Scotland’s strange blend of politics mixes it up in whisky capital
In an unusual election, nationalists avoid talk of independence as unionists embrace it
The SNP’s deputy leader, Angus Robertson, campaigning in Elgin, Moray, Scotland. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
The Clock Tower in Dufftown is stuck at two minutes past three. Below, sitting on a bench, pensioner David MacPherson laments the fact that the council shut off the electricity weeks ago.
It is one example of the decline that he points to in this town, which, surrounded by Glenfiddich, Macallan and other famous Scottish distilleries, has made it known as the world’s malt whisky capital.
“It is just a disaster,” he says, of the economic record of the Scottish National Party’s 10 years in the devolved government in Scotland. He points to empty buildings where a bakery, a chemist, a grocer’s and a shoemaker’s once stood.
Waiting for Dufftown’s annual Vintage Tractor Road Run to pass the tower, MacPherson explains how, five days from the UK general election, he would prefer the actual capital to remain in London.
“I’m not sure about that at all,” he says of the possibility of a second independence referendum after Scotland rejected leaving the UK by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent in 2014.
People in this constituency are fed up with another trek to the polling booths in what is a confusing election
Others on Dufftown’s streets awaiting farmers passing on beaten-up Massey Ferguson tractors share MacPherson’s view: there is little appetite for another vote to leave the UK.
“I mean why?” says Maggie Carroll, who runs the local Dufftown Glassworks coffee shop. “We had the first referendum and it was decided that we would stay as part of the United Kingdom. ”
People in this constituency in northeast Scotland, buttressed between the vast Highlands and rural Aberdeenshire, are fed up with another trek to the polling booths in what is a confusing election.
“You don’t talk an awful lot of politics around here,” said Vicky Keough, manager of Dufftown’s The Whisky Shop, across from the Clock Tower. “It’s more about whisky.”
“It’s a mixed affair, isn’t it?” says MacPherson. “Those terrorists are not helping it,” he adds, referring to the terror attack on London Bridge and Borough Market on Saturday night.
In Scotland, this is a strange election. South of the border it is the Brexit election, framed around Theresa May’s ability to deliver for the UK in hard negotiations with Europe. Up here the parties are fighting to define what the election is about, and the fight is around Scottish independence.
All about Westminster?
The pro-EU Scottish National Party is, unusually, not campaigning about independence, perhaps in recognition of the unpopularity of calling another referendum, but casting itself as the best party to take on the Conservatives and give Scotland a voice in London and in Brexit talks. Supporters say that the mandate for the second referendum is secure and this election is about Westminster.
The party believes that, given the narrowing polls between the Conservatives and Labour across the UK, the SNP’s seats in Scotland may determine the size of May’s majority.
For the Scottish Tories, mounting a resurgence having been largely pushed back south of the border two years ago, it is all about independence. This is tactical – they are trying to solidify as much of that 55 per cent unionist vote as possible to beat SNP candidates. The dominance of the independence debate in the campaign has weakened the pro-unionist voices in the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, although Labour has rallied lately on the back of May’s disastrous campaigning.
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, has even, ironically, accused Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, of having a “constitutional obsession” with independence, despite Sturgeon pushing for a second independence referendum less than three years after the last one.
“It is kind of weird, almost perverse, that the nationalist party is the one that is least comfortable with talking about an independence referendum,” says James Mitchell, politics professor at the University of Edinburgh.
The SNP won 56 of 59 seats the Scotland in a phenomenal victory in 2015 but the Conservatives are hopeful of eroding this dominance. A poll by Survation in Scotland’s Sunday Post put the SNP at 40 per cent, the Tories on 27 per cent, Labour on 25 per cent and the Lib Dems on 6 per cent. This would give the SNP 46 seats, the Tories seven (up from their single-seat victory in 2015), Labour three (up from one) and the Lib Dems three (up from one).
One of the SNP seats that some polls suggest is within the Conservatives’ reach on Thursday is that of the party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, the deputy SNP leader, whose profile has soared from his surgical questioning of May every week at prime minister’s questions.
The secessionist agenda does not go down well with local people in Moray and in huge parts of Scotland
Douglas Ross (34) is Robertson’s youthful Tory challenger. A member of the Scottish Parliament and a football linesman in the Scottish Premier League, he jokes that in politics, unlike in football, his opponents are in front of him shouting back.
“The fact that in Moray the deputy leader of the SNP doesn’t mention the word ‘independence’ once is because he knows his secessionist agenda does not go down well with local people in Moray and in huge parts of Scotland,” says Ross, a local boy, pitching his party’s line.
Moray is different
On paper, it is easy to see why Robertson’s seat in Moray – in SNP hands since 1987 – might be within reach for the Conservatives. The constituency voted 58 per cent No on independence and recorded the narrowest margin of victory for Remain in the Brexit vote anywhere in the UK; Moray voted to stay in the European Union by just 122 votes.
The large number of English families living on two military bases, RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss, and the high number of retirees and migrants from England, might explain some of the pro-Brexit, anti-independence sentiment here. There was also some backlash from fishermen along Moray’s coastal towns who are angry at the EU’s common fisheries policy.
Sitting inside the Laichmoray Hotel in Elgin, a short drive from Dufftown up the gorse-lined Malt Whisky Trail, Robertson explains that party divisions might not fall along previous Brexit or independence voting lines. He points out that the organiser of the Leave campaign in Moray has endorsed him.
“I have yet to meet any Leave voter who is a cheerleader for the extreme form of Brexit that the UK is heading towards so that’s why it needs strong SNP voices that will try and inject some sanity into the unreal nature of the debate in English politics,” he says.
While, privately, SNP supporters believe the Tories have a good chance of taking some of the party’s seats on Thursday, they believe Robertson’s seat in Moray is safe, despite the strong opposition in the constituency against a second independence referendum.
Carol Dunwoody (52), heading into a meeting of Robertson’s supporters in the hotel, says: “There are people that are a bit against a referendum. However, they have got so much confidence in Angus that they won’t move from him. That’s what I hear on the doorsteps.”
Lorry driver David Christie (54) says the SNP “very seldom” mentions the second referendum, suggesting it is the “only thing” the party’s opponents can hit them on.
“Who are the ones mentioning it all the time? Conservatives and Labour. It is them that is on about,” he says. “It is nae the SNP.”