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On the Stump (March 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

My experience in the Scottish election campaign has been pretty positive so far.


Next to Lampedusa's The Leopard, a favourite novel is Bulgakov's The White Guard. In Kiev, during the Russia civil war, the Chekhovian bourgeois - heroes, naifs, rotters, charmers - flirt and fight and grow up, while out on the plains. Kuropatkin, threatened Ukrainian strongman, broods in his armoured train. The book was, weirdly enough, a favourite of Stalin's, and he let Bulgakov live.

The constellation has some parallels in the Scottish situation, flickering wanly on the edge of the London telescreen.

My experience on the stump as an election candidate is pretty positive, even in areas not supposed to be good for the SNP. I talked on March 6 to the Burntisland Speakers Club, on the Rotary level and reckoned by our local councillor to be natural Tory territory. But they were friendly and I found later that some were spreading the word about quite enthusiastically.

Labour isn't being seen around much. Posed photos of Gordon Brown, Marilyn Livingstone (Kirkcaldy's MSP) and local councillors show up in the Fife Free Press, but there's no leafletting in the High Street, and no mention of the Holyrood campaign on the party website. Scotland on Sunday on the March 25 had a tirade against Blair by Tom Brown (no relation to Gordon).

The Gordon uptake was "a crusade for the Union". Not well timed. Twelve thousand Orangemen were around Edinburgh on the Saturday, banging the Lambeg Drum to celebrate 1707, which wouldn't have helped. Not too reliable as an indicator, blogging response to even pro-Labour stories in the Scottish press seems overwhelmingly nationalist, roughly 200 to 20 in response to Tom Brown's Scotland on Sunday piece. Labour ought to give as good as it gets, but it seems torpid. Is this because of long-serving councillors (often the last of the activists) quitting in advance of PR in the local elections?

The blogging was too home-made to be prompted by the SNP, though the week up to March 19 was good for the party, with the news of support from Sir George Mathewson, former governor of the Royal Bank (nine billion in profits) and Brian Souter of Stagecoach.

What's behind this? Are we approaching a stage at which there will either be a smooth transition to independence or a dreadful crashing of gears in which there's no clear decision either way, but a maximum degree of tension? Big-business backing plus cash can boost the SNP percentages and make a coalition on SNP terms viable, matching up with Alex Salmond's activist "Hundred Days" agenda. Assume Gordon to be PM after May 4 but dead in the water, or not there at all, and Cameron in the ascendant in England, and you'll have the momentum for a successful independence referendum.

My hunch is that Mathewson-Souter have no illusions about the UK's real economic condition and think that for Scotland to get out while the oil's still around (and into Europe, which interests Gordon not a whit) is the lesser risk. If you were a clever Anglophone European, would you reject this sort of scenario?

On March 9, I had an email in response to a letter to the Herald on the sale of Weir Pumps to the Swiss firm Sülzer (it later fell through) from the Wall Street Journal of all places. Reporter (Alistair MacDonald, Geordie unionist) rang, agreeing that UK manufacturing is in a dreadful state; Brownite claims of economic dynamism trickling down from finance to industry are so much flam, at best completely anecdotal. Why should the WSJ take this hostile line to Brown? Because hot money is flowing from Sarbanes-Oxley-supervised New York to London, where supervision has been cut to a (dangerous) minimum, and it wants to put a stop to it pdq?

In the Bulgakov scenario Gordon is the doomed Kuropatkin. His ineptitude in dealing with his clientèle astonishes. His economic record overall is dubious, let alone his crassness in matters European (not a cheep on the jubilee of the EU: this will be remembered). I can only put his survival down to the press barons' desire to have him around: reliably anti-Brussels and pro-property-and-retail, which keeps their own parasitical ad-driven world of housing, travel, sport, media supplements whirring around. But Rupert Murdoch, always hyper-intelligent, doesn't back losers and I notice that Private Eye is speculating that if he's confronted with a Scottish political situation which would bite chunks off the circulation of the Scottish Sun, he'd ditch Brown.

Who reads the Bun for the politics? True, but George Pascoe-Watson, its political commentator and dauphin of the legendary Trevor Kavanagh, is a Scottish Tory, a near-extinct breed, and presumably desperate enough to contemplate some such strategy. Acutely embarrassing as it will be, I would have to back "Murdoch, Rupert: Prince of Darkness" (his index-entry in the fourth edition of my Scotland and Nationalism, 2004) should he decide thus.

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