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

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A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain