At the launch of her party's manifesto yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon repeated her claim that if the SNP won a majority of the Scottish seats next week, she would have a mandate for a second independence referendum. I can therefore confidently predict that, a week on Friday, the first minister will be popping up with the corn flakes to demand her referendum. The party will have lost seats, maybe more than a few, but unless something pretty astonishing has happened, it will have retained its grip where it matters – in the post-industrial west.
In the absence of any detectable interest in policy-making – the sort of boring stuff that might conceivably improve the generally wretched health and education of far too many of her subjects – she is consumed by the dream of a second referendum, in much the same way as her evangelical equivalents in the church are consumed by the dream of a second coming. She talks of little else; it seems to be what propels her out of bed in the morning. Fair enough: it is good to have a cause to fight for in this vale of tears.
But those who live by the popular vote – the very nature of referendum politics – must also expect to die by the popular vote. This is where Ms Sturgeon has a problem and I suspect will have an even greater problem after next Thursday: not in the number of seats a first-past-the-post electoral system yields her party, but in its share of the popular vote.
The SNP's high-water mark occurred in the Westminster election of 7 May 2015, eight months after its defeat in the first referendum, when it not only obliterated its old enemy (except, implausibly, in Morningside) but polled 1.4 milion votes, exactly 50% of the turnout. At a generous pinch, this was a mandate, or as close to one as makes no difference. But it was not a terribly convincing mandate, for it represented only 35% of the total electorate; put another way, 65% either voted for other parties or declined to vote at all.
By the spring of the following year, the mandate, if it was a mandate, was looking decidedly shaky. In the Holyrood election of 5 May 2016, the SNP's popular vote fell to just over 1 million – a loss of 400,000 supporters in 12 months – and was comfortably exceeded by the combined votes of the three Unionist parties. Only 25% of the total electorate now appeared to favour independence – or, at any rate, enough to vote for it.
The turnout for our third election in three years – the council one on 4 May 2017 – was 47%, higher than anyone expected. On this occasion, there was a further fairly dramatic fall in support for the nationalist cause, the SNP winning 600,000 of the first preference votes, while the three Unionist parties together polled almost 1 million, opening up a sizeable gap. Anywhere but in Scotland, where the media for their own reasons remain reluctant to challenge the dominant political narrative, the steep decline in popular support for the SNP would be a major talking point and Ms Sturgeon’s pretensions to a mandate would be getting seriously challenged, if not actually ridiculed. But not here. When Ms Sturgeon talks of her mandate, she is received with the utmost respect.
For how much longer? We are about to find out.
On the last day of 'critical', when a second attack was still officially imminent, I boarded a stopping train from the Ayrshire coast to one of the principal cities of 'Fortress Britain'. There wasn't much sign of the fortress – or of its scary brother, the 'ring of steel' – except at that hotbed of jihadi extremists, Troon, where five unarmed police were chatting amiably on the platform to families on their way to the beach, including – one couldn't help noticing – a number of school-age children. 'Exams,' someone said. Of course.
Nothing doing, though, at the next stop, Barassie, a coastal suburb which Dorothy Grace Elder once renamed Bareassie on account of its nudist colony. I wondered how it would look if Police Scotland, alerted to a sudden invasion of homicidal day-trippers, erected a protective ring of steel around the exposed parts of the neighbourhood. The thought was so unsettling that, for a more edifying distraction, I turned to an article in the London Review of Books, a magazine with a station of its own called Smug Central. The article was headed 'Who's the real c...?' (The asterisks are mine.)
By the time the train reached Irvine, I had negotiated the expletive-rich opening paragraph of 'Who’s the real c...?' and remembered that its author, Andrew O'Hagan, had gone to school in the area. By his own admission he and his pals inflicted misery, even torture, on a fellow pupil. When he typed up his confession years later, the bad boy became an instant darling of literary London. He is now so well-established in that daring milieu that he is free to employ such words as 'c...', while the rest of us are still too prudish to emulate his taboo-breaking example.
Anyway, no anti-terrorist cops at Irvine; nor at the stations along the line named Kilwinning, Dalry, Glengarnock, Lochwinnoch, Howwood, Milliken Park and Johnstone. The ring of steel re-emerged briefly at that home of bleak, Paisley Gilmour Street, where I was joined by a gaunt, tattooed character and his anxious female companion. 'It'll be like this at every station,' he muttered at the sight of two police officers on the platform for Ayr.
In the crowded, sweaty concourse of Glasgow Central, it was only mildly surprising to discover that 'Fortress Britain' consisted of the familiar glum duo from the British Transport Police. Meanwhile, out on Gordon Street, where tables had been laid in anticipation of a bank holiday weekend of alfresco boozing, the beer was flowing in the boiling heat, a visible sign that the nation had nobly 'pulled together'.
But it was a different story on the other side of the country: no hint of complacency there. Barbara Millar sent us this short despatch from the new frontline of the war on terror: the back road to Auchtermuchty:
I had just driven through the village when a police motorcyclist, lights flashing, approached from the St Andrews direction. We all dutifully pulled over to let him pass. Within a couple of minutes, there was another, then a third, closely followed by a fourth.
My initial curiosity was giving way to a modicum of anxiety – we were only a couple of days on from Manchester. Concern was heightened when a fifth bike appeared, followed by a phalanx of vehicles, unmarked police cars, their occupants identified by blue flashing lights. The final vehicle was a police car in full cop livery.
Anxiety had turned to alarm. What on earth was going on? What atrocity had befallen Fife that these numerous police people were on their way to counter? I phoned home to see if anything had been reported on the news. Oh, came the reply, Obama has been playing golf in St Andrews.
What are we to deduce from these contrasting experiences on the same day? Perhaps that 'Fortress Britain' is a stronghold designed for the safety and convenience of very important people, while the rest of us are kept where the politicians like us best: in a permanent state of fear and alarm.
In retirement, Obama is already beginning to look ordinary. He was scarcely out of the Oval Office before he was bonding on the high seas with a billionaire businessman. Then came news of the mega-bucks book deal, followed by reports that he had received £312,000 for a speech to some Wall Street outfit. When it comes to money-making on an industrial scale, there is still no one in politics to beat Tony Blair, but it looks as if Obama, diminished by the loss of power, could yet rival him.
After his round at St Andrews, he played hard to get in Edinburgh, avoiding a crowd of admirers at the conference centre by slipping in the back door, no doubt for security reasons. But there was less justification for excluding the media from his 'lecture' at a charity event organised by a foundation in the name of the Ayrshire businessman Tom Hunter.
The evening consisted of a dinner that only the corporate classes could afford (at up to £2,000 a ticket) followed by Obama's talk. For clues to what he said, journalists were reduced to picking up crumbs from the table. Any self-respecting media organisation, denied access, would have declined on principle to cover the event. Instead there was the usual craven deference to the rich and powerful, and no suggestion that the long-awaited speech may have consisted of a succession of rather vacuous platitudes.
There were two particular oddities about this night of mystery. First, the sponsorship of the event – to an extent unknown – by the Royal Bank of Scotland, an organisation whose recklessness makes it unfit to sponsor the proverbial whelk stall. Presumably Hunter had enough left in the piggy bank to sponsor the bash himself, even if the purchase of his new Beverly Hills estate earlier this year set him back £30 million. The second oddity was the unwillingness of his foundation to reveal how much the ex-president received in appearance money.
I have no expectations of people like Hunter. How disappointing, though, if Obama, who once proclaimed the ability of ordinary people to change society for the better ('Yes, we can': one vaguely recalls the incantation), spent his long declining years as a hired hand at charity dinners and ornament of posh golf clubs.
Photograph by The Laird of Oldham (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jza84/5234586160)
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