Leaders: Cowdenbeath | Pakistan blasphemy

Alex Rowley celebrates at the counting hall in Dalgety Bay. Picture: PA
Alex Rowley celebrates at the counting hall in Dalgety Bay. Picture: PA
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ONCE the votes in a parliamentary by-election are counted and tallied, it is always tempting to pore over them in search of something which can be declared to be evidence of a seismic upheaval in politics, that voters are demanding a new direction.

Tempting, but in the case of the election called to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Helen Eadie, Labour MSP for Cowdenbeath, the signs that voters are seeking radical change is scant.

This was a safe Labour seat, one of the few constituencies where the Labour incumbent was not swept away by the big swing to the SNP in the 2011 Holyrood election. Mrs Eadie was recognised as a hard-working constituency MSP and to succeed her, the party chose an equally recognisable local figure, Alex Rowley, leader of Fife Council.

His relatively high local profile compared to that of his rivals, in a campaign which all the main parties agreed was more dominated by local issues – jobs, apprenticeships, decaying town centres – than national ones, appears to have paid dividends for Labour in the increased majority that the party secured.

But, of course, this was a by-election fought against the background of the biggest national political debate since devolution occurred, the build-up to the genuinely historic referendum on Scottish independence in September. And it is legitimate to argue that voters may well have decided that they will make up their mind on that issue in eight months time, but meantime it is business as usual.

Nonetheless, it is also reasonable to think that if there is a growing momentum towards a Yes vote, as the SNP claims there is, then there would have been rather more enthusiasm to demonstrate that by voting SNP and kicking the unionist parties than there evidently was. The nationalists must surely have been disappointed that there was a swing away from them to Labour on Thursday, but unionists, equally, have no SNP-trouncing to crow about either.

If the entrails offer inconclusive portents for September, they seem a lot clearer for the also-rans. The fate of Ukip, usually derided as a party with no place in Scottish politics, but which managed to come third and push the Liberal Democrats into fourth place, has to be acknowledged.

Yes, the anti-EU party’s tally of votes was only in the hundreds, but it is nonetheless a small sign of what may come in May’s European parliamentary elections. The possibility that it might make an impact in Scotland cannot be ruled out, particularly as the Conservatives, who normally fear losing votes to Ukip, actually gained share of the vote in this by-election.

But for the Lib Dems, even though Cowdenbeath is about as far from promising ground for them as you can get, this was still a nadir. As the party tears itself apart at UK level over Lord Rennard, Cowdenbeath voters regard it as an irrelevance.

Appeal for clemency

As citizens of a secular country where blasphemy is a charge unknown to the criminal courts, Scots will find it hard to understand proceedings in a court in Pakistan which have resulted in a 68-year-old man being sentenced to death.

Mohammed Asghar, who lived for years in Midlothian and is a British national, was accused of blasphemy because he wrote some letters and signed himself as “the prophet”. For Muslims that can be as offensive as making a figurative representation of the Prophet Muhammad.

We have no wish to opine on the charge of blasphemy being appropriate in this case, and have no wish to make comment on how seriously such a charge is taken. We respect the rights of others to make those choices.

But what makes this case incomprehensible is that Mr Asghar has a documented history of mental illness. While living here, he was detained under the Mental Health Act and diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. Even more dreadfully, it seems that the lawyer appointed to represent him may not have presented this evidence to the court, nor challenged the verdict of a state-appointed board that declared him sane.

Since Mr Asghar’s own lawyers were barred from attending much of the court proceedings by the judge, it is impossible to know whether Mr Asghar fully understood what he was doing when he signed the letters or if he was acting under some kind of delusion. But whatever evidence was heard or not heard, it surely cannot be right that a man with a proven history of mental illness should be sentenced to death under these circumstances and we hope that sentence is not carried out.