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Election Diary (May 2007)

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

Don't underestimate Labour's collapse in Scotland. The party now controls only two councils and its patronage network is gone forever.


In German elections, the votes are counted in polling stations by local councillors and scratch teams of volunteers. This is a brisk business, usually completed about 10 minutes after the polls close at 6.30pm, when the results are phoned to the Land governments. The pattern is usually clear by 7pm. We do things differently here, and much worse.

The Scottish count was as chaotic as reported, a typical mix of over-complex, untried technology, public sector pomp, and "events, dear boy, events". Fife Council, one of the last of the "people's republics", had its election team all done up in mauve sweatshirts (just as British trains are repainted lickety-spit after every franchise change: repairs can wait) and the poor souls sat about while the electronic-mechanical gizmos comprehensively fouled up, for about six hours. At about 4.30am there was at last movement, when, without any warning or preliminary figures, the Kirkcaldy candidates were pounced on by the returning officer and ushered onto the rostrum, rather like Saddam Hussein en route to the gallows. I missed the constituency by 2,500 after a 50% increase in our vote. Marilyn Livingstone, who seemed to be related to most of her electorate, got back.

However Douglas Chapman, one of the SNP organisers, did a back-of-an-envelope calculation and pointed out that after Tricia Marwick had taken Central Fife and Bruce Crawford had taken Stirling, both from Labour, I had a chance of the last seat on the regional list. This duly came through on Friday at midday: my domain (the old Euro-parliament constituency) runs from Fife to Balquhidder, with a great chunk of Strathmore and the south Highlands. By the late afternoon and after about two hours' sleep, I was an MSP-to-be and on the train to Edinburgh, where Alex Salmond arrived by helicopter at 5.45pm, along with the last results.

We had come in under New Labour's radar. God knows what Lord Philip Gould, John McTernan and Douglas Alexander were doing plotting away in Glasgow (against each other, it turns out) but it didn't serve their footsoldiers well. Alexander himself, as Scotland secretary, was responsible for the design of the catastrophic ballot papers. Gordon Brown's campaign against autonomy was overdriven and inept. It may have had a limited success, principally by keeping some remnants of Protestant Toryism inside the west-central Scottish Labour ghetto. We are not as well set up as we wanted to be, but it doesn't alter the fact that independence, starting as a minority, lefty concern, had by the end of April failed to alienate the solid bourgeois Scottish papers. The vehicle for the chancellor's assault was, by contrast, the Daily Record and the Scottish Sun, the direst popular press in Europe. For an election-morning nanosecond they turned from slurping their junk food of soaps, sex and football to shriek at the SNP. This was viewed with icy contempt, not just by rational citizens but by their own London associates, who ignored this brief north British spasm and slurped on.

"Crouse London Scotties, wi' their braw shirt fronts" didn't distinguish themselves. The novelist and critic Allan Massie, whose role has almost been that of the Protestant gentry who, setting aside misgivings and burnt-out mansions, stood up for the Irish Free State in the 1920s, had a story defending this line spiked by the Telegraph, in favour of a dreadful, barely-rational, girn by Andrew O'Hagan. O'Hagan is usually a subtle novelist and a good reporter, who might, like Rudyard Kipling, be a better short story writer. But this was Kipling in golfclub-bar mode: dim, prejudiced, vengeful. It deserved the skelp delivered to Andrew Neil 20 years ago by Margo MacDonald, "You've been away too long, son".

I am an independence-first man, as I believe we ought to get control of the oil out of the wastrel hands of Brown as soon as possible as well as autonomy in foreign affairs and defence, and full membership of the European Union. Yet pro tem these aims must defer to what's practical within what Alex Salmond calls "a coalition of progressive forces". The Liberals, who had a poor election, are presently immovable on an independence referendum. Not wise, should there be an SNP compromise: an offer of a multi-choice referendum. If Scots want their say on future constitutional change, this shouldn't be denied them.

Perhaps from an SNP view it might be better tactics to re-install the discredited McConnell coalition, see that it's lashed securely to Brown's collapsing economy, give it two years to dig its own grave, and go for the old SNP goal of making the next UK general election the effective referendum. Don't underestimate the local dimensions of Labour's collapse. Proportional representation means that the party now controls only two councils, Glasgow and North Lanark; countrywide the SNP has more councillors, and Labour's patronage network is gone forever. McConnell is a "dead man walking", and any alternative would be worse.

Co-operation, however, is one of the pillars of civic nationality, and Alex Salmond seems well set to handle the challenge. Being a good House of Commons man (a facility unknown, interestingly, to Brown as much as Blair) isn't the Black Spot: it's given him the capacity to empathise and negotiate. If he earns his keep, governs wisely, prepares the country for the challenges of peak oil and global warming, the Scots, old and new, will trust him.

I didn't get into the village for the papers until Sunday afternoon, after I'd listened to the World this Weekend, in which Shaun Ley did polite chat about Blair for half an hour with Chris Smith, George Walden, Gisela Stewart and Matthew Parris. Scotland, Wales, regionality or the constitution never surfaced, nor anything of that darker environmental future, which came at me during the absurdity of the Long Night in Glenrothes, in the bleakness of Kipling's last poem, The Storm Cone:

This is the midnight - let no star Delude us - dawn is very far. This is the tempest long foretold - Slow to make head but sure to hold.

Stand by! The lull 'twixt blast and blast Signals the storm is near, not past; And worse than present jeopardy May our forlorn tomorrow be.

Perhaps Scotland can develop a synergy against it. Contemporary Britain cannot.

In Melrose I realised what buying the two Scottish qualities plus the Observer, Sunday Times and Telegraph implied in terms of rucksack capacity and a mile to walk. I piled up the supplements: motoring, fashion, sport, travel, cooking, TV, property - what awful Andrew Neil once called "The Sunday Times is the Sunday papers" - and gutted the literary/culture bits for a few reviews. As Kipling would have put it, you must lighten ship. So I dragged the discarded three-quarters to the recycling and threw the lot - Polly Filla, Phil Space, Snipcock and Tweed, Clarkson-beyond-parody - into the bin.

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