Holyrood 2016: A Turning Point?

2016 Holyrood election Map, with detail of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Image Source: BBC

2016 Holyrood election Map, with detail of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Image Source: BBC

     Last Thurday’s Scottish Parliament election was one to remember for the fact that it turned out to be more interesting than projected. The seemingly unassailable SNP did win an unprecedented third term in power, but lost its vaunted majority from 2011 and found itself in the position of being in a minority government once again. Meanwhile, somewhat like Leicester City’s improbable victory of the Premier League championship, it was an evening of the three main pro-Union parties defying the odds and the going against the dire projections in store for them.

     The Liberal Democrats set the tone for the evening by not merely retaining the Orkney Islands, but having Liam McArthur winning it with a vastly increased majority. Here, the SNP vote share went down by 0.8% from 2011, while the LibDem’s managed a massive 31.6% increase to end up with 67.4% of the vote against the SNP’s 24.3% and majority of 4,534 votes. To the north in the Shetland Islands, the party again increased its majority to send former Scottish LibDem leader Tavish Scott back to Holyrood for a fourth term, and though the SNP managed to increase their vote share here, the Liberal Democrats increased it further to take home the same share as they done in Orkney.

     What was significant here is that Orkney and Shetland are represented as a single constituency at the UK Parliament and save for a fifteen year period from 1935 to 1950, have been sending Liberal and Liberal Democrat MP’s continuously since 1837, with the streak since 1950 being the longest run within any British parliamentary constituency and making it the safest seat for the LibDems.

     For Scottish parliamentary purposes, the islands were split into two constituencies which have elected Liberal Democrats since their creation in 1999, and these became the last LibDem bastions in Scotland after the near wipeout of 2011 when they lost all of their mainland constituencies to the SNP, partly in response to their role as coalition partners with the Conservatives at Westminster. At the 2015 UK general election, then-Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael held on to Orkney and Shetland with a reduced majority during the SNP landslide as he became the last Liberal Democrat MP in Scotland.

     After holding on to his seat, Carmichael faced an attempt to have him removed from office by four constituents in Orkney over the “Frenchgate” memo controversy during the general election when he stated that as Scottish Secretary in the coalition government of David Cameron, he knew nothing of a leaked memo which said that Nicola Sturgeon told the French ambassador that she actually preferred Cameron as prime minister as opposed to then-Labour leader Ed Miliband. When it turned out that Carmichael was involved in the leak and he admitted to it, the “Orkney four” lodged a petition for his removal and force a by-election. Carmichael was eventually found not to have committed an “illegal act” and he kept his seat, but there seemed to have been untold damage to his reputation and the electoral chances of his party in Orkney and Shetland.

     At least one of the constituencies (typically Orkney) had been projected as among those vulnerable to the SNP, but it seemed that the voters may have been turned off by what many people believed was a political witch-hunt to force out the last Scottish LibDem MP. In addition, there were no independent candidates in the running as there were in 2011 in both seats, and so the party romped home victories to keep them in the fold.

     However, if those victories could have been written off as Orkney and Shetland being Orkney and Shetland – voting for LibDems no matter what, the same could not be exactly said about the two big surprises for the party down south. In North East Fife, it pulled off an upset by electing Scottish party leader Willie Rennie with a majority of 3,465 – gaining it from the SNP and effectively turning around last year’s result at the UK general election where a similar seat long-held by former UK LibDem leader Sir Menzies Campbell was picked off by the advancing Nationalists.

     Further down in Edinburgh Western, the party regained this seat from the SNP with a majority of 2,960 votes under Alex Cole-Hamilton,  and this again was a reversal of last year’s result when the seat roughly contiguous to it at Westminster (Edinburgh West) fell to the SNP in the form of the now independent (and troubled) MP Michelle Thomson , who was suspended from the SNP last summer over dubious real estate and property dealings.

     In the end, the Liberal Democrats ended up with five seats in total with the inclusion of one regional list MSP from the North East, and so they have the same number of MSP’s from 2011, but keeping Orkney and Shetland, as well as gaining North East Fife and Edinburgh Western – fulfilling the pledge made by Rennie that he’d win seats from the SNP – was a victory and morale booster for a party that had been all but written off in Scotland.

     As for the Tories, they exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations in a big way. Sure, they had been rising in the polls and some projections showed them retaining their existing seats and perhaps gaining Eastwood, Dumfriesshire, and Edinburgh Pentlands. But it was still inconceivable that the Conservative Party – so often labeled as “toxic” in Scotland since being wiped out in 1997 – would make anything but modest gains and come in second place.

     Indeed, at the beginning of election day, the Tories themselves – at least privately and confidentially – were tamping down expectations and braced for the possibility of actually losing seats to the SNP. Then as the night progressed and the results flowed in, it became clear that the Tories were doing not just doing well, but very well, especially in areas where they had been the dominant party as recently as two decades ago and still have pockets of support at the local level.

     Their first victory of the night came in Eastwood, just to the southwest of Glasgow. This result was significant because Eastwood was once the safest Tory seat in Scotland at Westminster until Labour’s Jim Murphy won it in 1997 and Ken MacIntosh had held the seat at Holyrood for Labour since the first devolved election in 1999. Last year, Murphy lost the UK parliamentary seat – now known as East Renfrewshire – to the SNP and the Scottish parliamentary seat became a three-way marginal between Labour, the SNP, and the Conservatives. As such, it was one of the most-watched races this year, and in the end, Eastwood reverted back to Tories under longtime regional MSP Jackson Carlaw with a majority of 1,611.

The changes in support for the Conservatives from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Almost all Constituencies had an increase in Tory Support, especially in the Northeast and Tayside against the SNP. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for the Conservatives from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Almost all Constituencies had an increase in Tory Support, especially in the Northeast and Tayside against the SNP. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     Then the Tories managed to hold on to Ayr along the west coast under John Scott with a reduced majority of 750 between him the SNP candidate. To the southeast along the border with England, they won another three-way contest by capturing Dumfriesshire from Labour’s Elaine Murray, who had been the constituency MSP since first standing for it in 1999. This area forms part of the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale constituency at Westminster which is represented by Conservative Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who had previously contested the Holyrood seat, and his son Oliver was the victor here with a majority of 1,230 to edge out the SNP’s Joan McAlpine.

     In Edinburgh Central, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson pulled off a huge upset by picking off the seat from the SNP with a very slim majority of 610. Another surprise was in store up north in Aberdeenshire West, where they flipped another seat from the SNP – with candidate Alexander Burnett surging ahead with a majority of 900. Back in the southwest, Galloway and West Dumfries was held by the party under Finlay Carson with a majority of 1,514 following the retirement of the sitting MSP Alex Fergusson. Following this, the Tories completed a sweep of the border constituencies by holding on to Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire under John Lamont with an increased majority of 7,736 and 55% of the vote. Altogether, it was their best constituency result in Scotland since 1992 (when they had eleven) and even the map from that year looks similar in terms of Tory blue on it.

     Throughout Scotland, the Tories made significant gains which failed to produce more constituencies MSP’s, but having increased their vote in almost every constituency, they were rewarded with a boat load of new parliamentarian’s courtesy of the regional list vote – 24 in all, and they came out on top in five of the eight electoral regions. This made for a combined total of 31 Conservative MSP’s, which is their highest-ever haul at Holyrood and placed them in second place – becoming the new “Official Opposition”.

     Meanwhile for the Labour Party, which had not only been the Official Opposition, but had been in power from 1999-2007, the results were very unfortunate, to say the least.

     Early in the night, by became all but clear that the party would lose its remaining Glasgow seats at Holyrood – having lost all of them at Westminster last year – to the SNP. Eventually, many of the other Labour seats fell to the SNP, with Eastwood being the exception, to the Tories. For that matter, the Tories came second in former Labour heartlands such as Clydesdale, and the party dropped to third place in these areas where they once could expect solid and predictable victories in any given year. The scale of the defeat resulted in the loss of several good Labour MSP’s whose experience and contributions will be missed.

     In the face of this however, there were some bright spots for the party. In East Lothian, former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray looked to be unseated as he defended a 151 vote majority against the SNP in a seat whose UK parliamentary equivalent had gone to the SNP last year. However, he managed to not only hang on, but actually grew his majority to 1,127 votes in the face of a Tory surge which may have come at the expense of the SNP and aided Gray along the way.

The changes in support for Labour from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Only Labour's win in Edinburgh Southern produced a solid increase. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for Labour from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. Only Labour's win in Edinburgh Southern produced a solid increase. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     In contrast, Jackie Baillie barely held on to her Dumbarton constituency on the western side of the county with a greatly reduced majority of only 109, which may well have been aided Baillie’s defense of the workers at the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane (in her constituency). At the very least, this highlights the need to vote, for every vote counts.

     Meanwhile, Labour’s Daniel Johnson was able to gain Edinburgh Southern from the SNP with a majority of 1,123 and a good swing to Labour. It's perhaps fitting that Labour did well here given that it was the people of the UK parliamentary equivalent of this area (Edinburgh South) which had re-elected Ian Murray, the only remaining Labour MP in Scotland.

     With only these three constituencies, Labour (including its leader, Kezia Dugdale, who failed to gain the Edinburgh Eastern constituency from the SNP) depended on the regional list vote to give them a decent amount of MSP’s at Holyrood – 24 in all, which represents their smallest representation since the advent of devolution, and the third place finish was their worst electoral performance in Scotland since 1910.

     Of course, the SNP was still on top and remains in government for a third term, but without a majority as in 2011. This makes for a parliament that is more colorful, diverse, and representative of Scotland, as was intended when the voting system was put in place to prevent outright majorities of any party, so the SNP will be the largest of five minority parties at Holyrood. Even with the Greens at six seats to provide a nominal pro-secession majority with the SNP, there is no guarantee that the Greens will become lapdogs for the SNP, certainly not on all issues, and so there is every chance that the SNP may have to make deals with the (wicked) Tories – especially on taxes, where the two parties offered similar polices in their respective manifestos. Indeed, it would appear that the SNP’s broad church will be put to the test more than ever before, and combined with the new Conservative dynamic, we may also find out whether Scotland really is so vastly to the left of England that it necessitates the break-up of Britain, or if it is something which has a grain of truth, but is more likely a debating tactic used to manufacture grievances and advance the secessionist cause.

     Furthermore, in the face of the sheer numbers of the SNP, there were significant swings against them in several of the constituencies that have been won by them in recent years, as well as the ones that have been their heartlands since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Some of these places were once reliably Tory before the SNP displaced them, and the Tories have since tended to come in second place in most Westminster and Holyrood elections. They were also the places with tended to vote overwhelmingly against the SNP’s landmark policy of separation. At this election, there were huge swings to the Tories from the SNP in Perthshire, Banffshire, Angus, Morayshire, and Aberdeenshire.

The changes in support for the SNP from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. The biggest decreases came from the northeast and Tayside. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by  Stephen McGroarty

The changes in support for the SNP from 2011 to this year's election. Greener areas indicateincreases in support; redder areas indicate decreases in support. The biggest decreases came from the northeast and Tayside. Image Credit: BBC; Graphics modificationand overlay by Stephen McGroarty

     In Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, the seat held by SNP Cabinet minister Roseanna Cunningham, there was 9.5% swing from her party to the Conservatives; nearby in Angus South, the SNP’s Graeme Dey was re-elected with a reduced majority of 4,304 against a 12% Tory swing; up in Moray, the swing from the SNP to the Tories was a whopping 15% as Richard Lochhead, another Cabinet minister, hung on with a reduced majority of 2,875. Most significantly, though Deputy First Minister John Swinney was re-elected as well, he experienced a 12% swing to the Conservatives in his Perthshire North constituency, which left him with a majority that had been reduced from 10,353 to 3,336 against Murdo Fraser.

     Similar swings to the Tories were seen in other areas, such as Banffshire and Buchan Coast, Angus North and Mearns, Aberdeenshire East, and in the case of the aforementioned Aberdeenshire West, the Tory swing was big enough to wrest the seat from the SNP. Meanwhile there were swings to the Liberal Democrats in former strong areas such as Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, as well as Argyll and Bute.

     Some of this may have been the result of former Tories and Liberal Democrats returning to their old parties from the SNP, but other vote changes may also have been due to tactical voting, as Alex Massie observed when he noted how the LibDem vote fell in the Borders and Aberdeenshire, only to have it rise substantially elsewhere, such as in North East Fife and Edinburgh Western. Indeed, if some places had a stronger swing against the SNP or more voters switched tactically, the SNP would have lost several more seats, including Swinney’s and Cunningham’s.

     Overall, it was a decent result – possibly the best one in the circumstances – for those who support keeping the UK together.  In terms of total votes, the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, and Labour collectively received 52.4% of the popular constituency vote compared to the SNP’s 46.5%, or 1,194,343 votes against 1,059,9897 for the SNP. The three parties also out-polled the SNP on the regional list vote 47.2% to 41.7% (1,082,425>953,587), though with the Greens factored in, the pro-separation percentage rose to 48.3% and 1,104,103 votes. Even so, with the loss of six SNP seats (and the one belonging to the late Margo MacDonald as an independent), the number of pro-separation MSP’s fell from 72 to 69 – the same number of seats the SNP won five years ago – whilst the number pro-Union MSP’s rose from 57 to 60.

     It must be remembered going into this election, it had been thought to be a foregone conclusion that the SNP would not only keep its majority, but also extend it to greater proportions than what had been achieved in 2011. In terms of constituencies alone, some projections had Labour losing all of its seats and indeed, the SNP vote appeared so strong as to threaten a wipe-out everyone but themselves in all 73 constituencies – leaving the other parties clamoring for all regional list seats. If it were that bad, the only seats given the best chance of surviving such an SNP tsunami would have been Shetland for the LibDems and Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire for the Tories.

     As it was, this did not happen, and all three of the main pro-Union parties exceeded expectations through a mixture of SNP support perhaps peaking and cooling off, the rise of the Greens to take votes from the SNP, some tactical voting, and a great effort at old-fashioned dogged campaigning on the part of the Conservatives, Labour, the LibDems, and by pro-Union campaign organizations, who have all taken a beating over the last nine years of SNP dominance. Indeed, perhaps the best outcome of this election was the not only the break with absolute SNP domination, but that it also, as Brian Wilson observed, broke the “spell of Nationalist invincibility” and ought to take a second referendum “off the agenda since there is no plausible mandate for one.” Indeed, it may have been the thought of a second referendum which caused many voters to turn out against the SNP in the final weeks of the campaign.

The new constituency map is vastly more colorful than most projections had shown going into election day on May 5th. Image Source: BBC

The new constituency map is vastly more colorful than most projections had shown going into election day on May 5th. Image Source: BBC

     If over the term of this new “rainbow” parliament, the political battles can be shifted away from the constitution, there will be opportunities for the three parties to grasp for better results down the line. For Labour, it was down, but not out, and Wilson pointed to the Dumbarton result as showing the way forward with a “strong candidate and a good story to tell” on issues that matter to people, like jobs, public services, health, and education. For the LibDems, they can hold their heads high winning two constituencies against the odds and look forward to developing their own narrative for the future. As for the Tories, they have been perhaps detoxified at last, but should be careful to not get ahead of themselves. Much of their resurgence came at the expense of Labour, and if they intend on holding this support and gaining more in the future, they need to offer something to the voters beyond defense of the Union. As Wilson observed, they’ve already started with their stance on not raising income taxes when they are devolved in full to Holyrood next year, and this he believes, was their biggest selling point, “more even than the constitution.” As the SNP possibly finds it more difficult to ride the low tax and anti-austerity horses, and more generally, being all things to all Scots, there will be openings for all three parties to take as different factions of the SNP may become dissatisfied with the party as a whole. (No wonder they want to get on with their summer secessionist initiative.)  

     This election may have been a turning point, and in short, all three parties need to build on the current results, consolidate them, and work on unseating the SNP in other areas next time around, so that Scotland and the United Kingdom overall can move forward.

Dugdale a "Closet Nat"? Not Likely.

“I was genuinely really sad to read today that Alex Salmond has signalled his intention to sign up Scotland for its own Olympic team. It transpires that he’s not even discussed the plans with his own cabinet, let alone had the opportunity to debate it in the parliament and seek the views of the Scottish people with an open consultation process.

During the election campaign, Tony Blair made a keynote speech at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange to audience of local business men, party members and rather randomly, Scottish members of the British Judo Team. One of my friends took the opportunity to chat to them and find out what they thought about the election. They were first of all, so proud to be part of the British Olympic team. They argued that the high levels of competition to get into the team made them work all the harder and made the result all the sweeter. They’d made great friends and travelled all over Europe together. The[y] had grumbles about the amount of funding their team got and hoped that Scotland would win the bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games so that additional cash came all the faster, but they didn’t want independence.

Winning the 2012 London Olympics was a British success, with tens of thousands of Scots demonstrating their support on the official website. I remember listening to the live result at work - 8 or 9 of us all hoarded around a computer screen struggling to hear the radio. We screamed and jumped with joy at the result. Such a fantastic achievement. I was proud to be British that day, just as I was proud to be Scottish just a few days before when the Make Poverty History march rode through the streets of Edinburgh.

Hosting the Olympics is a success that the whole country should celebrate. It will inspire the youth of today to become the champions of tomorrow and will also unite the whole country in a sense of community and sporting endeavour - I want to be a part of that as a British Citizen.

It’s not the colour of the sporting t-shirt that makes us Scottish, it’s the history, traditions, culture and beliefs that we share. I don’t need Scotland the Brave playing when we win to make me any surer of that fact.”

     This was written on May 24, 2007 by Kezia Dugdale on her personal Facebook page. At around this time, she was a member of the Scottish Labour Party’s policy forum, had recently served as an election agent for Labour politicians Sarah Boyack and Sheila Gilmore, was a Labour researcher at the Scottish Parliament, and would begin service as parliamentary office manager for Labour MSP Lord George Foulkes.

     The parliamentary elections had concluded just weeks before, and after eight years, the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition which had governed Scotland since the beginning of devolution had been dislodged by Alex Salmond’s SNP – with Labour as the largest party in that coalition falling behind the SNP by a solitary seat. A minority administration had been formed under Salmond as first minister, but Salmond was quick to put on a show that there was nothing cautious or minority about him, and among the first things he began talking up was the idea of a Scottish Olympic team separate from British one in time for the 2012 summer games.

     Such an idea was of course, ludicrous, not just because Scotland was (and still is) part of the United Kingdom, but because it came about only two years after the capital city of London had been selected to host the games, which effectively gave home field advanced to Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The whole country rejoiced – that is, except for the SNP, whom Hamish Macdonell of the Spectator described as “churlish and grumpy” with regard to their attitude toward the Games from the moment they were awarded to London, and further stated that it “took only one minute for the first snippy SNP press release warning that Scotland might not get its ‘fair share’ from the Games.”

     Now two years later, here was the SNP first minister of Scotland – thinking of nothing but stoking division and creating differences – proposing to break up Team GB at a time when most people were enthusiastically looking forward to a united British effort, including Kezia Dugdale.

     She is now leader of a Scottish Labour Party that has fallen on its knees – having lost a significant chunk of its traditional vote to the (losing) separatist campaign in 2014 and to the (winning) SNP in 2015. In last few weeks, she has come under criticism and even suspicion as she and her party head toward this year’s Scottish Parliament elections for what almost certainly appears to be another shellacking.

     Having already announced that the party is open to accepting members and parliamentarians who voted for independence two years ago, she recently said in an interview that it was not “inconceivable” that she could support separation in a hypothetical scenario where the United Kingdom as a whole voted to terminate its EU membership without a majority of Scots and if Scottish re-entry into the EU did not prove to be a difficult manner or otherwise unfavorable to Scotland. Then last week, it was leaked to the press that Dugdale had attempted to get a job working for an SNP politician whilst she was still a student at the University of Aberdeen in 2003. This, combined with the fact that her father Jeff is an SNP member has given credence to the notion that Dugdale is not strong on keeping the UK together and is perhaps even a “closet Nat.”

     Dugdale may be a lot of things, but I do not believe that she is a closet Nat or anything of that sort because of the influence of her father – who it must be remembered, was a Conservative long before he switched to the SNP, like so many others in the northeast who also abandoned the Tories for the SNP and turned once-loyal Tory bastions in Perthshire, Morayshire, Banffshire, Aberdeenshire, and Angus into the first SNP heartlands of the party’s modern era from the late 1980’s forward (and giving credence to the “Tartan Tory” jibe).

     For that matter, her flirtation with the SNP may have been nothing more than a student trying to get political experience with any party once she graduated from university. How do we know she did not apply for similar positions with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, or Labour? The thing is, we are not supposed to know unless she wants us to know because such records of job applications are supposed to be private, which brings in the question of who leaked this information.

     That aside, it is also a possibility, as said by former Labour MP Tom Harris in the Telegraph, that “like most voters, she was briefly willing to give the other side a chance” before settling on her current party. Indeed, how many people have actually joined one party and stood for election with that party before joining and standing for election in another?

     David Mundell, the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland and MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale was a Young Conservative as a teenager before switching to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and serving as a Councillor for Dumfries and Galloway, and then switching back to the Conservatives in 1988. Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP MP for Ochill and South Perthshire, was a Conservative and stood for election in the Glasgow Govan constituency in the first Scottish Parliament election before having a brief stint with Labour and settling with the SNP. And of course, Winston Churchill went from the Conservatives to the Liberals and back to the Conservatives throughout his five decades as an MP. In America, Hillary Clinton was a Republican before she became a Democrat, and Ronald Reagan was vice-versa.

     So switching parties is nothing new, and in Dugdale’s case, it would appear that she has only ever been a member of the Labour Party. In that role and as an MSP, she was a forceful advocate of a No vote during the referendum to keep the UK together, and she has since repeated that Scotland was right to turn down separation because of the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom, which are ever more apparent because of the dramatic collapse of oil prices, and has ruled out another referendum if Labour forms the next Scottish Government. In fact, she made it clear in that interview that she would prefer for Scotland to remain part of the UK and for the UK to retain its EU membership, and implied that if in the event of the UK leaving with EU without a majority of Scottish voters, she would stick with Scotland being part of the UK if she believed the terms of re-entry into the EU were unfavorable for Scotland.

     This may not be the position of a convinced pro-Union person who believes that the UK ought to stay together in all circumstances, but we must remember that the majority of Scots currently do not fit this category and nor are they those who believe in separation in all circumstances. The majority supported keeping the UK together because they believed it was in their best interest and Scotland’s best interest to do so, as well as due to a sense of solidarity – in many forms – with the rest of the UK. Dugdale made this case two years ago because she believed it was the right case, and I believe she will make the case again if need be. After all, unlike Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, her basis for supporting separation depends on very narrow circumstances, and it is likely that in the event of Brexit, keeping the UK together will still be the best option for Scotland.

     All this means that those who wish for the Union to continue in the long-term must continue to put the best arguments forward for the Union to continue, for there will be many people who may reexamine their position from 2014 and decide on whether to retain that position or go the other way should there be another referendum (hopefully not for another 15 years at least). This is where organizations such as Scotland in Union and United Against Separation are going play significant roles in the coming years to ensure that pro-Union arguments are made and disseminated as effectively and convincingly as possible, alongside individual efforts.

     For now though, Dugdale supports the Union and until she actually states otherwise, she should be considered a supporter of the Union, even if this is not her main focus. Indeed, she and other pro-Union politicians and activists must do all they can to focus minds on bread-and-butter issues such as taxation, welfare, education, housing, transportation, health, etc., because the SNP would live nothing more than to keep Scotland perpetually in a pro-Union/anti-Union divide. This divide must be broken up as soon as possible so that debates on the constitution can be replaced with debates that matter to the everyday lives of Scots and all Britons throughout the United Kingdom.

     As for Dugdale, she made it quite clear in 2007 that she was proud to be British and was enthusiastic about Scotland taking an honored place as part of Team GB and sharing in the sporting success with the UK as a whole. As such, she has used the hashtag #BacktheBrits on Twitter when cheering on British athletes on several occasions. Along with many Brits (including Scots), I imagine she will do so again during this year’s summer games in Rio de Janeirio as Team GB, with athletes from all across the UK, competes under the red, white, and blue of the Union Flag once again.

Losing Faith in the SNP?

     Yesterday, Darren McGarvey – known as Loki the Scottish Rapper – wrote an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon on STV in which he laid out his frustrations with the SNP and the independence movement, along with his intention to not vote for the party on Election Day in May.

     The letter consisted of McGarvey describing the harrowing details of his mother’s upbringing in Gorbals, one of the worst slums in Glasgow, and how she had to deal with alcoholic parents who could not look after their children – leaving McGarvey’s mother to take up the slack. He spoke of the disgusting filth and squalid conditions of their home, personal belongings sold off to purchase cigarettes or alcohol, the lack of privacy (in the old-fashioned way), the debt collectors, the drug dealers, and the disgrace of children being made to fight over scraps of food as a spectators sport for drunks.

     It was in short, not really a home so much as it was an “open-plan torture chamber where deprivation, in the truest sense of the word, was the absolute default position” and where “poverty had not only corrupted people, but left them grotesquely deformed.” There was no place to hide and no one to find for comfort.

     Without a support structure, McGarvey’s mother could not properly cope with life’s challenges, and would descend into her own bout of alcoholism following the birth of McCarvey himself. From here, he vividly described his own upbringing, which included being at the receiving end of her drunken sprees, watching her calm herself with drugs via needles, the abandonment brought upon him and his siblings, and generally living in a chaotic atmosphere.

     Eventually, he too would fall into a similar trap with alcohol and drugs which rendered him unable to look after his brothers and sisters as the family tore itself apart.

     Thankfully, he has come out of this, been sober for over a year, is back to being active in the lives of his siblings, and celebrated the birth of his first child. Unfortunately, his long-suffering mother passed on long ago at the tragically early age of only 36.

     McGarvey’s heart-breaking personal story is one that can repeated throughout multiple generations in Scotland, and it speaks to the sort conditions which have led to what he describes as a “desperation for change.” For him and many others, this was seemingly answered by the SNP and the idea of independence, and as he continues to speak to Nicola Sturgeon (as well as the rest of us), he tells of how he has been voting for the SNP since 2006 “because something radical needs to be done about poverty in this country” and saw independence as a means of “paying more than lip service to tackling the deep social inequality that creates the conditions for deprivation to thrive.”

     He explained that Sturgeon was the first politician he ever believed in, and now he finds himself disappointed in the some of the proposed policies of Sturgeon and the party going into the election only a month away – policies such as keeping tax rates the same as the rest of the UK and halving air passenger duty, which are “aimed at affluent communities who voted No in 2014” and “providing assurances more of the same awaits them should they throw caution to the wind and decide to vote Yes at the next referendum.”

     The result is that he wonders that if this is going to be the case in a devolved Scotland within the United Kingdom, what does the future hold should Scotland become – as he campaigned for in 2014 – an independent country? How can Sturgeon expect to get the well-off to pay more in taxes as an independent country when she, “the most powerful First Minister ever”, won’t ask them to do so now for fear that they will leave Scotland?

     He watches as the SNP pursues policies based on pragmatism and the need for votes from the middle classes, and he expresses his frustration at the party “cultivating a tolerance for low taxation coupled with moderate incremental reform, peppered with comforting social justice rhetoric that barely tweaks the status quo never mind challenges it.”

     For McGarvey, separation was not simply about “getting over the line”, but it was about achieving a new direction with new policies which spoke to urgency of dealing with poverty. With the new powers under the recently-passed Scotland Act, Holyrood under Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP – with a fresh mandate expected in May – is in a greater position than ever to act on many of Scotland’s generational societal ills in a way that the SNP (dubiously) claimed could not be done under the old constitutional arrangements. Separation may be desirable in the long-term, but it is not necessary now to achieve many of the goals of McGarvey and others like him who have “more than just a passing interest in social justice.” His life experiences have shaped who he is, and as far as he is concerned:

“There is no pragmatism where inequality is concerned. There is only action and inaction. If you can't make an argument for slightly higher taxes to a class of educated people who are fortunate enough to be doing well in a terminally unequal society then I already know what is required of me as a citizen.”

     He further laments that Scottish independence appears to be “an increasingly elastic notion” with no real substance behind it except aside from being all things to all people, which breeds centrist policies to maximize votes and not “scare the horses”, but which fail to even come close to the radical vision he and so many others bought into.

     For many of them who voted Yes in 2014 and for the SNP in 2015, McGarvey goes so far to say that the current circumstances present a dilemma; some – likely most – are so committed to the dream of independence, that they will look the other way and will continue support Sturgeon and the SNP in a “bold and unwavering fashion.” McGarvey believes that this dilemma must be confronted head-on, but in the absence of that, he does not believe that the SNP is worthy of his vote this year.

     His story and his view is one that is being repeated throughout Scotland: people who voted Yes because they believed that separation would bring the change they desired, and then voted for the SNP because they saw it as being the best party to deliver that change – in or out of the UK.

     They had believed that with separation and breaking up the UK, Scotland could pursue radically different policies than the rest of the UK. Indeed, they bought into the rhetoric that Scotland and the rest of the UK were so different in political and economic thought, that separation was necessary; they painted a vision of radical Scotland needing to free itself from the reactionary conservatism of Tory England.

     They had believed the rhetoric of the Labour Party being “Red Tories” who were too scared to offend the English middle classes with radical policies and higher taxes, and that Scotland was much more egalitarian and amenable to paying more in taxation to pay for more public services and reduce poverty. They believed that the actual Tories were the root of all evil (and all of Scotland’s problems – not to mention “anti-Scottish” in the words of Nicola Sturgeon herself), that the LibDems were lapdogs at one stage or another for both parties, and that the Union was incapable of delivering on progressive policies because the overall electorate was too “small-c” conservative and required the main parties to compromise and be pragmatic.

     Now they are discovering that Scotland is hardly as radical as they had believed, that the Scottish middle classes aren’t that different in temperament and political/economic values as their English counterparts, and that the SNP – when given the choice – will stick to the middle ground on a centrist platform which embraces pragmatism, you know, like most political parties which aspire to have power and achieve other political goals.

     For the SNP, their main goal has been and always will be separation and breaking up Britain, and they know that they will need moderate Middle Scotland to carry them over the line. So while it is convenient to use left-wing rhetoric to get votes from the Scottish Left and displace the Labour Party, the reality is that the SNP will not do anything to cost them votes where they matter the most. If anything, the SNP is doing what the Tories and Labour did during their periods of dominance in the 20th Century: appealing to where Scots are comfortable at, and that’s in the moderate middle, which again, is the same winning formula in most Western democracies – including the United Kingdom as a whole.

     These sort of points were made time and again throughout the referendum to combat that simplistic notion of left-wing Scotland vs. right-wing England, but it was a notion that proved intoxicating to many people, including Darren McGarvey. If anything, the SNP shamelessly used long-term tragic circumstances such as his to get votes for the independence cause based on the idea that only with independence could Scotland build the sort of fairer society where children would not grow up in dire poverty like McGarvey and his family.

     Again, this was countered by the fact that there is deep poverty in other parts of the UK – in Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Swansea, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff, Belfast, and London itself – and that it made more sense for the UK to stay together as a country in order to achieve progress together through common solidarity among the British people and the pooling and sharing of resources.

     The SNP slickly attempted to appeal to people’s fears and anxieties by telling them that independence would make it all better, and many – feeling they nothing to lose – voted Yes. Since then, they have stuck with the SNP, and as they watch to see the SNP make compromises to stay in power, some have become dismayed like McGarvey over tax policy. Others are concerned about the Named Person initiative, the lack of transparency in government, and more recently, the SNP cozying up to China. Increasingly, they are venting their frustration on social media, some are leaving the party, and prominent independence-sympathetic writers such as Iain Macwhirter and Kevin McKenna are warning the SNP to not forget the people and ideals they had brought to the fore in 2014. At some point, people may question the point of separation and ask whether it is truly worth it.

     But in the words of columnist David Torrance during the leaders debate on March 24th:

     That being said – and with Labour and the Liberal Democrats proposing tax increases – it is difficult to imagine the SNP not being in power once again – likely with another majority. However, there does seem to be a realization on the part of some people that the SNP and its vision for separation are not magic bullets that can solve anyone’s problems. The sooner this is realized by more individuals, the better, so that folks of all persuasions throughout the United Kingdom can join together to move forward to create the better society that everyone wants.