The local election campaign must focus on local issues

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 25th Mar 2022

It’s been a frenetic week in the phoney war over indyref2. Several storms caused by ill-advised analogies with the situation in Ukraine, another tedious Broontervention and at least one attempt to breathe life into the local government elections by suggesting that they are about winning the case for independence. Newsflash – they are not.

I have a few requests for my SNP colleagues and indeed the wider independence movement.

First, please could everyone stop trying to draw parallels between the debate about Scottish independence and the war in Ukraine. It comes over as crass and insensitive and it takes us nowhere. Scotland is in a consensual union with England. When last we got the chance to say whether we wanted to leave that union the answer was No. Ukraine has been invaded and its people subjected to war crimes. In the light of these facts there can be no comparison, meaningful or otherwise.

Secondly, could people please stop piling on journalists with whom they disagree. By all means criticise, expose poor work or phoney arguments but the attacks on Kathleen Nutt for that Herald headline this week were unwarranted. We have had an SNP government for nearly 15 years. It is hardly surprising that their policy record should come under scrutiny in the newspapers. Journalists and indeed columnists don’t choose the headlines put on their pieces. As Kathleen herself pointed out it’s the job of journalists to interrogate statements made by those in power. Her Ukraine/Putin/Indyref2 story was prompted by an SNP press release saying a pause to indyref2 would be ‘grist to the Kremlin mill.” This in turn was part of the dance of the seven veils in which Ian Blackford and others have been engaged over whether the Ukraine war would justify a further delay in Indyref2. Enough! 

And so, to my third and penultimate plea. Please let’s campaign on local issues for the local elections. Another columnist in this newspaper has suggested that we use the local election vote to “win the argument for independence”. I disagree. The local elections should be about local issues. I am enjoying being out and about again in my Edinburgh Southwest constituency campaigning with some of our hard-working local SNP councillors. Constituents are keen to talk about their concerns and we have a story to tell here. I have been particularly struck by my conversations with women, the mothers, the carers and often too the breadwinners. Their voices, their concerns, and practical policies to support them, such as the Scottish Child payment, need to be at the forefront of our campaigns. It is the Tories who want to make this about the constitution, Yes parties should make it about running Scotland well at every level.

The importance of local services has been highlighted by the vastly increased amount of time people have spent at home during the pandemic. When more people are working from home overflowing bins are more likely and more objectionable. While in Edinburgh we enjoy excellent public transport, car owners struggling with the cost of fuel complain about the cost of constantly replacing tyres and getting their suspension fixed because of the state of the roads. These are the issues people really care about when it comes to local elections, and rightly so.

Local SNP councils such as mine in Edinburgh have a good story to tell not just on local services but on building energy efficient affordable homes and new schools, delivering 21,000 jobs with a city deal and cutting their carbon footprint by about 60%. Face to face services to help EU citizens secure settled status after Brexit were established in the face of Tory opposition and our record on resettling Afghan, Syrian and now Ukrainian refugees is a proud one.

It is unfortunate that across the parties some who have been chosen as candidates have revealed prejudices and behaviours that suggest they are not fit for public office. Sadly, this a symptom of the coarsening of our public discourse about which I have warned repeatedly. Most councillors are good people who work hard for very little return. While poor remuneration is one reason it has proved hard to get candidates to stand this time round, I think political apathy or atrophy caused by the stalemate in the constitutional debate could be another one.  

A symptom of this is the degree of agitation about Gordon Brown and the RUSI story. Gordon Brown is not worth the energy. He has never delivered on past promises and as the years go by , he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. His latest intervention irritated both sides of the argument. Let’s just leave it at that. As to RUSI , sadly that institute’s commentators have form for setting their impartiality to one side when it comes to the independence debate. They have an important role to play in the debate on defence and security policy based on their expertise, but partisan interventions are just that, no more.

As one might expect, the most nuanced contribution to the debate about indyref2 in the last week came from Kevin Pringle. He pointed out the intellectual poverty of the Tories attempts to use the local elections to send a message to the SNP that people don’t want another indyref and the need for these elections be about local issues and policies. He also expressed a scepticism which I share about the likelihood of an independence referendum next year given “the hurdles to be overcome and extensive preparations required.”

As we mark the second anniversary of lockdown, the world in which we live has changed irrevocably. The horrors of a global pandemic have been overtaken by the new horrors of a brutal war in Europe. While we face the worst cost of living crisis in decades we must also dig deep to help the victims of war and offer sanctuary to refugees on a scale not seen in more than half a century. In doing so we are hampered by a Spring Statement from the UK Chancellor that does little to help those most struggling in our society and an anti-refugee bill which breaks international law. These are the policies of a government that Scotland did not elect and yet by the next UK General Election we will have been stuck with it or variations of it for nearly 15 years. The list of policies imposed on Scotland against our will are legion. Brexit and benefits and pensions cuts top the list as perhaps the most egregious. The devolved settlement has been seriously undermined.

All these things strengthen the impetus to independence. However, we cannot guarantee that the case for independence will survive the full glare of a second campaign proper if it is not refreshed to take account of the changed circumstances in which we find ourselves.

And so, to my final plea. To be brutally frank the independence debate is stalled. It will continue that way until those in a leadership position inject some life into it. A clear plan and a fresh prospectus are needed. Many grass roots groups with experts of considerable standing are working on projects and more are waiting in the wings to assist. What we need is a signal from those at the top that these efforts will be taken on board and given focus.  

Joanna Cherry QC MP

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