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Nick Clegg

By Arthur Midwinter, University of Edinburgh; John Curtice, Strathclyde University; Karly Kehoe, Glasgow Caledonian University, and Neil Blain, University of Stirling

Former UK defence secretary and NATO secretary general George Robertson dipped a toe into the independence debate this week and found the water scalding hot.

In return for his comments to hawkish think tank the Brookings Institution in Washington DC that a Scottish yes vote would be “cataclysmic” and music to the ears of terrorist “forces of darkness” around the world, Better Together insiders were soon briefing journalists that this was “hardly helpful” at a time of distinct unease for the campaign.

The yes side remains behind but has been making steady progress, most recently culminating in a poll last weekend that suggested there are now just five percentage points between support for yes and no.

This helps explain why some unionists have been calling for a more positive campaign. While campaign leader Alistair Darling is still insisting that the yes side are the negative ones, we asked our panel whether they thought Better Together should change tack.


John Curtice, Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde/ScotCen Social Research

My impression is that the no side feels somewhat chastened that its big idea, which was to tell us we could not have the pound, has not worked. And neither has repeating statements of varying degrees of ambiguity about whether or not the financial institutions would relocate in the event of independence.

In the wake of this failure, you are certainly seeing signs of disquiet from parts of the campaign. Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg, Charles Kennedy and Willie Rennie have all publicly called for the no campaign to adopt a more positive tone. So we perhaps should not be surprised that George Robertson’s comments were greeted with disquiet by some in the no camp.

My view is that being negative is not necessarily a problem. The problem in the past few weeks has been ineffective campaigning.

Negative campaigning is more likely to work if you are telling people something new. Even before the currency intervention, it was already clear from the polling evidence that quite a lot of people in Scotland had twigged that they might not be able to use the pound as part of a monetary union. Whether or not they thought they would be able to use the pound also seemed not to be making much difference to whether people were likely to vote yes or no, as we saw from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013.

The source of the information has to have credibility. Telling people that, “a banker told me this” is not necessarily the most effective way of persuading people given their views about bankers as a class. And though businesses are not as unpopular as bankers, they are not that popular.

Equally, it is unwise to use a Tory to sell a big message in Scotland. They are not the most trusted source north of the border. Meanwhile, your claims should not be challenged by “experts” and quite a few senior economists have disputed George Osborne’s arguments against sharing the pound.

The problem the no campaign now faces is that nearly half of the Scottish population has decided it does not believe the claim that Scotland would not be able to use the pound, And having lost credibility on that issue its other claims about the risks of independence may now be regarded more sceptically too.

To be effective, negative campaigning also needs to be followed by the offer of a solution. But while the no side points to Scotland’s potential future economic difficulties, they are less effective at advising how the union will supply a solution.

Trouble is, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not necessarily agree about how the UK economy as a whole should be run, let alone Scotland within it. Thus the no side finds it difficult to offer a united alternative vision that could be a vital ingredient of a more positive campaign.

Karly Kehoe, Senior Lecturer in History, Glasgow Caledonian University

With George Robertson, we need to keep in mind that he was speaking in Washington, DC. He was talking to quite a reactionary audience and not to people in Britain. There were specific things that this audience would have wanted to hear from a former secretary general of NATO.

But his speech indicated that he’s already questioning Scotland’s loyalty to the West. If you suggest that an entire nation can’t be trusted, of course that’s going to alienate people. It’s very condescending. That obviously isn’t good for the Better Together campaign and that’s probably why they wanted to distance themselves from it.

I can’t agree with Darling’s argument at the weekend that those in favour of a yes vote are inherently negative in their opinions. To assume that the majority buy in to what the pro-independence cybernats are saying is irresponsible. People are paying more attention to the mainstream media.

Arthur Midwinter, Visiting Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh

George Robertson’s record on these issues is not great. He said before devolution that it would kill off the SNP. I just about choked at the time.

I have never regarded what Better Together is saying as negative. That’s a phrase that comes from Salmond. If people regard it as negative to be criticising your opponents, there’s something wrong with the quality of the debate in Scotland. You have to make arguments about the weaknesses of the economy and the fiscal position after independence. That’s not being negative, but robust and critical.

The notion that Better Together can come up with a plan for after the referendum is silly because it depends on who becomes the government. There will be some form of extra devolution, but not necessarily one that is agreed by all the major parties.

Better Together has probably been affected by the turn in the polls, though it’s difficult to tell what the causes are. Appointing Jim Gallagher as strategy director has made a difference to the tone. His advice would be that they should certainly be making a more positive case for the union, which has been a good change.

You have to separate the response to the SNP and the case for the union. The case for the union is now being made more positively, but I don’t regard what they are saying about independence as negative.

Neil Blain, Director of Media Research Institute, University of Stirling

George Robertson’s comments almost worked as an unconscious satire of the no campaign. It reminded me of websites such as bbcscotlandshire.co.uk that have been inventing scares about alien invasions and such like for months. Talking about forces-of-darkness type stuff at the Brookings Institution is not going to go down well.

It raises the real practical question of how the no campaign goes about being positive. If I was in the no campaign, I would find it incumbent on me to point out real difficulties with voting yes. The currency question, banks and GDP issues are real weaknesses for the yes campaign, so of course you would plug away at them.

I was astonished at Henry McLeish advocating going for more hearts and minds. People are going to decide on the basis of the economy. I would predict scare stories right through to the referendum.

But when it comes to making the no message more positive, there is a problem that many people think the status quo is not satisfactory. The SNP as a Holyrood party is enjoying sizeable majority support for a reason. When people were asked about devo max without knowing entirely what it was, 70% plus said they would go for it.

But the no campaign has to span everyone from traditional liberal home rulers who had no difficulty with devolution to hardline Michael Forsyth types. It makes it very difficult for them to put a message together about what Scotland will get in return for voting no.

To read the previous instalments from our panel, click on the links below:

3 April 2014: What does Alex Salmond owe the Poll Tax?

28 March 2014: All about the money as currency debate rages on

22 March 2014: Can we trust the polls?

Panel announcement

The Conversation

As an adviser to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, Arthur was appointed chair of the party’s Welfare Commission, which is putting together a series of proposals for the future of Scotland.

John Curtice, Karly Kehoe, and Neil Blain do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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By Murray Pittock, Glasgow University

Scotland has always been a distinct nation but since the Act of Union in 1707, it has been a nation within a larger political entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The election of a minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government led by Alex Salmond in 2007 brought about the first indications that situation could change. When the SNP won a convincing majority enabling it to rule in its own right last year, the possibility that Scotland could again become a sovereign nation became a distinct possibility.

Now the Westminster coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is striking back. Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to define a referendum on independence on London’s terms while Salmond says he has a mandate to run a referendum from Scotland.

The Conversation spoke with Glasgow University expert Professor Murray Pittock to find out exactly what the state of play is between two close neighbours with a long and storied history.

Can you explain what the situation is at both Westminster and in the Scottish Government as regards a referendum on Scottish independence?

The Westminster government have looked to seize the initiative over the Scottish referendum by saying that they will use their powers to either amend the current Scotland bill going through the Lords or more likely the 1998 Scotland Act to enable a binding referendum on the future of Scotland to be held.

Other referenda would simply be consultative. There was an indication at the weekend that they would wish this referendum to be held within 18 months, to wrongfoot the Scottish National Party government in Holyrood who have said all along, publicly, that they would hold it at some point in 2014.

There has been some sign of a retreat from that position by the UK government – particularly by the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition – where the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is looking to resolve the issue with the Scottish Government.

Earlier this week First Minister Alex Salmond made very clear that the mandate the Scottish Government had was to hold a referendum in 2014 and that is when he would intend to hold a referendum.

There are a number of bones of contention. One of these is whether there should be a third question about repatriating maximum powers short of foreign affairs, the so-called “devo max” question.

Another is whether the UK Electoral Commission or a Scottish Referendum Commission should run the referendum.

The third is whether 16 or 17 year olds should be entitled to vote rather than over-18s. The First Minister has indicated that 16 and 17 year olds would vote if the Scottish Government organised the referendum.

Can you explain the “devo max” option in some more detail?

There is some variety as to the powers that are suggested under devo max but the fundamental issue is that devo max represents what tends to be the polling evidence in Scotland, which is that there is a majority in favour of repatriating all powers to Scotland – including taxation and macro-economic policy to a significant degree – but excluding defence and foreign policy.

Although it must be said that the Scottish administrations since 1999 and particularly since 2007 have operated a nascent foreign policy.

In terms of the question of a mandate, the Tories only have one Westminster seat in Scotland and the Lib Dems have 12 where the SNP won a very considerable victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Who will be able to claim better that they have the mandate to decide what referendum should be held and when?

Lib Dem Nick Clegg and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron can work together in government, but can they defend the Union together? AAP/Stefan Wermuth

The question of mandate has two aspects: a constitutional aspect and a political aspect. From a constitutional point of view the UK government has a case. From a political point of view, its case is very weak because clearly the Scottish Government was elected to govern Scotland and to conduct a referendum on independence and it has won an overall majority under a proportional system which is very difficult to do.

The Scottish Government clearly does have a political mandate and most of the counter-arguments have been constitutional and legal arguments. The question is how far those will give way to the politics. The early response in Scotland, not from politicians, from the public – judging by radio phone-ins and the like – is very hostile to the idea of Tory interference in Scotland, even from people who do not support the SNP.

I think if this was a Labour London government, it would be easier for them to put Alex Salmond in a corner. I think that the risk here is that in pandering to the anti-Scottish or anti-Salmond views of some of his backbench MPs and thinking he doesn’t have very much to lose in Scotland because he only has one seat, David Cameron has re-animated Scottish views that the Conservative party is a toxic brand and (also re-animated) antipathy to it and all that its stands for.

Which is perhaps predictable but is not going to make his task in gaining ascendancy over the Scottish Government any easier.

Is there a situation where a divided Unionist camp advantages the Scottish Nationalists?

I think that is a significant advantage. The other thing is the 2014 date. People have said it is chosen because of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, or it has been chosen because of the Commonwealth Games but one reason it has been chosen is, I suspect, because the next UK general election is in 2015 and holding it within six to nine months of that General Election, especially in the autumn when the campaigning season has started after the party conferences, will make it very difficult for the Labour party and the Conservatives to appear on the same platform.

The indications are that they won’t be able to do that.

Would the SNP, even though they will campaign for independence, be happy with devo max?

I think the best guess there is that the Cabinet and the parliamentary party in Holyrood have got a variety of views on this and some of them will be keen to have devo max and some of them would be uncertain about having a third question. I think that circle may be squared by having a consultation process on the form a referendum should take with the electorate in Scotland.

My suspicion is the First Minister probably is interested in a third question and we will see whether people feed back to say they would like one.

Murray Pittock is involved in developing the Studying Scotland agenda in schools and elsewhere with the Scottish Government as part of his work in leading the Scottish Studies Global research theme for the University of Glasgow.

The Conversation

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Ringing the changes at Westminster

Michael Moore must be thinking today that politics can be brutal. As Scottish Secretary, he thought he’d done the job “pretty effectively” – but all he gets is the thanks of his party leader and the long walk to the back benches, the only cabinet minister on the Lib Dem side of the coalition to lose his job. He is replaced by the party’s former chief whip, Alistair Carmichael. Understandably, he’s “very disappointed” at the decision but has the grace to wish his successor well.

Michael Moore Former Scottish Secretary

Michael Moore
Former Scottish Secretary

The reasons for the change are explained in the letter from Nick Clegg. In it, he praises the MP for not only having “successfully piloted through legislation to enable Scotland to take a major step towards the party’s long held goal of Home Rule, but you have also ensured that the referendum next year will give the Scottish people a clear and decisive question on which to cast their vote.

“It should be recognised that you secured both the Scotland Act and the Edinburgh Agreement in the context of a majority SNP government at Holyrood, and against a backdrop of an external political narrative that often suggested the legislation would fail and a referendum agreement could not be secured.”

Alistair Carmichael MP The new Scottish Secretary

Alistair Carmichael MP
The new Scottish Secretary

But he went on to say that he believed that the party and indeed the coalition now needed “to draw on different experience in the final year running up to the referendum itself and I am keen that just as we have benefited from your formidable skills over the past three years that we take advantage of other experience within our ranks during this period.” Mr Moore was appointed Scottish Secretary three years ago.

After the news broke, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted her “best wishes” to Mr Moore. “A tough opponent but always pleasant,” she said. “He can take pride in the achievement of the Edinburgh Agreement.” This was the deal, reached exactly a year ago, which set out terms for next year’s independence referendum. It was signed with much fanfare by both the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, in Edinburgh.

Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement last year

Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement last year

The exact reasons for Mr Moore’s dismissal aren’t clear at the moment. However, the BBC’s The BBC’s John Pienaar told Radio 5Live that Mr Carmichael was very popular amongst other MPs and was considered to have “a louder voice and bigger boots” than his predecessor.

The change takes place on a day when the Coalition’s leaders are ringing the changes in their teams. David Cameron, a prime minister who is admittedly reluctant to make reshuffles, is trying to broaden the appeal of the Conservative party. In particular, this means offering a higher profile to women and MPs from Northern England. For example, Esther McVey, MP in the marginal Wirral West seat, has been appointed the new employment minister.

Ed Miliband, Labour leader, will also change his shadow cabinet. In anticipation of this, Anne McGuire has already announced that, after five years as first the minister, then the shadow minister for the disabled, it was time to allow someone else to take on the role. The MP for Stirling said she would continue campaigning against an “unprecedented attack” on the disabled by the Government and parts of the media as a backbencher and co-chair of the all-party disability group.

Do Coalitions produce better Government?

This year’s UK party conference season has been concentrating minds on the next general election, even though it is two years away and over the blue horizon of the independence referendum. Each party wants to form the next government in May 2015 but the tormenting question is: what happens if no one party has a majority in the House of Commons?

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

Most people, of course, want one party to win outright – 67 per cent, according to the latest opinion poll (ComRes for ITV). But, as we all know, it is not what happened at the last election, and the Liberal Democrats seem to believe it is not what will happen at the next election. They have a Rousseau-like belief that it is the general will of the people to see parties “working together” to form a consensus government.

It is not, however, what the opinion polls are saying. Again according to that ComRes poll, 51 per cent of voters want the largest party to rule. And that makes sense to me. As Alex Salmond demonstrated in the Scottish Parliament from 2007- 2011, a minority government can rule well, last the whole term and be successful, as judged by the people at the following election.

Of course, he had to win a majority in parliament for any new law and for his budget. So he had to accept that the Edinburgh trams went ahead, that there should be a thousand more police on the beat, that there was not enough support for a local income tax. On each of these issues, an open debate took place in parliament. And when there is no overall consensus in the country for one particular philosophy, then this is how political business should be done, issue by issue.

The parties are trying to form a coalition in Germany

The parties are trying to form a coalition in Germany

But there’s a curious fashion among politicians these days for coalition governments. The Germans are putting one together as I write, so too are the Norwegians. The Italians, the Irish, the Belgians and at least 20 other countries are keen on coalitions. Only, however, as a last resort and because no one party can win the support of most of the people.

Coalitions are dangerous things. They can fall apart at any moment. They can push through unpopular measures. They concentrate power in the secrecy of the cabinet room rather than in the directly elected parliament. They lead to incoherent trade-offs of one policy against another (eg free school meals/tax breaks for married couples). They can lead to a small party staying permanently in government as it forms coalitions with first one major party and then another. (This can be dangerous for the small party concerned, as the Free Democrats have found in Germany and the Liberal Democrats may be about to find out in Britain in 2015.)

In fact, the Liberal Democrats are the very party that can ensure that we do not have a coalition next time, by promising in advance that they will not enter a coalition with either the Conservatives or with Labour. And I would argue it would be to their advantage. First, it would be a popular stance, likely to win them more votes. Second, it would allow them to say they are breaking the mould of tribal British politics and instead introducing “issue politics”. And third, it would be underlining the power of parliament over the executive…governments propose but parliaments dispose.

The SNP formed a minority government successfully

The SNP formed a minority government successfully

Some people say minority governments are unstable. So are coalitions, of course. But we now have fixed term parliaments in the UK and Scotland which make multiple general elections less likely. In the event of a no-confidence motion being passed in parliament, it’s more likely now that another leader from the same largest party would be invited by the Queen to form a government. In any case, why should there not be another election if MPs cannot agree on a government?

Some people say a minority government cannot get anything done. What they mean is that it cannot get its own way all the time. And why should it? It doesn’t mean the country descends into chaos. Ministers would run the administration day-to-day, assisted by their civil servants and systems already in place would continue…budgets, laws, quangos, local governments etc. On major issues, a minority government has to go out and win a majority of MPs for what it wants to do.

Some people say minority government and issue-by-issue politics leads to a decline in political parties and the rise of maverick independents. But there is no reason why this should happen. Campaigners would still need to organise into teams and to work on a local level. And they would still gravitate towards a particular political philosophy…building on earlier traditions. And each party would still put forward a general manifesto on which it would hope to win the popular vote outright.

The advantage of staying out of coalitions is that parties would not have to compromise their election pledges. They could vote in parliament along the lines of their manifesto, without bringing down the government and causing a political crisis.

Will Coalition Government survive the next election?

Will Coalition Government survive the next election?

Some people say minority governments cause uncertainty. Not if the system is that the largest party forms the government on the morning after an election. There is no week of coalition haggling to unsettle the financial markets. And people would be able to form a pretty clear view of which way parliament would vote on each issue. Coalitions, in the end, are a conspiracy by the politicians against the voters.

And it’s not that minority government has not been tried. Norway has had three minority governments since the war, Canada has had 11. In Australia, Julia Gillard ruled for three years with a minority government. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan both led minority governments for a time. John Major’s government was a minority – if you exclude the Ulster Unionists. Labour in Wales have formed the administration without an overall majority. And, as mentioned, Alex Salmond showed how it could be done in some style.

The Liberal Democrats argue that by being in government they have achieved more of their policies than being outside it. I doubt it. Many of the changes they claim to have won would have happened anyway…raising the income tax threshold, investment in early years education, linking pensions to the “triple lock” of earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent. They claim to have “tamed the Tories”. But we still have austerity in the form of deep cuts in public spending and we have a British veto on a treaty to bring financial stability to Europe.

It would have been easier for the Liberal Democrats to block Tory excesses by linking up with Labour in the Commons on issues such as university fees, NHS reforms, or the spare room subsidy.

The Liberal Democrats will probably live to regret their panic in May 2010 and their leaders’ wish to rush into government. I don’t quite understand politicians’ weakness for ministerial power, when they could have real power as MPs, and a much easier life. They can still see their ambitions fulfilled for a mixed economy, full employment, decent public services, local decision-making, protection for our human rights, care for the environment etc through a parliament with a real say on all executive action.

End the coalition conspiracy now.

<em>Picture: ICMA Photos</em>

Picture: ICMA Photos

By Colin Borland

The current industrial unrest in the civil service seems, if reported comments are a good barometer, to be polarising the public versus private sector debate.

This is not particularly helpful. Extremists on both sides may pretend that the public and private sectors could or should exist without the other. But, as I have pointed out repeatedly, we live in a modern, interdependent economy in which the public sector is an important actor.

Indeed, judging by the way public service delivery reform is going, our relationship is set to become even more intertwined. We cannot have public services which focus solely on their own patch, in glorious isolation from the local community or economy. Or, as the newly unveiled Christie Commission report puts it, we need to embrace a “radical, new, collaborative culture throughout our public services”.

I would argue that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that the way you achieve this sort of rounded, outward-looking work is to make it pay.

Consider this example. A public body, faced with a shrinking budget, identifies some short-term savings which could be delivered by consolidating a raft of procurement contracts with a single multinational company. On the face of it, it’s great news for them and the taxpayer. However, the knock-on effect over the coming years could be to take trade, revenues, jobs and skills away from the local area.

If concerned only with their bottom line, the wider consequences should not concern the public body – especially if another body or department would need to bear the cost of them. However, if their own budget was to be affected by these wider impacts, then they suddenly take on a new relevance.

I would be lying if I said that there’s a simple mechanism by which you could incentivise sustainable decision-making. But some interesting ideas are out there.

South of the Border, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, shared some of the Westminster government’s thinking on this last week. In a speech to the Local Government Association, he argued that allowing English councils to keep all the business rates they collect will give them an incentive to boost economic growth. (At present, councils collect the rates and pass them to central government, where they are then redistributed.)

Others, myself included, are sceptical. The fear is always that councils who are simply lucky enough to have a thriving commercial district within their boundaries could just sit back and watch the cash roll in. Those where trading is tougher, however, would have even less to invest in making their area a viable business location.

Far more equitable, one counter argument runs, would be to allow councils who take decisions which see a relative rise in rate income retain some of that increase. Thus, everyone starts from where they currently are, with increases only for relative improvements.

When money’s tight, it’s only natural that you examine your spending to see where savings can be made. Without any incentive to do otherwise, though, false economies can look far too appealing.

Colin Borland is Head of External Affairs for the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland

Rikers Island <em>Picture: US Geological Survey</em>

Rikers Island Picture: US Geological Survey

Sometimes I think that that the day of rationality has dawned and that humanity has finally achieved civilisation.

I had one of these epiphanies when I heard the radio tell me that the Head Bean Counter of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had been imprisoned on Rikers Island.

At last, I thought, somebody is asking hard questions about the IMF’s doggedly monetarist approach – especially to do with the minor issue of brown people getting food.

About time, I thought, as I reached for the Cohiba cigar (Che’s favourite smoke) that I had been saving for just this occasion. I savoured the prospect of this phenomenon cascading, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg throwing each other to the shower daddies in Joliet. And Tony Blair starring in a new reality TV show called: “Britain’s got life sentences”.

But the radio bulletin explained that the less-than-delightful Dominique is being held not for his IMF activities but for attempted sexual assault. He was (allegedly) trying to do literally to a hotel employee what his organisation has done metaphorically to developing nations the world over.

Reality crashed in. Rampant unfree corporate capitalism roams unfettered. I extinguished my Exquisito in a mug of Campaign Coffee (it made it taste better) and put on the telly to make myself feel better.

What was on? The Scheme – a documentary about everyday folk in the charming Kilmarnock suburb of Orthanc.

For the first ten minutes I was convinced it was a work of dark comic genius dreamed up by Chris Morris and the Chewin’ the Fat team. “Recovering drug-addict Marvin is pinning his hopes on a stable life with a former girlfriend … when she gets out of prison.” (A high point for Marvin is when the methadone-addicted teenager gets her electronic tag changed so they can live together. I don’t think even Clintons have a card for that romantic milestone.) How about the chubby lassie who utters the immortal line: “I’m a pole dancer. If any of you want a go of me. £10 a go”? And who could forget: “He’s never been arrested sober”, or “He called him aw the Bin Laden bastards so they done him for a racial”?

All the comedy staples are there: unusual dentistry, Old Firm tops and Burberry aplenty, pregnant teens smoking heavily and disabled spaces for the clearly able-bodied. Every one a coconut. As for the use of the C word: less is more, chaps, especially in front of a five-year-old who’s supposed to be at school.

It is so tempting to laugh at these people off as neds, chavs, pikeys, schemies and junkie scum. It would be so easy to crack open a bottle of Tempranillo and ponder ethnically cleansing “them” through a combination of sterilisation and dramatically increasing the purity of street drugs.

It is also tempting to take the other course, pursing one’s right-on lips and writing off The Scheme as “poverty porn” that misrepresents the Onthank community or exploits the yadda, yadda, yadda.

We need to stop pretending that The Scheme does not happen on streets all over Scotland. And we need to realise that it isn’t funny. The bottom line is that there are many, many Scots who lead miserable lives made chaotic by an excess of drink, drugs, violence and crime and a deficit of education, opportunity and responsibility.

The tragedy is that many of these Scots are children: with a quarter of under-16s north of the Border living in poverty. 150,000 Scottish children have to deal with substance-abusing parents. Our care system sees too many young people graduate to prison – with more than 25 per cent of those in “jile” having been through it.

People in Scotland – one of the most advanced countries in the world – die of malnutrition. We drink too much, eat garbage and die younger than we need to. Our mental health problems cost the country more than £10bn a year. We have a disgracefully high suicide rate.

Ah, wha’s like us?

And what the hell are we doing about it? Poverty does not seem to be high on the political agenda, despite being the root of crime, ill-health, drug abuse and all the associated costs to society.

But by tackling these issues we’d slash billions from the health, welfare and crime budgets. Where are the radical ideas to solve these problems? As the tragi-comic Scheme shows us, we’re getting nowhere fast.

Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

Fairfield Horseshoe runners, 14 May 2011

Fairfield Horseshoe runners, 14 May 2011

Hillwalking trips southward from Scotland to the Lake District always seem worthwhile – although it does help, admittedly, to be a long-term fan of the area with family connections that serve as a base camp. My own latest foray down Windfarm Alley (aka the M74) came last Thursday until Sunday and provided the usual moments of interest and different-from-Scotland situations.

The most obvious difference is in terms of busyness. Or that’s the theory, at least. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Scotland-based walkers say something along the lines of “Why bother going down there, when the hills are swarming with people and the Highlands are empty?”

Well, leaving aside (a) the hint of misanthropy that accompanies such sentiments and (b) the question of whether the solitude-lover has ever been to the Cobbler or Glen Coe on Glasgow Fair weekend, there is surprising scope for finding quiet upland country in the complicated chunk of land to the west of the top bit of the M6.

For sure, opt for Helvellyn-by-the-edges on a sunny summer Sunday and the linear masses on the Striding Edge skyline as seen from Red Tarn will make you laugh/gasp/fume according to temperament. It’s like a clip from Zulu.

But there are other ways, and the traditional method of finding a bit of space is the obvious one: avoid the main paths. Almost everyone – at a guesstimate it feels upward of 80 per cent – sticks to the main ridges and approach-slope highways as though there was a law against straying. So sneaking up by some grassy gully or craggy corner can be very quiet – until the main summit is reached, after which there is surely no harm in a bit of people-watching for an hour or two, as the masses march along with their outdoor-magazine fashions and their de rigueur twin-pole sets.

Or, alternatively, you can chance upon a day that is oddly quiet for no apparent reason – and last Friday was one such day. I teamed up with my usual Cumbrian sidekick, Gordon Ingall – one of those walkers who has done a huge amount of stuff without any fanfare and who just gets on with it week-on-week. He’s been round all the Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, has 100+ ascents of several of the fells on his Lakeland doorstep, and recently completed the 40-mile Keswick-to-Barrow fundraiser for the 38th time – more than anyone else – in an entirely respectable eight-and-a-quarter hours. (Even more respectable given that he lost much of last summer to a broken leg courtesy of a slip on the approach to Suilven.)

Friday’s plan was that Gordon would show me round various Borrowdale fells which I’d somehow omitted to climb despite numerous visits going back almost 30 years. Start at Seatoller, follow the rough ridge from Bessyboot to Glaramara via Rosthwaite Cam and Dovenest Crags, then push on to Allen Crags (where I had been before), eat at the Esk Hause shelter – the kind of busy coming-and-going path-crossroads that you definitely don’t get in the Highlands – then angle out to Seathwaite Fell, drop to the Styhead path and finish with a slog back up and over Base Brown.

All of which, as anyone familiar with the area will know, is mainline-busy in terms of walker-traffic, especially the Esk Hause / Sty Head section. Yet in almost eight hours out, in better-than-expected weather (it siled down just after the start, so we sat under a tree, but then didn’t really rain again until the horrible greasy-slabby descent of Sour Milk Gill at the end), we saw a grand total of 22 people. That’s not met – actually saw. The skylines were empty, likewise the line-of-sight paths. As we wriggled down the west side of Seathwaite Fell to hit the Styhead Gill bridge, Gordon remarked that he couldn’t ever recall seeing the main path – we were looking along a good mile of it – completely deserted mid-afternoon in reasonable weather.

Trendy hillwear <em>Picture: Gordon Ingall</em>

Trendy hillwear Picture: Gordon Ingall

Two theories were aired as to the quietness. Gordon’s suggestion was that everyone had been scared off by my splendid new (well, new-secondhand) garment: a 1970s-era Soviet Union trackie top. It might be a bit dated in its politics, and isn’t exactly the latest in designer hillwear (I’m never likely to feature on the cover of TGO anyway), but it is warm and cosy – and hey, you can’t argue with 50p from a village hall jumble sale.

Gordon was convinced that the CCCP lettering and accompanying hammer-and-sickle badge was having an effect (and right enough, the only spell approaching normal busyness, around Esk Hause, when we met 17 of the 22 people, coincided with the cagoule covering up any suggestion of communist leanings).

A more credible theory, however, came that evening, courtesy of my better half. The spate of late April / early May public holidays, she argued, allied to a general lack of spending money, had skewed the first part of the tourist season, such that people had crammed in early and now the place was half-deserted. This would be hard to prove short of seeing week-by-week trading figures, but even the roads were quiet, so maybe there is something in it.

Incidentally, the Bessyboot to Glaramara ridge is a particularly rough bit of country that took – as Gordon predicted – more than twice as long on the ground as the map distance of just two kilometres suggested. Later, I dug out my 1973 copy of Baddeley’s guide to the Lake District – a useful, nicely written and almost forgotten book. In it, the editor R J W Hammond has this to say of the ridge in question: “The north-east spur, Rosthwaite or Chapel Fell, is entirely detestable.”

And so to Saturday, when we reconvened further east to wander over little Arnison Crag (very nice), Birks (very blowy) and St Sunday Crag (less blowy and pleasant as ever) to reach the real target, the complicated, crag-indented, confusing-in-mist dome of Fairfield. We got there in good time because, for the second time in a fortnight, I wanted to watch a hill race from its high point.

Eddie Dealtry (216) on Fairfield

Eddie Dealtry (216) on Fairfield

It was the Fairfield Horseshoe race, which goes clockwise round one of the classic Lakeland circuits in a startlingly fast time. Gordon is no slouch and has climbed Fairfield around 115 times, but reckons it takes him five hours or more to complete the horseshoe. The race record is 75 minutes, and this year the entire field of 298 (barring two retirees) finished in under two hours 56 minutes. As on Dumyat ten days earlier, the field was remarkably bunched: 272 had reached the turn within 30 minutes of the leader.

We were mainly there to cheer on Eddie Dealtry, who wears the green Kendal vest (or, when running in Scotland, the purple vest of Ochil Hill Runners). He predicted it would take him 75 minutes just to reach the main summit, but he was there in 68 and went on to finish in a minute over two hours.

The summit leader – and eventual winner – was Morgan Donnelly of the Borrowdale club, who will surely have run along that “entirely detestable” ridge a few times. He reached Fairfield, via Heron Pike and Great Rigg – around 6km distance with 800 metres of ascent – in 45 minutes. Seeing someone with such speed and nimbleness over rough ground is always impressive – and there was also an entertaining sideshow courtesy of the two summit marshals, one of whom called out the approaching runner’s race number while the other marked it down on a clipboard.

This started smoothly enough, but the number-caller gradually wandered further and further from the clipboard man, who was seated at one of the various felltop cairns. The leaders were allowed to turn for the descent over Hart Crag without coming any nearer than five metres to the Fairfield cairn once their numbers had been noted – whereas in Scotland, the tradition seems to be that runners circumnavigate the cairn.

Morgan Donnelly reaches the summit

Morgan Donnelly reaches the summit

But, as time went on, and as the middle part of the field came through, Eddie included, the number-caller drifted 20 or more metres from the cairn. This had two effects. One was that the course for these runners was a little shorter than for the leaders (and also than for the backmarkers, as the marshal eventually returned to the cairn). Also, it became steadily harder for his companion to hear the numbers as they were called, especially with the wind – a north-westerly – blowing in an unhelpful direction.

After a while, and with the prospect of the number-caller soon being halfway to Rydal, the clipboard man shouted (in the manner of Cameron to Clegg in the rose garden – well, sort of), “Come back! Make them come closer.” He then added to us, sotto voce, “…apart from the Ambleside runners” – thus revealing which club he ran for and drank with.

Very entertaining, especially when a walker with a wicked sense of humour shuffled towards the cairn and called out “66”. Confusion momentarily broke out, before the number-caller went into tetchy-stern mode. “Are you in the race?”, he asked. “Well, shut up then.”

One of the genuine runners – arriving amid a large bunch such that the number-calling resembled a frantic bingo session – threw in a joke of his own by shouting “House!” It was all good stuff, and cheered us as we wandered off towards Hart Crag with the last few stragglers coming by.

All that wilderness and empty-quarter stuff is fine up to a point, but there’s a lot to be said for having your hills busy.

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<em>Picture: Kyle Flood</em>

Picture: Kyle Flood

Just before 5:30pm on the day after polling day, as the first minister’s helicopter touched down on the lawn at Prestonfield House, “Edinburgh’s most luxurious and charming five star hotel”, the TV coverage picked up the repeated, raucous call of a peacock, lurking somewhere just off-camera.

The peacock is regarded by some as an unlucky omen – but this felt like a far from unlucky day for Alex Salmond. There was a lengthy, TV-director-annoying delay while the helicopter rotors gently idled and the man of the moment waited and waited in the cabin. Perhaps he was fine-tuning his notes for the speech he was about to give, perhaps he was having a snack or a snooze – it must have been a long and adrenalin-pumped night and day – or perhaps he was pinching himself and having a quiet mental recount. Had 69 out of the available 129 Holyrood seats really just come his party’s way?

Yes they had, and the MSP for Aberdeenshire East eventually emerged on to the lawn to give a fine, soundbite-ish speech (“a majority of the seats, but not a monopoly on wisdom … a victory for a society and a nation”). He did look tired, and lacked some of his usual bounce and spark – but that was understandable, and his work, at least until his sleep patterns had been restored, was done.

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For those watching and listening from the sidelines, it had been a monumental day in Scottish and possibly UK political terms. The biggest upheaval (and a landslide, almost by geological definition, is an upheaval) since that bright Blairite morning in May 1997. And it was arguably even more upheavalesque than that, as seeing the SNP sweep to clear power under a system designed to prevent majorities, let alone landslides, was extraordinary.

The key moments might not have been of the “did you stay up for Portillo?” type, but were destined to remain in the memory nonetheless. It was not so much the perfect storm, more the perfect squeeze, with a whole series of factors – Labour complacency, Lib Dem coalition chaos, even perhaps a royal wedding backlash – combining to funnel a seemingly endless supply of ballot papers down the SNP’s pipeline.

Where to start? Surely with the steady bulldozing of the Glasgow monolith, where five of the eight constituencies switched from Labour to SNP. Few could have genuinely expected that – two or three snatched seats, maybe, but not the Nats going nap. For anyone who has ever lived and worked in the nearest thing in Britain to a one-party city-state, it will have had a profound effect.

Amid the collapse, there was the amusing irony of Iain Gray, leader of the Subway Sect, holding on to his East Lothian seat while all his would-be successors – McAveety, Gordon, Whitton, Kerr – lost theirs.

Also impressive was the consolidation of the SNP’s hold over the middle part of the central belt – Stirling, Ochil, Falkirk etc. Much of it already nationalist in inclination, and already patchily so in parliamentary terms, but now a smooth yellow-and-black swathe.

Then – and pivotal to much that happened – there was the plight of the Liberal Democrats. Ousted from every mainland constituency, the party was left with little more than the offshore assets of Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott.

The latter has seemed pitiful – in pretty much every sense of the word – throughout the campaign, having been thrown the political equivalent of a hospital pass by his Westminster leader, then having to endure a turkey-shoot Newsnicht grilling by Gordon Brewer. (By the end of this, the beleaguered Shetlander was shrugging his shoulders, rolling his eyes and visibly resigning himself and his party to the fates.)

Oddly, however, for all the SNP’s wholesale hoovering-up of Lib Dem votes, Holyrood 2011 might prove to be the start of their eventual (and substantial) comeback. The near-wipeout, allied to defeat in the AV referendum, could lead to a rapid disintegration of the Clegg–Cameron poshboy lovefest.

The Lib Dems will take another massive hit at the next UK election, for sure – but that day of catharsis looks closer than it was. Then, with a more old-style leftish leader installed (Chris Huhne looks increasingly well-placed), they should steadily regain lost ground. It will, however, take time and tears.

In psephological terms, perhaps the most extraordinary moment of SNP triumph came with their obtaining not just all the constituency seats in the north-east, but also another top-up MSP via the regional list. This genuinely shocked the BBC radio pundit who, shortly before the announcement, had said that such a situation was “impossible” – and it also shocked the elected member himself, Mark McDonald. He was so sure of not making it to Holyrood that he turned up at the count in what might at Prestonfield be termed “casual wear”. No one appeared to mind – and anyway, by then, everyone was so politically agasp that fashion sense was hardly a concern.

At the end, when Keith Brown won his curiously shaped Clackmannanshire and Dunblane seat and thus became the 65th and majority-winning SNP MSP, there was a Ryder Cup feel to proceedings. Brown acquired the status of Philip Walton, Paul McGinley and Graeme McDowell: golfers feted for having picked up the winning point for their team, even though it needed all the other points – or, in this case, seats – every bit as much.

Perhaps that’s what the first minister was doing as he dallied in his helicopter on the fairway-like lawn at Prestonfield: looking around for a trophy to hold aloft as he emerged to meet the cameras. He didn’t need one, however – not for his long-term supporters, and not for the great many floaters and waiverers who have, for now at least, put their faith in him and his party. There is, instead, a much bigger, much more gleaming prize on offer.

While some view any form of UK breakup with wariness, even horror, and while some argue that the other great city-state – London – is already another country, there are undoubtedly many now excited by the thought that traditional, Scotland-breaking-away independence is a lot nearer than they ever felt it could be.

Much remains to be done in terms of arranging the process and asking the people – who might then say no. But the impetus, enthusiasm and energy appear to be there, for now at least. So if that noisy Edinburgh peacock proves unlucky for anyone, it surely won’t be for Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond and the party that he has, whatever one’s views, led to a great and mightily impressive victory.

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Annabel Goldie <em>Picture: Alexford</em>

Annabel Goldie Picture: Alexford

Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie gave the most striking and successful performance last night in what was a closely fought and fairly even leaders’ debate on the BBC.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray was much better than he had been during the opening debate, right back at the start of the campaign.

But even though Mr Gray was solid, competent and managed to score a couple of good points off Alex Salmond, he didn’t do enough to really raise himself up to or beyond the first minister’s level.

That was what he had to do to put Labour in the lead ahead of Thursday’s poll – and, although markedly better than before, he didn’t quite manage to do that.

Mr Salmond, the SNP leader, was as professional and composed as ever and although he didn’t win many of the exchanges, he won those that mattered to him: making a big impression with his arguments on independence and sectarianism.

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Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, also performed better than in the first debate, but again found himself sidelined, both by the presence of the two candidates vying for the first minister’s job and then by Miss Goldie, who managed to elbow her way in to the debate in a way that Mr Scott couldn’t quite manage.

Once again, Miss Goldie’s more individual stance – of opposing universal benefits and arguing that students contribute to their own education – set her apart from the others.

But it was her waspish one-liners – at one point she implored the audience to make sure someone had the next first minister by the “short and curlies – that gave her a slight edge over her rivals.

All the party leaders finished close to each other, but, on performance, the order was first, Miss Goldie, second, Mr Salmond, third, Mr Gray and fourth, Mr Scott.

Overall, this was a much better debate than the first, which had been broadcast by STV. Glenn Campbell, the host, went straight to the key issues of the campaign.

The first question raised the issue of universal benefits and why a 60-year-old earning £40,000 a year should get a free bus pass.

Both Mr Salmond and Mr Gray were used to simply championing the rights of universal benefits, but now they had to justify them.

Mr Salmond warned of the costs of means testing, which was a valid point and a better answer than Mr Gray managed.

Both Miss Goldie and Mr Scott did better – particularly Miss Goldie, who remembered to talk to the questioner from the audience directly and to use her first name, and she finished with her main message of the evening.

“We have to consider what we can afford and what we cannot afford,” she said.

Mr Gray and Mr Salmond then got into difficulties with the next question, about job losses in the public sector. Both talked about pay restraint, but both were hazy and appeared unused to having to justify the promises made in their manifestos.

It was then, though, that the debate sparked into life with Mr Gray deciding to take on Mr Salmond directly. The Scottish Labour leader challenged Mr Salmond over his claim that more teachers had been employed under the SNP government.

Mr Gray was cheered when he claimed this to be untrue. Mr Salmond parried by arguing that most of the teachers had been lost by Labour-controlled councils, but the point had been made – and won – by Mr Gray.

Miss Goldie tried to set herself apart from the spat between the men in suits, appealing: “Who is going to get them under control, grabbing them by the short and curlies?”

The Conservative leader then took a more serious line, admitting that she could not protect every public sector job and then astutely broadening the debate out by reminding everybody that the public sector wasn’t the only part of the economy that was having trouble, that there was a big private sector out there too and it also had to be nurtured and protected.

Mr Scott found himself put into an uncomfortable position when asked bluntly if he would “do a Nick Clegg” and break his promises if he got a “whiff of power”.

“No,” replied Mr Scott, which was as wise and as decent an answer as he could give, in the circumstances.

Miss Goldie again showed that she wasn’t afraid to duck the big issues when sticking to her unpopular approach to higher education, arguing that it was not realistic to promise “free education” as the others were doing.

She was applauded by a sizeable group within the audience too, for saying it, which suggests there may not be the unanimity around this issue that the other parties think there is.

And, in the line which may resonate more with voters than any other, she warned – wagging a finger at the three men alongside her – “You are going to see a lot of humble pie being eaten big-time by these three in years to come.”

Of the others, Mr Salmond was the most cogent and convincing in his response, arguing passionately that “free education is at the heart of the Scottish tradition in education”.

With neither Mr Scott nor Mr Gray convincing on this subject, the dividing line was clear – practical warnings over cost from Miss Goldie versus a declaration of principle from Mr Salmond.

That was really the main theme of this debate. As the subjects moved from renewables to independence, Miss Goldie took a down-to-earth approach, warning of the costs involved and urging realistic (and sometimes uncomfortable) solutions to them, while Mr Salmond urged the audience to consider the wider, more theoretical and principled implications.

As a result, there appeared to be a clear ideological drive behind the first minister’s answers, while Miss Goldie appeared to give the most rational responses – guided at all times but the financial realities of Scotland’s position.

Mr Gray and Mr Scott kept in the hunt, but neither managed to assert themselves above this now-dominant narrative.

The final question offered the leaders the chance to make a witty and lasting impression. Asked what the title of their autobiography would be, the three men could only come up with lame responses.

Mr Salmond talked about winning re-election, for Mr Gray it was “jobs, jobs jobs” (which is slightly ironic as he may have a new job in the not-too-distant future if Labour loses heavily on Thursday) and Mr Scott rambled on about “an island life” and his home on Shetland.

Miss Goldie did have more thinking time than the others, but her response that it was “always good to kick a politician’s posterior” had the merit of being the only vaguely and witty response of the four.

It showed that Miss Goldie has the (limited) ability to think on her feet while the others merely repeated a version of a campaign slogan.

If she hadn’t already edged the debate by then, she would have done so anyway with her final answer.

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<em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>

Picture: Walter Baxter

As is always the case, this election will be won and lost in just a few key battleground areas. The swing seats hold the key to the final result, and The Caledonian Mercury will be looking at several of them over the next week. Here are the first five –

Almond Valley
Almond Valley is the sort of seat Labour needs to win if it is to regain power at Holyrood. This used to be Livingston, and it was won in 2007 by the SNP’s Angela Constance with a majority of 870.

Boundary changes have made things even tighter since then – and, according to one assessment, this is now the most marginal constituency in the country, with the SNP holding a notional majority of just four votes.

Ms Constance believes the last four years have consolidated her position and that incumbency will give her the edge over Labour stalwart Lawrence Fitzpatrick.

But, having lost some areas that she knew well – such as Broxburn and Uphall – and gained others with a Labour tradition – such as Fauldhouse and Longridge – the result here is anything but clear.

Also standing: Emma Sykes (Liberal Democrat), Andrew Hardie (Conservative), Neil McIvor (National Front).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Edinburgh Eastern
This battle between two political heavyweights encapsulates the fight for the Scottish government. A high-profile Nationalist is up against a less well-known but solid Labour candidate, and what happens in this seat should give a good indication of what is going to happen across Scotland.

The SNP’s Kenny MacAskill won here in 2007, but boundary changes have since given Labour a notional majority of 545. The Labour candidate is the Reverend Ewan Aitken, Church of Scotland minister and former Labour leader on Edinburgh city council.

Mr MacAskill believes his personal vote – built up over the past four years – will see him through, and he is doing all he can to link Mr Aitken with the unpopular trams debacle.

Also standing: Martin Veart (Liberal Democrat), Cameron Buchanan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

Glasgow Southside
Somehow, the old name of Glasgow Govan carried more romance and appeal than the renamed constituency. Maybe it was the by-elections of 1973 and 1988 – both won by the SNP – but, whatever it is, this is a much-changed seat.

Boundary changes have stripped it of much of Govan including the shipyards, and have brought in Govanhill, the Gorbals and Toryglen.

But a Tory glen it isn’t. This is a straight fight between the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (who won Govan by 744 votes in 2007) and Labour’s Stephen Curran, a local councillor.

There have been claims of dirty tricks, with SNP sources muttering about claims that Mr Curran’s people have been telling voters they don’t need to worry about Ms Sturgeon being returned to parliament, because she is standing on the regional list and they can get both Mr Curran and Ms Sturgeon to parliament if they back Mr Curran on the constituency vote.

This claim has been denied by Labour, but it underlines how tense and how important this seat is.

Ms Sturgeon is under pressure in what has traditionally been a Labour heartland, but she will be hoping that the national swing to the SNP from Labour will be enough to see her returned again.

Also standing: Kenneth Elder (Liberal Democrat), David Meikle (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP hold.

North East Fife
Normally, the notional 4,500 majority which Iain Smith holds in this rural Fife seat would make this an easy hold for the Liberal Democrats – but these are not normal times.

The battering which the Lib Dems have taken in the polls because of their Westminster coalition deal with the Tories – and their subsequent decisions in government – have made this seat vulnerable to both the SNP and the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems are throwing resources at North East Fife in an attempt to head off the opposition attacks, and Mr Smith is finding on the doorstep that he has yet to build up the sort of personal vote that the local Lib Dem MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, has cultivated.

Sir Menzies would have no trouble holding this seat, but Mr Smith is facing a much harder fight. His majority will be cut – there appears to be no doubt about that – but the three-way battle may play into his hands, with neither the SNP (whose candidate is Rod Campbell) nor the Tories (Miles Briggs) likely to garner enough Lib Dem votes on their own to unseat him.

Also standing: Colin Davidson (Labour), Mike Scott-Hayward (UKIP).

Prediction: Lib Dem hold.

Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
The battle for this big Borders seat is between two of Holyrood’s best-known and longest-serving MSPs: Jeremy Purvis for the Liberal Democrats and Christine Grahame of the SNP.

The two have fought each other so many times before that this has the feel of a personal grudge match about it.

Mr Purvis is the sitting MSP, but boundary changes have given the SNP a notional advantage – and, according to one assessment of local government voting patterns, may now have Ms Grahame in front by 1,200 votes.

Mr Purvis faces the added problem of general disillusionment with the Lib Dem coalition in London, and he has been doing his best to emphasise his work in the constituency and move discussions away from English tuition fees and Nick Clegg.

He faces an uphill battle, though, particularly against someone such as Ms Grahame who is very well known here.

Also standing: Ian Miller (Labour), Peter Duncan (Conservative).

Prediction: SNP gain from Lib Dems.

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