Only tactical voting in way of SNP Highlands surge

In the Lib Dems’ Highland redoubt, it seems only tactical voting stands in the way of a nationalist surge claiming a key coalition scalp

Picture: John Devlin
Picture: John Devlin

WITH his slightly bobbled grey fleece and open-necked, checked shirt, Stuart Macdonald couldn’t look more like a Liberal Democrat if you gave him a pair of sandals and put a Cheeky Girl on either side of him. And a chat with the retired charted accountant reveals first impressions are not entirely deceptive.

For years, Macdonald saw himself as a natural liberal – “neither left, nor right, but middle of the road” – voting first for Russell Johnston, the long-standing local MP, and then for his successor Danny Alexander. So why is he standing in Inverness’s Yes shop surrounded by Saltires, Stronger for Scotland car stickers and a dazzle of yellow merchandise that makes the Lib Dem colours seem washed out? “In the old days, the Liberals used to stand for home rule and proportional representation, but they’ve lost their way,” says Macdonald, who is now campaigning for Alexander’s SNP rival Drew Hendry. “I’ve no idea what they stand for now. That’s why their vote is disappearing. At least I hope it is.”

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The sight of a Yes shop in the country’s most northerly city ought to jar; in the north of Scotland, liberalism has always been associated with the struggle against Tory landlords, and huge swathes of it, from Shetland to Glencoe, have returned Liberal/Lib Dem MPs since the 1980s. But now Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, which straddles the Great Glen fault-line, is preparing for a seismic shift; as the general election approaches, Alexander, who has an 8,765 majority, looks ever more likely to lose the seat. In neighbouring Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the once bullet-proof Charles Kennedy’s future is also on the line.

Picture: John Devlin

All along bustling Bridge Street, the scale of what’s at stake is spelled out in bold lettering. Every lamppost is plastered with the candidates’ names. Seven parties are competing here: the Greens, Ukip and the Scottish Christian Party, alongside the big four. But though, at the weekends, the city becomes a jamboree of clashing stalls, everyone acknowledges this is now a two-way contest. Last time round, the SNP came third, but, if the Ladbrokes next to the Yes shop is anything to go by, they are streaking ahead. On Friday, the odds being offered on a Lib Dem win were 7/1, up from 3/1 just a fortnight ago. At 1/16, there’s little incentive to take a punt on the SNP.

Like many others, Keith Aitchison puts the mass defection down to a collective sense of betrayal as a result of the coalition. A former trade unionist, he fell out with Labour over the Iraq War. In 2010 he decided voting for Danny Alexander was the best way to lock the Tories out, only to find the Lib Dems ushering the party into power via a side door. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a better definition of irony,” he says shaking his head at his own lapse in judgment. Now a member of the SNP, Aitchison sees canvassing for his new party in the run-up to the referendum and the general election as an act of atonement.

Of course, the Lib Dems like to cast their decision to go into coalition in a more flattering light. Despite its almost comical predilection for apologising, the party portrays itself as having exerted a moderating influence, tempering the worst excesses of welfare reforms. Aitchison’s take is closer to a sketch in last week’s Newzoids, ITV’s new satirical puppet show. It showed Nick Clegg as an accomplice to a burglary who, having let thieves into the property, claimed credit for asking them to take a few of the stolen possessions out of their swag bags.

The party’s U-turn on tuition fees – it said it would scrap them, then backed plans to raise them to a maximum of £9,000 a year – is generally produced as Exhibit One in the case against its integrity. But for Aitchison, it is the bedroom tax that demonstrates the extent to which the Lib Dems have sold out. “Even in the Soviet Union people weren’t expected to give up their homes because their children had grown up and moved away,” he says. “It’s just so inherently unfair.”

This narrative of betrayal is something the Lib Dems are finding it difficult to counter. The party points to Alexander’s positive record in his own constituency and its critics hit back with the £8,500 he claims in his children’s expenses. The party highlights the impact of the SNP’s centralisation of the Police and Fire Services – which has led to the closure 
of control rooms – and his critics retort: “So what? You can’t get much more centralised than the Westminster boys’ club.”

For every voter who is awed by Alexander’s position as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, there is another who views him as a Cameron toady.

On the west bank of the river, not far from Alexander’s constituency office, 81-year-old John Melling, a sixth generation Liberal, is reflecting on his party’s mistakes and the price it is paying for them. He is from English Methodist stock and describes liberalism as a balance between opportunity and fairness. “I thought it was necessary to go into coalition for economic reasons and that has proved to be right.”

But even Melling accepts the poorest have suffered disproportionately in the attempt to tackle the deficit. “This last government did not achieve the best balance between opportunity and initiative to improve the economy on the one hand and fairness to less well-off people on the other,” he concedes.

The jettisoning of its left-of-centre values may be the principal cause of ailing Lib Dem fortunes, but it is not the only one. At Leakey’s, a second-hand bookshop in a converted kirk, where dusty leather-bound volumes with exotic titles like The Head Hunters Of Borneo sit alongside pulp fiction and literary classics given as school prizes, Alison Lowe demonstrates how the party is caught in a Catch 22 of Hellerian proportions.

Over the strains of classical piano music, Lowe, who works in the shop, but lives in the Black Isle (Kennedy’s constituency) says she won’t vote Liberal Democrat this time round because she feels its moderating influence prevented the government from going far enough in implementing austerity policies. “I think, my perception is that they are a wee bit cotton woolly, a wee bit namby pamby, not very go-getter, not very grab-it-by-the throat-and-deal-with-it,” she says. Instead she is thinking of voting Conservative. The journey from Liberal Democrat to Tory may not fit so readily with people’s preconceptions, but polls suggest that Michael Moore may lose Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk to Conservative candidate John Lamont.

As Melling mournfully observes, Inverness is losing its liberalism; but, as an urban interloper in a landscape of forbidding mountains, sweeping moors and rural villages, it is hardly typical of the constituency as a whole. Regularly voted one of the happiest cities in the UK, it nevertheless has its fair share of beggars, charity shops and deprivation. Sample polling suggests that in common with Glasgow and Dundee it voted Yes, while the Highlands as a whole voted No. So are there hidden armies of loyal Lib Dems in the countryside fighting a rearguard action? I phone the Highlands Lib Dem office for advice. “You’ll find them anywhere in Strathspey,” I’m told. “Try Grantown. We might be canvassing out that way.”

So I head along the A95, past farms and pine forests to the 2,500-strong town on the northern edge of Cairngorms National Park in search of the quasi-mythical creatures who may be able to save Alexander’s skin. A pretty little place, full of granite shops and houses, Grantown was a planned settlement built by clan chief Sir James Grant as a centre for the linen industry in the 18th century. Its residents are currently organising a week-long festival in June to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the laying of the first stone on the north of its small square.

On a patch of grass, a stall has been set up, but it’s not for the Lib Dems; it’s the SNP again. Local convener Laura Marshall says the Grantown branch was launched in December with 119 members, a third of them from the business community.

During the course of the afternoon, as I accost a succession of strangers to ask them about their voting preferences, Hendry and the SNP MSP ­Fergus Ewing materialise from thin air and shake my hand. The Ukip candidate, Les ­Durance, takes his pennant-­bedecked car for the world’s shortest ever cruise. Of the 
Lib Dems, however, I see no trace.

Soon Marshall and other locals are trying to help me find someone willing to talk about Lib Dem allegiances, past or present. As it begins to get farcical, someone says: “Danny has a big enough majority – one of you must have voted for him.”

Some passers-by don’t want to tell me who they backed; others concede it was Alexander, but won’t elaborate, which is, of course, their prerogative. But it does make you wonder if their reticence is born of a regard for their own privacy or of embarrassment.

Grantown-on-Spey is used to passions running high during elections. In 1820, the Fiery Cross – the means used to rally clansmen to arms – was raised here for the last time in Scotland; heeding the call, 800 men from the town and the surrounding area marched to rescue the Clan Chief – and endorser of the Tory candidate – from a Whig mob who had blockaded him in a house in Elgin.

Though no-one has resorted to a blockade this time, ­tempers can still get frayed. In The Bookmark, an independent bookshop on the main street, the owner, Marshall’s mother Marjorie, who just minutes ago was insisting she doesn’t like to discuss politics for fear of offending her customers, is engaged in an almighty ding-dong with Susan Chisholm. Chisholm is a staunch nationalist who believes that since 2007 the SNP has wielded too much power with too little accountability (who will probably vote Conservative). Marshall is an SNP-er who believes sending a large contingent of nationalist MPs to Westminster is the best way to shake up a calcified establishment.

The pair agree on many of the problems the Highlands face – such as a poor transport network and services and the expansion of windfarms – but disagree on who is to blame and who is best-placed to solve them. Neither of them is looking to the Lib Dems for the answers.

When I do find a man willing to admit he plans to put his cross beside Alexander’s name on 7 May, it turns out he is a Conservative voting Lib Dem for tactical reasons. A sign-maker from nearby Cromdale, John Diffey says the Lib Dems have sent out the most campaign literature and that he was impressed Alexander had found time to visit his village hall. “I haven’t listened too deeply to the issues, I am just so convinced this is the right thing to do,” he says. ­Diffey’s pledge is testament to how much things have changed; last time round, ­Alexander benefited from left-wing voters choosing a Liberal Democrat to keep out the Tories, this time, putatively, he will benefit from unionists voting to keep out the SNP.

Unwilling to contemplate a Lib Dem wipe-out, Melling hopes that, as with the referendum, the scale of the SNP surge is being over-estimated. Lib Dems are restrained Presbyterian types, he says, less likely to trumpet their loyalties on their lapels or to disclose them on the doorstep. Despite his chosen strategy, however, Diffey is not convinced there is enough support to keep the party from the abyss.

If things pan out as the polls predict, Aitchison says it will be the party’s own fault for failing to learn from the early 1930s when the role it played in a Conservative-dominated coalition led to its virtual extinction.

Still, a residual affection for old-fashioned Liberal values means he passes up the opportunity to gloat. “In a way, it will be sad to see all that history coming to an end,” he muses, as he heads off to spread the word about the party he hopes will herald the dawn of a bright new era. «