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You Kent be serious

Nicola Sturgeon briefed the media on the Indian variant of Covid-19 on May 21, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of the press conference. 


We may be slowly getting the better of coronavirus but there’s no vaccine as yet for the pandemic of political correctness sweeping the Western world.

At her Covid-19 media briefing – delivering such statements in parliament is for lesser mortals – Nicola Sturgeon made mention of the ‘so-called Indian variant of the virus’. However, she pledged that: ‘From now on, I’m going to refer to it as the April-02 variant’.

For the head of a government that transferred untested and even Covid-positive patients into care homes, where more than 3,000 residents would go on to die, the sensitivities of language are a questionable priority. I don’t mind the First Minister being woke but it would be nice if she was awake, too.

Still, now that ‘Indian variant’ is out, we can look forward to further commendable efforts to avoid offence.

Spanish flu will become ‘Siesta sniffles’, while German measles will be known as ‘Lederhosen lurgy’. Hollywood is expected to re-release 1979’s The China Syndrome under its new title, ‘Jane Fonda Disaster Movie Variant’.

Being woke isn’t as easy as it looks, mind. Within seconds of her bold proclamation on not linking variants to specific places – in fact, in the very next sentence – Sturgeon said: ‘In recent weeks, this variant has become quite established in many parts of the UK, including here in Scotland, and we have reason to believe that it might be more transmissible even than the Kent variant.’

I have never been so disappointed in the First Minister. The people of Maidstone shouldn’t have to put up with such thoughtless Kentophobia.

A slip of the tongue, no doubt, but perhaps telling from someone who has previously given the impression that England is a maskless, spluttering wretch, sending a thousand infected droplets northwards with every Sassenach sneeze.

One politician in particular might have used more tactful language when claiming (without evidence) that prevalence of the virus was five times lower in Scotland than in England and when telling English people not to come here to enjoy indoor hospitality.

Maybe Nicola Sturgeon could have a word with that politician.

Her wingman Humza Yousaf was by her side for his first Covid briefing as Health Secretary but it was 31 minutes before he even got a word in. People say the First Minister has no achievements to her name but getting Yousaf to keep quiet for half an hour will be a legacy all in itself.

When he did speak, it was only to second whatever the boss had just said or reiterate the importance of following the rules. Unless there’s an immigration enforcement decision you feel really strongly about.

As he will soon learn in his new brief, it’s Yousaf’s job to do all the thankless tasks behind the scenes and Sturgeon’s job to swoop in and take the credit.

He’ll get to front press conferences of his own, but only when there’s bad news needing broken or when the matter involved is below La Sturgeon’s pay grade. I’m not sure how he did it but Yousaf has managed to get himself promoted downwards.

Barely was the briefing finished than Anas Sarwar had fired off a statement in support of the First Minister’s progressive nomenclature. Despite these times of social distancing, Sarwar can’t seem to keep two metres away from whatever stance the SNP has just taken.

In backing up Sturgeon, the Scottish Labour leader recalled how ‘at the outset of the pandemic you had people referring to China’. It’s outrageous and about time someone called it out. The only people who think a virus from Wuhan has anything to do with China are bigots and geographers.

Oh, and after making such a fuss about it, Sturgeon proceeded to call ‘the April-02 variant’… the Indian variant. Twice. Someone’s not as woke as she thinks.


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

Meet the new priority, same as the old priority

Nicola Sturgeon was re-elected as First Minister on May 18, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 


In the least shocking election result since Kim Jong-un’s name was last on a ballot paper, Nicola Sturgeon was reappointed First Minister of Scotland at Holyrood yesterday. The SNP leader faced stiff competition from Douglas Ross, who spent an inordinate amount of his allotted time talking about dairy cattle, and Willie Rennie, who wondered why everyone couldn’t just get along.

Newly installed presiding officer Alison Johnstone has a cheery manner that I predict will last a month, maybe two. Ken Macintosh started out as a good-humoured fellow, too. By the end, he looked like a prematurely aged Great Dane shuffling to its final appointment with the vet.

Given there were only three candidates — let’s be honest, only one — you might have expected proceedings to be done and dusted promptly. It took an hour and ten minutes, including opening and closing speeches and suspensions for voting and counting. Because Holyrood has to be awkward, MSPs were balloted on each candidate separately, with the only option being to vote Yes or not at all. I understand the next independence referendum will be run along much the same lines.

Willie Rennie was up first. ‘There will be a two-minute division,’ Johnstone instructed, optimistically. He’d received all the votes he was getting before she finished the sentence.

Douglas Ross’s bid for the top job was much like Emmerdale in the Seventies: all farming and no drama. ‘When I was a child,’ he told the chamber, ‘people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I was older and my answer was always: I wanted to be a dairy farmer.’

I wanted to be an FBI agent, so I can hardly cast aspersions, but it’s almost endearing how blandly wholesome Douglas Ross is. He’s like Clark Kent if Clark Kent had been born in Kansas, never heard of the Planet Krypton and spent his life saving the world from nothing more apocalyptic than corn blight.

After reminiscing about his time at agricultural college, Ross admitted: ’I know there is literally more chance of one of my cows fulfilling the nursery rhyme of jumping over the moon than there is of me winning this vote today, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.’

His pitch: ‘People across Scotland want to see us pulling together, not apart.’ People across Scotland would gladly never hear from the place again provided their bins got collected and GP appointments weren’t harder to acquire than a roll of Andrex during the first lockdown.

As well as referendums, Aberdeen-born Ross has a principled objection to the letter A. ‘Scotland huss to move on,’ he urged MSPs. ‘The parliament huss to take Scotland forward.’ Businesses, he warned, ‘huff felt ignored for far too long’. The Scottish government should do more to back ‘those who suffer at the hunds of criminals’.

When it came Nicola Sturgeon’s time, she vowed: ‘My first and driving priority will, indeed, be to lead us through the pandemic and into recovery’.

Let’s hope they don’t do international league tables for recovery. In fact, a few hours later it was announced that John Swinney, in charge of her other first priority since 2016, had been semi-sacked from the education brief. Semi because, although he has done for Scottish schooling what Nick Leeson did for Barings, he’s too important an ally for Sturgeon to dump outright.

So, he will now be Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery. His real job is Minister for Priorities: a loyal bruiser Sturgeon can stick in whatever portfolio is the most tricky at a given time, knowing that, while he won’t make the situation better and may well make it worse, he shouts loudly enough to keep critics at bay.

The Greens’ co-leader Lorna Slater talks like a motivational speaker at a bus stop. Her enthusiasm is admirable but everyone’s just waiting for the Number 17.

She marvelled at the increased representation across the chamber.

‘Will we, as a more diverse group, have a more positive working culture?’


‘Will there be more cross-party working?’


‘Will we be able to think long-term?’


‘I look across this debating chamber, Presiding Officer, and what I see is hope.’

I looked across the debating chamber and what I saw was Fergus Ewing with the expression of a middle-aged man in a proctologist’s waiting room.


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

Will Sturgeon pursue recovery or referendum?

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, May 17, 2021.

Tomorrow afternoon MSPs will assemble at Holyrood to elect the next First Minister. It’s safe to say the odds heavily favour one candidate in particular. So, unless things go splendidly wrong and Jackie Baillie ends up in Bute House, we can expect to thole a little longer under the rule of Nicola Sturgeon. 

In the dizzy days that followed the 2014 referendum, when Sturgeon was selling out concert halls and sloshing a tin of yellow emulsion across Scotland’s electoral map, there was an intoxicating certainty among nationalists that she would lead them to the Promised Land. Six years on, the Ayrshire Moses is still parked at the shore of the Red Sea, frowning: ‘Too choppy’. The true believers are waking up to the reality of being led by a cautious, poll-watching solicitor unwilling to allow belief to outrun political circumstances. 

The political circumstances that Sturgeon must contend with include the ongoing wariness of Middle Scotland towards the independence enterprise, growing disquiet at the mediocre outcomes from 14 years of SNP government, and internal tensions dragging her party in this direction and that. However, no circumstance is as momentous as the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and the economic revival that needs to come next. Supporters of separation may pretend the First Minister can lead Scotland through the pandemic and into another constitutional battle at the same time but no one sensible believes this. 

Even if you are convinced the full powers of independence would deliver a better recovery, the disruption that would be caused by the campaign to acquire them would more than reverse any benefit. The Scottish Government must work with the Scotland it has because the Scotland it wants is not available right now. 

Nationalists and Unionists are bound up in an interlocking Catch-22, the constitutional equivalent of mutually-assured destruction. If the nationalists drop another referendum into the middle of a pandemic or the recovery it could drive undecided voters into the arms of the Unionists. Yet, if Unionists convince the SNP to put the recovery ahead of a referendum, such a display of moderation and wise governance could allay the very fears holding undecideds back from supporting a split. 

How, then, to navigate both the constitution and Covid? The answer is: you can’t. There is no Holyrood solution to the constitutional conflict. That can only come by Westminster granting a second referendum that leads to a decisive result or by Westminster grasping the thistle and reforming devolution to stop it being used as a steamroller for separation. Until such time as either occurs, MSPs have a choice: they can be a recovery parliament or a referendum parliament. They cannot be both. 

Politics is not about power. It’s about what you do with power. Winning elections is the easy part — the hard part is the choices that come afterwards. Once in government, you have the ability to do a great many things to transform the country and the lives of those living in it for the better. But powers are not ornaments to be displayed with pride on the mantlepiece. They mean nothing beyond political vanity if they are not used. That is the question that faces the new parliament and the new government that will lead it: will the next five years be about the powers they have or the powers they don’t?

Scotland, like the rest of the UK, has been lulled into believing the end of the medical pandemic means the end of the economic and social crisis. We are like the surviving characters of a horror movie who, convinced the mad slasher is dead, turn their backs and breathe a sigh of relief. As any fan of fright flicks will tell you, this is invariably followed by a sudden shriek of the musical score and the villain sitting bolt upright and turning his head menacingly in the direction of his oblivious prey.

Sooner or later, the axe is going to fall for us too and in all likelihood it will be a bloody affair. The economy is being held in aspic for now by the Chancellor’s job retention scheme and other pots of money designed to keep as many people in work as possible. Ministers know that consent for the kind of sweeping restrictions necessitated by the virus has been contingent on removing the need for most of us to go around job-hunting during a pandemic. When that trade-off comes to an end, that will be the real test of political leadership. 

The sixth session of the Scottish parliament will be more consequential than any that preceded it. Those were the theory parliaments — this one is the practical. The dominant questions of the 2020s will not be about building projects or constitutional conversations. They will be about economic growth, job security, unemployment, the skills economy, and restoring prosperity in the knowledge that another coronavirus variant can pop up on the other side of the world tomorrow and place London, Paris and New York in lockdown within a week or two. 

Even if we could be guaranteed that future outbreaks could be contained, the scale of recovery required and the obstacles to achieving it are both daunting. The potential for large numbers of people to become unemployed and stay so is at least equal to that which followed deindustrialisation in the Seventies and Eighties. Without a relentless focus on growing new industries, supporting jobs and investing in skills, the ‘new normal’ we keep hearing about could be mass unemployment and the social fallout that comes with it. 

A letter published yesterday by Scottish Business UK, a non-party organisation of entrepreneurs, spelled out the challenge. It warned ministers: ‘The stakes could not be higher. Scottish voters want and deserve a Scottish Government that will focus all of its energy on recovery from the pandemic — saving lives and livelihoods, protecting jobs and ensuring that businesses survive.’

Scottish Business cautions that ‘a divisive and distracting referendum on separation would put any chance of sustaining economic recovery at risk’. Instead, it wants ministers ‘laser-focused on the Covid-19 crisis and recovering from the significant economic damage it has caused’. 

Ministers, least of all those who believe they hold the patent on ‘standing up for Scotland’, should not need to be told any of this. In the contest between the interests of the nation and the interests of nationalism, a true patriot would not pause before choosing the former. Tomorrow MSPs will not only be electing a First Minister. They will be entrusting someone with the lives of more than five million people who, whatever their politics, need a leader who puts their futures ahead of her party’s dreams. 


How far can you run in 15 seconds? For most of us, that’s a question of physical fitness but for the people of Sderot it’s a matter of life and death. In the small Israeli town, located near the boundary with Gaza, 15 seconds is how long residents have to reach a bomb shelter when an incoming rocket is detected. 

Thankfully many of these missiles are destroyed by Israel’s high-tech Iron Dome defence shield, but others make it through. Last Wednesday, one struck a home in Sderot, killing Ido Avigal. He was five years old and loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and the loss of life in Gaza no less heartbreaking but, contrary to the reigning dogma among Western elites, there is no equivalence between Hamas and Israel. When an Israeli air strike kills Palestinian children, it is regarded in Israel as a grave tragedy and a matter for investigation. When a Palestinian rocket kills Israeli children, it is regarded by Hamas as a victory. 


‘Chaos’. ‘Carnage’. ‘Madness’. That’s how the Sunday papers reported the lawlessness in Glasgow. I’m so inured to such front pages that I barely raised an eyebrow. Only when I saw the international coverage did it hit home: the world’s eyes were on Scotland and what a pitiful sight we gave them. 


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

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.