Saturday, 20 May 2017

Changing the conventions of Scottish politics


British politics is about conventions. One of the most important of these is the one about a political manifesto. Few of us read manifestos. But this is not really their point. A party does write a manifesto to persuade people to vote for it. How many voters read manifestos? Rather a party uses the manifesto to justify what it hopes to do in the future. This is really why we are having a General Election at the moment. There is a convention that if something is in a party’s manifesto, then the House of Lords will not block it. The British public by voting for a government shows that it gives its consent to that party’s manifesto. It does this even if almost no-one reads the manifesto.

The fact that something is in a manifesto then has a peculiar force. It turns it into government policy backed by the electorate. It is for this reason that it is usually worth digging around a manifesto to see if there is anything of importance.

In the present Conservative Party manifesto there are some sentences that I think are of crucial importance.

We have been very clear that now is not the time for another referendum on independence. In order for a referendum to be fair, legal and decisive, it cannot take place until the Brexit process has played out and it should not take place unless there is public consent for it to happen. This is a time to pull together, not apart. (p.32)

This might seem just like a repetition of what Theresa May has been saying since the SNP said that they wanted another independence referendum. But remember this is now not merely a Prime Minister expressing an opinion this is a manifesto commitment that will be backed by everyone who votes Conservative. If Sturgeon later questions Theresa May’s right to say “not yet”, then May can simply point to her manifesto and the backing of the British people.



It’s worth looking in some detail at the wording of these sentences. The phrase “fair, legal and decisive” has been heard before. It is from the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012. At this point the SNP and the UK Government agreed that the independence referendum would deliver a “fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect”. The Conservative manifesto is reminding us that crucially we have already had an independence referendum. The result was decisive. What does this word “decisive” mean? It means that the independence referendum of 2014 settled the issue. It was final. It was conclusive. If you disagree I suggest that you get hold of a dictionary and look up the meaning of the word “decisive”.

What the SNP frequently fail to realise is that having the referendum of 2014 changed the convention. Until that point no-one had ever asked the Scottish electorate whether we wanted to stay in the United Kingdom. Our saying that we did want to stay changed the political convention in Scotland.

At some point in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher said that if the SNP won a majority of seats in Scotland they could have independence. David Cameron thought that the mere fact the SNP had won a majority in the Scottish Parliament was enough for him to have to give in to SNP demands for an independence referendum. But conventions change. It may seem unfair that this is so, but this is how British politics works. The convention about when and whether Scotland can have an independence referendum has changed. It has changed because we have already had an independence referendum and the result was decisive.

There is no right to an independence referendum in international law. If there were then the vast majority of Western democracies could be prosecuted. But there is a convention in British politics that we govern by consent. If it became clear that Scotland really wanted another independence referendum then the convention is that the UK Government would allow it. This remains the case. But we are not in the same circumstance that we were in when the SNP asked David Cameron. The SNP signed up to the Edinburgh Agreement and agreed to respect the result. It is obvious that the SNP never did respect the result. They were campaigning for indyref2 the day after indyef1. But the UK Government signed up to the Agreement too and Theresa May is justified in respecting the 2014 result and recognising that the result was decisive. It is this above all that has changed the convention of Scottish politics. It must take into account that the Scottish electorate exercised its right to self-determination in 2014 in a way that it has never done before or since. No mere election can overturn this act of popular sovereignty in which the Scottish electorate expressed a clear wish to remain a part of the UK. Having had a decisive referendum a second one precisely thereby becomes harder to justify. It is this above all that justifies Theresa May's decision to say "not yet".

But when might there be a second independence referendum? Here the Conservative manifesto adds a few interesting words. Brexit must be “played out”. What does this mean? The sentence could have said simply that the Brexit negotiations must have been completed. But "played out" implies something further. The manifesto is suggesting that it won’t be enough merely to complete the negotiations, we will also have to see how Brexit is working in practice. The reality is that “play out” is vague enough to justify any sort of delay that Theresa May might wish for. At any rate we shall have to exhaust Brexit before we even approach indyref2. This means not merely 2 years starting from March 2017, but perhaps 4 years or who knows how many years. 

But Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to wait not merely for time, she is also going to have to wait for “public consent”. This again shows that the convention governing a Scottish independence referendum is being changed. The most important point to realise is that the Conservative manifesto implies that the SNP do not have “public consent” right now. If they did have “public consent” how could Theresa May justify delaying the referendum? But the Scottish Parliament recently decided that it did indeed want to have a second independence referendum. There was a vote and the SNP joined with the Scottish Greens to form a majority. The Conservative manifesto is arguing that this does not amount to “public consent”. Mere elections are not now enough. 

What would constitute “public consent”? I have no idea. This is the beauty of the Conservative manifesto commitment on Scottish independence. Not only is the time frame vague, but so also the idea of “public consent” is vague. Taken together it amounts to this. You can have your independence referendum when I decide you can have it.

In Britain we govern with consent. But the fact that we had a decisive referendum on Scottish independence has changed the game. The SNP are going to have to demonstrate an overwhelming desire in Scotland for an independence referendum before they get one. How might they do this? For instance, when next there is an election for the Scottish Parliament, the SNP could put in its manifesto an unambiguous commitment to a second independence referendum. They could then explicitly say that this election is about independence rather than attempt to hide this. They could then win a large majority. If all of these things happened and public opinion polls showed a consistent desire for an independence referendum then our new Scottish political convention might well be to grant it. But the independence referendum of 2014 has created a higher bar than previously for the SNP to jump over. Merely winning an election is not enough. They have to overcome the will of the people that was expressed in 2014. This anyway is the view that Theresa May is putting forward in her manifesto. The act of doing so in itself changes the Scottish political convention.

If the Conservatives win a large majority in the UK then the commitments in their manifesto will be backed by the British electorate. Scottish independence would destroy the UK. It concerns all of us. There is nothing in the manifesto to suggest that "public consent" applies only to Scotland. Perhaps we are moving to it being a matter for the UK as a whole. We shall see. These things evolve. 

It is clear then that the Conservative manifesto could hardly be more Pro UK. It can act as an anchor guaranteeing our position rooted in the decision of 2014 being decisive. It is vital then that as many parts of Scotland as possible show that we support the Conservative stance on a second independence referendum. It is essential too that we reject the Lib Dem idea that there should be a second EU referendum, for this crucially undermines our stance on Scottish independence. 

Ever Scottish constituency that is Conservative is demonstrating that it does not consent to indyref2. It also demonstrates that we agree with the Conservative manifesto commitment to preserving the United Kingdom's unity. 

Theresa May is changing the conventions of Scottish politics. She is gradually making it harder and harder for the SNP to break up our country. We must back her and we must show her that we support this. Even if just once, lend the Conservatives your support for the sake of preserving Britain. This is our chance to tell Nicola Sturgeon that we are sick of her continual threats. This is our chance to shut her up. 

The SNP must be made to accept that we said “No” and that just as Brexit means Brexit so too “No means No”. There is a word for someone who doesn’t accept this. For too long the SNP have tried to ride roughshod over the fact that we said “No” and that we do not consent to their continual attacks on our country. On June the 8th it really is time that we sent the SNP a clear message. We reject your attentions, we reject your assaults and your refusal to respect our decisions and our wishes. You do not have our consent. Show them this by voting Conservative. If enough of us vote Conservative we will be able to stop indyref2. Theresa May will be able to point to every Conservative Scottish constituency to remind Sturgeon that she still lacks “public consent” and she will be able to point to her manifesto as justifying her “not yet” strategy indefinitely. Every Conservative vote anywhere in Scotland is one more that will help our Theresa May continue to stand up to Sturgeon. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

May points the way


Recent experience has taught everyone with an interest in politics not to rely too much on opinion polls. However, the present General Election campaign is unusual because there has been an actual poll which has acted as an hors d'Ĺ“uvre to the main course on June 8th. We don’t know if the May 4th Local Election results will be completely mirrored in a few weeks’ time, but it is unlikely that they will be overturned. Of course, this is no time to be complacent. Much can still happen in the weeks ahead. But it is sensible to use the Local Election results to develop strategies.


It is becoming ever clearer that Brexit negotiations are going to be difficult. This need not be the case. It is perfectly possible for both the UK and the EU to reach a deal that is beneficial to both sides. The UK wants very little indeed. We want something close to free trade. We’d like a reciprocal arrangement about the right to live and work in the EU and the UK. There’s nothing much else we want. There’s indeed nothing much else we’ve ever wanted. We don’t want to be ruled by the EU but we’d quite like to continue trading freely with them.

Unfortunately it is becoming obvious that the EU is seeking to punish Britain in some way. This is in part psychological. It is the sort of behaviour that happens after a divorce. The EU also worries that if Britain succeeds in leaving and all goes fairly well, then this will encourage other countries to leave.

We don’t know how these negotiations are going to play out. Maybe the EU position will soften behind closed doors. But it’s always best to take people at their word. At the moment the EU is acting as an unfriendly power. They don’t wish Britain well. On the contrary, they are trying to harm our position economically. They wish to damage us diplomatically and harm our   international relations. If that is not unfriendly, what is?

The EU is taking positions that could potentially injure the UK with regard to Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and perhaps Scotland. They would like to see our economy hurt by their demands for ever higher exit fees. They think it would be worth it if UK trade with the EU was decreased even at the expense of their own trade.  It may be that the EU is not interested in mutual self-interest, but only in how best to punish Britain.  This is the mentality of a wife wrecking her ex-husband’s car.

We shouldn’t exaggerate this situation, but nor should we underestimate it. The EU has shown itself to be what it always was. Thank goodness we are leaving. Who wants to be in a group that is held together by threats, extortion and bully boy tactics?

But then this is a time when we are going to need strong leadership. Theresa May has been nothing if not polite to the EU. She has made it clear that Britain wants to maintain a friendly relationship. But even she has been frustrated by the negativity and hostility coming from the EU.

The next few years are going to crucial for the UK. We will either come to a mutually beneficial arrangement with the EU or else we will have to walk away from the negotiations with no deal and carve out a new path on our own. Theresa May realised this and for this reason called an election. She knew that her majority was not going to be enough to make the crucial decisions that she would need to make. It was EU intransigence that forced her hand.

Can you imagine the alternative to Theresa May leading.  Jeremy Corbyn gained two E-grade A levels and left school at 18. Theresa May has an Oxford degree and went on to work for the Bank of England. There is a gulf between the intellects of May and Corbyn that is immediately obvious whenever they speak in the House of Commons. Corbyn just isn’t up to the job of being Prime Minister. He has extreme left-wing views which have nearly destroyed the Labour Party. If given the chance he would destroy Britain and perhaps even take a perverse joy in doing it. Above all the Left is about self-hatred.

Tim Farron won’t be Prime Minister, but his party could along with the SNP form a pact that would enable Jeremy Corbyn to rule. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than Corbyn negotiating with the EU, but what if everything he did was controlled by Lib Dem and SNP votes. Imagine how the EU would react to a “coalition” of Remainers who would just love to have a second referendum on EU membership. Oh please hurt us some more Mr Farron would tell Juncker. We deserve it. We dared to leave the blessed EU. Oh please take us back. We have repented. Only we are not worthy of membership. Do you really want such a man having anything to do with the EU negotiations?

In the tough times ahead Britain needs Theresa May’s strength. It must be credible that Britain’s leader would walk away from a bad deal. No one could be in any doubt that Mrs May would do just that. There no way that a government that depended on the votes of Farron and Sturgeon would walk away. But it is precisely and only the threat to walk away that might just bring sense to the EU. It might get us a mutually beneficial deal. The Farron/Sturgeon ultra remainer stance would just encourage the EU to increase their demands still further. The EU will exploit any weakness either to give Britain the worst deal possible or else to make us come begging to remain. Mr Farron isn’t going to stand up to the EU. He agrees with them.

Since last June when the UK unexpectedly voted to leave the EU, there has been a continual rear-guard action by disappointed Remainers. I think this has encouraged the EU to think that the UK is divided. But whatever the rights and wrongs of the continuing Remain campaign it has now gone too far.

First we had a court case demanding that Parliament would have its say. Well Parliament did have its say. But that wasn’t enough. Now there is a tactical voting campaign which has the ultimate goal of stopping Brexit. These people just won’t take no for an answer. Nothing except overturning the Leave vote will satisfy them. Some Remain supporters would even prefer that the SNP were elected if it stopped Brexit. They would see the break-up of Britain as a small price to pay if only the bits could stay in the EU. Sorry folks, but Ultra-Remainers are becoming anti-British.

The UK is now at one of those crucial moments in history. Once more we are up against it. Europe appears united and less than friendly.  We have a tough fight on our hands. Now is not the time to side with those who are hostile to Britain.

As always the British public gets it. There has been no surge of support in the local elections for the Lib Dems. Most people have moved on from last year’s debate. We all now want to get the best deal possible for Britain. It is for this reason the electorate will look with distaste at Mr Farron’s party. We know that Jeremy Corbyn hates Britain because he has so often sided with our country’s enemies. But the Europhile Lib Dems are in danger of siding with the EU at a time when we need every Brit to act in the national interest. When the EU is unfriendly to Britain it is downright unpatriotic to agree with them. I suspect the Lib Dems will find out that this doesn’t play very well with British people.

UKIP have done their job and there party no longer has a purpose. If UKIP could only win one seat in 2015 it is highly unlikely that they will win any seats in 2017. Only an emphatic Conservative victory can deliver Brexit. But voting UKIP in certain seats could still prevent a Conservative MP being elected. Again the results in the local elections show that the British electorate gets this. I never much cared for Farage. In the end Leave won the referendum despite his efforts not because of them. But the present UKIP leader is simply a buffoon. Better by far if UKIP finishes the job it started by ceasing to be. UKIP supporters can either help the Brexit process by voting Conservative or hinder it and perhaps hand victory to the Remainers by voting UKIP.

In Scotland Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP all lost seats at the local elections. The Conservatives made massive gains. It is absolutely clear that the momentum is with the Tories. Neither the Lib Dems nor Labour have enough support to challenge the SNP. But the Conservatives do. We need one Pro UK party which everyone gets behind. Only in this way can we turn our Pro UK majority into a majority of seats.

It would be better by far if Labour and the Lib Dems were wiped out in Scotland. This would make the choice clearer. You either vote for the Pro UK party or you vote for the anti-UK party. Once this choice becomes obvious then we can defeat the SNP. Divided we simply won’t be able to do so.

Theresa May will continue to stand up to Sturgeon. But she needs the votes of Pro UK Scots to show that we support her in telling the SNP that there will be no indyref2 anytime soon. If you are happy to have a second independence referendum next year, then vote for any other party than the Conservatives. Neither Farron nor Corbyn would be able to stand up to Sturgeon as they would depend on SNP votes and cooperation at Westminster. There is a simple conclusion. Every single Conservative vote anywhere in Scotland makes indyref2 less likely. That’s your choice. That’s your responsibility.  

Ruth Davidson is a moderate. The Scottish Conservatives are a centre party, with policies that most moderate Lib Dems and Labour people could live with. She is becoming a major force in British Conservatism and will act as a moderating force on those who would be tempted to take the party away from the centre. Theresa May too wants to create a Britain that is fair and which helps those who are struggling. But both Davidson and May know that only a UK with a strong economy can bring about social justice. How else are we going to be able to afford increases in public spending?

Our negotiations with the EU need a strong leader. If Theresa May wins a large majority, she will be able to show the EU that Britain is united and that we really are leaving. This may be the key to getting the best deal possible for Britain. Alternatively if the EU continues its present hostility we will need a leader strong enough to walk away. This will put Britain on a radically different path. We will then have to make the UK much more attractive for business and trade. We will have to develop relations with the whole world in order to become an offshore beacon of free trade in contrast to the EU’s protectionist customs union. There are attractions to this path, but there are also obstacles and pitfalls along the way. We need a pathfinder, but then we are fortunate for we already have her. Only Theresa May can lead us to our goal. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

It's swing that wrecks the SNP


At the last General Election in 2015 I voted for the Lib Dems. This was partly because I thought they had done a good job as part of the coalition government, but it was mainly because I had become convinced that tactical voting was the best way to keep the SNP out.

I live in the Gordon Constituency in Aberdeenshire. It’s very rural and more prosperous than most parts of Scotland. For a long time the seat was held by Lib Dem Malcolm Bruce, who is popular in the area and who did a good job as an MP. My MP now is Alex Salmond.

The SNP won in Gordon with 47% of the vote. What this means is that theoretically we could have stopped Mr Salmond if all Pro UK voters had voted tactically. If you add the totals for the Lib Dems, Labour, Conservative and UKIP they surpass Mr Salmond’s total. The same can be said for nearly every seat the SNP won in Scotland. Unless the SNP won more than 50% of the vote they could have been beaten. So in a possible world where all Pro UK people voted tactically the SNP might have won almost no seats instead of 56.

This is the logic behind tactical voting campaigns. It looks sensible, but sorry folks this is not how real world elections work.


I woke up to a surprise two years ago when it turned out that David Cameron had won a majority of 12. No-one had predicted this. The talk throughout the campaign had been of coalitions. A year later I woke up to another surprise. The UK had voted for Brexit. A few months after this the impossible happened. Donald Trump was US president. In each case polling, betting and pundits got it spectacularly wrong.

I was delighted that there was a Conservative Government with a majority in 2015. Suddenly there was the prospect of a referendum on the EU, which was something that I had wanted for many years. I was pleased too that the Lib Dems had been reduced to 8 seats. I think UK democracy works best as a two party system. A third party just muddies the waters. But then I began to reflect that I hadn’t actually voted for the Conservatives. I felt like a mug.

The fact is that if only a handful of extra Lib Dem MPs had been elected in 2015 there would not have been a Conservative majority. If only a few more Labour MPs had won we might have ended up with Ed Miliband as Prime Minister forming a loose “coalition” or pact with anyone else who would vote for him. The Lib Dem candidate I had voted for might have been part of this coalition, might have prevented the EU referendum and might have been part of a pact involving the SNP.

During elections most parties say that they won’t make pacts. They are competing against each other so naturally avoid talk of working together. Talk of pacts also implicitly concedes defeat. But there are 650 seats in the House of Commons and if a party doesn’t have more than half of them it has to do a deal even if that deal is only on a vote by vote basis.

It is for this reason above all that it is pure folly for Conservative supporters to vote tactically for the Lib Dems or Labour. The MP elected by this means might well end up in a loose coalition with the SNP and this coalition might be enough to put the Conservatives in opposition. Any Conservative supporter who votes for another party could in part be responsible for this.

It was this that dawned on me on the morning after the General Election in 2015. I’d made a mistake. The Conservatives had done better than expected. If Conservative voters up and down the country had voted tactically they might well have lost. Tactical voting may seem like good tactics, but what if it led to Jeremy Corbyn ending up as Prime Minister backed by Lib Dems and the Scottish nationalists?

My experience of campaigning for tactical voting in Scotland in 2015 was not a pleasant one. I write from conviction. I try to write in an interesting and creative way. But I was arguing for something I didn’t really believe. I was supporting a party that I disagreed with. I was being insincere. I regret it now. It was unfair to the Lib Dems who I voted for. It was also unfair to the Conservative candidate who deserved my vote.

I discovered while campaigning for people to vote tactically that I met resistance. Labour voters frequently told me that they could only vote Labour. Indeed as members of the Labour Party they had no choice but to do so. It’s part of the deal when you join. They were happy for people to vote tactically for Labour, but they would not reciprocate. The whole tactic comes up against human nature. It is a possible world tactic that doesn’t take into account real world psychology. Tactical voting only really works in a two way marginal where two parties are very close and miles ahead of anyone else. It doesn’t work in safe seats and it doesn’t work where a number of parties think they have a reasonable chance. For this reason apart from in isolated instances tactical voting doesn’t work.

One of the main problems involved in a tactical voting campaign is determining which candidate to vote for. I remember advising people in 2015 about which candidate had the best chance of defeating the SNP in each particular seat. People produced pictorial guides based on the result in the previous election or on local poling. I was asked to share these pictures. Sometimes they took the form of a wheel at other times they took another form. I spent quite a lot of time sharing these guides. But there were disputes. Some people disagreed over who had the best chance. The wheel sometimes changed. Right up until the final day there were disputes about whether a Conservative, Lib Dem or Labour candidate had the best chance in this seat or that seat. But all of these disputes were completely meaningless. Tactical voting failed dismally in Scotland in 2015. It hardly had any influence on the result whatsoever. Scottish nationalists quite rightly mocked our wheel. It made us look stupid, because it was stupid.

Oh but if only more people had voted tactically it would have succeeded. One more push and it will work next time. But this is simply to fail to learn from mistakes. It is to fail to take into account the psychology of elections and to recognise how they are decided.

The mistake that people who are politically active frequently make is to suppose that the whole population is like them. They aren’t. Most people don’t think that much about politics. It bores them.

Huge numbers of people vote the same way every time. They won’t read your tactical voting guide, because it’s not on TV, it’s not in all the papers and it’s not on a leaflet dropping through their letter boxes. None of the parties who campaign will be telling voters to vote tactically. None of the people knocking on doors or phoning you up will tell you to vote for another party. All you are doing is talking to a few thousand Pro UK activists, who are too few to make any difference.

Elections are not decided by tactical voting, they are decided by swing. The mood of the country changes and sweeps to power one party or another. Theoretically the Labour landslides of 1945 or 1997 could have been stopped by tactical voting. But do you really think this might have happened? To suppose so is simply to misunderstand human nature and how elections work.

It is the momentum of a campaign that decides the result. In the present election if the mood of the country becomes overwhelmingly in favour of electing Theresa May this will affect every seat. The Conservative vote will increase more or less uniformly. This is why the swingometer is a good general guide. Increasing the share of the votes for the Conservatives is by far the best way to decease SNP seats in Scotland. It is for this reason that every Conservative vote counts.



Around a third of Scottish voters will vote Conservative at the next election. This might win them 8 seats. But every percentage point increase swings more and more seats to the Conservatives from the SNP. This is the way our electoral system works. First past the post rewards vote share. The Labour and Lib Dem vote share in Scotland is simply too small for marginal increases to make any difference.

What matters in all elections is momentum. The SNP gained such a degree of momentum in 2015 that they won seats where previously they had been nowhere. Alex Salmond had a 25% swing in Gordon and the SNP had a 30% swing overall. Sometimes the swing was still higher. Ultra safe Labour seats went to the SNP.  No amount of tactical voting could ever have made a difference in those circumstances.
But the crucial point is that swings between elections can go both ways. A Conservative surge in 2017 could win seats where on paper they have no chance.
It is this that tactical voting guides forget. Even if the Conservatives were third or fourth last time round, given a large enough swing they could well win those seats. Tactical voting guides would tell Conservatives to vote for the party that came second last time round. But that might actually increase the chances of the SNP candidate being returned.

The way to increase swing is to campaign for what you believe. Tactical voting suggests that all parties in Scotland are the same and it doesn’t matter who wins in a particular seat so long as it isn’t the SNP. This is not true.

Half way through the election campaign in 2015 the Lib Dem candidate I was supporting declared that she wasn’t a Unionist. I was shocked. I almost reversed my position. It turned out that she like most Lib Dems was a Federalist. This is the line that Labour takes too. They want to give still more power to the SNP. I don’t.

I keep coming across Labour and Lib Dem voters who are sympathetic to independence or who are wavering. Some Lib Dems in particular seem to prefer the EU to the UK. Many former Labour and Lib Dem voters now support the SNP. In order to try to win them back both the Lib Dems and Labour tend towards making concessions to Scottish nationalism. The Left in Scotland agrees with the SNP about most things. They think the solution to every problem is to spend more money that we don’t have. At times I can barely distinguish a Labour supporter from a Scottish nationalist. They both just go on and on about Tory cuts. It is because Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP agree about so much that it is so easy for left wing voters to end up supporting independence.

Every Conservative vote will increase the share. No Conservative vote is wasted. It doesn’t matter where you live. Each vote will strengthen Theresa May’s hand when she stands up to Nicola Sturgeon. Every percentage point the Conservatives gain pushes them to the tipping point where they begin to gain massively from the SNP.

Tactical voting will make next to no difference to the election in 2017. All it does is hinder the momentum that the Conservatives are building. We are building support for the Scottish Conservatives so that we have a Pro UK party that can take on and then surpass the SNP. Every Pro UK vote that comes our way is one step towards that goal. Join us. Help us. Just watch us.

I am going to campaign positively for what I believe this time. Stuff your wheels. They are broken.