Commentary on Sixteen Scottish Westminster Constituencies

Maps of some Scottish council area's with UK parliamentary constituency boundaries superimposed over them. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK

Maps of some Scottish council area's with UK parliamentary constituency boundaries superimposed over them. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK

     For the past several months, I have been busy with several things and have not had a lot of time to update this blog or do much writing at all, but I would have been remiss if I had not written something in the lead-up to the upcoming general election for the UK Parliament (Westminster) in Scotland.

     It is virtually certain that the SNP will win the majority of Scotland’s seats at Westminster, but it is also clear that they will lose some seats, perhaps in the double digits if certain constituencies vote in a way that leads to a pro-Union MP. What I am presenting here are my thoughts and analysis on the 16 constituencies which appear to have a realistic possibility of changing hands from the SNP or are being defended by the solitary Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat MP’s from Scotland.

     The following commentary is based on polling (insofar as they can be believed and on a national swing), the historical background and trends of these constituencies, the performance of parties at last year’s Scottish Parliament (Holyrood) election and this year's local council elections, and in some cases, the personal qualities of the candidates. I will note that there are caveats to be observed, especially with regard to local elections being an indicator of general election performance, partly because of the use of the single transferable vote (STV) system, as well as due to the number of Independent candidates. Also, some people may simply vote differently in local elections from what they may do in parliamentary elections for Westminster and/or Holyrood. Furthermore, national swings may not pick up local factors which may decide the outcome in individual constituencies, and of course, the polling and my own assumptions may be wrong.

     That being said, I believe I have tried my best to explain my reasoning with these constituencies as all three main pro-Union parties attempt to keep what they have and potentially make some gains at the expense of the SNP and place a dent in that party's claim for a mandate on having another divisive separation referendum.

Aberdeen South – Within the city of Aberdeen, this constituency in the southern part of the city is currently occupied by the SNP’s Callum McGraig, who won the seat two years ago by defeating Labour’s Dame Anne Begg with a majority of 7,200 votes. It has been in continuous use since 1885, and during that time, solidly voted for Liberal MP’s until 1918 when it began electing a string of Conservative’s in a chain broken only twice in 1966 and 1987 by Labour MP’s – one of whom was Donald Dewar, the future leader of Scottish Labour and inaugural First Minister of Scotland. The Tory hold on this area ended in 1997 with the election of Dame Anne, who went on to hold the seat for the next 18 years and became the first Labour politician to hold it for more than one parliamentary term. During this time, the Liberal Democrats became the main challengers before the SNP leapfrogged both them and the Tories to defeat Dame Anne in 2015.

At Holyrood since the first devolved parliamentary election in 1999, the LibDems won this seat via Nicol Stephen until 2011 when its successor seat, Aberdeen South and North Kincardine was won by the SNP’s Maureen Watt. She was re-elected in 2016, albeit with a significantly reduced majority against a 20% surge in the Tory vote under Ross Thomson, who came in second place but nevertheless gained a seat as a regional list MSP for the North East region. Thomson came in fourth when he contested the Westminster seat two years ago, but is now in a position to possibly win it this time around. An overall reaction against the SNP’s obsession for another referendum in a city which overwhelmingly voted to maintain the United Kingdom is working in his favor and he is sure to build on his name recognition and electoral performance over the last two years, which has seen the Tories become the main challengers to the SNP. Local elections this year saw them emerge as the second biggest party in terms of council seats and winning one of the wards which make up the parliamentary constituency. Combined perhaps with tactical votes from the wards where the LibDems were the biggest party, Ross Thomson and the Tories are in a very good chance to win here and help to send a message to the SNP.

Berwickshire, Roxburgh, and Selkirk – Covering most of the Scottish Borders council area, this constituency in the southeast of Scotland was the most marginal throughout Scotland at the 2015 general election – with the SNP’s Calum Kerr beating Conservative candidate John Lamont by just 328 votes, and now Lamont, who has held the corresponding seat at Holyrood since 2007, is standing once again for a rematch with Kerr.

Both men in 2015 were well ahead of the previous incumbent, Michael Moore, who had served as Secretary of State for Scotland during the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. In turn, Moore represented what had been this area’s affinity with the Liberals/Liberal Democrats since former party leader David Steel won a predecessor constituency from the Tories in 1965 and in fact, Moore was Steel’s successor to the Ettrick, Tweeddale, and Lauderdale seat before it was combined with the equally LibDem seat of Roxburgh and Berwickshire to form the current constituency in 2005, which Moore won and held for ten years. The Tories remained the main challengers here and at the Holyrood level, both seats returned LibDem MSP’s until the aforementioned John Lamont won Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Now known with expanded boundaries as Ettrick, Roxborough, and Berwickshire, Lamont has been re-elected twice, including at last year’s parliamentary election where he grew his majority and won 55% of the vote. Meanwhile, the SNP became the main challengers as the LibDems were pushed into third place.

At the local level, the Tories have also grown in strength. This year’s council elections resulted in them being the biggest party in terms of seats on the Scottish Borders Council and in terms of first preference votes cast. More crucially for the upcoming general election, they were the winning party in six of the ten local wards which make up the Westminster constituency where they are the main challengers to the SNP. Assuming the voting patterns of this year and last year hold up, John Lamont and the Conservatives should win this seat.

Dumfries and Galloway, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh, and Selkirk. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Dumfries and Galloway, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh, and Selkirk. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Dumfries and Galloway – Located in the southwest of Scotland, this constituency is located entirely within the larger Dumfries and Galloway council area, and the current MP is the SNP’s Richard Arkless, who defeated Labour’s Russell Brown in 2015 with a 6,500 vote majority. Before 2005 when the present seat was formed, this area’s predecessor seats had been a Conservative-SNP battleground, but voted for Conservative MP’s in every parliament but two since 1931, including Ian Lang, who served as Scottish Secretary and President of the Board of Trade under John Major. Lang’s parliamentary career began when he defeated the SNP’s George Thompson for the Galloway constituency in 1979 and ended when he lost his expanded seat of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale to the SNP’s Alasdair Morgan in 1997. Morgan then lost the seat to Tory candidate Peter Duncan in 2001, and the seat had the distinction of being the only one in Scotland to change hands that year. Four years later, it was largely replaced by the current seat, which was won and held by Labour via the aforementioned Russell Brown for ten years.

Meanwhile at the Holyrood level, except for the first election in 1999 which resulted in the election of Alasdair Morgan to the corresponding seat he had at Westminster, the Conservatives have held it and the successor seat of Galloway and West Dumfries since 2003, and at last year’s Scottish Parliament election, the Tories under Finlay Carson (replacing the retiring Alex Fergusson) increased their majority for that seat. During this year’s local elections, they won the biggest number of first preference votes in five of the eight wards which make up the Westminster seat, while also winning the biggest number of votes throughout the entire Dumfries and Galloway council area (which voted overwhelmingly against separation), as well as holding more council seats than any other party.

This seat may be close in the end at this election, but so long as the Tories turn out their vote and perhaps get some tactical votes their way, they ought to win this from the SNP.

Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale – This constituency will be one to watch for the simple reason that it is represented by David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland. His status in that role and as the sole Scottish Conservative MP has made him a target for the SNP, which would love to claim a significant scalp and deliver a blow to prospects of a Conservative revival north of the Tweed. What’s interesting about this area is that it represents an amalgamation of political traditions which has made it a marginal seat and difficult to predict – having elements of the old Dumfries constituency along the border, the Clydesdale constituency to the north, and the Tweeddale, Ettrick, and Lauderdale constituency to the east. Dumfriesshire had been a safe Tory area and held for over 30 years by Hector Munro until Labour’s Russell Brown won it in 1997; Clydesdale and its predecessor seat of Lanark had returned Labour MP’s since the 1950’s; and the Tweeddale/Peeblesshire area has been part of Liberal/Liberal Democrat-voting constituencies since the 1960’s under David Steel.

When the current constituency was formed for the 2005 election, it was thought to be a Labour-oriented seat based on notional results from the 2001 election, but David Mundell won it and has held since with an increased majority in 2010 and barely hung on by 798 votes two years ago against the SNP tide. However, changes in voting patterns favorable to Mundell and a more polarized electorate divided over the issue of another referendum has made this election Mundell’s to lose. Last year, the Holyrood constituency of Dumfriesshire, held by Labour since its creation in 1999, had been won by Mundell’s son Oliver in the parliamentary election. At the same election in Clydesdale, the Tories jumped to second place against the SNP, which had taken the seat from Labour in 2011 and the party also showed similar strength in Midlothian South, Tweeddale, and Lauderdale against the SNP, which had also ended LibDem hegemony in this area. Furthermore, at local elections this year, many if not most of the council wards (from the Dumfries and Galloway, South Lanarkshire, and Scottish Borders councils) which make up the DCT constituency were ones in which the Conservatives had won the biggest number of votes. Assuming the aforementioned patterns hold up, David Mundell should be re-elected with a bigger majority, but he needs to get his vote out because we know the Nats will surely turn out their own.

East Dunbartonshire – Formerly a long-time Labour area to the north of Glasgow, this seat in its current incarnation had been held by the Liberal Democrats via Jo Swinson from 2005 to 2015 when she lost it to the SNP’s John Nicolson by 2,100 votes. Now Swinson, who was a government minister in the Cameron-Clegg coalition administration, is standing to regain her old seat in a re-match against Nicolson, a former BBC journalist who has become somewhat more known for other things rather than his work as a parliamentarian, such as his apparent role (along with fellow SNP MP Pete Wishart) in applying political pressure on media company STV to sideline digital editor and commentator Stephen Daisley for opinion articles and Twitter activity – at times aimed at the SNP – which displeased him. That aside, what makes this seat interesting is that while Swinson is the odds-on favorite win and some projections have her party winning back that seat or at least within striking distance, the results from last year’s parliamentary election for Holyrood and this year’s local council election don’t bear that out.

Again, looking through the history of this area since World War II at the Westminster and Holyrood levels, it is not exactly clear how the LibDem’s managed to win this seat in the first place. In fact, the Conservatives have had better chances here over the years and indeed, they briefly held the old East Dunbartonshire seat in 1974, as well as its successor seat of Strathkelvin and Bearsden in the 1980’s. Labour and now the SNP have been winners here, and at the 2016 Holyrood election, there was a larger vote share and vote increase for the Tories than for the LibDem’s in the corresponding Scottish Parliament seats. At this year’s local elections, the SNP won the biggest number of first preference votes in all of council wards which make up the constituency save for two, and one of them – Bearsden South – was topped by the Tories, who in some projections are better positioned to beat the SNP in the constituency. That said, the LibDems have had decent representation on the council in the two decades since it was formed and they did manage to double their current representation to six seats (second to the SNP and on par with the Tories), albeit that probably had more to do with the vagaries of the STV proportional voting system.

Perhaps it all comes down to Jo Swinson as an individual, rather than any party label, and indeed during the run-up to the last general election, it was believed that her personal qualities and reputation as a local MP would save her from defeat. As it was, those factors were not enough against the SNP tide, but perhaps voters are reconsidering her for who she is and what she brings to the table. If enough of them vote based on those considerations, Swinson – perhaps with additional help via tactical voting – may very well return to Westminster.

East Lothian – If Labour is going to gain a seat anywhere in Scotland, it will likely be here. Known for Labour politicians such as John Mackintosh and John Home Robertson, since World War II, this area has had a non-Labour MP only three times – from 1951-1966 and February 1974-October 1974 when it was held by the Tories, and since 2015 by the SNP’s George Kerevan, who was elected in the SNP tsunami that year. Most election predictions have it either staying with the SNP or going the Conservatives, but there are two reasons not to count Labour out; it retained the mostly overlapping Holyrood constituency last year on an increased majority and the party was also the largest one in terms of votes cast and seats won at this year’s local council elections. However, it must be remembered that the MSP of the Holyrood constituency, former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, has held the seat since 2007 and it is therefore possible that he benefited from a personal vote which was attached more so to his incumbency and not to his party label. Furthermore, as has been stated, local elections are not always solid predictors of parliamentary elections as they tend to be in different years, but since both are occurring just over a month of each other, perhaps a bit more weight ought to be placed on what happened at the May election. If Labour does win, it will be by the slimmest of margins against an incumbent SNP MP with a 6,800 vote majority and a Conservative candidate who may benefit from a national swing toward her party.

Inverclyde, Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Paisley and Renfrewshire South, East Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire, East Dunbartonshire, Glasgow (North West, South West, North, South, Central, North East, and East),   Cumbernauld ,  Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and Airdrie and Shotts. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Inverclyde, Paisley and Renfrewshire North, Paisley and Renfrewshire South, East Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire, East Dunbartonshire, Glasgow (North West, South West, North, South, Central, North East, and East), Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and Airdrie and Shotts. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

East Renfrewshire – This is another constituency where a national swing to the Conservatives may yield a gain and like East Lothian, it was a bit of a story to tell. For most of the last century, this seat (known as Eastwood from 1983-2005) was solidly Tory and once was the safest Tory seat in Scotland until Jim Murphy won it during the Labour landslide of 1997 and he held on with increased majorities to make it one of the safest Labour seats in Scotland until he was consumed by the SNP’s own landslide in 2015 and lost to Kirsten Oswald, who now defends a 3,700 vote majority. After 20 years, it appears that this seat will return to the Conservative fold and there is good reason to believe this. Last year, the parallel Holyrood constituency – still called Eastwood and compassing a smaller area – elected Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, who defeated Labour’s Ken Macintosh, the person who had held the seat since its creation in 1999. Furthermore, the Tories won the largest number of votes and council seats here at this year’s local elections. The Labour Party has selected Blair McDougall to stand for the seat and as the one-time director of the cross-party Better Together campaign against separation, he has name recognition and pro-Union credentials which make him more likely to win than a run-of-the-mill candidate in an area that voted heavily in favor of the Union in 2014. However, it does appear that if this seat switches hands, it will be Tories who will reclaim an old heartland.

Edinburgh South – Labour’s only other realistic chance at this election will be here, where Ian Murray stood alone as the rest of his party colleagues lost their seats two years ago. Not only did he buck the trend against the SNP in keeping his seat, he also managed to increase his majority and this was probably due to some tactical voting by Tory and Liberal Democrat voters, as well as Murray’s personal appeal as an incumbent local MP. Among other things and as a supporter of Hearts of Midlothian F.C., he chaired the Foundation of Hearts, which was organized by fans to save the club and buy it out of administration after its finances had collapsed in 2013. Murray himself, according to the Scotsman, played a “key part in membership drives, fundraising to ensure the club remained afloat and spearheading negotiations with administrators” which resulted in Hearts coming out of administration and on track to be purchased by FOH and its 8,000+ paying members.

With this profile and a reputation as a hard-working, responsive, and effective MP, perhaps its no surprise that he managed to hang on in 2015 more so because of his personal appeal than his party label, and he may have to rely on that personal appeal again in the face of the SNP and the resurgent Conservatives. Together, they were the most voted parties at this year’s local elections in the council wards which make up Edinburgh South and the Conservatives have a longer history of holding this seat than Labour – probably most notably by Sir William Darling, a great-uncle of former Labour chancellor and Better Together chairman Alistair Darling. However, Labour managed to gain the parallel Holyrood seat at last year’s parliamentary election and the party is reportedly going all-out here by pouring virtually all its Edinburgh resources into getting Murray re-elected, but it will likely be Murray’s personal relationship with his constituency that will get him over the line.

Edinburgh South West – Once the seat of the aforementioned Labour grandee Alistair Darling, it was taken by the SNP’s Joanna Cherry in 2015 and now stands as a potential Tory pick-up if the polls are to be believed. Before the 2005 general election, most of this area was once the Edinburgh Pentlands constituency, which was solidly Tory from its creation in 1950 and most notably held by one-time Foreign Secretary Sir Malcom Rifkind, who was the longest-serving MP for Pentlands until he was defeated by Labour’s Lynda Clark in 1997. Sir Malcolm failed to regain the seat in 2001 and the subsequently reorganized South West constituency was held by Labour for ten years. Meanwhile, the parallel Holyrood seat – still named Pentlands – has been held by Labour, Conservative, and SNP MSP’s (including the late former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie) since its creation in 1999. The Conservatives came in second place here at the 2016 Holyrood election and at the local elections this year, they were also the most voted party in the council wards which make up both constituencies. This seat may come down to the wire on election night, so if the Tories want to win this seat, they will have to turn out their vote and probably hope for some tactical pro-Union support from Labour and LibDem voters.

Falkirk, Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Livingston, Edinburgh West, Edinburgh South West, Edinburgh South, Edinburgh North and Leith, Edinburgh East, Midlothian, and East Lothian. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Falkirk, Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Livingston, Edinburgh West, Edinburgh South West, Edinburgh South, Edinburgh North and Leith, Edinburgh East, Midlothian, and East Lothian. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Edinburgh West – It’s probably safe to say that this seat has gotten much attention over the last two years because of its current occupant Michelle Thomson, who was elected in 2015 as an SNP MP, but resigned the party whip before the year was out to sit as an Independent in the face of controversy and alleged impropriety over past property dealings. She’s not standing at this election and the Liberal Democrats – who lost the seat to her – are seeking to retake it as one of their target seats, and they have good reason to feel positive about their chances. At the Holyrood election last year for the overlapping constituency of Edinburgh Western, the LibDem’s via Alex Cole-Hamilton took back that seat from the SNP and at this year’s local council elections they were the most voted party in most of the council wards which make up both constituencies.

That being said, this was once a solid Tory seat from 1931 until 1997 when the LibDems gained it, and as with just about elsewhere in Scotland, the Tories are gaining steam. However, this is also among the seats where one or more of the three pro-Union parties are not actively campaign and using precious resources in a constituency where they know they won't have a chance, so that the party with the best chance of beating the SNP will do so. Here in Edinburgh West, that would appear to be the Liberal Democrats, whose candidate is Christine Jardine, who unsuccessfully contested the Gordon constituency against Alex Salmond in 2015. Recently, an SNP supporter publicly and falsely accused her of campaigning during the period when political activity was suspended in the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack when in fact, she was out burying her husband. This controversy once again raised the profile of this particular race and its importance to all concerned. For the LibDem’s in particular, it will be a building block back to relevance and for those of a pro-Union persuasion generally, winning this seat will be an important step forward in turning back the SNP tide.

Moray – If anything may signal the state of the SNP for better or worse, perhaps no better expression will be found than here, where Angus Robertson, the party’s deputy leader and Westminster group leader has been MP since 2001. This area was once reliably Conservative expect for when the SNP won the predecessor constituencies in 1974, but since this constituency was created in 1983, the Conservatives won it only on the first time and the SNP has held it since 1987. The party has also held the parallel Holyrood seat since its creation in 1999, but the Tories managed slash the SNP majority from 38.3% to 8.6% during the 2016 parliamentary election and in 2017 for the first time, they were the biggest party in terms of votes cast in the Moray Council election (though the SNP won more seats). Additionally, Moray had the highest Scottish “Leave” vote in the EU referendum (49.9%) and also voted against separation by a margin of 57.6% to 42.4%. With all being said, this is a prime area for the Tories, but Robertson is a formidable incumbent who will be hard to dislodge and – this can’t be stressed enough – council elections and referendums are not necessarily the best predictors of parliamentary elections. They will have to maximize what appears to be their core vote in the northwest of the constituency and elsewhere to claim this top scalp from the SNP.

North East Fife – Once solidly Liberal/Liberal Democrat for nearly 30 years under Sir Menzies Campbell, it fell to the SNP’s Stephen Gethins in 2015. Before that, it and its predecessor seat of East Fife tended to vote for Tories since the 1930’s and traded between the Liberals and Tories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its most notable occupant likely being the Liberal Prime Minister, Henry Herbert Asquith. In the present day, the Liberal Democrats are eyeing this seat as another one to take back from the SNP, but the Tories appear be gaining strength here as well and the SNP itself is not to be counted out. However, the LibDems unexpectedly won the corresponding Holyrood seat of the same name via their Scottish leader Willie Rennie at last year’s parliamentary election and the Fife Council wards which make up the constituency gave their biggest number of first preference votes to the LibDems at the council election this year. To win this seat and the others already mentioned as well as holding on to Orkney and Shetland would be a good night for them, all things considered, but as with everywhere else, they will have to turn out their usual voters and probably hope for tactical votes from other parties.

Orkney and Shetland – This is a seat with two main story lines attached to it. One is of political longevity, because save for a 15 year period from 1935 to 1950, Orkney and Shetland has been sending Liberal and Liberal Democrat MP’s such as Jo Grimond and Jim Wallace continuously since 1837, with the streak since 1950 being the longest run within any British parliamentary constituency and making it at one time, 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.

This leads to the second story - one of political survival. After holding on to his seat, Carmichael – who has been in Parliament since 2001 – 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.

However, 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, and at the Holyrood election last year, the Liberal Democrats retained the separate Orkney and Shetland constituencies with increased majorities under Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott respectively. Meanwhile, this year’s local election can’t give any indication of which way the general election will go because Shetland Council and Orkney Council are heavily stocked with Independent councillors. However, most polling and projections have Alistair Carmichael surviving for another Parliament, perhaps with an increased majority – maybe an indication people being tired of the SNP and/or some tactical voting, but probably more so that voters have moved on and recognize him as their local MP who has worked in their interests for 16 years.

Perth and North Perthshire, Ochil and South Perthshire, Dunfermline and West Fife, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Glenrothes, North East Fife, Dundee West, Dundee East, and Angus. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Perth and North Perthshire, Ochil and South Perthshire, Dunfermline and West Fife, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Glenrothes, North East Fife, Dundee West, Dundee East, and Angus. Image Credit: @ElectionMapsUK on Twitter

Perth and North Perthshire – The current occupant of this seat has in some way become more known for his use of Twitter than his work as an MP (winning Parliamentary Tweeter of the Year Award for 2015), particularly with regard to calling those who voted “No” in 2014 “nawbags” and sharing a tweet with foul-mouthed references to pro-Union parties in the lead-up to the council elections this year. He was also the alleged co-conspirator (with the aforementioned John Nicolson) in leaning on STV to sideline digital editor and commentator Stephen Daisley for opinion articles and Twitter activity – sometimes aimed at the SNP – which displeased him. In so doing, he has become a significant target for those wanting to get rid of him.

Pete Wishart has represented this area since he was elected to what was Tayside North in 2001, following in the footsteps of John Swinney, who now represents the corresponding seat of Perthshire North at Holryrood and is currently Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary in the Scottish Government. Before either of them, Perthshire regularly returned Conservative MP’s, including political notables such as Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, and Bill Walker. Only once before the modern era of the SNP did that party win here, and that was when Douglas Crawford held the Perth and East Perthshire seat from October 1974 to 1979. However, the SNP remained the main challengers to the Tories in the Perthshire area constituencies, and following the death of Nicholas Fairbairn in 1995, his Perth and Kinross seat went to the SNP’s Roseanna Cunningham in the resulting by-election. Two years later, John Swinney won Tayside North from Bill Walker during the 1997 Labour victory which saw the Tories losing all of their Scottish seats. Wishart succeeded Swinney in 2001 when the latter stood down to focus on his work at Holyrood and when the current Perth and North Perthshire seat was formed in 2005, the Conservatives narrowly lost it to Wishart, who has since increased his majority in subsequent elections.

However, the party is potentially looking its best chance to regain a foothold in Perthshire. At last year’s Holyrood election, Swinney saw his majority slashed from 10,300 votes to 3,300 in a 12% swing to the Conservatives and this year’s local elections saw the party become the largest in terms of votes cast in the Perth and Kinross council area (60% of which voted against separation) and number of council seats. More crucially, the party also received the biggest number of votes in all of the council wards which make up Wishart’s constituency except for the city of Perth itself. Victory for the Conservatives is indeed very possible here, especially with Perthshire native and European Parliament member Ian Duncan standing this year, but he and his party will have to maximize their vote in the northern and rural wards where they are most favorable and perhaps also hope for tactical votes from elsewhere in order to send Wishart looking for musical gigs and to send a message that they are back in business in Perthshire.

Stirling – This constituency at the heart of Scotland is conterminous with the Stirling council area and is currently represented by SNP MP Steven Paterson, who won it by a hefty majority of over 10,000 votes two years ago. Before then, the seat had been held by the Labour Party via Dame Anne McGuire since 1997 when she defeated the Conservative Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth – the inaugural holder of the seat since its creation in 1983 – who was one of the major political scalps in that general election as a cabinet minister and a casualty of the Tory wipe-out in Scotland.

Like Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale to the south, it represents an amalgamation of old political traditions. The northern and more rural area used to be part of the Kinross and Western Perthshire constituency which had been represented by Conservatives such as Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home; the old West Stirlingshire elements and the area including and surrounding the city of Stirling were more geared towards Labour. The result was a constituency that began as a safe Tory seat, then became a Tory-Labour marginal, and then a safe Labour seat before falling to the SNP in 2015.

At Holyrood, the corresponding seat – also called Stirling – was represented by Labour from 1999-2007 and has since been held by the SNP. However, the Conservatives have remained steady at around a quarter of the vote in both the Westminster and Holyrood constituencies, and at last year’s Holyrood election, they made gains to come in second place in Stirling. The local elections this year saw them emerge as the party with the biggest number of first preference votes and on par with the SNP in terms of seats on Stirling Council. The ward maps show the strongest vote for the Tories came from the northern and western wards, so if they can maximize their vote there, find some votes elsewhere (especially in the suburbs around Stirling), and can benefit from some tactical voting, they may well regain this for the first time in 20 years.

West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine – Located within the Aberdeenshire council area in the northeast of Scotland, this constituency is currently held by SNP MP Stuart Donaldson, who won it in 2015 with a majority of 7,000 votes from the Liberal Democrat Sir Robert Smith, who had held it since it was created in 1997. Before that, this area had typically returned Conservatives to Parliament, though Liberals and Liberal Democrats have had breakthroughs from time to time and provided the main competition to the Conservatives. This Tory-LibDem dynamic remained true after the LibDems became the dominant party in the 1990’s and continued until the SNP ascendancy two years ago, which resulted in the LibDems being pushed into third place, behind the SNP and Tories.

At the Holyrood level, the first devolved election in 1999 resulted in the Liberal Democrats winning the corresponding seat under Mike Rumbles, who then held it until 2011 when he lost the successor seat of Aberdeenshire West to the SNP’s Dennis Robertson. Five years later, Robertson lost the seat to the Tory candidate Alexander Burnett by 900 votes. This was one of the surprise events of the 2016 Holyrood election, and it showed the ultimate potential of Conservative strength in the North East against the SNP on a night when other constituencies like this one experienced sharp swings from the SNP to the Conservatives. Then at the local elections this year where the party ended up with more seats on the Aberdeenshire Council than any other party, it was also the winner in the wards which comprise the Westminster-level constituency. Combined with the fact that this area voted heavily in favor of maintaining the UK, it’s virtually clear the Conservatives are favorites to win here against the SNP and regain another old heartland.

Final Thoughts

     These are the 16 constituencies which I believe may possibly be held by a pro-Union MP at this general election. Some of them are more certain to turn out that way than others, but as I have stated, there are caveats and I am prepared to be wrong. Of course, I hope I’m not wrong and that all of these seats will be held by a pro-Union MP’s, if not potentially more. Indeed, I have heard some rumblings about places such as Rutherglen and Hamilton West returning to Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith potentially becoming Conservative territory, and perhaps even one of the Highland seats being re-gained by the Liberal Democrats. Another one is the Gordon constituency held by former First Minister Alex Salmond, which some are hoping will change hands to deliver a bloody nose to the SNP. In fact, there is some reason to believe that it may for much of the same reasons as Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine. However, there was not enough for me conclude that they are likely to flip from the SNP and in Salmond’s case, his notoriety alone makes me hesitant to say that he will likely lose his seat. The same holds for his old seat of Banff and Buchan, which may vote Conservative based on Brexit and the council election results, but the polling and projections have yet to show enough of a swing to the Tories to say that the constituency will vote for them.

     If anything, what I have tried to do here is base what I have said on polling, trends, and reasoned assumptions, which has resulted in a relatively realistic, but hopeful outlook. Indeed, one encouraging element of the polls has been the apparent decline in support for separation and the SNP, which in turn makes it more likely that more seats will elect a pro-Union MP - if not now, but in the future should this trend continue. For now, the only poll that matter of course is the one on June 8th, and we shall see by Friday morning how right or wrong we all were about this election, especially with regard to Scotland, and I definitely hope that enough of an impact will be made to make the SNP think again.

EVEL: Constitutional Earthquake or Wee Breeze in a Tea Cup?

The Parliament of the United Kingdom   (Credit:    Jim Trodel    via    Flickr     cc   )

The Parliament of the United Kingdom (Credit: Jim Trodel via Flickr cc)

     So it has happened: English Votes or English Laws, or EVEL.

     By a vote of 312 to 270 in the House of Commons, procedures in the lower chamber of Parliament have been changed to empower the Speaker of the House to determine whether legislation coming before the Commons affects England, England and Wales, or the entire United Kingdom as a whole. If the Speaker determines that it is an English or English and Welsh matter only, a “grand committee” of the affected MP’s will decide on amendments and if the matter can go forward to the next parliamentary stages, which involve all members of the House and results in a final vote by the full House. If however, the Speaker determines that it is a UK-wide matter, then the legislation will go through the normal parliamentary processes.

     This is government’s response to the long-asked West Lothian Question, which refers to the situation whereby Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MP’s are able to vote on matters at Westminster which are now exercised by their respective devolved legislatures. This effectively means that they are voting on some issues that do not directly affect their constituents – ones which directly affect England only – but English MP’s cannot do the same to with regard to devolved issues (such as health and education) in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. It is an anomaly that has been debated and discussed for nearly 40 years during the debates on Scottish and Welsh devolution, and even farther back to the debates on Irish Home Rule.

     The basic principle is that as more central government powers are devolved to the legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh, English MP’s at Westminster should have a greater say on matters that affect only their constituents – lest an English-only bill supported by the majority of English MP’s is defeated by a majority of MP’s from across the whole United Kingdom, including those from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

     Sounds simple? It isn’t.

     For starts, the Palace of Westminster is home to the Parliament of the United Kingdom (which includes England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), and as such, all matters before it should be decided amongst all MP’s, regardless of their geographical location.

     Furthermore, what issues are “English only” or “English and Welsh only”? Without a known criteria, this may well become a contentious issue, for even though a matter may be viewed as English-only in its legal and territorial definition, MP’s from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can also argue that the legislation can (and will) have effects on the rest of the UK.

     Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of public spending, because through the Barnett Formula – the mechanism which decides how money is allocated throughout the UK – spending decisions applying to England have knock-on effects in other parts of the UK. If public spending in England goes up by 2% for any reason in any area, then the amount of block grant money allocated to the Scottish Parliament for example must rise as well. This matters on issues such as proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London, so that if money is spent on it from the UK Treasury, then spending in Scotland must increase by a proportionate amount. If health spending decreases in England, then the block grant also gets cut for the devolved legislatures. These are known as “Barnett Consequentials”, and are therefore presented as a reason why non-English MP’s ought to continue to vote on some “English” matters because of their indirect effects elsewhere. (It should be noted that public spending in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is typically higher per head than the UK average, whilst in England, it tends to be slightly lower.)

     There is also concern regarding the potential politicization of the Speaker, a person who must observe political neutrality in his or her position. This may prove difficult when making decisions on what is and is not an English-only matter, and the decision reached by the Speaker will have far-ranging consequences either way with the decision that is reached, because they will establish precedents for future decisions. A Speaker may also be accused of acting in the interests of one party or the other, or far worse, acting in the interest of one part of the UK over the other, and this may undermine the authority and legitimacy of the Speaker.

     However, the biggest problem with EVEL pertains to the composition of the Commons itself and the government of the day. A UK government is formed by the party that commands the confidence of the Commons, and this is usually done by having that party holding a majority of seats via a general election. Traditionally, this means that the governing party has the ability to get its agenda through via the support of its MP’s from throughout the country.

     But with EVEL, this becomes problematic if a government has an overall UK majority, but not a majority in England, and if a Speaker determines that an issue becoming before the Commons is “English-only” and a grand committee of English MP’s effectively vetoes the legislation before it comes to the full House. It could – as some fear – lead to a situation where the government cannot act effectively and is held hostage by the UK minority/English majority – resulting in the sort of political stand-offs like those in the US with situations where the houses of Congress and the White House are controlled by different parties. It could potentially generate a massive constitutional crisis and put the Union under terrific strain.

     Interestingly, the party that appeared to be most concerned about EVEL was the SNP, the very political party that wants to break up Britain.

     Leading the charge was the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, Pete Wishart, who could not contain his “outrage” when he tweeted, “Well that’s it. With a majority of 42, Scots MPs are now second class in the UK parliament they were so determined to keep us in.” He further claimed that the change in standing orders amounted to a “slap in the face to Scots voters which they are unlikely to forget”.

     This was the man who claimed – quite passionately – last year on the BBC that he had “no concern or issue” with EVEL, and claimed that it was “an issue that the Scottish people could not care less about”. To Wishart, the debate over EVEL was an “inconsequential spat” which Scots were “not interested in”, and the voters in his constituency “could not care less about policing in Peckham or Plymouth.”

     Indeed, up until recently, the SNP believed in the principle of EVEL and Scottish MP’s abstaining on English matters. In 2007, Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in the Commons asked Prime Minister Gordon Brown (an Scottish MP) if it was not “completely iniquitous” that MP’s representing English constituencies “are not able to decide on matters in Scotland but Scottish MPs…can vote on matters which only impact on England. Why does he not join the SNP in abstaining on these issues?”

     Think of that: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom not being able to vote on an issue in Parliament – probably a bill backed by his or her government – simply because he or she represents a Scottish constituency.

     This of course, would be the natural concern of pro-Union folks who do not want to see Scotland’s voice in any way diminished at Westminster or have top ministerial posts denied to them by the effects of EVEL.

     However, the self-righteous outrage by the SNP was nothing less than rank hypocrisy and an attempt to engage in grievance-mongering about Scotland’s place in the UK. The SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie, who was recently owned in an interview by Andrew Neil last Sunday, mockingly referred to the campaign last year to save the Union with his remark that, “When they said ‘Better Together’ they meant second class. When they said ‘lead, don’t leave’ they meant Scots votes don’t count.”

     For a party that likes to claim that pro-Union parties are behind the curve on the changes wrought by devolution (like on matters such as the BBC and taxation), it is somewhat amusing that they are the ones getting all hopped-up here, especially when their former leader Alex Salmond once said:

If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own health service or education system, my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had that in reverse through the 1980s.

     That last sentence refers to when the Conservatives had a majority throughout the UK as a whole, but not in Scotland where Labour held the majority of seats, which led to the idea of English MP’s “overruling” the will of the Scottish people. Back then, there was only one parliament which represented all of the British people in full and laws were made on the behalf of and for the British people from Shetland to Land’s End. For that reason, the idea of English MP’s overruling Scottish ones made little sense, and was more about stoking grievances. Nevertheless, the eventual response was devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but there was no corresponding action in England. Now that this has occurred with EVEL, the Nationalists are outraged.

     Never mind that this is the consequence of devolution and forget their own previous statements. It’s at this point where I defer to Alex Massie of The Spectator, who wrote:

“There is something irksome about all this gurning; a reminder that grievance is the nationalists’ reserve currency. Ignore them and they will howl; give them what they want and they will find a reason to complain too.

And what of Scotland, poor old Scotland? As always, she is the victim. Whatever happens, she will be molested. The only thing worse than London’s interference in her affairs is London’s indifference to those affairs. And vice versa.”

     Let us not forget: the SNP wants see Britain broken up, which is why for all of the indignation they show, they actually welcome EVEL because it gives them yet another ax to grind which they can use for separation. After all in their eyes, it’s just another example of Scotland being mistreated by big bad Westminster. If anything, their decision back in the summer to announce that they would vote on the issue of fox hunting in England and Wales may well have been an attempt to goad David Cameron to ensuring that EVEL became a reality, so that they can use it for their never-ending campaign for secession. They know that since their economic case for secession is tenuous at best, the biggest asset to their ultimate and overriding aim is making Scotland to be the victim, and if that means inconsistency on the issue of English votes, so be it. Stoking up grievance and resentment is their stock and trade, and if it means poisoning relations between England and Scotland for the sake of an independent Scotland, then so be it.

     It is partly for this reason that I believe EVEL is a bad idea. Despite the Natpocrisy, it plays into their hands with the charge that Scottish MP’s – along with their Northern Irish and (at times) Welsh counterparts – have been reduced to second class status at Westminster, which feeds into the belief that only English voices matter and that Scots are not wanted (and need not be heard) in what is supposed to be the UK Parliament, despite the claim of being “better together.”

     Indeed, I expect that the SNP will be all too happy for the Speaker to declare something as English-only so that they whine about it and crank up the grievance machine.

     Then again, the West Lothian Question had to be solved, for the alternative would have been for it to be a festering contention for some people in England who saw non-English MP’s voting on what had effectively become English matters, due to devolution.

     After all, if devolution was brought about to address a “democratic deficit” with regard to Scotland’s place within the Union, and to lessen “English influence” on “Scottish affairs,” logic follows that some people in England may wish to lessen “Scottish influence” on “English affairs.”

     Joyce McMillan, a columnist for The Scotsman, said that this ignores the “brute fact” that the UK is an asymmetrical union in which 85% of the population resides in one part of the country – England, and that EVEL will shut Scotland out of critical decisions that affect the UK as a whole – including Scotland.

     However, some pro-Union supporters say that this an admission that devolution – at the very least – is a flawed concept whose architects failed to think through its implications on Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, and its implementation in a piecemeal manner failed to engage the UK as a whole on constitutional matters.

     They also contend that the asymmetry to which McMillan refers did not exist before devolution, for with a single sovereign parliament in London, all of the British people were represented by MP’s who could equally participate in the parliamentary process in full without question. This allowed for many Scots to take their rightful place in powerful and prominent positions in government – defense secretaries, home secretaries, foreign secretaries, chancellors of the Exchequer, and prime ministers – and representing the interests of the UK as a whole (including Scotland).

     In other words, if EVEL had been enacted without devolution – with Scottish representation cut or downgraded for no reason at all – then that would provide more legitimacy to the case for separation. But with devolution, the constitutional dynamics had changed, even has the politicians struggled to come to terms with it, and to some extent, attempted to ignore the issue and pretend it did not exist.

     Indeed, Alex Massie wrote in The Spectator that “the best answer to the West Lothian Question was always to stop asking it” and hope that it would just go away quietly, but recent events – the extraordinary success of the SNP in winning 56 of 59 Scottish seats in the Commons and the prospect of further devolution (including the full devolution of setting income tax) to Edinburgh – have meant that this approach will no longer work.

     From this perspective, he believes that EVEL is a “milquetoast” reform and the “least bad option available.” Other people I know on Twitter and Facebook have referred to it as “a very minor measure”, “hardly the equality of devo”, and “a wee breeze in teacup”.

     Indeed, Massie does not believe that the EVEL procedures will be used very often because he believes that the current Speaker, John Bercow, will “take an inclusive approach to these matters; an approach that will please SNP members more often than it does English MPs.” He further makes an example of how adding a third runway at Heathrow – while appearing to be an “English-only” issue – is more likely a UK-wide issue because airport capacity is something which affects the whole country. Furthermore, the aforementioned “Barnett Consequentials” also mean “that there are fewer England-only bills than often appreciated”, and if the Speaker takes these things into consideration, then EVEL may well “prove a constitutional earthquake so tiny most people will scarcely notice it.”

     Using this point of view, EVEL may be a symbolic gesture to assure most people in England that there are procedures in place to ensure that MP’s representing English constituencies will have greater scrutiny on matters deemed to be English-only. Even if the Grand Committee of English MP’s vote for consent of an England-only bill to go through to the full House of Commons, it is still possible that the bill can be defeated there. And of course, it is possible that the procedure may only be used to a such a limited extent as Massie suggests, so that the overall effect is moot, and even Chris Grayling, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, said that he anticipated that only three or four upcoming pieces of legislation may be subjected to EVEL.

      Nevertheless, Westminster is the parliament of the whole United Kingdom, and there should be no debate or question about as to who gets to vote on what, or at a particular stage just because they happen to represent the “wrong” constituency.

     This is why I believe that EVEL is a crude idea that at best is a short-term political answer, rather than a long-term constitutional solution for the United Kingdom. Indeed, the story of devolution thus far is that it was been a series of ad hoc processes with no real unifying concept with regard to the relationship between the UK and its constituent parts, and this has left the country with an unbalanced governmental structure that has eroded the constitutional fabric of the UK, and is prone to misunderstandings and grievance-mongering

     There are no easy answers, but there are ideas which should be taken into consideration. One is the reformation of the House of Lords into a chamber that represents the nations and regions of the UK, which is something about which I have written. Looking back, this probably should have been the way to go in addressing the asymmetries within the UK, which have also been noted by many pro-Union politicians such as Gordon Brown. If this had been achieved long ago, it may have averted the need for devolution, because it would have guaranteed a level of Scottish representation in the upper house that would have been on par – or nearly on par – with England, so that Scotland’s voice (or rather voices, since Scotland is just as diverse as England) could be heard and provide wisdom and scrutiny to government legislation. Even if a reformed Lords did not have the absolute ability to block government legislation, it could – with substantial Scots influence – force the government to think again on its agenda.

     Of course, there would still be people making the case for devolution and decentralization from London. In fact, the idea of revamping the United Kingdom into a federal union like the United States has taken hold in some quarters in the wake of the referendum. But even Gordon Brown has remarked that federalism can only go but so far in a country where 85% of the population lives in one area, and most forms of federalism still mean having a strong central government with the ability to levy and collect taxes, and make an array of laws that directly apply to all people throughout the entire union.

     In essence, federalism means that there are some powers exclusively exercised by the federal government, some powers exclusively exercised by the federated governments, and some powers are exercised jointly. For example, in the US and Germany, the setting of income and corporate taxes are a joint responsibility of federal and state governments. The federal governments and legislatures in both countries are quite powerful – though their power is limited in certain areas.

     Indeed, the authority of the British Parliament at Westminster has already been limited in practice, regardless of the fact that it possesses ultimate sovereignty across the UK. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Irish Assembly are now semi-permanent institutions to the point where no prime minister or his/her government will dare contemplate abolishing them.

     The issue at hand now is how these institutions, the British Parliament, and potential institutions in England can fit into a federal framework for the United Kingdom as a whole. This will require an end to ad hoc devolution (including the proposal for Full Fiscal Autonomy for Holyrood) as well as the crude answers contained in the proposals for EVEL. Joyce McMillan herself acknowledged that the decision to devolve control of setting income tax rates was “strange and hasty”, for the income tax allows for one of the most transparent forms of redistribution from wealthier parts of a country to another, and the concept of pooling and sharing resources throughout the United Kingdom for the benefit of all was one of the main arguments used for keeping Scotland as part of the Union.

     If the Union is to survive at this point, there needs to be the establishment of a UK constitutional convention that will attempt to sort out the issues of British governance and forge a lasting constitutional settlement that is as “fair” as possible to everybody.  It means looking at the United Kingdom as a whole and having a firm understanding of how it ought to work going forward, which – among other things – means defining the powers of a federal UK Parliament (as Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution does for the US Congress), the limits on the federal parliament (Article 1, Section 9), and the powers and limitations on the federated governments of the nations and regions within the UK (Article 1, Section 10).

     It also means defining the values that bring Britain together as a country, and establishing principles upon which the people and their representatives can build on.

     This effort will require an enormous amount of good faith, tact, skill, statesmanship (likely in the face of political party interest), creative imagination, and a sense of vision and purpose to make such a settlement a success.

     It will also require the participation of people from all walks of life in Britain – including ordinary citizens, civic organizations, and faith groups in an expression of British civic participation that may also facilitate bringing people together and forging a sense of a common identity and common ideals for Britain going forward.

     Balance and fairness must be restored to the constitution, for the integrity and stability of the United Kingdom, is on the line and I believe that excessive and short-sighted devolution combined with similarly short-sighted EVEL only serve to weaken and destabilize it. Indeed, it would be optimal to go back to the way things were before 1999, and start over with such a convention, and alas, we have to work with the current circumstances. Who knows? Perhaps through the debate and discussion of a convention, people may realize that having different tax jurisdictions may not work in a country the size of the UK.

     The brute reality is that Scotland and England have been “interfering” in each other’s affairs for centuries, and they really can't help it, given the island they share. The Union simply made it official, and in my opinion, it is in everyone’s interest for Britain to remain together, for Britain has so much collective potential, and its people can achieve much more together – not just for themselves, but for the world at large – than they could ever do apart.

     Taking all this into account, EVEL may not be either an earthquake or a wee breeze - perhaps something in between. Hopefully, it can lead to a greater understanding of the constitution, as well as a deeper and more meaningful look into how it can best serve the needs and interests of all the people of the United Kingdom going forward.

Just Another "Westminster" Party

Underneath the facade of being anti-Westminster, the SNP is just another "Westminster Party "   (Credit:    Jim Trodel    via    Flickr     cc   ; Modified by Wesley Hutchins) .

Underneath the facade of being anti-Westminster, the SNP is just another "Westminster Party" (Credit: Jim Trodel via Flickr cc; Modified by Wesley Hutchins).

     Throughout the independence campaign last year and the general election campaign this year, the SNP talked a lot about how it represented a “new form” of politics, and that this was diametrically different from that of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats (a.k.a., the “Westminster parties”) – characterized by cronyism, use of public office for personal gain, and political favoritism.

     Eventually, they and their acolytes went along to claim that this was not just an ethical difference between the politics of the SNP and the other parties, but a difference of moral and political cultures between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Scottish politics, we were told, was egalitarian-based, transparent, and emphasized doing right on behalf of the people. It was characterized by men and women who were honest, upstanding, trustworthy, and – most importantly – incorruptible. UK – or rather “Westminster” – politics was all about using the public trust to extract personal benefit, tightly-knit cliques, inherent corruption, and cronyism that made even saints and angels swear in disgust.

     Not so with Scottish-based politics, so this was presented as yet another reason of how Scotland and the rest of the UK were so incompatibly different, and why therefore, Scotland should have voted to separate from the rest of the UK and break up the Union. (And if you voted No, you obviously supported - according to the more fanatical Yessers - pedophilia, illegal wars, and throwing sick people off of benefits).

     In short, the politics of “Westminster” was the politics of sleaze and helping yourself, whilst the politics of Scotland (and especially the SNP) was the politics of cleanliness and helping others.

     This was a message which chimed in well with a massively cynical public that was fed up with politics and the political establishment following – among other things – the parliamentary expenses scandal and the sense that politicians looked out for themselves and their close associates and family. The SNP successfully conflated this with Westminster as an institution – as if to say this was representative of the UK as a whole – and has massively benefited as a result.

     But recent events have called this image into question.

     First, is the issue of Michelle Thomson, MP for Edinburgh West, who came to prominence during the referendum as the managing director of the pro-independence group Business for Scotland, and then became the SNP’s candidate for the Edinburgh seat in the House of Commons, which she won in the general election last May.

     She was glowingly touted within the party, not least because of her business background, which helped to give the party a pro-business image despite its increasingly left wing rhetoric to gain Labour voters. Indeed, she was portrayed – not least by herself – as the sort of business person who managed to combine commercial success with a sense of community and social justice. As such, she became the party’s Westminster spokesperson on Business, Innovation, and Skills, and was seen as a rising star.

     However, it turns out that part of her more recent success came from her and her husband purchasing properties from desperate sellers at knock-down prices in the aftermath of the financial crisis and Great Recession – people who were almost certainly facing dispossession and needed properties taken off their hands in the face of economic hardship. In one case, the Thomson’s bought an apartment from a pensioner couple for £73,000, even though the market valuation according to the Land Register was £105,000. Another person sold his property to the Thomson’s for £60,000, even though it was valued for £25,000 above that amount.

     Taking advantage of these below-market prices, the Thomson’s eventually built a property portfolio estimated to be around £2 million with 17 homes, which has probably grown in part because some properties were sold for massive profits which then went toward purchasing more expensive ones, and therefore increasing their personal wealth substantially.

     The controversy surrounding this had its seeds in May 2014 when Christopher Hales, the solicitor (lawyer) for the Thomson’s, was struck off for professional misconduct by a disciplinary tribunal which concluded that he “must have been aware that there was the possibility he was facilitating mortgage fraud” in relation to the work he did for some of his clients, including the Thomson’s.

     It finally came to light when the Sunday Times featured a report on the Hales affair and his links to Michelle Thomson, which has sparked a police investigation, the resignation of Thomson as an SNP frontbench spokesperson, and her suspension from the party, which means that the SNP has 55 MP’s at the moment (down from 56) as Thomson is now an Independent MP (in similar fashion to Labour’s Eric Joyce (Falkirk) during the 2010-2015 Parliament).

     Now, some people may say that Thomson was not an MP at the time, and that this had nothing to do with official conduct, such as using public office for personal gain – either for yourself or for close friends and relatives.

     Fair enough, but then, what about the brouhaha surrounding the T in the Park music festival and the Scottish Government’s decision to spend £150,000 of public money on it? The reason – ostensibly, at least – from Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop was that the money was needed because if it was not given, the festival may have moved out of Scotland, with a huge cost to the economy. But from all accounts, the festival was a profitable concern backed by private sponsors, so why the need for public spending here, when it could have been used to build houses or provide college places?

     The answer may have to do with the fact that the concert promoters had obtained the lobbying services of Jennifer Dempsie, a former special advisor to former SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, as well as the partner of Angus Roberston – the party’s leader in the Commons.

     Now there is nothing to suggest that Dempsie or the concert promoters did anything wrong or illegal, or indeed, that T in the Park would not have received the funding from Holyrood if Dempsie was not lobbying in its behalf. However, it goes without saying that having Dempsie on board certainly did not hurt in the pursuit of the funding, and it may not be a stretch to think that her close connections to senior party leaders helped along to ensure funding for the festival.

     In the same vein with regard to Michelle Thomson, there is nothing illegal about purchasing property at below market rates from people in a desperate situation – economic or otherwise. It must also be noted that at this point, Thomson has not been convicted of anything, much less formally accused or charged with a crime. Therefore, there is no need for her to resign her seat, and it will be for the proper authorities to decide if there is evidence that she had engaged in mortgage fraud, and if she is formally charged, it will be a court of law which decides her legal fate.

     On this note, it is now known that Law Society of Scotland “informally” raised her now-disgraced former solicitor Hales’ case with the Crown Office, but only “officially” brought it up in July this year after Thomson had become an MP. This has brought about speculation that the delay may have been due partly to the fact that Law Society committee secretary responsible for disciplinary tribunals was a member of the pro-independence group Lawyers for Yes and an admirer of Michelle Thomson. On top of that, it has been confirmed that the head of investigations at the Law Society had received the tribunal report naming the Thomson’s and their business partner, and that the Crown Office had asked for detailed case files in December 2014 and in April this year – just before the general election – but only received them in July.

     The Law Society has rushed to defend its staff from any accusation of impropriety, but the rushed press conference on Thursday appeared to raise more questions than answers – chief among them being, why did it take a year for the Crown Office to receive the case files from the tribunal investigation? At this point, there is no evidence that anyone from the Law Society acted improperly and sat on this case, so as not to endanger the independence campaign or the SNP’s – and especially Michelle Thomson’s – general election campaign. But the whiff of impropriety – that an investigation was stonewalled for political purposes – does not look good.

     In the court of public opinion, it may already be too late for Michelle Thomson, for even in the case of Thomson as a non-public official at the time of her property dealings, it brings into to question her commitment to social justice and gives a bad image for a party that claims to be standing for ordinary people against predatory interests that seek to profit from their misery.

     Between this and the T in the Park affair, you may cynically say these things happen without regard for politicians of any political party. Certainly, some Nationalists will say that “Westminster politicians” do this all the time. Nothing to see here; move along, citizen. (Furthermore, we have our own issues with cronyism in the States.)

     But, is that not the point? The SNP has gained traction by portraying itself as something unique and in another world from the “self-serving Westminster eite.” Without this distinction, what else does the SNP have going for it (aside from wanting to break up the UK)?

     However, the reality is that the SNP has never really been Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes. It will play politics and play dirty when necessary. It is a ruthless and well-oiled political machine that is not above doing whatever is required to suit its political ends. By the end of last week, Sturgeon was effectively throwing Michelle Thomson under the bus for the fact that she is no longer – at least for now – an SNP member, and Jennifer Dempsie is no longer a Holyrood candidate. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is The Cause.

     As for First Minister Sturgeon, what do we make about her claims that she and others in the party had no clue about Thomson’s business dealings in the course of being vetted to stand for election to the Commons? In a party supposedly as disciplined as the SNP, one would think that some sort of thorough background investigation would have raised a few red flags.

     Perhaps this can be excused by the fact that the party experienced a tremendous growth spurt following the referendum – climbing from around 30,000 members to over 100,000 in less than eight months, and making it the third largest political party in the UK. During that time, it may be believable that the SNP simply did not have enough staff at the time to handle all of their business from the referendum to the general election, and that they had little choice but to take Thomson at her word that there was nothing that could even remotely blacken her name and cause embarrassment for the party.

     Nonetheless, serious embarrassment has been caused, not least because the words “mortgage fraud” has appeared alongside pictures of Sturgeon and Thomson together in newspapers, online articles, and other media. Similarly, the praise that she received from other senior SNP figures (during the referendum and leading up to the general election) has been plastered about to underscore just how much of a rising star she was, in part because of her business experience. For that matter, if they did not know what that business experience was, why did they take it at face value and make her the spokesperson for Business?

     But if Sturgeon can claim deniability with regard to Thomson, how does she square away with the decision to sanction to public grant for T in the Park? Her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, was aware of the request for taxpayer money and even offered advice on how agencies of the Scottish Government could assist in the funding. The Culture Secretary and member of Sturgeon’s cabinet, Fiona Hyslop, has come under fire for signing off on the grant without rigorously looking into the finances of the event, and it is now known that grant was not paid out until after the event had occurred.

     Then, what about Sandy Adam, an independence supporter who had given almost £100,000 to the SNP and the Yes campaign over the last three years (as well as £5000 to Michelle Thomson for her campaign)? His property company had been given a Scottish Government loan of £1 million, and selected to take part in a lucrative scheme where mortgages for new houses are guaranteed by the government.

     Perhaps this is a bit too harsh, because after all, we are all human and seek to use connections whenever possible to achieve personal ends, and this is not always illegal. Nor is it illegal to take advantage of certain opportunities when they arise.

     This isn't to say that we ought not expect more of our politicians and other public servants, because of course, we should. However, we should not be fooled into believing that any political party has a monopoly on morality, for all of them have good apples as well bad ones. And, let's be honest: who wouldn't at least try to take advantage of the fact that they have friends in high places? That's been going on since time immemorial.

     But again, we are talking about a political party that been quite sanctimonious in placing itself on a pedestal as a paragon of clean politics free of cronyism, dubious expense claims, breaching the public trust, and other characteristics of big bad “Westminster.” In the process, it won 56 Commons seats and almost won the referendum at least partly based on this message of them being the “good” politics that was only available in Scotland, and the other “Westminster parties” being the “bad” politics that was un-Scottish.

     Now it seems that the SNP has a few things in its own house it must attend to, and that it has more than its fair share of cronyism and other behavior that many people find reprehensible in politics. This may not be enough to bring down the SNP overnight, but if the current issues continue to persist, and/or if more problems like Thomson or T in the Park arise, the party may well find itself in the same position as the “Westminster parties” it so routinely criticizes for just such behavior.

     At the very least, it exposes their empty rhetoric and takes some of the shine off of their popular, carefully-crafted, focus group tested, and made-for-media image. The mask is beginning to slip.