Why Conservatives should cautiously welcome fresh leadership for Scottish Labour

15 Jan

Yesterday afternoon, Richard Leonard announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. (The announcement carefully timed to avoid topping ‘Red, White, and Blue’, no doubt.)

An ally of Jeremy Corbyn, there has been something of Admiral Kolchak about Leonard’s increasingly forlorn attempts to maintain a redoubt for Labour’s left-most wing. He actually fought off a challenge as recently as September, but his position had apparently become unsustainable.

LabourList has a useful summary of what went on behind the scenes. Apparently high net-worth donors were threatening to withhold support from the party unless there was a change in leadership. More significant, however, was the fact that “the balance of factional power on the Scottish executive committee has changed” since the autumn’s abortive putsch.

What happens now? Jackie Baillie, a combative MSP on the right of the party known for her pro-Trident views – her constituency of Dumbarton is home to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, where docks the fleet – is stepping up in the interim whilst Anas Sarwar, whom Leonard defeated in 2017, seems to be the front-runner. There may be a challenger from the left, but not the Corbynite left. There is some excitable talk about Gordon Brown taking over, but Unionists should sincerely hope he doesn’t.

Coming just a few months ahead of this year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament (albeit that these will likely be delayed), any new leader will have their work cut out to try and regain the ground Labour has lost under Leonard’s hapless leadership.

Yet counter-intuitive as it might seem, there will more than a few Scottish Conservatives hoping for just such a revival. For whilst the two may be often bitter rivals, a certain measure of Labour success may be essential to maximising Tory performance.

Why? Because despite all the progress the latter have made over the past decade or so, there remains a substantial section of even the pro-UK electorate that a Conservative candidate cannot reach. Absent a strong Labour candidate, many of those will either stay at home or, worse, vote SNP.

In 2017, when the Conservatives won 13 seats in Scotland at the general election, Labour also saw a small recovery and won seven. In 2019 – after Leonard had taken over – they lost six of those. Meanwhile the Tories also lost seven of theirs – despite several of the defeated MPs seeing their vote go up. (This is why the old chestnut about setting up a united ‘Unionist Party’ in Scotland is such a bad idea: it takes a range of options to maximise the pro-UK vote.)

Obviously there are limits to this goodwill, and Tory strategists will be concerned by polling which suggests they might cede second place. But a stronger Scottish Labour Party is essential to defending the Union, which makes their determined hopelessness on the constitution deeply concerning. Can Sarwar turn the tide? Could anyone?

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.

Douglas Ross: No more excuses. No more evasion. Sturgeon’s position is untenable if Salmond is telling the truth.

14 Jan

Douglas Ross is Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, and is MP for Moray.

The claims made by Alex Salmond about his successor are genuinely jaw-dropping.

Salmond asserts that Nicola Sturgeon knew about the Scottish Government internal investigation into alleged sexual harassment by him in advance of meetings on the 29th of March and 2nd of April 2018. He also alleges that Sturgeon’s top special adviser, Liz Lloyd, leaked the name of one of the complainers to Salmond’s former chief of staff.

In addition, he states that Sturgeon failed to inform the civil service of government meetings with him. He accuses her of having “broke” the ministerial code on numerous occasions and making “untrue” statements that “misled” the Scottish Parliament.

The sheer severity of these claims can only mean that the First Minister’s future is on the line. Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly told the Scottish Parliament that she was unaware of the complaints against Salmond before the meeting on the 2nd – only to later recall that she had ‘forgotten’ about a ‘chance’ meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff on the 29th.

If it is true that the meeting on the 29th was prearranged and not a chance encounter, and that she knew about the investigation into Salmond beforehand, then Sturgeon has clearly been lying to the Scottish Parliament.

The media has been caught up in the spectacle of the struggle between the First Minister and her political mentor, the former First Minister, but at the crux of this dispute are women let down by the complaints process, and the issue of public trust in our politics.

There is the indisputable fact that the SNP Government’s botched mishandling of the process saw over £500,000 of taxpayers’ money paid out to Salmond. The need to uncover the truth and restore trust is especially important at a time when we are relying on public compliance with the decisions taken by politicians to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

That is why the Scottish Conservatives have continually challenged the SNP Government on its failure to allow proper scrutiny of this murky business. On two occasions we led the opposition parties in defeating the SNP in the Scottish Parliament on its failure to release legal advice. Outraged SNP MPs should look closer to home when they are considering their next target to accuse of treating the Parliament with contempt.

Meanwhile the SNP Government in Holyrood has done everything it can to avoid transparency and scrutiny throughout this process. Even Linda Fabiani, the SNP chair of the Salmond inquiry committee, has said that she was “completely frustrated” at the lack of evidence from the government. Sturgeon promised that the entire SNP Government would “co-operate fully” with it but, like much else concerned with this sordid affair, that promise could not have been further from the truth.

Now it is rejecting any attempt to expand the civil service’s independent investigation. If there is nothing to hide, then why is the SNP Government seeking to avoid further scrutiny. Why is Sturgeon so bullish about all of this in public yet, behind closed doors, holding back evidence, and hiding behind committee and investigative terms of reference? These actions only raise suspicion.

Sturgeon knows that her position is untenable if Salmond is telling the truth. She was on the opposition side when Henry McLeish resigned as First Minister for subletting his constituency office. And when David McLetchie had to quit as Scottish Conservative leader for using publicly paid for taxis for party political purposes.

Then, as Deputy First Minister, she welcomed Wendy Alexander’s resignation as Labour group leader over failing to declare donations to her leadership campaign in her register of interests. Nicola Sturgeon knows the precedent for Scottish political leaders – and they all resigned for far less than she is accused of.

There can be no more excuses, no more obfuscation. The complainants deserve the truth of why they were let down so badly by the Scottish Government’s internal process. Scottish taxpayers deserve to know the truth of why public money had to handed to Salmond. The Scottish Parliament deserves to know the truth of statements that the First Minister made to it. And just a few months ahead of the Scottish Parliament Election, voters deserve to know the truth of whether they can trust Sturgeon’s word.

If there is nothing to hide, then she should have no problem with giving us the truth.

Jamie Green: Now that Brexit has finally happened, Scotland’s ambitions must stretch beyond Europe

12 Jan

Jamie Green is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and an MSP for West Scotland.

They say that January is a time for renewal, new starts and new resolutions. After the 2020 we’ve just had, that message of renewal is more important than ever, but I can think of nobody in greater need of wiping the slate clean and replacing the broken record than our very own First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

I appreciate that it’s difficult for a veteran politician of 30 years to find somewhere to start fresh, but I might gently suggest to the First Minister that she embraces 2021 with a more positive vision of what Scotland can achieve going forward. Instead of endless re-running of votes and arguments, all of which she sadly lost, the leader of Scotland’s government needs to embrace the reality of the new world we are in.

“A No Deal Brexit would be a catastrophic outcome for Scotland” – she proclaimed, before ordering her MPs to vote for one in the closing days of 2020. To her, Brexit has always been an emotive weapon used to stir up division and further her grievance with the UK government. But also one of absolute hypocrisy and paradoxical ironies.

She would happily drive our fishermen and their fish straight back into the murky seas of the Common Fisheries Policy, and she would herd our farmers back behind the fences of the Common Agricultural Policy, if it meant achieving her lifelong political mission of Scottish separation, at the expense of everyone and everything else. Her swansong perhaps, at any cost.

Just last weekend, her own deputy labelled a second independence referendum “an essential priority” without a hint of irony, apparently unaware of the global pandemic and the mounting Coronavirus death toll in Scotland.

The truth is that she must be spitting nails at the UK’s orderly managed exit, because the SNP calculated it had more to gain by pushing for a chaotic departure rather than acting in the national interest. The truth is that the SNP was desperate for the final week of 2020 to be marked with disruption and for 2021 to begin with the very No Deal exit from EU transition that it had spent years condemning with the might of a pulpit preacher.

They talked of the cliff edge ad-infinitum, only to then vote for one when it came to the actual crunch: do as I say, not as I do.

Now that Brexit has finally happened, and we have actually left the EU, how on earth can Scotland be reassured that their First Minister will embrace the New Year and the opportunities that awaits us with the zeitgeist it merits? The problem for Scotland is that she won’t.

If only her separatist government put such effort into its domestic policy as it does its interest in repealing referenda, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen the demise of our world-class education, our judicial system or the seemingly perpetual decline of our economy under the reigns of the nationalist government in St. Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.

When you think about it, the only people who should be afraid of the new freedoms we have outside the EU, is the SNP. With more powers devolved to these islands, they might simply now have to deliver for Scotland rather than just pointing the finger at Westminster when things go wrong.

The bogeyman is neither Europe nor London. The power and responsibility lie firmly in Edinburgh. Be it agricultural policy, or fishing infrastructure. Be it environmental ambition or investment in infrastructure – the Scottish Government has much to account for and much to deliver.

The stark reality facing all governments is to make sure that Brexit actually works for everybody in Scotland, not just those who voted for it. Instead of listening to what Scotland can’t do without Brussels, I want our government to start talking about the opportunities on our doorstep. Our global ambition, if you like.

What about a study abroad scheme with Australia? A financial services agreement with the US, so firms in Edinburgh can have unfettered access to the multi trillion-dollar market in New York? Scotland will always be a close partner and ally of Europe, but our ambitions must stretch beyond the continent of the political union we have just taken leave of if we are to succeed.

Nobody is saying that things will be easy, but ambition is core to success.

We begin 2021 with a new deal, a new relationship, and a new future, which does require some patience I admit. But waiting is not a quality that Sturgeon can rely on, because the political life expectancy of SNP leaders who lose referendums is very limited, and she has been on the losing side of every referendum she has ever campaigned on.

Unlike the First Minister, I believe that Scotland can truly thrive outside of the constraints of Brussels. I want those powers of the Brexit bounty repatriated to these shores, so that every corner of the UK can take advantage of a global UK. The deal thrashed out with the EU, and accepted by both sides, means Scotland will succeed by not only having tariff-free access the European Single Market, but by allowing us to benefit from new free trading arrangements with economic giants such as the US, India, Japan, and Canada. Our whisky, our salmon, our smokies: a global market for a truly global Scotland.

It now just needs a First Minister with the resolution, a new found one if you will, to work with and not against the grain and make a success of our renewed place in the world.

Salmond’s sensational attack on Sturgeon threatens to tear the SNP apart

11 Jan

Over the weekend, the Times reported that Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, has made an extraordinary attack on Nicola Sturgeon, his successor and one-time protégé.

In evidence to the man investigating the SNP leader’s conduct, he claims that Sturgeon has misled the Scottish Parliament and broken the ministerial code by failing to keep civil servants informed of her meetings with him over sexual misconduct allegations.

We’ve covered the affair in the Red, White, and Blue column, although this latest twist has seen another round of pieces offering the broad sweep of the story. But the nub of it is that Salmond is convinced that Sturgeon and her allies stacked an official inquiry against him in order to try and prevent his return to front-line politics in Edinburgh, and now he’s out for revenge.

This inter-personal drama is made much more dangerous for the broader party because it intersects with several other fault lines running through the Nationalists, over independence strategy, gender politics, and more besides. Just as the SNP stands on what might be the cusp of fulfilling its historic mission, its phalanx-like discipline is breaking down.

What the political fallout of all this will be is less obvious. So far, the Scottish Government has enjoyed the same sort of political un-life enjoyed by Theresa May’s administration when it was shedding Cabinet ministers left and right but still comfortably above 40 per cent in the polls. The SNP’s electoral coalition is held together by an existential constitutional question and seems fairly impervious to day-to-day misgovernment.

But if Salmond’s allegations against Sturgeon are substantiated – a big if – that could be a problem of a different order. The First Minister would probably have to resign, and even if she toughed it out her reputation would be severely damaged. The damage to the broader Nationalist cause could be severe because, as research from These Islands has illustrated, the extraordinary esteem in which she is held by Scottish voters is one of the biggest assets they have.

The Nationalists took office in 2007, and since then unionists have not succeeded in building a political machine to match them. It would be a strange twist of fate if the thing to deliver the Union from the SNP was the SNP itself.

Neil O’Brien: Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists

11 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

“Defoe says that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse.” William Hazlitt, 1830

When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building last week, many people in Britain probably thought that it was just the latest manifestation of a special sort of craziness that has gripped America. That sort of thing surely couldn’t happen here. Or could it?

The same evening, to far less fanfare, the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 people outside Parliament. On new year’s day, doctors leaving St Thomas’s hospital were greeted by a large crowd of protestors chanting “Covid is a hoax”.

These things are connected. They show that the same forces at work in the US are in some ways, already at work here.

Let me wind back a bit. Obviously, I mainly blame Trump for what happened in Washington. He did everything he could to incite the riot, in a brazen attempt to reverse his election defeat.

But other people made this possible too. The ragtag army of wannabe revolutionaries smashing up the seat of Americas democracy were radicalised by a whole ecosystem of shock jocks, social media cranks and conspiracy theories.

They’ve ended up living in a world of alternative facts, in which Trump is the sole bulwark against diabolical global conspiracies, and the President is the victim of an election “stolen” by a shadowy “elite”. In a world of such illusions, almost anything can be justified.
None of this is new. Trump was in a sense following the playbook of Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 whipped up fears of shadowy Catholic conspiracies, sparking vicious riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.

New forms of media often fuel revolutions. The printing press led to the reformation and wars of religion. The Cahiers to the French Revolution. The “Big Character Posters” spread the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

New technology has again changed things. First, Twitter, Whatsapp and online news have simply made political organisation much easier. The ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and ‘Arab spring’ were early demonstrations of their viral power.

But now the second shoe is dropping. What we are seeing now is the power of these technologies to create communities of radicalisation. Islamism is the most obvious example. A constituent of mine who lives in a pretty, sleepy village (with a lovely tearoom) was recently charged with seven terrorism offences. More and more, attacks come from those who have radicalised themselves online.

But Islamists are just one community of radicalisation. I was chatting to an apparently normal man this summer, when conversation turned to the coronavirus. He told me, with a matter-of-fact air, that it was all a hoax, set up by the New World Order who were planning a Great Reset, in which Big Business would take over and we would all be microchipped. I’ve had several similarly alarming conversations.

When people got their news from mainstream TV and radio news with strong legal obligations to be neutral, people were exposed to both sides of most stories. As has often been pointed out, people can much more readily be wound into a frenzy if they get their information from Whatsapp groups, people they follow on twitter and from agenda-driven ‘news’ sites.

But the idea of “filter bubbles” doesn’t really do justice to what new media is enabling. People aren’t just passively consuming news they agree with. People are building communities. People they ‘know’ from chat and comment threads. Making likeminded friends on twitter.
Indeed, conspiracy theories like QAnon represent a kind of enjoyable ‘game’: crack the code to understand the shadowy conspiracy!

The US has gone further down the road of polarisation than other places. People increasingly live with in neighbourhoods with likeminded people. The national conversation has been curdling for decades into extreme left and extreme right bubbles, with disastrous effects on politics.

The same technologies are having similar effects here. If we had faced the current pandemic in, say, 1992, how would you have got news about it? Perhaps there would have been a “Covid-92” page on Ceefax.

But if you’d wanted to spread the idea that vaccines are poisons, dreamed up by Bill Gates, you had nowhere to go but Speakers Corner really. So the man I met this summer, who so readily absorbed all this nonsense, would simply have been unlikely to encounter such ideas. These days, someone like Toby Young can set up a website to give people a dose of covid-sceptic propaganda every day. Crank “scientists” can rapidly gain a huge following on twitter.

Social media has changed how we live. In my first job in politics, working for Business for Sterling in 2000, I used to fax a press summary each morning to about 20 people. At the time, there was a well-written Eurosceptic newsletter called Eurofacts, which was photocopied and posted around to about 1,000 people once a month.

Until the next month, that was your hit of single-currency-scepticism. You had to go off and think about something else. Sure, some newpapers campaigned hard on both sides of the euro question. But reading the papers, even daily, just couldn’t absorb your attention in the way social media does.

Looking back, those were the mild-ale days of political communication. These days, people can become hooked on the crack cocaine of issue-driven social media.

Take the SNP cybernats. They can read a daily newspaper promoting Scottish independence, then go on a website or twitter all day to chat with other cybernat friends and wind each other up.Did you hear the one about the “secret oilfields” the UK government is mysteriously covering up, to do down Scotland? When people form such intense groupthink bubbles, they can come to believe almost anything.

We can’t uninvent social media, which also has many benefits. But we do need to adapt to it. In the US, fringe ideas like the QAnon conspiracy theory built up online. But their spread has been accelerated by the willingness of broadcasters and politicians to flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.

If we are going to avoid our national conversation going the same toilet, we need strong mainstream media. But we also need those in positions of power in the media to behave responsibly.

For example, one of the best selling papers in the UK recently ran a piece promoting the views of an “NHS worker” who claimed hospitals were “empty” and Covid was a “hoax”. If it had taken a quick look at her Facebook page, they’d have seen her celebrating the burning down a Jewish-owned bank, as part of a “great awakening”.

We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting. Parts of Britain’s media have spent the Coronavirus pandemic doing everything they can to downplay the seriousness of it and set bogus stories running by publishing the claims of cranks. Professional contrarians have fed people misleading nonsense to get clicks: carrying on their business-as-usual, even in a life-or-death situation. As hospitals hit crisis point, they should reflect on their actions.

The attempted putsch in Washington didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been decades coming. It happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-termist decisions to feed the beast, and play along. Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.

Will Holloway: The challenges awaiting Ministers and MPs as Parliament returns today

11 Jan

Will Holloway is the Deputy Director of the think tank Onward and a former Special Adviser.

This is not the New Year reset that the Government was hoping for. Parliament has returned not to slowing transmission and a gradual reopening of the economy, but to the worst elements of last year: a lockdown, surging infection rates and all the hardship both entail.

But as easy as it is to be depressed with the new start of term, we should recognise that we are entering the final furlong of this crisis. And now that Brexit negotiations will no longer absorb political oxygen, the Government has an opportunity to push ahead not just with vaccinations, but with delivering the promises made on doorsteps in 2019.

As the final months of 2020 have demonstrated, progress can be made at speed. Trade deals are renowned for taking years to negotiate – take for example, the EU-Canada trade deal that took seven years – but the recently agreed EU/UK agreement that covers everything from security to energy bucked the trend, and was finalised in less than a year. 

Even though it can sometimes take more than a decade to develop a new drug, vaccines for Covid were developed within the year. The UK is now fourth globally for doses of vaccine administered per 100 people. We have access to more than 350 million vaccine doses through a range of companies – the first of which have been approved by the independent regulator. Subsequent candidates will be submitted for approval in the near future.

Taken together, this means that enough vaccines have been procured to protect the whole of the UK population several times over. We have been fast to act while other European countries trail behind. Despite not having a major diagnostics manufacturing base in the UK, and at a time when countries around the world were competing for the same products, hundreds of thousands of Covid tests are now conducted every day.

Indeed, since the onset of the pandemic, less than a year ago, over 55 million tests have been carried out, and the UK is now testing more than any other advanced economy per 1,000 people.These are achievements that many would have regarded as impossible at the onset of the pandemic, and show what can be achieved with focus, resolve and urgency. It should be a lesson for the rest of the Parliament.

Already, we are a quarter of the way through this term and time is quickly running away. This year could be make or break for the Government’s new voter coalition. Not only will this year hold the first major test internationally of what the Government stands for globally post-Brexit, with the UK chairing the G7 and hosting of the COP26 climate summit, but it could face its first electoral test since the general election.

Should the elections go ahead, even if later in the year, the campaigns will inevitably be different, but the impact will be no less significant. While commentators are likely to focus on the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and the subsequent implications that they will have for the future of the Union, as well as the London mayoral elections, the results elsewhere may prove to be more of a bellwether for the behaviour of the 2019 general election coalition of Conservative voters.

As Onward’s landmark research before the election and a year on from it showed, the Prime Minister has a historic opportunity to build a new, lasting support base. The research found that Conservative voters – both “southern” and “Red Wall” conservatives – are more likely on balance to lean to the left, albeit marginally, on the economy and to the right on socio-economic issues.

Those who backed the Conservatives at the last general election are economically more interventionist, on balance supporting more regulation rather than less, as well as efforts to retrain workers, while at the same time backing a tough approach to crime and immigration.

With record levels of police recruitment, the launch of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee enabling adults to benefit from hundreds of fully-funded courses, and one of the biggest efforts to protect jobs and livelihoods in peacetime history, the government has a strong record of delivery on voters’ priorities.

But the biggest outstanding promise lies ahead. With Brexit done, the Prime Minister said that the Government’s focus will be to “level up and spread opportunity across the country”. A mission not without challenge, given the recent poll results to suggest that a third of voters had never heard of levelling up.

But terminology aside, increasing opportunities in communities that have for years seen prospects fail to be recognised is one of the great prizes available to the Government. To sustainably and successfully achieve that aim requires bold thinking and ruthless focus. We need to look ahead of the curve.

For example, Onward’s new research on Net Zero found that up to 10 million jobs may be affected as a result of the drive towards decarbonisation over the next 29 years, and the need to plan for and support the shift.  We need to ask challenging questions: what impact do taxes have on different parts of the country? How can innovation be spread beyond the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle?  And now that we have left the European Union, how can the UK attract more foreign direct investment outside of the usual areas?

Success will involve bending every area of policy to achieve the objective. It is by no means assured. With an unforeseen global pandemic throwing a spanner into the machinery of government, combined with commitments for new infrastructure projects and legislative changes that will take time to come into effect, the pressure is on.

And the stakes are high. It is instructive that only a 4.3 per cent swing to Labour would be needed to generate a hung parliament in 2024. Anything more could deliver an SNP-Labour coalition.  Failure to deliver in the next 12 months may result in the loss of the majority in Parliament, and a return to the stasis and acrimony that succeeded the 2017 result. Success will mean a lasting change, a political realignment across the country, and a consolidated base of support for the future.

Henry Hill: Johnson suggests 40-year wait for the next Scottish independence vote

7 Jan

Johnson calls for decades-long wait for second independence vote

Last month, I wrote that there was unease in parts of the Government about an alleged “appease-the-SNP mentality” on the part of some of those charged with setting its strategy for combatting the Scottish National Party.

But the New Year has not seen any softening of Boris Johnson’s approach to the Scottish question. In fact, on Monday he went some way towards firming it up.

Comparing the Scottish referendum in 2014 to the EU plebiscite two years later, the Prime Minister suggested that there ought to be a 40-year gap between such votes on significant constitutional issues. This goes even further than I suggested when I wrote in 2017 about imposing a 20-year moratorium on the independence question.

Although the status of Johnson’s off-the-cuff remarks is never certain, this could be a welcome step towards fleshing out the case against granting a poll if the SNP win this year’s Holyrood elections. They will insist that his position isn’t sustainable, but it is. Whilst simply repeating the ‘once in a generation’ mantra probably won’t cut it, there are plenty of further arguments for such a refusal. But ministers will need to start deploying them sooner rather than later if they are to look as if they’re being made in good faith.

The real question is whether or not the Prime Minister has the wisdom and the inclination to use the time it’s so obviously his intention to buy himself to put in long-term work to shore up the Union.

Meanwhile Scotland’s opposition parties have demanded that Nicola Sturgeon pause campaigning on independence to focus on the pandemic, a Tory MSP has been accused of “insensitive and irresponsible” comments about Covid-19, Johnson claimed the UK has been central to the vaccine rollout in Scotland, and Ruth Davidson has urged politicians to ensure that the nation repays its debt to the young when the crisis has passed.

Civil servant at centre of Salmond inquiry in line for payout as MP demands sackings

The Daily Record reports that the senior civil servant who apologised for the unlawful Government probe into Alex Salmond “is in line for a £250,000 lump sum when she retires”, as well as an annual sum of £85,000.

Leslie Evans, who currently serves as the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary, has come under sustained criticism over its handling of the botched inquiry into allegations against Alex Salmond. The former First Minister had legal costs of over £500,000 paid by the Scottish taxpayer after a court ruled that the process had been, as the paper puts it, “unlawful and tainted by apparent bias”.

Although she apologised, Evans has subsequently been criticised by MSPs investigating the fiasco over the Scottish Government’s refusal to hand over key documents, as well as for having to ‘correct’ some of the evidence she gave personally.

Salmond has called on the Permanent Secretary to consider her position, and he isn’t the only one looking for scalps. This week Kenny MacAskill, a Nationalist MP, wrote in the Scotsman about the lack of consequences for those involved. And in another sign of the SNP’s fraying discipline, he didn’t confine his fire to the officials:

“After the debacle of the civil case, she could have resigned quietly and much would have been forgotten or not gone much further. Likewise the SNP CEO could have called it quits and allowed others to take over. But no, so now we face many more being drawn into the mire. Hell mend them I say.”

UDA issue threat against Foster

Arlene Foster has been warned by the police of a threat to her life by the Ulster Defence Association, one of the Province’s largest loyalist paramilitary groups, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

This is apparently not related to the Irish Sea border but stems from her support for the family of Glenn Quinn, a terminally-ill man who was murdered by men believed to be linked to the UDA in January last year.

Politicians from across the spectrum – including Sinn Fein, whose relationship to political violence is unavoidably ambiguous – have condemned the threat to the First Minister.

Bogdanor hits out at the folly of federalism

A potentially noteworthy development in the constitutional debate today as Professor Vernon Bogdanor, one of the UK’s highest-profile constitutional thinkers, comes out against both federalism and endlessly ceding more powers to the SNP.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, he argues that there is no precedent for a successful federation where one unit comprises 85 per cent of its population, as England would, and that there is no mandate for breaking England up into regions. And as for the usual call for ‘more powers’:

“Nor does it make sense to devolve more powers to Scotland. She already controls domestic policy – education, health etc – and effectively income tax also. The more powers devolved, the less leverage for Scottish MPs at Westminster, to the benefit of the separatists. Besides, the SNP does not effectively use the powers it already has… Perhaps the best argument for the Nationalists’ policy of “independence in Europe” is that Scotland could hardly be worse governed by Brussels than she is by the SNP.”

Obviously this won’t fix much on its own. The key problem with the current constitutional debate remains that Labour is hopelessly committed to trying to validate the mistakes it made in the 1990s. But following as it does Boris Johnson’s unguarded but accurate comments about devolution having been ‘a disaster’, and coming from a former advocate of reform, it’s the latest signal of a slow but significant shift in pro-UK thinking.

Happy centenary, Northern Ireland. Let’s plan for a second one.

6 Jan

This year marks the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1921. It would probably come as something of a surprise to some of its architects, if they returned to Earth today, to learn that it lasted this long.

Ministers have reportedly set aside £3 million of public money to mark the occasion, although this probably feels like very small beer to Unionists staring down the barrel of the Northern Irish Protocol and the threat of economic partition from the mainland.

Of course, this danger might be overstated. In his summary of implications for Northern Ireland as part of our ‘The Deal in Detail’ series, Dr Graham Gudgin concluded that “the Union is safe enough”, and “nor are the costs of victory likely to be heavy, even if nationalists will of course strive to make them seem so”. He also believes that the impact of the Irish Sea border on day-to-day life will be light.

There are also grounds to be wary of a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose narrative peddled by some commentators in which a ‘united Ireland’ is brought closer by every option, be it a land border outraging nationalists or a sea one demoralising unionists.

However, it may be too early for so cheery an assessment. We are already seeing delivery services change their approach to Northern Ireland. Michael Gove wriggled away from pointed questions in Parliament about whether the ‘grace periods’ for things like foodstuffs are intended to buy time to negotiate arrangements which protect existing East-West links, or to give Ulster businesses time to set up new supply lines with the Republic.

Nor – as any Brexiteer should know – are the EU’s arrangements static. The Single Market regulations will be continually expanding, and as they do the areas of possible divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will likewise expand. As the Province is not represented in EU institutions, this risks expanding the prestige of Irish representatives who will try to take on that role – just as Dublin has already stepped up to fund both the European Health Insurance Card and places on the Erasmus scheme for Northern Irish residents.

In contrast with this assertiveness, historically Westminster has been extremely wary of doing much of anything which emphasises Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, even be it so innocuous as putting the Union Flag on its (British) driving licences. For their part, the non-integrationist majority of local Unionists have been reluctant to fully engage with mainland politics for the fear – far from ungrounded, as Boris Johnson’s u-turn on the Protocol illustrates – that they have few real allies there.

The upshot of this is the vicious cycle of devolutionary unionism at its most advanced, perhaps morbid stage, which amounts to substantial cash transfers between parts of the country with increasingly little institutional or social integration to justify it.

With Brexit now ‘done’, to a given value of done, it looks as if the Union is shaping up to be the central plot of Season 2 of the Johnson premiership. The main focus is inevitably on Scotland, and the looming showdown which beckons after they likely secure another separatist majority in the Scottish Parliament in May. But the Prime Minister has bridges to build (perhaps literally) with Northern Ireland too.

He should start by appointing a Northern Irish Secretary – probably from the Lords – with a deep pre-existing interest in the Province, and task them and their special advisers with finally articulating a proper case for the British Government as to what its obligations under the Belfast Agreement actually are. The past few years have been a painful exhibition of how Dublin has effectively memed their London counterparts into accepting an absurdly maximalist interpretation of those obligations by providing incurious politicians with easy homilies.

Beyond that, the Province needs to be included in the same mission the Government has set itself for Scotland: reviving Westminster as a positive and pro-active force in every part of the kingdom. If Dublin is sponsoring the Erasmus scheme, which as Tom McTague puts it “builds a sense of Europeanness”, Ministers should respond not just with the global-facing Turing initiative but the mooted Home Nations alternative to encourage cross-border mixing amongst the next generation. British investment in key infrastructure, be it the M4 Relief Road or a ‘floating tunnel’ to Northern Ireland, should also be seriously considered.

The Conservatives can’t save the Union on their own, and Labour’s refusal to let go of their idée fixe – endlessly passing power away from the centre in the hope that at some point the problem goes away – remains a pressing problem. But the best way to try to shake them out of this orthodoxy would be to demonstrate that the alternative can work.

If the Prime Minister wishes to keep Northern Ireland inside the UK, let alone perhaps see it one day exercise its democratic right to set the Protocol aside and reintegrate with Great Britain, he needs to make the Union a compelling proposition. If he truly sees himself as “the greatest unionist that has ever occupied Downing Street“, it’s time to prove it.

In 2021 the Union is in danger, but there is a way to ridicule and defeat the Nats

1 Jan

On Wednesday, Ian Blackford enlivened the start of the debate on the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill by insisting on a superfluous division and raising several spurious points of order.

The duty of the Opposition is to oppose, and as parliamentary leader of the Scottish nationalists he performed that function.

So although the thought of breaking the Union of 1707 fills me with horror – I believe the destruction of Great Britain would be “a monstrous act of vandalism” and turn England and Scotland into narrow-minded nations – one should perhaps, as one stumbles into the new year, lighten up occasionally, and admit that the Nats bring life to a House of Commons which might otherwise die of boredom.

Quentin Letts, sketchwriter for The Times, yesterday described them to ConHome as

“a sketchwriter’s dream – I often give thanks for them. Labour are a non-event. The Scots are always indignant about something.”

Boris Johnson has stolen many of Labour’s clothes, and with them many of Labour’s seats. He tore Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn’s palsied grasp, and on Wednesday left Sir Keir Starmer with no sane course but to follow in the Government’s wake.

Labour under its new leadership has not yet worked out what it believes in, who or what it is there to fight for.

The SNP knows exactly what it is fighting for, and can adopt the most irresponsible tactics as it strives to embarrass the British Government.

It hopes that this year will be its year, and that by sweeping the board at the Holyrood elections in May it will place Johnson under unbearable pressure to concede another referendum on independence.

It also regards Johnson as the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence. Kirsty Blackman (SNP, Aberdeen North) opened her speech in Wednesday’s debate by declaring:

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister. In recent years he has done more for the cause of Scottish independence than any other Unionist politician.”

And yet the role of Blackford and his colleagues at Westminster is not quite as easy as it looks. Later in her speech, Blackman said:

“I refuse to vote for this dreadful deal. It is a bit like we had been drinking a lovely glass of water. The Brexiteers offered the UK a malt whisky, but they are now saying that we will all die of thirst if we do not choose to drink the steaming mug of excrement that the UK Government are offering us. There is no way that I am choosing to drink that excrement, and neither will I be complicit in forcing my constituents to do so. Scotland’s future must be in Scotland’s hands, not those of the Prime Minister.”

This kind of horrible image, well calculated to appeal to the cybernats, gets any amount of play on social media. Blackman used the Commons as a broadcasting suite, with Twitter as the amplifier – an attitude by no means confined to the SNP.

But as a shrewd Scottish journalist remarked to ConHome, “There is a law of diminishing returns on that.”

He observed that if the SNP talks too often in that manner, respectable voters, whose support will be needed in the Holyrood elections and any subsequent referendum, will declare in a stern tone: “You’re an embarrassment to Scotland.”

And neither Blackford nor most of his colleagues wants to be an embarrassment to Scotland. They are not disgusting people, and in their most objectionable performances at Westminster there is a high degree of bogusness.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, put it to ConHome,

“The difficulty for Ian [Blackford] is that he’s such a fundamentally decent and nice man that he can’t really upset proceedings in the Commons. He’s not Parnell.”

Blackford’s speech in the debate was too long, and contained a flagrant inaccuracy about Scotland’s role in the Hanseatic League, identified by my colleague Henry Hill.

But as the next speaker, Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, remarked,

“The House will know that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is a more cheerful person than his speech suggested.”

Other witnesses have confirmed that Blackford, whatever his public awkwardness, is in private life a delightful man.

Because of the obstructionism of Charles Stewart Parnell and other Irish MPs in the late 19th century, the Commons amended its standing orders in order to prevent business being brought to a standstill.

So even if the SNP wished to wreck the Commons – and delightful people do sometimes feel an urge to wreck things – the necessary means are not to hand.

But most of the SNP MPs are not, at heart, wreckers. Many of them grow fond of the Commons. Just as a footballer cannot help feeling an affection for a stadium in which he or she scores goals, so a debater cannot help feeling an affection for a Chamber in which he or she scores points.

The SNP’s star players include Stuart McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East), Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) and Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East).

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) is described as being “terrific in the Defence Committee”.

And what is even more wonderful, some of these SNP MPs yearn to become members of the Privy Council, entitled to be addressed as Right Honourable, and sworn to defend Her Majesty the Queen against all assaults by her enemies.

In 2015, when the SNP made its great Westminster breakthrough, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats and supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the third party, its then parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, was made a Privy Counsellor, having been appointed a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

To compile a full list of the SNP MPs who yearn for this distinction would be beyond my powers, especially as those on the list might deny any desire for such a bauble.

But only last month Patrick Grady (Glasgow North), the SNP’s Chief Whip, remarked of his party’s longest serving MP, who was first elected in 2001:

“I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend —he really ought to be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).”

Grady is an amiable man, who may be presumed to know that Wishart (who incidentally would have loved to become Commons Speaker) would also love to become a privy counsellor, so entitled to be addressed in the Commons as right hon.

This streak of conservatism – of loyalty to existing institutions – within Scottish nationalism is not sufficiently appreciated.

Nor are the deep divisions within the SNP between supporters of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and supporters of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, sufficiently understood.

The Nats preserve an outer unity which is far from doing justice to their inner hatreds.

Their discipline renders them incapable of working out what to do when one of their number – for example Margaret Ferrier – strays from the strict path of virtue.

They are, in short, in many ways ludicrous. As Michael Gove, winding up Wednesday’s debate and using to the full the advantage of being born a Scotsman, asked:

“What have they said in the past? Nicola Sturgeon said that no deal would be a ‘catastrophic idea’, that the SNP could not ‘countenance in any way’ no deal, and that SNP MPs will do ‘everything possible’ to stop no deal—except, of course, by actually voting against it today.

“Indeed, so opposed to no deal was the SNP that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) went to court to ensure that if the Prime Minister took us out of the European Union without a deal, he would go to jail. Now the leader of the SNP is voting to take us out of the EU without a deal—something that his own party said should be an imprisonable offence. So what is he going to do now? Turn himself in? Submit to a citizen’s arrest at the hands of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West? If his party follows through on its previous convictions, I, of course, will campaign for him. The cry will go out from these Benches: ‘Free the Lochaber one!'”

The SNP ought not to be taken as seriously as it wishes us to take it. Much the best way to embarrass its members at Westminster would be to hail them as friends and fellow members of the Establishment.