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General Election

We need a much better standard of debate about the issues

12 months from today, people living in Scotland will go to the polls to answer one simple question – “should Scotland be an independent country?” One can only hope that the next 12 months will start to see much more detailed, reasoned and effective debate about this country’s future. Frankly, until now what we’ve had has been what can only be described as a “phoney war”. Very little in the arguments put forward by either side in this debate could genuinely be said to be anything more than opinion, guesswork and conjecture.

Would Scotland have to adopt the Euro?

Would Scotland have to adopt the Euro?

All the big questions still have to be answered. Would Scotland for example automatically be a member of the European Union? Would the EU allow an independent Scotland to keep the pound? Would an independent Scotland have to adopt the Schengen Agreement – and if so what would that mean for the border between Scotland and England? Even if Scotland were allowed to keep the pound, would it be able to borrow at the same rates as the current British government? What would Scotland share of the U.K.’s National Debt amount to?

These are only a tiny fraction of the still unanswered questions to which voters will need answers before this time next year. It is unlikely that today’s debate in the Scottish Parliament will add very much to the sum of knowledge. With all due respect to the various parties, all we are likely to get is more of the same political posturing. We need the two sides to be much clearer in setting out their stalls and be able to present a much more coherent argument for and against independence.

Alistair Darling chairs the 'No' Campaign

Alistair Darling chairs the ‘No’ Campaign

Speaking recently to business people who have strong reservations about the split with England, it was quickly clear that their main frustration was aimed at what they described as the ineptitude and incompetence of the “No” campaign. Alistair Darling, its chairman, may be a seasoned politician but the business people felt that he appeared to be leading a group of disparate organisations which were between them incapable of producing a simple, clear vision of a future United Kingdom. They feared that the campaign was in danger of losing by default because its public relations in particular seemed non-existent.

By contrast, the “Yes” campaign does at least have a vision of what Scotland could be like as an independent nation. They were able to draw on international comparisons such as the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries. They constantly refer to the influence that small nations can have on the EU – the Presidency of the Council is currently held by Lithuania, for example. And the SNP has consistently over the years drawn inspiration from the success of the Nordic countries, Norway and Denmark in particular. The party sees no reason why Scotland could not emulate those nations.

Alex Salmond MSP "once-in-a-generation event"

Alex Salmond MSP
“once-in-a-generation event”

However, we are reaching the point where flesh needs to put on the bones. The first stage in understanding what in fact we will be voting on in 12 months’ time will come with the publication of a White Paper setting out the Scottish Government’s position. Only then will the supporters of independence be able to separate the reality from the dream; only then will the supporters of union be able to identify the perceived benefits of staying together.

First Minister Alex Salmond has said that the referendum would be “the biggest opportunity Scotland has ever had”. In a speech last night, he went on to point out that referendums like this are “a once-in-a-generation event, which means that the vote on September 18 next year will be the opportunity of a lifetime for many people in Scotland as we get a chance to choose a country’s future.” He insisted that the referendum was not about anyone politician or party. “It’s about completing Scotland’s home will journey just been underway for more than a century.”

What we now have in front of us is the choice of what form that home rule will take. This “phoney war” has been going on for too long. There has been some speculation that Mr Salmond chose the date in 2014 for several social and political reasons. He will for instance be hoping for a positive outcome from the Commonwealth Games and the other major events which are taking place in Scotland next year. He will also be hoping that the other political parties will start fighting each other in the run-up to the U.K.’s general election in 2015 and thus be more interested in fighting each other and fighting for the cause of unity. The danger is that the winner may turn out to be apathy and the last thing Scotland wants or needs is to reach a decision on a minority vote. Our decision needs to be clear-cut and definite.

Centre for Public Policy for Regions – based at Glasgow University

In a report that may sound like music to the ears of the “Yes” campaign, the Centre for Public Policy for Regions has said that the Scottish Government’s budget from now until 2017/18 will fall in both cash and real terms as a result of this year’s UK Spending Review. The centre, based at Glasgow University, prepared a briefing note on the implications. It warned that the Chancellor’s programme of budget cuts was far from over. Indeed, instead of five years of austerity, the country now faced as much as eight years of cuts, meaning that we’re not even half way through.

The report wants greater clarity on Scotland's budget plans

The report wants greater clarity on Scotland’s budget plans

The study warned that the Scottish Government could face a real series of dilemmas if its oft-stated commitment to protect spending on the Health Service is maintained. It could mean that other services would have to be slashed – with cuts of as much as 25% cuts in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18. However, as the report’s authors acknowledge, much of the detail of what will happen in the latter years of the programme has yet to be announced. Much of it won’t be confirmed until after both the Independence Referendum and the next UK General Election. But the fear is that future cuts will greater than any experienced so far.

The report shows just how much of a juggling act Finance Secretary, John Swinney, will need to perform. It contrasts the fall in the Scottish Government’s day-to-day resource spending with the prospect of a rise in capital spending. This would only arise if the loan support programme for business were taken into account. The report explains that “such loan support is intended to engender more private sector activity. Including the loan support means government-related capital spend rises in both cash and real terms. However, removing it means there is a further cash and real-terms fall in investment spend for Scotland. Hence, it is possible to argue that the Scottish Budget has both fallen and risen in cash terms.”

John Swinney MSP Juggling act

John Swinney MSP
Juggling act

However, the paper points out that a ‘yes’ vote in next year’s independence referendum could lead to the spending profile being changed. Until then, the Scottish Government’s budget has depended on a block grant worked out on the basis of a 35-year old formula – the Barnett spending formula. Instead, Holyrood would move to running its own tax system. But the report is blunt. It set a challenge to the Scottish Government to deliver much more clarity on its financial strategy if it secures independence.

Mr Swinney was quick to point out that “if decision-making powers remain at Westminster, CPPR suggest Scotland will continue to face a future of public sector cuts or UK tax rises and increasing restrictions on our ability to spend Scotland’s budget in the best way for Scotland. Scotland is now facing eight years of real-terms spending cuts, extending well beyond the referendum to 2018 or even longer.” He went on to say that “the Chancellor is restricting our ability to invest in the infrastructure that is essential to economic recovery and longer term growth.”

However, a spokesman for the UK Government insisted that Scotland would have “additional capital spending in 2015-16, which the Scottish government can use to fund shovel-ready projects as it wishes. Scotland has also received over £1.6bn in extra funding through the Barnett formula since the beginning of the Parliament and continues to benefit from substantially higher public spending per head than the UK average.”

Iain Gray

Iain Gray

Key points

  • SNP landslide: huge gains in traditional Labour constituencies
  • Lib Dem vote completely collapsing
  • Regional seats not yet counted

The Scottish Labour leader came within a whisker of losing his seat to the SNP as the Nationalists swept up constituency after constituency.

Iain Gray limped home 151 votes ahead of David Berry on a night when his party was taking a hammering. Labour could only watch as the SNP hoovered up the collapsing Lib Dem vote.

In Orkney and Shetland, the latter seat being that of the Scottish Lib Dem leader, Tavish Scott, independents ran the Lib Dems close.

In the first shock result of the night, Labour high-flyer Andy Kerr lost East Kilbride to the SNP’s Linda Fabiani by just under 2,000 votes thanks to a 6.6 per cent swing.

Another shock swiftly followed as Tom McCabe lost his seat to the SNP’s Christina McKelvie in Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse on a stunning swing of 11 per cent. A further Labour stalwart, Frank McAveety, lost the rock-solid safe seat of Glasgow Shettleston to the SNP’s John Mason. Glasgow Cathcart also fell. Chants of “easy, easy” greeted Nicola Sturgeon as she romped home in Glasgow Southside. And Shona Robison secured a massive 10,000 majority in Dundee City East.

The SNP also thwarted Tory hopes, winning Edinburgh Pentlands ahead of David McLetchie.

With a majority of more than 4,000, the SNP’s Aileen Campbell relieved Labour’s Karen Gillon of the Clydesdale seat she had held for 12 years.

Alex Neil took Airdire and Shotts from Labour’s Karen Whitefield. On another night, this would have been a bellwether but, given the huge SNP swing, it came as hardly surprising.

Labour had earlier held on to Rutherglen – but only after surviving a 7.4 per cent swing to the SNP. And in the supposedly safe Uddingston and Bellshill seat, Labour scraped past the SNP by 700 votes.

Labour also “gained” Eastwood, which was notionally a Tory seat after boundary changes. While the Labour vote increased 10 per cent, the SNP vote increased 9 per cent

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snp1
3am update

As the pundits painfully and relentlessly tell us: “It’s early days,” but the SNP are having a great night.

Labour and the Lib Dems are not. To put it lightly.

The Lib Dem vote appears to be going down the plughole. The SNP are benefiting massively from that slump, while Labour are not.

In a shock result, Labour high-flyer Andy Kerr lost East Kilbride to the SNP’s Linda Fabiani by just under 2,000 votes thanks to a 6.6 per cent swing.

Another shock swiftly followed as Tom McCabe lost his seat to the SNP’s Christina McKelvie in Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse on a stunning swing of 11 per cent.

With a majority of more than 4,000, the SNP’s Aileen Campbell relieved Labour’s Karen Gillon of the Clydesdale seat she had held for 12 years.

Alex Neil took Airdire and Shotts from Labour’s Karen Whitefield. On another night, this would have been a bellwether but, given the huge SNP swing, it came as hardly surprising.

Chants of “easy, easy” greeted Nicola Sturgeon as she romped home in Glasgow Southside. And Shona Robison secured a massive 10,000 majority in Dundee City East.

Labour had earlier held onto Rutherglen – but only after surviving a 7.4 per cent swing to the SNP. And in the supposedly safe Uddingston and Bellshill seat, Labour scraped past the SNP by 700 votes.

Labour also “gained” Eastwood, which was notionally a Tory seat after boundary changes. While the Labour vote increased 10 per cent, the SNP vote increased 9 per cent.

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labour5Labour have held Rutherglen. No surprise there then. But the SNP vote was up 16 per cent – a swing of 7.4 per cent from Labour. If that was replicated across Scotland, nobody has any idea what would happen thanks to the leveling effect of the “peach ballot”.

The Liberal Democrats trailed in fourth behind the Tories. They’re in for a caning.

Holyrood debating chamber <em>Picture: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2011</em>

Holyrood debating chamber Picture: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2011


12.15am update
And we’re off. The telethon that is coverage of the Scottish General Election has begun.

BBC Scotland’s Brian Taylor, in bebraced splendour, is taking us through his notional holds – an enlivening thought at midnight.

The talking heads are gamely doing what they can given the lack of any exit polls or results.

STV’s doing a nice canter round the great and the good at the counts. Apparently, it’s early days and we don’t know anything yet. Riveting stuff.

Back on the Beeb, Michael Moore looks like he knows he’s going to spend the night getting kicks in the happy sacks. The only thing that’s missing from his miserable fizog is a ball gag. On STV, Jim Wallace looks flustered and baffled but then he always does.

Key insight from Douglas Alexander: “The night is young.” No flies on him. He’s keeping his spirits up by sticking it to the Lib Dems.

At the Caley Merc electoral hub, we’re being kept awake by the prospect of seeing wur Hamish on the telly. There’s a bottle of whisky to the member of our mature electoral team who can text him the dirtiest joke and get him to corpse on air.

A polling station signBy Betty Kirkpatrick

If the word vote had remained true to its linguistic origins it would have been the politicians, not the electorate, doing the voting.

Ultimately, the verb vote comes from the Latin verb vovere, meaning to promise solemnly – and that is what the political candidates are supposed to be doing, promising us a better way of life under their leadership.

The past participle of vovere is votus and this came into English as vote. A secondary meaning of the Latin verb was to wish for – and, from the 15th century, the English meaning of the verb vote came to mean to express your wishes by taking part in some kind of ballot, that is to vote.

While we are voting, the politicians will be vowing – to do so much better than any of their opponents. Curiously enough, vote and vow share a common linguistic background. Like vote, vow comes from the Latin verb vovere, this time in its original meaning of to promise solemnly. Vow reached English from Latin via Anglo-Norman vou.

Australasia seems to have been much more progressive than other countries when it came to voting. The modern system of secret ballots was introduced in Victoria, Australia in 1856 and this was not made law in Britain until 1872. It is interesting to note that, in the days before secret voting, one of the reasons cited for denying women the vote was that they would not be able to cope with the rowdy behaviour of other voters expressing their preferences. Sensitive souls!

In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to grant universal voting rights to women. It was not until 1928 that Britain allowed women the same voting rights as men, although women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote from 1918, if they were householders, or were married to householders, or if they had a university degree. Women had been formally prohibited from voting after the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act.

Sadly, a great many people now express their political preferences not by voting by ballot, but by voting with their feet. In other words, they turn their backs on the whole electoral process and, whether from apathy or disgust, have nothing to do with it. Hence, the usual low turnouts on voting day.

To some extent I sympathise with such an attitude. However, remembering the lengths to which some people, especially women, had to go to in order to have the right to vote, I always force myself through the doors of the polling station at the appointed time. I hope you will do the same.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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<em>Picture: Gorriti</em>

Picture: Gorriti

By James Browne

According to a TNS-BRMB poll for STV, the SNP and Greens are on course for a total of 69 seats in the Scottish Parliament, giving pro-independence parties an absolute majority.

But before independentistas crack open the Smoked Salmond cocktails (one part champagne, one part Ardbeg and a dash of Diet Irn Bru), it’s worth noting that everyone – left, right, Nationalist, Unionist, Green, orange and pink – is pouring buckets of cold water on the survey.

It might be a “rogue poll”. It is out of sync with others. No poll can ever give a truly accurate picture of how the constituency seats will play out. There might be huge variations in who actually bothers to vote. And nobody is sure how the constituency/list balance will work for the SNP. Remember: the Holyrood setup makes it very hard for any one party (especially the SNP) to gain total control.

Well, we shall see.

Only an idiot would make predictions this close to polling day. But I feel that makes me particularly qualified to make predictions: Labour are about to have a huge can of whupass opened all over them and the Lib Dems will be marginally less extinct than Liopleurodon pachydeirus.

In the meantime, let’s indulge in what Peter Snow would have called “just a bit of fun”.

If the pro-independence parties: the SNP, Greens and, please God, Margo, are in the driving seat they should go for the referendum on Day One.

The Lib Dems (or Lib Dem if things go really badly for them) will be busy licking their wounds and wondering why they sold their souls for a referendum they could never win on a voting system they don’t want.

Labour will be busy looking for a Scottish leader. The far from prodigious pool of talent on the Scottish benches should make this an entertaining spectator sport, rich in comedic possibility. The “big hitters” brought in to boost the campaign – Gordon Brown and Ed Balls – show that Labour is the party that charm forgot.

Its strategists might also take some time out from trying to tell the difference between their humerus and illium to ponder the wisdom of the parliamentary “Unionist alliance” to thwart the SNP. Traditionally, Labour voters (as opposed to activists) view the Tories as the enemy, not the Nats.

And the Labour message that David Cameron wants us to vote SNP to hurt Ed Miliband is flawed and facile. The problem is that if enough Scots vote for pro-independence parties then Cameron ceases to be our problem.

It was all summed up for me by this Labour press release: “Alex Salmond’s obsession with independence puts recovery at risk.” it was prefigured by “Balls:”. Indeed…

The Tories will have a cracking Scottish election in their terms, which means not losing too many seats and remaining on the periphery of Scottish life.

In short, the Unionist parties will be in disarray. The Scottish people will have clearly shown that they reject the Westminster way of doing things. Scotland will have shown its distaste for Tory (and Lib Dem) government.

If that STV poll is right, then there will never be a better moment for an independence referendum.

But it’s only a rogue poll, of course.

Probably…

<em>Picture: Mark Hillary</em>

Picture: Mark Hillary

Alex Salmond emerged as the winner of the first Scottish leaders’ debate of the election campaign tonight – largely because Labour leader Iain Gray didn’t manage to do enough to knock the First Minister off his stride.

The STV set-piece event saw the four party leaders pitched in together in front of a clearly partisan audience, with each of the parties represented by a group of their own activists in the Glasgow Piping Centre.

In a wide-ranging debate, which featured a number of subjects from the release of Abdelbasset al-Megrahi to student funding, and from local income tax to apprenticeships, Mr Salmond appeared the most composed, clear and forthright throughout.

Mr Gray came on to his game later on, performing better as the debate wore on, but in the opening exchanges – first when he tried to talk over the First Minister and then when he refused to answer a series of questions from Bernard Ponsonby, who was chairing the debate for STV – he suffered and found it hard to recover.

By the time the hour-and-ten-minute programme finished, there was little to choose between the performances of Mr Gray and Mr Salmond, but the damage – as far as the Labour leader was concerned – had been done by then.

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Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, and Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat leader, tried their best to elbow their way into the Salmond–Gray battle and both did reasonably well.

However, as the first real public contest for the job of First Minister, this was a battle between the Labour and SNP leaders.

In the opening exchanges about the achievements of the SNP administration, Mr Salmond kept it simple. He stressed the scrapping of prescription charges, which will happen on Friday, help for pensioners through the council tax freeze and free education.

Mr Gray got a little bogged down on jobs and the economy, running through an argument about jobless levels which didn’t carry the same punch as the First Minister’s lines.

The Labour leader then tried to intervene on Mr Salmond – which, again, didn’t work as well as he had hoped. He looked like he was hectoring while Mr Salmond appeared more calm.

It was almost as if, because Labour strategists know how important these debates are in raising the profile and reputation of their leader, Mr Gray tried a little too hard, too early in the debate.

It didn’t get any better when he was skewered by Mr Ponsonby over council tax. Wasn’t it true, Mr Ponsonby asked, that, had Labour been in charge for the past four years, council tax bills would have been higher?

After flannelling for several seconds, Mr Gray at last found the comeback he needed.

Yes, that was possible, he conceded, but then he added: “But it is possible there would have been 3,000 more teachers in our classrooms, 1,000 more classroom assistants. The problem with the council tax freeze is not the freeze, it is whether it is fully funded or not.”

This decent response seemed to compose Mr Gray and, after that, he settled down, calmed down and grew in stature.

His high-point came when the two leaders got bogged down in the level of modern apprenticeships and Mr Gray related a tale of when he came to see Mr Salmond in Bute House to negotiate over the Budget and how Mr Salmond had taken his advice and taken on board Labour’s suggestions.

It showed the right conciliatory and consensual touches as well as the edge of gravitas Mr Gray needed.

As for the First Minister, he was helped to a large extent by the vocal support of many SNP supporters in the audience, but he gave a confident and assured performance.

It was clear that, with the poll at the start of the programme showing a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, both Mr Salmond and Mr Gray were doing their best to appeal to the wavering Lib Dem vote.

Mr Salmond did this well on student finance, on petrol prices and on the Lockerbie bomber – where he was clear that the principle of compassion was at the heart of the controversial decision.

“People do not necessarily vote for political parties because of their record at the time, they vote on whether they did what they believe to be right, whether they acted out of principle,” he declared.

Ms Goldie also stuck to her principles, defending her belief in a graduate contribution despite opposition from the other three leaders, and holding out against some aggressive questioning from Mr Ponsonby over the coalition cuts and likely job cuts.

Mr Scott performed solidly, particularly when dealing with the difficult question of student finance, and managed to avoid being tripped up over his party’s record in coalition.

However, what was most startling about the debate was what was not included, rather than what was.

With the Scottish budget already heading down next year, whoever wins the election is going to have to cope with less. This is the context to this election and neither of the main parties has clearly articulated a position on this.

Both appear to want to keep promising more and more, yet, despite Mr Ponsonby’s determination to hammer the leaders on other issues, he didn’t get the time – or the chance – to question them on this key issue.

But there are more debates to come. Mr Gray, for one, will appreciate that because, after tonight, he has to come from behind to persuade the voters that he is better than Mr Salmond – certainly in debating terms.

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The Alternative Debate: In the spirit of open discussion, The Caledonian Mercury is giving the leaders of Scotland’s main parties the chance to explain why you should vote for them. Here Patrick Harvie, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party, says why you should back it.