How Shetland Became a Stronghold for the Liberal Democrats

The following is an article commissioned by a publication which ultimately chose not to run with it before the Shetland by-election (I think Boris and Ruth’s shenanigans might have taken up most available space), so I’m publishing it here.  Although intended to be read before the results of the by-election were known, I think it mostly holds up – and my final conclusion turned out to be accurate!

The upcoming Scottish Parliament by-election in Shetland, triggered by Tavish Scott’s resignation, provides an opportunity to take stock of the position of the Liberal Democrats in the islands.  Alongside Orkney, with whom it shares a Westminster constituency, Shetland has more consistently voted for the Liberal Democrats and its Liberal Party predecessor than any other part of Britain.  The party has topped the poll at both constituency and list level in every election since the Scottish Parliament’s creation twenty years ago, while it has held the Westminster constituency since 1950, usually with clear majorities.  After Scott’s landslide re-election in 2016, Shetland became the safest seat in the Scottish Parliament.

When discussing Shetland’s Liberal roots, writers and commentators have tended to focus upon two factors.  The 1886 Crofters Act, passed by William Gladstone’s Liberal government, granted security of tenure to crofters and is often portrayed as a bedrock of support for the party in Shetland.  This argument states the Crofters Act established the good will and trust which left the electorate more open to appeals by future Liberal candidates, many of whom certainly invoked the Act in their campaigns.  Yet, while the Liberal Democrats have traditionally performed well in the crofting counties, only Orkney and Shetland have rewarded the party with such large and consistent electoral victories, suggesting further explanations are required to fully explain the party’s success.

The second factor frequently raised to account for the party’s hegemony emphasises the popularity of Jo Grimond, the isles’ Member of Parliament between 1950 and 1983.  Although an outsider to Shetland when first contesting the constituency in 1945, Grimond’s down-to-earth approach and ability to respond to local concerns quickly garnered support.  He averaged 57.6 percent of the vote in the ten elections he won compared with the 48.5 percent average maintained by his successors at Westminster, indicating the presence of a certain ‘Grimond factor.’  Nevertheless, the fact that Jim Wallace, Alistair Carmichael and Tavish Scott were each able to secure the party’s position in Shetland demonstrates we need to look beyond Grimond, as important an influence he undoubtedly proved to be.

Beyond these widely repeated arguments, Shetland’s liberal tendency can partly be explained by its demographic and economic structure, particularly where this served to weaken the Labour Party as a viable alternative.  In the postwar decades, almost twice as many homes in Shetland were owner-occupied than rented from the local authority.  Social housing tenants historically comprised a core voter base for Labour in the postwar years – 70 percent voted Labour in 1964 – thereby limiting its voter base.  Similarly, Shetland possesses an older demographic profile to the rest of Scotland, further limiting Labour’s voter base to the benefit of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats.

The party has benefitted from a lack of class identification in Shetland, a factor which has also tended to suppress support for Labour.  This stems from a combination of the islands’ close-knit community and their economic structure, traditionally dominated by small-scale industry.  Regardless of the truth of this claim – and real inequalities continue to exist in the islands – this sense of ‘classlessness’ has broadened potential support for the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, who generally have a greater appeal among voters with less class identification.

Liberal and Liberal Democrat candidates have capitalised on this by casting themselves as representatives and guardians of Shetland’s distinct interests.  Their ability to connect to local concerns can also explain the party’s wider appeal in rural Scotland but has proved particularly potent in the Northern Isles, where distance from the Scottish mainland increases logistical pressures and emphasises the importance of strong parliamentary representation.  Whether contrasted against portrayals of the Labour Party’s ‘urban’ socialism, the centralising impulses of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher or the SNP’s perceived Central Belt bias in recent years, party candidates have successfully argued that only they can be trusted to champion Shetland’s specific needs.

Curiously, this image was forged despite the Liberal Party finding itself at odds with the Shetland community on two key constitutional questions in the postwar period.  Advocating both European integration and Scottish devolution, the party’s stance was rejected by Shetlanders in each referendum held in the 1970s.  These results prompted Grimond to remark, perhaps only half-jokingly, ‘I have always suspected they did not know what I stood for.’  However, Shetland’s stance on these issues has since come into alignment with Liberal Democrat policy.  The electorate followed the Scottish national trend by endorsing devolution in 1997 and voting to remain in the European Union in 2016, while the party’s opposition to Scottish independence currently represents the majority view in Shetland as expressed in the 2014 independence referendum.  As the party now most clearly aligned to Shetland’s constitutional preferences, the Liberal Democrats have managed to establish a new foundation of support in the constituency.

The Liberal Democrats enter this by-election benefitting from Shetland’s strong liberal tradition, a favourable demographic profile, an association with local interests and an alignment with the community’s constitutional preferences.  Considering the party’s recent national revival fuelled by opposition to Brexit, its candidate, Beatrice Wishart, would be excused for expecting an easy win.  Yet, SNP candidate Tom Wills has run an energetic and well-resourced campaign which has seen numerous activists and party figures travel to the islands, including three separate visits by Nicola Sturgeon.  After achieving a record 37.8 percent of the vote in the 2015 Westminster election – albeit falling to 23.1 percent in Holyrood the following year and then 29.0 percent in the 2017 snap election – the SNP clearly believe victory is a distinct possibility now the seat lacks a popular incumbent.  However, opposition to independence and accusations of a centralising agenda place an upper ceiling on the SNP’s support which will be difficult for the party to overcome.

Lower turnout and the opportunity to cast a high-profile protest vote can make by-elections difficult to predict, and with ten candidates standing the vote will likely be particularly split.  Nevertheless, following 70 years of unbroken success and maintaining strong fundamentals, the Liberal Democrats should still be considered clear frontrunners.

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Visiting Culloden Battlefield

1024px-the_battle_of_culloden

I recently visited the site of the Battle of Culloden, the final battle of the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion against the British government and Hanoverian dynasty.  Located a few miles east of Inverness, I had long appreciated the importance of this location, having studied the rebellion both at school and at university.  Here – so the narrative goes – the Jacobite Highlanders engaged in a valiant last stand against the British redcoat army, who had pursued them north from their advances into England the previous year.  It marked the end of Charles Stuart’s, or Bonnie Prince Charlies’s, rebellion, and the end of a fifty-year-long attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.  The Jacobite defeat also led to a government campaign to pacify the Highlands, dismantling the clan system of governance and suppressing Highland culture through banning clan tartans and suppressing the use of the Gaelic language.

So, a very important moment in Scottish history.  For a site which was essentially left over two centuries as a field full of mass graves, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  However the visitor centre, opened in 2007, does an expert job of providing the historical background for the battle.  There are the standard museum displays showing Jacobite- and Hanoverian-branded items, 18th-century weapons, clothing and so on, annotated by boards chronologically detailing the events of the rebellion.  These are interspersed with more visual illustrations of the conflict, including an animated map showing the movement of armies throughout the eight-month insurrection, an instalment which particularly appealed to me.  Perhaps the best design decision was to display the opposing narratives of each army on either side of the wall, combining primary sources from soldiers with the wider historical context.  At the end of this rather traditional museum experience, although expertly put together, we entered a room with video footage of a battle re-enactment projected on all four walls.  With surround-sound, it felt as though we were in the centre of the battle itself.  We watched and listened as the armies lined up against one another, began to fire cannons, and finally as the Jacobites charged into the slaughter.

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Afterwards, we were able to explore the battlefield itself, guided by useful – if temperamental – audio headsets.  These were helpful as it’s difficult to appreciate how the field would have looked during the battle, a problem worsened by the fact that the battle site was simply a random field neither side had particularly chosen.  I had always imagined a grander setting for the end of the rebellion.  We followed paths cut through the field, including two particularly long paths along the army lines, giving a sense of how many people fought in the field that day (15,000 in all).  These were annotated by flags to illustrate the distance between the opposing forces as they lined against one another.

The most shocking and, for me, unexpected feature of the battlefield were the mass graves.  I hadn’t realised the bodies, overwhelmingly Jacobite (about 1,500 compared to 50 on the government side) had been buried on the battlefield itself.  I was touched to discover that they been buried by clan; at least the governing army awarded them that final respect.  These would have remained anonymous mounds had it not been for the local landowner Duncan Forbes who, in 1881, placed stones marking the clan buried in each grave.  Somewhat amusingly, a stone described these graves as marking the brave Highland soldiers who had fought against the ‘English’, despite many clans having actually fought on the government side, most notably the Campbells.  I found it interesting how Forbes, perhaps along with many of his Victorian contemporaries, had chosen to remember the battle.  Through a celtic romanticist prism, the battle may have appeared as a final showdown between English/British modernity and Scottish traditionalism.

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By Shadowgate, via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the conflict had even less nationalistic undertones than I had been led to believe.  After seizing Edinburgh, Prince Charles was urged by several nobles to reconvene the Scottish Parliament, abolished in 1707, and to consolidate Jacobite control over Scotland.  Charles, however, had no interest in such an action and instead pushed southward into England.  While there were undoubtedly elements of conflict between Scottish and English identity, it seemed to me that the most useful means of framing the uprising is a dynastic power-struggle precipitated by political disagreement over the role of the monarchy, with the British government favouring a Whiggish, constitutional view, and the Jacobites arguing in favour of the divine right of kings.  It’s fascinating how many different historical angles can be applied to the conflict.  The role of the clans and their relationships with the state must also be considered: did the uprising constitute the final assertion of the dominance of the British state and the end of clan sovereignty?

I would highly recommend a visit to the Culloden battlefield to anyone that finds themselves in the Inverness area.  It would be of interest to both avid historians and the less knowledgeable alike, bringing to life this crucially important episode of Scottish history.

 

2014 In Books

In the first part of my 2014 in review series which may or may not continue after this post, I’m going to briefly analyse the books I’ve read this year.  Unfortunately I only managed to read 31 books, down from 41 in 2013 and failing to reach my target of 43 by quite a wide margin.  My main reason for this is that I more or less stopped reading outside of my university courses between January and May due to coursework and life related things going on, so hopefully this downward movement is only a blip!  Anyhow, here’s the list:

  1. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  2. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  3. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  4. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  5. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  6. Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
  7. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  8. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  9. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  10. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  11. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  12. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  13. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce
  14. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  15. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  16. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  17. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  18. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922)– F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  20. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  21. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  22. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  23. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  24. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  25. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  26. The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison
  27. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  28. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  29. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  30. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  31. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin

And to put them in order of preference:

  1. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  2. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  3. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  4. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  5. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  6. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  7. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  8. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  11. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  12. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin
  13. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  14. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  15. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  16. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  17. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  18. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  19. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  20. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  21. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  22. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  23. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  24. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  25. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  26. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  27. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  28. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  29. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

Unrated:
Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison

—–

And here I’ve [broadly] charted on a map where each book is set or about.  Obviously fictions which aren’t set in our world, like A Song of Ice and Fire, aren’t included, and for non-fiction books I’ve had to take some liberties:

Settings 2014

Almost every book here written before 1900 is due to my English Literature course, hence why they’re so clustered together.  It’s a good mix, I think, although as the map shows there is a very strong northern European, British-American bias in the books I’ve read.  Every author, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, is either European or American – I’ll definitely try to widen the writers I read next year.  I think I’ve managed a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction; I’ve neither lived wholly in bleak reality nor untempered fantasy.  In terms of preference, I’m not surprised to see George R. R. Martin consistently quite high given I tend to rate quality of storytelling in fiction above quality of prose (I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about that in a future post!).  Otherwise there’s no clear pattern.  I need to make a caveat for Ulysses however; while it was the most excruciatingly painful novel I’ve forced myself to read, while I considered the whole thing a project to ridicule critics, upon finishing I just couldn’t get it out of my head and having looked back at it I do find a lot of worth in there.  So this does betray one potential problem with my ratings, in that I rate purely in enjoyment while reading rather than any other means, which brings me back to the discussion of value best saved for another day.

Looking forward to the great reads 2015 brings!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the books’ gender ratio.  Only 23% of the books I read were written by women, which is pretty shocking to consider.  Some of this might be down to the amount of ‘classics’ I’ve read this year, although considering these gave me Aphra Benn, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, who I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s possibly this actually buffed the number up.  Unless I’ve subconsciously given greater preference to male authors (could be similar to this phenomenon) it’s clear women still face a harder task getting represented in the most high-profile and bestselling books.

Nelson Mandela and LGBT Rights

Having just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (unsurprisingly, one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read – if you’ve not read it yet, stop reading this blog and go do so right now!), I’ve been pondering a lot on the man who has indisputably become one of history’s most revered individuals.  I never fail to be impressed by his capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, by his ability to see the humanity in every human no matter how cruel their actions or by his pragmatic approach to every problem, putting aside his personal feelings.  He was by no means perfect, and prone to as many failings as the next person, yet in a sea of corrupt and tyrannical political leaders, when compared to the likes of Robert Mugabe or Muammar Gaddafi in Africa – or frankly, any leader taking power after a period of intense turmoil – he’s a saint.

One area many revered political leaders tend to have less than admirable records, however, is that of LGBT rights.  Margaret Thatcher, a hero to Britain’s current government – which recently legalised same-sex marriage – introduced strict rules against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality not unlike what Putin’s doing in Russia today.  This isn’t confined to right-wing ‘moral values’; even George Orwell regarded homosexuality as unnatural.  The argument is often given that these attitudes are a product of their upbringing and common to all in their generation.  While this is true, it cannot wholly serve as an excuse.  Despite being seven years older than Thatcher, and only fifteen younger than Orwell, it was under Nelson Mandela’s presidency that South Africa adopted one of the most liberal approaches towards LGBT rights not just in Africa but in the entire world, even extending to guarantees for transgender people (often left out of the LGBT banner).  Mandela belonged to the very same generation as Thatcher and a similar one to Orwell.  Granted, his cultural background greatly differed, though homophobia was prevalent in both Britain and South Africa in the early 20th century.

This is just another example of Mandela’s astonishing ability to overcome opinions and reactions which he would have been socially-conditioned into.  To be clear, he was never a vocal advocate for LGBT rights – South African journalist Mark Gevisser portrays him as not ‘always comfortable’ with the idea.  Which, given the society he grew up in, is perfectly understandable.  But the point is that he overcame these ingrained prejudices and accepted that the universality of human rights includes the LGBT community.  Sure, he never pushed for these rights as president (though in fairness his list of impending priorities was pretty large), but nor did he offer any opposition when it became ANC policy.  This is in stark contrast to so many other leaders who have allowed their gut reaction to colour their opinions, and just another example of why Mandela deserves so much respect.  It’s easy for the liberals of today to accept LGBT rights as natural and correct, but we must bear in mind how much of a cultural leap it would have taken for previous generations. That South Africa retains, by far, the best record of any African country regarding LGBT rights, is due in no small part to Mandela’s decision to embrace the winds of change in public opinion.

Goodbye, Nelson Mandela

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, Ju...

I’ve just read the news that Nelson Mandela has died, at the fine age of 95, and felt a very bizarre flood of emotions.  We’ve seen this sad day coming through numerous reports of the former South African president’s ill health, yet I never considered just how much it would hit me – and, I’m sure, the entire world – when his time was finally up.  Almost like a form of personal grief but for a man I’ve never met.  I’m sure part of this is due to the not wholly undeserved hero-worship which has built up around Mandela in recent years, though I’m certain I would consider him a personal hero regardless of his image in the media.

From my studies of South Africa in Advanced Higher History last year I became enthralled by his consistent courage opposing Apartheid; but, I would argue, this is not what made Mandela special.  History is littered with freedom-fighters who fought for and won their causes.  Why Mandela stands above these people and became such a shining figure in human history is that, after decades of persecution and oppression by the hideous Apartheid regime, he forgave.  Under his presidency there was no retribution or revenge of the like which has torn many other African nations apart following the horrors of colonialism; the groundbreaking policy of truth and reconciliation he oversaw, though not undeserving of criticism, in my opinion saved South Africa from the brink of what must have seemed an inevitable, bloody civil war.  I’m loath to deify anyone but there’s no word for Mandela’s capacity to forgive other than superhuman.

I hope this example can continue to inspire South Africans – and, indeed, the world – long after he’s gone.  I’m aware there were fears that Mandela served as a symbolic father figure holding the nation together but I’m confident that his legacy can go on if we have the courage to not give in to the temptation to seek revenge and intolerance.  Quotes from the great man will be flying around all over the place right now but one which particularly speaks to me is:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Farewell, Madiba.  All across the world you will be mourned and, most importantly, you will be remembered.

German Ghost Border Strikes Back

Upon analysing the results of the recent German Election, which has been a huge victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), I came across this fascinating graph.  It’s one of a series showing where each party has its base (Social Democrats in north-west, CDU in the south – and everywhere else, really) and this particular map shows where votes for the ‘Die Linke’ (Left) party are concentrated.  Just as I discovered with religious observance, there’s a clear east-west divide along the former border of the Iron Curtain.

I can see two immediate responses to this.  A Marxist might say that the Communist government of East Germany so successfully instilled its ideals into the population that, as with religion, they continue to advocate the state’s beliefs long after it exists.  Others might argue that this is merely the inevitable result of increased poverty in the east as a result of inefficient rule, or due to the difficulties the region must be facing in adapting to a capitalist system.

Either way, I continue to be fascinated by how history is so clearly alive today in the most surprising ways.  Do you know of any other examples of these ‘ghost borders’?  Please let me know!

 

Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?