A split in the pro-independence camp?

If the Yes campaign is to be successful, the SNP cannot afford to alienate smaller parties like the

Readers in other parts of the UK may not be all that familiar with Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party (SGP). But north of the border, the Glasgow MSP has been a mainstay of the devolved political landscape for the best part of a decade, as well as one of its most consistently radical and provocative figures. So the significance of his latest intervention in the independence debate should not be underestimated.

Speaking to Holyrood magazine last week, Harvie hinted that he might be willing to abandon his traditional support for full Scottish self-government in favour of an enhanced devolutionary settlement: "(Independence) is not a point of principle for me", he said. "It's purely pragmatic...(and we) may want to refine the policy a bit - particularly if there's a third option (on the ballot paper)". This position was confirmed by an SGP spokesperson, who told the New Statesman that the Greens' constitutional stance was "not set in stone".

Despite the SGP's marginal status in Scottish politics - they have just two MSPs out of 129 - this could be an important development. The unionists' referendum strategy is to cast the SNP as a minority pressure group out of touch with mainstream, pro-devolution opinion. If effective, this will compound the suspicion that the nationalist surge is a temporary aberration at odds with Scots' fundamental desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. One way the SNP can avoid this is to form a united front with other, smaller independence-minded parties and organisations, of which the Greens are by far the most prominent. Failure to build such a coalition could just tip the balance of odds against a Yes vote in 2014.
 
But unionists shouldn't get excited quite yet. It's no secret that Harvie feels Alex Salmond is shutting non-SNP pro-independence voices out of the Yes campaign, so it's possible his comments were really a veiled bid for greater involvement. They may also be a reflection of the Greens growing antipathy towards the SNP as the party of devolved government. Over the last five years, the SGP has become more and more critical of the nationalists. Much of their hostility is a response to what they see as the SNP's tendency to side with the interests of big business over those of the environment, with the first minister's vocal support for Donald Trump's golf course development in Aberdeenshire and the construction of a second road bridge over the Firth of Forth being the main ca! ses in point.

Yet despite these policy disagreements and the general bad feeling between the two parties, it remains probable that the Greens will still campaign for outright independence over the next two and half years. One of the major prizes of full self-government would be the power to force the removal of the British nuclear deterrent from its current home on the Clyde - a longstanding ambition of the Scottish environmental lobby. This would not be possible under maximum devolution or federalism, both of which would see defence and foreign affairs remain under Westminster control.

The fact, though, that they are even threatening such a dramatic shift in position reveals just how strained the SNP's relations with other parties in Scotland are, including those with whom it should be on good terms. Given most polls show a majority of Scots continue to oppose the break-up of Britain, the nationalists simply can't afford to further alienate any of their would-be allies.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories