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How an early election makes Scottish independence more likely

Progressive unionists fear an early election will galvanise both sides of the referendum debate - and the independence campaigners are more likely to win. 

Before the Easter break, Scottish Labour activists were shuffling their leaflets for the local government elections, and hoping that they could somehow steer the conversation on the doorstep away from constitutional matters and onto the falling standards in education and the NHS. In this, they seemed to have an unlikely ally in Theresa May.

The British Prime Minister had quashed the immediate threat of a second independence referendum. When I met with pro-union campaigners shortly before Easter, there was a quiet hope that the prospect could be shelved until after the Brexit negotiations - in other words, the 2020s. Meanwhile, the Scottish public might have woken up to the fact the SNP-led Scottish government hadn't actually passed any legislation in a year.

Then the nightmare happened. The pro-union left returned from eating chocolate eggs to find May on the steps of Downing Street announcing an early election on 8 June 2017. 

“I think we would regard it as a good day if we at least hold onto one seat,” a Scottish Labour activist told me. That seat is Edinburgh South, held by Ian Murray, the sole survivor of the calamitous 2015 general election. It is viewed as a three-way marginal – Murray’s majority over his SNP rival was just 2,637 votes, and the Tories are also on the rise. 

If that wasn’t bad enough for Scottish Labour, the constitutional debate that sank it in 2015 is allowing both the SNP and Tories to thrive.

“Clearly we are starting from a tough place in Scotland,” said Duncan Hothersall, the editor of Labour Hame. “With the SNP and Tories already framing this as yet another nationalism versus unionism vote we will struggle to find the space to be heard.”

Labour, he says, must be “pro unity” and “reject nationalism in its Scottish and English varieties”. Other activists tell me it will ramp up its message of poor SNP governance. 

Labour’s brand of progressive unionism is being eclipsed by the tank-straddling Davidson. An Ipsos Mori poll found that 48 per cent of Scots think May is doing a good job, and 53 per cent approve of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, compared to 42 per cent for Scotland’s SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and 36 per cent for Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. 

On the face of it, this means that an early election could be a boon for pro-unionists. The problem is that even while Davidson is widely admired by her opponents, she is seen as too divisive. Even before a second referendum was officially on the cards, the head strategist of Better Together told me "she is not a figure everyone would unite around". 

Where progressive unionists are optimistic, it is often for counterintuitive reasons. One suggested a larger Conservative majority could allow May to pursue a softer Brexit, which would placate Scottish voters. Another theory is that May could do Labour a favour by forcing Jeremy Corbyn's resignation and inadvertently reinvigorating Labour. If Davidson did an SNP and pulled off an unexpected landslide, or split the country down the middle, it would put paid to the SNP's claims to speak for Scotland. 

The SNP knows this. “Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson have nailed their colours to the mast,” a source close to the pro-union movement told me. “This is going to be a proxy for a referendum.” He added: “It is pretty hard to see how Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t win this.”

While pro-union sentiment is passionate, and widely held responsible for the Conservative surge, the SNP gains energy from fights with Westminster. It has consistently argued that it is the voice of Scotland’s Remain majority, a message that appears to resonate with voters. In the First Past the Post system, its candidates also benefit from the fact the pro-union vote is split between several parties. For all Davidson’s popularity, Labour activists on the ground expect the Tories to make a dent in the SNP’s majority, but not a devastating one (Davidson herself has reacted to the early election by saying she is optimistic about "increasing our number of seats". 

However, the pro-union campaigner feared an aggressive campaign by Davidson will be matched by a similarly polemical response from the SNP, and both will brush the scars of the 2014 referendum. “What happens the day after?” he wondered. He believed Scotland was a factor in May’s decision to call the early election, but not the decisive one. 

“Theresa May is thinking about 12 different fronts,” he warned. “It is pretty hard to see how Nicola Sturgeon just concentrating on this one thing doesn’t find a way to turn it to her advantage.”

Which SNP MPs could be under threat?

Name: Michelle Thomson 
Constituency: Edinburgh West
Majority in 2015: 3,210

Michelle Thomson is officially an independent MP, having withdrawn from the SNP whip over a police investigation into her property deals. The Liberal Democrats came second in 2015 and will find it hard to resist stirring up trouble for Thomson again. 

Name: Calum Kerr
Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Majority in 2015: 5,901

Calum Kerr may have won his seat in the Scottish Borders by more than 5,000 votes, but the runner up was a Tory, John Lamont, who went on to win the Scottish Parliament seat in the same area a year later.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.