Which is more grubby and shameless – that DUP deal or the SNP?

One of the advantages of having been around for much longer than many people currently working up a fine froth of indignation about the Conservative-Democratic Ulster Party (DUP) deal is that you’ve seen just about everything politics in a democracy has to offer.

That’s why I find SNP bluster and hyperbole at what I’ll henceforth shorten to ‘the Ulster arrangement’ ironic to say the least. Let’s take their response in descending order of significance.

From Nicola Sturgeon we have:

this grubby, shameless deal … sacrificing the very basics of devolution … The Tories’ excuses are simply empty spin … they once again plan on short-changing Scotland … the worst kind of pork-barrel politics … David Mundell and Ruth Davidson should … order Scottish Tory MPs to use their votes to put a halt to it … This total disregard of the principles of devolution will haunt the Tories for years to come.

Their new Commons leader Ian Blackford chips in with:

SNP MPs will demand Scotland gets its fair share of any funding that is going to Northern Ireland

and in a whimper from the sidelines his equally new deputy Kirsty Blackman declares:

Barnett funding for Scotland must follow.

Crumbs, the world must be coming to an end.

The truth of course is that any party in the situation in which the Conservatives have stupidly got themselves will try to make an arrangement with others so they can stay in government.

Far from grubby and shameless this arrangement seems to be fairly straight-forward: the Northern Ireland assembly (not the DUP) gets another £1 billion over two years for specific areas of investment in return for DUP support to the Conservatives on key votes at Westminster. It’s time limited and at £500 million a year it’s less than one largish Scottish council spends (Aberdeenshire for example has a net annual spend of £534 million) and is about 4% of what all Scottish councils spend in a year, or less than 1.6% of what the Scottish government spends (council figures here, government spend here p.164). For two years only.

There seem to be three nationalist objections to the Ulster arrangement.

First, that charge of grubby and shameless. It’s a moot point what a ‘grubby, shameless’ deal is in politics. Was it grubby and shameless for the SNP to support the Conservatives in the 1979 no confidence motion in Jim Callaghan’s government that led to Margaret Thatcher and eighteen years of Conservative government? Was it grubby and shameless for them to do deals with the Conservatives in Holyrood after 2007 so they could function as a minority administration? The truth is, these sorts of pragmatic arrangements happen all the time in politics and involve all parties.

Second, an objection they omit from their responses quoted above but they have articulated elsewhere – a purported abhorrence of the socially reactionary nature of the DUP themselves, exemplified by the first minister’s promise to consider offering free abortions in Scotland to women from Northern Ireland. As it happens, I agree that much of what the DUP preaches (and for many it is preach) is reactionary. I don’t like it. But the free abortions proposal is itself a ‘total disregard of the principles of devolution’ and of what the people of Northern Ireland have voted for. As for grubby and shameless, the DUP’s generous offer to reveal all the correspondence they’ve had with the SNP on cooperation since 2010 tells you all you need to know. Ironically, and for some amusingly, the whiff of an extra £1 billion seems also to have given Sinn Fein pause for thought in their opposition to re-forming the Northern Ireland executive.

Third, we have the perennial SNP tactic of grievance, what the first minister dresses up as ‘short-changing Scotland’ and what Kirsty Blackman dutifully echoes with her ‘Barnett funding for Scotland must follow,’ either a wilful or genuinely naïve misunderstanding of what additionality under the Barnett formula is about. It’s actually to do with additional money for the devolved administrations when the UK government spends more on a service in England that is devolved elsewhere. It’s not about additional money for everywhere else if one devolved part of the UK receives funding for a specific purpose.

In that respect, whatever the political motivation, the Ulster arrangement is similar to the City Region deals announced jointly between the UK and Scottish government for Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, with more to follow. Those deals have already led to a UK government commitment so far of £600 million extra funding for specific projects (details in an excellent Scottish parliament briefing paper). As far as I know, that £600 million has not led to proportionate sums being allocated to the other parts of the UK.

As well as bluster and hyperbole, a charge of hypocrisy must be added to the SNP’s posturing on this subject. No matter how negatively they paint the Conservative/DUP arrangement, the last thing they want is another general election soon. The general election revealed them weakened on all political fronts, losing seats and votes to the three unionist parties. Whatever happened elsewhere in the UK, another general election would most likely see them lose further seats, with pro-UK voters (including ‘shy unionists’?) emboldened by a roll-back at last of what seemed an SNP juggernaut. Traditional unionists now know that Scotland is not a ‘Tory-free zone,’ those disposed to left-of-centre politics see a more authentically redistributive programme under Corbyn than the SNP would ever deliver, and the Lib Dems provide a home for many of those living in hope that Brexit will either be ultra-soft or not visible at all; in other words, there’s plenty of choice from all three pro-UK parties and they’ve all shown they can win seats in Scotland.

There are many aspects of current UK politics I find unsatisfactory. An indeterminate election result is exactly what it says. I’ve seen them before and doubtless I’ll see them again. But grubby and shameless? I think I’ll reserve that for the SNP’s so far ineffectual attempts to make separatist political capital out of a verdict that the electorate have delivered.

This was drafted before the separate statement by the first minister of the delay in pursuing her aim for another referendum. I may return to that subject. 

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Talking Scotland down

To talk someone/thing down – to discuss someone or something in a way that makes them seem less interesting or attractive

– Oxford Dictionaries

I really struggle with this phrase and its use in Scottish politics. Its most recent manifestation was at first minister’s questions yesterday when Nicola Sturgeon responded to a question from the Labour leader about criticisms in an Audit Scotland report on Scotland’s colleges 2017. The first minister ended her answer with what she no doubt thought was a rhetorical flourish:

No matter how much Kezia Dugdale grasps around trying to find bad news to hammer the SNP she will not succeed in talking down our colleges or talking down Scotland.

As it happens, from scanning the Audit Scotland report I have a small degree of sympathy for the first minister. If my reading is correct, the colleges of further education have some real achievements to show as well as some major challenges. There is plenty in the report for both a government and an opposition to fulfil their parliamentary roles of governing and, well, opposing.

In other words, important as further education is, its state is no more or less than the everyday stuff of democratic politics. I expect government and opposition to pursue their cases robustly. I’m even resigned to each over-egging the pudding in any debate on the subject.

What I do find curious is the way in which the SNP’s argument, as so often for them, boils down to one thing – the opposition are ‘talking Scotland down.’

In my eavesdropping on debates in the House of Commons I cannot recall hearing a government minister of any of the three parties that have been in power in the last decade accuse the opposition of ‘talking Britain down.’ There’s plenty of hostility across the aisle in that institution. But it is based much more on political ideology than the simplistic notion that opposition is somehow making a whole country ‘seem less interesting or attractive’ (that dictionary definition of ‘talking down’).

The SNP’s use of the ‘talking down’ argument is both pernicious and dishonest.

First, it implies that their opponents are wilfully demeaning not only their own country but also otherwise blameless people or organisations within it; in this case ‘our colleges,’ in another recent example ‘teachers and pupils’ (when the government’s school policies came under attack).

Second, and again by implication, it says ‘We don’t do these things, we are the only true promoters of a positive view of Scotland.’ Well there’s a sort of logic to that in that they do choose to style themselves the ‘national’ party and frequently conflate themselves, wrongly, with the entire nation, a fallacy that recent electoral statistics demonstrate only too well.

Lastly, and I find this the most distasteful aspect of all, the argument suggests that the SNP’s opponents are somehow not patriotic. After all, who would go around criticising a whole country if they didn’t dislike and despise it? Except that’s not what they’re doing, of course.

Dr Johnson said that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ In the hands of the SNP patriotism is the argument to wheel out when others fail, as they frequently do in defending their mediocre record in government.

Footnote. Hard on the heels of Nicola Sturgeon’s use of ‘Talking Scotland down comes the Leader of the Commons’ statement that ‘It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic.’ No. It’s not their function.

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Who is this Round and why does he object?

This image and an attached news item appeared on the STV website today.

For some reason, as the SNP’s fortunes have dipped, my will to blog has wilted too. I don’t think it’s the hot weather, more the fact that it all started to seem less urgent somehow.

The headline about ‘indyref2’ brought me back to reality with a wee jolt. They’ll never give up and the best we can hope for is that the common sense of enough people reduces their obsession to the eccentric minority sport it was not so long ago.

That will not happen, of course, without constant vigilance on the part of those who care, even on small matters. I was challenged this morning by a tweeter sporting an SNP logo to justify my claim that nationalism and the SNP are in decline. It wasn’t difficult – I cited recent elections and polls. I’m sure he (George or Terry – like many he seemed to have two identities) knew the truth. But it was all about trying to convince a naïve English woman who wanted ‘out of England’ that Scotland was a great place to live. I hope she saw my statement and the links I provided because it’s on a thousand little lies like George/Terry’s that nationalism thrives.

Anyhow, back to the first minister’s forthcoming revelation about her plans for another once-in-a-generation separation referendum.

What caught my eye in the STV news item was the text in small print below the headline:

The First Minister said she would listen to Scots following the general election.

This is where ‘Round objects’ comes into play, because I’ve been told twice within the last year that the SNP were listening to me.

The first was their abortive ‘summer of love’ in 2016 when they were going to reach out to ‘No’ voters to understand our concerns and persuade us that they really were the cuddly, civic and joyous fun party they claim they are and we know they’re not. Unfortunately that exercise was to be led by Stewart Hosie, who was reaching out somewhere else at the time and was despatched in disgrace forthwith from the party’s leadership cohort along with the summer of listening.

The second was their egregious ‘National’ Survey last autumn, in which they claimed to be listening again, this time to the whole nation. Like Hosie and his reaching out, the survey disappeared without trace, with not a word heard about the views of the laughably-inflated two million people who allegedly answered their questions.

And now we have the first minister saying she’d listen again. A cynic might say there’s too much damned listening, and not enough hearing and understanding.

Which brings me neatly to Round and why he objects.

If you heard the original story, you’ll know precisely what I mean. If not …

… it may be apocryphal but they say that Churchill asked for a report from some expert in the Second World War. As is the way of the civil service, it was seen and annotated by others before it reached the great man. In the margin against some particularly contentious point, someone had written ‘Bollocks!’ A more senior and discreet mandarin carefully inked the offending word out and substituted ‘Round objects!’ Against which Churchill in turn asked, yes you’ve got there before me, ‘Who is this Round and why does he object?’

And that is precisely my response to what is the SNP’s third purported listening exercise in a year.

Just like the others, it’s complete and utter round objects.

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What does the general election tell us about the union?

Well, that didn’t quite turned out as planned, did it?

It certainly didn’t turn out as planned for Theresa May and the Conservative government and no matter how you spin it (more of that word later) they are a much weakened party at the UK level.

When I wrote Thank you, SNP a few days ago – for confirming that I needed to vote tactically – I included this table with the 2017 data missing and I can now complete it:

* Holyrood 2016 (1) % Votes = percentage of first preference votes (2) N/A = Not applicable because system of allocating seats is not comparable

All the pro-union parties gained seats from their one-a-piece to:

  • Conservatives – 13
  • Labour – 7
  • Liberal Democrats – 4.

So once again Scotland goes against the trend in England and Wales.

With polls until the last minute suggesting the SNP might lose 6-9 seats and the unionist twitterati hardly daring to hope the SNP vote share might fall below 40%, this is as stunning a result as the SNP’ almost wiping the board with 56 out of 59 seats a mere two years ago. Along with everything else it tells us, politics in Scotland may be reverting to a more traditional (for Scotland) pattern.

Just look at that trend in the three years running we’ve now had a major election – SNP share of the vote down consistently from 50% to 47% and now 37%; number of Westminster seats down from 56 to 35. And, although as the footnote to the table explains a Holyrood comparison of seats is not possible, they’re now running a minority administration there.

The SNP spin seems to be ‘We won the election’, on the basis that they got a majority of seats. Humza Yousaf, sent down to London to do the media rounds last night, was certainly claiming that, to which there are a number of responses, some of them printable. There also seems to be an implication that gaining a majority of seats means a mandate for another separation referendum. This is palpable nonsense.

I’ve not been alone in voicing an opinion that we have been past ‘peak SNP’ since the last general election in 2015. Throw in two other sources of information and it looks as if support for separation is weakening all the time.

First, a recent YouGov survey (usual caveats about single polls) showed that only 43% of respondents now thought Scotland should be an independent country, compared with 57% who didn’t. Second, and more significantly, the longer term polling trend kept up to date on the rwbblog confirms that result is not an ‘outlier’:

It’s all a long way from the 60% running average Nicola Sturgeon used to say she needed before having the confidence to seek another referendum.

Meantime, all those fantasies of being the power-broker at Westminster in a ‘progressive alliance’ seem so much dust. The parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t support the idea, and it always rested on the two-faced policy of ‘Crush Labour in Scotland, Support them in England.’ With a significant Labour revival across the UK and in their old central belt heartland, why should they bother making concessions to their SNP rivals?

With a hung parliament while Brexit is supposed to be negotiated and the possibility of another general election in the not too distant future [collective Scottish groan] we are in for interesting times but not for another Scottish referendum in the foreseeable future.

Footnote. It was good to see some SNP big beasts together with some frankly unpleasant characters lose their Westminster seats. Maybe that’s a blog for another time although hopefully they can all now fade away as yesterday’s men and women. Twenty one down and thirty five to go (I’m an optimist!).

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Nicola said Kezia said … that private conversation

I almost didn’t blog about this. Search for some key words around the subject and you’ll find little else in the Scottish media about politics today.

But in case you’ve just woken up from a long sleep, this is what it’s about.

Yesterday, in the last Scottish political leaders’ TV debate before the election, Nicola Sturgeon said this about the Labour leader:

Kezia Dugdale told her in private following the Brexit vote that she thought Scottish Labour should drop its opposition to a second independence referendum

(STV’s summary. There’s a clip here with the actual words)

Dugdale immediately refuted the claim and part of the fallout today has been media trawling over who said what in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum and since.

The details of claim and counter-claim don’t concern me here. If readers think that’s less than diligent, doubtless they’ll tell me.

The reaction of part of the media did surprise me. The Spectator’s immediate response (but behind a paywall) was:

Nicola Sturgeon has just kebabed Kezia Dugdale in the STV debate.

This seems to me profoundly wrong and I can only think The Speccie was in more anti-Labour than pro-GB mood at the time.

The real significance of the exchange lies in the words ‘told her in private.’ In private.

Here we have our first minister who has a private conversation with a parliamentary colleague, the leader of another party, and who chooses to reveal a year later what she claims the other participant in the exchange said – two days before an election in which the SNP is forecast to lose seats, a few of them even to Labour.

Do you think this was a spontaneous revelation made in anger or frustration? Sturgeon’s demeanour and the fact that like the other leaders she had copious prompts and notes she referred to throughout the debate (I don’t blame any of them for that by the way) suggest not. Journalists who follow these things said that the SNP almost immediately had background and briefing on the revelation. This was a tactic planned in advance.

The interesting question is, what does this tell us about the SNP and the first minister?

Maybe it tells us that they’re feeling under pressure from Labour in more constituencies than you might think. I’m sure the supposedly flush-with-money SNP (Nicolopter anyone?) has been carrying out plenty of private polling. One that’s public had Labour the other day marginally ahead of the SNP amongst young voters aged 18-24. Ouch.

The bigger thing it tells us is that no politician can have a private conversation with the first minister and expect it to remain private if it suits her immediate political gain. This is pretty disastrous in a democracy and with an electoral system (I mean Holyrood) that forces parties to co-operate and in which the SNP, not for the first time, are a minority government. Even the basic work of making parliament function needs private discussions between parties. Who’s going to risk any honest exchange of views with a member of the SNP government if it’s going to re-appear in future, spun to suit their advantage?

Back in January I set out my hope for Holyrood in 2017. I was sceptical of those many occasions when the party leaders appear in a smiling line-up to promote a good cause. It’s not a love-in, I said, and urged a little less bonhomie, a lot more government from the SNP, and a lot, lot more opposition from other party leaders. I think my plea is still valid. But somehow I think Kezia, Ruth and Willie will have less difficulty now in turning down a photo-opp with the woman who’s happy to report their private conversations on TV.

Oh, and that Spectator headline. I don’t think Sturgeon so much kebabed Kezia Dugdale as thrust the skewer into her own giblets and jumped on the BBQ.

Have a good election.

Footnote. In case ‘Nicolopter’ is too obscure for you, it’s the name given to the helicopter the first minister has been criss-crossing the country in to visit constituencies, presumably those the SNP feel most vulnerable in.


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Thank you, SNP

With the UK general election only a few days away, I just wanted to thank the SNP.

You see, they make elections so easy for me. Since the referendum in 2014 I have adopted one abiding principle in council, Holyrood and general elections – which mainstream pro-British party is most likely to defeat them in the constituency and ward where I stay?

I won’t pretend it doesn’t involve some gritting of teeth and element of calculation as the council-provided pencil descends on the ballot paper. Gritting of teeth because it sometimes means I’m voting for a party whose political philosophy or proposed policies in government I don’t agree with. Element of calculation because I always need to work out which party is most likely to defeat the SNP and I don’t always get it right.

I expect that tactic is the sort of thing that led a nationalist to label me online once as an ‘ultra Britnat fanatic.’

In truth the label means no more than the fact that I’m committed to maintaining the union between Scotland and the other countries of the United Kingdom. I might as well call someone an ‘ultra Scotnat fanatic’ whose abiding principle in politics is independence/separation.

One of the few things I have in common with nationalists is that the constitutional question is, for both of us, existential. It over-rides most other issues, as it clearly did for this woman last autumn (The National, 18 September 2016):

I say most other issues in relation to myself because I’m sometimes assailed by nationalists with the ‘What if?’ argument, something I think the lawyers call reducto ad absurdum – ‘Ah, but what if the Tories were going to be in power for ever … what if you only had the BNP to vote for?’ and so on. I might as well argue against the SNP on the basis that they’ll be in power for ever or they might offer a cabinet post to one of the illustrious members of the Scottish Resistance. It ain’t gonna happen.

The fallacy of the ‘What if?’ argument also applies for me to the economic and social case made for independence – that things will inevitably get worse for Britain and better for Scotland if we were free of the union. I’ve seen little to convince me of that claim. It was one of the major reasons No voters didn’t believe in the SNP’s case in 2014. I await with interest but no great expectations the much-delayed report of the SNP’s ‘Growth Commission’ which is supposed to remedy the deficiencies of that case. Most people saw through the old one and I suspect most people, including those whose views might go either way, will see through whatever emerges from that exercise. I guess that’s all a way of saying that if you’re a floating voter don’t be taken in by SNP promises of jam tomorrow – unless you’re happy to have your ‘freedom’ with a large dose of poverty.

So for me at least, it’s get out there on Thursday and put my cross against … well, that’s between me, the ballot box, and my best guess at who might defeat the SNP where I stay.

My criteria for a successful general election in Scotland will be three-fold – the fall in the number of seats the SNP get (of course it will still be large but I’ll eat my hat if they don’t at least lose some); the percentage of votes they get; and the overall turnout (if it falls, that’ll probably suggest all that post-indyref enthusiasm for politics by people who never engaged previously is on the wane). Here’s what happened with those measures in our last two elections:

* Holyrood 2016 (1) % Votes = percentage of first preference votes (2) N/A = Not applicable because system of allocating seats is not comparable

You’ll spot an SNP decline in percentage of votes won between 2015 and 2016. I’m expecting a further fall on Thursday and will post an updated table once we know the general election result.

Oh, and in case any passing nationalists are tempted to ask me ‘Is there nothing that would tempt you to vote SNP?’ Yes, there is. Drop the demand for independence and reconcile yourselves to becoming a party committed to the best government of Scotland within the UK. But if that happens, I’ll be eating a second hat. I think I’m safe.

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Has Scotland gone mad politically?

Last night there was a general election debate on BBC TV involving the six Scottish party leaders.

A woman in the audience, a nurse, asked Nicola Sturgeon an awkward question about the NHS. The details of the question and their following exchange don’t, for the purpose of this quick note, matter. What happened next does.

Even while the programme was continuing Twitter went ballistic with nationalists denouncing the questioner. The barrage of criticism and allegation continued into the night:

  • the woman was the wife of a Tory councillor
  • she had been on a recent Question Time programme as well
  • she was a Tory plant
  • she earned £30,000 a year. How could she claim to use foodbanks?
  • she should be investigated by Wings over Scotland (this from more than one of the egregious exile-in-Bath’s followers)
  • and I suspect much more that I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice.

The SNP was in the vanguard of the attack. One Westminster candidate, Joanna Cherry (yes, a senior lawyer, a QC even – something in there about standards of evidence, my lord), quickly realised that whatever she’d said or retweeted was wrong and at least had the decency to apologise. Another, Angus MacNeil, famous for all sorts of things far beyond his Western Isles constituency, merely deleted his tweet on the subject (politicians doing that are invariably caught out by the excellent Politwoops – ‘all deleted tweets from politicians’). Not to be outdone SNP MSP Sandra White (found to have made anti-semitic statements once upon a time) retweeted a denunciation that gratuitously described the nurse as ‘English.’ And an SNP branch joined in:

(They included a photo of the woman which I’ve omitted)

This morning I woke up to find the media has latched on to the subject. The Scottish Sun names the nurse (her age too in case you’re wondering), reports the specialism she works in and in which city, and includes six photos of her alleged ‘swanky’ lifestyle, culled from her Facebook page. They include what are, I am pretty sure from other comments made on Twitter, photos of her daughter. Intrusive or what? And this, from an ITV political reporter:

This was only in the ten minutes I was online before breaking off in something approaching disgust.

What, for God’s sake, have we come to?

Here was a programme meant to give politicians a chance to set out their stall, and for a studio audience to question them in an attempt, on our behalf, to hold them to account for their claims and promises.

Instead, it has turned into a witch hunt by nationalists online, some SNP politicians and at least part of the media, a witch hunt of one member of the audience who had the temerity to challenge Nicola Sturgeon robustly.

There’s more than a hint of paranoia in the nationalist response to an awkward question. The SNP do themselves and their cause no good in their participation in and connivance at this nastiness. They will pay the price.

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