Dani Garavelli: Election focus on Moray

In Lossiemouth, barefoot sunseekers are picking their way across the rickety wooden bridge that straddles the tidal mouth of the river. Beyond, on the bleached sands of the east beach, surfers are riding the waves while an old-fashioned kite swoops and dips.

Gwen Ewing at the Lady Hill Toposcope in Elgin. Picture: John Devlin

For a moment, the calm is broken by a pair of fighter jets; all eyes turn skywards as the great metal birds slice through the azure, crossing each other and then arcing before disappearing from sight.

The jets have come from RAF Lossiemouth on the edge of town. In 2011, the base – a major source of employment – was threatened with closure. It was saved after a campaign backed by local MP and leader of the SNP at Westminster, Angus Robertson.

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Today, however, its servicemen, along with Brexit-supporting fishermen in other coastal towns, are at the heart of the Conservative campaign to overturn Robertson’s 9,065 majority and win Moray for the first time in 30 years. The party has already enjoyed success in the local elections and last week a BMG survey predicted the blue surge would be large enough to claim this most high-profile of scalps.

Robertson’s rival, Douglas Ross, is out leafleting in Myreside Circle in Elgin, a street which houses RAF families. The signs barking orders – No Ball Games and No Unaccompanied Children – reinforce its military air and several young men are out shining cars.

“Our vote is holding up very well,” says the list MSP and professional football referee, who has been trotting out the party’s strong anti-independence line. “What I didn’t expect at the start of the campaign, but what we are seeing now, is direct switches from the SNP.”

Speaking to voters, however, Ross’s victory seems far from assured. The BMG poll takes no account of local factors, such as Robertson’s personal stock, or the controversy over Ross’s refusal to commit to giving up his refereeing if elected. And while some SNP supporters are defecting to the Conservatives, others continue to express a deep-seated loyalty towards the party .

Like many ex-servicemen, pensioner Leonard Barber, who spent 14 years at RAF Lossiemouth, plans to vote for the Conservatives. So too does John Pymm, who moved up north when he was posted to the base, but is now an offshore oil worker.

Pymm, 47, has never voted in a general election before, but has been driven to the polling booth by a desire to see a Tory government returned and a second indyref prevented. “I don’t want to go through all that again,” he says.

Despite this, Pymm reckons Robertson will hold on in Moray. “Going by the signs in windows and that, I don’t see much changing. I think this will continue to be an SNP stronghold.”

On a bench close to St Giles & St Columba’s South Parish Church in the centre of prosperous looking Elgin, SNP voter Scott Munro, a softly spoken sales adviser, is concerned by the number of people influenced by the Tories’ anti-independence line. “The comments I see on social media are copy and paste, but they do seem to be making an impact,” he says.

Munro, 33, isn’t uncritical of the SNP himself. His 11-year-old daughter and six-year-old son share a bedroom in the family’s council house because there is nothing bigger available, so he would like to see the party focus more on social housing. Still, the SNP continues to tick the most boxes for him.

Further up the High Street, Sylvia Morrison tells me her sister has gone off Nicola Sturgeon, but that she herself intends to keep voting SNP, despite opposing independence. “It’s the party that’s done most for us. It gave us the council tax freeze and free prescriptions,” she says. Morrison, 65, who used to work in the Walkers Shortbread factory in Aberlour, is worried by May’s policies on older people, particularly her threat to do away with the winter fuel allowances (although Scottish pensioners would be allowed to keep them). “I would never vote Tory,” she says. “No way.”

Gwen Ewing is out walking her dogs – a Jack Russell cross and a Yorkshire terrier – up on Lady Hill. From this spot beside the Duke of Gordon monument, you can look out over the domes and spires of Elgin’s impressive skyline.

Ewing is no relation to Winnie or her daughter-in-law Margaret, who was MSP for Moray from 2001 to 2006, but she is a fervent admirer of the family, and still supports the party. “The SNP stands up for Scotland, ken?” says Ewing, who works part-time in a kitchen, but is currently off with a broken arm. “Whit I hate aboot the other parties is the way they gang up together to kick out the SNP. That is playground stuff.”

Ewing says she has occasionally seen the Conservative “gazebo” on the High Street, but dislikes both Theresa May and Ruth Davidson. “A’ that stuff about the rape clause – she [Davidson] has obviously not had anything horrific done to her. She wants to come out and talk to people not run about in flipping tractors.”

On the wooden bridge in Lossiemouth, six miles from Elgin, I finally bump into an SNP defector. Aleksandra Holub, who emigrated from Poland 12 years ago, backed independence in 2014, and the SNP at the 2015 general election, but has already voted for Ross by post.

Holub’s mind was changed by Brexit. Despite having benefited from freedom of movement, she believes the UK is better off out of the EU because of “problems with immigrants from north Africa”. She continues: “I voted Conservative because I think it’s very bad timing for Scotland to be wanting a second independence referendum when the EU is on the brink.”

Brexit is also a huge issue for Moray’s fishermen, many of whom blame the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) for wrecking the industry. As a consequence, Moray had the highest Leave vote (49.9 per cent) in Scotland. Political opponents claim the SNP’s plans for an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU would bring the industry back under the control of the CFP.

Until the 1970s, Lossiemouth – birthplace of Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister – was a thriving fishing town. Today, its role has declined and its eastern harbour has been converted into a marina where dozens of smart yachts are berthed.

Robert Henderson, 79, remembers when pupils at Lossiemouth High School were still taught “seamanship” by a man they called Captain Pugwash. “The whole coast was full of fishing. Maist families would be involved in the industry and you knew, when you left school, that you would be going oot on the family boat,” he says.

Henderson spent a year on a trawler working out of Aberdeen, “but it wasnae the life for me.” Instead, he worked as a coalman and then in demolition. “The SNP – Alex Salmond and the rest of them – promised the fishing communities everything, but they let them doon and now there’s nae fishing here.” So what will he be voting then? “Oh, I’ll still vote SNP,” he says. “I want a stronger voice for Scotland.”

The candidates standing in Moray are Independent: Anne Glen; Labour: Joanne Kirby; Liberal Democrat: Alex Linklater; SNP: Angus Robertson; Conservative: Douglas Ross