How to oust your local SNP MP

Cometh an election, cometh a debate about the merits of tactical voting. Does it work? How risky is it? Is a choice between the lesser of two evils really the best we can do?

In short succession: 1) Yes, it can. 2) The greater risk is doing nothing. 3) At this stage, it’s more a case of the lesser of six or seven evils.

In 18 days’ time, Scotland will decide whether it wants another referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom. That this election is a referendum on a referendum is down to Nicola Sturgeon but stopping her is down to the pro-Union majority.

If Scotland sends enough pro-Union MPs to Westminster, it will maximise the chances of Sturgeon’s Scexit machinations being thwarted.

Because those who oppose Scexit are split between competing parties, it is likely the Nationalists will again take a majority of seats north of the Border. But by voting tactically for parties that support the Union, the SNP’s opponents can stop a yellow tide building to a tsunami.

First, though, we must define our terms. There are two fully pro-Union parties in Scotland: the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Both oppose Sturgeon’s plans for more constitutional division.

Labour had previously wavered on the Union but now Jeremy Corbyn and his top team have repeatedly said he will give Sturgeon another referendum during the first term of a Labour government. No matter what Scottish Labour or individual candidates say, the SNP and Labour are effectively running on a joint ticket and a cross beside Labour would be a proxy vote for Nicola Sturgeon.

That leaves pro-Union voters, including those who would normally vote Labour, with two parties to choose between. Their goal: minimise the number of Sturgeon and Corbyn MPs elected on December 12.

For Unionist tactical voting to be a success, everyone will have to make sacrifices. Tories living in seats where the SNP and the Lib Dems are the only real contenders will have to set aside their reservations about Jo Swinson and her party’s policy of revoking Brexit.

Swinson is not going to be Prime Minister and unilaterally cancelling Brexit is too unpopular (including with Remainers) to get off the ground. What the Lib Dems can do, however, is take one or two seats from the SNP and prevent them from regaining any they lost in 2017.

Lib Dem MPs are particularly vulnerable and Conservatives unconvinced of the need to cast a tactical vote in certain seats should bear in mind this number: 5,339. That is Jo Swinson’s majority in East Dunbartonshire, and the largest Lib Dem majority in Scotland.

The party leader is followed by Alistair Carmichael (who won Orkney and Shetland last time by 4,563 votes), Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West by 2,988) and Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross by 2,044).

Whatever Conservatives might think of their views on Brexit, the Lib Dems have been absolutely firm in their opposition to another independence referendum. Tories in these seats will have to make a choice: hold their nose and vote Lib Dem or hand victory to Nicola Sturgeon.

Tories will also decide whether the Lib Dems pick up their top target seat of North East Fife, where the Nationalists clung on by a nail-biting two votes in 2017. This seat is a prime opportunity for Unionist voters to unite behind the Lib Dems and oust Nicola Sturgeon’s MP.

There is one seat where considerations of justice surpass cold, hard numbers. Ross, Skye and Lochaber was Charles Kennedy’s seat until he was driven out in a despicable campaign. The Tories came second in 2017, with the Lib Dems not far behind, but SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford was able to hold on by 5,919 votes.

RSL is Liberal country. Liberalism is in the people and the land and convincing locals to revert to the Lib Dems is much easier than asking them to elect a Tory for the first time in generations.

It would be altogether more likely — to say nothing of fitting — for a Lib Dem to bring Blackford down. That can only happen if Tories and pro-Union Labour voters lend their vote to Lib Dem candidate Craig Harrow. (If you want to know his position on the Union, he was the top Lib Dem man in Better Together.)

Making way for opponents is never easy but there is a wrong to be righted here. This one is not a tactical vote, it’s a vote for Charles.

Liberal Democrat voters are furious with the Tories over Brexit. Agonising though it is, Scottish Lib Dems have to approach this election strategically. The choice is not between Brexit and stopping Brexit. The odds favour Brexit happening whether the Tories or Labour ends up the largest party. The Tories for obvious reasons but Labour because, if they keep their promise to hold a confirmatory vote, their leader and Prime Minister will remain ‘neutral’.

Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic but a cannier one than he gets credit for: he understands that when the Labour leader is silent on an issue, Labour’s traditional base concludes there is no ‘Labour’ way to vote on the matter.

Corbyn already pulled the ‘neutral’ trick in 2016, doing the bare minimum for Remain to signal that Labour people could vote Leave without being disloyal to their party. The result of this ploy was that red heartlands like Doncaster North, which has voted Labour since Harold Wilson was in short trousers, swung 72 per cent behind Leave.

Labour’s promise of a confirmatory referendum isn’t even a People’s Vote. If delivered, it would be a choice between a Corbyn Brexit and Remain. The most recent polling shows Remain’s lead at its narrowest yet — 51 per cent to Leave’s 49 per cent.

A Corbyn Brexit would be scarcely softer than a Boris Brexit (both would end free movement) and in one important regard it would be worse for the pro-EU cause: if some warm words about workers’ rights can tip that 49 per cent over to a majority, Brexit will have been endorsed in two consecutive referendums.

A double mandate would make Brexit stick, whereas a Tory government that presses on without consulting the voters again risks a backlash if things go badly wrong. In those circumstances, the Lib Dems would be ideally placed to lead any campaign to re-join the EU.

To deny the SNP another referendum on separation and see off the threat of a Corbyn Brexit, Lib Dem voters will have to swallow their pride in Tory-held seats like Gordon (majority: 2,607), Angus (majority: 2,645) and Moray (majority: 4,159).

Lib Dem and pro-Union Labour voters might not be inclined to come to the Tories’ aid, but the fact remains: every seat they lose is a seat Nicola Sturgeon gains.

For those pro-Union Labour voters, it is gut-punching to see their once proud party scamper after Nicola Sturgeon’s coat tails, offering to gamble the very existence of the UK for a few pitiful years of power.

No one expects these disaffected electors to abandon their party (as it surely has abandoned them) or to sign up for another. December 12 would be a one-time deal in which they lent their vote either to the Lib Dems or the Tories.

In Edinburgh South West, there are just 1,097 votes in it between the SNP’s Joanna Cherry and the Tories’ pro-Union candidate Callum Laidlaw. If just a fraction of the seat’s 13,000 Labour supporters voted tactically for the Conservatives, an SNP big beast would be felled.

On the opposite coast, if Unionists in East Renfrewshire don’t vote for Paul Masterton (majority: 4,712), Nicola Sturgeon will win that seat. Labour voters (who numbered 14,000 last time) will be the difference between a moderate Tory MP and another Nationalist agitating for a second referendum on Scotland leaving the UK.

The odds are stacked against Unionists and unless they unite and vote tactically, they could wake up on December 13 to their worst nightmare: Corbyn in Number 10 and Sturgeon outside announcing the date of a second independence referendum.


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

Question Time: Sturgeon was slippier than an eel on a water slide

Nicola Sturgeon turned up for a grilling on last night’s Question Time special but basked instead in the warmth of the audience’s ignorance about Scotland.

The SNP leader benefited from what appeared to be a coach-load of supporters dotted across the studio but it was the English majority, interested but not obviously clued-up about matters north of the Border, who made it her night.

Sturgeon confirmed she would expect Jeremy Corbyn to dance to her tune on Scexit if she held the balance of power after December 12. But Corbyn had already told the programme that he wasn’t minded to give the Nationalists another referendum right away. Did the audience really think, she ventured coyly, that Corbyn would spurn the chance of power just to stop Scotland voting?

The silence that greeted her answer meant you could have heard a pin drop — or the penny thumping to the ground.

Because the non-sympathisers in the studio audience knew little about Scottish politics, the SNP leader could wriggle her way out of every tight spot. She prated: ‘The Brexiteers told a lot of lies, one of them on the side of a bus.’ A few breaths later she denied the EU had warned in 2014 that a separate Scotland would be out on her ear. No, not the EU corporately but the key leaders in Brussels all did.

If the BBC insists on having Sturgeon on network TV (despite not being a candidate in this election), she ought to be held to account as thoroughly as all the other leaders. As it was last night, she was slippier than an eel on a water slide and no one could lay a hand on her.

The evening was a little trickier for Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn’t the worst thing to happen to a Labour leader in Sheffield during an election but the audience was able to test him in a way it couldn’t Nicola Sturgeon. We were all right — all right! — on that front at least.

A gentleman who, from his extensive facial mullet, appeared to have just come from a ZZ Top revival concert warned that Corbyn’s ‘socialist’ worldview would imperil freedom. When he’s lost the bearded vote, you know Corbyn is in trouble. The Marxist marrow-botherer said he believed in freedom — he had ‘got into hot water for defending people’s freedoms’. True, and some of them weren’t even wearing balaclavas at the time.

Another chap in the stalls confronted the Labour leader about the spread of anti-Semitism in his party, which Corbyn tried to blather his way through. The punter was fit for him, though. ‘I don’t buy this nice old grampa routine,’ he snapped.

Corbyn glowered. He’s angry and entitled and every time he comes under scrutiny, the real Jeremy reveals himself.

The big news line of the night was Corbyn’s admission that he would remain neutral in a second Brexit referendum. He intends to be present but not involved.

Red Jez got an easier time in the second half of his appearance. One animated questioner took the unique route of holding the rest of the audience to account, chiding them for their scepticism towards Corbyn. There was a zeal in his eye only seen among Corbynistas and casual acquaintances who try to sign you up for an exciting opportunity selling nutrition supplements that is DEFINITELY NOT A PYRAMID SCHEME.

Still, it was good to see Sheffield Friends of North Korea get its Christmas night out.

Poor old Jo Swinson. She made the crazy decision to come on and tell the truth. About Brexit, tuition fees, austerity. The Lib Dem leader was left gawping like a guppy fish as one audience member after another piled in.

One red-jacketed lady, apparently a Labour supporter, railed against her for voting with the Conservatives. It’s a fair cop. Swinson voted with the Tories almost as often as Jeremy Corbyn. Even a Remainer took Swinson to task for ‘promising to unilaterally revoke Brexit’ — ‘the Liberal Democrat party’s name is now a misnomer’.

The nadir came when she was forced to defend her party’s notoriously dodgy graphs. ‘I think all barcharts should be properly labelled,’ she squeaked, defeated.

Boris Johnson’s fared about as well as a Christian in the Coliseum after the lions had been on the 5:2 diet. When they weren’t tearing chunks off him, they were openly guffawing.

‘That concludes our evening,’ host Fiona Bruce chirped at the end. ‘It’s been worth it, hasn’t it?’ No, Fiona. No, it hasn’t.


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

Sturgeon outfoxed by new face of Scottish Greens

This sketch tries not to make a habit of praising the Scottish Greens, or — in the interests of balance — any other semi-communist rabble of chickpea-fuelled turtle-worshippers.

But once again Alison Johnstone, who now enjoys joint custody of the parliamentary party with shouty-angry dad Patrick Harvie, gave a masterclass in getting under Nicola Sturgeon’s skin at First Minister’s Questions.

She started off with a Sturgeon quote from two years ago. Ruh-roh. It’s an iron-clad rule of politics that if you’re getting your own words quoted back at you, you’re in trouble. ‘I have always been an opponent of fox hunting and I remain so,’ the First Minister had once said.

Johnstone honed in on her prey: ‘We have had plenty of talk, but hunting continues in Scotland, 17 years after it was meant to have been banned. Unbelievably, the Tories now appear to have a stronger position on this issue than the SNP does.’

Ouch. That had to sting. Johnstone had heard back from almost 10,000 people on her proposal to toughen up the existing ban in Scotland, which animal rights campaigners argue is weaker than its English equivalent. By the look on the First Minister’s face, this was finally a comparison with England that she wasn’t keen on.

The Nationalists promised a toughening up of the legislation at the start of the year. When, Johnstone wondered, were they going to get round to doing it?

The Scottish Government did indeed have ‘proposals to further reform the law’, came back Sturgeon, and had already promised to bring them forward.

The Greens’ semi-co-quasi-every-second-Thursday leader couldn’t hide her contempt for that answer.

‘That announcement was made 11 months ago. It did not even merit a mention in the programme for government,’ she riposted. Row upon row of Nationalists were suddenly fixated on some fascinating architectural detail of the far wall.

Her quarry was cornered and Johnstone went in for the kill: ‘The SNP has been in government for 12 years, and what it is doing is at odds with what it is saying. Instead of action, we have endless reviews and delays, which have become a hallmark of this government’s approach to wildlife protection and more.’

Oooh. And here I thought Johnstone was opposed to bloodsports. She’s like a Linda McCartney vegan hotpot: you’re sceptical at first but she gets the job done nicely.

The opening exchanges of FMQs centred on the tragic death of a child at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. A tremor runs through the chamber during discussions like this – ‘there but for the grace of God’ is on many a mind. There was no evident political advantage-seeking, which is as it should be but a small mercy all the same.

The remainder of FMQs was a plodding and uneventful affair. At times like these, the sketch writer’s mind begins to wander and his eye is drawn into politically incorrect observations about parliamentary fashion. Nicola Sturgeon was sporting a swirly pendant necklace, a reminder that the First Minister is expert at pairing sensible suits with little sparkles of costume jewellery that make the whole outfit pop. Contra her nastier detractors, Sturgeon has a certain flair. She’s wrong about everything but stylishly wrong.

Jackson Carlaw is aye spiffily turned out and my sources tell me this is largely down to Mrs Carlaw’s reliably Tory sense of taste and decorum. Alas, the radioactive ties are back, and this week it was an energetic shade of emerald that made the Tory leader look like he had a fluorescent leprechaun knotted around his neck.

This at least adds a splash of colour to a dark, wintry election. If you spot an other-worldly glow in and around East Renfrewshire in the next few weeks, and wonder why extra-terrestrial life has chosen Newton Mearns as its first point of contact, rest assured — it’s just Jackson Carlaw out leafleting again.

Battleground Stirling: Tories fighting to hold off SNP threat in ultra-marginal

Stirling Tory HQ is oddly hushed for the middle of a General Election campaign.

All eyes are on Sky News and most hands clamped around steaming mugs of tea. Outside a biting smirr is building to a downpour. The TV commands the room because of who is on it: Nigel Farage. He is announcing that his Brexit Party will stand in none of the seats won by the Conservatives in 2017.

A dozen volunteers, ranging from fresh-faced students to seasoned veterans, drink in the news with their Tetley. Here, where pro-Brexit incumbent Stephen Kerr is clinging on by a majority of 148, the development is more than welcome.

The Stirling Conservative and Unionist Association occupies the ground floor of a sandstone terrace on the city’s Gladstone Place, the only decent showing for Liberalism in the whole constituency. (The Lib Dems lost their deposit last time.)

Ten minutes north lies Castle Hill and the royal fortress that Bonnie Prince Charlie tried but failed to conquer in 1746. Kerr’s more fragile defences face a battering from a young-ish pretender in the form of Alyn Smith, who hopes to reclaim Stirling for the SNP on December 12.

On the face of it, Smith should be measuring up the drapes for his Commons office. Stirling voted 68 per cent Remain and Smith is Monsieur Ecosse, Scotland’s Remainer-in-Chief. Kerr, however, is putting up a fight and is the picture of determination, standing between the office’s portraits of Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher.

Like his political pin-ups, Kerr’s politics are complicated. A Leaver and a traditionalist, he spends most of his time enthusing about connectivity, digital and otherwise. He sees 5G and fibre optic as key to Stirling’s future prosperity and better public transport essential for fighting climate change.

‘I’d like to see the buses re-regulated, both to improve the service and reduce emissions,’ he says. Coming from someone seen as a Right-winger, this raises an eyebrow. ‘I know,’ he confesses. ‘I’m a red under the bed. Well, on top of the bed. I’m trying to jump up and down and shout about it.’

A ten-minute drive later and we are in Torbrex, an historic village once associated with the weaving industry and now a modestly middle class enclave. Previously a Tory-Labour bellwether, the SNP has made inroads and each party boasts a councillor in the Stirling East ward. For Kerr to stand a chance of being returned to Westminster, Torbrex is a must-win.

Lively showers do not deter Kerr and a dozen volunteers, who huddle around a car boot and emerge in cornflower-blue branded jackets, looking like an improbable delegation of UN peacekeepers. ‘We’re peace-bringers,’ Kerr strains, as he and his helpers begin fanning out and knocking doors. ‘We bring peace from any more referendums.’

Groan. Since he mentions it, though, how is Brexit — and his own outspoken Brexiteerism — going down in a constituency where Leave failed to command as much as a third of the vote? Kerr avers that the constituency divides into two main groups — those who support Brexit (16,000 Leave votes were cast in Stirling) and opponents who accept the result and just want it over with — but admits there is also a core who have not made their peace with it.

What has helped with Brexit sceptics, he says, is the fact Johnson defied expectations and got a new agreement with Brussels. ‘They won’t sign up to a fan club for Boris but they give him respect for getting a deal,’ he relays.

Up to a point. Kerr knocks at the door of Mary and Eugene Toal and there, on the steps overlooking their immaculately manicured garden, he gives them chapter and verse of the Kerr gospel: Get Brexit done, get Scexit in the bin, and get back to what Kerr wistfully calls ‘normal politics’. Mrs Toll seems keen on this message, though adds that she would also like to see a return to traditional moral values. Kerr scribbles a ‘C’ on a sheet of paper.

Mr Toal in concerned about ethical standards in public life too, but this leads him in a different direction. ‘Boris is the problem,’ he says, bluntly. ‘I don’t trust him. I don’t think he has a clue about what’s going on in Scotland.’ Kerr argues that the Prime Minister is very sensitive to matters Scottish and, besides, he rather than Johnson is on the ballot in Stirling. Mr Toal seems not quite convinced nor wholly hostile. Like most voters, he feels let down by politicians and wants to see more honesty from them.

Twenty minutes later — his campaign aides repeatedly scold Kerr for his long doorstep natters — we are walking back down the drive. ‘I’ll put Eugene down as a U but he might even be a P,’ Kerr remarks. ‘We’ll be back in contact to try to turn him into a C.’

It’s come to a pretty pass when a Tory MP has a firmer grasp of all the latest acronyms than you. Before I can request a translation of this curious code, he leans over: ‘Boris told me last week he was planning to come up to Scotland, before adding: “Unless you think that would be a bad idea”.’

So he’s unpopular among Stirling voters? Some, Kerr concedes, but others appreciate his hectic, devil-may-care style. He is keen to frame the election around another divisive political character. On the doorstep he never refers to Alyn Smith but to ‘Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate’, appreciating the power of the First Minister’s mere name to invoke the red mist in even the most composed voter. It works time and again. There is an observable narrowing of the eyes at mention of The S Word.

Invariably, Kerr eggs this on by adding: ‘What do you think of Nicola Sturgeon going on an on about a second independence referendum? Don’t you think it’s a waste of time?’

Most voters agree, though one woman chirps: ‘Actually, I don’t mind Nicola. I like the way she speaks.’ Still, even she won’t commit either way on independence. There is little appetite for Brexit here but almost none for Scexit.

Irene Torrance, who usually votes Conservative, plans to do so again. ‘I’m not concerned about a second independence referendum because I don’t think she’ll get one.’ Campaigners from all parties can attest to the frequency with which Nicola Sturgeon’s pronouns (and some decidedly ‘anti’ nouns) come up on the doorstep. Mrs Torrance laments the division that constitutional politics has brought. ‘It’s sad what’s become of our country.’

Then, she adds: ‘It’s very close here—‘

Kerr jumps in. ‘Yes, it is. Every single Unionist vote is going to matter.’

‘No, there’s something about the SNP man,’ she reassures Kerr. ‘He looks like a double-glazing salesman.’

Alyn Smith is nothing quite so reputable. He is actually a lawyer and SNP MEP, though Kerr prefers ‘Edinburgh lawyer’ and likes to point out that Smith is keeping his Brussels gig while standing to represent Stirling. All good knockabout stuff but, even if Smith is ‘Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate’, he is undoubtedly a problem for Kerr.

An SNP moderate with impeccable Remain credentials, he looks and sounds like the kind of Nationalist Brexit-fatigued Tories could vote for. Kerr grasps the threat but for him it comes back to the same immovable fact: a vote for Alyn Smith is a vote for another referendum on Scexit.

One of Kerr’s canvassers interrupts to ask about the voter he just spoke to. ‘Do I put him down as a P or a U?’

This again. Kerr happily divulges this enigma code of campaigning: the letters record each household’s likely voting intentions. Kerr zips through the consonants and vowels at a speed that would impress Countdown’s Rachel Riley. ‘C’, for confirmed, means they’re certain to vote Tory. ‘P’ is a possible Conservative ballot while ‘U’ denotes an Undecided elector.

Just as valuable is documenting the level of support for rival parties. ‘S’, somewhat confusingly, doesn’t stand for SNP but Socialist — i.e. Labour; SNP voters are recorded with ‘N’ (Nationalist) while ‘L’ is reserved for Liberal Democrats. ‘W’ is for those who simply won’t vote. After six elections and two referendums in five years, who can blame them?

Peering at the volunteer’s clipboard, Kerr asks: ‘Who’s he wavering between?’

‘Us and the SNP,’ the door-knocker replies.

‘For or against Indyref2?’


With that Kerr bounds round the corner out of view, towards the unsuspecting elector’s house. When we catch up to him, he’s at the side door and chatting with the owner as if he’s known him for years. Suddenly, they disappear inside, the Tory hopeful re-emerging a few minutes later.

‘He’s redoing his kitchen. Took me in and showed me how it was going. They’re wanting to do more renovations after that.’

Then, with barely a pause for breath: ‘Oh, and he’s a C now.’

After a chat about kitchen renovations? ‘The man’s renovating his house,’ Kerr explains matter-of-factly. ‘He’s got enough on without another referendum getting in the way.’

There is a near missionary zeal to Kerr’s campaigning. ‘I suppose I’m something of a universal salvationist,’ quips this member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

‘You won’t stop till you’ve converted everyone to the Tories?’ I venture.

‘That’s it,’ he chuckles, before adding: ‘Stirling is going to be won vote by vote.’

Not everyone is willing to accept the Tory as their personal saviour. One irate woman who voted for him in 2017 gave Kerr what-for for voting to support a Brexit deal. Kerr pointed out that his 2017 manifesto pledged to do just that, but his constituent was having none of it.

There followed a robust exchange — on both sides — that took in prorogation, the ethics of ‘lying to the Queen’, and ‘choosing Boris Johnson over us’. The verbal sparring came to a crescendo when the woman blurted: ‘I’ve joined the Liberal Democrats’. Kerr’s evangelising ceased instantly and he bid her a good day. Some souls can’t be saved after all.

The SNP expects Stirling to fall. That’s why Nicola Sturgeon chose it as her first campaign stop of the election. On paper, her candidate should win it handily but here on the streets there are signs of Tory strength.

Stephen Kerr sums up the conflict thus: ‘In Stirling, there is the crystalisation of a choice between having a local Conservative and Unionist Member of Parliament who works for Stirling, puts Stirling first, and an SNP MP who will just be another tub-thumper for independence and who will take and follow instructions from Nicola Sturgeon. That’s exactly what they do, you know… She sends down a text message and they have to vote [that way].’

Can he win? ‘Oh yes. I can win and I’m going to win. I’m hoping that people know the kind of person I am and will vote for me for that reason… There’s no surge to the SNP, Labour voters are generously lending me their vote in order to defeat the SNP because they’ve largely lost faith in their own party and because locally they know that I’m the main challenger.

‘I think I am going to win, I just don’t know by how much. I’d like to have a bigger majority than 148.’

Then, with a note of caution: ‘We’re four weeks out and there’s a long way to go. I’ve got a lot of doorstep conversations to have.’

Stirling, not for the first time in its history, is a fierce and unforgiving battleground.


An edited version of this piece was published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at Photo © Graham Hogg (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Nicola Sturgeon’s priorities are not yours

The solitary joy of election campaigns is when politicians and journalists encounter the voters, those strange creatures they shelter from in parliaments and television studios the rest of the time.

The voters are an unreliable sort. They don’t conform to the message grid, ask all the wrong questions and actually expect answers. These are people blissfully unaware of how the game is played. Some of them don’t even watch Newsnight.

I have been on the campaign trail lately and, as you might expect, Brexit has come up on the doorsteps. Some want it done, others want it undone, but most are heartily sick of hearing about it. Few gave the impression of living and breathing the issue the way politicians or those of us who write about them for a living seemingly do.

Tagging along to speeches and street stalls and canvassing sessions, I have heard voters cite every bugbear you could imagine, and a fair few you probably couldn’t. Jobs. Tax. The economy. Housing. Universal Credit. Schools. Waiting lists. Drugs. Youth crime. Potholes. Immigration. Bus timetables. Moral values.

One man who lived in a very nice house in Ochil and South Perthshire told me he was doing okay but had yet to hear a candidate say what they would do for those much worse off.

What there is scarce demand for is more process. The political class loves process because it places them and their decisions at the heart of the drama. The agitation for repeat referendums on settled constitutional questions is, in part, driven by sheer narcissism. It’s infinitely more interesting to spend your days debating parliament’s purpose and your duty as a parliamentarian than it is to trudge through the minutiae of pension reform or transport policy.

Nicola Sturgeon, never one for policy detail, offers a bumper year ahead for process enthusiasts, with her advocacy for both a second Scexit and Brexit referendum in 2020. At First Minister’s Questions last Thursday, the Nationalist leader made clear her preference for the votes to take place in that order. After all, if another EU referendum resulted in a Remain vote, Sturgeon would be robbed of her current pretext for re-running the 2014 plebiscite.

It may come as a shock to the London commentariat who gush over their ‘progressive’ heroine but Sturgeon is far too busy trying to drag Scotland out of the UK to save them from Brexit. The people it will not come as a shock to are the voters. They have seen enough of this First Minister to know what her priorities are and to know that they are not among them.

Of course, there are those who want another vote on one constitutional proposition or another, but Sturgeon is arguing for something very few Scots want: a series of referendums, with all the attendant division and uncertainty. Make no mistake: though she backs two more referendums, the reality could feasibly end up closer to four.

After all, the First Minister’s hectoring for a confirmatory referendum on Brexit gives her opponents grounds to demand a People’s Vote of their own in the event that a second ballot on separation went in favour of Scotland leaving the UK. How could the First Minister deny them when she has already made the case herself, albeit in the context of Brexit?

Let’s allow, for argument’s sake, that Scotland would vote to leave the UK in a second and third plebiscite. That would not be the end of it. At the point of the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU or Scotland’s secession from the UK — whichever came first — Scotland would be outside the EU. Sturgeon and her party are committed to EU membership and, while they could pursue it without consulting the electorate, doing so would fly in the face of the SNP’s rhetoric about the ‘sovereignty of the Scottish people’.

Referendums as far as the eye can see is enough to inspire horror in even the most energetic advocate of popular democracy. Not only would it leave the country in constitutional limbo for several more years, but the kind of issues voters are bringing up on the doorsteps in this election would again be shunted to the sidelines.

Your priorities may be the Herculean trials involved in securing a GP appointment or ensuring your child can learn a musical instrument at school or navigating the latest spool of red tape spun around your small business. But as long as we remain a country rapt by constitutional navel-gazing, your priorities will struggle to get a hearing.

Whether we have another referendum or another four, we will be in for more months and years of debating how government should work rather than what government should do. The economic growth that we need to create jobs and fund our public services will go on eluding us because, however much we despair at all this instability, foreign investors despair a great deal more. The outcomes we care most about (a fairer society, better opportunities for young people, improved care for older Scots) will be the things we do the least to achieve.

For activists and ideologues, this is all so much pedestrian pabulum. These are people with their eyes on the history books and the righteous fires of certainty burning in their breasts. They have the revolutionary’s zeal and the parochialist’s field of vision.

What they also have is Nicola Sturgeon on their side. She will do all it takes to get as many referendums as she needs, even put the abhorrent Jeremy Corbyn and his ranks of communists and antisemites into power. This does not endear her to the voters.

My election travels confirmed what I had already heard from SNP and Tory activists alike: Nicola Sturgeon is Marmite on the doorstep. Those who love her love her but those who dislike her do so vividly. There is no refuge in dismissing the latter as aversion to a strong, successful woman — in my experience, it is often women in whom the SNP leader inspires the most visceral contempt.

It would be better all round if we had a lot less of both devotion and contempt in our politics. Neither worshipped nor despised, our leaders should be there to get on with the people’s business. Cutting waiting times and helping small businesses grow may not flutter the heart; no one will ever lead a march or write a folk song about them. But these are the things that matter and it’s high time they mattered again.


Fergus Mutch, the SNP’s candidate in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, got himself into trouble after boasting in his election literature that his was a ‘real Scottish party’. This prompted criticism from Conservative incumbent Andrew Bowie.

Bowie has cause to worry about Mutch, currently rocking the Tweed-clad country gent look on the campaign trail. Back at Holyrood, where he is the Nationalists’ chief spin doctor, it’s a running joke that he is one of the most right-wing members of the SNP, often despairing at the latest headline-generating hijinks among the radical grassroots.

Bowie has a majority of 8,000 and will be hoping his prominence — he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Theresa May — as well as his endeavours on behalf of the local community are enough to see him returned.

Mutch will hope his moderate views can peel away enough liberal Conservatives. Oddly for a two-horse race, the result feels like a foregone conclusion. We know a Tory will win — we just don’t know which one yet.


It’s heartwarming to read that people in Scotland raised almost £4million for BBC Children in Need this year. The programme, presented with aplomb by favourite of this column Jackie Bird, is a reminder that you don’t have to go halfway around the world to find youngsters in poverty and despair. We all have a duty to show we care and Scotland has certainly done that.


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

What is Nicola Sturgeon thinking trying to put cranks and racists in power?

Pollsters are generally unloveable creatures but oftentimes they spot trends in public opinion that the rest of us miss. Some of these analysts are now warning that the Conservatives’ poll lead may not be all it seems.

For instance, the current poll of polls has the Tories 11 points ahead of Labour, which sounds like a comfortable advantage. However, at this stage in the 2017 campaign, the polling average put the Tories 18 points ahead — and look how that turned out. The number-crunchers note, too, that the Liberal Democrat vote appears too thinly spread across the country and that Labour support traditionally rallies in the final weeks of an election.

As such, some of the foremost experts on voting behaviour are raising the prospect of an unthinkable outcome: another hung parliament. They are not alone: only 18 per cent of voters polled for yesterday’s Mail on Sunday expect the Conservatives to win a majority.

Since almost none of the smaller parties would back Boris Johnson, talk has inevitably turned to the possibility of a minority Labour government. Over the weekend, Nicola Sturgeon began outlining her demands in exchange for a vote-by-vote support arrangement for a Jeremy Corbyn administration. Predictably, her top negotiating priorities are another referendum on Scexit and more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

The First Minister’s willingness to put Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in power is being treated as another process story. It is no such thing. It is a test of Sturgeon’s character, where she stands and who she stands with. The Labour Party she contemplates crowbarring into 10 Downing Street is no longer the party of Blair and Brown. This Labour Party has been taken over by the far-Left and along the way it has become the largest, most successful vehicle for anti-Semitism in Western Europe.

When Nicola Sturgeon makes an offer to Labour, this is the Labour Party she is prepared to put in power. Former Labour MPs Ian Austin, John Woodcock and Tom Harris have warned of the anti-Semitism that has taken over the party and even urged voters to back the Conservatives instead. Labour’s candidate in Clacton stood down after using the derogatory term ‘Shylock’ in a meeting with Jewish colleague, councillor Zena Brabazon. Gideon Bull maintains he did not call Brabazon the name directly, was unaware of its anti-Semitic meaning and insists it was ‘an honest mistake’.

The party’s candidate in Gordon quit after it emerged she had compared Israel to a child-abuser and said charges of Labour anti-Semitism had been ‘orchestrated by the wealthy establishment who do not want a socialist Labour government’. Kate Ramsden said she could ‘see why many Jewish people have been hurt by my words’ but it ‘was never my intention and I apologise unreservedly’.

It emerged that Zarah Sultana, Corbyn’s candidate for the safe Labour seat of Coventry South, had pledged to ‘celebrate’ the death of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed a Palestinian right to ‘violent resistance’ and, at university four years ago, objected to a Jewish student standing for election to a post representing black and ethnic minority undergraduates. Sultana said that her comments were ‘written out of frustration rather than any malice’ and she apologised.

Labour’s shadow international development secretary Dan Carden denied singing ‘Hey Jews’ to the tune of the Beatles hit Hey Jude during a bus trip back from Cheltenham Races last year. He maintained he would ‘never be part of any behaviour that undermines my commitment to fight racism in all its forms’.

Labour’s chief campaigner in Harlow was found to have warned in a blog of ‘a Jewish final solution to the Palestine problem’. When this apparent allusion to the Holocaust was brought to the attention of the party’s Harlow candidate, she reportedly tried to defend her aide. Laura McAlpine later told the Jewish News she ‘did not and would not defend Brett Hawksbee’s remarks in this blog’ and called them ‘unacceptable’.

It is a testament to how comprehensively Labour has been taken over by anti-Jewish cranks that the above list only covers incidents reported in the past week . It does not include the fact that Labour is presently under investigation for anti-Semitism by the Equality & Human Rights Commission, only the second political party after the BNP to be probed in this way. A recent poll for the Jewish Leadership Council found that 47 per cent of British Jews would ‘seriously consider’ leaving the country if Corbyn became Prime Minister.

What on earth is Nicola Sturgeon thinking trying to put these people in power? She may wish to be remembered as the SNP leader who took Scotland out of the UK but she risks going down in history as the woman who gave Britain an anti-Semitic government in living memory of the Holocaust.

One of Sturgeon’s most admirable qualities is her commitment to making minorities feel at home in Scotland. She is often to be found sending well wishes to or even attending in person the festivals of Scotland’s smaller faith groups. She meets regularly with representatives of marginalised communities. She is usually among the first public figures to condemn an incident of racism or bigotry. Small gestures, but important ones, they send the message that Scottishness is not contingent on race or religion; that those who want to belong, belong.

Here is what the First Minister said earlier this year when asked about Jews’ fears of rising anti-Semitism: ‘I want to reassure Scotland’s Jewish communities that there is no place in Scotland for any form of anti-Semitism or religious hatred. We value our Jewish communities. We value the contribution that they make to Scotland, and that is a message that should go out strongly from this chamber… If one member of that community feels unsafe here, all of us have a duty to respond to that and do everything possible to change it. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously.’

No doubt those words were sincerely spoken but good intentions are not enough. If she is ready to put an anti-Semitic party into Downing Street, we are compelled to ask why. Why doesn’t the prospect horrify her as it horrifies British Jews? Why does she preach anti-racism from one corner of her mouth and make overtures to racists from the other? Why does her opposition to prejudice come with a Jewish loophole?

This dalliance with Corbyn Labour carries far more risks than potential rewards. For instance, the closer we get to polling day, the more keenly campaigners who have unearthed thousands of anti-Semitic posts by Labour figures will scrutinise the social media output of SNP activists, aides and elected politicians. The First Minister must feel awfully confident that her party doesn’t have a problem in this area.

Now that Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed he will allow a second Scexit referendum if he becomes Prime Minister, pro-Union voters wonder what point there is in voting Labour to stop the SNP when Labour no longer wants to stop the SNP. The same is true of anti-Semitism. Opponents of the tidal wave of hatred sweeping the Labour Party cannot cast a protest vote for the SNP when the SNP is willing to put the anti-Semites into government.

The past 20 years have been defined by the SNP-Labour war for dominance of Scottish politics. The battles have been brutal, the enmities bitter. That both sides are essentially managerial centrist outfits disagreeing solely on the constitution only enhances the mutual loathing. The purpose of tribalism is to make trivial hatred seem respectable.

Yet in this election, Labour and the SNP are, in effect, standing on a joint ticket. Vote Labour and the SNP gets its second referendum; vote SNP and the Hezbollah groupies get the keys to Number 10. After decades of knocking lumps out of each other, Labour and the Nationalists have made a common cause out of putting the country and its Jewish community in peril.

Nicola Sturgeon understands what has happened to Labour and knows that its vendetta against British Jews is repugnant. Still, she raises the possibility of propping up a wretched assemblage of bigots and fanatics.

The prospect of another hung parliament makes most Britons groan but in British Jews its potential to elevate Jeremy Corbyn inspires a special kind of dread. They are being made to feel unwelcome, even afraid, in their own country. As long as she is prepared to put Labour in power, Nicola Sturgeon is complicit.


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

Aspiring grown-up Ross Greer sprouted up like a green shoot

Halfway through First Minister’s Questions, Willie Rennie threw up his hands, shook his head, and sunk back in his seat.

The Liberal Democrat leader had been defeated, as so many lesser mortals are, by Nicola Sturgeon’s superhuman capacity for waffle. The feisty Fifer had enquired about NHS waiting times, which everyone familiar with the First Minister’s script knows are going down/Westminster’s fault/something something Brexit/turn to Jeane for help.

This time Sturgeon went for her time-honoured denial mantra: ‘Our health service is seeing more patients than ever before… We have record funding and record numbers of staff… The health service is doing more now than it has ever done.’

Behind her, legion glazed expressions swayed in cultish credulity. They always look only a chant or two away from hammering together a wicker man.

‘Astonishing,’ Rennie sighed from his seat. He wanted to know why NHS Highland was telling patients to go elsewhere for treatment because Raigmore hospital was full. When he made it back to his feet, the Lib Dem appeared stunned, though he may have been staring too long as his luminescent pink tie, which looked like a stick of candy floss had had an unfortunate encounter with some weapons-grade uranium.

Rennie protested: ‘Telling people just to go away seems to be a pretty shabby way to deal with waiting times.’

That was it. The First Minister had had quite enough of this.

‘I think that some of Willie Rennie’s language was deeply regrettable,’ she scolded. ‘The NHS does not tell anyone to “go away”. It is deeply irresponsible for any member of Parliament to suggest that it does. What the NHS does… is encourage patients to seek treatment in the place that is best for them.’

Ronnie Biggs didn’t rob trains, he just assisted in unscheduled cargo transfers.

Sturgeon has never been convinced of the merits of First Minister’s Questions. She’s keen on the First Minister bit but not so much the Questions, and when the opposition insists on asking them, she becomes increasingly intemperate.

Jackson Carlaw learned this to his cost when he pointed out that school subject choice was down under the SNP. This is a matter of contention in that the evidence says one thing and ministers say the evidence should stop talking down Scotland.

The First Minister calmly explained that if you held them upside down, walked widdershins under a full moon, and read with one eye closed, the figures said her government was doing a super job. Of course, that wasn’t enough for Jackson Carlaw, who kept pushing until the woman he referred to as ‘she’ (before promptly correcting to ‘the First Minister’) snapped and launched into a fitful polemic on the English education system, funding cuts and… Michael Gove’s Twitter feed.

Richard Leonard asked why the children’s ward is closed three nights a week at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, not to be confused with the other NHS Lothian children’s hospital which is closed seven nights a week.

Those of us who ribbed the Labour leader for his understated delivery have created a monster. Now his shoulders hunch and his left claw juts out, clamped in revolutionary fervour, like Gollum grasping for the ‘precious’ ring, presumably to take it into public ownership and make Sauron pay his taxes.

‘I assume that he is not arguing that the ward should be open when it is not clinically safe for children,’ Sturgeon replied, in an answer that probably sounded a winner in her head.

Aspiring grown-up Ross Greer sprouted up like a green shoot: ‘It has been more than two years since the Government brought a debate on anything to do with our schools to the chamber. If the First Minister is so confident of the Government’s record on education, will there be a debate before the end of the year? If not, why not?’

They only banned smacking a month ago and already kids are getting cheekier.


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

Scottish Labour has abandoned Scotland and the Union

Nicola Sturgeon is right.

This marks the debut of that phrase in this column but, then, the First Minister hasn’t given me much to work with. Until now, that is. While stumping for votes over the weekend, she predicted that Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn would allow her a second referendum on Scotland exiting the UK, a policy commonly known as ‘Scexit’.

Sturgeon could issue this bold claim because of what happened on Weasel Wednesday, the day last week when Labour sold out the Union for a shot at power.

It began with Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald declaring: ‘We are not going to stand in the way of a second independence referendum.’ This was followed later in the day by a briefing given to journalists by Corbyn’s spokesman. The spin doctor said that, while Labour wouldn’t allow another poll right away, ‘in the longer run if there was a democratic and properly formulated request on the basis of a majority of the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Government it would be wrong to block it’.

That afternoon, Corbyn himself told reporters that ‘obviously under the terms of devolution, if the Scottish Parliament demands it, then there could be, at a much later stage, a referendum’.

Sturgeon did not twist Corbyn’s words — she advanced the fairest possible reading of them. (More often than not, taking Corbyn out of context would make him sound more reasonable.) Her assumption was confirmed yesterday when Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told Sky News that, although opposed in principle to breaking up the UK, ‘if the Scottish Government determine they want to pursue another referendum… as a government, we wouldn’t stand in their way, we wouldn’t try and stop them’.

The only union Labour stands up for these days is Len McCluskey’s.

Jeremy Corbyn has been flirting with the SNP for several years now. He does this because he considers it both electorally savvy and an opportunity to remind Scottish Labour who the boss is. There is an ideological element too: this is a man with no love for the British state.

The latest flurry of mash notes represents a more earnest wooing: Labour is openly courting a party hellbent on dismantling the United Kingdom. That it is doing so only five years after taking the lead role in keeping the UK together is a testament to how fundamental the party’s transformation has been under Corbyn. Labour has junked not only its commitment to anti-racism and internationalism, it no longer appears to believe in the country itself.

Scottish Labour’s electoral fortunes are dead now but the party remains at the denial stage of the grieving process. Its coping strategy is to punt out endless press releases restating its opposition to another Scexit vote. Scottish Labour activists, such as remain, might pop up on your doorstep in the coming weeks to assure you that party policy remains in favour of the Union and that the Holyrood leadership is autonomous of Corbyn.

In the end, however, it doesn’t matter what Scottish Labour says because Scottish Labour doesn’t decide — Jeremy Corbyn does. There is no elaborate ruse, as some of the party faithful try to reassure themselves, to recruit Nationalist voters then claim them for socialism by showing what wonders a Labour government can work.

Party strategists have simply calculated that we are heading for another hung parliament and that a Scotland that no longer votes Labour is expendable. These people have toiled and plotted and endured ridicule for decades to reach the brink of government. They may not be enthusiastic about a Scottish breakaway but they aren’t about to spurn power for a few sniffles of sentiment. If Parliament is hung, the Union will be too.

When Corbyn and those around him speak loosely of another referendum, signalling themselves open to a post-election pact with the separatists, they put the United Kingdom in peril for the sake of their short-term political interests. This is not an offence against national pride or imperial memory; Union Jack bunting and royal tea towels would still do a rare trade if Scotland walked away.

It is an offence against those people who rely most on the UK: Scotland’s poor and vulnerable; those in precarious employment; those whose jobs rely on free movement of goods, services and people within the UK single market; and those who put in a shift every day to make the mortgage payment and need to know what currency they’ll be paying it in. All of them depend on the prosperity and economic solidarity that being in the UK brings Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon and her husband are doing fine. The shocks of Scexit would barely be felt in their hip pockets. But for those doing it tough, striving to make a better life for their family, or for people who have fallen on hard times and desperately want to get back up, the consequences would be brutal. The Labour Party is meant to stick up for people like this, not trade them away to their fate for a few miserable years in Downing Street.

Or at least that is what the old Labour Party was about. The party that Hardie founded, that Bevan inspired, that Attlee led into history, and that Wilson and Blair made the instrument of national progress. It was Labour that cleared the slums, built decent houses, made workplaces safe, delivered the NHS, created the minimum wage and brought peace to Northern Ireland. At its heart was a belief in the country and what its people could achieve ‘by the strength of our common endeavour’.

Even the staunchest Tory or most ardent Liberal could admire that grand old war horse, for, however much it erred or enraged, it was a worthy foe ablaze with principle and its banner carried onwards more often than not by honourable and dedicated men and women. It was a great party and a good one too.

That party is gone, wounded by self-indulgence, felled by rancid extremism and drowned in the mire of anti-Semitism. What stands in its place shares its name and its symbols but the soul is corrupted. Scottish Labour thought distance could shield it from this corruption but the rot feasts upon its body too. Every Scottish Labour MP elected on December 12 will take the whip at Westminster and be answerable to the leadership there. When Corbyn puts the Union on the poker table, each of them has underwritten the stake.

Scottish Labour politicians will protest that they still believe in the Union, and many of them do, but their party does not and, as they have shown over the last four years, they always put the party first.

What does that party offer, besides envy and spite and a warm welcome for paranoid Jew-haters? The values it once espoused have been jettisoned, its ethics and traditions trashed by an influx of preening, play-acting revolutionaries. An entire history torn to shreds out of fashion and fanaticism. There is no Labour in the Labour Party anymore, no purpose beyond seizing and retaining power for an ideological project that had its first and last idea when bell-bottoms were still in vogue.

That is the Labour Party that will soon go to the polls. It will be for us to decide if theirs is the sort of country we recognise as our own. Scottish Labour will go to the country too, and for the first time as a non-Unionist party — a party no longer sure whether it believes in solidarity and cooperation across these islands or whether these are just feel-good words to be dropped for a sniff of office.

Nicola Sturgeon is confident that Labour will give her what she wants because that party isn’t sure what it wants anymore, and in the absence of principle it will settle for power.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Feature image © Sophie Brown by Creative Commons 4.0.

Sturgeon cares about power first and independence second

Politics has always been a ghastly business but at least there used to be ground rules.

Families were generally considered off-limits (though, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s son found out, not any more), as was an opponent’s health (Charles Kennedy learned the hard way that not everyone respects that convention).

Knifing opponents in the back was fair game — a time-honoured tradition, even — but civilians were a different matter. The ordinary voters, loyal supporters and party foot soldiers could be lied to, hidden from, ginned up and let down, but they couldn’t be fitted up. They enjoy none of the power of those in the political elite and doing them over was a low blow.

That ordinance is changing. The announcement that Nicola Sturgeon will headline this week at a Glasgow rally has thrilled supporters of Scexit. It is a landmark event: the first secessionist march Sturgeon has addressed in five years. It feels to many of them that their time has finally come.

It hasn’t. Five years on from the 2014 referendum, Sturgeon has failed to get up the kind of momentum her predecessor achieved in that vote.

There is no evident majority for leaving the United Kingdom in opinion polling and the latest survey even showed more nationalists becoming unionists than the other way round. Holding another plebiscite now would be a huge gamble with the political career Sturgeon has fought hard to build.

So instead, she keeps them hanging on, vowing that deliverance lies over the next hill. As a party management strategy, it has served her well and by maintaining an illusion of imminence on a second referendum she has been able to keep dissenting voices in line. This has not moved the dial on separation but it has kept the Sturgeon-Murrell dynasty regnant in Bute House.

Unionists carp that the constitution, not education, is the First Minister’s top priority, but in reality it is her own premiership. Number one comes first for most politicians but few manage to make self-preservation a matter of such suffocating sanctimony.

Sturgeon is addressing the rally on Saturday not because Scexit is coming but because it is not, or at least not any time soon. Her every pledge, every test, every ultimatum has fallen flat and it is now clear that her decision to push for a Scexit referendum immediately after the Brexit poll was a miscalculation.

Had she bided her time and allowed the hectic scenes at Westminster to gradually chip away at voters’ confidence, she would have been in a stronger position to coax a second referendum. She blew the play and lost 21 of her team in the 2017 election.

The terrain ahead looks rough. The UK Parliament is in no mood to consign itself to yet more years of constitutional argle-bargle. If the next election returns a Tory government, Sturgeon’s plans hit a brick wall. Only if a minority Labour government finds itself on the Treasury benches does Sturgeon have any hope. Confidence and supply could be traded for a fresh referendum, so the thinking goes, but even that option could be closing off.

Len McClusky, leader of Unite the Union and a former supporter of separation, warned Jeremy Corbyn over the weekend not to give the Nationalists a second referendum. If Labour ends up the largest party, McClusky’s argument goes, it should govern as a minority and let the SNP decide whether to march through the division lobbies with the Tories in vote after vote.

Note that the two main parties are no longer talking in terms of what constitutes a mandate for the SNP; they are beginning to reject a second poll outright. Unless she is prepared to countenance a Catalonia-style wildcat referendum, or risk the Rhodesian option (a unilateral declaration of independence), Sturgeon’s options are growing narrower.

You won’t hear her saying any of this at her George Square rally. Harsh realities don’t win you cheers from the crowd. They would also require Sturgeon to admit that after five years of every wind possible at her back — from Brexit to Boris — she is barely an inch forward from 2014.

So instead she will serve up a feel-good verbal broth to the throngs in Glasgow. She will tell them that it’s within touching distance, that just a little more hard work will get them over the line, that big bad Westminster can’t stop them.

Although they have heard it before, many will push down their private doubts and let themselves believe. Sturgeon is their figurehead, after all, and how could she not be right, given the disarray at Westminster? If it’s the hope that kills you, it’s the self-delusion along the way that makes the eventual end all that more agonising.

Unionists might struggle to feel anything for the nationalist base, an often unloveable foe, but these people are being exploited. That’s politics for you, you might say, but the SNP’s selling point was that it wasn’t like other parties. It would be up-front with you. You could trust Nicola.

Nicola is sacrificing her followers to maintain her position. In telling them that separation is coming soon, she is building them up for another fall, but she is doing something else, too: she’s piling them like human sandbags on the steps of Bute House.

As long as she can convince grassroots SNP members and supporters that she is bringing independence (almost there… nearly… one more heave), they will shield her from challengers for her job.

Activists and polling will warn would-be contenders that the members won’t stand for any internal ructions around the leadership. After all, it would disrupt Nicola’s plan to achieve independence next year. Every time this cynical sandbagging strategy works, there will be another ‘next year’ and another and another after that.

Sturgeon will hold back the tide even as her party’s raison d’etre gets washed away.

Scottish nationalism is not an ignoble cause. Many good and even some great men and women have rallied to it down the generations, seeing dignity in its banner and finding home among its ranks of bloody-minded believers.

Some see sovereignty as a recapturing of a lost identity but others are forward-looking and don’t want Scotland back so much as they want to take it forward.

They may be wrong but they don’t deserve to be used to prolong one woman’s overstay in office. They deserve honesty, and here is some: Nicola Sturgeon will not win you independence and it’s time to start looking for someone who will.


The Mail has fallen foul of the faculty lounge after Saturday’s exclusive on trigger warnings for fairytales at Glasgow University. UK academics are importing campus culture wars from the US and, being academics, they regard popular scrutiny as an impertinence.

But trigger warnings should be scrutinised. Studies support their clinical application with PTSD sufferers but there is little research into their use in higher education by instructors untrained and unqualified in psychology.

One study concluded they had only ‘trivial effects’ and were ‘neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful’, while another found that subjects issued warnings reported heightened vulnerability and anxiety. A 2016 survey of abnormal psychology lecturers found less than a third gave warnings and only a quarter viewed them positively.

Trigger warners say sceptics lack empathy, but rigour is not the enemy of compassion and nor is empiricism. Given the risks of encouraging avoidance or ‘priming’ anxious responses, responsible academics should wait for the evidence before foisting trigger warnings on their students.


It’s that time of year again when nightmarish ghouls come knocking. It’s no use switching off the lights and pretending you’re not home, or even shooing them away with an armful of candy apples. These creatures won’t leave you alone till they have what they want. So just open the door, take their leaflet and say: ‘Oh, another election. What fun.’


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

Sturgeon: bounced on Brexit, adrift on Scexit

What with its daily twists and turns, parliamentary confrontations and legal intrigue, Brexit is the best drama the BBC has produced in years.

It’s maybe outstayed its welcome by a season or two, and the audience remains divided on the casting of Boris Johnson as the hero, but it has certainly kept the nation guessing all along.

The remake with Nicola Sturgeon, on the other hand, can’t seem to find its feet. Scexit suffers from an unsympathetic lead, scarcely credible dialogue and a fatal lack of viewer interest. Like many a BBC Scotland production, it plods on despite low ratings because it fills a hole in the schedule.

For all the parallels between the campaign to remove the UK from the European Union and that to remove Scotland from the United Kingdom, there is an obvious difference: the former has been infinitely more effective. Five years ago, Brexit was still a distant dream for Eurosceptics. The Tories had no majority for a referendum and were unlikely to get one any time soon and, even if they did, a more or less consistent majority of Britons told pollsters they wanted to stick with Brussels.

Yet, five years on, for all the roadblocks erected by Parliament, the UK’s departure from the EU is closer than ever. The Tory Right has turned what was once a niche ideological fixation into the policy of Her Majesty’s government and has almost got one of the most unyielding interpretations of that policy over the line. Mere backbenchers have set the agenda for Prime Ministers and, despite many a misstep and miscalculation, victory is within their grasp.

The SNP cannot muster a tenth of this cunning. Go back those same five years, and the Union had only just survived and the Nationalists had got closer to winning separation than anyone envisioned at the opening of referendum hostilities. There was a chill of inevitability in the air.

The SNP was hoovering up new members, selling out stadiums and on its way to an historic landslide in the 2015 General Election. The party had power at Holyrood, money in the bank, standing support for separation at 45 per cent and was about to be handed an unmatched opportunity in Brexit.

Nicola Sturgeon got all six numbers plus the bonus ball but has yet to cash in the ticket. It’s no wonder some in her movement are starting to wonder if she’s lost it.

Brexiteers have taken a cause once on the margins of parliamentary business and made it the only item on the order paper. Dragging Scotland out of the UK has been the Scottish Government’s main priority for almost a decade now but the First Minister has made a lot of noise yet only modest progress in her five years at the top.

Opponents berate her to ‘get back to the day job’ of running the country but inside the SNP, where Sturgeon’s remit is delivering independence, they know how much benefit there is in having her doing the day job.

The First Minister is rightly regarded as a superior political tactician. On Brexit, however, she has been out-manoeuvred. Her loyalists and her opponents, the Scottish Press and the London commentariat all assure themselves she has a cunning plan and is merely waiting for the right moment to pounce.

It’s easy to fall under Sturgeon’s spell but when the enchantment wears off you see at last a clever but limited politician struggling to live up to the expectations everyone has invested in her. Once you are out from under her sway, you see Sturgeon’s mercurial decisions, widely written up as strategic triumphs, as a series of obvious errors.

She fired the starting gun on a second Scexit referendum the morning after the EU vote. It was a mistake and it was Sturgeon’s mistake. She jetted around the capitals of Europe pretending to hold bilateral talks on Scotland’s future, which only underscored what little purchase she and her government enjoyed on the Continent. That was a mistake and it was her mistake.

She adopted a policy of total opposition to Brexit, then a new one of the Norway option; dragged her feet on a People’s Vote, then became its loudest champion; retailed blood-curdling warnings about no-deal, before instructing her MPs to vote against a deal. These too were mistakes and again they were Sturgeon’s.

Even on her own terms, Sturgeon has done little to make her mark. Joanna Cherry has done more to stymie Brexit in court than a First Minister with an entire government and the UK’s third-largest political party at her disposal. If this is not failure, what exactly would failure look like?

In her blundering, the SNP leader has been ably assisted by her point-man at Westminster. Ian Blackford, a huff in a suit, has fumed his way through hours of parliamentary questions and speeches, and even led a cringe-making walk-out stunt last year. All of it to no avail.

In his previous career in the City, Blackford may have moved markets at the press of a button but as Westminster leader he has been a liability from the start.

Sturgeon’s bad calls and Blackford’s bad performances have not hampered Brexit but they may have made the path to Scexit more fraught than it need be. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the next election produces a minority Labour government and that Jeremy Corbyn trades away a second Scexit referendum in exchange for confidence and supply. Let’s allow, too, that the Leave side wins that plebiscite.

Prior to Sturgeon’s sore-loser Brexit strategy, that would have meant Scotland leaving the UK by a mutually agreed date. Not now, though. Over the last three years, the First Minister has established a slew of precedents that would come back to haunt a vote for Scexit.

The losing side would be under no obligation to accept the result and move on, and they would be able to cite Sturgeon’s own statements in their defence. Unionist politicians would be well within their rights to lobby the UK Government directly to undermine Bute House’s position.

Westminster could drag out negotiations on the working agreement on a split to allow time for a People’s Vote on the terms of Scexit. How could this First Minister argue against what is, after all, her own oft-stated position? Given the SNP’s participation in legal action and parliamentary push-back to frustrate Brexit, the party could not object to opponents at Holyrood replicating their strategy.

Nor would these moves be open only to Unionists. The Greens could use their leverage to demand a more radical exit deal while SNP backbenchers in favour of quitting both Westminster and Brussels could play merry havoc on Sturgeon’s preference for a smooth transition to EU membership. She has left so many hostages to fortune that winning a second referendum would mean only an opportunity, not a guarantee, of Scotland splitting from the UK.

There is a lot of talk these days about internal strife within the SNP and how the old dynamic of gradualists-versus-fundamentalists is back. More accurately, that fault line has resumed between two new categories: the Sturgeonistas and the Salmondites.

The former are loyal to the current First Minister and swear she is the best chance the party has of achieving Scexit. They were mighty pleased with themselves when they routed an amateur attempt to force a debate on ‘Plan B’ (separation without a referendum) at SNP conference in Aberdeen.

The Salmondites aren’t necessarily enamoured of taking radical gambles with independence. They do not see themselves as the risk-takers. The Salmond approach won an improbable majority at Holyrood and secured for Scotland the first breakaway referendum in 300 years. Sturgeon lost that majority and cannot clinch a fresh constitutional ballot even in the middle of a British constitutional meltdown.

Some Salmondites want to see the man himself back but many others simply long for a leader with his strategic skills and passion for the cause. A better name for them might be the ABNs — Anyone But Nicola — because above all they want a winner and seriously doubt whether she is one anymore.


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