Scottish Tories need 2020 vision — and fast

Wednesday will bring 2020 and with it the SNP’s 13th year in devolved government. It is unlikely to be the party’s last, a state of affairs which ought to prompt soul-searching among the Nationalists’ opponents.

When Alex Salmond eked out a narrow win in 2007, there was a vivid conviction in Scottish Labour that this aberration would soon be corrected and the People would return guiltily to their Party.

Two Holyrood trouncings further, Labour has still not come to terms with the reasons for its rejection or its deepening irrelevance to a political landscape defined by the constitution. Scotland moved on but Labour did not and while it clings to the ghosts of its glory years, the voters it took for granted see their future in the SNP.

Scottish Labour is too weak, confused and directionless to pose any serious threat to the Nationalist hegemony. Absent a new party — a feat of considerable political will and financial resources — that leaves the Scottish Conservatives as the only viable rival to the SNP.

The party made significant progress under Ruth Davidson but without her it lacks a leader with star power and, more importantly, a clear purpose beyond opposing another referendum on independence. Were it to remedy those two shortcomings, it would be faced by the same hurdle that even Davidson could not clear: too many Scots cannot bring themselves to vote for the party.

The Tories are painfully aware of the problem and have spent the devolution era agonising over it. Some have concluded that the party’s reputation is too toxic and a new vehicle is required for centre-right politics. Others, not least the members, refuse to countenance anything so radical and contend that fresh talent and new policies are enough.

Ruth Davidson deemed both these approaches counter-productive and in the latter years of her leadership inched towards a distinctly Tory solution: keep the party and change it entirely.

The long-term ambition of Project Ruth was to remake the Conservatives as a blue-collar party, appealing to non-graduates with small-c conservative instincts on the economy and crime but who would never imagine themselves to be Tories. It was a solid start but following Davidson’s return to the back benches, blue-collar Toryism is in danger of stalling.

Without an obvious champion and with the Conservatives distracted by agitation for another Scexit referendum, what Teddy Taylor called ‘the representation of people who don’t live in big hooses’ will falter.

The popularity of that brand of politics can be deduced from the results of the general election. Brexit was a decisive factor in convincing voters in Labour heartlands like Redcar and Bishop Auckland to back the Tories for the first time, but it wasn’t the only factor.

Boris Johnson offered his party on a manifesto to the Left of David Cameron’s austerity conservatism and, while talk of a Tory spending spree was overspun, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned it was ‘highly likely that the Conservatives would end up spending more than their manifesto implies, and thus taxing or borrowing more’. The Prime Minister’s pledge not to elevate income tax, VAT or National Insurance was, the independent think tank remarked, ‘ill-advised’.

Labour’s lurch to the far-Left created a gap which Boris Johnson’s canny, counterintuitive strategist Dominic Cummings decided to occupy. To tempt Labour supporters to cast their first Tory vote, Cummings built a message around more spending on public services, a position popularly associated with the party of the Left, and a tougher stance on crime, a Tory favourite that also chimes with traditional Labourites.

The IFS is right to warn of trouble ahead as the Conservatives try to reconcile their new political priorities to their long-standing fiscal principles. A messy reckoning between tax and spend is on the cards.

But that is for another day. What matters in the immediate is that the Conservatives found a way to turn red into blue. Can the Scottish Tories learn from this and what would they have to do? Ruth Davidson’s focus on vocational education and upskilling was an important start but to become a party of aspirational workers means a bigger change that takes on foundational assumptions about what the Scottish Tories are for.

Take inequality as our point of departure. Some Conservatives give the impression of deeming social and income disparities necessary evils of a free-market economy and too few recognise their knock-on effects. This is wholly at odds with public opinion. The 2018 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that half of Scots believe poor health is the fault of social injustice and a majority would be prepared to pay more in tax provided health outcomes improved.

Whether the voters always carry such lofty pronouncements with them into the polling booth come election day is another matter. What the public is saying is: we believe in fairness. Unfortunately for the Tories, ‘fairness’ is not a word many voters would associate with them. They are the party you turn to to get a job done, not one to realise your ideals, and until they can shake off that image they will continue to be dogged by their fairness problem.

Whether on health, education, opportunities or equalities, the Tories are still seen as the party of greed, privilege and self-preservation. The correct response is not to play to the stereotype or cower and hope it all goes away, but to build on the foundations left by Ruth Davidson to dispel these myths once and for all. The Tories can be a party of fairness, hard work and community, if they are prepared to take the tough choices and put the effort in. Scottish Labour has abdicated all responsibility? Fine, then someone else will assume the best of that party’s old values.

There is a gap in the market for a party that invests heavily in the health service, pledges to restore quality education for all and puts victims of crime at the heart of its justice policy. No fancy philosophy here — just fairness. The Tories already have some things in common with such a party and where changes are necessary, they are long overdue. No more settling for second place.

It may well be that the constitution’s vice-like grip on Scottish politics will not be broken until either the separatists win or Westminster grasps the nettle and curtails their power to use Holyrood as the headquarters of a never-ending campaign for Scexit. In the meantime, a serious attempt should be made to oust them at the next election but that is a task the Tory Party will not be up to until it changes.


Colin Weir, who has died aged 71, was best known for the £162 million EuroMillions jackpot he and wife Chris scooped in 2011. For those in the world of politics, he was the SNP supporter who contributed substantially to his party and the Yes Scotland campaign.

But he deserves to be remembered, too, for his generosity towards sporting and charitable institutions. He had recently acquired majority shareholdings in Partick Thistle FC and intended to donate his 55 per cent stake to fans next year, putting the club’s future in the hands of the local community.

The couple also used their winnings to set up the Weir Charitable Trust, which has funded good causes from food banks to dementia-friendly pop-up cinemas to horse-riding for disabled children. When Darlington teenager Kieran Maxwell lost a leg to a rare form of cancer, the Weirs paid for a state-of-the-art prosthetic limb.

Colin Weir wasn’t just a lottery winner. He was a true Scottish philanthropist who used his good fortune to give others a chance.


I’m not one for Hogmanay. Too many regrets, too many auld acquaintances left behind. But if like me you feel too maudlin to raise a glass and toast 2020, think on this: Donald Trump has somehow made it three years in the White House without blowing us all up. I’ll drink to that. All the best when it comes.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at

Why does the SNP keep winning? Just look at the opposition.

Back when there were still rules to politics, one of them was this: a government in power for a long time with nothing to show for it is a goner come the next election.

By that logic, Nicola Sturgeon should be savouring her remaining time in Bute House before the removal men come to pack up the biggest Saltire collection this side of the Tartan Army.

Events could hasten her exit but if she leads the SNP into Holyrood’s 2021 election, seeking to extend an administration creaking under 14 years of dismal delivery, there is no guarantee the voters will spurn her. Indeed, the smart money is that they won’t because, for all Sturgeon will have against her, she will have the same thing going for her that Margaret Thatcher did: there is no alternative.

It’s said that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, but there has to be an opposition worthy of losing to. That opposition must carry itself with the confidence of an alternative ministry, capable of assuming the reins of power at a minute’s notice.

The vagaries of proportional representation and an anti-SNP vote split three ways makes life all the more difficult for the opposition at Holyrood, but, if we are honest, that is not the source of the problem. Peer at the blobs of blue and red either side of the SNP and it is hard to make out anything resembling a government in waiting.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an endorsement of the status quo. What the Nationalists have done to our education system, the hard-won progress they have set in reverse, is nothing short of social vandalism. Their ineptitude on health has degraded an NHS that was once a source of national pride.

Worst of all, they have brought to Scottish public life a political sectarianism as bilious and senseless as anything the Orange and Green have to offer. Given a choice of being governed by the current Scottish cabinet or the members of a randomly selected bus queue, I would take the bus queue every time.

Yet this ministry of mediocrity faces no serious challenge to its political future because of an opposition that lacks ideas, gumption and credibility. Two years ago, I warned the Scottish Tories to buck up their ideas, writing:

‘The party needs better candidates and more rigorous vetting. Some of the characters who slipped through during the local elections were an embarrassment and a few of the MSPs would struggle to recognise themselves in the street… While [Ruth] Davidson has carried them this far, the rest of the party will have to put its shoulder into it if it wants to get over the line. There are a number of frontbenchers who sorely need to toughen up and several behind them who ought to be put on notice to raise their game.’

Those words didn’t win me any friends but I stand by them still today, and I reckon the facts have come down all the heavier on my side since.

The Scottish Tories have made plenty of noise but not so much as a dent in the SNP’s grip on power. They are expert in railing against the SNP, denouncing their failings in government, and declaiming Nicola Sturgeon’s partisan priorities, but 12 days ago 45 per cent of the country still turned out to endorse the Nationalists.

There were huge forces at work in the election — not least Brexit and Scexit — but there is an unavoidable truth about the results: after 12 years of incumbency, the SNP went forward and the Tories backwards. Not all of this can be blamed on the unpopularity of Boris Johnson. The main opposition at Holyrood has singularly failed to convince the voters of Scotland. The country simply does not see the Scottish Tories as a credible alternative to the SNP.

Losing their leader suddenly amid the hurly-burly of Brexit was not easy, and Jackson Carlaw has provided stability and good humour while putting Nicola Sturgeon on the defensive at First Minister’s Questions. Beyond him, however, the Holyrood group is uninspiring in places and forgettable in others. There is an inertia that looks like cluelessness but, in fairness, may just be laziness and a general lack of energy and dynamism. The collective noun for a group of Scottish Tory MSPs is a snooze.

There are notable exceptions, of course, Glasgow MSP Annie Wells is tough and tenacious and unafraid of hard work. Murdo Fraser has lost none of his facility for winding up the First Minister and pensive Gael Donald Cameron continues to be a keen and insightful mind.

Then there is Adam Tomkins, the Tories’ constitution spokesman who really ought to be their leader. He is obviously frustrated by the limitations of ministers and of the MSPs meant to hold them to account and it tells on a weary face when those across from him try to debate the finer points of the constitution. Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Law at Glasgow University, while some of the people he is pitted against at Holyrood think Jus feudale is a recipe from Nigella Lawson’s new cookbook.

Beyond this, the Scottish Tories are afflicted by a paucity of talent and too many MSPs are either unable or unwilling to do the hard yards required to keep on top of Cabinet ministers. Health secretary Jeane Freeman is failing to turn around the crises she inherited in waiting times, mental health and staffing numbers, and yet her Tory shadow cannot lay a glove on her.

Justice secretary Humza Yousaf should be cringing at the prospect of questions on the dysfunctional Scottish Police Authority. Instead, the new dad is losing far more sleep thanks to his little one than he is to his Conservative opposite number.

Such is the complacency among Scottish Tories that some openly prophesy that next year’s Alex Salmond trial will do all the hard work for them. Bear this crassness in mind next time the Tories get on their high horse about victims’ rights and the sacred integrity of the justice system.

It’s not just a problem with the Tories, either. Since losing the election, Scottish Labour has been embroiled in that other great party tradition: factional squabbling. A phalanx of Young Turks who fear they will never see ministerial office have let it be known that they are now open to another referendum on Scexit. Old hands who toiled through the bitter Better Together years know abandoning the Union is the end of the road.

The next generation of leaders might be prepared to sell out to nationalism but it’s far from guaranteed there will still be a party for them to sell out. Most of the base has already fled to the SNP, the more Unionist-minded to the Tories, and the party lacks a clear constituency these days.

When Labour left office in 2007, around one in five children were living in poverty. By 2021, after 14 years of SNP government, the figure is projected to exceed one in three. A Labour Party that continues to lose votes to that record is one that no longer has any reason to exist.

Unionists are driven mad by Sturgeon, sent round the bend by the SNP’s defiance of political gravity, but too few are willing to confront why the Nationalists are able to sustain themselves so long in office with precious few achievements to their name. It’s because many voters look at the alternative and see no alternative at all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Nicola Sturgeon is on course to win again in 2021 but there is no rule that says her opponents have to give her a free run. While dislodging the SNP from power seems unlikely at this point, there is scope to reduce their numbers at Holyrood and block a pro-Scexit majority.

That would constitute a victory for Unionists, but to pull it off they will have to get their act together and knuckle down to some old-fashioned hard work. It’s not enough to hate the SNP, you have to beat them, too.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Here’s Saint Nic, with a lump of coal for your stocking

MSPs gathered on Tuesday for Holyrood’s annual Indyref2 Statement Day. I swear, it comes around earlier every year.

Mind you, it’s gotten so commercialised these days that people have forgotten the true meaning: the birth of the SNP’s saviour, Brexit, and its distraction from the Scottish Government’s record.

Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t forgotten. Smartly turned out in festive red, St Nic came bearing gifts for her backbenchers, even if their behaviour as she fielded questions from the opposition was distinctly more naughty than nice.

She stressed the scale of the Nationalists’ triumph, telling the chamber: ‘One has to go as far back as the election of Ted Heath in 1970 — the year I was born — to find a party that got a higher share of the vote across the United Kingdom than the SNP did in Scotland last week’.

This was true, but you only had to go back to 2015 to find the last time the SNP did better than last Thursday. That result hadn’t prompted another referendum on Scexit, so there were no grounds for a second vote now — right?

Anyone thinking that got a lump of coal in his stocking. The First Minister said she would be publishing ‘the detailed democratic case’ for ‘a transfer of power from Westminster to this Parliament to allow for an independence referendum that is beyond legal challenge’.

Another taxpayer funded pamphlet pushing separation. How many rainforests have been sacrificed so far in the cause of independence? Some people say Better Together II should be headed by Ruth Davidson but at this rate Greta Thunberg might do it for free.

Sturgeon contended that the 47 seats she won last week was a mandate for Indyref2, but that Boris Johnson, who secured 365 seats, lacked a mandate to refuse. No wonder they had to lower the pass mark for Higher Maths.

Anyway, this time it was the stark divergence between results north and south of the Border that provided grounds for a second independence referendum, a rationale that joins previous triggers including no-deal Brexit, prorogation and Wham!’s Last Christmas not getting Christmas Number 1 in 1984.

It was all about democracy, though. ‘Seventy-four per cent of votes in Scotland were cast for parties that either supported remaining in the EU or were in favour of a second EU referendum’. That suggested Scots were unhappy about Brexit but what about independence? Alas, it had slipped the First Minister’s mind that almost 54 per cent of ballots cast went to parties opposed to secession.

The Nationalist leader was able to pray in aid ‘some signs that those who previously opposed an independence referendum… are now rethinking that position’ thanks to a handful of jelly-spined Labourites who took fright after the election results and ran to the Sunday papers backing Indyref2. Given Scottish Labour’s propensity for putting its foot in its mouth and shooting itself in said appendage, it’s bound to do itself a mischief one of these days.

Jackson Carlaw was still for the Union and pressed Sturgeon to accept that Brexit was now happening. Not likely. She reminded Carlaw that his election leaflets had warned that Indyref2 would follow if Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP won.

She came at him like a wrecking ball: ‘Well, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP did win the election and, frankly, democracy should follow.’

Fair play to her; Carlaw was left in a sombre daze after she’d finished with him, all big eyes and immoveable face. He looked like a cow that just stumbled away from a nasty encounter with a milking machine.

God bless Murdo Fraser, not so much the elf on the shelf as the troll on a roll. He noted economic projections suggesting good times ahead after the Tory victory, and suggested no one embodied this quite like SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, ‘who stands to make a reported seven-figure sum from the sale of his interests in the company Commsworld, a sale that depended on a Conservative election victory’.

The Nat benches tried but failed to drown out the happy news. Drinks all round on the humble crofter.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at

Boris has a mandate to be radical. He shouldn’t waste it being a Tory.

Boris Johnson’s victory will be picked over by pollsters, political scientists and, one day, historians to establish why it happened and what it means. For now, though, we can say this: Thursday was a win for the Conservative Party but not necessarily for conservatism.

Johnson’s candidates demolished Labour’s ‘red wall’ in seats like Bishop Auckland, Redcar and Blyth Valley — seats which have never before gone blue — by promising to represent traditional Labour voters left behind by Jeremy Corbyn’s party. These people have not become Tories; they have hired the Tories on a temporary contract. Do a decent job for them and they might take you on full-time. A new blue wall of working-class heartlands is the prize.

Johnson convinced these voters on Thursday by promising to honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and by offering an alternative to a Labour Party overrun by extremists and anti-Semites. Older Labour voters in particular still remember the bloody outrages of the IRA and grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Their grandchildren may have chanted Corbyn’s name but they knew him and his ilk all too well.

What made it easier for traditional Labour supporters to switch parties this time, however, was a decidedly Tory-lite manifesto. In the past, Johnson has posed as a state-slashing Thatcherite — and many other things besides — but that is not the Boris who won the hearts of working-class England. While the manifesto was not the spending splurge some have characterised it as, it nonetheless proposed increased outlays for services that matter a great deal to the Tories’ new voters: £13billion for new hospitals, £5billion to end the benefit freeze, and £17billion to hike the threshold at which National Insurance payments kick in.

Given these and other pledges, it is difficult to see how the Tories can get through the next five years without raising taxes. That is anathema to the Conservative Party, or at least it was to the old, pre-Boris Conservative Party, and for lifelong Tories still celebrating Thursday night’s triumph a nasty hangover may lie ahead.

As the Conservative Party will have to change, so too will the country. As Nicola Sturgeon seizes upon her party’s result to demand yet another referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom, those whose idea of defending the Union is giving the SNP more tools with which to crack it apart are already counselling the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament. Regional devolutionists may join in this opportunism by using the Tories’ new strength in the north of England as leverage for the regional assemblies they have tried and failed to win at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister should recognise this as the elite put-up job that it is. The constitutional vandals who have done so much in Scotland and Wales to undermine the Union want to extend their destructive experiment to regional England. But whether it’s Sturgeon or the future Sturgeons of Yorkshire, Manchester and Merseyside, transferring powers from one level of government to another and expanding the size of the political class will not improve policy outcomes for the average voter. You need only look to NHS waiting times and educational attainment in Scotland to see what a £414million parliament and 20 years of devolution buys you.

Instead of sending a power surge to Bute House, the Prime Minister should use this triumph for his unconservative Conservative Party to lead a radical transformation of the balance of power in this country. End the political and media class monologue on legislative devolution and start a new conversation on a radical redistribution of powers to everyday voters. Reject once and for all the nationalist myth that Westminster is an illegitimate governor over everywhere north of the M25 and reject it in the most daring fashion: spread ‘Westminster’ across the entire country.

Some of the key infrastructure of government must remain bolted down in London for logistical reasons but most Whitehall departments and public bodies can, as some already are, be relocated to other parts of the country. Why not move the Treasury to Edinburgh, the Ministry of Defence to Glasgow and the Supreme Court to Manchester?

There is no reason the Department of Education couldn’t be based in Liverpool, the Home Office in Cardiff and the Department for International Trade in Belfast. The Prime Minister and his secretaries of state must remain in regular contact, of course, but technology could do most of the heavy lifting and, besides, nowhere does it say Cabinet meetings must be held in Downing Street. The Scottish cabinet regularly goes on tour; the UK Cabinet could readily do the same.

If this seems like a lot of faffing about, perhaps in some ways it is but a country in which so many feel so alienated from the seat of government is one that must seek radical remedies or find itself in constitutional strife. We can already see in Scotland where hiving off the problem of left-behindness to some mini-me parliament leads.

Besides, multiple power centres already works overseas. South Africa has three capital cities: Pretoria (executive), Cape Town (legislative), and Bloemfontein (judicial). Israel spreads its government departments between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Rishon LeZion. The most famous example of all is the very supranational entity most devolutionists have spent the past three years holding up as superior to the UK’s governing structure. The European Union has four seats of power, with Strasbourg home to the main parliament; Brussels the Commission, Council of Ministers and secondary parliament; Luxembourg the Secretariat of the parliament and Court of Justice; and Frankfurt the Central Bank.

Rearranging the governmental furniture would bring power closer to the voters (and, more importantly, bring thousands of jobs) but it is still about political infrastructure when Thursday was as much a vote for fairer economic infrastructure. London is a great city and we should be proud of how it represents us to the world, but it has long benefited from unfair advantages and it’s time other cities got a chance.

The new government could correct this imbalance by establishing city- and region-wide enterprise zones, a natural extension of city and region deals, with lower corporation tax rates to attract investment and jobs. Tax incentives could be used to tempt cultural and entertainment venues outside of the capital city and a business rates holiday given to retailers who set up shop in the most deprived areas of the country.

One of the roadblocks to spreading economic opportunity across all locations and social backgrounds is the education divide. Those from the richest areas and the best schools still have the best chances. Counter this by instituting a National Wealth Service, a public agency tasked with informing, supporting and in places providing financial backing to people looking to start or expand a small business, retrain for a changing economy, open a private pension, buy stocks and shares, pay tax for the first time, and other activities currently scattered across various services.

The disparity between London (and the south-east) and the rest of the country, mirroring disparities in wealth and opportunities, has allowed nationalists and populists like Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage to prosper. They have turned ‘Westminster’ into a potent dog-whistle and sold economic self-harm as ‘taking back control’ and ‘taking power into your own hands’. They are charlatans who have succeeded so far because the political establishment has pandered to rather than addressed the grievances they play on.

If Boris Johnson is frightened into appeasing the nationalists and devolutionists with more powers or the Leave ultras with a harder form of Brexit than his already decisive-break deal, his victory on Thursday will have been for nought. He will have blown an historic opportunity out of cowardice and political laziness. Instead, he should seize the chance that he’s been given and reshape the politics and economy of the UK to transfer power not between governments but from government to the people.

Make this a fairer country in which everyone feels they have a stake and not only will the forces of division be seen off, the Tories will with good cause be able to call themselves the people’s party. Don’t be a Conservative, Boris. Be a radical.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

The Union in the age of Boris

Boris Johnson’s Friday morning victory speech signalled that a new kind of Conservative Party was on the way. The Tories had swept Labour aside in swathes of working-class seats in what had been Britain’s socialist heartlands.

He told bleary-eyed Tory activists: ‘In winning this election we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before and people have always voted for other parties. Those people want change. We cannot, must not, must not, let them down, and in delivering change we must change too. We must recognise the incredible reality that we now speak as a one nation Conservative Party.’

Theresa May promised something similar but was distracted by Brexit. If Johnson succeeds where she failed and makes the Tories the permanent party of the workers he will be an historic Prime Minister. The question is whether his One Nation Toryism can extend to Scotland, where the Tories lost seven of their 13 seats on Thursday night. It is an altogether urgent enquiry since Nicola Sturgeon is spinning her party’s performance as a mandate for another referendum on Scexit.

These are the facts. The SNP won 48 seats on Thursday night. The Conservatives won a majority of 80 across the country. Boris Johnson will form a new government. And that government will decide if and when there is a second referendum on Scottish independence. There will be a lot of noise and gurning in the ensuing days and weeks but none of it will change these facts.

That does not mean Nicola Sturgeon will not try her level best. As the election results rolled in, the SNP leader told the BBC: ‘Boris Johnson has a mandate to take England out of the EU but he must accept that I have a mandate to give Scotland a choice for an alternative future.’

This is bunkum and it is important to recognise it as such, because once you buy into the logic of that sentence, you find yourself in slipping down a spiral towards the SNP’s favoured outcome. In the first instance, there were not separate referendums in the constituent nations of the country. The EU referendum was a UK-wide vote on whether the UK should remain in or leave the Brussels bloc.

The UK voted — albeit narrowly — to leave and now, three-and-a-half years later, we appear to be on the brink of leaving. The Prime Minister’s mandate no more stops at Gretna Green than the First Minister’s does at Biggar. Ours is a winner-takes-all system and, the political unit contested being the UK, the winner enjoys a mandate across its entirety.

That deals with Johnson’s mandate, but what about the mandate Sturgeon claims to have? A general election, unlike a UK-wide referendum, is actually 650 individual elections for the seats which make up the House of Commons. Whichever party commands a majority in the Commons has a mandate to form a government and legislate its manifesto commitments.

Attainment in mathematics is not what it used to be in Scotland but 48 is still a smaller number than 365. The SNP won just over seven per cent of Commons seats — a creditable result but mandate for nothing more than a hearty pat on the back and a glass or two of something fizzy in celebration.

Even if it were possible to achieve a mandate with 48 seats, how sound would that mandate be? ‘Stop Brexit’ was the theme of the SNP’s campaign, with talk of Scexit relegated to the secondary order. In the final days of the campaign, Sturgeon softened her language and said she was open-minded about proposals for a three-option referendum rather than another binary contest between Yes and No.

Some of her candidates explicitly delinked the election from Scexit. Amanda Burgauer, SNP candidate in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale, even told electors: ‘Please don’t waste your vote — lend it to me to remove the incumbent. I pledge I will not take your vote as pro-Indy.’ Candidates elsewhere eschewed references to Scexit or another referendum on their campaign literature. A mandate attained by hiding what you really stand for is a coward’s mandate.

None of this is to deny that Thursday was a good night for the SNP. It would be silly and churlish to pretend otherwise, but even so their position is nowhere near as robust as they would have you believe. True, they won a majority of seats but they did so on a minority of the votes, 45 per cent to be precise.

That brings us to another problem with the Nationalists’ numbers: if their success represents an endorsement of Scexit, it suggests support for breaking up the Union is no further forward on 2014, when they also claimed 45 per cent of the vote. Thursday night was difficult, and in places painful, for non-nationalist parties but the fact remains: they won a majority of the votes cast. If this was a proxy vote on Scexit, then Scots once again said No Thanks.

Don’t expect Nicola Sturgeon to pay heed to any of that. This is her latest opportunity at the history books and she is going to milk it for all it’s worth. Next week she will publish another case for another referendum and will tell Boris Johnson he has no right to block her plans and therefore must not. He has every right and he should but the Prime Minister must be careful to avoid any missteps or slips of the tongue (a hazard of the job with Boris Johnson).

The SNP leader hopes to rouse enough fury to panic Johnson into a foolhardy action or gaffe. He must remain zen-like while apprehending the gravity of what lies ahead. Keeping Scotland in the Union may require more tactical nous, fresh thinking and wise statecraft than even delivering Brexit.

The first order of business is psychological warfare. If the Prime Minister thinks of himself on the back foot, then on the back foot he’ll be. Instead, he should project confidence — while careful to avoid arrogance — and telegraph through everything he says and does that he is the Prime Minister and he is the one in the position of power. Nicola Sturgeon has the megaphone of devolved office and an amplifier in sections of the Scottish media but beyond that she lacks any real power to make the Prime Minister bend to her will.

Next comes what steps Johnson should take. Once again, he can simply say No, which would be wise, then move on, which would be unwise. There is a war of attrition ahead and he must plan for it meticulously. Begin with definitions. Mandate? As already discussed, Sturgeon does not have one. What about her promise that the 2014 vote would be a ‘once in a generation event’?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a generation as ‘the average span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring’ and demographics statistics show the average age of a first-time mother in the UK is 30 years. It’s possible to quibble about a few years one way or the other but no one can seriously suggest five years represents a generation.

As and when Sturgeon comes demanding a Section 30 order, Johnson can tell her that she lacks a mandate and hasn’t even met her own terms for a second vote this soon. There would be much wailing and indignation but little of substance that Sturgeon could do, unless she is willing to take the UK Government to court as some in her party have suggested. That approach might go down well with Ambulance Chasers for Independence but it likely wouldn’t pass the smell test among the general public.

Johnson’s problem is what happens in 2021. The Scottish Parliament will hold another election and if Sturgeon is able to turn out her vote like she did on Thursday, she could well win an outright majority on a manifesto committed to holding a second Scexit vote. The authentic Unionist position would be that, since the constitution is reserved to Westminster, it is impossible to obtain a mandate for a constitutional matter in a Holyrood election.

Unfortunately, David Cameron arguably conceded the principle when he permitted a separation referendum off the back of the SNP’s historic majority win in 2011. If I were the Prime Minister, I would be consulting far and wide for legal opinions on whether the courts would determine Cameron’s decision a precedent for the purposes of law.

Perhaps ministers would consider this tack too belligerent and open to legal challenge. In which case, they could take the counter-intuitive option of giving Sturgeon the referendum she keeps clamouring for, with some key provisions, such as having the Electoral Commission and not the Scottish Parliament set the question and requiring a supermajority — e.g. 60 per cent — for Scexit to pass. This is probably the least likely option because it would require the two governments to work together with mutual trust and cooperation, which is improbable. There are also some on the Unionist side who get very dainty at the prospect of supermajorities.

Just as important as proactive moves is avoiding pitfalls. There can be no complacency and no cynicism. There are Tories who chirp privately — and not so privately — that the forthcoming trial of Alex Salmond on 14 alleged sexual offences will damage the SNP politically. Salmond denies all charges against him, and Jackson Carlaw has urged Conservatives to avoid ‘dangerous’ and ‘cynical’ talk about such a serious and sensitive matter. The SNP’s opponents should forget about the witness box and focus instead on beating them at the ballot box.

These decisions will be taken in the coming months but what we can say with certainty today is that the fight for the Union is back on. The fact it was ever allowed to go off is a reminder of the chronic complacency of Unionist politicians. They got lucky last time and stopped separation at five minutes to midnight. They might not be so lucky next time.

Lamentable though it will be to many, while scolding the Nationalists for being obsessed with the constitution, the Unionist side of politics will have to be equally fixated. The future of the country is on the line every day the SNP remains in office and those who believe in the United Kingdom must be prepared to fight every day to keep their country together.

That fight must be one of passion. Unionists fall into the trap of speaking in numbers, like human calculators and just as relatable. Instead, they should appeal to what remains of a shared British identity while working to kindle new customs and institutions that re-thread the ties already torn apart by nationalism. For Scots to continue to back the Union, financial prosperity will not be enough of an incentive.

As we saw in the Brexit referendum, voters sometimes place a higher value on emotional currencies like control, community and national identity. Opponents of Scexit need to understand this and attune their messaging accordingly. A unionism of the heart and not just the head is vital.

In the immediate, it is essential that the Prime Minister not be panicked into doing anything precipitous. Now is not the time to be drawing up lists of yet more powers to surrender to Holyrood or appointing learned professors to constitutional conventions on federalism.

Johnson must take soundings and draw up a strategy for securing the Union in the short to medium term. Nicola Sturgeon says she will publish another case for Scexit next week. Let her. Do not overreact. The First Minister will be publishing a booklet; the Prime Minister will be getting on with running the country.

The time will come, however, when ideas must be engaged and Unionists will have to do it with as much emotional fluency as their opponents. It is not enough to oppose independence or even to love the Union; they must be able to tell a convincing story about why Scotland belongs in the Union and why seceding would be a grievous loss of identity and place for people on either side of the Tweed.

Boris Johnson has achieved his life’s ambition of leading the Conservatives to electoral triumph and defying the many critics of his political nous and personal foibles. The country has anointed him as its leader and now he must govern in the interests of all of that country. Scotland cannot be an afterthought, a lingering headache that he medicates away with a speech here or some extra cash there. Scotland is part of that one nation and ought to be treated accordingly.

He must think of himself as Scotland’s Prime Minister and, while showing respect and courtesy to the First Minister, he should not be gulled into seeing her post as equal to his. But he must also be magnanimous and recognise that many non-nationalist voters in Scotland lent their vote to the SNP specifically to block him from Downing Street. He will have to earn their trust and show in deeds as well as words that he has Scotland’s interests at heart.

Boris Johnson cannot become the symbol of the Union in Scotland but he can shape that Union to make it one a majority of Scots still want to remain a part of.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © Foreign Office (cc/2.0).

Why this election matters

There is something about the printing of ballot papers that sends politicians reaching for the superlatives.

Barely has a single billboard gone up or a solitary postal vote settled on a weary doormat than the parties begin breaking out the apocalyptic rhetoric.

‘This is the most important election of your lifetime.’ How many times have we heard that? The problem with all those years of candidates crying wolf is that it is finally true. The ballot that will decide the future of the UK for a generation is upon us. But will the electorate believe it this time?

For the sake of the country, we can only hope so. For this is not only an election about Brexit, important though that is, but about the United Kingdom itself — what kind of nation it is and whether it is one that will endure long into the next decade and beyond. This is not an election about bread and butter but about the sturdiness of the table upon which the meal rests. This is an election about who we are.

The reason Thursday’s vote is higher stakes than any since at least 1979 is because the visions on offer are so fundamentally dissonant. Nicola Sturgeon has placed separation at the centre of her campaign. Scottish nationalism may not be to your tastes but it is a respectable worldview and one that good and well-motivated men and women have espoused for many years.

Sturgeon has departed from their principled stance by seizing upon a moment of acute national crisis to snatch for herself a second chance at glory. It is true that the primary goal of the SNP, as defined in the party’s constitution, is the ‘restoration of Scottish national sovereignty’. But there is a second, less remembered clause: ‘The furtherance of all Scottish interests’. Nothing in Sturgeon’s strategy for exploiting Brexit to secure Scexit furthers Scottish interests.

Instead, she glimpses Brexit as her last best chance to rescue her imploding political career at the expense of the country she professes to love more than the opponents she accuses of ‘talking down Scotland’. As the damning Andrew Neil interview exposed, the SNP leader is hellbent on pressing ahead with Scexit despite having no credible plan on currency, the UK single market, a hard border at Gretna, EU accession, or the funding of public services. Sturgeon is not out to further Scotland’s interests but her own.

The SNP leader is spinning Thursday as a chance for Scots to ‘escape Brexit’ but her escape hatch opens right into the mouth of a black hole. If Scotland is sucked in, it will mean years of chaos, division and uncertainty that will make the last three years seem almost serene by comparison. Leaving the European Union has hardly been a fun family frolic but Brexit is a PG-rated romp compared to the grisly video nasty that is Scexit.

In more responsible times, Scots would have a ready-made alternative to reckless separatism in the form of the Labour Party. But these are not responsible times and Labour is not a responsible party. Faced with the prospect of a hung parliament, Jeremy Corbyn and his court have made clear they will give Nicola Sturgeon her second referendum in return for propping up a minority Labour administration. Whatever Scottish Labour candidates say on the ground, Corbyn is the one who will decide and he will always put his clutches on power ahead of the Union.

A Sturbyn government — in which Sturgeon holds Corbyn to ransom — is not the only threat to the United Kingdom. The Labour Party itself is in the grips of an ideological zealotry fuelled by extremism and malice. This is not the decent socialism of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, the socialism of workers’ rights, fair pay, warm houses and union protections.

It is the socialism of student radicals who never graduated from revolutionary poseurism, only now the fist-clenching vanguard would be in total control of the British state. Theirs is the socialism of the guttural howl and nothing else. They are against everything and for nothing and when power failed to turn their empty slogans into meaningful change, it would be the very people they claim to care about who would suffer the most.

Theirs is also the socialism of fools. Yesterday, British Jews held a demonstration in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism. That, in living memory of the Holocaust, Jews are once again having to warn us about this foul, stupid, undying prejudice should send a chill coursing through the body politic.

The Labour Party is owed much of the blame. Since Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015, the anti-Semitism virus has spread through the ranks of what was once the party of Manny Shinwell and Ian Mikardo. The leadership’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism, combined with Corbyn’s own long record of sinister statements and associations, are no doubt why surveys show Labour on minuscule levels of support among Jews.

Survation polling conducted earlier this year found that 86 per cent of British Jews ‘believe that there are high levels of anti-Semitism among Labour Party members and elected representatives’, with 87 per cent deeming Jeremy Corbyn himself to be anti-Semitic. Almost half of Jewish respondents to a poll in October said they would ‘seriously consider’ fleeing the country if Corbyn came to power. On Thursday, it is imperative that Britain sounds a clarion blast: British Jews must never be put through this again and anti-Semitism must be stamped out of politics without relent.

The moral outrages witnessed of late invite a righteous response and cool tactical voting hardly feels equal to the indignation many feel. In an ideal world, no one should have to vote tactically. Democracy should be about giving the force of the ballot to deeply held principles, not settling for Pepsi Max because Diet Coke is so much worse. But uninspiring as it is, tactical voting can work, especially in Scotland where so many seats teeter on wafer-thin majorities.

In Ochil and South Perthshire, anyone who values the Union will know that the Conservatives’ Luke Graham is the only man who can stop Nicola Sturgeon’s separatist (and geographically challenged) candidate. In East Dunbartonshire — which is not Ochil and South Perthshire — even Tories who find Jo Swinson grating and her stance on Brexit objectionable understand that the alternative is victory for Sturgeon and secessionism. I wouldn’t presume to tell readers how to vote but I will disclose my own intentions: minimising the number of Labour and SNP MPs returned to Parliament. Britain’s character, and Britain itself, depend upon it.

This election is not about bread and butter but it should be. Even though most of those matters are devolved, Nicola Sturgeon has chosen to put herself front and centre of the SNP’s campaign, so the voters are entitled to interrogate their First Minister on them.

The SNP should be held to account for its failings on schools, hospitals, mental health, rail travel, the economy and much else besides. The PISA scorings showing decline in maths and science shame an education system that the rest of the world once regarded with envy. A children’s hospital in Edinburgh that cannot open because it might make patients sicker than when they came in is a grim inversion of all the NHS is supposed to stand for.

A centralised police force which cannot command the confidence of those tasked with overseeing it risks losing the faith of the public at large. While ministers’ preferred rail provider continues to let passengers down with no hope of improvement on the horizon, their own ferry quango is taking them to court over a contract dispute. This is a government which is daily failing to govern, and it must be scrutinised and held to account for that.

That cannot happen as long as Brexit and Scexit duopolise parliamentary time and political energy. The everyday is no match for the mystical allure of flags. Only by heaving off the suffocating dead-weight of constitutional fixation can we return to bread and butter. Thursday is the most important election of our lifetime because it is our chance to get back to what matters most to our lives.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at 

Sturgeon gets owned by Ross Greer. ROSS GREER.

The latest education rankings have not made easy reading for Nicola Sturgeon.

Standards in maths are plummeting faster than John Nicolson’s chances in Ochil and South Perthshire, while Scotland is being outperformed in science by Estonia, Slovenia and a handful of creationist Sunday schools in Alabama.

Jackson Carlaw, uncharitable sort that he is, brought this up at First Minister’s Questions. Sturgeon claimed performance was actually ‘stable’. Stable? And, perhaps, strong? Stay away from wheat fields, First Minister. She wasn’t downplaying how catastrophic things were in science and maths, she just wanted to talk about how things were marginally less catastrophic in reading.

Carlaw wasn’t buying it: ‘It is a little like people celebrating the fact that they have just had their kitchen redecorated when the front two rooms in the house are on fire.’

There was still one number left in Sturgeon’s hymnal of excuses and she belted it out with spirited fervour.

‘I think that it is a bit rich for Jacks—‘

Oh, ‘a bit rich’, was it? ‘I will take no lectures from’ and ‘I’m not going to apologise for’ must have been on annual leave.

She continued: ‘…for Jackson Carlaw, as the representative of the party that has imposed a decade of austerity on Scotland, to stand up here and talk about the quality of public services’.

Apparently it was the Tories’ fault that Higher Maths pupils think logarithms were a Seventies soul group. The Scottish education system has been run by the SNP for 12 years now, or three generations in Nationalist arithmetic.

The Scottish Tory leader quoted Edinburgh University professor Lindsay Paterson on the Scottish Government’s ‘disgraceful political spin’ on the figures.

As Carlaw read out the educationalist’s damning verdict, several Nationalist MSPs behind Sturgeon, including junior minister Christina McKelvie, laughed in that hollow, affected way that you do when you’re a politician at FMQs or an audience member at Marcus Brigstocke.

Labour leader Richard Leonard asked about Susan Deacon, who had resigned as chair of the Scottish Police Authority and branded the oversight body ‘fundamentally flawed in structure, culture and practice’. There are Police Academy sequels that got better reviews than that.

Leonard thundered that ‘for the past two weeks, the First Minister has toured television studios boasting about her record in Government’. The truth, he intoned prosecutorily, was that ‘none of Scotland’s public services can be trusted in her Government’s hands‘.

Sturgeon pivoted to the Tory record on police numbers at Westminster, which would have been a good answer if Leonard was a Tory and they weren’t both standing 400 miles north of Westminster. It’s not just Police Scotland. She probably blames the Tories for The Bill getting cancelled.

Ross Greer has a bee in his bonnet about taxpayers’ money going to support Scottish-based defence firms, because Green Party policy is to surrender the UK’s entire military capability then unilaterally disarm our peashooters just to be on the safe side.

He quizzed Sturgeon on a company awarded Scottish Enterprise cash to, in its words, ‘take advantage of market moves that have resulted in gaps in the manufacture of explosives’. I suppose when you manufacture explosives, gaps are a hazard of the job.

‘Is it seriously her position,’ Greer pressed, ‘that funding the expansion of a bomb-making factory is different from funding the direct manufacture of bombs?’

Sturgeon reiterated her line about not subsidising weapons production but admitted she was unfamiliar with the company and would get back to Greer.

Other than scrapping Trident, the SNP doesn’t take much of an interest in national security. Behind the First Minister, they were tellingly hushed at all this defence talk, even Christina McKelvie. She thinks Lockheed Martin is an SNP candidate in the Highlands.

Lib Dem Beatrice Wishart said her Shetland constituents were ‘appalled to learn that there has been a second legal challenge to the awarding of the Northern Isles ferry service contract’.

It’s a fair old mess, right enough. The Scottish Government is being sued by Calmac, which is owned by the Scottish Government, meaning SNP ministers have somehow managed to take themselves to court.

Judge Judy’s going to need a full episode for this one.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at 

Sturgeon meets the long arm of the LOL

Boris Johnson may be too afraid to submit to 30 minutes under Andrew Neil’s frosty glare but at least the Scottish leaders are willing to tackle the tough questions.

Questions like ‘Bam or no bam?’ and whether the police should have their own jet skis. Putting these searing queries was Cameron Miekelson. Imagine if Andrew Neil had even less hair and thought the key Gers figures were Steven Gerrard and James Tavernier.

Miekelson is played by Jack Docherty and you might know him as the blunt Chief Commissioner of the fictional Scottish Police Force in BBC Scotland’s Scot Squad. If you’re not familiar with him, you’re unlikely to confuse him with a chief constable of the real-life Police Scotland in so far as he’s managed five years in the job without having to resign.

Scot Squad is a mock fly-on-the-wall docu-soap relaying the day-to-day activities (and indignities) of policing the thin blue line. It’s funny but BBC-Scotland-funny, and it earns a lot of good will for trying as hard as it does. At least half its appeal is willing it on to be better than it is and every now and then it raises an unforced chuckle.

The BBC decided that having to endure almost hourly election programmes wasn’t enough and so last night brought us a spoof interview show in which Chief Commissioner Miekelson interrogated the leaders of Scotland’s four main parties. Docherty, decked out in his starched uniform, pressed Jackson Carlaw on Boris Johnson’s fecundity and tried to get Nicola Sturgeon to sign off on Trident submarines for operational purposes. (Police Scotland is already tooled up with more guns than the Terminator. Now they want to routinely nuclear-arm officers.)

Sturgeon asked the pretendy polis to ‘flex your muscle’ towards Westminster and arrest Boris for unspecified crimes. She is, however, a libertarian and recognises certain rights, such as the right to protest — ‘as long as it’s not against the SNP’.

The First Minister, who was clearly enjoying herself, produced a bottle of Midori and the two vamped a drunken night out together at the Edinburgh Festival.

‘You got rid of those photographs?’

‘I left it to you.’

Whatever the merits of a fake election programme feigning to get answers out of the party leaders when the real election programmes can’t get them to do that, it was still refreshing to see Sturgeon let her guard down. Some of her material was snappier than anything the script had to offer.

Willie Rennie was also up for it. He suggested handing out free burgers in prison to fatten up criminals and make them easier to catch. The Lib Dem leader has an easygoing sense of humour, which came across in a stream-of-consciousness moment on the Rennies’ former family pet: ‘We had a cat but the food wasn’t very good, so it left, but it would come back sometimes to shit in the garden as revenge’.

Just wait till all those students still paying tuition fees find out his address.

Richard Leonard’s and Jackson Carlaw’s smiles were closer to grimaces. Neither took to the format, though Leonard let slip the occasional nervous giggle, such as when Miekelson deadpanned: ‘We’ve got our diversity officer here. Cracking wee bird’.

The Scottish Labour leader confessed to having once been caught speeding ‘on the road out of Alloa’.

‘Well, you would be speeding if you were going through Alloa, that’s for sure,’ the ersatz enforcer riposted.

Carlaw made it through, though his discomfort was evident. Miekelson asked if he would address Boris’s Christmas card to ‘Boris and however many kids you’ve got’. The Scottish Tory leader cautiously said he would leave such matters up to Mrs Carlaw. When asked to declared whether the Prime Minister was a ‘bam or no bam’, he — somewhat less cautiously — suggested his boss fell somewhere between the two.

You want to be good-humoured about programmes such as these but they only work if they work, and Scot Squad is already comedy-lite as it is without forcing it into the dull, punch-pulling neutrality of an election period. You have the right to remain silent and sometimes you should.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at 

The record is more broken than her waiting times targets

Nicola Sturgeon was in Scotland’s other, better capital city yesterday unveiling her party’s pledges for the General Election.

Given how many wafer-thin majorities the SNP is defending there, it made sense that the manifesto launch was held in Glasgow. Except to John Nicolson, who’s still trying to work out why they chose Aberystwyth.

The slogan was ‘Stronger for Scotland’. The top priority was independence. Scotland was still pure dead brilliant and England still being referred to as ‘Westminster’. The record is more broken than her waiting times targets but Sturgeon is running a core vote campaign and this is her core vote.

(London liberals think the SNP is what happens when disaffected socialists find a new political home. It’s actually what happens when you give ministerial portfolios to those people at American football games who wave giant foam fingers and chant ‘USA! USA! USA!’.)

Speaking before a giant saltire background, Sturgeon hawked her pledges on childcare and parental leave, and warned: ‘We must not let Brexit rob our children’s future.’ That is the Scottish Government’s job, after all.

If the Nationalists held the balance of power after December 12, she said, they would be seeking an end to austerity. Across the UK, that is; in Scotland, they’re still planning another ten years of it if we ever vote for Scexit.

‘I am asking you to vote SNP to escape Brexit,’ she said, which is a bit like taking up shark dentistry because human resources is too challenging. Leaving the EU would be so ghastly, the only answer was to back a party that wants to leave the UK.

Not only was her logic faulty, her rhetoric was histrionic: ‘Because of Johnson’s hardline position, there is every chance the UK will leave without a trade deal next year. That would be a catastrophe for jobs, and even if he somehow avoids that, his dream deal will be a nightmare for Scotland.’

Whenever my fellow Remainers claim we’ll all be living in huts, scavenging for food and feasting on insects, it doesn’t make Brexit sound apocalyptic, it makes it sound like I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here. At least with Brexit, your other half won’t keep asking you whether Michael Gove was in EastEnders or One Direction.

The SNP, Sturgeon asserted, was ‘Scotland’s Remain Party’. Any resemblance to the party that tried to take Scotland out of the EU in 2014 was purely coincidental.

Of the opposition parties, she Trumped: ‘They claim Scotland is not good enough or rich enough to be independent.’ Actually, even The Donald would admire the First Minister’s ability to demagogue with such a straight face. Like ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’, Sturgeon’s assertion is one that has only ever been uttered by Nationalists.

Scotland was ‘already one of the richest countries in the world’ was another claim. Unless Derek Mackay’s had a lottery win he’s been keeping quiet, this sunny assertion recalled all those Leavers who swore the Germans would be begging to flog their Volkswagens to us after Brexit. Speaking of which, Sturgeon enjoined voters to ‘take power into your own hands’. Vote Leave should bring suit for copyright infringement.

In pressing the case for Scexit, she noted: ‘The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that oil and gas revenues will be worth £8.5billion’ in the next five years. Nineties nostalgia is bad enough without attempting a revival of the greatest hits of 2014.

‘The Westminster parties have delivered not stability but constant chaos,’ she proclaimed, while insisting they were ‘looking to Scotland for inspiration’. Well, if it’s constant chaos they’re in the market for, they’re looking in the right place. Once again she touted her NHS Protection Bill. The SNP believes in protecting the NHS so much it doesn’t even let patients inside some hospitals.

The First Minister is concerned about chaos at Westminster but thinks the answer is putting Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Army and John McDonnell in charge of the money. You do wonder if she’s trying to engineer a UK government so hypnotically hapless that hers looks halfway competent by comparison.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at Feature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Election profile: Ochil and South Perthshire (not East Dunbartonshire)

As signs of the changing times go, it’s a close-run thing in Alloa between the local MP’s street stall sharing pavement space with a Syrian minimart and that MP being a Tory.

Luke Graham is the first Conservative to win Ochil and South Perthshire or its predecessor seats since James Wellwood Johnston, who wasn’t even a Conservative but a Unionist and held the area for a single term in the 1930s.

The 34-year-old is hoping Ochil will break the habit of generations and keep him in a job after December 12. Graham’s case for re-election hinges on three claims: the Tories will get Brexit done, they won’t allow Nicola Sturgeon another referendum, and Graham has brought UK Government investment to the constituency.

Arriving at Alloa railway station recently, Graham’s chances of holding onto his 3,000-vote majority appeared mixed to me. Almost every lamppost, railing, sign and statue was plastered in pro-independence stickers, only they read ‘Annibyniaeth i Gymru’ — independence for Wales. Perhaps Graham’s calls for the Nationalists to stop banging on about Scottish independence could have been more precisely-worded.

The candidate and a gaggle of volunteers left their comrades on the high street stall and headed off to canvass Alloa Park, a new-ish estate that Graham lost in 2017. ‘I want to take you somewhere where opinion is mixed,’ he says, and the early responses confirm. After a run of pro-SNP, pro-Labour and anti-Tory households, he turns and smiles: ‘You’re a jinx.’

While stuffing a leaflet through a letterbox, Graham almost falls victim to that perennial peril of the election campaigner — an angry dog. Luckily, he yanks his hand back out just in time. He is joined by Alexander Stewart, MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and one of those happy warriors for whom the Tories are always on the up. If a Rottweiler tried to maul him on the doorstep, he’d put it down as a ‘maybe’.

Graham’s temperament is largely unsuited to combative politics and yet all the more appealing for it. ‘The chances of me voting for a Tory are very, very slim,’ one householder admits, explaining that he knows the Labour candidate.

‘Oh Lorna?’ Graham replies. ‘Lorna’s great.’

His main rival in this contest is Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence candidate John Nicolson. In 2015, Nicolson sought SNP selection for North Ayrshire and Arran, Midlothian, Linlithgow and East Falkirk, and West Dunbartonshire. He was finally successful in East Dunbartonshire and took the seat from Jo Swinson in the General Election, only for her to take it back in 2017.

After his electoral tour of all the other shires, is it time for Ochil and South Perthshire to take one for the team?

Graham, who lives in the constituency, says: ‘I don’t want to talk about my opponents. I’d rather talk about what we’re trying to do to be positive for Ochil and South Perthshire. It will be for John Nicolson to explain to our constituency why we’re good enough now as his sixth choice for a parliamentary seat.’

Nicolson has since compounded his problem by referring to the constituency as ‘East Dunbartonshire’ in a hustings.

Graham’s decision to take the high road may be politically naive but it is admirable given the personal attacks he has come in for lately. During the selection process, a local SNP councillor pledged to ‘send him homeward’. Graham lives in Auchterarder but his mother is English. In March, unknown individuals turned up at his constituency office and barracked one of his aides while she worked late, shouting that ‘in an independent Scotland all of you will be hanging’ and ‘I can’t wait to come and drag you from this office and get you to the noose’.

Graham’s measured style of politics may serve him well in this contest, since his constituents seem far from enamoured by hot-headedness. One voter who works for a firm that trades on the Continent laments the ongoing uncertainty: ‘We need to get Brexit done so people like me know where we stand.’ He is firmly against the idea of a second referendum on Scexit.

Steven Kidd, whom we catch heading out for some Saturday morning exercise, says: ‘It doesn’t come down to the candidate for me, it’s the bigger picture. I want to hear more of their policies.’

Mr Kidd, who voted No in 2014 and Remain in 2016, says he’s ‘now more towards independence than I was then because I’m not convinced leaving the EU is a good thing’. He wants the government to ‘do something to clear up the uncertainty because we need clarity’ over Brexit. Still he’s sceptical of the argument about ‘getting Brexit done’ — ‘’if you don’t think something is a good idea, why would you want to get it over and done with?’

‘There’s only really two options here. It will come down to a last-minute decision on which one I prefer. The SNP wants one thing, at the end of the day, and I don’t want that. But the Tories want one thing too — Brexit — and I don’t want that either. Where do you go?’

It is up to Graham and his volunteers to convince voters like Mr Kidd if they don’t want the seat to fall back into the SNP’s hands. Graham has double the numer of activists out for him than last time. His every waking second is coordinated by campaign manager Moira Benny, and she would schedule a few somnambulant leaflet drops if she could. Every campaign needs a Moira, a phone-juggling, door-knocking, clipboard-waving dervish of organisation.

The political journey that led her to working for a Tory MP is… unconventional. The daughter of a miner, she has previously been both homeless and dependent on benefits, the latter of which she praises as ‘a hand-up, not a hand-out’ and credits with getting her back on her feet. The safety net allowed her to secure a series of jobs that culminated in signing onto Graham’s campaign in 2017, the same year she joined the Conservative Party. She had previously been a Green.

Benny is the life force of Graham’s campaign and if energy was all that counted, her candidate would be returned in a landslide. Teddy Taylor used to call them ‘the folk who don’t live in big hooses’ and his spiritual successor, here at Graham’s side today but bound to find herself in Holyrood one day, is determined her party doesn’t forget the folk in the wee hooses.

Richard Fells’ house is neither big nor wee but, despite voting Remain in 2016, he will be casting his ballot for the Tories.

‘I have always voted Conservative,’ he explains. ‘I was in business and the Conservatives are the party of business.’

Has Brexit not shaken his confidence?

‘I was for Remain but I am also a democrat and the people voted,’ he tells me, shaking his head, ‘so we have to leave;,

What about the prospect of a second referendum on indep—

‘I was born British,’ comes the response. ‘I am a Unionist and I will go on being a Unionist until my dying day. I have my doubts about Boris, bless him, but we need him to get a majority and get on with Brexit.’

Words like these are exactly what Graham, who campaigned for Remain, wants to hear. His pitch, like that of other Scottish Tory candidates, is to get off the constitutional roundabout and back to local services and investment.

He says: ‘The main message for me, nationally, is sort Brexit. There is a deal on the table with the EU, so I want to get that through and move forward. I don’t want another independence referendum. Those are the two big national messages.

‘Locally, it’s continuing with local action. I’ve held over 300 surgeries since I was elected, helped over 8,000 constituents and got £8million for Clackmannanshire from the UK Government. I’m pushing for geothermal energy to be used from the old mines. In south Perthshire, we’ve got a world-leading cycling facility being built and got money for Crieff so we can start regeneration that too. We’ve got parking getting sorted in Auchterarder.

‘There are a lot of projects and investments and schemes that we’re getting going across the constituency and that’s what I want to be doing — something positive.’

With two weeks to go, Graham will have to weather a lot more negativity to be in with a chance of bringing positive politics back to the Commons.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at