Chameleon on a Tartan Rug
The referendum produced some fairly extraordinary campaign slogans, from the egregious ‘Leave the Market and Join the World’ to the Young Tories’ tasteful evocation of Belsen victims. But the most unusual so far, and surely the hardest to chant at a rally, is: ‘No to the EEC. On anybody else’s terms.’ Some will recognise, in the deliberate ambiguity of this effort, the hand of the Scottish National Party.
During the course of their annual conference in Perth last weekend, this nuance both annoyed and escaped Mr Donald Stewart, leader of the SNP Parliamentary Party and MP for the Western Isles. ‘Why should the position of the Nationalists be anything other than an uncomplicated “no”?’ he demanded. ‘Has the Scottish National Party been fighting for 50 years to return decision-making to the Scottish people only to hand it on a plate to the Brussels conspiracy?’ Stewart is famous as a fundamentalist and uncomplicated man himself, but it is an open secret that many members of his party leadership are quite happy with any result. The ideal, of course, would be for a Scottish ‘no’ and a UK ‘yes’, because then they could claim Scotland had been shanghaied by Sassenach votes.
True, opinion polls showed a narrow ‘yes’ north of the border, with only Lothians deciding against. But at the very least there will be a very respectable ‘no’ vote in Scotland, where the Establishment does not command the awe which it does among English voters. In any case many SNP leaders have long since decided that they would rather negotiate with Brussels over the head of Westminster than spend any more time asking for ‘London concessions’. They even plan to ask for seating at the Council of Ministers and a veto in its proceedings, which while far-fetched at least sustains the impetus which other Market forces will probably have lost.
In Scotland the Labour and Tory parties are in great disarray, with the Conservatives running third to SNP in total votes, and Labour only 150,000 votes ahead of it. Every crack and creak in the British economy strengthens the Nationalist view that they should ‘quit the sinking ship’. There were ironic jeers and cheers last weekend when a conference speaker pointed out that the Government White Paper had assured voters that ‘English common law will not be affected’ by the EEC.
It does not really matter to them which way the referendum goes: they will still have the initiative. Of course they are wildly opportunist, with a ‘something for everyone’ strategy that reminds one of a chameleon trying to blend itself into a tartan rug. But the disagreements are carefully handled and concealed. Their leading contact in the business community, Douglas Crawford MP, was unwise enough to leak a document drawn up by merchant bankers and businessmen which virtually described an independent Scotland as a tax-haven tied to the English pound. This overt affirmation of petty-bourgeois aspirations was too much for delegates who roundly condemned such frankness. They also condemned the small but significant group who had gone for trial a few weeks before under the title ‘Army of the Provisional Government’. But the readiness of even a tiny few Scots to use violence in pursuit of nationhood is a straw in the wind.
The clear hope of the anti-devolutionists is that the political differences among Nationalists will make themselves felt before independence can be achieved, rather than after, as the SNP envisage. The Assembly concession has this possibility partly in mind. But past experience suggests that, as in the case of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, expectations once raised are hard to defuse. Which is why the Left in Scotland has been forced to look to its laurels. A recent ‘Red Paper’ on every subject from literature to oil, and including devolution and land, uses ‘Scotland’ as its term of reference and tried to give a socialist character to the nationalist upsurge. Numerous radical journals, from community efforts like the West Highland and For William Free Presses to Calgacus and Scottish Marxist are also attempting to cut with the grain.
Recently, one of the more right-wing SNP leaders was given the job of organising the annual Bannockburn commemoration. Addressing a meeting, he appealed for funds and efforts in order to ‘make this the best Bannockburn ever’. A dour silence was ended by one delegate saying: ‘Second best, ye mean.’ The referendum is only a hiccup in the rapid transformation of Scottish politics.
Adam Smith (?)
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (speech urging a ‘no’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum)
Alex Salmond (speech during 1992 Usher Hall debate on Scotland’s future)
Alex Salmond (speech on winning 2007 election)
Alick Buchanan-Smith (speech supporting devolution in 1976)
Andrew Carnegie (on wealth)
Arthur James Balfour (1910 speech on British foreign policy)
Billy Graham (sermon to 1955 rally at Ibrox Stadium)
Calgacus (‘Scotland free or a desert’)
Charles I (speech prior to his execution)
Charles Kennedy (speech at 2001 general election rally)
David Hume (?)
David Kirkwood (speech at 1917 Labour Party conference)
David Steel (‘rocky road’ leader’s speech in 1976)
Donald Dewar (speech at John Smith’s funeral)
Donald Dewar (moving second reading of Scotland Bill, 1998)
Donald Dewar (speech at opening of Scottish Parliament)
Duchess of Atholl (maiden speech in House of Commons)
Duke of Edinburgh (?)
Edward Heath (Declaration of Perth, 1968)
Edward Rosslyn Mitchell (speech opposing prayer book, 1928)
Florence Horsbrugh (1936 speech proposing the Debate on the Address, the first woman to do so)
Frederick Douglass (black American social reformer, 1843 speech in Dundee)
George Buchanan (1942 Commons speech)
George Cunningham (speech proposing amendment to 1979 devolution referendum)
George Galloway (opening statement to US Senate)
George MacLeod (1954 General Assembly speech opposing nuclear weapons)
George Reid (2003 Scottish Parliament speech opposing war in Iraq)
Gordon Brown (resignation speech, 2010)
H H Asquith (resignation speech as Liberal leader, Greenock, 1926)
H H Asquith (Paisley by-election speech, 1920)
Hamish Henderson (peace address, 1950)
Harry Hopkins (speech in Glasgow pledging US support during war)
Helen Crawfurd (speech during Glasgow rent strike, 1915)
Henry George (American political economist, 1884, Edinburgh)
Henry McLeish (resignation speech/speech supporting free personal care)
Holy Willie’s Prayer (Burns poem)
Hugh MacDiarmid (‘a political speech’, 1968)
Iain Gray (2010 Labour conference speech)
J M Barrie (‘Courage’ rectorial speech, 1922)
Jack McConnell (?)
James Connolly (speech in Dublin, 1914)
James Douglas-Hamilton (speech opposing Act of Settlement)
James Ramsay MacDonald (speech prior to becoming first Labour Prime Minister, 1924)
James Renwick (last speech, 1688)
James Wilson (High Court, 1820)
Jean Brodie (speech on being sacked)
Jenny Geddes (‘daur ye say Mass in my lug’)
Jim Sillars (House of Commons, 1988)
Jim Telfer (1997 ‘Everest’ speech)
Jimmy Reid (UCS ‘no bevvying’ speech)
Jimmy Reid (‘rat race’ Glasgow rectorial speech)
Jo Grimond (‘towards the sound of gunfire’ conference speech)
Jock Stein (Lisbon, 1967)
John Bannerman (maiden speech, House of Lords)
John Buchan (1932 Commons speech on Scottish Home Rule)
John Buchan (1927 maiden speech, House of Commons)
John Knox (1550 sermon)
John MacCormick (1950 Glasgow rectorial speech)
John Maclean (speech from the dock, 1916 or 1918)
John Major (‘save the union’ 1992)
John McAllion (speech against warrant sales?)
John P Mackintosh (speech on Scotland and Wales Bill, 1976)
John Reith (House of Lords speech opposing commercial television, 1952)
John Smith (1993 Commons speech on Queen’s Speech)
John Smith (final speech, 1994)
John Wheatley (1923 speech on Housing Bill)
Keir Hardie (1901 Commons speech on a ‘socialist commonwealth’)
Keir Hardie (1892 maiden speech in House of Commons)
Keith O’Brien (2004 speech to General Assembly)
Kenyon Wright (Scottish Constitutional Convention speech, ‘we say yes and we are the people’)
King Charles II (1650 apology to Scottish parliamentarians)
Lord Balmerino (1746 speech prior to execution)
Lord Belhaven (speech opposing union of England and Scotland, 1706)
Lord Birkenhead (1923 Glasgow rectorial speech, ‘glittering prizes’)
Lord Glencorse (1857 speech in defence of Madeleine Smith)
Lord Rosebery (tribute to Robert Burns)
Lord Rosebery (‘a clean slate’, 1901 Chesterfield speech)
Macbeth (‘is this a dagger which I see before me?’)
Malcolm Muggeridge (1968 speech resigning as Rector of Edinburgh University)
Malcolm Rifkind (1979 speech moving repeal of the Scotland Act)
Margaret Thatcher (1982 Scottish Tory conference speech during Falklands crisis)
Margaret Thatcher (1988 ‘Sermon on the Mound’)
Margo MacDonald (Holyrood speech proposing right to die)
Michael Davitt (1887 speech on land reform in Portree)
Mick McGahey (1985 speech after miners’ strike)
Mick McGahey (1968 STUC speech on devolution)
Mick McGahey (1963 STUC speech opposing Polaris)
Nelson Mandela (1993 speech in Glasgow)
Noel Skelton (on a ‘property-owning democracy’, 1925, House of Commons)
Norman Willis (1988 TUC speech on Ford Dundee debacle, ‘never again’)
Pastor Jack Glass (sermon)
Paul Henderson Scott (1989 Dundee rectorial speech)
Paul Robeson (1960 Glasgow May Day rally speech)
Pope John Paul II (speech to the young people of Scotland, Murrayfield, 1982)
R B Cunninghame-Graham (Speech at Bannockburn rally, 1930)
R F Mackenzie (1974 speech on sacking as headteacher at Summerhill School)
Renton (‘it’s crap being Scottish’ speech from Trainspotting)
Rev James Barr (1927 speech moving Home Rule Bill in House of Commons)
Rev James Whyte (sermon at memorial for victims of the Dunblane massacre)
Richard Hamilton (Sanquhar Declaration, 1680)
Richard Rumbold (1685 speech from the scaffold)
Robert Boothby (1954 speech advocating a commission on homosexuality)
Robert Colquhoun (sermon from Sunset Song)
Robert Louis Stevenson (1873 address to the Speculative Society)
Robert McIntyre (1945 maiden speech, House of Commons)
Robin Cook (resignation speech)
Robin Cook (1980 Commons speech moving amendment to Justice Bill to decriminalize homosexual acts in Scotland)
Robin Cook (1996 Commons speech on the Scott Report)
Russell Johnston (1976 speech on the ‘fundamentals of Liberalism’)
Sir Alex Ferguson (1999 European Cup final)
Sir Archibald Sinclair (1938 Commons speech opposing Munich Agreement)
Sir Compton Mackenzie (1932 Glasgow rectorial address)
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1901 speech opposing Boer War)
Sir John Cope (Battle of Prestonpans, 1745)
Sir Walter Scott (defence of Scottish legal traditions, 1807)
Sorley MacLean (speech in honour of Hugh MacDiarmid, Langholm, 1985)
Tam Dalyell (1977, ‘the West Lothian Question’)
Thabo Mbeki (speech to Scottish Parliament)
Thomas Carlyle (1866 Edinburgh rectorial address)
Thomas Carlyle (‘great men’, 1840 speech)
Thomas Chalmers (1843 speech following Disruption)
Thomas Johnston (1943 speech on hydro-electricity)
Thomas Muir (at trial for sedition)
Tommy Sheridan (2000 Scottish Parliament speech proposing abolition of warrant sales)
Tommy Sheridan (2006 speech after winning case against News of the World)
Wendy Wood (1961 speech to General Assembly of the Church of Scotland)
William S Burroughs (speech to 1961 International Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh)
William Gladstone (1879 Midlothian speech)
William McIlvanney (1987 speech, ‘stands Scotland where it did?’)
Willie Gallacher (Debate on the Address, 1935)
Willie Ross (speech opposing Nationalism, STUC, 1968)
Winnie Ewing (1967 maiden speech)
Winston Churchill (1941 speech at Glasgow City Chambers)
Winston Churchill (1908 Dundee speech on ‘Liberalism and Socialism’)
Reviewed by Paul Henderson Scott
Although at least two other writers are said to have been working on a biography of Alex, this is the first to appear. It is a very thorough and conscientious study, with the list of sources alone amounting to 36 pages. Since David Torrance's previous biographies have been of George Younger and Margaret Thatcher I have tended to assume that he shared their Toryism, but there is no sign of that in this book. In a note at the beginning of the book he says that Alex 'did not wish to co-operate directly, but he neither hindered my researches or made any attempt to stop me speaking to friends and colleagues'. Torrance does not reveal his own political views, but he does tell us that his father has been a member of the SNP since the mid 1960s.
The book begins with an account of Alex's childhood in Linlithgow and as a student in St Andrews University where he studied Scottish history under Professor Geoffrey Barrow, the author of Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland. Alex said that this was "the best book about Scottish history ever written." Years later Barrow told me that Alex had been "his star student and that it was obvious that he was going places". He clearly made a similar impression when he was working as an economist with the Royal Bank before he left to devote himself to politics and the recovery of Scottish independence.
From this point, the book is a detailed account of Alex's political career which is, I think, fair-minded and accurate. Torrance stresses Alex's formidable abilities from his maiden speech in the House of Commons, which he says was "assured, articulate and clear-minded". In the pages which follow Torrance is critical of some episodes, but these are overshadowed by his frank admiration of Alex's abilities. He says that he is "agile minded" and "exudes reason and authority". In his last chapter he says: "In company Salmond can be charming, intelligent, diverting and intriguing. He is without doubt one of the closest and most thoughtful observers of the political scene…He is, in short, an immensely attractive figure…His place in history is secure as a result of the 2007 Holyrood election, which was above all a significant personal victory." He even says that "it is tempting to liken him to Robert the Bruce". It is true, of course, that Salmond has the same objective as Bruce, to secure the independence of Scotland. But, unlike Bruce, he does not need to take arms against an invading army, but only to convince the electorate of an urgent and overwhelming need.
There has been much speculation of late as to the Prime Minister's view of the Scottish Conservative Party. There's an interesting take on this in a new book on the Conservatives, 'Back From The Brink', by the historian and journalist Peter Snowdon. He quotes (p247) from a conversation with George Bridges, now (I think) a UK Government special adviser, about attempts to engage with the Scottish party after David Cameron became leader:
"The organisation up there was completely ramshackle," recalls Bridges. "They didn't understand what we were trying to do at all, and I had absolutely no control up there as Director of Campaigns. It was a complete struggle, so they employed an extra person for us to liaise with, but it didn't make much of a difference."
That 'extra person' was presumably Michael Crow, my erstwhile STV colleague and former Director of Communications and Strategy for the Scottish Conservative Party.
It was, I think, the noble Lord Foulkes who coined the memorable term ‘cybernats’. The Scotsman’s David Maddox likened them to an army who ‘launch daily, sustained attacks on journalists, politicians and anybody else perceived to stand in the way of their cherished aim of independence, or who raises even the mildest criticism of Alex Salmond or the SNP’.
And so it proves with Scotland on Sunday’s serialisation of my new biography of the First Minister. To be fair, the comments quoted below attached themselves to a ‘news’ take on an excerpt from the book, which – as news stories often do – dispensed with important context, although it did contain the main point of the wider piece, that Alex Salmond can be aggressive and treat his staff badly.
Even at 1 a.m. this morning, barely half an hour after the stories appeared online, the cybernats got to work. Initially, these were reasonable prosaic. ‘Scottish republic’ reckoned that all ‘political leaders lose their temper. I don’t want a shrinking violet breaking up the union.’Another posting, by ‘samcoldstream’, raised the inevitable Andrew Rawnsley/Gordon Brown analogy, which is more flattering to yours truly than the First Minister. ‘We forget that politicians do not have feet of clay,’ he added thoughtfully. ‘Every Prime Minister since the War, including Churchill, Eden, MacMillan [sic], and even the meek and timid Atlee [sic], could burst into foul mouthed rages.’ I suspect samcoldstream hasn’t read much post-war political biography. Churchill could explode, certainly, as could Eden, but Macmillan was caustic rather than aggressive, and Attlee blunt rather than bullying.
‘Shawfield Urchin’ then offered a biography of Iain Gray: ‘He came, he saw then he went away again, without anyone realising he had ever been here in the first place.’ Not bad, although I suspect a publisher would require a bit of padding. Then the personal abuse began. ‘Calimero’, who has attacked me in the past without ever revealing his or her identity, concluded that ‘from the Tory supporting [sic] David Torrance this amounts to a tour de force effort for his first novel [sic]’. ‘I am absolutely certain it will fly off the shelves of the odd airport lounge – never to be read,’ he or she adds. ‘If this “exclusive extract” is anything to go by I think I’ll stick to the Beano.'
Not all comments were hostile. The bizarrely-named ‘Your Move’ had a slightly different take, believing that ‘Salmond’s many frustrations are absolutely understandable’. ‘The quality of his elected members is lamentable, the quality of his support is beneath contempt, particularly the online variety,’ he or she added. ‘He has no hope of gaining Scottish Independence, his lifelong aspiration and he is going to be out on his bahookey next May.’ Bahookey? Definitions on a postcard please.
‘Cane Corso Italiano’, meanwhile, pointed out that none ‘of the Salmond mob have leapt to the defence of the Great Leader, or, even attempted to deny it’. Generously he adds: ‘this biography has the ring of truth in these revelations. I expect this is just the tip of a Salmond proportioned iceberg.’ ‘Your Move’ concurred: ‘If this story is false, Salmond should sue the author, David Torrance, Tom Peterkin above and the SOS. Or, do the typically Salmond thing and bluster about doing something; issue a SNP type Fatwa that will terrify those responsible, something.’ Dear reader, I have yet to receive a Fatwa.
‘Linda’ then revived the cybernat abuse. ‘If this is the most damaging tittle tattle SoS or David Torrance can dig up’, she wrote, ‘then Alex Salmond’s position as Scotland’s outstanding politician is secure for years to come.’ Likewise, ‘Kinghobe’ said the article was ‘just a load of made up bull, a sad attempt to taint Alex Salmond’s leadership’. He also hoped the ‘biography’ (which for some reason he puts in inverted commas) ‘does rubbish as far as sales go’. I’m guilty, apparently, of concocting a ‘weirdo interpretation’ that amounts to a ‘load of lowbrow kak’. ‘[S]ome unofficial “biographer” has been left to make up stuff because the information and cooperation is lacking.’ Another commenter, ‘wdy’, is more succinct: ‘What a load of rubbish…Absolute nonsense. Made up rubbish.’
Finally, there was some sanity – relatively speaking – from ‘Brianwci’. ‘The pressure of all leaders is incredible, rage allows sanity to be maintained. It’s a safety valve,’ he muses. ‘In Salmond’s case his people skills clearly outweight [sic] his minuses. That combined with his political plusses makes him a major asset to Scotland and the SNP…Salmond is [a] very bright, great political strategist but more importantly he can connect with the voters. I think we can forgive him his safety valve tantrums, though we wouldn’t expect the BritNats to do so.’
Then the charming ‘Fifi la Bonbon’ came to my defence. ‘Mr Torrance is a long established, serious and distinguished writer who has published books on Margaret Thatcher, Harold MacMillan [sic], and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, and this is just the latest of these. He doesn’t write hagiographies.’ Aw, shucks. She then offered a cybernat biography of Salmond: ‘Once upon a time, in a humble cottage in Linlithgow, the Greatest Living Scotsman was born. A strange golden light shone out of his nappy, bathing the faces of his proud parents with a warm glow…’ I fear I might have competition.
Now for the serious bit. Back in September 2008, the political journalist Douglas Fraser offered this parting shot on his Herald blog:
These online discussion forums have taught me quite a bit – rarely about politics, but much more about the disturbing results you get from the interplay of anonymity, group psychology and bullying. This is not unique to The Herald’s website, or to Scottish politics, but as the content and tone of this conversation represents a daily injection of poison into the well of Scottish public life, we are all worse off for it.
Too true. I don’t mind people criticising what I write, but that comes with certain qualifications. Criticism, particularly of a book that is the result of more than a year of (I hope) serious research, ought to at least be considered. Dismissing my conclusions on Salmond’s character as ‘made up’ or ‘tittle tattle’ just isn’t good enough; critics need to present proof that it is so, which tellingly none of them have. They should also do so – particularly if they resort to abuse – under their real names. I offer my thoughts as ‘David Torrance’; they should offer theirs without the cloak of anonymity.
Letters reveal SNP crisi over ‘bigoted’ president’s anti-Catholic diatribes (From The Times 11-9-2010)
It was February 1982 and Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Scotland was just months away. The Vatican’s diplomatic representative to the United Kingdom had recently been upgraded to ambassadorial rank and Billy Wolfe, leader of the SNP from 1969-79 and a Kirk elder, wrote to Life and Work – the “pre-eminent voice of the Church of Scotland” – to voice his opposition.
The Vatican, he argued, was “not much larger than a town’s public park” and its population (“I understand, nearly all priests”) “only about 700”. As such, it was “neither a city nor a state” and therefore not entitled to send a diplomatic representative to the “Protestant United Kingdom”. Furthermore, Wolfe complained that the Roman Catholic Church had failed to consult Scotland’s national church.
From an ordinary member of the SNP this letter might have gone un-noticed, but Wolfe was the party’s president, a former leader and one of its most respected elder statesman. Papers belonging to Gordon Wilson, Wolfe’s successor as National Convener of the SNP, have revealed for the first time the extent of a row which cast a sectarian shadow over the party and ultimately destroyed Wolfe’s political career.
Leading SNP figures were appalled. Winnie Ewing forwarded press coverage of Wolfe’s remarks to Wilson and his fellow MP Donald Stewart with the note: “Is the SNP now part of the Orange Movement?” And when the Daily Record conflated Wolfe’s views with the SNP’s, Wilson took the unusual step of issuing a statement publicly repudiating Wolfe’s “personal opinions”.
Wolfe refused to apologise or resign as president, arguing instead that the SNP ought to remain “neutral” on the Pope’s visit rather than welcoming it, as Wilson had already done. “If the slogan ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ becomes widely current again”, Wolfe wrote to Wilson privately, “it will become impossible for us to get a really significant and secure support out of the 80% of the population who are non-R.C.’s."
Wolfe then set out his “constitutional and political” reasons for opposing the Papal visit in a lengthy memo that he planned to publish. This argued that the visit was a “clear violation of the statutes establishing the U.K. and securing the Protestant Religion in both England and Scotland”. “The aim of the R.C. Church was and is world domination in the belief that the Pope is destined to rule over all nations and all men,” added Wolfe. “Who will benefit from a State visit to these countries by the Pope? From a Protestant point of view, certainly not the non-R.C. majorities in them."
He went on to describe the Roman Catholic church as the world’s “largest and most widespread political organisation” which had “centuries of experience, infinite patience and Machiavellian skill, using good or evil, wealth or poverty, left or right political parties, black men or white men, in fact any person, organisation or circumstance which is likely to serve the ultimate aim of the church”.
Wilson, clearly appalled, replied that he “disagreed completely with your personal view” and urged him not to publish something that “would be very damaging to the Party”. The Glasgow Hillhead by-election – in which Roy Jenkins would make his political comeback – was just weeks away and Wilson dreaded the electoral consequences of another intervention from Wolfe.
The row then died down, although the SNP lost its deposit in the Hillhead by-election. Then, the following month, Wolfe wrote another letter, this time to the Scotsman, expressing concern that the predominantly Protestant Falkland islanders might fall under the control of a “cruel and ruthless Fascist dictatorship of a Roman Catholic State”. Coming as it did on the eve of elections to Scotland’s regional local authorities, the SNP was once again plunged into crisis.
Alan McKinney, the SNP’s National Organiser, told Wolfe that his “continuing attack on the Roman Catholic Church is causing great concern within the Party”. “I have spent the last three hours,” he wrote, “dealing with telephone calls from Press, ministers, Nationalists and members of the public attempting to staunch the wound you have opened – an analogy which fits one view expressed: ‘amputation’.”
Gordon Wilson was also furious, writing to Wolfe to condemn his “bigoted anti-catholic views” and asking him to resign as party president. Wilson also wrote to Cardinal Gray, who had been asked to comment on Wolfe’s Falklands comments, to apologise. Gray replied graciously, expressing concern that “Mr. Wolfe’s letter might have caused problems for Catholics who are members of the S.N.P. or those who have sympathy with the Party’s aims and policy”.
Although Wolfe refused to resign as president, he did agree to withdraw his nomination for another term. As one journalist commented, it was “sad to see such a distinguished political career end over statements so very much out of character”, while Wolfe would not be re-elected to party office for another 16 years. Later he expressed genuine regret about his comments while ironically his second wife, Kate Mac-Ateer, was a Catholic.
Nevertheless it planted a suspicion that the SNP was sectarian, something that still lingered in 1994 when the party endured the Monklands East by-election. It then took the efforts of Alex Salmond to correct the damage, forging deep links with the Catholic Church in Scotland, while “warmly” welcoming this month’s visit which he predicted would be a “wonderful occasion”. Scotland, not to mention perceptions of the SNP, have changed a lot in 28 years.
POLITICAL parties often lose sight of their own histories. The beleaguered Scottish Tory Party, for example, would do well to revisit the writings of a largely forgotten Conservative thinker. “Until our educated and politically minded democracy has become predominantly a property-owning democracy,” declared Noel Skelton in 1923, “neither the national equilibrium nor the balance of the life of the individual will be restored.”
With that paragraph Skelton – an obscure but nevertheless significant figure – contributed a memorable phrase and an enduring concept to the modern political lexicon. For Skelton, the Unionist MP for Perth in the 1920s and early ‘30s, the “property-owning democracy” was the cornerstone of what he called “Constructive Conservatism”, the most important component of the party’s “view of life”.
Later, this was interpreted to mean simply home ownership, characterised by Margaret Thatcher’s promotion of council house sales, although Skelton intended it to mean much more than that. He wanted individuals to have a stake in every layer of society, in government and industry as well as individual property. It was a remarkably influential idea. A trio of prime ministers – Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home – all pay homage to Skelton in their memoirs, while David Cameron is familiar with the phraseology, if not the man himself.
Skelton’s shrewd analysis of his political era also has much to teach the contemporary Conservative Party, not least its moribund northern outpost. Winning Perth for the first time in 1922, he told his constituents that the “future duty of Conservatives was clear”. “In a democracy their politics must be all pervading,” he said. “They must not only be Unionists on polling day but every day, and all the day.”
Skelton also realised that the party could not regard any system of government “as necessarily permanent or final”. If there was to be “some devolution, some alteration in the present system”, he said in the early 1930s, Scotland would “come to that new duty and that new responsibility not as a minor member, not as inferior to England; she will come to it with a full knowledge of Parliamentary life, and she will come because she is ready.”
He was, therefore, a Nationalist and a Unionist, Scottish and British, a useful political balancing act his successors have lost sight of, and much to their cost. “If Conservatives are not to fight with one hand tied behind their backs,” Skelton also proclaimed, “the active principles of Conservatism must be felt anew, thought anew, promulgated anew.” Not a bad mission statement for the modern Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
Skelton believed in a holistic approach to politics, or a coherent “view of life”. That means Messrs Sanderson and Brownlee need to think beyond organisational tinkering and a new policy initiative here and there. The Scottish Conservative “view of life” has to permeate everything the party does, both politically and in terms of presentation.
What does that mean in practice? Skelton was the first to recognise the need for Conservatives to move beyond their traditional association with privilege and wealth, and although the party has made great strides in achieving this since the 1920s the perception, particularly in Scotland, is very different. The next Scottish Tory manifesto should, therefore, emphasise what Skelton characterised as “fair play between all classes and the desire of each to farther the common weal”. Skelton’s progressive Conservatism worked in the inter-war era and can, with a little refreshment, work again.
David Torrance’s biography, Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy, is available now from Biteback Publishing.
Exactly forty years ago today Edward Heath became Prime Minister, against the electoral tide but equipped with considerable expectations. “Heath is the hero of the hour,” wrote Cecil King in his diary, “but how long will he remain so?” The answer, of course, was not for long. His troubled legacy is now a leitmotif for right-wing Conservatives; will David Cameron, they wonder, become another Heath, or another Thatcher?
Such judgments would, of course, be premature, although initial indications suggest that he will become neither. Cameron’s deft handling of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, so badly mishandled by Heath in 1972, is proof enough that he does not share Ted’s lofty disdain for the sensitivities of Northern Ireland politics, while the Prime Minister’s softly-softly approach to public spending cuts is ostentatiously non-Thatcherite.
Heath, it should be remembered, once looked so promising, particularly when it came to the Scottish question. His surprise commitment to devolution at the so-called Declaration of Perth in 1968 not only captured the political initiative (if not the whole-hearted support of the Scottish Tory party) but marked a genuinely far-sighted departure in British constitutional politics. “It would have been politically suicidal”, wrote Heath in his memoirs, to have done anything less.
But, to quote Saint Matthew, “by their fruits ye shall know them”. In government, Heath’s devolution commitment did not bear fruit, but was instead crushed by ministerial inaction and the weight of more pressing matters. The real trouble, as Philip Ziegler observes in his new authorized biography of Heath, was that “privately he thought that the Assembly would be at worst mischievous, at best a waste of time and money”.
Therein lies a valuable lesson for Cameron: not only should he implement the Calman Commission’s recommendations swiftly and decisively, but he should demonstrate his commitment to Scottish affairs by going much further. As it stands, the proposal to give MSPs control over 10p within each income tax band is both financially dangerous and intellectual incoherent; if one accepts that the Scottish Parliament not raising the money it spends is a problem, then there is only one logical solution.
Thus Cameron should be bold where Heath faltered. Full fiscal autonomy (or “responsibility”, as a business-backed campaign would have it) offers the new Prime Minister the tantalising prospect of killing several political birds with one stone: making good on his promise to devolve genuine power to Holyrood, making a new best friend of Alex Salmond and, in the longer term, silencing the troublesome duo that is the Barnett Formula and West Lothian Question.
Not only that, but Cameron would do well in taking personal charge of the reforms instead of leaving them, as Heath did, to his Secretary of State for Scotland, the eminently forgettable Gordon Campbell (who does not feature at all in either Heath’s memoirs or Zeigler’s biography). While Heath always felt ill at ease north of the border, Cameron – as his relaxed visit to Holyrood shortly after becoming premier demonstrated – does not.
So he should sell “Calman plus”, and sell it well, presenting it as a constructive Conservative move sheltering underneath a Unionist umbrella. It would also prevent Cameron from falling into a Heath-like sulk when it comes to the attitude of the Scots. Heath is said to have been furious when they returned a mere 23 Scottish Tory MPs at the 1970 general election. Cameron has just one, not to mention a Scotland Office conveniently stuffed full of Liberal Democrats. Calman, therefore, also presents an opportunity to wrestle Scottish affairs back onto Conservative territory.
It will not, of course, be that easy, and Cameron’s best intentions – like Heath’s in 1972/73 – could easily be overtaken by what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”. The current Prime Minister faces economic challenges that make Heath’s pale into comparison, although there is little prospect of today’s Government being brought down by striking miners. Nevertheless, when political times are tough, time-consuming constitutional reform quite naturally drops down the prime ministerial to-do list.
All the more reason, therefore, for Cameron to be decisive where Heath was cautious, radical where Heath was technocratic. By pursuing comprehensive (and sincere) fiscal devolution, he could become the great reforming prime minister that Heath never was. By his legislative fruits Cameron shall be known, and nowhere is that more true than in Scotland.
I WAS chatting to a Tory MSP recently whose comments bleakly encapsulated the fundamental problem with the Scottish Conservative Party. After giving me a lengthy, and often quite perceptive, analysis of the party’s failings in terms of leadership, organisation, policies and guiding philosophy, I asked what he was going to do about it. I was greeted with a blank expression and therefore the implicit reply: absolutely nothing.
And although the recent appointment of Tory grandee Lord Sanderson to chair a review of the Scottish Tory Party’s “structures, functions and operational activity” (not, as has been widely reported, its future direction) may appear to be a response of sorts, it is in fact an excuse to do nothing at all. The commission’s recommendations have already been decided; Sanderson and his compatriots (including Sunday’s desperate addition of Lord Forsyth) simply exist to add a consultative veneer to the whole shoddy process.
And was there a single peep from any of the sixteen Conservative MSPs at Holyrood, few (if any) of whom seem to have been consulted about Sanderson’s appointment? Not at all, or at least not on the record. As usual, they simply stood idly by and took what was doled out to them from Conservative Central Office, now housed in two dusty rooms on a dusty street in Edinburgh’s New Town.
In fact, the notion that these elected members have any degree of control of the party has been well and truly blown out of the water since the general election. Instead, the party chairman – the nice but ineffectual Andrew Fulton – and his colleague (and, in truth, his boss) Mark McInnes, director of the Scottish party, are now contriving to wield absolute power, over candidate selection, organisation and, to all intents and purposes, the MSPs themselves. It is no mistake that McInnes decided the membership of Sanderson’s commission, of which he is also secretary.
The lack of formal challenge to this power grab is astonishing. A recent election debriefing is a case in point. A Tory MSP tells me that McInnes provided the group with lots of devastating insights like “we didn’t do well because we underestimated the number of people who are anti-Tory”, while paradoxically predicting that next year’s Holyrood election would add a few more Members to their ranks. Except in Glasgow, where Bill Aitken was informed of imminent defeat and thus announced his retirement the following day.
Indeed, instead of concentrating minds, the 2011 Scottish Parliament election is simply prolonging Tory agony. It cannot, so the feeble argument goes, possibly do anything radical over the next few months because with another campaign imminent it would be politically unwise. The trouble is that this analysis will probably apply in the wake of each subsequent election result. After 2011 it will be local authority elections, after that the Euro poll, and after that another general election.
And thus the once-mighty Scottish Conservative Party stumbles complacently into further decline. The charming Annabel Goldie is now (and I have for long defended her leadership against its sillier detractors) irredeemably part of the problem. She is conservative with a big “C”, to the extent that she cannot contemplate change no matter how grim the context. She is clearly in denial, thus her astonishing proclamation shortly after the election that the Tory campaign “had won a lot of praise” as had her role within it.
It has also become embarrassingly clear that David Cameron, who has tried hard in Scotland since becoming leader in 2005, has simply given up on his ancestral land. The Scottish question, in his eyes, has been answered by stuffing the Scotland Office full of Liberal Democrats, and who can blame him. The once effective cry of “no mandate” from the SNP has been stifled, and the Prime Minister can get on with governing the rest of the country.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. There exists within the group at least a trio of sharper, younger MSPs who realise instinctively what needs to be done: chiefly an all-out drive for full fiscal responsibility (what could be more Tory?), a more radical edge to wider policy, and a change in elected (and, for that matter, non-elected) personnel which was only hinted at in a recent reshuffle.
Yet even within that group there is reticence, a fear of upsetting the applecart when it clearly needs to be overturned. Alas this is nothing new. Tories with a long memory will recall a similar period of angst in the mid-1960s, when declining electoral fortunes and organisational malaise led Young Turks like George Younger, Teddy Taylor and Alick Buchanan-Smith to take the party by the scruff of the neck.
I remember a depressing feeling of familiarity when I stumbled across a letter to Younger, about whom I was writing a biography, from a former Scottish Tory official called Ian McIntyre. Not only did he lambast the lack of an ‘effective or credible Chairman’ in Central Office, but attacked amateurish organisation and the party’s basic ‘lack of credibility’ in Scotland. ‘There comes a point beyond which’, he told Younger, ‘it becomes tedious and embarrassing to be associated with failure on the Scottish Tory scale.’
That was in 1966, when the Conservatives had lost four of their 24 Scottish MPs at a general election. Senior figures considered this to be evidence of terminal decline – oh what the party would give for 20 seats today! That result did, however, instigate action and by the 1979 election the party had increased its share of the vote, and even its number of MPs, following nearly two decades of drift and decline.
So it is not impossible to turn things around, although I doubt Tory MSPs or party officials even want to try. Oliver Brown memorably remarked that following the 1967 Hamilton by-election a shiver rang along the Labour front bench looking for a spine to run up. A shiver also runs along the Conservative benches at Holyrood, but has discovered no outlet; it shivers still, and will grow more violent and damaging until it does.
During a memorable exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions back in April 1983 Denis Healey accused Mrs Thatcher of being ‘frightened’ about the verdict of the electorate. ‘Afraid? Frightened? Frit?’ she stormed, deploying her native Lincolnshire dialect. ‘Could not take it? Cannot stand it?’ I’m afraid the same is now true of certain Conservative MSPs. They too are afraid, frightened, or indeed ‘frit’, and for that they have only themselves to blame.
In a way it doesn’t bode well for the security of the new Coalition Government. Yesterday I found myself in Downing Street filming a piece-to-camera for the STV programme “Politics Now”. Hearing that the first joint David Cameron/Nick Clegg press conference was about to begin in the Rose Garden to the rear of Number 10, I decided to chance my luck and join the throng of Lobby journalists queuing up to attend.
“Do you have a Lobby pass?” asked a Number 10 press officer. “Erm, no, I don’t,” I replied, hastily adding that I’d just called the press office and that they’d assured me it would be fine. “Wait over there,” was my curt instruction. “Are you with the foreign media?” asked another functionary. “No,” I replied (“not yet” I added, inwardly). Eventually, as it became clear Dave and Nick were about to appear, I was ushered into the Garden as another official cried: “No more! No more!”
The setting was vaguely familiar, no doubt from half-remembered 1995 images of John Major’s famous “back me or sack me” press conference, which also took place in the Rose Garden. Indeed, The Times journalist Peter Riddell later told me that Sir John’s bold move sprang immediately to mind as he watched the new Prime Minister and his Deputy. Only in England could a patch of land devoted to flowering shrubs bear witness to such political turning points.
And what a double act they proved to be. Strolling, almost nonchalantly, up to their respective podiums, the chemistry was obvious from their body language. The similarity of their backgrounds has attracted much comment, but it is a valid observation: they had the aura of two public schoolboys – reunited after a decade or so – finding that they still had much in common. Clegg could never have gelled with Gordon Brown; the outgoing Prime Minister simply wasn’t cut from the same cloth.
The Prime Minister’s language was clear, concise, and subtly evangelical. “We’re not just announcing a new Government and new ministers,” he declared, “we’re announcing a new politics.” It could so easily have sounded insincere, but somehow Cameron pulled it off. “It can be an historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.” Every word became loaded. When the PM referred to “our Liberal-Conservative Government”, it was hardly an accident that “Liberal” had taken precedence over “Conservative”.
Then it was over to Nick. “We are different parties and have different ideas,” he protested, clearly trying to pre-empt mischievous questions from the assembled hacks. “There will be bumps and scrapes along the way.” Indeed there will, but watching the pair of them it was difficult to foresee any tension between leader and deputy. Between and within their respective parties perhaps, but surely not between Dave and Nick?
One journalist wasn’t going to let them off so easily, reminding Cameron that he’d once replied “Nick Clegg” when asked to tell his favourite joke. The PM fielded this well, pointing out that everyone would have previous utterances thrown back at them, but Clegg seemed surprised. “Did you say that?” he asked; “I’m afraid I did,” replied Cameron bashfully. “Right, I’m off,” indicated Clegg, as if making to leave. “Come back!” quipped DC. Again, it could have been cheesy and contrived. Somehow it wasn’t.
It was easy to get swept up in all of this, and I found myself grinning involuntarily as I hovered behind the big beasts of the press pack, who were (quite rightly) more cynical than I was. Yet the double act was a convincing performance if this was, as Labour claimed, “a deal with the devil”, nothing more than a shoddy compromise borne of political necessity. If it is that, then it seems clear that the two parties’ respective leaders (at least) are prepared to give it their best shot.
Then they were off, walking in that same nonchalant manner back into Number 10, departing just before a few raindrops emanated from an overcast sky which, had it broken sooner, would have rained on the new Coalition’s parade and provided the media with a rather ominous metaphor for their evening reports. It could be the first of many lucky escapes for a fascinating new experiment, and an equally fascinating partnership, in British politics.