The battle for Na h-Eileanan an Iar as an exiled MP faces the SNP and Labour

Angus MacNeil faces a fight to retain the seat

For many seats across Scotland and indeed the UK, the election battles are two-horse races. It’s the Tories fighting the SNP, Labour fighting the Tories and every other combination thereof.

In Na h-Eileanan an Iar, however, the battle for Westminster is far more complicated, with the 20,000-odd electorate facing a decision beyond such binary choices.

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In Britain’s smallest constituency by population, but the length of Wales, there are narratives aplenty. First there is Angus MacNeil, the former SNP MP who paused his membership, then was kicked out the party for accusing them of not doing enough on independence. He is now running, ironically, as an independent.

Torcuil Crichton, Labour's candidate on the campaign trailTorcuil Crichton, Labour's candidate on the campaign trail
Torcuil Crichton, Labour's candidate on the campaign trail

Mr MacNeil then faces the traditional challenger in the seat, with Labour’s Torcuil Crichton aiming to replace him. A former political editor with The Daily Record, Mr Crichton hopes to be the first Labour MP for the region since Calum MacDonald in 2001.

Then there is the SNP, for whom Susan Thomson will be hoping to keep the seat by ousting its incumbent. This is a seat with no clear favourite, and a former MP trying to hold on without the backing of his former party. It is anything, but simple.

Mr Crichton told The Scotsman the seat was a “different kind of campaign”, due to both distance and the demands of locals.

He said: “You’re out talking to people at a distance from London to Shetland, 180 miles, two ferries, nine ten islands, causeways. It’s a massive stretch.

Ex-SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil is hoping to win as an independent.Ex-SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil is hoping to win as an independent.
Ex-SNP MP Angus Brendan MacNeil is hoping to win as an independent.

“I’ve got a little red Mini with Starsky and Hutch stripes, and since election was declared I’ve done 1,041.3 miles and we’re only halfway through, plus plenty of shoe leather with the walking.

“I came home in January 2023 having been on the road from London to Shetland quite a few times over the year and a half, and to begin with it was people slapping me on the shoulder, going ‘ah, a local boy’. They knew my time at the West Highland Free Press, and from presenting in Gaelic. I’ve got a profile.

“They slap you in the shoulder then prod you in the chest and say we need change. That began as a chime, and it’s becoming a wave.”

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Discussing the key issues for residents, Mr Critchton said residents had been so ignored by the Scottish Government they had almost stopped being angry.

He said: “”People don’t even get angry at the ferries, they are tired of talking about it. It’s taken for granted that the SNP failed on ferries. There is greater sign of the failure of nationalism than the failure to deliver these ferries. It’s become an international symbol of their failure in Scotland.

“To add insult to injury, there’s this nutty ban on wood burning stoves, an essential of life in the Western Isles. There’s a feeling that public services have been cut to the bone, they've been taken for granted and neglected for too long.

“None of these problems are beyond solving. They need focus and they need delivery. What they’ve had for 17 years is delay and distraction.”

Despite Labour’s long time away from winning the seat, Mr Crichton insisted he was optimistic. He said: “Nationalists are divided and don’t know how to deliver on their big promises. I was confident of winning this seat before Nicola Sturgeon resigned, before the blue tent, before the treasurer was arrested, before £11,000 went on Michael Matheson’s iPad bill. I was confident then and I’m more confident now.”

Mr MacNeil, who previously held the seat for the SNP, was deeply critical of some of the decisions made by his former colleagues, but still suggested criticisms of the Scottish Government were misplaced.

He explained: “The problem with the Scottish Government is the same as the Welsh government, all spending is as a percentage the problems in Westminster.

“Independent nations can succeed. There will be no change with Labour, they are back to their Blairite best. There is no change from a party still promising austerity, still backing Brexit, and not wanting the people of Scotland to have a voice."

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Despite this, Mr MacNeil said he was “liberated” to have left the SNP, and claimed he had retained activists despite no longer being with the party.

“I think I’ve been liberated from the daft stuff of the SNP, I’m lucky to be away from the HPMA's, Gender Recognition Reform, the bottle deposit scheme,” he said.

“On the ground, I am lucky that activists in the main have come with me. The most prominent and core group on the ground have stayed with me, the foot soldiers mean I'm not alone at all.

“Lots of people are telling me they are not voting SNP as they’ve lost their way. I’m telling people we’ll be certainly noticed across the UK if you elect an independent MP who can hold Labour's feet to the fire.”

A former teacher, Mr MacNeil also insisted he wasn’t worried about the SNP splitting his vote, and expressed a hope he could get them to work with ALBA.

He said: “I don’t think the SNP will be splitting my vote, people are coming with me. The SNP have no resources, their campaign is misfiring. I've just been so lucky as to how things have panned out. People like it when you’re just a fearless voice with a bit of backbone.

“I see myself as hopefully a bridge between ALBA and the SNP if they’re at all serious about independence. If that was on the ballot box, the SNP would vote for it. There needs to be a wakening up, and hopefully I can help”.

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