Thoughts on Labour’s suspension of its Aberdeen councillors


Aberdeen Town House

It won’t take you long rooting around this blog to discover I have more than a passing interest in the city of Aberdeen (I live there) and in local government (I worked in councils in the North East for many years, although not for Aberdeen council). I also normally steer away from expressing an adverse view about individual pro-GB parties as I want them all – well, the three mainstream ones – to succeed as a counter-weight to the SNP. The suspension of the Labour group in Aberdeen for proposing to enter into a joint administration with the Conservatives and some independents does however call for some comment, as restrained as I can make it.

One. The system of electing Scottish councillors – multi-member wards and the single transferable vote system – makes it the rule rather than the exception that no one political group (I use the word to include independents as well as political parties) will gain a majority of councillors to form an administration. The need to combine forces across group lines is normal.

Two. The history across nearly all Scottish councils for decades has been that virtually any two or more political groups can do deals locally to combine and form an effective administration. Before the May election, for example, there were at least two councils in which Conservatives and SNP councillors served in the same joint administration.

Three. Whatever the deeper philosophical differences, political ideology is less important in local authorities because the powers are different from and less than at the national level. There are no distinctively unionist or nationalist recycling schemes. There may be some jockeying about which flags are flown from which council buildings on which days. But if I were to identify partisanship by many councillors it would be more to do with the desire to direct resources to their own ward or town than anything more fundamental.

Four. Much more than at national level, personalities, local dynamics and people’s instinct to work together (or not) are important in how effective a council is. Most councillors get it, some don’t. It now seems that some national politicians choose not to get it. As well as Labour’s decision on its Aberdeen councillors, Nicola Sturgeon has piled in with a whole series of tweets including ‘…these councillors have used Labour votes to give Aberdeen a Tory council.’ Either her ignorance about how local government works is overwhelming, or she’s playing her usual divisive political game. Or maybe a ‘staffer’ with even less knowledge of the subject is working her account just now.

Five, and my final point, I hate how this approach to politics demonises a whole democratic party (and by implication the people who voted for them) and seeks to put them outside the pale as if they were something they’re not. It says party is more important than the fact we occupy this space (our city, town or country) together and have to make it work for all of us. It’s not a good way to go.

I end with two anecdotes.

First, when I worked for the old Grampian Regional Council there were two dominant politicians on the council – Bob Middleton of Labour and John Porter of the Conservatives, both what I’d call local patriots: they wanted what was best for Grampian. They were very different as individuals and  boy, did they know how to be sharp with each other in the council chamber. Each could give as good as they got. But outside, they were nice as pie with each other, and even managed to sustain a personal friendship. Sadly, I suspect that these days at least one of them would be called a quisling or worse, and by members of their own party.

Finally, I switched on Twitter this morning to find a tweet from a former Labour council leader (he may well be its next leader too):

Our national politicians fought the local elections on national issues now they want to fight a national election on local issues.

Wise words. He ended his message with the e-moji that could be a face laughing or crying or both. I know how he feels.

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When black is white and white is black – the curious contradiction of Scottish politics

There was a segment on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 12 May about the general election in Scotland. It starts just before 2:32 and begins with the BBC Scottish political editor Sarah Smith confirming a truth most Scots know. Elsewhere the election may be about Brexit, but here it’s about independence/separation. As Smith said:

It’s dominating the election … Tory leaflets I’ve seen have the huge word ‘Independence’ in capital letters right across the top with the words ‘We said no and we meant it’ … SNP literature doesn’t mention independence at all.

To the naïve this must seem curious.

The Tories, who are dead set against independence, won’t stop talking about it.

The SNP, whose only mission in life it is, won’t mention it.

The SNP claim that this election is about providing an effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster (thereby conceding, and on this at least they’re right, that the next UK government is going to be Conservative). But what sort of an opposition can a party provide that at most could only muster 59 out of 650 MPs, and whose main aim is to get themselves out of the place?

The Conservatives, of course, are playing the independence card because they know the majority of Scots (probably a slowly-growing majority) are against it. The SNP are ignoring it because they know that too. They know also, if the opinion polls are right, that a number of their current, bloated crop of MPs are on a shoogly peg, partly because of the independence/separation question, partly because the record of their own ten years in government at Holyrood has been so abysmal.

The election in Scotland is about independence because, by virtue of their purpose, the SNP have made it so – as they make every test of democratic opinion, even our humble local council elections. Take away that elephant in the room and you could have something like normal politics in Scotland. Until then their obsession will continue to over-ride decent, devolved government and make their contribution at Westminster only negative.

Finally, if you’re tempted to identify this as a pro-‘Toary’ (© N Sturgeon) post, don’t bother. It’s a pro-Britain post. Other pro-union parties are available, and as long as the SNP maintain their goal of destroying Britain my vote will go to the party where I live that stands the greatest chance of defeating separatism.

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Scottish council election 2017 results

Updated 25 May to include an analysis of political control of councils.

This post is being written in a number of parts, as yet undetermined and as detailed council election results become available. This is because, unlike first past the post elections, understanding the outcome of an election using the single transfer vote (STV) system is more complex.

Arithmetically, it depends on returning officers (the chief executives of 32 councils in this case) publishing the full breakdown in each ward of voting for all rounds of a count. Under STV, if there are more candidates than seats, the candidate with the least number of votes is knocked out on round 1 of the count. The second preferences that their voters recorded are distributed to remaining candidates and this process continues until enough candidates receive the ‘quota’, the number of votes needed to ensure their election. It’s complicated, but explained here.

Only when all that data is published can you see how voters distributed their first preferences, i.e. for candidates and usually parties (a substantial number stand as independents in local elections). Those preferences are as near as you get in an STV election to seeing how people might vote in a first past the post contest. And with the general election only a month away, that might (I stress might) give a good indication of how Scotland might vote for the UK parliament.

The other thing the detailed data can tell you is how people distribute their preferences and whether pro-union and pro-separation voters tend to support similar parties, for example Labour voters making Liberal Democrat or Conservative candidates their second preference, or Green voters doing the same for SNP candidates.  If you want to see what this means in practice, check my blog post from last August on the failure of Robin Sturgeon (the first minister’s father) to win a by-election in North Ayrshire. Incidentally, he stood again this time and also failed to win a seat.

Politically, it is always some time under STV, at least in Scottish councils, before it becomes clear which parties/groups of independents will form the majority administration on a council. This is because STV tends not to produce an outright majority for any single party. So either the largest party attempts to govern without a majority or, far more common, two or more negotiate to form a joint administration.  This usually happens in the period between an election and the next meeting of the full council, typically two weeks after the election. Only at that point will we know which parties are in power in all 32 councils.

What follows has been added to this post on the date shown.

Part 1 – 6 May

The elections were held on Thursday 4 May and all counts completed yesterday. Here are the headline results as recorded by the BBC:

Other parties stood but won no seats. The ‘+/-‘ figures are changes from the last full council elections in 2012.

The small numbers in the ‘Council’ column reflect the point made above that few parties ever achieve an ouright majority of seats in an STV election. In 2012 this happened in only seven councils, one SNP, three Labour and three independent (the island councils – Rule No. 1 in Scottish politics: the islands are always different). This time round no council has an overall majority from a single party.

The pattern of seats held be each party is so obvious to hardly need comment but for the record may be summarised:

  • The SNP remains the largest single party although it has lost a small number of seats and overall control of the one council it had before. Although not shown in this table it now forms the largest group on the largest council, Glasgow. It has 37% of all councillors
  • The Conservatives have done very well, gaining 164 seats and overtaking Labour to become the second largest party in Scotland’s councils. It now has 22% of all councillors
  • Most of the Conservatives net gains have been from Labour, who lost 133 seats and now have 21% of all councillors
  • With much smaller numbers, the Lib Dems lost a few seats and the Greens gained a few
  • In what is a long-term trend, fewer independents, who represent a whole range of views and cannot be said to be a group, were elected and now make up 14% of all councillors

Regular readers of this blog know that my interest in politics is not so much to do with individual parties as the respective stength of pro-union (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem) and pro-separation (SNP and Greens) parties. Adding those parties together shows the following result:

As I write this, I am pressed for time so will forgo any substantial analysis or comment on the figures. I merely contrast the first minister’s initial reaction to the election result yesterday evening:

… a clear and emphatic victory … [a] very, very good result …The SNP has won the council elections. We have more votes, more seats and are in the driving seat of more councils than any other party (BBC)

With my own first judgement yesterday evening:

Indy parties are on a slow downward slide … Two and a half years on from the referendum SNP are stalled. No breakthrough. Still a minority, slowly declining and clutching at straws (two separate tweets by @rogerlwhite).

I leave you to decide at the end of Part 1 of this post which is the more correct judgement.

Part 2 – 8 May

Two days after Part 1 of this post, Elections Scotland have released a much wider range of results data than the raw count of candidates elected. This is their summary table of (a) Seats won (the same figures presented in Part 1) and (b) how first preference votes were cast:

council elections 2017 elections scotland analysis

First preference votes are the closest you will get under the STV system to a guess at how the same people might vote in a first past the post election, in this case the UK general election being held exactly one month from today. Combining the pro-union (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem) and pro-separation (SNP and Greens) parties in the same way that I did in Part 1 produces this result:

  • Total first preference votes for pro-union parties – 52.3%
  • Total first preference votes for anti-union parties – 36.3%.

The remaining 11.4% first preference votes were cast for either independent candidates or smaller parties. No analysis is available of whether they were pro-union, anti-union or indifferent.

This rough and ready guess at how votes might be cast in Scotland on 8 June needs to be qualified in at least two ways.

First, the general election turnout will be considerably higher: the local election turnout was almost 47%, in the last general election it was 71%. We cannot know what it will be on 8 June and how those extra votes might be distributed between parties.

Second, the percentage of votes cast for any individual party in a first past the post election will not equate to the number of seats won. In 2015 the SNP received precisely 50% of the votes but won 95% of the seats.

However, as sundry nationalists attempting to engage me in debate about the subject on Twitter fail or choose to ignore, I am not interested in the success of individual parties. I am concerned to measure the likely appetite for independence.

On the basis of these figures and the other data I’ve presented recently (including opinion polls – see the tail-end of a previous post) it seems that there just aren’t the sufficient numbers for the SNP to try and activate the second referendum they recently got Holyrood to approve by a small margin. Expect continued bluster, demonisation of pro-union parties  and grievance-mongering on the subject, but no action.

Part 3 – 25 May

As I write the final part of this post, what with the general election and the atrocity in Manchester, the results of council elections seem small beer. But I did promise to add a note on the political control of councils once they had all held their first post-election meetings to appoint provosts, leaders and committee chairs. It’s taken a while for them to do so and three weeks after the elections four still haven’t. This final section will be updated when those last four have sorted themselves out.

Here is a table showing control of the 29 councils that have made this first political decision:

council elections 2017 political control

All results are taken from the COSLA web site.

The detail of these sorts of figures can be over-analysed but here are a few general conclusions.

  • As I’ve said before, the STV system makes it very difficult for a single party to obtain an overall majority of seats in any council and, sure enough, none have this time (previously the SNP controlled Dundee and Angus by themselves). The three island councils, as in so many things, are different and they all have a majority of independents.
  • Of the remaining 25 councils for which we have data, coalitions (including a ‘partnership working arrangement’ and ‘joint leadership’) control 15.
  • All groups are involved in coalitions. Two – Conservatives and SNP – are not in coalition with each other anywhere.
  • Despite a ban by the Labour party on their councillors entering into coalition with any party that espoused austerity (widely interpreted as ‘not with the Tories’) two Labour groups are in joint administrations with the Conservatives – Aberdeen and Perth & Kinross. It is believed that both are suspended from the party at present but whether their suspension continues is to be seen. The decision to suspend has certainly made waves locally and may impact on Labour’s general election showing in those two areas.
  • The remaining ten councils have ‘minority’ administrations in which the largest party has decided to try and run the council themselves, either because they think they can or they couldn’t reach agreement with anyone else to share control: six of these groups are SNP, four Labour. One of two things usually results from these situations – either political instability or a much consensual approach to ensure decisions can be made.
  • If you compare the ‘TOTAL’ row in this table with the figures taken from the BBC website in Part 1 of this post, you can see that the number of councillors a party has nationally does not necessarily equate with the number of times they share political control. For example Labour has 21% of all councillors but shares political control in 41% of councils, and independents have only 14% of seats but share political control in 52% of councils. This is because smaller groups are often valued as partners for the numbers (and stability) they can bring to the politics of a council.

Two final thoughts.

First, don’t necessarily expect stability in this overall picture. Councillors sometimes change allegiance (more so than national politicians), and there is an inevitable attrition rate as some resign or, sadly, pass away and by-elections are held.

Second, perhaps the most interesting political point of all: how will all councils, whether or not the SNP share political control in them, relate to a Holyrood government that puts them under increasing financial pressure, and if recent history is any guide, seeks to exert increasing control over their activities? Watch this space.


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‘Support for indy soars to new highs!’ Or does it?

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I occasionally comment on polls and their significance. I don’t take an obsessive interest in the detail. I always caution that the trends are important, not individual polls, and that the errors associated with sample size need to be taken into account. Nationalists often think I’m putting a spin on what I say, but nearly all polls reveal facts that have been, until now, favourable to those of us who want to maintain the constitutional status quo.

In the last couple of days two ‘polls’ (you’ll realise shortly why I put that word in inverted commas) have had many separatists jumping up and down with joy. One purported to show that 51% of its particular sample was in favour of independence, the other a massive 57%. If they’re true, they represent a major and sudden reversal in the long term trend that has shown modest but slowly increasing majorities for ‘No.’

The trouble is, neither figure can be trusted. Here’s why.

The first poll was highlighted on the front page of The National newspaper:

The full text of the article said:

yesterday a poll revealed 51 per cent of voters were now in favour [of independence]. It found 41 per cent of voters wanted Scotland to be an independent member of the European Union, while a further 10 per cent favoured independence outside the bloc.

It stated that the figures were taken from a Panelbase poll commissioned by the Sunday Times.

Similar figures had been reported earlier on Twitter by an account called @EuropeElects (‘Psephology in the European Union’):

which also had the same data on its Facebook page. If you check, you’ll see that all they do is post a stream of summaries of polls and elections from across the EU without any accompanying commentary. It’s pretty indigestible, but to see the Facebook version of this data, scroll down to their post on 30 April at 20:15, together with the comment it’s attracted from other people.

The problem in all this detail is that the full results of the Panelbase survey, on their website, actually ask the direct question:

And how would you vote in response to the question: Should Scotland be an independent country? (Likely voters)

and the answers are shown:

That is, using the usual shorthand, 52% said No and 43% said Yes or, extracting the Don’t Know’s, 55% No, 45% Yes, which will sound familiar to all Scots who feel stuck in ground hog day since September 2014.

As far as I can work out, The National’s error (and EuropeElects) comes from adding two separate figures from elsewhere in the poll results for those that want independence in the EU and outwith the EU. I can’t see those results in the Panelbase tables linked above. So they are either in unpublished tables and/or appear behind the Sunday Times paywall.

For the record, EuropeElects subsequently publicised the correct data:

although without any explanation or apology.

The second ‘poll’, and here the inverted commas really are necessary, was publicised on the Daily Record’s website under the headline

Poll shows most Scots would prefer independence in Europe rather than face Tory rule in UK after Brexit

And the eye-catching graphic:

This has led innumerable enthusiasts to tweet ‘Support for indy up to 57%!’ (or similar).

However, again, it needs a detailed look to understand what this exercise really is.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the Record article, you’ll find that the statistics were compiled from a ‘Google survey’:

Google Surveys run thousands of surveys a day, across a network of online news, reference and entertainment sites where it’s embedded directly into content.

On the web, users answer questions in exchange for access to that content. The user’s gender, age, and geographic location are inferred based on anonymous browsing history and IP address.

Using this data, Google Surveys can automatically build a representative sample of thousands of respondents.

You might recognise something familiar struggling to emerge from this jargon. I encountered it when I went online to look at the Record’s article, as you will. Before you can view the article you have to answer a question, in my case which of four retailers’ online videos I’d seen.

Let me suspend my disbelief for a moment about this particular exercise and acquaint you with the criteria I use to judge whether a survey is reputable and reliable.

  • Is it conducted by a professional market research/polling organisation?
  • Is it clear what the ‘population’ for the survey is, e.g. all adults of voting age in Scotland?
  • Has a sample been chosen from the population either randomly (preferably) or adjusted to be representative of the population overall?
  • Is the sample size large enough to be reasonably sure that it could be representative?
  • Is it clear who the survey was carried out for, when, and how?
  • Have the results been published in a systematic way e.g. in a series of tables?
  • Is advice available on how reliable the results might be e.g. a ‘statistical error of estimate’ that says something like ‘Figures in this survey should be reliable with ± 3 percentage points’?
  • Has a full research report been published where I can see all this information?

If I then test the Daily Record/Google survey against these criteria it does not meet one of them, with the arguable exception of being carried out by a ‘professional market research/polling organisation.’ Even there I have my doubts for the purpose of political opinion polling, notwithstanding the claim that Google Surveys carry out ‘thousands’ of surveys every day.

The Record article claims ‘There were a lot of mixed messages in the polling data with politics in Scotland in a state of flux.’ On the question of independence/separation I would argue on the contrary that the situation is remarkably, and for all sides, frustratingly stable. Any messages from the so-called ‘polling’ data here are likely to be mixed because, for the reasons I’ve already outlined, the whole exercise is of very little statistical value. Anyone, of whatever persuasion, who draws any conclusions from it is clutching at straws.

In particular, nationalists (and it would only be propagandists or the naïve) who take comfort from either of these exercises are likely to be deeply disappointed.

Regular readers will know that I prefer to look at the trend in polls, so by way of conclusion I repeat updated versions of two graphs of reputable polls I have used before on this blog. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from them.

What Scotland thinks, Yes (blue), No (orange) 25 June 2016 – 27 April 2017

rwbblog Yes (yellow), No (blue) October 2014 – April 2017

(Using the ‘best fit’ from a statistical technique called regression analysis, this shows a long term trend since the independence referendum towards ‘No’)

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What *is* an ‘ultra unionist’, Mr Salmond?


A while ago I was called an ‘ultra Britnat fanatic’ on Twitter. I forget who said it but it was one of the tribe of fruitloops who hover around the fringes of political debate. The compliment came to mind yesterday when I saw a letter from Alex Salmond published on The Scotsman website objecting to an opinion piece the previous week by their columnist Euan McColm.

At the conclusion of a long list of old polling data purporting to demonstrate that he’d not been a divisive figure as first minister, Salmond offered this comment on McColm:

My opinion is that for a good number of years Mr McColm has been unable to separate his ultra unionist views from fact.

This was interesting.

A word I’d never seriously thought about seemed to have migrated like a slippery eel from an anonymous cybernat to the pen of the nation’s former first minister and a senior Westminster parliamentarian of many years standing. Since he dignified the political art elsewhere in his letter as:

the expectation … that politicians will pursue principle[s]

I wondered what principle he was pursuing in his use of the word ‘ultra’ about Mr McColm.

According to the Oxford online dictionary, an ‘ultra’ is:

an extremist

and it offers these synonyms:

radical, fanatic, zealot, diehard, revolutionary, rebel, militant, subversive.

Over on Google the first two hits thrown up for its political use include Wikipedia articles on ‘Far-left politics’ and ‘Far-right politics.’

Without going too much further into the detail, it seemed to me I’d pinned down what the word ultra means.

Which takes us quite neatly to what accusation Mr Salmond might be levelling at McColm.

He must be implying, amongst other things, that McColm is an extremist, a fanatic, a militant or a subversive.

If so, in what respects? Is he a member of a secret group engaged in subversion of the state? Does his fanaticism manifest itself in extreme left- or right-wing political activity? Does he don khaki fatigues and make bombs in his kitchen?

No. He writes a newspaper column.

This perversion and debasement of the language legitimises what my mother used to call ‘insinnuendo,’ a conflation of insinuation and innuendo. It’s a snide way of saying something without actually mouthing the words. The trouble is, Alex Salmond knows exactly what he’s doing and how he’s encouraging others to do the same. And if that’s not divisive, I don’t know what is.

Ultra’ graphic borrowed from ThinkScotland’s reprint of this post

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An open letter to Gina Miller about the SNP


Dear Mrs Miller

I see from the press that your campaign group Best for Britain has not only raised over £340,000 in less than two weeks but is thinking of supporting the general election funds of at least some SNP candidates. I congratulate you and your colleagues on your achievement but urge you not to support the SNP in any guise. There are three reasons for this.

The first lies in your organisation’s very title ‘Best for Britain.’ No group that wants the best for Britain should seriously consider supporting a political party whose over-riding aim is the break-up of the country. It’s there in their constitution – ‘The aims of the party shall be (a) Independence for Scotland …’ They will talk about their desire to be EU members, their will to form a progressive alliance in British politics, their social democrat roots. The truth is that for the SNP independence, I prefer to call it separation, trumps everything else. Indeed, polling suggests a substantial part of their membership, about 36%, voted to leave the EU and there are said to be considerable tensions within the party on the subject. If push came to shove they would choose independence over EU membership and have recently been talking in ambiguous terms about alternative relationships for a separate Scotland (EEA or EFTA membership for example). The supreme irony of any Better for Britain support for them might mean, if they are successful, that there will be no Britain left to support.

Second, any support Best for Britain offers the SNP is likely to make little difference to the overall balance of power in the Commons. They will probably lose a few seats in the election anyhow and what happens to the Britain-wide parties is more likely to impact on whether parliament rejects any deal that does not measure up as best for Britain. If Best for Britain wants to support candidates in Scotland it could no better than look at suitable Liberal Democrat candidates (and no, I’m not a member). They already have one MP, for Orkney and Shetland, and have good prospects in Gordon, Caithness Sutherland & Easter Ross, Ross Skye & Lochaber, Fife North East, Edinburgh West, Perth & Perthshire North, and Dunbartonshire East. That’s quite a list and you know that Lib Dem MPs will not only be arguing for the same aims you have, they are also pro-British.

Third, should you choose to support SNP candidates know that you will get little or nothing in return. They are already well-funded by a large membership, any additional funding will be marginal, and hardly noticed by them. They will always put their own interest above that of Britain’s and will vote (or abstain) in the Commons accordingly. To use your own words, they will not be ‘committed to keeping all options open’ because only one option interests them – the break-up of Britain.

If you do read this letter, I thank you for considering its contents and hope you feel able to share it with your Best for Britain colleagues. Unlike some who will see this letter on my blog, I do feel sympathetic to your aims. But regardless of their views, the majority of voters in Scotland want to remain in Britain and would prefer, I am sure like you, to argue our differences out together, not, as the SNP wishes, to break up our country.

Yours sincerely



SNP MPs get boost from Gina Miller fund to stop hard Brexit – Scotsman article

Best for Britain – web site

SNP seats vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats – my own guess

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The fourth great lie of history

Years ago, a Canadian told me what he described as the three great lies of history – ‘The cheque’s in the post,’ ‘It was wonderful for me too honey,’ and ‘Hi, I’m from the government, I’m here to help.’

Well, it’s slightly dated and slightly feeble but now we can add a fourth great lie, the SNP’s

It’s not about independence.

Over the years you’ll have seen this old untruth dragged out whenever the SNP feel under threat and/or want to marshal more votes for their sole purpose – of separation.

And you’ll probably remember the second, associated lie – it’s about a stronger voice for Scotland, keeping the Tories out of power, a progressive alliance/coalition at Westminster, and so on and so on.

With two elections due soon (Scottish councils and UK parliament) the lie’s being deployed yet again. Trouble is, not everyone’s on message. So while you can find lies like this from Nicola Sturgeon:

and this, from Sturgeon’s election agent and Glasgow councillor:

you can also find truths like this, from a failed depute leader candidate in the wake of Stewart Hosie’s resignation:

and of course this, again from Sturgeon:

(if it transcends all those things it sure transcends council elections).

The lie is so blatant and so well known that I swithered before drafting this short post. But sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of one of the deceptions at the heart of the SNP’s constant attempts to con more naïve voters and ‘progressives’ outwith Scotland about their sole purpose.

Still, from a political party like the SNP, what can you expect? Perhaps my only error is in calling this the fourth great lie of history. It is of course the fifth, following the infamous:

Once in a generation opportunity.

Unless you’re a die-hard nationalist don’t be fooled by the SNP.

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