Henry Hill: Anger at Westminster as Scottish Tories put SNP’s referendum pledge at the heart of their campaign

15 Apr

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece explaining why Conservative voters in Scotland should resist the siren call of George Galloway and his ‘All for Unity’ party (A4U), who are urging unionist voters to abandon the main parties on the regional list vote in next month’s Holyrood elections.

The backlash from A4U’s most committed online partisans has been spectacular. Critical journalists are now ‘sophists’ and ‘poison-pen men’, agents of the major parties using ‘the blackest of tactics’ to try desperately to head off this threat to their paymasters.

Nonsense, of course, but it true we would seem to have earned our thirty pieces of silver: the most recent poll found A4U’s support has halved over the last two weeks, and it looks increasingly unlikely to return any MSPs at all. This will doubtless only make its Twitter warriors even more vicious: just yesterday, their constitution spokesman threatened to change the party’s tactical vote recommendation based on whichever candidate was nicest about A4U, rather than best-placed to beat the SNP.

However there is one downside of Galloway’s campaign which I didn’t account for in my piece: that it increases the temptation for the Scottish Conservatives to indulge their worst instincts and run a core-vote campaign that puts the party’s immediate electoral needs over the best interests of the UK. And lo, so they have.

The problem here is that whilst they bitterly disagree over the substance of the issue, both the Tories and the Nationalists benefit electorally when the constitution is the issue at the centre of the debate. The former in particular benefited hugely in 2016 by corralling a broad range of pro-UK voters behind them as the party best-placed to take the fight to the SNP.

Which is probably why the Nationalists’ central election message – that a vote for them is a vote for the Scottish Government to hold another independence referendum – is all over Conservative election messaging. Even though it directly contradicts Conservative policy, which is that the Prime Minister has quite rightly ruled out granting another plebiscite.

Ian Smart, a Labour blogger, has set out why the Tories’ current strategy is so counter-productive. But I know that his frustrations are shared by senior Conservatives at Westminster. Not only does focusing on independence make it harder to scrutinise the Nationalists on their abominable record in government, but it also complicates Boris Johnson’s job when it comes to holding the line after May. How much harder will it be to argue that these elections are not about independence if the Scottish Tories have spent the whole campaign insisting that they are all about independence?

When I first complained about this on Twitter, they got in touch to provide a clarificatory quote:

“The SNP have made it abundantly clear that they will hold another divisive independence referendum, even a wildcat referendum, regardless of what the UK Government says. Our position remains the exact same – that the last thing Scotland needs is another independence referendum and we will be doing everything we can to stop an SNP majority, stop them holding that illegal and divisive referendum, and get all of the focus back on rebuilding Scotland and supporting Scotland’s recovery.”

But none of this nuance is on their literature. It would be a matter of a couple of words to say that the SNP were threatening a ‘wildcat referendum’, or something else to make it clear that we’re talking about potentially unlawful strategies of the sort Alex Salmond and Alba are so keen on.

One of the big problems with devolution has always been the way it aligns the short-term political interests of devolved politicians against the long-term best interests of the United Kingdom. We can only hope that the Prime Minister ignores those clueless ministers sounding off in the Sunday papers about granting a referendum in the middle of the pandemic and refreshes himself on the strong case for a moratorium on Scottish independence.

Scottish Conservative supporters should not vote for ‘All for Unity’

5 Apr

When Alex Salmond launched his Alba Party, his message to Nationalist voters was simple: if everyone who casts their ballot for the SNP in the constituencies throws their vote behind another separatist party in the regional lists, they can game the system and create a ‘supermajority’ for independence in the Scottish Parliament.

He’s not the first to have this idea. Alba immediately annexed another outfit called Action for Independence which was set up with the same intention. Apparently Labour occasionally mulled standing the Co-operative Party in the lists during the era of their hegemony. It’s a poor electoral system that allows such a thing.

Now there are plenty of reasons for nationalists to be wary of this plan. The demands of a ‘supermajority’ yielded by actively disenfranchising unionist voters won’t carry any moral force with the Government, and may even provide cover for Westminster imposing a supermajority requirement on a future independence vote. It could also prevent the SNP winning an overall majority in their own right, which would also undermine Nicola Sturgeon in any face-off with Boris Johnson.

But the basic mathematics of Alba’s proposition is basically correct. The SNP are so dominant in the first-past-the-post constituencies that, outwith the Borders, their list vote is punitively inefficient.

This is not true for the pro-Union parties. Which is why George Galloway’s plan for the Alliance for Unity – known for electoral purposes as ‘All for Unity’ – to serve as an anti-separatist (Jamie Blackett, who made their case on this site, says they are ‘not unionists’) version of Alba makes no sense. Let’s look at why.

‘Unionist unity’ hurts the Union

A4U’s proposal was that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats should put aside their differences and strike a grand bargain to divvy up the constituency seats between them. Then, in order to maximise the efficiency of the pro-UK vote in the lists, they all stand aside for the proportional ballot in favour of A4U.

Let’s start with the most basic problem: there is scant evidence that this would work even if it were possible. Time and again, from the 2019 general election to many council by-elections, voters for the main parties have proved deeply resistant to that sort of tactical voting. The Tories in particular struggle to win transfers in the multi-round system used for local government in Scotland. Labour shedding voters to the SNP cost the Conservatives seats at the general election.

Thus crude calculations about what seats could be won if only there was a pro-Union pact, based on just adding up the combined main-party vote in a given seat, are nonsense. The total pro-UK electorate is in no way a fungible ‘unionist vote’, and it is maximised by offering voters – including those for whom the constitution is not top priority – a variety of options.

By contrast, any united option would presumably disagree on economic and social issues and thus be stuck focusing on the constitution, the one issue it is least likely to win over voters from the SNP on, and steer unionism into the cul-de-sac it’s trapped itself in in Northern Ireland. It remains as bad an idea now as it ever was.

‘Unionist unity’ is undeliverable

But even if this weren’t the case, the proposal is obviously a non-starter. The difficulty the Liberal and Social Democratic parties had divvying up seats in the 1980s would be nothing compared to the acrimonious circus that three-way negotiations over the constituencies would be. At the very least, any chance of appearing less divided and more focused on the real issues than the separatist side would be squandered.

Nor was it ever realistic to expect that the main parties would cede to A4U the lists, where they win nearly all their seats. Even had any of their leaders been addled enough to consider it, they would not have survived signing up to a plan whose most likely outcome was simply the mass replacement of their MSPs with A4U ones. Put bluntly, such proposals were very obviously in A4U’s interests but nobody else’s.

How A4U will hurt the unionist cause

Any concern that the above interpretation might be overly cynical should be dispelled by party’s conduct. Had the plan been advanced in good faith, one might have expected Galloway, Blackett et al to reconsider once the necessary conditions for its success were not achieved.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead A4U is still planning to fight the lists. As James Kanagasooriam has pointed out, they are currently polling just below the threshold at which minor parties start to pick up seats, meaning they’re just going to make it harder to elect pro-Union MSPs and shorten the odds for Alba and the (also separatist) Greens. If they do pick up seats, it will almost certainly just be at the expense of an MSP from a unionist party, rather than a separatist. As Scotland in Union puts it:

“Modelling of the Scottish electoral system suggests that if the share of pro-UK voters supporting minor parties instead of the established parties doubles, the SNP could hang on to a majority of MSPs with as little as 34% of list votes, three full percentage points lower than if all pro-UK voters voted for one of the big three.”

As the force of this reasoning becomes harder and harder to escape, those who have committed themselves to A4U have started to abandon the pretensions of a tactical masterplan. Instead, it’s now all about ousting unionism’s tired has-beens in favour of fresh blood, which Galloway can lead to ‘really take the fight to the SNP’, whatever that means.

In reality, they will have no obvious way to land more blows on a disciplined separatist majority in Holyrood than the traditional parties. Nor will it obviously benefit the pro-UK cause to have as divisive a figure as Galloway become the public face of opposition to the SNP, no matter how high his standing amongst the unionist hard core.

What to do

After decades in retreat, it is understandable that unionist voters are frustrated and looking for options. Nor is the rise of challengers always a bad thing – the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, for example, offers a coherent and under-represented position to the electorate, expands the unionist coalition somewhat, and has already sparked a necessary and overdue realignment on the part of the Welsh Conservatives.

All for Unity are not cast in this mould. Individual good ideas such as a Clarity Act do not justify their existence (and that would in any case be the business of Westminster). Their deliberate construction as a broad-church ‘alliance’ probably prohibits them from doing anything too distinctive, apart from hawking the easy-mode nationalist ‘unionism’ of cutting off awkward connections to national politics. All they seem set to do is get committed unionist voters to cast their ballots in a deeply inefficient way.

They aren’t the only party compromising the cause’s best interests to scare up the vote – some Scottish Tories are doing the same by legitimising the idea that a victory for Sturgeon next month means another referendum, undermining the Prime Minister’s right of refusal. But they have much longer odds of making a constructive contribution. As in almost nil.

So for any Tory voters reading this and wondering how to cast their vote, it’s simple. If you’re minded to vote tactically, head over to Scotland in Union’s calculator, put in your postcode, and back the strongest pro-Union candidate in your constituency. If not, and always in the lists, vote Conservative and Unionist.

Jamie Blackett: Scottish Tories should put country before party and back ‘All for Unity’ on the list vote

12 Mar

Jamie Blackett a Conservative Party member and Leader of the Alliance for Unity.

The SNP is imploding nicely as the Salmond Inquiry, more properly the Sturgeon Inquiry, continues to shock high-minded separatists like Jim Sillars into speaking out against the rampant corruption in their party.

Although the polls still show an SNP majority with the Holyrood election in May only weeks away, and even our state broadcaster appears to be backing Sturgeon’s party, I really think we can win this. I just wish the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party thought the same.

I should qualify the ‘we’ here: I am now a heretical Tory. I would go to the stake for my Tory principles, but I have long since abandoned the idea that the best way to defend them in post-devolution Scotland is necessarily to vote Conservative in Holyrood elections.

Tactical voting has to be the way ahead. In a binary Scotland, where around 50 per cent of the population now supports independence, the ‘we’ is very definitely the pro-UK side of the argument, even if it contains people who are at the other end of the spectrum from me politically in many other respects. Like my friend and All for Unity running mate George Galloway, who has announced that he will be voting Tory to defeat the SNP (much to the chagrin of socialists everywhere, deliciously) and thereby giving the tactical voting argument a massive boost.

It is a confusing time to be a conservative in Scotland. The Scottish Tories have struggled since devolution to cope with the accusation that they are a ‘branch office’ of the national party. The taint is reinforced by the unfortunate habit of the more capable Scottish Tories – Michael Gove, Alister Jack, Ben Wallace – heading off to Westminster. One of them should really be leading the Scottish Tories into the lists in May and not Douglas Ross, who has many qualities but is doing the job about fifteen years ahead of his time – and had, in any case, decamped to Westminster himself, from whence he struggles manfully to lead the party by remote control.

I supported Murdo Fraser’s bid for the leadership in 2011 precisely because he proposed to reverse Edward Heath’s misguided reforms and re-establish the Scottish party as a completely separate entity, though calling it the Scottish Unionist Party would have been a mistake for sectarian reasons. It would really be much better if the parties in Scottish domestic politics were separate from the ones contesting national elections, something that happens in some federal countries.

The confusion is compounded by the Scottish Tories’ perhaps understandable desire to distance themselves from the national party by moving ever leftwards. It is often heard said that there is no centre ground in Scottish politics but Douglas Ross has gone to great lengths to find it. He and his party were ‘remoaners’ long after it was fashionable (and I write that as a former Remain voter myself). He has also backed the SNP’s very un-Tory policy of free university education for all, ironically a policy that has actually been shown to militate against poorer students and reduce social mobility. More recently he has voted against the government on internal market legislation.

So we are faced with a situation where pro-UK Scottish voters have a choice between voting for a party led by a privately-educated millionaire businessman who faced down his party to send his own children to private school… and a party led by Douglas Ross. The overwhelming impression is that they are two social democrats dancing on a pinhead, obsessed, in Galloway’s memorable phrase. The ‘narcissism of small differences.’

The other problem the Scottish Tories face is tactical voting. They are pushing out election literature that says the only way to defeat the SNP is to give both votes to the Tories, something that flies in the face of the logic of the Scottish electoral system, which deliberately favours smaller parties.

I understand the difficulty in saying anything else. I grew up in a Tory household. My father was chairman of the local association and my first experience of salesmanship was selling raffle tickets at a fundraiser to support Ian Laing’s campaign. I have myself turned out as volunteer at elections. I can see how demoralising it would be to the party faithful if the party acknowledged that the only way to dislodge the nationalists is to game the Holyrood electoral system by giving your second vote to All for Unity. I can also see how difficult it would be to stand down those no-hoper candidates running in what should be safe Labour seats in order to allow Labour candidates to oust the separatists.

But these are things that will have to be done if we are ever to break out of the hamster wheel of SNP rule by uniting the chronically split unionist vote against the nationalists.

So what should the Scottish Tories do? I think they should be clear what their objectives are. At the moment it appears as though all they want out of May’s elections is to have their share of the vote held up and to come an honourable second. Ross said as much in his first announcement on becoming leader when he said that he wanted to be the ‘best leader of the opposition’ – a gaffe that was then hurriedly corrected.

I think they need to listen to their members like me who want them to put ‘country before party’ and work explicitly towards evicting the SNP, removing the existential threat to the United Kingdom and ending the debilitating ‘neverendum’. An implied task that falls out of that is to acknowledge that an outright Conservative victory is not on the menu and start working towards an anti-nationalist coalition and talking openly about their hopes for a cross-party government of national unity in Holyrood.

Secondly they need to lead from the front. It is painfully obvious that they have prepared for defeat with a damage limitation strategy. Ross and other leading politicians have implicitly yielded to the SNP by not standing in constituency seats themselves and focusing on the lists. Political cowardice is rarely rewarded. If the Tories don’t believe in themselves why should anyone else?

We can win this. But Scottish Tories need to be clear about what electoral success would look like and redefine ‘we’. The alternatives don’t bear thinking about.

Profile: George Galloway, who “is going to vote for Beelzebub, I’m going to vote for a Scottish Tory”

4 Mar

Welcome aboard, George. The Conservatives have gained a new and at first sight unlikely supporter in the Holyrood elections.

George Galloway is a ferocious orator, who rejoiced Unionist hearts during the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign by carrying the fight to the Nationalists with a brio unmatched by any other speaker.

He has now announced, in the course of his talk show on Russia Today (at 59 minutes and 30 seconds on this recording), in answer to a call from David in Glasgow:

“Here’s a declaration, David, you never expected to hear from me. I’ll be voting Conservative in the elections in May, on my constituency vote, for the first time in my life, because my local MSP is a Conservative and the challenger to him is the SNP.

So my view is that everyone should vote for the best placed candidate standing against the SNP. Because this is a one-off election. It’s a referendum on a referendum. It’s an attempt to stop the neverendum. It’s an attempt to get Scotland off the hamster wheel of endless constitutional peregrinations.

It’s an attempt to get the country back from the brink. And therefore it qualifies as an existential threat not just to Scotland but to Britain as a whole.

So frankly, I’d vote for Beelzebub himself [David starts to chuckle] rather than the SNP, and I’m going to vote for Beelzebub, I’m going to vote for a Scottish Tory.”

Galloway, a left-wing socialist, is in normal times a sworn enemy of the Tories, and has also shown a marked ability to fall out with people on his own side.

A Tory who has often crossed swords with Galloway in the past, and takes a low view of him, responded with Churchill’s remark:

“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

For just as the EU referendum of 2016 trumped existing party loyalties and forced people into strange alliances, so the future of the Union with Scotland is a great constitutional question which stirs such deep feelings that it cuts through everything else.

For Galloway, the crisis is also an opportunity. Last summer, he set up Alliance4Unity, which is now seeking to maximise the number of anti-Nationalist MSPs by urging Scots to  cast their first, constituency, vote, for whichever Unionist candidate – Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat – has the best chance of beating the SNP in that particular seat, and then cast their second vote for Alliance4Unity, which will field an eclectic list of candidates, united only in their determination to oppose independence.

Even some readers of ConservativeHome might be hard pressed to explain, in a few sentences, the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system, combining as it does, by use of the d’Hondt method, first-past-the-post voting in individual constituencies with a second, top-up vote for each party’s regional list, making the final result more proportional.

So here is a fact sheet produced by the Scottish Parliament which renders the whole thing crystal clear, and which states that an independent candidate needs to get between six and seven per cent of the regional, top-up vote to gain election.

Margo MacDonald secured election by this route after falling out with the SNP, and Galloway, who was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003, evidently hopes he can repeat her success.

His chances are at this stage unpredictable. We do not know what will happen in Scotland, and Galloway’s own career is rich in electoral triumph and disaster. Sometimes he unexpectedly comes out on top, as in the acrimonious Bradford West by-election of March 2012, where he stood as the Respect candidate and courted the Muslim vote, after which Andy McSmith observed, in a profile of Galloway for The Independent:

“When he announced that he was running in Bradford West, it appeared to be a desperate attempt by a half-forgotten man to draw attention to himself. Almost the only people to spot what was actually happening were punters who bet so heavily on a Galloway victory that the bookies are saying the result is costing them £100,000. George Galloway is back on the scene.”

Sometimes he fails just as definitively, as in the 2019 general election, when he came sixth in West Bromwich East with 489 votes.

In the nine weeks between now and polling day, the pandemic may prevent him from playing his natural game, which would be to hold a series of public meetings at which he would draw in the crowds by giving brilliantly entertaining speeches.

Here he is speaking during the 2014 referendum campaign:

“I have been divorced more than once. Trust me it is never ever amicable, whatever anybody tells you. But you can make a deal. You can give the partner who is walking out on you all the CDs the DVDs, the dog, the car – you can give them everything, but the one thing you will never ever give them is the right to continue to use the joint credit card.

And that is what their plan A – and they have no plan B – amounts to.

They want to use a currency issued by the Bank of England – the clue being in the name; they want to continue to use it and they imagine that the people that issue it will allow them to do so; to use the joint credit card, even though and as they are walking out the door.

So this is the first time ever that people in a small country, where everyone speaks the same language, are being asked to break up and break up on the basis that they don’t have a currency to use.

There will be no pound. Trust me on that. I came yesterday from Parliament (where) the leaders of the mainstream parties have not changed their minds. An independent Scotland will not have the pound.

What will it have instead? The euro – how’s that going? Anybody fancy that or are we going to bring back the groat?

I see one or two pensioners here, or people close to pensionable age. How do you fancy your pension in groats? How do you fancy a pension that is based entirely on the absolutely unstable price of a commodity that will be finished in 2050?

And in my lifetime oil has been as low as $9 a barrel and as high as $156 a barrel. Who wants to mortgage their children and their children’s future on a finite resource that will soon be finished and the price of which is simply un-calculable? Un-calculable.”

This kind of rhetoric reaches voters, and indeed non-voters, who are repelled by the platitudes of the professional political careerists.

Galloway will be dismissed, by prosy commentators – and especially by prosy commentators of Nationalist sympathies – as a disreputable loner, an egotist, an opportunist and troublemaker who must be kept out of the mainstream media and left to address a few cranks on stations like Russia Today to which no decent person listens.

But he has a lot of followers on social media, and he may have spotted a gap in the market. Just as there are some socialists who want a more socialist Labour Party, so there are some Unionists who want a more uncompromising unionism, articulated by an insurrectionist who take on the whole Holyrood Establishment, a Dundonian boot boy who can reach the Scottish working class and treats politics as a blood sport.

In the 2010 general election, I toured the East End of London with Galloway:

“As we approached the headquarters of Respect, the party he created when he fell out with Labour, we warned ourselves not to be seduced by the oratory of the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who is this time standing in the adjacent east London seat of Limehouse and Poplar.

But gleaming in the sun outside his office stood a beautiful, red, open-topped Routemaster bus. Like Boris Johnson, Mr Galloway knows that few things raise the spirits so much as the chance to go for a ride on the top deck of the finest bus ever to lumber through the streets of London…

Mr Galloway arrived. He wore a natty pin-striped suit and was smoking a cigar. According to Mr Galloway, he has been wearing suits since the age of 15. We asked where this one came from and he said it was from a shop called Retro.

So we were in the presence of a Retro politician: a man able to make an unscrupulous appeal to our preference for old-fashioned clothes and old-fashioned language.

To see whether Mr Galloway could also manage old-fashioned niceness, we put it to him that Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP whom he is hoping to defeat, is “a decent fellow”.

‘Yes,’ Mr Galloway replied, ‘apart from the fact that he voted for a war that killed a million people. It kind of invalidates any other qualities.’ Mr Galloway went on: ‘I want to punish the people who voted for the war, one by one if necessary.'”

The vindictive Galloway only managed to come third in Limehouse and Poplar, but the point stands that this old-style orator and strict teetotaller in his natty suits is more of a small-c conservative than his critics are willing to admit.

They denounce him for making common cause with Muslims who have old-fashioned views about, for example, the role of women, without pausing to consider that many Christians until recently held much the same views about women, and that Galloway, born in 1954 in Dundee into a working-class Roman Catholic household, may have learned in his youth to regard such views as normal.

He showed precocious ability as a Labour campaigner, also developed an early and unwavering allegiance to the Palestinian cause, arranged for Dundee to be twinned with Nablus in the West Bank, affronted some Dundonians by hoisting the Palestinian flag above the Council Chambers, and at the age of 26 became the youngest ever Chairman of the Scottish Labour Party.

In 1987, Galloway regained Glasgow Hillhead for Labour, defeating Roy Jenkins, one of the founders of the SDP. Galloway had already demonstrated a gift for stirring up controversy, and for discomforting his opponents, while running the charity War on Want, and he proceeded to become an unruly MP.

He was attacked for telling Saddam Hussein, at a meeting in 1994:  “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Galloway was thrown out of the Labour Party in 2003 for going too far in his opposition to the Iraq War – he had suggested British troops “refuse to obey illegal orders”.

But he remained in the House as an Independent MP until 2005, when he captured Bethnal Green and Bow for his new party, Respect, after a rough battle for Muslim votes with the Labour candidate, Oona King.

Galloway is a provocateur who often so infuriates his opponents that they overstate the case against him, whereupon he turns the tables on them. In 2005 he went to Washington and denounced some American senators who had supposed he was a discredited figure who would would defer to them.

He also demonstrated his gifts as a controversialist by debating in New York against Christopher Hitchens, whom he had attacked as “a drink soaked former Trotskyist popinjay”. The recording of this affair serves as a good example of each man’s style.

Frank Johnson, doyen of Westminster sketchwriters, recognised Galloway as “a tremendous parliamentarian”. Journalists who value entertainment, and the upsetting of apple carts, above the steadier virtues, will be yearning for Galloway to gain election to the Scottish Parliament.

Alliance4Unity has recruited a number of other candidates, including Jamie Blackett, a farmer, writer and former soldier, who accepted the post of Deputy Leader, and Alan Sked, founder of UKIP.

Galloway has his vehicle. By the end of the first week in May we shall know whether it has taken him and some of his companions to Holyrood.

Henry Hill: MSPs concerned that Scottish Government spent tens of thousands ‘preparing’ witnesses

14 Jan

Taxpayers face new £55,000 bill to prep civil servants for Salmond hearings

On Monday, I wrote about the latest twist in the ‘Alex Salmond saga’ which is gripping Scottish politics. The former First Minister has made explosive allegations against his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, to the effect that she has broken the Ministerial Code and misled the Scottish Parliament. If substantiated, they could end her career.

The First Minister already seems to be in a potentially tricky position. Salmond claims to have several witnesses who can corroborate his version of events, whereas Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell (who also happens to be the SNP’s Chief Executive) have contradicted each others’ testimony.

Now the Daily Telegraph reveals that Scottish taxpayers stumped up almost £55,000 to help “prepare” six senior civil servants who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into the affair, sparking concerns from astonished MSPs that these witnesses might have been ‘coached’. As the paper reports:

“Staff logs released in response to a Freedom of Information request also show that witnesses spent several hours preparing for sessions, only to then face criticism for “forgetting” crucial details, giving misleading evidence, or dodging questions. Despite the extensive and costly preparation, and appearing under oath, four of the six civil servants were forced to correct or clarify their evidence after their appearances.”

Salmond himself has also hit out at the expense, saying that “the cost of the cover-up continues to mount”. MSPs are of course investigating because he ended up being awarded over £500,000 in costs after the courts ruled that the Scottish Government’s initial inquiry into him was unlawful and potentially biased.

The Telegraph also reports that the ex-SNP leader is wrangling with lawyers over whether or not he can release certain documents he obtained during his trial. Salmond says that if he is not allowed to do so, it may render him unable to fulfil his oath of truthfulness in front of MSPs.

In the meantime, the Nationalists’ posture of extreme defensiveness towards the whole thing is unchanged. Having frequently stonewalled the inquiry and refused to release evidence, now John Swinney, the SNP’s deputy leader, has refused to broaden the scope of the inquiry into his boss.

According to the Herald, a cross-party group of MSPs on the Holyrood committee wanted the Scottish Government to formally broaden the scope of the investigation being conducted by James Hamilton, the independent advisor on the Code, to address the specific allegations levelled by Salmond. But whilst Sturgeon has said that he can explore ‘any issue’, Swinney’s refusal to officially sanction the broader investigation suggests they are not nearly so relaxed as the First Minister would like people to believe.

There were also some interesting stories on the health front. First, the Sunday Mail revealed that the SNP’s £500 bung to NHS workers is being paid for out of the Covid-19 grant from Westminster. This has been attacked because it will go to “highly paid doctors and health service ­managers” and not low-paid frontline workers outwith the NHS.

Second, the Times reports that claims by Jeane Freeman, the Nationalist health minister, that the UK Government had ‘back-ended’ Scotland’s vaccine shipments are not borne out by the data. Earlier this week, my colleague Charlotte revealed that SNP members are amongst the least likely to take the vaccine, and most likely to worry that it will prove unsafe or ineffective, of any political group.

Nor have the other divisions within the SNP gone away whilst this drags on. This week Joanna Cherry, a high-profile Nationalist MP and ally of Salmond, made headlines by urging separatist activists to prepare alternative pathways to independence in the event that the British Government continues to refuse to grant a re-run of the 2014 vote. This reflects growing grassroots frustration with Sturgeon’s gradualist, by-the-book approach which could yet boil over if the First Minister finds herself politically wounded, yet in office and deprived of a plebiscite, after the upcoming Scottish elections.

Johnson and Gove to meet and set Union strategy

On the subject of the referendum, the Herald reports that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove “are set to hold private talks on how to give the Union a “big push” in the face of rising support in opinion polls for Scottish independence and May’s Holyrood elections.”

The plan is apparently to launch a new campaign to promote the UK in the spring, ahead of the Scottish elections currently slated for May but which will probably be pushed back into the summer. Officials have reportedly been discussing the four Home Nations ‘jumping together’ to delay the polls. Central to it will be the delayed Dunlop Review, which is looking at how the British Government can maintain and enhance its ‘Union capability‘ in the era of devolution.

As I noted on UnHerd yesterday, such a meeting could also see an important clash between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (‘CDL’, in Whitehall parlance) over the broader direction of the Government’s pro-UK strategy. Johnson’s instincts seem to be much more aggressive than Gove’s, who has some in government worried about an ‘appease the SNP’ mentality on the part of his team.

In other news Michelle Ballantyne, a right-wing MSP who has previously challenged for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, has defected to become the first representative in the Scottish Parliament of Reform UK, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle. This will probably be a disappointment to the Alliance for Unity (George Galloway’s outfit), who have been trying to position themselves as the outsiders’ force in Scottish unionism.

Alliance for Unity, the new movement which could give Galloway his next political life

26 Sep

Next year’s Holyrood elections are shaping up to potentially make-or-break clash between unionists and separatists. If the SNP (plus their pro-independence foederati, the Greens) win a majority, the Government will come under increasing pressure to grant a second referendum on Scottish independence.

This fact has produced not one but two new parties, one on each side of the debate, which aim to skew the next Scottish Parliament towards their chosen position.

First out of the traps was the Alliance for Independence. Their plan is quite straightforward: to run candidates only in the regional list constituencies at the election, and encourage as many pro-independence voters as possible to back them after voting SNP at the constituency level. Whilst list SNP votes might get discounted if the Nationalists win a lot of FPTP constituencies, this new party would get the full entitlement and thus maximise the separatist caucus.

There are questions to be asked about this plan. Will the A4I really contribute much that the Scottish Greens (whose MPs are all elected on the lists already) don’t? Is it legitimate to so obviously game what is meant to be a proportional system? Is it all just a front for a controversial far-left politician?

In fact, that last point is one that might also be asked of the pro-UK counter to A4I: the Alliance4Unity, a new non-partisan unionist initiative being headed up by none other than George Galloway.

Galloway has form on this. He represents a quite old-school strain of left-wing unionism which backs Irish republicanism but is sternly opposed to separatism on the British mainland, which was traditionally viewed as antithetical to solidarity or, for the true believers, a distraction from the class struggle. (And after two decades of devocrats hiding behind the flag rather than defend their poor records, maybe they have a point?) During the 2014 referendum, Galloway conducted an independent town-hall speaking tour which offered many people who are usually bitterly opposed to his politics an opportunity to see how electrifying his oratory can be when he’s on your side.

Nonetheless, A4U represents a sharp break in his career. Whilst he has not previously been shy about falling in with the religious right when seeking sectarian votes for Respect, this looks like the first time he has openly collaborated with Tories. Their initial tranche of candidates includes not only Gorgeous George himself but Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP, as well as a GP, an ex-soldier, and a barrister, and the group is calling for a broader pact between the unionist parties.

Whether or not explicitly modelled on A4I, the A4U has adopted a very similar strategy of standing only in the regional lists in an effort to maximise the pro-UK vote. According to their website, any MSPs elected under the Alliance’s banner will sit as Independents and support any anti-independence administration. This will not only make it easier to run an ideologically heterogeneous slate, but may help to remove any barriers to cooperation between them and the mainstream pro-UK parties, who might balk (quite understandably) at collaborating with an organised party commanded by Galloway.

Yet its road to Holyrood won’t be easy. Some of its output on social media has been crank-ish, and there will inevitably be tension between the loose ‘alliance’ model and the professionalism expected of a modern political campaign. It also faces the task of trying to woo list votes from people who have voted for three different parties at the constituency level, a much tougher ask than the A4I’s bid for SNP switches, and it is harder to argue to the most committed unionist voters that a list vote for the Tories is a wasted vote.

For all that it at aspires to breadth and an electoral pact, the A4U’s future in Scottish politics will probably hinge on whether Galloway himself can identify and energise a section of the pro-UK electorate that is left cold by the major parties – perhaps in the left-unionist space vacated by a moribund and swithering Labour Party.

Securing the Majority? 3) A Department for the Union

2 Sep

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the third. Eight months on, how are they doing?

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Securing The Majority? 3) A Department for the Union

Boris Johnson did not become Prime Minister to fight for the United Kingdom, any more than did Theresa May to deliver Brexit.

Nonetheless he, like his predecessor, knows that his legacy will be defined by a battle not of his preference.

The precedent set by the Government’s handling of Northern Ireland is not inspiring, with MPs reportedly not realising the real implications of the terms they agreed to escape the impasse over the Backstop. However, the steel ministers are showing over control of post-Brexit economic powers suggests that they are finally getting across the need to defend the structures of the Union.

Officially, the Government insists that it will not grant a second “once-in-a-generation” referendum. It would be quite right to do this, although the arguments for doing so will need fleshing out.

Yet holding that line in the face of a separatist majority at next year’s Holyrood elections may require more nerve than the forces of unionism possess at the minute, and there are signs that preparations are being laid for a future campaign.

As suggested in Paul’s original article, Michael Gove is playing a leading role in the pro-UK operation inside the Government, although much of his time is reportedly consumed with Brexit at present.

He has even been out on manoeuvres with George Galloway, who has returned to Scotland and launched a new political party, the Alliance for Unity, to contest the upcoming Scottish Parliament election.

Whilst there is no sign yet of a full-blown Department of the Union, Johnson has brought in Luke Graham, the former Tory MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, to head up the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’ – although the sacking of the Unit’s adviser in February caused concern amongst Scottish Conservatives.

The Prime Minister has also blocked a proposal from Gove to invite Nicola Sturgeon to sit in Cabinet (which seems fair, as she would not be bound by collective responsibility and has no mandate on reserved matters) and ordered that projects funded by the Government in Scotland should bear the imprint of the Union.

Outwith the Government, meanwhile, work is underway to rebuild the pro-UK campaigning machine. Whether or not this network can work harmoniously with the Number Ten operation remains to be seen.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.