alba as in ‘absolute bunch of roasters’.) 

Salmond’s appearance was billed as his ‘keynote speech on the constitution and the Alba route to independence’. If this was his idea of keynote, he should take himself in for retuning. 

Instead of rousing oratory about Scotland’s sovereign destiny and Alba’s policy proposals for realising it, we were furnished with a brisk rundown of their candidates so far. Given the calibre of some of them, brisk was probably wise.

The stream of proceedings was initially supposed to be piped into the Zoom huddle arranged for journalists and an assortment of bloggers. After flashing through a series of screens from someone’s computer — including a document clearly marked ‘memorandum’ — suddenly a familiar face appeared before us. 

Former Conservative activist, former Labour activist and former SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh compered the event. She was unveiled as an Alba candidate four days ago and remains a member at time of publication, something of a record. 

Ahmed-Sheikh greeted ‘all those watching online’, with ‘all’ doing rather a lot of heavy lifting. At its peak, the livestream attracted 186 viewers. Thousands of men will have gone to all sorts of lengths yesterday to avoid the first post-lockdown traipse round Ikea but only 186 opted for an activity more soul-destroying than perusing overpriced Swedish shelving. 

The warm-up act for the main event was meant to be Laurie Flynn, founder of Alba, who was to treat us to a poetry reading. Regrettably, when the screen cut to him, Flynn was on mute and, unaware of the fact, he waxed on in oblivious silence, like Scottish nationalism’s answer to Marcel Marceau. 

The stream jolted back to Ahmed-Sheikh before Alba members and reporters got to hear a word of stirring political verse. Alas, for us, no modern-day McGonagall/ But at least the attempt was somewhat comical. 

An awkward segue later and there was Salmond, bedecked in tweed before a cobalt background, and chirping: ‘More independence-supporting MSPs. What’s not to like?’

The former First Minister looked for all the world like a second-hand car dealer fronting his first regional TV advert and wishing he could afford to have it aired during Coronation Street rather than the second ad break in a 3am rerun of Columbo.

Mere seconds in, the Zoom stream froze, sending the press over to YouTube, where Salmond was busy bragging that Alba’s membership figures now exceeded those of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. His boast might have been more impressive if he wasn’t lording it over a party that could have held its annual conference during lockdown without breaking the rule of six. 

‘After a week, we are legion,’ he declared. ‘The Alba Party are many.’

No doubt Salmond thought a little Scripture apt for Holy Saturday and the Gospel of Mark as good as any. Unfortunately, the verse ‘my name is legion, for we are many’ refers to a demon Christ casts out of a possessed man and into a nearby herd of swine, causing the luckless porcines to drown themselves in the sea. A more fitting parable might have been one about turning five loaves, two fishes and Tommy Sheridan into a functioning political party. 

The ex-leader of the SNP accused his ex-party of ‘ridiculous posturing’ for not welcoming Alba’s regional list campaign. While acknowledging that ‘the heavy lifting has been done by the SNP’, he insisted ‘the cause of Scottish independence’ was ‘beyond party’ and had ‘never been the SNP’s sole preserve’. 

He reminded them of ‘the Scottish Constitutional Convention, where the SNP did not participate’. He would know, of course. He was the deputy leader when the party withdrew from the process.

Back over on Zoom, one of the journalists was abruptly made host of the session, and protested this unsought promotion. She was swiftly replaced — by another member of the fourth estate. By the end of the whole affair, I was the only scrivener never bestowed this honour. I’ll try not to take it personally. 

Ahmed-Sheikh promised a ‘special statement on Tuesday’. It may be even briefer than yesterday’s — SOS.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk

Alba could be a threat to the Union — and an opportunity

FEUD: The Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama is being foisted on the country

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 29, 2021.

*****

It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the SNP and an episode of Jerry Springer. You know you shouldn’t gawp but it’s hard to look away, what with lurid allegations, bitter feuds, conspiracy theories and political bed-hopping, as the problem family of Scottish politics airs its dirty linen in trash-talking TV interviews.

The only things missing are a DNA test and an on-stage brawl, and I wouldn’t rule out either.

Amid the pervasive tackiness, history is being rewritten with suddenly updated character assessments. A few years ago, Nicola Sturgeon said of Alex Salmond ‘there’s no man I know who is less sexist’ — there was ‘nobody in my political career that’s been more supportive’.

Yesterday, she told a Sunday newspaper: ‘There are some people, and they do tend to be men, whose egos don’t allow them to exit the stage when the time is right for the sake of other people and, I would argue, for his own dignity.’

Over the weekend, she branded him a ‘gambler’ and said there were ‘significant questions about the appropriateness of his return to public office given the concerns that have been raised about his behaviour previously’.

Given her well-documented struggle with incredibly precise amnesia, the First Minister might have trouble recalling at what point she decided Salmond was an egotist and a gambler. Was it before or after she asked us to trust him to set up and run an independent state? Alex Salmond: the man so unfit for public office they made him First Minister twice.

If Sturgeon deems it inappropriate, as a matter of principle, for Salmond to return to Holyrood, she will have no problem promising, as a matter of principle, not to cooperate with or seek the support of any parliamentary group he leads after May 6.

That might not be quite so straightforward. The emergence of Salmond’s Alba Party means anyone hopeful for an election about policy and delivery can forget it. The SNP will get back to undermining public services only once they’re finished undermining each other.

But if Alba performs at the upper end of expectations, Salmond could be back in the Scottish parliament as the head of a delegation of separatists loyal to him. If by chance that delegation enjoyed the balance of power in parliament, Sturgeon would be placed in an invidious position. Having torn him down, she could expect to pay a heavy price in exchange for his votes.

That is, of course, if Alba excels and, absent any polling data, all we have to go on now are its launch and its candidate rollout. The former was laughably outdated — a 3G presentation in a 5G world — while the latter has been far from impressive.

On Times Radio yesterday, Salmond vowed a ‘calibre of candidates that people recognise’ and ‘an orchestra of different talents’. The wind section is certainly oversubscribed, not least with Kenny MacAskill, a man whose opinion of himself is so high it must get nose-bleeds.

Then there is Neale Hanvey, who was suspended during the 2019 election campaign over tweets he later admitted were anti-Semitic. The SNP showed him what it thought of that behaviour when it promoted him to the front bench.

Presentation is not everything. Salmond is making a tactical appeal rather than one to values or aspirations. You don’t have to love his party or him so long as you can be convinced they are the surest means of stacking Holyrood with more flag-botherers.

The Holyrood electoral model is extremely difficult to game — unless you stand exclusively on the list and in support of a party dominant in the constituencies. This goes against the purpose and spirit of the additional member system. It’s almost as if devolution wasn’t thought through before it was set up.

What is Alba likely to mean for the SNP? Frustratingly, the answer is: it depends. Professor Sir John Curtice wrote at the weekend that ‘the SNP’s chances of winning an overall majority’ were ‘potentially put at risk by Salmond’s intervention’, because the party has only ‘a 50-50 chance of an overall majority’ and a few list MSPs ‘could make all the difference’.

Sir John suggests a ceiling of six or so seats for Salmond’s outfit but also flags up an alternative scenario: ‘He could end up with too few votes to win any seats at all, but still cost the SNP the list votes they need for a majority.’

The hinge question is: can SNP voters, most of whom regard Salmond as a creature of the past, or worse, be convinced to vote for him and take seats that might otherwise go to pro-Union parties? Many nationalists will outwardly shun Alba but some, in the privacy of the polling booth, might just lend them an X.

Unionists who figure this a fitting juncture to order in an emergency supply of popcorn should spend some time with the electoral arithmetic. It’s not a cheery companion but it is an informative one.

Data scientist James Kanagasooriam, whose work the Scottish Tories have drawn on, believes 6 per cent is the pivotal figure for Alba. If it polls below that on May 6, it will likely do more damage to nationalists. If it polls above that, it ‘has the potential to be lethal to Unionist parties’. The reason is simple: the list is where pro-Union parties got three-quarters of their seats in 2016.

This piles on the danger for Unionists toying with a list vote for All for Unity, which brands itself ‘the Unionist equivalent of Alba’, and could split the anti-SNP vote enough to elect more Alba (or Green) MSPs.

The Scottish Conservatives are fighting to retain the voters Ruth Davidson brought over in 2016, including those Labour by instinct who felt the party was directionless. If Tory leader Douglas Ross loses these voters, his party may lose its perch as the main opposition.

Since he cannot replicate Davidson’s plucky personality or confident rhetorical style, Ross is going in hard on Unionism. The strategy is what Spurs manager José Mourinho calls ‘parking the bus’: a deep-lying defence in which the Tories will focus on low-blocking Labour rather than making excursions into the SNP’s half.

There are two elections taking place right now, one between the Nationalists and Alba for the former’s chance to fashion a majority government and the other between Labour and the Tories for second place. Alba could have as much influence over the second contest as the first.

There is already a good deal of speculation about what Alba means for the national question. Salmond says it can contribute towards ‘a super-majority for independence’ at Holyrood. It is deceptively constitutional-sounding but it has all the legal force of a blancmange.

The number of separatists elected to the Scottish parliament — be it 29 or 129 — has no bearing on a reserved matter. The only parliament that may grant a second plebiscite (or surrender to the extra-electoral activities Salmond floats, such as ‘peaceful street demonstrations’) is the sovereign Parliament at Westminster.

Neither the Scottish Tories nor the UK Government will say this because they want to maximise the Conservative vote and nothing does that like ginning up the troops against Indyref 2. In doing so, they fight on terms set by their opponents, and tacitly concede a Holyrood election is where these matters are decided.

Some say this is a product of Downing Street not having a strategy on the Union, but that is not true. It has 15 strategies; it just can’t stick to one for longer than three months.

Alba is Boris Johnson’s opportunity to put that right. He should realise the peril posed to the SNP’s stability from what is in effect a Plan B party. The instinct from ministers like Michael Gove has been to go softly-softly on Nationalists but now is the time to show some toughness.

Sturgeon holds her fractious coalition together by nothing more sophisticated than a carrot dangling on a stick — keep voting SNP and Indyref 2 will get closer. Snatch the carrot away by punting independence into the future (decades, not years) and you deprive Sturgeon of her only strategy at the very moment a rival party arrives on the scene.

The separatists can’t tear the UK apart if they’re busy tearing themselves apart.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk

Epic Gael

Alex Salmond announced his candidacy for the Holyrood elections on March 26, 2021, for the Alba Party. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of the launch. 

*****

There are a fair few nationalists who believe the British state works to undermine Scottish independence, and a fair few Unionists who believe it ought to. But you have to wonder whether it would be worth MI5’s time when nationalists do such a good job themselves.

Alex Salmond is back — apparently, at some point, he went away — and, in a bid to return to Holyrood, is heading up a band of awkward misfits hoping to overcome their status as political outcasts. Like the Goonies gone wrong. Very wrong. 

The SNP was never big enough to contain Salmond’s ego, so now he has built an extension of sorts in the form of Alba, which will be contesting the Holyrood election for the votes of people with giant Saltires tied to their car aerials.

Salmond kept pronouncing it ‘Ahl-bah’. My Gaelic education extends to darting for the remote whenever the Nineties Hebridean soap Machair came on STV, but even I know it’s ‘Al-a-buh’. Nicola Sturgeon may not have been best-pleased by yesterday’s development but Kate Forbes will have been fizzing.

Salmond has had more comebacks than Tina Turner but this gig was more washout than Wembley. The launch was streamed on YouTube from what appeared to be the Blue Peter broom cupboard. The camera-work was shakier than the San Francisco earthquake and Salmond loomed ominously in semi-darkness thanks to low-watt lighting. Maybe they were getting their pitch to Green voters in early.

An ageing Eck declared Alba the only path to ‘an independence supermajority’ and pledged that every candidate would ‘live and breathe independence’. Going by the launch, I’d keep the oxygen on stand-by. While he underscored Alba was ‘not out to become a governing party’ – I doubt that’ll be a problem – he did say a referendum was ‘by no means the only route’ for leaving the UK. There is a section of the SNP core vote that, whatever they think of Salmond, will be tempted by such talk.

Three defections were unveiled, two females and one male, and the women went first, which was hardly subtle. None was a household name, even in their own houses, but Inverclyde councillor Chris McEleny was hitherto a fixture on the Twitter wing of the SNP. He spoke of the importance of Scotland having a say over ‘wir own future’ before chirping ‘back over to you, Alec’, like the most demented episode of Richard and Judy you ever saw. 

Salmond teed-up a cheery promotional video, replete with whooshing helicopter shots, but 30 seconds in, the stream cut back to him. He stood there grimacing like a wombat that had stood on a Lego and was trying not to show it. Off camera, there was the distinct screech of a door being opened. The emergency exit, no doubt. It was the Khrushchev speech directed in the style of Carry On Up the Khyber.

The press conference portion of the event was conducted via Zoom and the zoomers were in plentiful supply. In addition to TV reporters, newspaper hacks and the main pro-independence blogger, there was a rabble of Salmond fan-boys whose purpose seemed to be tending his ego. He was congratulated by these lapdog scribblers on having set up his new party, even as mainstream journalists were denounced for asking tough questions of their hero. 

One used his allotted question to grouse, among other things, about some SNP politicians having blocked him on social media. Another gurned and gasped and shook his head at every adversarial query, like a K-pop stan encountering someone who thinks BTS are just okay. 

For giving Salmond a particularly fierce grilling, a correspondent from The Herald was branded part of ‘the Right-wing media’, which will be news to the Leftish broadsheet’s right-on readers.

There was little policy, but digs at divisive stances taken by Sturgeon. Asked by a Spanish journalist about his party’s stance on gender self-identification, Salmond had concerns about women’s ‘sex-based rights to private spaces’.

He said Alba was ‘hoisting a flag in the wind, planting our Saltire on a hill’. If I was Mountain Rescue, I’d expect a call.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Ruth’s last hurrah

CACKLE: Davidson reacts to a ‘tribute’ from Nicola Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon faced questions in the Scottish Parliament on March 24, 2021It was the final First Minister’s Questions before the election and Ruth Davidson’s last before quitting Holyrood. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

At last, the back of the most wretched, fetid, scandal-flecked parliament in memory. Gone in a final flurry of questions to the First Minister, and not a moment too soon.

Going out with it was Ruth Davidson, who is standing down to take up a seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Boudica of Better Together. (There is a chance I have embellished the title.)

You will likely be aware of her parliamentary flitting thanks to Nicola Sturgeon, who can’t seem to get it off her mind. At least her memory is improving.

For their final showdown, Davidson eschewed fireworks and went for the guilt trip: education. The First Minister once ranked it as her number one priority, a dubious grasp of arithmetic but still enough for a maths Higher under Curriculum for Excellence.

Davidson hauled in John Swinney, who had told the education committee that morning he wasn’t keen on talk of pupils ‘catching up’ after the pandemic as that assumed all had fallen behind.

Fair point. The best part of a year learning how to conjugate verbs via webcam will have left most kids ready for their Cambridge entrance exams.

Davidson tried to get Sturgeon to disavow Swinney’s view, and agree that ‘everything possible must be done to help pupils catch up after the better part of a year out of the classroom’, but the First Minister wasn’t having it.

Instead, she professed her pleasure that Davidson was ‘back onto the issue of education and attainment in what is, of course, her last FMQs before she goes to the unelected House of Lords’.

Oh, and yes, she backed up Swinney. At first, then she slipped up and used the dreaded C-U term herself: ‘We will be introducing a summer programme… so that we make sure they recover and catch up in that wider sense.’

Who knows what pupils will make of the news that school’s in for summer. No more pencils/ No more books/ No more Zoom lessons left on mute.

Davidson counselled that ‘a bit of contrition from the First Minister might be in order’ after a damning Audit Scotland report into the persistent attainment gap.

Sturgeon returned serve: ‘While Ruth Davidson is off taking £300 a day to sit in the unelected House of Lords, those of us who are in this chamber will be getting on with the job of improving education for all.’

Ken Macintosh interjected: ‘You have twice mentioned the House of Lords, First Minister. The point has been made.’

Gosh. Had someone slipped an extra spoonful of sugar into his porridge?

‘Gallant but not required, Presiding Officer,’ Davidson demurred.

She recalled how Sturgeon had hailed closing the attainment gap as her ‘sacred responsibility’, and enquired why it was ‘just as wide as ever’.

Sturgeon vowed to put her case to the people and ‘tell them, in areas where we have not made as much progress as we wanted, why that is the case’. I’m not sure she needs an election to do that. We all know what a map of England looks like.

The First Minister decried ‘the values of Ruth Davidson and her Westminster bosses’, then segued into: ‘As that was her final question, I say that I genuinely wish Ruth Davidson well—’

The Tory broke into a cackle at the audacious handbrake turn.

She and Sturgeon were always a mismatch. Davidson revels in parliamentary theatrics and has an impish sense of humour, which sometimes helps her and sometimes hurts her. Sturgeon is a political processor — briefing papers in, talking points out — and, the rare outbreak of wit aside, has the demeanour of Mary Whitehouse on a fact-finding mission to Sodom and Gomorrah.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.