Followers of the minutiae of Scottish politics will know what my title means, although the feeble pun ‘Gordian knot’ could easily be substituted for ‘problem.’
The Sound of Music this is not. Here’s a brief summary of the problem as I understand it.
Alex Salmond is likely to be the SNP prospective parliamentary candidate for the Gordon constituency in North East Scotland. Being a local loon by adoption if not birth, given his previous incumbency of the equivalent Holyrood constituency, and given the buoyant mood of ‘the 45’ at present he must be in with a good chance of winning.
That is abhorrent to unionists. His return to Westminster would probably not only mean he’s part of a larger SNP group that may (may) hold the balance of power in the Commons, but would also pitch perhaps the most effective politician in the UK, certainly in Scotland, into the midst of parliamentary arithmetic that he would be supremely capable of exploiting. Deputy PM Salmond? Separation through the back door? These are not beyond the bounds of possibility.
Meantime in Gordon itself the sitting Lib Dem MP Sir Malcolm Bruce is retiring, something which often opens up a previously stable political situation. The constituency, at least the bit outwith Aberdeen, has long been a Lib Dem stronghold but they have lost ground in recent years to the SNP. The geography is electorally challenging – not just the growing SNP strength but also the rural part of the constituency which is naturally conservative (small ‘c’ certainly, maybe big ‘C’ too); the commuters from the likes of Inverurie and Ellon (Lib Dem-mish); and a slab of suburban Aberdeen that is probably a mixter-maxter of all parties but which certainly gives Labour a presence it doesn’t have elsewhere in the constituency.
For the record, this is how the electors of Gordon disposed of the six candidates in the last general election (thanks to Wikipedia).
The problem for those of us who believe we’re better together with the rest of the UK is obvious. How do you stop Salmond splitting the unionist vote and, to use a metaphor from the horse racing world he is said to enjoy so much, coming through the middle on the home straight to win?
Here are some, I put it no higher, possibilities.
- The three unionist parties do some sort of deal by which two of them stand down to leave the strongest to oppose Salmond alone (apart from any fringe candidates).
- Regardless of what happens elsewhere in Scotland, in this special case they do a different deal and put up a single unity candidate who stands specifically to defeat Salmond.
- They each put up a candidate but the two weakest accept what would be likely to happen anyhow, that they will not win, and their candidate is in effect a straw man (or woman). Associated with this it would obviously be helpful for those two to not campaign too hard in the constituency: this already happens where parties know they have little or no chance of winning.
- If the unionist vote could be split, why not the nationalist? Other independence parties should be encouraged to stand. In Gordon, in effect this would mean the Greens (yes, theoretically the Scottish Socialist Party too and whoever Tommy Sheridan is allied to but neither would poll any more than a handful of votes). There is already a Green presence in Gordon at council level in Aberdeenshire and a well-known Green, councillor Martin Ford who fought hard against the much-despised Trump golf course (Salmond’s record here is worthy of critical examination). Why would the Greens want to see the SNP take the seat? Gifting it to them would not be good publicity.
- Regardless of what the parties themselves do, electors of good will on the unionist side steel themselves to vote for whosoever seems most likely to keep the SNP out, even if that leads to a choice they would otherwise find difficult to make.
- People of good will within and outwith the constituency need to help actively. There will be many ways to do this from adroit use of social media to working on the ground with and for the unionist candidate most likely to win.
- The unionist parties must get over that this is not just another Westminster constituency choosing an MP for five years. Both Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen had strong referendum majorities for ‘No.’ It’s one thing to think it might be nice to have a Scottish party in power in Holyrood. It’s another in this natural ‘No’ territory to vote wilfully for a candidate whose whole political life has been devoted to destroying what you so self-evidently want and believe in.
- Finally, there are weaknesses in the SNP, who after all lost the referendum. There’s still six months to go to the election and even a week in politics, as Harold Wilson said, is a long time. And there’s plenty of chance that the party starts to falter if not actually implode under the weight of unrealistic expectations from the 50, 60, 70,000 (you choose) new members, not to mention the as yet untested leadership of Nicola Sturgeon with the beady eye of Eck behind her in the chamber at Holyrood. The unionist parties and similarly minded individuals need to do all they can to highlight the SNP’s many weak points and inconsistencies, not least those of their Gordon candidate, memorably described by the BBC’s Mark Mardell recently as ‘the amazing bouncing man of British politics.’
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was thinking of writing on this subject I confessed that some of my ideas would undoubtedly be seen as naïve. I’m under no illusions about the challenge of returning a pro-union candidate in Gordon next May. That makes it all the more important for people to start thinking now and acting on what needs to be done. I wish for example I had the time and will to source more ideas for action and to set out the pros and cons of each. I hope others are doing that, privately if not publicly.
Finally, you’ll note that I have not offered an opinion on which pro-union party might be best placed to ensure the SNP don’t win the Gordon seat. The Lib Dems clearly have some claim but have obviously suffered nationally from their role in the UK coalition. I’ve seen a prominent Aberdeen Labour councillor say they will win the seat, but what else can he say at this stage? Salmond, clever man that he is, has offered the opinion that the Conservatives are his natural opponents in Gordon.
Let’s hope for a proper, public poll soon of opinion in the Gordon constituency. That might prompt action from those who need to take it.