Nicola Sturgeon with Alex Salmond. Photo: Getty
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How the spectre of Alex Salmond haunts Nicola Sturgeon's fractious SNP

The SNP remains an impressive beast, but there are fights ahead – sometimes even with other parties.

Theresa May’s Manchester meltdown provided plenty of entertainment for civilian Twitter, but the response from her fellow politicians was tonally different: a wince rather than a cackle. Not so much lmao, perhaps, as omfg. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader whose own party conference begins in Glasgow on Sunday, tweeted: “Spare a thought for those of us still to deliver our conference speech and now fretting about all the things that could go wrong [horror emoji]‪”.

On the surface, the gathering of the Nats couldn’t be more different to the Tories’ geriatric doomathon. The conference is likely to be packed out – the SNP’s membership of around 100,000 puts the UK parties, which fish in a much larger pool, to shame.

Sturgeon’s position as leader and First Minister is secure at least until 2021, when the next Holyrood elections are held. A poll this weekend put the party on course to win that election, which would deliver a fourth consecutive term of office. Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and the SNP’s chief executive, tweeted yesterday, “5 years ago, ‪@theSNP lead over second placed party in ‪@YouGov was 3 points, in today’s poll it’s 17 points. Remarkable!” 

Scottish Labour are in the middle of changing leader (again) and the main opposition is provided by Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories, a state of affairs that suits the Nats just fine.

So there will be much for the faithful to cheer, and plenty to throw back at those who insist the SNP is on the way down and out. But still – if you know where to look, the signs of decline are hard to miss.

First, that poll. Between August last year and now, Sturgeon’s approval rating has slipped from +20 to zero, while Davidson’s has gone from +21 to +17. Jeremy Corbyn’s personal rating, like elsewhere in the UK, has undergone a revolution, vaulting from -42 to +20.

The days when the First Minister walked on electoral water are behind her, and the opposition has three more years to pound away at her and her government’s reputations. The Scottish parliament is also on course to lose its pro-independence majority, with the SNP predicted to emerge with 57 seats (down six) and their pro-separation buddies the Greens down from six to four, making a total of 61.

Between them, the Unionist parties (Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems) would have 68 seats. It looks increasingly likely, due to hostile public opinion and resistance from Westminster, that Sturgeon will be unable to call a referendum before 2021, and that she will be in no position to do so after that.

Neither is the SNP the unified force it was in the immediate pre- and post-referendum era. Its Westminster grouping of 35 MPs has become divided since June’s general election, when Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson, the party’s two biggest figures in the Commons, lost their seats. There is a faction, led by Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West, that retains loyalty to and continues to take its lead and methods from Salmond; and there is another that is fully behind the new Commons leader, Ian Blackford, MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and that wants to develop new arguments and policies and move on from the aggressive chest-thumping and fantastical promises of the past. It’s not entirely clear how this mild civil war ends.

This is not just the case at Westminster – one senior minister in the Holyrood cabinet regularly refers to Salmond as “the fat fuck”. Relations between Sturgeon and her predecessor are said to be in deep freeze. Salmond shows no sign of going quietly, however, having recently taken on a three-hour weekly radio show on LBC and unveiled plans to take his one-man Edinburgh fringe show on tour across Scotland.

Meanwhile, there are questions about Sturgeon’s leadership and judgment. Her demand for a second independence referendum following the UK’s vote for Brexit was met with ill temper by a weary electorate, and contributed to the SNP’s loss of 21 MPs and half a million votes in June. She has yet to regain her political balance, leading to dissent in the party the like of which has not been seen for many years.

Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader, wrote an article in Friday’s Daily Record criticising the First Minister’s "unhinged love that paints the EU in glorious colours", and the "error-strewn course taken by leaders with no strategic nous, out of their depth". He also criticised the way Brussels has treated weaker member states as well as Scotland’s fishing communities and rural and island services.

Sillars warned that an independent Scotland would not immediately be granted EU membership: "As long as the EU are there, denying Scots membership, we have fatal uncertainty injected into our debate. Politics, like war, is best fought on one front. We cannot win against the combination of Westminster and Brussels. We can win against Westminster alone."

The current SNP leadership’s Europhilia may be paying short-term benefits, thanks to the muddle of the Brexit negotiations, but Sillars has rightly identified danger further down the line. I expect, in time, the party will have to commit to a post-independence referendum on Scotland’s future relationship with the EU, so removing a complexity that is often used to undermine their separatist case.

Battle-scarred and weather-worn as it is, the SNP remains an impressive beast. In Glasgow this week it will undoubtedly display an energy and passion that far surpasses anything shown by the Tories in Manchester. But the wounds are there, all the same, and there are a lot more fights ahead. Some of them will even be with the other parties.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

DAVID CERNY/REUTERS
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Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain

In ailing northern towns, amateur ice hockey brought violence and validation to a generation of young men.

If you scarfed your evening tea – cold Sunday lunch meats, a scoop of pease pudding, perhaps – and got down early, you could claim seats so close to the action that you might feel on your face the cooling spray of tiny ice chips cleaved by gleaming blades suddenly braking. Here, in the front row of a semi-dilapidated, sub-zero warehouse nicknamed The Shed – where there were no Perspex protective barriers, and where a six-ounce black puck of vulcanised rubber once shot over our heads and into the jaw of a woman behind us – you could see blood from broken noses and split lips, dripping a brilliant trail of red across the cold blue mirror of Durham Ice Rink. In the recession-hit north-east of England in the 1980s, life didn’t get more thrilling.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, with its ramps, sleighs, rifles and Lycra-coated bodies being hurled down mountains with almost suicidal abandon – and where heroes retain an air of mystery behind mirrored masks and goggles – has reminded us that the winter Games offer a much more surreal and glamorous spectacle than their sweaty summer cousin. North and South Korea can unite on one issue at least: ice hockey, with the two countries fielding a women’s team simply called Korea.

Watching the Games has prompted a Proustian deluge of memories in me, to a time when a grubbier, more knockabout domestic incarnation of the sport enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity following the formation of the British Hockey League (BHL) in 1980, an era now regarded as the glory years.

This chapter of recent sporting history has barely been told, and I know why: the popularity of UK ice hockey existed predominantly away from the gaze of London’s media, and took seed in those ailing post-industrial provincial heartlands suffering the most under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its top outfits came from places such as Billingham, Whitley Bay, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and my home town of Durham, where the club Durham Wasps enjoyed a golden run. Second-tier teams came from Telford, Gillingham and Sunderland while London Raiders (formerly Romford Raiders) rarely troubled the BHL’s Premier Division. Crucially, its stars were working men who held down jobs – if they had them – during the week. They were mechanics and electricians. They drove forklift trucks or sold wet fish on the markets. Some were just out of school, teenagers intent on glory among peers. They got paid little, took cold showers.

With hindsight, the success of Durham Wasps and their arch regional rivals, Whitley Warriors, was clearly tied in with the collapse of the key industries of coal mining and shipbuilding. Durham may be known for its university, but beyond the city were miles of mining heartland, where entire communities had been devoted to divining the dusky diamonds. Coal was the currency that fuelled an empire, while the shipyards at the mouth of the River Wear in Sunderland had built vessels that sailed the world.

During the Wasps’ 1980s boom-time, that all changed. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 had failed to halt Thatcher’s hostile closures of the pits, while employee numbers in the British Shipbuilders Corporation dropped from 87,000 in 1977 to 5,000 in 1987. Fit and functioning men now found themselves without purpose, victims of an ideological vendetta.

“Geographically, the north-east became a ghost town, haunted by absences – of jobs, factories and pits, and people, as folk moved away to find work elsewhere,” says Katy Shaw who, as professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University, has written extensively on the miners’ strike and its legacies. “Once the industrial heartlands had been ripped out of the region, the anomie that followed forced the working class to reassess their identity and purpose in the face of an uncertain future.”

***

The sport of ice hockey reflected the toughness of these collapsing worlds, and the anger of their disenfranchised. Games were violent and nasty, perhaps the closest the country ever came to a legitimate blood sport before cage-fighting offered an alternative outlet for working-class rage. The ice rink was the arena in which heroes and villains were made, each week a new drama. A player for Ayr Bruins in Scotland once reportedly faked a heart attack in the dressing room rather than return to a particularly bloody battle.

Built in 1940 from mottled corrugate, concrete and wood from unused coffins, the home of Durham Wasps was a notoriously rough building pitched by a river the colour of over-stewed tea. It was just half a mile from the Norman cathedral, a World Heritage site and architectural masterpiece, but when the autumn river mist drifted in through its many broken windows there was an ethereal quality to the on-ice conflicts, watched by more than three thousand tightly-packed people and several cooing pigeons. Its owners were the Smith family – headed by the near-mythical entrepreneur JJ “Icy” Smith, who made his money selling blocks of ice during the 1930s – with the team established in 1946 by Canadian airmen stationed nearby during the war.

The family were frugal, pocketing large gate receipts from overcapacity crowds evenly split between men, women and children. In the early days, a dog behind the goal would frequently bite the opposition’s shirts, and even in the 1980s overhead heaters were lit with a burning rag attached to an old hockey stick.

I played a little hockey myself, training midweek with a junior team called the Midges, and then hitting the rink’s disco on Friday night (key song: “Opportunities” by Pet Shop Boys), where the cafe sold half-cooked chips and the ice-skates that newcomers hired were so useless they were dubbed “death wellies”.

Ben Myers in ice hockey gear aged 11 in 1987

Most fans would readily admit that the match highlights were the fights enjoyed at close quarters. There was none of the theatrics of Saturday wrestling, which had enjoyed a resurgence a decade earlier thanks to odd and often unathletic personalities such as Big Daddy or the Yorkshire pig-keeper, Les Kellett. Ice hockey was more accessible than boxing, too, and there was no room for prima donnas as in football. When two players decided to go at it, officials let them.

These battles were ritualistic, the combatants initially circling on the ice like two starved bantams thrown into a medieval cockpit, before the frantic wrangling of shirts pulled over heads, helmets tossed aside and fists thrown.

In these moments, ice hockey entered a strange, lawless hinterland, the referees gauging the grapple to allow just enough violence to provide catharsis for a crowd baying for their man to knock out his southern opponent, wipe the smirk off his handsome Canuck face, or rip his balls off and shove them down his Scottish throat. And all the while soundtracked by over-amplified jingles such as Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)”. Referees would halt fights shortly after one or both plucky scrappers were hurt. It was ugly but honest, the players fearless superheroes providing colour in a monochrome world of dole queue drudgery.

***

Few such communal spaces in which the northern working man might verbalise his anxieties, doubts or depression existed 30 years ago. Hockey was one popular outlet. “Heavy industry offered a culturally specific form of masculinity, one that was decimated with the closure of the pits and shipyards,” says Katy Shaw. “The resulting social, political and economic crisis meant that sports – particularly team sports rooted in working-class communities – became a significant source of male identity.”

The language surrounding depression and what we might today broadly identify as a “crisis of masculinity” was entirely different in the 1980s.  My grandfather, a shopkeeper in nearby Houghton-le-Spring, a mining town where the pit closed in 1981, kept his depression a secret outside of the family and took his own life shortly after retirement in 1985. Antidepressant medication was in its infancy, too; anyone suffering from a loss of self-worth did so in silence.

The game fulfilled a need for heroes you could relate to, people who ached and creaked when they rose for work on Monday. Crucial to the team were a selection of Canadian imports. While millions of Britons were at home watching Songs of Praise, we were putting our faith in the likes of the stately, stoic defenceman Mike O’ Connor, or industrious goal-stealer Rick Brebant, decent-looking compared to the local players who had moustaches, missing teeth, and diets of stodge and Newcastle Brown.

During televised games, the Canadians brought speed, guile and a weight of sporting history with them, yet always with an unspoken awareness that their exotic otherness was perhaps tainted with failure back home. Why else would anyone move to the north-east of England in 1986? Had they not seen Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

The Wasps won a string of trophies into the next decade, and some foreign players built lives in England, though my own short-lived hockey career ended when I lost a kidney in an unrelated injury.

A corporate buyout and attempted relocation to Newcastle in the 1990s killed Durham Wasps. The importance of localisation – so key to the identity of the team’s supporters during times of economic turmoil – was lost on its new owners. After turbulent years of perilous finances, the sport continues in the Elite Ice Hockey League, though it receives less media coverage. Durham Ice Rink became a bowling alley and was then razed in 2013 to make way for an office block. There is no trace of it today.

Ben Myers’s latest novel, “These Darkening Days”, is published by Moth/Mayfly.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia