A referendum debate that showed us at our best

STV’s Tuesday night town hall debate came down to a tie — a multicoloured disco-sticks number sported by moderator Bernard Ponsonby.

The broadcaster is respected for his inscrutable neutrality and the distinctive neckwear was the one bold expression he allowed himself.

Of course a tie is just a tie — though it’s good to see Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat being put to good use — but there was a subtle symbolism: This was Bernard’s debate and he was going to soak up every minute of it.

I have been working as a journalist for seven years; I am a mere infant in this business. But I can say with the arrogant honesty of youth that Bernard is the finest broadcaster I have ever had the honour of working with.

He is certainly the most accomplished political broadcaster in Scotland and perhaps even further afield, marrying policy heft and ruthless charm to dazzling, devastating effect. Part Robin Day, part Donald MacCormick, all Bernard.

It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that the STV political editor should have fronted the most civilised, elevating, and engaging debate of the long referendum campaign.

He was aided by a deftly crafted format that encouraged considered responses more than political point-scoring. No gladiatorial contest here; in place of volume there was substance.

Three representatives of Yes Scotland — Nicola Sturgeon, Patrick Harvie, and Elaine C Smith — and three from Better Together — Douglas Alexander, Ruth Davidson, and Kezia Dugdale — were asked to marshal their best arguments on the economy, social justice, and foreign affairs.

The triumvirate of Unionist politicians stepped onto the stage against the backdrop of a YouGov poll putting the No vote ahead by just six points. If that figure had put the frighteners on them, they did not show it.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, was calm, plausible, and at several points had Nicola Sturgeon on the ropes over currency and the redistributionist potential of the Union.

Kezia Dugdale, the party’s shadow education secretary in the Scottish Parliament, will have been a new face to many viewers. She started nervously and talked too quickly but finally got into her stride with a sustained assault on the SNP’s ideological left-right acrobatics on policies like college places and the living wage. Expect to see more of her in the final two weeks of the campaign and in the Scottish Labour Party in the years to come.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson stumbled when grilled on Trident — she made the military rather than economic case for the nuclear deterrent — but recovered with some very moving words about the UK’s armed forces and sharp answers on the question of an independent Scotland’s relationship with the European Union. Where she excelled, though, was in a pitch-perfect closing statement. Here was a Tory politician speaking passionately and patriotically about Scotland, one prepared to serve her country whatever the outcome a fortnight from now.

The Scottish Conservatives still have a steep hill to scale if they are to win back Middle Scotland but after last night there might be more than a few people willing to listen to the Tories for the first time in years — or ever.

The SNP’s champion debater, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, put in a solid performance by turning down the volume after the first few questions. She had prepared for a knife fight but found herself in the middle of a much more measured conversation. With this initial wobble behind her, she held her own against Douglas Alexander, if not trouncing him as comprehensively as she has almost every other Unionist politician unfortunate enough to find themselves opposite her in a debate.

Kezia Dugdale was the star of the programme but Sturgeon commanded the stage with confidence and authority. She will make a strong First Minister when her time comes.

The other Yes speakers were a mixed bag. As expected, Elaine C Smith took the populist route that is always the safest for a non-politician in these situations. This paid off in places; her stark quotation of life expectancy statistics for Glasgow was the most arresting moment of the night. Yes voters were certainly roused by her but I’m not convinced that undecideds will have see it that way. For every voter with whom her folksy bromides connected, there will have been another who found her “och aye” platitudes inane and her evasiveness on corporation tax disingenuous. You can play the politician or the punter but you can’t play both.

The infuriatingly likeable Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, was affable but veered too far to the left for some of the audience. His principled denunciations of nuclear weapons and militarism were heartfelt but predictable, nothing you hadn’t heard before through a megaphone outside Tesco on a Saturday afternoon. Trident was “psychopathic” and yet more children were set to be “slaughtered” by it, an image thrown around with unseemly regulatory by sincere if excitable unilateralists. Harvie is a nuanced thinker who sometimes allows his positions to be caricatured by his own rhetoric.

Striking above all else was the calibre of the audience. Informed and insightful, this was a politicised populace holding its leaders to account. Hands shot up throughout the programme to enquire about the Barnett Formula, local government funding, and Sir Ian Wood’s oil revenue projections. Even the most cynical political journalist could not fail to be impressed by this level of engagement in the democratic process. The greatest threat to governments and the vested interests who exert influence over them is an informed and active citizenry. However the votes fall on September 18, it is hard to see how this wellspring of social awareness can be put back in the box.

Absent from this debate, as from all the others, is any indication that either side recognises and is prepared to address the crisis in public finances, the fiscal morass of debt, or the affordability of pensions with an ageing population. These are questions which can be dodged but not evaded and their omission is a disservice to an otherwise vital and comprehensive national conversation.

That is a point that can be returned to in the coming days. For now, we should congratulate ourselves and, yes, even some of our politicians, on the quality and substance of Scotland’s great debate.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © flash.pro by Creative Commons 2.0.

The final ever TV debate drinking game. We promise. Maybe.

Another week, another debate.

What these people still have left to disagree about is beyond me.

Alistair Darling has conceded that an independent Scotland could use the pound without a currency union.

And the Scottish Government agrees with its UK counterpart so much that it wants to share the currency, central bank, monarchy, welfare system and the timeshare in Pensacola.

Tonight’s Scotland Decides debate, which airs on STV between 8pm and 10pm, will be a Salmond and Darling free zone, a crushing blow to fans of finger-pointing and creative oil projections.

Instead, STV’s political editor Bernard Ponsonby — or “The Notorious Bernie P” as he makes us call him — will moderate a town hall discussion between three representatives from Yes Scotland (Nicola Sturgeon, Patrick Harvie and Elaine C Smith) and three from Better Together (Douglas Alexander, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale).

An audience of 350 voters will be on hand to ask questions but only after they’ve finished their cereal.

Since the debate lasts roughly 56 hours, we have provided you with another (last one, we promise) referendum debate drinking game.

So, put the kids out, send the cat to bed, and get a bottle of your favourite tipple to hand.


Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Edwin Land by Creative Commons 2.0.

Salmond bested Darling but faces race against time to win voters

We join this movie at its climax.

Our hero and his nemesis — we leave you to decide which is which — have just duked it out in a fast-paced, stylishly edited fight scene and return, bloody-faced and scraped-knuckled, to their respective lairs.

A power-pop montage with 80s synthesisers as they pound steps, leap over walls, and thump punching bags, training for the impending final showdown.

Cut to the clockface on the bomb: It’s still ticking, and fast approaching zero.

The music picks up. The camera closes in on the war-beaten faces of our leads; steely determination gleams in their eyes. Who will get there quickly enough to cut the red wire? It’s a race against time.

That is the situation facing Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. The First Minister dominated most of the second televised debate against the head of the No campaign. He was confident, engaging, assertive, and utterly merciless in his assault on Darling. A sharper contrast to his sluggish turn in the first debate would be hard to imagine. Here was a rare sequel where an A-list performer replaced a lesser actor.

This was the Alex Salmond of two stonking election victories. The booming-voiced vanquisher of every foe at First Minister’s Questions. The pitch-perfect populist with an uncanny knack for being offended on behalf of every last person in Scotland. If your vote on September 18 will be influenced by strength, confidence, and leadership, Salmond hit the trifecta last night.

Darling, by contrast, was hesitant, stammering, and equally unrecognisable from his first debate performance. He radiated all the emotional appeal of a toaster and at times the audience seemed sincerely hostile towards him. One felt he could have promised to make chocolate taste twice as good at half the fat content and still have been heckled.

The snap Guardian/ICM poll afterwards handed a blockbuster blow-out to the Nationalist leader. Seventy-one per cent deemed him the winner compared to just 29% for his Labour MP opponent. This was a far more resounding triumph than Darling’s 56% to 44% defeat of Salmond in the August 5 STV debate.

What was the No Thanks campaign chief’s worst moment? There are almost too many to choose from but his mishandling of his trump card – currency – stood out.

Darling’s statement that an independent Scotland could use the pound will be press released by the Yes campaign from now until polling day. His broader point, that to do so without a currency union would leave an independent Scotland with no control over its interest rates and no lender of last resort, will be left off the poster quotes.

If Salmond has neutralised the currency issue – his weakest point – it will be thanks to an unforced error by Darling, one the former Chancellor may come sorely to regret. His frustration will only be magnified by the fact that nothing has changed on the substance of the currency question, merely its effectiveness as a wedge issue with undecided voters.

Can Better Together take any positives from the debate? Only two. First, Salmond failed repeatedly to explain how an independent Scotland would plug the £6bn fiscal black hole projected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Second, the independence campaign figurehead was subdued when quizzed by an audience member on the impact on jobs of waving Trident submarines down the Clyde.

Intermission, and a tense scene that should give us all pause.

Darling, the one-time Trotskyist, was assailed by an audience member for selling out his socialist principles. What, she demanded to know, would Aneurin Bevan think of him? Darling inexplicably struggled to respond to her onslaught. He could have parried that it was Bevan himself who said the “language of priorities” was “the religion of socialism”.

He could have rhymed off Labour’s introduction of the minimum wage, investment in public services, economic growth, and job creation – to say nothing of the advance in LGBT rights, humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone, and, of course, the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

That he could manage none of this speaks to larger problems than Darling’s debating skills. It signals an emotionally shattered Scottish Labour Party which has finally come to terms with its 2007 defeat to the SNP but cannot quite muster the confidence to pick itself up again.

Regardless of the referendum result, Scottish Labour has much soul-searching and a power of rebuilding still to do before it can present itself as an alternative government to the Nationalists. Unfortunately for Johann Lamont’s party, Labour has always expressed a greater preference for the former than the latter.

However, the audience member’s question throws up an equal challenge to the SNP, that New-Labour-in-denial party of Scottish politics. The SNP has always been an ideological chameleon, changing its socio-economic colours to suit the fashions of the day, but its triangulations now rival Tony Blair at his poll-obsessed, focus-grouping, Middle England-pandering zenith.

It is the party of Jamie Hepburn and of Fergus Ewing, of no nukes and no wars but safeguarding military jobs on the Clyde, of welfare caps and welfare-reform-is-beastly, of public investment and of council tax freezes, of sexual tolerance and of Sir Brian Souter, of republicanism and of monarchism, of egalitarianism and of corporation tax cuts, of Stiglitz and of sterlingisation, of drill-baby-drill and of wind-powered Mother Earthism. A church so broad it risks becoming non-denominational except on the fundamental doctrine of independence.

At some point, there will be a reckoning. That point will be hastened by one of two things: a Yes vote or a comfortable No vote, either of which would lance the independence boil. A narrow defeat for the pro-independence movement will only postpone the inevitable ideological introspection that awaits the Nationalists.

Those, however, are concerns for another day. Salmond has reminded those foolish enough to forget the first rule of Scottish politics: Underestimate Alex Salmond at your peril. He alone will not carry the Yes campaign over the finish line – keep chapping those doors and registering those voters, Radical Independence – but he will have delivered a much-needed morale boost to the troops.

What of the voters, though? Before STV’s August 5 debate, John Curtice’s poll of polls had Yes on 43% and No on 57% when Don’t Knows were excluded. Anyone want to guess Professor Curtice’s most recent tally? You guessed it. Yes 43%, No 57%.

There are just three weeks to go until Scotland votes. A week may be a long time in politics but three weeks is a passing moment in public opinion formation. Now that he has the attention of undecided voters, Salmond must talk to them, woo them, ease them into the polling booth and coax their pencil over to the Yes column on referendum day.

The naysayers – and nawsayers – may be right that debates do not significantly shift public attitudes. But the Yes campaign might not need a significant shift. A few points could make the race close enough that turnout makes all the difference and few doubt that Yes voters are more motivated and determined than No voters or those still to make up their minds. If that scenario plays out, this referendum is going to be excruciatingly close.

The clock is still ticking, the music throbbing faster. The end credits are only a few scenes away. Our leading men are running full tilt in pursuit of those remaining uncommitted voters. When all fades to black on September 18, neither side wants to be left wishing it had done more to win over the audience.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

Salmond vs Darling debate is chance to win undecideds

This is it.

Rarely do you get a second chance in politics but Alex Salmond gets one tonight in the BBC’s referendum debate with Alistair Darling.

Of course, Salmond is a man accustomed to overcoming tough odds. He is leader (for the second time) of a party which once expelled him for left-wing agitation. In 2007, he ended one-party rule in a country where voting Labour had become a national religion. And in 2011, he defied political gravity by taking the SNP into majority government despite an electoral system designed to engineer coalitions.

But this evening’s Scotland Decides showdown, which airs in Scotland on BBC One from 8.30pm until 10pm, will be more than the First Minister’s second chance. It will likely be his last chance to win over those voters who will decide the outcome of the referendum, namely women and traditional Labour voters.

STV’s September 2 town hall debate will make for exciting theatre, and there will be some wavering electors still up for grabs, but a sea change in public opinion needs time to embed itself in the popular consciousness. That means people sharing clips and memes on social media, journalists writing about the shifts in public opinion, and broadcasters reporting the impact on the polls.

In short, undecided voters have to be assured that others share their thoughts and feelings. Peer pressure isn’t just for the playground.

Although his spin doctors will not admit it in public, Salmond lost the first debate to an unexpectedly confident and forceful Alistair Darling. The former Chancellor hounded the First Minister over currency, demanding that he outline a Plan B after the three main parties in the House of Commons ruled out a sterling union with an independent Scotland.

The SNP leader’s refusal to do so, despite his fiscal commission working group having sketched out a number of fall-back options, brought us an unfamiliar sight in Scottish politics: Likeable, populist, in-it-for-Scotland Alex Salmond being booed by voters.

The Nationalist chief will go to every length to avoid a repeat of those scenes tonight. There will be no flippant, time-wasting questions about which side of the road we would drive on or what would happen to the pandas if we vote Yes. He will not allow himself to be cast as Fox Mulder to Darling’s unbelieving Dana Scully with a question on little green men. The truth can stay out there tonight.

The last few weeks have seen the Yes campaign abandon its shiny happy people strategy in favour of the Chicken Little approach. The sky is falling, or will fall, on the NHS if Scotland votes to remain in the United Kingdom.

This line is premised on the assumption that NHS spending cuts in England (which none of the three main parties at Westminster advocates) would force cuts in Scotland’s devolved health service (the budget for which is decided by the Scottish Government but comes out of a block grant from Westminster that is tied to UK spending).

The merits of this claim are debatable but no more so than Better Together’s insistence that an independent Scotland could not use the pound. (It could, either in a currency union agreed in exchange for a big-ticket item like keeping Trident on the Clyde or through sterlingisation, whereby Scotland would use the UK’s currency in much the same way Panama uses the US dollar and does just nicely, thank you very much.)

Who’s right and who’s wrong, that quaint old notion, isn’t really the point. This is now a campaign of two Projects Fear. Vote Yes and lose the pound. Vote No and lose your doctor. Salmond and Darling will not replace the names Lincoln and Douglas in the annals of elevating political debate.

Fear works. The object for the two men is not so much to refute the other’s charges as it is to scare undecided and soft Yes and No voters over to their side. We will hear the word “risk” a good deal tonight from both men. Salmond will tell us a No vote risks leaving Scotland’s NHS vulnerable to cuts from George Osborne, whom the Yes campaign has reimagined as a scalpel-wielding Thatcherite bogeyman.

Staying in the UK, he is likely to warn, also risks our place in Europe, should David Cameron’s promised referendum on membership of the EU be won by the forces of Euroscepticism. Other risk factors to listen out for: Tory majority government, Ukip, and tuition fees.

Au contraire, Darling will retort. The only risks are those we face if we vote for independence, or “separation” to use his preferred term. “Separation” will put our economy, our jobs, the very pound in our pocket under threat. A Yes vote, he will insist, is a vote to leave the EU and try to renegotiate our way in from the outside — and the same goes for Nato.

Volatile North Sea revenues are a risk. Removing Trident is a risk to the defence industry. Cutting taxes for big business is a risk to public services. And how will we fund the pension pot for our older citizens?

Salmond’s task, as Wings over Scotland’s Stuart Campbell astutely notes, is to corner Darling into pleading with voters to trust that the Tories won’t cut the NHS in England. (In government, the Conservatives have actually ringfenced health spending but that fact will get short shrift amongst Cameron-averse Scottish voters.) If Darling falls into this trap, he will hand the Yes campaign an eleventh-hour gift.

For Darling, the aim is to force the First Minister to concede a Plan B on currency — then mercilessly attack whatever it is. If it’s the euro, prepare for a gruesome retelling of the eurozone crisis, A Nightmare on Merkel Street. If sterlingisation, get ready for “Panama Pound” and snipes at its principal pushers: the right-wing Adam Smith Institute.

None of this will be particularly edifying and the raised stakes and ticking clock are bound to make this debate even sharper than the first. Some exchanges will be fiery, others downright belligerent. The future of a country — of four countries, really — hangs in the balance.

Welcome to 23 days to go until Scotland votes. There are no more chances. This is it.

Originally published on STV News.

Against complacency and despondency after referendum debate

Pitfalls of media groupthink, example no. 486.

Going into STV’s live referendum debate, most journalists and commentators – this observer included – expected a clear victory for Alex Salmond.

If Alistair Darling could hope for anything, it would be a close fight or a draw.

Mr Salmond was a warm, engaging populist who never let nuance get in the way of a nice bit of demagoguery. Mr Darling, meanwhile, was a bit standoffish, somewhat robotic, and would struggle to connect with the audience.

However, Mr Darling had one big gun and he fired it. Repeatedly. The First Minister’s insistence that an independent Scotland would share a currency with the rest of the UK, despite the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats all ruling it out, has long been perceived by the No campaign as his greatest weakness.

Who better than a former Chancellor of the Exchequer to grill the SNP leader on his Plan B if a currency union proved to be a non-starter.

Darling went in hard on sterling and never really let up. Yes, Mr Salmond wanted a currency union but what if, as the Unionist parties insist, he couldn’t get one? What was his back-up plan? His fiscal commission working group had laid out a series of options. Which did he prefer?

The First Minister stuck to his line, insisting there would be a currency union.

“We will keep the pound Alistair because it is our pound as well as England’s pound,” he maintained. “It’s logical and desirable to have a currency union because England is Scotland’s biggest export market and Scotland is England’s second biggest export market. This is Scotland’s pound, it doesn’t belong to George Osborne, it doesn’t belong to you; it’s been built up by the people of Scotland over a long period of time.”

But Mr Darling kept jabbing away with the same question: What was Plan B and when would it be revealed to the public? In doing so, he turned himself into the voice of the voters, demanding answers on their behalf. Few could have expected him to pull off such an unlikely feat going into the debate.

And then he came to his most effective line and also the line of the night: “Any eight-year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the capital of a country and its currency. I presume the flag is the saltire, I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can’t tell us what currency we will have. What is an eight-year-old going to make of that?”

Things got worse for Mr Salmond when he chose to challenge the Better Together boss on some of the more outlandish claims about the downsides of independence, including which side of the road Scots would drive on, how vulnerable we would be to outer space threats, and what would happen to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas.

It was to be a self-inflicted wound because instead of painting the No campaign as a turbo-charged production line of scare stories, Mr Salmond’s questions made it seem like he was making light of the debate. Trite jibes are not the stuff of leaders, especially those asking a wary public to vote for an historic constitutional change.

Afterwards, Yes-inclined commentators managed only half-hearted defences of the First Minister, if they essayed them at all. Mr Salmond’s spin doctors persevered valiantly from behind ashen faces. The First Minister’s driving-alien-pandas stream of consciousness was “building up to something”, they insisted, which raises the unnerving possibility that only the constraints of time saved us from a soliloquy on EastEnders as a shared asset.

(If Mr Salmond really wanted to air his grievances about “Project Fear”, he might have gained more traction by interrogating claims that organ donations or a million jobs would be at risk after a Yes vote. Those charges, made by senior figures in the No campaign, could not have been so easily laughed off.)

This is not to say Mr Darling had things all his own way. The First Minister made handy work of the exchanges on Scotland’s EU membership after a Yes vote and left the Labour MP visibly rattled on the question of whether he believed an independent Scotland could be a success story. One audience member put him under pressure over Scotland’s contributions to the UK kitty and how much we get back out.

Unfortunately, this was overshadowed by another audience member who demanded sharply if Mr Darling, MP for Edinburgh South West, had an address in Scotland. He explained that he did but the subtext of the query was hardly indiscernible and its innuendo left an unpleasant aftertaste.

All the same, while the Unionist figurehead’s handlers deserve credit for preparing their man to exceed the expectations of the commentariat so audaciously, they might want to reflect on the tone of his contributions to the programme. Here, once again, was Alistair Darling as Mr No: Naw ye cannae, naw ye shouldnae, naw ye wullnae.

No Thanks continues to struggle with the vision thing. It’s too late to fix that now and they will have to hope they can get by without it. The polls are still to their advantage, a fact for which the Better Together campaign does not get enough credit. Maintaining a consistent poll lead with a popular First Minister on the other side and a despised Prime Minister on yours is no small potatoes. Complacency, however, is a very real danger and their efforts have to narrow now to solidifying their poll standing and preparing their get-out-the-vote operation.

A snap poll conducted by ICM for The Guardian saw 56% of voters declaring Mr Darling the winner against 44% for Mr Salmond. Wings over Scotland makes some worthwhile points about the responses from undecided voters but the samples are so tiny in these categories that it’s hard to extract much in the way of useful information. It is also fair to note that the split in opinion roughly reflects the division over the referendum question itself, so embedded voting intentions could have determined people’s responses.

Only a fool would begin writing Alex Salmond’s political obituary. As even the First Minister’s most vehement opponents will admit in private, he is the most skilled and capable Scottish politician of his generation. He has a personal touch that appeals to voters who hold every other politician on the scene in contempt. His inner circle is home to some of the canniest political strategists anywhere in the UK. Expect him to come back in the next debate, and come back hard.

There is a salutary lesson here for the pro-independence movement. Yes campaigners rightly berate the media for emphasising Alex Salmond’s role in the constitutional debate. An outsider might be forgiven for wondering if the ballot paper on September 18 will ask, “Do you want Alex Salmond to be King of Scotland forever and ever and ever?” Yes activists, even those affiliated to the SNP, have stressed that the campaign is about much more than one man.

It would seem that some have given in to the very temptation they warned against, elevating the First Minister to Yes-campaigner-in-chief. And, after putting their faith in Mr Salmond, he appears not to have delivered. This can be cause for despondency and bitter infighting. Or it can serve as a wake-up call to supporters of independence. They can gripe on Twitter about the First Minister’s failings or the wicked ways of the mainstream media, or they can redouble their efforts.

Alex Salmond was never going to win this referendum on his own. It was always going to take an entire movement to bring the public around to the idea of leaving the UK. One thing Yes Scotland is not wanting for is activists. It boasts an army of volunteers who chap doors, hand out leaflets, attend public meetings, and spread the word to family and friends. The polls are not yet where the Yes side needs them to be but if they remain that way on referendum day, those who surrendered into a dejected funk with six weeks to go will have no grounds to blame Alex Salmond for the result.

Overall, the most illuminating moments of the programme were the audience interactions. After two years of questions and answers mediated almost exclusively by journalists, the middle man stepped aside for the bulk of STV’s referendum showdown. The audience, composed of Yes, No, and undecided voters, put their questions to the First Minister and the leader of the No Thanks campaign.

And they were impressive. The local-addresses-for-local-people questioner aside, STV’s cross-section of voters acquitted themselves with grace and intelligence, reminding those who often forget that ordinary voters can have more acute insights into social and political issues than the professional political and media classes.

The next debate is tentatively scheduled for August 25 and will be broadcast by BBC Scotland. It is an opportunity for Mr Salmond to redeem himself or Mr Darling to shine again. But with any luck the format will mirror STV’s in putting the voters in the driving seat of this debate where they belong.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Financial Times by Creative Commons 2.0.

The Team Scotland tartan, the Scottish cringe and the indyref

Couldn’t they just go back to blowing up blocks of flats?

The Team Scotland parade uniforms for the Commonwealth Games were unveiled on Sunday and confirmed Glasgow’s determination to win gold in the neck-reddening category.

First Glasgow 2014 proposed an uplifting opening ceremony in which the Red Road flats would be blown to smithereens; now Commonwealth Games Scotland wants to kit out our athletes in apparel so gaudy it would make Dame Edna Everage blanch.

The shirts and dresses are not blue, not quite lapis lazuli, but the psycho-cerulean hue of a particularly vivid Smurfs doll. The kilts and shawls carry an amber, fuchsia, and aquamarine tartan, a curious mixture of the psychedelic and the twee. This is what the Sixties must have looked like in Ecclefechan.

These are paired with knee-high socks with a distinct shade of burnt caramel. Somewhere in Auchterarder, a tea room is missing its curtains.

Is this the best Scottish fashion has to offer? Not by a long shot. Our designers are gaining world renown amid a renaissance in Scottish style. Christopher Kane, Niki Taylor, and Jonathan Saunders are names held in esteem in London, Paris, and New York.

Instead we get these outfits, which look like the flight attendant uniforms for a Jimmy Shand-themed airline. “If you look out the left side of the plane, you’ll be able to see Brigadoon.”

Twitter was less than enthusiastic about this sartorial sacrilege.


Designer Jilli Blackwood is undoubtedly a talented artist. Her work has been displayed at the National Museums of Scotland, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, and St Andrew’s House — not to mention in the United States, Spain, and India.

Commissioned artists have briefs to meet and Ms Blackwood’s brief called for “a parade uniform that was high on impact and made a real statement, but also had a contemporary feel”. She can hardly be blamed for delivering what she was asked for.

And when she says “[t]here will be no mistaking that this is the Scottish Team as they proudly step out at the opening ceremony,” we feel we must agree.

The backlash is against the design, not the designer, but it’s also about something else. It’s a reaction against a certain mindset amongst the professional class of events managers and marketing gurus paid to promote Brand Scotland.

These consultants are well-intentioned, and not lacking for skill in their area of expertise. Rather, it’s their vision that’s limited.

Welcome to Scotland 2014. We are a diverse, modern, culturally rich society. We are in the middle of an historic national conversation about our identity and our future. We have National Collective and Yestival imagining the early days of a better nation. A revolution is taking place within Unionism and even the most reluctant of devolutionists are thinking the unthinkable about Scotland’s constitutional future.

Scotland is on the move. And yet, if the Commonwealth Games are to be believed, our culture is still trapped inside the shortbread tin. The White Heather Club plays on loop.

Commonwealth Games Scotland chief executive Jon Doig says: “We wanted a parade uniform that had a bold and confident look, but which still retained the iconic Scottish elements of the kilt and unique Games tartan.” When confidence demands cliche and the iconic is indistinguishable from kitsch, we should aspire to be neither confident nor iconic.

That is why Team Scotland’s Kailyard couture has struck a nerve. This is not a function of the Scottish cringe but a reaction against that corrosive self-deprecation passing as a virtue. We are shaking off the inculcated inferiority of don’t raise your hand, don’t stand out, just keep your head down; that artsy stuff is not for the likes of us. The och, wheesht and parental skelp that greeted so much embarrassing creativity in our childhood, locked our history and our literature out of our school curriculum for generations, and institutionalised the furrowed brow as our national facial expression.

No more. Scotland is, in the words of National Collective, “getting ideas above its station”. We are raising our heads, unfurrowing that brow, unchaining our imaginations. This renewed cultural and political confidence is surging through our town hall debates, in the art that we create, in our pub conversations about the referendum. The old volcanoes are rumbling beneath our feet, no one else’s.

This should not be confused with political nationalism. The new Confident Scots are not necessarily Yes voters and many see Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom as perfectly consistent with national self-expression. Our nation and our culture are about larger, more complex things than a cross on a ballot paper on September 18.

Winnie Ewing’s battlecry, “Stop the world; Scotland wants to get on,” no longer belongs just to the independence movement. Come Yes or come No, a proud Scottish identity has been awakened, one that will not settle for the banalities of shortbread chic.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Eyal, Gilad and Naftali — a response

How should Israel respond to the brutal murder of three schoolboys?

“Proportionately,” The World says. “With restraint.” As if it is the hallmark of a civilised society that it views coolly and dispassionately the slaughter of its young.

“They were illegal settlers,” say the fellow-travellers with Palestinian rejectionism. “They shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” Jews are unlawful interlopers in Judea and Samaria, the cradle of Jewish history. The teenagers invited their savage demise by failing to acquiesce in the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from the heart of their homeland.

“Work with the Palestinian Authority to bring the killers to justice,” says the Left. As if the PA really exists outside a smattering of heavily guarded buildings in Ramallah. Hamas may have done the bloody deed but let us not pretend that Hamas alone found joy in the destruction of Jewish lives.

“Kill the killers,” says the Right. “Or throw them in jail.” As if jihadists are a finite resource in Palestinian society. As if they would not be replaced tomorrow by younger, fierier shahids. As if a few more Palestinian funerals will even the score, solve the problem. Throw them in jail? Of course. Now, guarantee me they won’t be freed in the next round of terrorist releases.

I don’t know how Israel should respond. All I know is this: My heart aches for those boys, for their parents and loved-ones, for every friend they have been snatched from. Ha’makom yenahem etkhem betokh she’ar avelei Tziyon vi’Yerushalayim.

My heart aches that Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel will never again join a minyan, never again strap on tefillin, never again listen to their fathers recite kiddush on Shabbat, never grow up to have children who will listen to them recite kiddush. Baruch dayan ha-emet. 

Tonight I feel a burning, righteous rage. Raid. Bomb. Annex Judea and Samaria. Hashem yikom damam. Tomorrow I will be calmer and the next day calmer still. But is calmness a virtue? Should we not be angry? Maybe the Zahal is the only solution. Maybe the only way yeshiva students can walk safely in Alon Shvut, Kedumim, and Revava is if an Israeli flag flies over Nablus, Qalqilya, and Jenin.

I will leave these questions to the politicians for now. My own response? Revenge may be the prerogative of G-d but there is a justice that men can exact: To go on living, building, praying, raising families, and sending boys to yeshiva. In short, be Jewish. Ela sheb’chol dor va-dor omdim aleinu lechaloteinu; v’ha-kadosh baruch hu matzilenu miyadam. 

Remember, survive, flourish. Pray for Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali z”l and hold their families in your heart.

10 Christmas horror movies to get you in the festive spirit

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas: eggnog lattes, mince pies, inappropriate kissing of work colleagues.

But nothing says Christmas like a Yuletide slasher movie, and there are more to choose from than you might think.

Mostly, this is due to the slasher boom of the early Eighties, when low-budget film-makers sliced and diced their way through every holiday imaginable.

Still, spooking moviegoers at Halloween or on Friday the 13th is fair game. Taking the most joyous festival of the year, one in which our hopes and prayers and fond childhood memories are invested, and making it sinister and creepy — now, that’s sick.

Yet the festive period is more susceptible to the horror treatment than might appear obvious. Christmas-themed slashers tap into our fear of being alone over the holidays, when everyone else seems to be snuggled up with family or significant others.

Loneliness and rejection are scary enough; add an axe-wielding Santa Claus to the mix and you’ve got yourself some genuine tinselled terror.

And when the plucky Final Girl turns the tables on the killer and beats him to death with a Yule log — what better symbol of the true meaning of Christmas? Hope, the triumph of good over evil, and body bags.

So, just to prove that your credit rating isn’t the only thing that gets massacred at this time of year, here are 10 festive frightfests to get you in the mood.

1. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

This Canadian-passing-for-American classic is the granddaddy of the slasher genre. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) may be the superior work of art but Bob Clark’s sorority-set scarer got there first. A house full of college girls is packing up to head home for the holidays but a deranged killer has other ideas, taunting them with obscene phone calls and picking them off one-by-one — and imaginatively; how many movies can boast a unicorn impalement scene? Innovative for aligning the audience with the killer’s POV, and featuring entertaining turns by John Saxon and an up-and-coming Margot Kidder (only she could pull off a dirty telephone exchange joke), Black Christmas never rises above B-movie schlock but its twisted kills and carol-scored thrills are more than enough.

2. Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles Sellier, 1984)

When it was released in 1984, this Santa slasher was denounced by critics and family groups alike for its depiction of St. Nick as a brutal murderer. Three decades on, it’s easier to appreciate the movie’s cynical sense of humour and the scuzzy look of the ultra-cheap production only adds extra punch. Five-year-old Billy is mentally scarred after seeing his parents killed by a robber dressed as Santa Claus. He’s sent to live in a Catholic orphanage which, because this is Hollywood, is run by a sadistic mother superior who beats the notion that “punishment is good” into her young charge. Naturally, Billy is left somewhat funked up by all this and years later is pushed over the edge when his boss forces him to stand in as a store Santa at the last minute. Billy snaps and goes on a festive rampage, picking off his naughty list one by one until he reaches the now-frail mother superior. Four sequels, of rapidly declining quality, followed and were joined by a dumb-but-fun remake in 2012.

3. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

Also released in 1984, Gremlins is a snappily-paced horror-comedy about a teenager given a small, demonic creature as a Christmas present. As you do. The furry fiend begins to multiply until his owner has a small army of the creatures on his hands, and has to find a way to put their mayhem to an end.

4. P2 (Franck Khalfoun, 2007)

It’s like Die Hard in an office building. No, wait… Cat-and-mouse chiller P2 isn’t particularly original but it is packed with jumps and scares and lots of creepy little touches. Workaholic Rachel Nichols is the last person to leave her office on Christmas Eve but when she arrives at P2, the underground parking garage, she realises she’s been locked in. Rachel goes looking for security guard Wes Bentley but soon finds out that her confinement is not accidental. Can she survive the night against a stalker who has all the keys, all the CCTV cameras and knows every inch of the building? The highlight is Bentley as a homicidal obsessive with a twisted approach to romantic gestures.

5. Black Christmas (Glen Morgan, 2006)

This remake got a lump of coal in its stocking from most critics upon its release but it makes for a watchable update of the 1974 classic. Kristen Cloke and Katie Cassidy make a decent stab at bringing a pedestrian script to life and the sickness level is amped up way beyond anything the original dared to do.

6. Dead End (Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, 2003)

Proving that some things are even scarier than turkey with the in-laws, Dead End follows a family’s drive to visit relatives over Christmas which descends into the road trip from hell. Ray Wise stars as a father confronted by ghostly apparitions on a lonely stretch of backwoods road.

7. Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980)

One of the nastier entries on our list. Released four years before Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil hocks much the same premise. A kid witnesses a traumatic event involving Kris Kringle — he sees mommy doing a lot more than kissing Santa underneath the mistletoe, not realising it’s his father — and so naturally he grows up to become a serial killer in a Father Christmas costume. Working a minimum-wage job in a toy-making factory, he becomes convinced that he is Santa Claus and divides everyone he meets between his naughty and nice lists. So begins his Christmas Eve spree, complete with a massacre of parishioners leaving Midnight Mass. A little tasteless but worth checking out all the same.

8. Jack Frost (Michael Cooney, 1997)

Three words: Killer. Snowman. Movie.

9. Don’t Open Till Christmas (Edmund Purdom, 1984)

Another Clausploitation flick from 1984, this time set in England and with a twist: Instead of dressing up as Santa and slaughtering people, the psychopath is slaughtering people dressed as Santa. That’s as original as it gets.

10. Wind Chill (Gregory Jacobs, 2007)

This indie horror offering starts out promisingly enough, with college student Emily Blunt slowly realising that her ride home for the holidays, Ashton Holmes, isn’t all he seems. There is an hour of solid stalker thriller in here but the movie leaves the road when it attempts to introduce an uninspired supernatural plot twist.

If you’ve had enough of those syrupy Hallmark Christmas movies and are looking for something a little darker, give a few of these flicks a try. And, for now: Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good fright!

Feature image © Inti by Creative Commons 2.0.

Song of Ascent

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation

By Yossi Klein Halevi
Harper, 608 pages

When the 18th World Zionist Congress met in Prague in August 1933, delegates were asked to choose an official anthem for the Jewish national movement.

The two main contenders were Naftali Herz Imber’s Hatikvah (“The Hope”) and Shir Hama’alot (“Song of Ascents”), an adaptation of Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.” Hatikvah’s secular yearning for freedom was favored over the psalm’s more overtly religious dream of divine intervention, but the latter retained a cherished place in religious Zionism for its promise of return and redemption.

It is apt that Yossi Klein Halevi should draw on the psalm of return for the title of his astonishing new book. Like Dreamers tells the improbable but true story of seven Israelis from very different backgrounds who, as reservists in the 55th Paratroopers Brigade during the Six-Day War, liberated the Western Wall and reunited Jerusalem, returning the Jewish people to its holiest sites. All the more remarkable is what happened after the war: Half of the paratroopers became settlers in the West Bank while the other half led the movement for the demolition of the settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state.

These seven young men, from Israel’s rival kibbutz and settlement movements, were all dreamers, either of secular or religious dreams. One kibbutznik is a conceptual artist and studied outsider; a second is an aviation entrepreneur and free-market evangelist; a third is a musician dubbed “the Singing Paratrooper” for his war ballads; a fourth is an angry young Marxist who eventually betrays his country. Yoel Bin-Nun is the most fascinating of the three religious soldiers, spearheading the settler movement before becoming a critic of its excesses. The others are a journalist and founder of the settlers’ Yesha Council, and the first settler elected to the Knesset.

But before any of them became the men they would become, they had to pull off the victory that made their country what it is today. Halevi’s narrative finds them on the eve of hostilities in June 1967, with Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces amassed on Israel’s borders and Gamal Abdel Nasser promising the impending destruction of the Jewish state. Then, something remarkable happens. The tiny Jewish state launches a surprise attack, pre-empting its would-be assassins and devastating their armies. The war comes to be known by its duration—the Six-Day War—but the territorial victory is no less breathtaking. At the outbreak of war, Israel was at its narrowest point nine miles wide. By the cessation of hostilities, Israel holds the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. The crowning achievement is the capture by the paratroopers of the Jordanian-held Old City of Jerusalem and with it the Western Wall and Temple Mount, the site of the Second Temple whose destruction marked the beginning of Jewish exile from the Land of Israel. Jerusalem, center of Jewish history and culture, was reunited and back in Jewish hands.

When the war ends, the men of the 55th Brigade attack peacetime Israel in radically different ways. Businessman Arik Achmon fights government bureaucracy and labor obstructionism in his mission to turn socialist Israel capitalist. Musician Meir Ariel struggles to find fame with a series of accomplished but commercially unviable albums before turning idiosyncratically to religious faith. Udi Adiv makes headlines for a different reason. The paratrooper who helped liberate Jerusalem shocks Israel by joining a Palestinian terror cell, betraying his country, and passing military information to Syria. (Later, Adiv made the somewhat less shocking move into academia.)

Like Dreamers is a historical portrait of the changes Israel underwent in the years that followed the Six-Day War, and how the men who helped secure that victory came to embody those shifts, or, as Halevi puts it, “how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” The socialist dreamers who settled Palestine pursued the dream of a collectivist utopia, embodied by the kibbutz:

The kibbutz was the symbol of Israel in the world, and that seemed natural. The very existence of a sovereign Jewish state after two thousand years of homelessness defied the natural order, and so did the kibbutz. One utopian dream symbolized the other.

The kibbutzniks dominated the political establishment and the IDF and came to see themselves as the guardians of pioneering Zionism. They comprised four percent of Israel’s population in 1967 but represented a quarter of fatalities in the Six-Day War. However, that conflict changed not only Israel’s borders but also its political and social landscape. A new generation of Israelis, observant and nationalist, grew restless with the National Religious Party’s habit of shoring up left-wing governments hostile to the aims and ambitions of religious Zionism. Led by paratroopers Yoel Bin-Nun, Yisrael Harel, and Hanan Porat, this vanguard set about uprooting assumptions about left and right, showing Orthodox Jews that their aspirations could be realized through the political process while forcing secular Israel to accommodate the religious as part of the Zionist national story.

Ground zero for Bin-Nun was the area the world called “the West Bank” but which he, a student of Torah, knew to be the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, the mountainous heart of Eretz Yisrael. Bin-Nun formed Gush Emunim, “Bloc of the Faithful”, a campaign to settle the territories and ensure they could never be ceded to Israel’s enemies. Soon, communities were springing up across Judea and Samaria, often by stealth and despite government objections, and Bin-Nun hoped the left would come to accept the security benefits, if not the spiritual bounties, of Israel’s expansive new borders.

His wartime comrades, however, were horrified to be ruling over a hostile Arab population. The paratroopers’ victory, Halevi notes, “had turned Israel into an occupier—true, history’s most improbable occupier, having gone to battle not to conquer but to survive. No one had intended this. But now kibbutzniks, the children of utopia, were suddenly occupiers.” Avital Geva, a peacenik paratrooper who had channeled his politics into abstruse modern art, turned serious and founded the Peace Now campaign to uproot the settlements and transfer Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians. Israel still lives in the shadows of these men and their actions; their war and its glories, their peace and its consequences continue to reverberate down the decades.

The book’s author is a fascinating figure in his own right. Halevi’s Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist recorded his youthful dalliance with the Jewish far right, led by Meir Kahane, and he now identifies with that most unloved of creatures, the Israeli political center. His background is probably why the settlers are portrayed here as more than the messianic fanatics of CNN reports and New York Times editorials, and, in a way, his own youthful radicalism might have helped him understand the lonely frustrations that drove Udi Adiv to commit treason.

Like Dreamers is not the sort of book one expects to read about Israeli soldiers. In Israel, most soldiers are not professional fighters but civilians in fatigues, “every mother’s son.” Natan Alterman, poet of Israel’s national rebirth, hymned them as stoic warriors who “stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death” and “fall back in shadows/And the rest will be told/In the chronicles of Israel.” The temptation, then, is to lionize the paratroopers. But Halevi avoids this trap, laying bare their character flaws, such as Ariel’s promiscuity, Achmon’s arrogance, and Adiv’s indignant self-righteousness. In Halevi’s chronicles, heroes do not stand like giants as events unfold around them; they are complex men who help shape events, whether scaling Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem in 1967, pinned down by Egyptian tanks in the Sinai in 1973, or going to war in civilian life to realize their vision of Israel. They are not men made for history but they make history nonetheless.

Like Dreamers is a majestic study of love and death, war and dreams, the evolution of Israel and the meaning of Zionism. There is no special pleading and no caricatures of plucky little Israel against the world. The soldiers and the men who command them are allowed to be human; Israel gets to make mistakes and do ugly things without undermining the justice of its existence and its entitlement to peace and security. Although never emotive, Halevi’s rich prose captures the emotional morality of Zionism.

The novelistic style allows us to witness Israeli history through the eyes of the paratroopers: intelligence officer Achmon’s pre-war preparations ready us for the Six-Day War, we see the Yom Kippur War from Bin-Nun’s foxhole-sukkah in the Sinai sand, and it is through Bin-Nun’s correspondence with him that we learn of Yitzhak Rabin’s final days, the settler having struck up an unlikely friendship with the signer of the Oslo Accords. Like Dreamers has depth and expanse but most of all it has insight. In writing one of the most sparkling histories of the Jewish state, Halevi has also written the Great Israeli Novel, made all the greater because it’s true.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר by Creative Commons 2.5.

Conservatives in crisis

Amid the angry exchanges which have ensued between true believers and “the establishment” since Congressional Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, failed to defund Obamacare by shutting down the federal government, a discordant note demanding attention.

The always tempered and considered Jonathan S. Tobin, an editor at Commentary magazine, threw up this possibility:

A few more years in which Tea Partiers stop seeing themselves as the vanguard of the conservative movement but as members of a different political alignment altogether could lead to exactly the kind of right-wing walkout from the GOP that was threatened in 2008 and 2012 but never actually materialized. If so, we may look back on the aftermath of the shutdown as not just a foolish argument started by frustrated conservatives but the beginning of a schism that enabled the Democrats to consolidate their hold on power in Washington for the foreseeable future.

He is not the first conservative commentator to suggest the possibility of a schism, but he is the most thoughtful. The occasion for his warning was the fallout from an important editorial in the forthcoming issue of National Review. The piece, “Against Despair”, by editor Rich Lowry and staff writer Ramesh Ponnuru, argues that the actions of those House Republicans who forced the shutdown, against the wise counsel of substantial conservative figures, are undermining the ability of the GOP to win elections. In fact, Lowry and Ponnuru assert, some on the right have all but given up on winning elections:

Among the most dismaying developments of the shutdown fight was the explicit assent given by a few conservative writers and politicians to the notion that it is a pipedream to seek to elect more conservatives who will then, for example, repeal Obamacare. That is asking a lot of a party, exponents of this view said, that has won the popular vote for president only once in the last six contests.

The diehards, while perhaps well-intentioned, have confused the ideological fervor of those who agree with them with the political instincts of the American people. There are times in American history when the aims of a movement or its leaders have broadly coincided with the values of the American people: Lincoln and slavery, FDR and the New Deal, Reagan and anti-communism. The movement for limited government has no such standard-bearer at present and some of its footsoldiers forget that Lincoln, FDR and Reagan worked hard to bring people around to their way of thinking.

But the focus of conservatives’ problems and the means of their solution, National Review contended, lies not in ideological purity but in the art of persuasion and the difficult and prosaic business of electoral coalition-building:

The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections.

National Review said what needed to be said. Conservative ideas can flourish only if they are tested and recalibrated and the only way to do that is through policy implementation, for which you need to be in government. That does not mean abandoning conservatism but presenting the voters with an appealing right-wing platform, a conservatism that can win.

Erick Erickson of Red State, a smart and committed conservative activist, shot down National Review’s editorial in a hail of denunciations and quotations from the magazine’s mission statement, as penned by William F Buckley, Jr.

He writes:

The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan.

Later adding:

Unfortunately, since Mr. Buckley died, the magazine has drifted. It is no longer true north for conservatism. It has drifted from its position at the pole of conservatism into the currents of a political party. It is the house publication for the Republican Party. And there is a difference — a difference this latest editorial highlights. Republicans are about the acquisition of power to advance policies and goals designed to keep the GOP in power. Conservatism is about human freedom. Conservative publications need not be stenographers of the party.

Before a final parting shot, worthy of a grounded teenager’s howl over a slammed bedroom door:

I await the well-fed editors apologizing for the Goldwater candidacy. At this point, it is only a matter of time.

No one can doubt Erickson’s commitment to the conservative movement, to which he has devoted his adult life, but his need to cast his opponents in the role of pantomime villain undermines what little argument he has. The talk of a Republican “establishment”, a trope which has regained currency in the last few weeks, is preposterous. True, when Mr Buckley set up National Review, promising to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”, the GOP was dominated by Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Republicans, a caste of patrician liberals who did little to conceal its contempt for radical upstarts like Mr Buckley. The Rockefeller Republicans are long gone; nowadays, high-handed, to-the-manor-born seat-clingers are more likely to be found in the dramatis personae of the Democrat Party.

Today’s Republican Party is one in which not a single Senator or Congressman voted for Obamacare. The last two Presidential candidates — Mitt Romney and John McCain — were moderates, but only in the sense that they weren’t tick-all-the-boxes ideologues. Both men espoused orthodox conservative positions on everything from abortion and guns to taxes and national security. Where they tacked center, they did so as a blue-state Republican or as a Republican in an increasingly competitive state. That’s nothing new. The GOP has always been home to conservatives of varying hues and tones.

The notion of spunky grassroots warriors versus establishmentarian sell-outs, the Tea Partiers against the Cocktail Partiers, is a fitting populist narrative for the Republican Party inside some people’s heads but it bears no relation to the Republican Party as it exists in reality.

And reality is what’s lacking. Reality and perspective. The diehards think those criticizing them right now are surrendering principle to electioneering. The conservative debate over Obamacare has always been about tactics, not political principle, but it’s worth remembering that principle without power is like a car without gas. It looks nice and feels great to sit in but it goes nowhere.

It’s not quite right to say that Republican ultras have no alternative plan; it’s just that their plan is the same souped-up bromides about communicating better, being more populist, and something something Ronald Reagan. (On that last point: Would Reagan, a divorced Hollywood Republican who raised taxes and legalized abortion, make it through the GOP primary process today?)

That’s where Jonathan Tobin’s post comes in. The possibility that a sizeable chunk of conservative voters stays at home in future elections, or throws its support behind a third-party candidate, would be disastrous for the conservative cause. It would hand Democrats control of the White House and likely both houses of Congress and give license to an even more liberal Democratic Party passing legislation that would make Obamacare look like the work of Friedrich Hayek. It would be a curious conservatism that damaged the only vehicle available for the advancement of conservative ideas.

A lesson on third parties from Britain: In the 1980s, the British left was divided between the socialist Labour Party and the more moderate Social Democratic Party, which had broken away from Labour over its ideological extremism. This schism meant Margaret Thatcher got a free pass to pursue a radical economic agenda that even many Conservative voters did not agree with. Labour’s dogmatists made a philosophy out of rigidity and calcified ideology into a catechism, denouncing as traitors those who wanted to achieve the party’s egalitarian aims through anything other than “the common ownership of the means of production”. Had the left remained united, and tailored its vision to the industrial and social changes reshaping Britain, it could very well have ousted Thatcher from office. In the end, Labour would remain out of power for 18 years, returning to government only after it had learned these lessons the hard way.

The politics of America are changing and so too are the demographics. The GOP has to respond to these changes and appeal to new constituencies. Elections are about winning over center-ground voters, somewhere conservatives should have an advantage thanks to the popularity of conservative policies on everything from education reform to taxes. The Republican brand, though, is in the doldrums. Gallup’s party favorability rating now places the GOP on 28%, the lowest number for either party since records began in 1992. That rating is a backlash against the shutdown but it is also a reprimand for a Republican Party that has spent the last decade talking — more often than not, shouting — at itself rather than engaging with the American people.

Conservative diehards are standing athwart crosstabs, yelling “Reagan”. Fighting to keep the conservative flame alive is important but the flame is growing dim without the oxygen of new ideas and fresh faces. “My dogma’s purer than your dogma” is not a mission statement around which an electoral coalition can be built. The franchise in national elections extends beyond callers to the Michael Savage show. Conservatives have to speak to America as it is, not America as it was or should or could be.

All successful political parties are coalitions bound by shared goals and common ideals and motivated to win elections to put those ideals into practise. It’s good that right-wingers are up for a fight but it should be a fight with the Democrats, a fight to regain the Presidency, and not a fight with themselves. The hard work should begin in earnest, with a review of GOP policy, operations, funding and organization, all with the same question at the top of the list: How do we regain the trust of the American people?

That’s not selling out, it’s stepping up to the pitch, where the game is won or lost.

 Feature image © Benh LIEU SONG by Creative Commons 2.0.