It’s the kind of day that gladdens the heart. The sun is beating down on the Water of Leith and Stockbridge has taken on the air of a Parisian quartier. All along Raeburn Place, the cafés have put their tables out, and at every table, a different story: two businessmen discussing a deal, a man in an Arthur Daley coat smoking a fat cheroot, an off-duty doctor reading Philippa Gregory’s The Taming Of The Queen. This being the east coast, taps may still be oan, but the famous Edinburgh reserve has been shed like an old coat.
With its speciality cheese shop and bespoke Italian tailor, Stockbridge is both affluent and predominantly unionist; during the Indyref campaign, the verdant pitch of nearby Grange Cricket Club was the site of one of the few iconic moments offered up by Better Together as hundreds of people got together to form a giant human “NO”.
Edinburgh Central constituency – of which Stockbridge is part – is socially diverse, embracing working class areas such as Gorgie and Sighthill as well as large Georgian town houses. For the first 12 years of the Scottish Parliament, it was held by Labour MSP Sarah Boyack, but she lost to the SNP’s Marco Biagi in 2011. Now Biagi has gone and teacher Alison Dickie is the party’s new candidate.
The Conservatives have come fourth here in every Holyrood election so far. But, if their much-mooted revival has any basis in reality, you’d think you would detect it in this SNP-averse enclave, especially given this is where Scottish leader Ruth Davidson is standing. Conservative leaflets across the country may urge: “Vote for Ruth”, but the residents of Edinburgh Central can actually do so. The leaflets also boast an array of voters who say they’re swapping from Lib Dem and Labour to Tory, although none come from the capital. So is Davidson’s ebullient personality and willingness to sit astride a buffalo really enough to strip the toxicity from her party and bring the once thriving Scottish Conservatives back from the brink of extinction?
Not as far as Alex Watson’s concerned. A retired educationalist, he says he isn’t against the SNP “as such”, but hates the way they’re “consumed by independence”. “I’d vote for them if they would just govern the country, but they’ve divided it,” he says. Yet Watson isn’t throwing his weight behind the Tories either. He was tempted; he thinks Davidson is a fine politician. “But she’s still tainted by the Conservatism that I’m not too happy about. I like her, but I wouldn’t vote for her; not yet.”
Instead, Watson, 86 is staying loyal to Labour and particularly to Boyack, whom he got to know while working with the Citizens Advice Bureau post-retirement. “I still have faith in them, though it has been tarnished,” he says.
Watson’s fidelity and his ambivalence are shared by Margaret Marshall. She chuckles wryly as she describes herself as a “shiny, middle-class liberal”, presenting her Waitrose shopping as evidence. Marshall, who works in the arts, has decided to give Labour one more chance, partly on the basis of its promise to raise income tax. And what about Davidson? “I’m proud Scotland has three female leaders and I think she is doing a good job,” she says. “But I am never going to vote Tory.”
Of course, there are Conservatives in Stockbridge; and some of them are even willing to admit to it. First, I meet Colin Wills, who was born in New Zealand, but served for 35 years in the RAF. For him the economy, defence and education are the biggest priorities. Wills is backing Davidson. “Unfortunately it’s a losing battle in Scotland with any party other than the SNP,” he says. Then I meet a doctor, who believes the Tories would make the most effective opposition. But both of them have history with the party, not undergone a sudden Davidson-inspired epiphany on the road to Dean Village.
Over in Gorgie, the streets are hoaching with school pupils eating lunch on the go when Ivor Mackenzie – resplendent in full Highland regalia – hoves into view. Mackenzie, who has been asked to play the pipes at a friend’s party, is sweltering under his bearskin hat, but is happy to share his passion for the SNP.
The surveyor has always voted for the party, but his youthful patriotism has yielded to a desire for a more egalitarian country. “I think the SNP are not too far right and not too far left and they have an excellent track record of running Scotland.”
An Aberdeen University land economy graduate, Mackenzie says neo-liberalism has not done us any favours. “I vote SNP because I care for people from all walks of life. Looking around I know this area has gone down – it was a thriving community with jobs, employment, pride. I don’t think there’s much pride around here now.”
Edinburgh Central is one of only three constituencies with a Scottish Green Party candidate: former Lothian list MSP Alison Johnstone. Lots of people say they are interested in environmental issues and a few are still weighing up the pros and cons of backing the party at the ballot box.
Keira Farrell, who works in publishing, is giving her list vote to the Scottish Greens, but her constituency vote to Dickie because she’s pro-independence and has seen the polls. “I think the Greens have the most people-centred policies and I would like to give them both votes, but I reckon it would be wasted,” she says. Farrell has no problem with Davidson personally. “I like the way she projects herself, but I am opposed to absolutely everything the Conservatives stand for.
“Basically, I think they want the poorest people in the country to die. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but when you look at the bedroom tax and the cuts to disability benefits, it seems like they have no idea.”
• The candidates for Edinburgh Central are: Liberal Democrats, Hannah Bettsworth; Labour, Sarah Boyack; Conservative, Ruth Davidson; SNP, Alison Dickie; Scottish Green, Alison Johnstone