Edinburgh tattoo: a pro-independence rally, September 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The polls are narrowing, the nationalists are on the march and Scotland is divided

Even younger SNP activists possess an evangelicalism that simply cannot be matched by Labour and the No camp.

When does a political conference cease to be one and instead become a rally? The SNP’s spring conference in Aberdeen was one such occasion. David Attenborough ought to have been there to do his time-lapse camera thing for the benefit of anthropologists everywhere.

The conference denouement was provided by Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, a man who requires little help in heating the blood of his followers. However, on this occasion a support act was provided by a preview of a play by the Scots playwright Alan Bissett entitled The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant. Bissett is a gifted writer but his interpretation of recent Scottish history seems built on the theory that Scotland has been living under English occupation and that the press are the quisling wormtongues of the oppressor. By the time Salmond made his entry, the hall was in a right old lather.

The First Minister’s 40-minute address was accompanied by a constant beat of foot-stamping and a steady thrum of “ahas” and “mhmms”, in the manner of Pentecostalists at a revival meeting. There was spontaneous hugging and tears. Fortunately, with five months to go until the referendum, Salmond resisted the urge to yell “We’re allll riiiiight”, like another political leader, 22 years ago, who thought his time had come.

 

Victim support

The Scottish nationalists must snap out of their victim complex over a perceived anti-Yes bias in the UK and Scottish press. Certainly, the pattern of press ownership in Scotland suggests an inherent pro-Union sentiment, but a study of each of Scotland’s national newspapers shows that the Yes camp has little to complain about. In the comment sections of these papers, I have already counted nine columnists who, by degrees, could be considered sympathetic to the nationalist cause.

The Scottish edition of the Sun, meanwhile, has backed the SNP at the last two Holyrood elections and I understand that a lively debate is being conducted at the paper’s Glasgow HQ as to which side it will support come September. Rupert Murdoch, we are told, likes to back winners but the extent to which he felt he was betrayed by David Cameron and the Westminster establishment over phone-hacking and the abortive takeover of BSkyB in 2011 may also come into play.

The press seats were firmly in the eye of the storm for the First Minister’s speech. At the end of it I stood up to look around at the cheering delegates and noticed that my newspaper colleagues and I were being treated to what could only be described as “aggressive clapping”. The perpetrators, in this instance a row of senior citizens, fixed you with a determined stare and began to clap at you with enthusiastic disapprobation. “Why aren’t you clapping, too?” they seemed to be asking.

 

Make it to the promised land

Opinion polls in recent months have suggested a significant narrowing of the gap between Yes and No. What once seemed insurmountable for the nationalists now doesn’t seem to be so at all.

The numbers currently indicate that support for Yes is now creeping towards 40 per cent, meaning a single-digit swing come September would result in independence. This has been accompanied by increasing claims from some in the No camp that Yes campaigning is breaching the nebulous bounds of what is considered to be decent and acceptable in politics (can there be such a thing?).

Yet what some may consider intimidating, others may deem merely passion and fervour. In the audience at the spring conference were many elderly people who have been campaigning for independence for their entire adult lives. The Promised Land is within touching distance. Even younger activists possess an evangelicalism that simply cannot be matched by those Labour supporters who will bear the burden of unionist campaigning in the weeks leading up to 18 September.

As such, there has been a revival of 1950s and 1960s town-hall politics with debates and gatherings occurring almost every night of the week, the length and breadth of Scotland. The No camp is being trounced at these, and this has probably been reflected in the recent polls. In the final two weeks of the campaign the SNP will command a huge army of committed volunteers. The extent to which the No campaign can match this nationalist footfall may yet determine the final outcome.

 

No turning back

In the light of all this sound and fury some have expressed disquiet at what may happen if Scotland votes No. Will the campaign wounds be so deep that a prolonged period of healing and reconciliation may be required? And how painful would that be? The stakes are much, much higher than for any Westminster plebiscite, which can be reversed every five years or so. This one is irreversible and emotions, naturally, are running high. The increasingly impressive Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader of the SNP, seems to have sensed the need for calm in the days following 18 September. In a recent address to foreign media she said that, no matter the outcome, we must all return to being brother and sister Scots again, and move on together.

It may not be that simple. My straw poll of nationalists last weekend found almost universal support for a second referendum if the result of this one is a narrow defeat. This flies in the face of national polls, which suggest little appetite in the country for such. Scotland is a divided nation and may remain so for quite some time.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Getty
Show Hide image

Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.