David Cameron shakes hands with Alex Salmond outside at St Andrews House in Edinburgh on October 15, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The SNP is praying for a Tory poll surge

The party needs the Tories to move ahead of Labour to encourage Scots to back independence. 

What will it take to persuade a majority of Scots to vote for independence? The SNP believes it has found the answer in the form of another Conservative-led government. In the last fortnight, two polls have shown that up to 55 per cent of voters support independence when confronted with the prospect of David Cameron returning to Downing Street. 

To mark Ed Miliband's speech in Edinburgh today, the SNP is devoting itself to talking down Labour's election chances. It notes that just 9 per cent of Scots believe Miliband looks like a prime minister, that 50 per cent believe he has been a weak leader and that the Tories have a 15 point lead over Labour on the economy. Added to this, it highlights that Cameron's former director of strategy Andrew Cooper, a recently appointed adviser to the No campaign, has tweeted that "No opposition party has ever gone on to win the next election from the poll position Labour is in now." 

It is not hard to see why the SNP is determined to promote the idea that Miliband is destined . As Labour leader, he has adopted precisely the kind of centre-left policies championed by the nationalists. He has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax (which, like the Poll Tax, has become a symbol of Conservative callousness in Scotland), to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, to invest more in early-years education and childcare, to spread the use of the living wage, to rebalance the economy and to increase infrastructure spending. He has condemned the invasion of Iraq, prevented a rush to war in Syria and pledged to pursue a foreign policy based on "values, not alliances". And he has denounced the rise in income inequality (which, as Salmond rightly laments, has made the UK one of "the most unequal societies in the developed world"),  and has made its reversal his defining mission. If the UK elects a Labour government next May, it won't need Scotland to serve as a "progressive beacon". Rather, it will become a more progressive country through its own means. 

Awkwardly for Salmond, then, Labour's slight but stubborn opinion poll lead endures (at an average of five points). None of the findings cited by the SNP are persuasive evidence that this will change. Scots may take a dim view of Miliband but since the country, as Salmond complains, has little influence over the outcome of general elections (accounting for just 59 of Westminster's 650 MPs), why should this be relevant? That Labour's lead has remained even as Miliband's ratings have worsened suggests they may not be an obstacle to victory. The Tories may also lead Labour on the economy (as they did in 1997) but they continue to trail on the crucial issue of living standards. As for Cooper's observation, I have explained before why history is likely to prove a poor guide to the outcome of this election. 

To persuade Scottish voters that the Tories are most likely to be back in government after May 2015, the SNP needs the unambiguous evidence provided by a Conservatiove poll lead. Thus, we are presented with the grim sight of a "progressive" party cheering on a reactionary one. 

As it happens, the belief that a Tory poll surge would persuade Scots to back independence is almost certainly wrong. The question on the ballot paper will not be "Should Scotland be an independent country to free itself from Tory rule?" (the leading question used by pollsters) it will simply be "Should Scotland be an independent country?" Voters will consider far greater issues than the likely outcome of the 2015 election. And, when they do, every poll continues to suggest that they answer "No". 

In the meantime, as Salmond prays for a Tory poll surge now and a Tory victory later (to increase the possibility of a second referendum), this debased and opportunistic alliance deserves more attention than it has so far received.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder