Lord Ashcroft: My survey of Scottish voters. The SNP maintains its lead for the Holyrood elections. But there are clouds on its horizon.

28 Apr

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Events that change the world sometimes have little apparent effect on politics. At first glance, this is the case with the Covid pandemic and the scene in Scotland.

The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.

Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, but its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers.

Nicola Sturgeon herself is more dominant than ever. As her newly-appointed rivals (and the perennial Willie Rennie) struggle to make an impression, the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic has enhanced her standing even among her critics. Many praise the clarity of her daily briefings and draw a contrast with Boris Johnson (whom many Scots cannot quite believe has become Prime Minister), even if the more cynical praise “her commitment to being on TV every day,” as one focus group participant archly put it.

Her occasional digs at London’s approach have found a ready audience, and if she happens to be able to lift restrictions early in the run-up to an election, well, that’s politics, isn’t it? In our ever-revealing question on what animal each leader would be, the canny Sturgeon emerges as a fox, panther or lion. Alex Salmond, her supposed nemesis, is a warthog, toad, snake or wild boar; Johnson is a panda, sloth, orangutan or pigeon (“a lot of folk don’t like them but that doesn’t stop there being pigeons everywhere”). Keir Starmer is sleepy Bagpuss, or “a rabbit caught in the headlights”.

But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort, and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.

For many, Brexit is a powerful justification for a new independence referendum. But this, too, works both ways. Belief that the effects of Brexit have yet to play out adds to qualms about Scotland’s economic prospects, especially when combined with uncertainty about the post-Covid recovery. Those who would like an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU are far from certain that this could easily happen; they are unlikely to have their doubts assuaged before any new vote.

Northern Ireland’s experience leads to questions about the post-independence border between Scotland and England. And those who despaired at four years of Brexit negotiations will need to be convinced that Westminster will prove a more magnanimous negotiating partner than Brussels – a reversal of the nationalists’ standard demonology. Meanwhile, with questions like Scotland’s future currency unanswered, some who still favour independence at heart feel it would be more of a leap of faith now than in 2014.

Most feel Salmond’s motives for launching Alba have more to do with ego than independence. But the SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.

Many are nervous about the prospect of a new referendum without authorisation from London, and cite the example of Catalonia. But pro-independence voters take promises of further devolution with a large pinch of salt, and the current settlement seems to promise continued Tory rule from Westminster for much of the foreseeable future. There is a feeling that Scottish politics cannot move on until the question is settled. If it is in Sturgeon’s favour, she seems more likely to dislodge Downing Street’s current occupant than the official opposition.

Full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

Iain Dale: Teaching unions are loud but wrong on vaccines. Besides, what about those without powerful public advocates?

26 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown how true the maxim is that those who shout the loudest get the most attention.

Take teachers, for example.

And before I go on, I should say that originally I was going to be a teacher (of German, since you ask) and I have the highest regard for the teaching profession.

However, the very thought that teachers should be vaccinated ahead of other groups is for the birds.

There is no evidence that teachers are more likely to either contract or die of Coronavirus than anyone else.

Indeed, the league table of occupations with the most Coronavirus deaths put teachers almost at the bottom.

But the teachers unions have a very loud voice and they used it to persuade the Labour Party to press the Government to put teachers at the top of the next round of vaccinations.

It would have been easy to give in, but they didn’t. And quite right too.

This week the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) declared that teachers were no more at risk than other people.

What about those who don’t have powerful public advocates – refuse collectors, people who work in funeral parlours, taxi drivers (who top the death list), bus drivers? I could go on.

The JCVI is absolutely right to say that once the 1-9 groups are complete, the rollout should continue to be largely based on age bands.

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Clickbait headline of the week has to go to Pink News, which came up with this gem: “Horny thief steals £600 of sex toys – including a vegan bondage kit”.

The mind boggles. I mean, a leather gimp mask made out of Quorn? Whatever next.

I’m afraid clickbait headlines are not just the province of tabloids. I’ve noticed even The Times has started to get down dirty in the hope of attracting more hits.

This week a headline tried to persuade us that prisoners (at least they didn’t call them “lags”) were going to queue jump and get the vaccine ahead of teachers and police officers.

What a shame the words underneath the headline said nothing of the sort.

Headline writers have a job to do, but that job is not to exaggerate the truth or reality.

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All attention is now turning towards Rishi Sunak’s budget on Wednesday.

In some ways this could be seen as the most important budget for a generation.

It will set the tone for the next decade of rebuilding our economy.

It cannot be business as usual and has to show a huge degree of imagination and understanding of what is needed to recreate an enterprise economy.

Everything must be geared to encouraging economic activity and new business startups. Tinkering with the odd tax rate here and there won’t be enough.

It is also an important day for the Chancellor personally. His popularity ratings are rightfully very high, but this budget will define him for a lot of us.

Has he got what it takes, or will this it all be a bit of a damp squib with decisions delayed and a sense of “meh-ness” pervading the country?

We all accept that debts have to be repaid. But now is not the time to start putting up taxes.

It is rumoured he is thinking of increasing corporation tax.

For a party which traditionally can’t see a tax without wanting to put it up, it is supremely ironic that Labour has declared it would be against a rise, however minimal, in corporation tax.

But it’s a good bit of opposition politics, however opportunistic it is.

To put up corporation or any business tax at the moment would be a complete slap in the face for those businesses who, just as they see a degree of normality (and hopefully profitability) to return, they are told the first thing they will have to do is pay more tax.

There are plenty of people who have done well out of the pandemic, the most obvious being Amazon. It’s fair enough to think of ways of finding new ways of taxing them, but however that is done, it’s important to ensure that it’s not the paying consumer who is hit.

I’d like to see a national insurance holiday for a year for any new business startup. As I said last week, I’d like to see IR35 and the loan charge abolished. This war against the self employed has to stop.

But most of all I want to see a truly radical budget speech.

We are about to find out of what metal Sunak is made.

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I hope you’ve all got your popcorn ready for Alex Salmond’s appearance before a committee of the Scottish Parliament this lunchtime.

It promises to be quite an event.

I don’t profess to be an expert on the internal affairs of the SNP, but I have a feeling that an implosion is imminent.

And at last the English media has woken up to what could well become one of the biggest political stories of the year.

If the worst were to happen (for the SNP, I mean) and Nicola Sturgeon was to be forced out of office, it’s difficult to see who the ready replacement is.

Succession planning was something Salmond did well. He groomed Sturgeon for the job, and few could say with a straight face that she has made a hash of it (although if you work in Scottish education, or parts of the Scottish NHS you might contest that assertion).

She, however, has failed to do that. There is no natural successor.

And that’s a real concern, both for the SNP and for Scotland more generally.