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.

It’s all happening at the Holyrood zoo

DEFIANT: Nicola Sturgeon took on critics in no-confidence vote.

Nicola Sturgeon faced a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament on March 23, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

There are many Nicola Sturgeons, one for every audience and every occasion. Sturgeon the Folksy and Sturgeon the Forensic, Sturgeon the Indignant and Sturgeon the Triumphalist.

MSPs were voting on all of these Sturgeons in yesterday’s confidence debate but it was Sturgeon the Battler who turned up. 

She wore the James Hamilton report as her armour and wielded a sense of righteous vindication as her weapon. 

‘There are some in this chamber who decided before a single word of evidence had been heard that I was guilty in relation to the handling of complaints against the former First Minister,’ she intoned. ‘The only question was what they would choose to find me guilty of.’

The general gist was that Hamilton’s findings had to be accepted without question, whereas the committee’s were up for debate.

Sturgeon went all out on the Tories: ‘If they think that they can bully me out of office, they are mistaken and they misjudge me. If they want to remove me as First Minister, they should do it in an election.’

‘The past year has been exhausting for everyone,’ she told the chamber. ‘I do not mind admitting that the intensity and gravity of decision-making has taken its toll.’ That toll weighed under her eyes and a shattered John Swinney’s too. Everyone involved in this saga looks like they could do with six weeks on a beach somewhere. In fact, they are heading into six weeks of bare-knuckle electoral combat.

Once committee members started belting into one another, all hope of decorum was out the window. Nationalist Alasdair Allan quipped: ‘To say that our committee leaked like the Titanic would be to do a considerable injustice to Harland and Wolff – the Titanic leaked only once.’

To the assertion that the committee’s report was ‘partisan’, Labour’s Jackie Baillie pointed out that all the opposition parties plus an independent had backed it. ‘The four SNP members who voted together were never, despite what they may have heard, going to vote to criticise the First Minister,’ she charged.

The effort to cast a ruthless political bruiser like Nicola Sturgeon as the victim in all this, with the obligatory but fleeting reference to the actual alleged victims, was taken up with vim by Swinney, who said he and Sturgeon had ‘sat in close quarters for many years’. Something, of course, that could be said about both of them and Alex Salmond.

‘I have always known that I was dealing with an individual of integrity, character, responsibility and devotion to serving the people of this country,’ he said of his boss. ‘She has given every ounce of her energy to protect the people of this country over these past trying 12 months of Covid.’

The last thing she deserved, he scolded, ‘is this grubby motion from the Conservatives’. Throughout his testimonial, Sturgeon rested her face on her hand and stared down. There were no tears but she was obviously touched.

Patrick Harvie, the angriest little cabbage in all the land, squealed that the inquiry had ‘descended into farce’ and that it had been ‘a deliberate choice’ by people ‘who have nothing to offer the people of Scotland’.

Sizzling away, like ethically-sourced bubble ’n’ squeak, he snarled: ‘They looked at the devolved institutions, saw a high level of public trust in them and could not bear it, so they set about trying to drag everything down to their level.’

Because we haven’t had enough conspiracy theories.

Labour took fright and decided to abstain. This somewhat undercut the moral force of Anas Sarwar’s remarks. Even so, his speech was uncommonly good. ‘Scotland deserves a better government and a better opposition,’ he said. 

Much of the debate was scored to the hoots and howls, badgering and barracking of the SNP benches. It sounded more like the hyena enclosure at the zoo than a national parliament. Scotland deserves better than the lot of them.

*****

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

A government without rules

TESTIMONY: Nicola Sturgeon gives evidence to the Holyrood inquiry.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 22, 2021.

*****

The final week before parliamentary recess typically has a last-day-of-term feel. When there’s an election in the offing, the focus is on tying up legislative loose ends and gathering for retiring rivals’ valedictory speeches. 

After five years of knocking lumps out of one another, old enemies conspire over cups of tea in the canteen, gossiping about strategies, blackening the names of parties’ rising stars and pronouncing on who is a safe bet to be returned and who’s had their electoral chips. 

There will be none of that this week. Not just because Covid-19 has made getting together for a cuppa a hanging offence but because this week the fate of Nicola Sturgeon hangs in the balance. The First Minister will receive the conclusions of the Holyrood inquiry into her government’s handling of complaints against her predecessor, mentor and arch-enemy Alex Salmond. 

We already know the committee will say she misled MSPs in her evidence, a revelation which has prompted Sturgeon’s office and some SNP members to trash the panel in advance of its report. 

She will also learn from the independent adviser, former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton, whether he deems her to have violated the ministerial code. It stipulates: ‘Ministers who knowingly mislead the parliament will be expected to offer their resignation’ and Sturgeon has already vowed to ‘lead by example in following the letter and spirit of this code’.

Her statements in recent days and weeks suggest the First Minister is exceptionally confident that Hamilton’s findings will be favourable to her. For whatever reason, she evidently believes this inquiry will allow her to cling on. 

All this will come to a head on Wednesday, the final sitting day, the final opportunity for the Scottish parliament to demonstrate that it is capable of holding the executive to account. 

It is a parliament thoroughly poisoned by events of the past few years. More partisan and tribal than ever before, more bitter and unforgiving.

Even the wiser heads in all the parties are angrier and more vengeful than I have ever heard them. It is hard to imagine these sentiments will not be carried over into the next parliament. That will have implications for cross-party co-operation and even the ability of committees to function properly.

These will be frantic days and with good reason. The questions that loom over the First Minister are the most serious imaginable. They go to whether she told the truth, whether she abused her power, whether we can trust her.

The people for whom Sturgeon is the centre of their universe will already have made their minds up. The nationalists who greet her every word like a papal bull, the anti-nationalists in whose heads she resides rent-free — neither will be swayed from the conviction that she is either Mother Teresa or Freddy Krueger. The rest of the country is more interested in getting to the bottom of what happened, what Sturgeon knew, when she knew it, and what she did. 

The Holyrood inquiry was not designed to address all these questions — one might say it was designed not to address them — but it will give some indication. The same applies to the Hamilton inquiry. There should have been — and ought still to be — an independent, judge-led public inquiry into the whole affair but, in the absence of one, the findings returned this week will be the best we can do.

If they are damning, pressure will grow on Sturgeon from within her own ranks to step down for the good of the Government and the party. If they are inconclusive, the stench will hang over her throughout the election and into her next term of government. The latter outcome is what Sturgeon’s camp will fear the most because it would function as a sort of ‘not proven’ verdict, acquitting the First Minister without exonerating her.

In their desperation to avoid this outcome, Sturgeon and the taxpayer-funded hatchet men who run her spin operation have tried to portray this as a matter of being either on her side or Salmond’s.

I, like many others, am on neither side. I regard both of them as indolent narcissists whose relentless egotism and naked power-hunger have set this country back decades. If you are poor, if you are a child struggling at school, if you are on a waiting list, if you suffer mental ill-health — if you need a government more committed to changing your material conditions than changing the colour of cloth up a flagpole — almost any government would have been an improvement on this one. You are not their priority and you’re never going to be.

Salmond and Sturgeon may be at odds these days — after years of being inseparable, years we are now expected to flush down the memory hole — but the reason they worked together so well for so long is that they are strikingly similar politicians. Dreams above circumstances. Party above country. Self above everything. Rotten peas in the same rotten pod.

There is no need to choose between them. It is perfectly possible to reject both. Scotland would be a much better place if we had in 2007.

This week is not about taking sides. It is about the proper conduct of government, ministers and civil servants. We can demand answers about these matters without being drawn into the Sturgeon-Salmond psychodrama.

It is essential that answers are forthcoming because of the scale of what has been alleged. All political parties have factions. All governments have internal struggles. Not all political parties use the apparatus of government to wage internal struggle; not all governments accept commissions from political parties to act as factional score-settlers. This is, ultimately, what the SNP and the Scottish Government are accused of and, if the charges have any foundation, the implications could not be graver.

Judgment awaits the First Minister and her government, but there is something else on trial: devolution. Even before seeing the Holyrood or Hamilton inquiries, we know that this administration has conducted itself without regard to the law or proper process.

The details of the internal investigation into Salmond were leaked to a newspaper by persons unknown. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Salmond’s one-time chief of staff says the identity of a complainant was revealed to him, an allegation corroborated by three witnesses. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Sturgeon met Salmond during the investigation and failed to inform civil servants for two months. No one resigned. No one was fired.

The Scottish Government pressed ahead with its case in a judicial review despite increasingly stark legal advice to the contrary. No one resigned. No one was fired.

No minutes were taken during pivotal meetings between the Scottish Government and external counsel, including one at which the First Minister was present. No one resigned. No one was fired.

The late disclosure of documents caused the government’s QCs, through no fault of their own, to give assurances to the Court of Session that were false. No one resigned. No one was fired. 

The court ruled the government had behaved in a manner ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’, and ‘tainted by apparent bias’. No one resigned. No one was fired.

The taxpayer was forced to pay more than £500,000 in legal costs to Salmond. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Despite the First Minister’s pledge to ‘fully co-operate with the committee and its inquiry’, documents were withheld and witness requests denied. No one resigned. No one was fired.

Four senior civil servants had to revise their evidence after giving misleading testimony to the Holyrood inquiry. No one resigned. No one was fired. 

Some governments think they are above the rules. This one behaves as if there are no rules.

What the Scottish Government did and did not do is on the Scottish Government. What the Scottish parliament does about it is on the Scottish parliament. If all this ends in one of those ‘mistakes were made, lessons must be learned’ jobs, Holyrood will have earned the contempt with which the Scottish Government treats it. It will have confirmed Sir Billy Connolly’s characterisation of it as ‘a wee pretendy parliament’, and worse: a wee fearty one. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s political future, and that of her government, are on the line this week, but so too is any political system incapable of or unwilling to bring them to book.

*****

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

Unionists who waste their votes will only help the SNP

ELECTION: Scots go to the polls on May 6.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 15, 2021.

*****

Glancing at the opinion polls, pro-Union voters could be forgiven for growing disconsolate. Keeping half the country constantly ginned up for constitutional conflict may not create a single job or get a single child up to literacy standards but it certainly gives you a formidable electoral bloc.

As Ruth Davidson conceded in her opening speech at the Scottish Tory conference on Saturday, the SNP is going to win the May 6 election. If Nicola Sturgeon went to every door in the country and insulted the owner’s child, pet and/or colour scheme, she would still come out on top. That’s the way of it when the entirety of politics takes place in the narrow square inches of a flag.

But, as Davidson stressed, ‘that doesn’t mean we all pack up and go home’. There was ‘too much — far too much — at stake’ to do so. The SNP has already said that, should it win a majority, it will legislate for another independence referendum — and if Westminster doesn’t like it, it will go to court. It’s hard to think of a course of action more likely to stir up rancour and division.

Davidson argued it was ‘absolutely essential’ that the Nationalists be ‘held in check’ and you need not be a Conservative to agree. It is in the interests of all the opposition parties, indeed all of Scotland, that there be a brake on a government bent on setting Scots against one other yet again.

There are reasons beyond the constitution, too. The pattern of obstruction seen throughout the Salmond inquiry, the contempt for the Scottish parliament, for the idea of accountability itself — these are deeply troubling behaviours. 

That the SNP has been able to get away with them as a minority government begs the question of how it might conduct itself with a majority. 

An SNP victory cannot be stopped but there is a chance that an SNP majority can. Although it would see Sturgeon remain in power, her government would not always get its way. If the SNP and the Greens combined fell short of the 65 seats needed for a majority, plans for Indyref 2 would be dead in the water.

The prize: respite from tedious constitutional wound-poking.

The cost: tactical voting.

It’s a source of long-running debate whether tactical voting works but, if well-organised, it could help keep SNP gains to a minimum. But it needs voters across the opposition parties to set aside tribalism. It doesn’t work if one group casts their ballot tactically while the others stick with their side no matter what. Tactical voting is a two-handed operation: one to hold your nose, the other to vote for a candidate you would not otherwise back.

Helensburgh Tories might not share Jackie Baillie’s social democratic worldview, but the Labour MSP is a tough-as-nails political fighter against the SNP. Not only does she stick up for the Union, her blunt questions and no-nonsense demeanour have made her the stand-out MSP on the Salmond inquiry. 

Voting Conservative in Dumbarton would hand the seat to Sturgeon’s candidate, who pulled up there having failed to win Edinburgh Western five years ago. A political GPS that guides you from one end of the M8 to the other in search of a winnable seat is a sign of a savvy candidate, but local voters might prefer an MSP with a different kind of compass.

In North East Fife, Willie Rennie is also facing a challenge from the Nationalists. Whatever you think of the Scottish Lib Dems, their leader is firmly opposed to independence and can be found daily hounding the SNP for its failings on Covid-19, education and mental health.

Sometimes when you see him in full flow, getting stuck into ministers with gusto and a dollop of good humour, you wonder how he ended up leading a bunch of wet flannels like the Lib Dems. But that is all the more reason to keep him in post.

For tactical voting to work, it has to go in both directions. In Ayr, John Scott, a moderate Conservative, has a majority of just 750 over the SNP in a seat where more than 5,000 Labour votes were cast in 2016. These electors hold the key to victory.

If they stick with Labour, they could wake up with a Nationalist MSP; if they lend their vote to the Ballantrae farmer, they will deny Sturgeon a gain. Ditto in Galloway and West Dumfries, where Sturgeon loyalist Emma Harper aims to overturn Tory Finlay Carson’s 1,500 majority.

What no one can yet tell is what kind of SNP surge might occur in any given seat. The Conservatives’ Rachael Hamilton might seem safe with her majority of 9,000 in Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, but the Nationalists will be pulling out all the stops to install list MSP and energy minister Paul Wheelhouse.

Last year, when Conservative MP John Lamont spoke about celebrating Burns Night, Wheelhouse told him: ‘Rabbie Burns was a proud Scot every day of the year… not just once a year — unfortunately you’re more likely to have a political epitaph of being one of a modern day “Parcel Of Rogues in a nation”…’ Labour and Lib Dem supporters, aware their parties stand no chance in this constituency, might consider a one-off Tory vote given the alternative on offer.

The biggest risk in tactical voting comes on the regional list. Truth be told, pro-Union voters are being encouraged to waste their vote on minor parties that are not going to win a single seat. Those who feel the Scottish Tories are not assertive enough may be tempted to chuck a protest vote to All for Unity (also known as Alliance for Unity) or the Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party, but they should ask themselves this question: Why hasn’t the SNP uttered a single critical word about these parties?

They claim to be standing on the regional list to stand up to Sturgeon but Sturgeon is busy attacking the Scottish Tories, not these late-arrival Unionists. Might that be because she appreciates the value of these outfits to her chances of winning an outright majority?

All for Unity and those like it are too tiny to elect any MSPs but, with a fair wind, they might garner enough list votes to cost the Tories a seat here or there. The biggest irony may be that the parties that claim to be the most Unionist end up doing the most damage to the Union.

Take the Central Scotland list, from which the Tories elected three MSPs last time. The top three candidates are former Stirling MP Stephen Kerr, sitting MSP Graham Simpson and Meghan Gallacher, the Tory group leader on North Lanarkshire Council. If enough 2016 Tory voters switch to one of the fringe parties, Gallacher could miss out in favour of an SNP or Green MSP.

Given this is someone who vows to ‘focus on issues that matter, not a divisive independence referendum’, it would seem counterproductive for anyone who agrees to keep her out of Holyrood. The same goes for Glasgow, where the Tory list vote was just 6,000 ahead of the Greens in 2016. One Patrick Harvie is already one too many. Do we really want another one?

All for Unity is all over the place. It has endorsed Labour’s Monica Lennon in Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse. Yet, when Nicola Sturgeon was demanding a second referendum in 2019, Lennon said: ‘If Boris Johnson isn’t prepared to grant this request, he should allow the Scottish parliament to decide.’

I happen to rate Lennon highly but it seems odd that a campaign which says it aims to ‘stop nationalists from holding a second independence referendum’ would back a candidate who wouldn’t necessarily do so.

Pro-Union voters should not despair. There is still a chance to deny Nicola Sturgeon a majority, but to do so will require the setting aside of partisanship and a fair dose of common sense about which parties are serious contenders. Scotland needs more MSPs who put Covid recovery first and fewer who put independence before everything.

Any chance to bring that about should be taken up with vigour.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.Feature image ©Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.