General Election 2019: Brexit and independence on menu as SNP tries to retake Angus

The SNP candidate for Angus, Dave Doogan. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
The SNP candidate for Angus, Dave Doogan. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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Sitting at a high counter in Saddler’s Tea Room on Forfar High Street, the SNP candidate for Angus is taking a picture of his lunch.

A plate full of Forfar bridie and baked beans might not impress the Instagram influencers, but it’s evidence that he, and the SNP street stall outside, were here.

“I’ll post that on Twitter,” says Dave Doogan. “There’s only so many pictures of canvas teams you can have.”

READ MORE: Scottish Independence: Labour open door to SNP deal for indyref2
Why the need for the digital trail of flaky pastry crumbs? Angus was one of the SNP’s few traditional strongholds, an area held by the Nationalists since 1987. But that was interrupted two years ago by Conservative Kirstene Hair.

YouGov’s nationwide election forecast has Hair in the lead, but by less than two per cent. Angus will be one of Scotland’s closest-fought battlegrounds, and Hair is making the candidates’ origins a central issue.

“I’m the only candidate on the ballot paper from the constituency and I don’t think people take kindly to an SNP candidate being parachuted in,” she tells me. “They recognise that being brought up in the area and educated at Brechin High, I understand the area, I know the area.”

As airdrops go, it isn’t Operation Market Garden: Doogan has only parachuted in from neighbouring Perth and Kinross, where he is the SNP group leader on the council.

“Since the election was called, I’ve been out on the doors every single day in Angus,” Doogan says. “That’s the commitment I have to local SNP members when I was selected.

“I’m not sure everyone believed it at the time, but they believe me now, because they’ve seen it happening. And my social media feed backs that up,” he adds, snapping his lunch with his phone.

Doogan left school at 16 without any qualifications, but managed to secure a Ministry of Defence apprenticeship, training as an aircraft engineer.

When he was made redundant after 18 years, he enrolled at the University of Dundee, driving a taxi while studying.

“It can be quite an intimate thing, having people sit and talk to you in a cab,” Doogan says. “You learn a lot about people.” He graduated with first class honours in Politics and International

Relations in 2011, and was elected a councillor the following year.

He only became active in politics after leaving the MoD, but Doogan describes this contest potentially the culmination of 12 years’ effort; his opponent arrived at Westminster less expectedly when the Tories won a shock 13 MPs in Scotland in 2017.

At 28, Hair was the youngest, and the only woman. That has made her a favourite target for trolling and abuse, online and in the Commons chamber.

“The reality is nationalism needs an enemy, and they’ve found it in the Scotish Conservatives,” she says. “I just don’t know that we’ll ever get to a 50/50 parliament because more and more women are looking at my social media abuse and saying, ‘You know what? Couldn’t do your job.’”

Doogan says he wants a “respectful campaign” and insists: “I’ve certainly tried to keep to the personal side of things out of it.”

But he can’t resist a dig at Hair after she was laughed at by a Question Time audience for saying Boris Johnson “cares about Scotland”.

“If Kirstene Hair believes that, I think it shows some questionable judgment…Scotland knows better than that.”

Angus is fruit-growing country, and as an MP, Hair made campaigning to secure the supply of seasonal agricultural labour from Europe after Brexit a key issue.

The Tories have pledged to quadruple a pilot scheme so that it brings 10,000 workers to the UK next year, and Hair also lobbied to keep the Condor Royal Marines base at Arbroath open – although Doogan says the seasonal workers quota has risen from a “disastrously low level to a woefully low level”, and insists his time at the MoD taught him that MPs have little impact on base closure decisions.

Predictably, though, Hair says it’s independence that comes up the doorsteps. “The local issues matter, but it’s really about independence and whether people want to keep re-running referendums,” she says.

Like other Scottish Tories who have put the First Minister rather than the Prime Minister on their leaflets, Hair says Sturgeon is a vote-winner for her campaign. “People are switching off the TV when she comes on,” Hair says.

Doogan is dismissive of the Tories’ focus on independence. But Labour got 13 per cent of the vote in Angus in 2017, up 4.2 per cent on the previous election, and both the SNP and the Tories are tailoring their message to win tactical votes. Whereas Nicola Sturgeon has been loudly putting independence at the heart of the SNP campaign, Doogan says his activists have been “painstakingly and very respectfully speaking to Labour voters about how I personally respect their decision” on the constitution.

“Lots of people are saying to me that they’re not certain if they’re ready for independence, and therefore they’re unsure of voting for the SNP,” he says.

“But what I’m saying to them is, they are sure about Brexit, which they don’t want; they are sure about the threat to the NHS [from] US corporations; and they are not reassured at all by a

Tory party in the UK headed up by Boris Johnson, who’s been proven time and time again to be an intensely unreliable person.”

Hair, meanwhile, believes that the Tories can win back voters that joined the ‘Corbyn surge’ in 2017, but are now disillusioned with the Labour leader and wary of his stance on indyref2. “I recognise they’re not natural Conservative voters, I respect that, but that’s why they’ll come across, because of the Corbyn-Sturgeon pact.”

The Tory incumbent also claims that leading local Yes campaigners from the 2014 referendum who also backed Brexit are now willing to give her their support. “[Sturgeon] doesn’t speak for a significant contingent of what used to be her core support,” Hair says.

Back at Saddlers, Doogan says has an answer to the charge of “parachuting in”: his mother, a domestic worker, arrived in Angus from Ireland in 1951. “When she first came over, she set up here in Forfar High Street,” he says. All politics is local.