Scottish nationalism is a movement of many strands, and SNP candidate for Dundee West, Chris Law, brings together several of the more disparate elements.
Till now, the seat — which spans both portions of the city area, and rural Angus — has been a Labour stronghold. But 2015 is likely to return a different result, and with it a candidate whose first foray into party politics would send him straight to Westminster.
I meet Law at his home in Dundee, a winding old house, now divided between occupants, with an Arts and Crafts character: wood-panelled corridors, wide windows, and a great desk covered in papers in the study, overlooking a sweeping lawn.
Fitting, for a financial advisor. Also fitting with the tweeds he’s wearing when we meet (“I had a photo shoot” he told me, by way of explanation). More fitting again, for a man who clearly tends towards the cerebral — in our conversation, we moved from understanding civic nationalism, to the paper he wrote for the Smith Commission on independence, to the values behind the SNP’s drive on social justice which, he says, harks back to the postwar settlement achieved by Clement Attlee, perhaps Labour’s most revered prime minister.
The setting is a little less congruous, though, with other aspects of Law’s story. He grew up, he tells me, with very little in the way of money, caring for his mother who had multiple sclerosis. He first trained as a chef, and only later went to University as a mature student. He then started a business running motorcycle tours into the Himalayas, with which he spent ten years before diverging again into the world of financial advice.
Like many voters who are coming to the party anew for 2015, Law’s route into the SNP came through the independence campaign. He founded the Spirit of Independence movement in March 2014 after a couple of years of advocacy for independence through social media.
The symbol of the Spirit is a woman with long, flowing hair — a style that Law adopts himself — holding a thistle; its vehicle, a Green Goddess purchased by Law. The Spirit of Independence toured the country in the run up to the referendum, spreading the pro-independence message while making a series of short films which can still be found on YouTube.
What non-Scottish readers might not appreciate is the extent to which the independence movement transcended the SNP. There were fifteen campaigning groups in favour of independence registered with the Electoral Commission, aside from the official Yes campaign.
When Law speaks of civic nationalism, he refers not just to the ethos of his party, but to a network of organisationally distinct groups, and the relationships formed between formal and informal participants.
While not all memories of the referendum were rosy — indeed many were far from it, particularly in the Labour camp — it’s clear that for some voters, it was a monumental, emotional and unprecedentedly engaging time. On the doorsteps, I heard some residents tell of being “depressed for weeks” after the event: admitting to tears at the result was far from uncommon, men and women both, and one man likened his experience after the result to “grieving”.
The collective experience of the pro-independence campaigns resulted in a widening of political consciousness and, it seems, the reinvigoration of some communities. Law’s selection as a candidate for the SNP at the general election typifies this development. He was elected by a ballot, organised by MiVote, of the more than 1500 SNP members in the constituency. In the City of Yes, there was an ample supply of longstanding SNP members and councillors to choose from. And still, they chose Law.
The scenario is much like if a social campaigner were selected for Labour in a key battleground, ahead of party loyalists who’ve stood before: not unheard of, but a sign of change and renewal. That an organisational outsider was chosen demonstrates the new character of the SNP, which is now buoyed by forces that go beyond party lines.
There is still, though, a very partisan flavour to the politics of the area. Much of it is negative: the majority — though not all — of the voters we met on the doorsteps did not need much prompting to voice anger with Labour.
More universal was something approaching visceral hatred for the Conservatives. One small elderly woman we spoke to enthusiastically told us that if she saw the Prime Minister in the street, she’d very much like to punch him in the face.
Dundee West has never been a Conservative stronghold, though. It’s pretty much been downhill for the party since they first fielded candidates in 1966 and 1970, when they got 36 and 38% — before then it was the Unionists contesting the seat, who made a more popular fist of opposition to Labour. Fast-forwarding to recent years, they achieved 9%, 8% and 9% in the last three elections. Unsurprising, then, that Conservative supporters were thin on the ground.
It will, by now, also be unsurprising to many that Labour supporters were quite hard to find. But it’s easy to forget just how remarkable this is. It’s worth taking a step back from the media frenzy surrounding the SNP’s rise, which has been so substantial that it’s accepted as given that the SNP is, for the time being, the dominant force in Scottish politics.
But between 2005 and 2010, the margin between Labour and the SNP actually widened. The seat has been close in recent years, but it’s been Labour since its inception in the 1950s. The speed of the recent turnaround is the first remarkable aspect of the contest here in 2015.
The magnitude is the second: the latest Ashcroft poll records a 27% swing from Labour to the SNP. If voting reflects this, the seat won’t even be marginal in the post-2015 climate. The tide hasn’t just been reversed; the world has been turned on its head.
But, whether or not voting will fully reflect the polls remains to be seen. Law very quickly broaches the topic of turnout: it was systematically lower in Yes areas during the referendum, and the headache for the SNP is now translating goodwill into marks on the ballots.
But that’s not a bad headache to have, when the ground seems so fertile. In many constituencies, Dundee West included, campaign teams are large — some almost too large to handle. Party membership has swelled dramatically, and the campaign team I observe in the St Mary’s area of Dundee had members of all ages, some with previous experience, some with none at all.
One young member I chatted to told me how he wasn’t remotely interested in politics before the referendum. He was from a military background, and had always previously felt a mixture of disillusionment and apathy. He got involved in some pro-independence campaigning, but had never directly campaigned for the SNP. This was his first time on the doorsteps for the party, donning the reflective vest, handing out leaflets and canvassing opinion. And before the session was over, he was asking about the possibilities for the next time.
Not all residents of St Mary’s shared his unequivocal commitment to the cause, though. We did meet Labour supporters. One was extremely committed: that reputed rarity in Scotland, a genuine believer in New Labour who felt that public-private partnerships were an inevitable and cost-efficient stage in modernising public services.
Others were unconvinced about the level of influence that the SNP could have at Westminster. They felt a Labour MP mattered more and would have more clout, while the SNP should stick to Holyrood and local government.
Law would, if prompted, get into the detail of these arguments — sometimes with more forcefulness than I’ve seen from English counterparts are attempting to woo voters who disagreed with their stance. Think less “I understand your frustration”, and more “I disagree, and this is why”. But when given the lead, the discussion was of a softer nature: “How are you feeling after the referendum?” was a go-to ice-breaker.
This speaks to the values-based campaign that Law is running. He casts the central narrative as a moral issue: “the most fundamental measure of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable” he tells me, echoing a sentiment that’s been attributed variously to Churchill, Gandhi and Dostoevsky. Adding Law to the mix makes for a set of interesting bedfellows.
But there’s obviously a very serious point here. Cutting public services, Law says, has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable, particularly the disabled. In his younger years, caring for a disabled mother, he tells me that he was dependent on services provided by government. And it’s his understanding that the SNP alone who will prioritise services over deficit reduction.
This economic vision is seen by some as utopic, pie-in-the-sky thinking. Law preempted that response: “We’re not looking for a utopia. We’re looking for fairness, and something to be hopeful for”. But, the question of what constitutes fairness is a famous source of dispute; how to implement it is a further, tricky question.
The competing claims of reducing debt payments for future generations and supporting the current one are hardly black and white. Yet, given how the debate is increasingly cast, the choice between Labour and the SNP is not just a question of independence or togetherness: it’s being conducted along these lines of moral argument, and the practicalities required to implement them.
What is clear, though, is that the SNP are doing their utmost to wrest the leftist, progressive epithet from Labour’s hands. New Labour did some of this work for them; but Miliband isn’t Blair, and indeed the English leader’s position on the political spectrum has been a source of much ire from ex-New-Labourites.
Yet, Law — and others like him — is passionately convinced that the Left belongs to his party. “New Labour hollowed out the core of the Labour Party to win votes; the SNP is the only Left progressive party left in Scotland”.
Scottish Labour will surely disagree; but it is the perceptions of voters that matter. While moving to the centre ground was seen as necessary to save Labour from irrelevance in the 80s and 90s, the pendulum has soundly swung the other way in Scotland. This bodes badly for the party in 2015; but whether it’s a permanent phenomenon is far from unclear, and now inextricably tied to the fate of the nationalists. If both wield power in the next Parliament, both will have a lot to prove — and a lot to lose.