Gillian Martin: Independence supporters, ignore the north-east at your peril

SNP MSP Gillian Martin responds to comments made by her colleague Tommy Sheppard MP in a recent CommonSpace article

OVER the last week or so I’ve seen the odd person offering opinion from a fair geographic distance on the north-east political situation. 

One of the comments I’ve seen in this regard comes from my colleague, Tommy Sheppard MP, a man I admire and respect and one whom I know doesn’t shy away from a good political argument, so I know he’ll be interested in my thoughts. 

I like how Sheppard has energised some urban sections of the independence movement and I think he has a better understanding of how the dynamics of a city population like Edinburgh works than the likes of a rural Aberdeenshire lass like me does. 

Read more – Tommy Sheppard: SNP must respond to wake up call of Corbyn effect after #GE17

That’s why I found campaigning in Edinburgh in my evenings when I could get away from Holyrood this past few weeks a radically different experience to my preferred, but in mid-week logistically impossible, campaigning ground of Gordon and Banff and Buchan.

Before I attempt a summary of those differences, I’d like to make an important factual correction to Sheppard's assertion in the CommonSpace article last week which went like this: "But Aberdeenshire really has always been Conservative, it’s just the size of the seat that matters. We won Aberdeenshire, in what you can only describe as a fluke, two years ago, probably won’t ever happen again."

First off, Aberdeenshire has a number of constituencies and their history varies in political flavour. Let's take the Westminster ones first. They are Banff and Buchan, Gordon, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. 

Gordon hadn’t ever been Tory until last week (and then only by around 2,000 votes). Banff and Buchan hadn’t been Tory since 1983, until last week. West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine hadn’t been Tory until now. In fact, the SNP has had a fairly decent showing in Aberdeenshire constituencies and I’m certain my friends and colleagues Alex Salmond and Eilidh Whiteford would be at pains to point out that until last week it was held by the SNP since 1987. 

To suggest that recent SNP victories in the north-east have been a "fluke" is just not factually correct. The SNP has been strong in the region for decades – far stronger traditionally than other areas of Scotland, in fact. 

Visit our donate page to help us fund two new reporters

The SNP has held a great deal of the Scottish Parliament's seats for the largest proportion of the parliament’s history - Banff and Buchan has never had the seat held by anyone other than an SNP representative. 

One of the reasons for that hold, is the influence of Alex Salmond- a man who absolutely gets Aberdeenshire and its people and has brought others to prominence in the party who get us too, and helped overturn the largely Liberal Democrat hold on the region. 

And while not strictly Aberdeenshire, we cannot ignore Moray, held from 1987 by SNP until last week, and consistently since Holyrood’s inception.

Is the north-east harder to win at the moment? Well yes, of course it is, the results bear that out, but the arguments for voting SNP and for independence have always had to be more persuasive and multifaceted here, because we are a spectacularly diverse demographic. 

We’re a hotch potch of farmers, fishing folk, oil workers, public sector workers, native north-easters, incoming north-easters from all over the UK and beyond, transient families that flit back and forth from oil projects all over the world to Aberdeen, and small business owners who have been reliant on the big beast of oil and gas and are now having to diversify. 

To suggest that recent SNP victories in the north-east have been a "fluke" is just not factually correct. The SNP has been strong in the region for decades.

We also have a huge amount of Scottish economic migrants - a status I guess my mum and dad would qualify for, as they moved to raise our family up here in the 1970s when shipbuilding on the Clyde was decimated. My dad took engineering skills up to Aberdeen with hundreds of other Clydeside families. 

We are also a bit change averse, so if it’s conservative with a small "c" I’ll agree. But with a big C? Nah, not so much. The Big C win is your "fluke" right there - if we stand firm.

The north-east is really feeling it right now: a 40-year-old mainstay industry is reeling from the effects of a geopolitical situation that has affected the oil price and, along with it, nearly every family in my area in some way or another. 

As protest votes go, last week’s was a beezer. It was, however, a protest vote aimed in the wrong direction. If the folk of the north-east think the Tories who've been voted in will do anything to change the direction of travel for the oil and gas industry, they are going to be disappointed. 

Ditto the fishing industry, where all catching hopes are pinned on a Brexit that won’t prioritise Scotland’s needs, and ignores the needs of the fish-processing sector which fears a hard Brexit more than most.

We need to engage and explain, to chat and have a muse over things that are on folk’s minds - just like we’ve been doing for ages.

Recently I saw a comment online from a young central belt activist saying that he’d rather drive a bus into the Dee than go and campaign in Aberdeenshire. Well, all I can say is, his counterparts in the 'shire are not as shy, and possibly a tad more resilient than he. 

While the comment was made in jest, I’m sure, no one goes out chapping doors just to make themselves feel loved by meeting a whole bunch of Yessers on every street. 

No, we need to work harder than that, we need to engage and explain, to chat and have a muse over things that are on folk’s minds - just like we’ve been doing for ages. It is, as they say, often a sair fecht, but that hard work is why the north-east has been a good place for the SNP despite recent assertions to the contrary. 

It will be again if the quantity and quality of activists who understand the region's complexities is as strong as it is now, and the huge infrastructure and economic investment made in the north-east by the current government is shouted from the rooftops a bit more by everyone in my party.

I also notice that CommonSpace is looking to recruit new journalists. I have a plea to the selection panel. Find us a couple who know what the issues are in the north-east, Highlands and Borders. They will be worth their weight in gold for our movement.

It is, as they say, often a sair fecht, but that hard work is why the north-east has been a good place for the SNP despite recent assertions to the contrary. 

Just as, while out in Edinburgh South, I had to recalibrate my brain to take into account Labour-voting tendencies, which are slightly alien to this north-easter, I’d urge my urban friends and colleagues to come out with me and my Aberdeenshire independence-supporting friends of all indy parties and none, to get a flavour of the complexity of the whole of Scotland. 

If we don’t do this, we’ll never be able to put forward the argument for independence that will bring all parts of Scotland with us.

Anyone who wants a busman’s holiday to see what I mean, you know where we are.

Just keep going past Dundee. No need to drive the bus into any rivers.

Picture courtesy of Ben Sutherland

Look at how important CommonSpace has become, and how vital it is for the future #SupportAReporter



Mon, 06/19/2017 - 14:56

Totally agree with this. The claim that the SNP need to move further to the left is nonsense, and a vote loser in NE and Borders and D&G. It's not even supporting by voting in the central belt. In the whole of Scotland Labour got a measly 70,000 more votes over 2015. The real shifts were in Tory and SNP voting.

Moving further to the left in the sense Sheppard and company would like will just turn SNP into a regional rather party.


Mon, 06/19/2017 - 15:03

What Tommy Sheppard says makes perfect sense if you assume that he knows that the independence matter is settled for a generation (just like the nice lady used to say) and now he and others are primarily interested in hanging onto their public sector paycheck and generous expense accounts.


Mon, 06/19/2017 - 15:54

I agree with much of what Gillian says. I know I should have checked it beforehand but some of what I said to Common Space last week has been (slightly) misreported. My reference to a fluke win in Aberdeenshire was specifically about my colleague Stuart Donaldson’s unexpected victory in 2015 in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine – not the whole county. She is right also that conservatism in areas like this is often with a small rather than a large “C” – the liberals and Tories have fought over the spoils for decades. I guess my point is that if the SNP is a left of centre, pro-independence, pro-European party then an area which is demographically more right of centre, anti-independence and anti-EU than others will not be the easiest for us. It becomes even more difficult when there is a massive unionist tactical vote against us like on June 8th. None of that is to say we should not be fighting there to win - I look forward to working with Gillian to make that happen.


Mon, 06/19/2017 - 16:54

Hello Tommy. From your comments, may I assume that you would agree that it would be wrong for Aberdeenshire to be taken out of the UK against its will by virtue of a massive pro-independence turn-out in Glasgow if there was a re-do of the independence referendum?

Dennis Smith

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 19:08

This underplays the historical and cultural distinctiveness of the north-east, which at least since the 17th century has often rejected the dominant ideology of the central belt. Think of the 'Aberdeen doctors' who rejected the Covenant and the Jacobitism that lingered well into the 18th century.

One reason - obviously not the only reason - why the NE started voting SNP from the 1970s on was to repudiate central belt domination under what used to be called Strathclyde Labour. Now that the SNP dominates the central belt this anti-centralist bias runs against the SNP and the obvious beneficiaries are the Tories.

Obviously the SNP needs a mix of policies to appeal to different constituencies but it makes no sense to alienate the central belt majority in pursuit of a few highly distinctive NE seats


Mon, 06/19/2017 - 23:37

At qukza - I have to correct you. Scottish Labour did not increase its vote by 70,000 from 2015. It increased its vote by 10,000 across Scotland. See,_2015_(Scotland)#Results and, or my last two blogs at

There is of course a slightly more convoluted picture at constituency level, but nevertheless, this overall figure does indicate that, in Scotland, the Corbyn effect only improved Labour's vote based on expectations that it would be lower than it was, rather than on what it achieved last time.

I agree however that the largest shift in the vote was clearly from the SNP to Tory, right across Scotland.

This debate highlights the problem the SNP now has, in terms of whether this movement away from the SNP was tactical because of independence, tactical because of policy in Government, or both, and what the split is.

I agree with Tommy and Dennis (above) that you can't please everyone and that the SNP risks core voters that stayed SNP from 2015 (at least), if it placates the centre, the right, or for that matter, Mr Sheppard, takes independence off the table, but whilst the Corbyn effect was less in Scotland than people seem to think it is, that doesn't mean that that it won't have more of an effect next time.

It would be foolish of the SNP to leave the left flank vulnerable, now that the right flank has picked off the easy targets that were the floating voters from 2015.

But going more left-wing isn't necessarily bad for the north-east of Scotland. As Tommy says, it just becomes harder for the SNP to make its case, but as Gillian says, it has to be multi-faceted anyway.

What I think the SNP forgets is that, unlike the Lib Dems, Labour and the Tories, the SNP's place on the political spectrum, whilst generally regarded as centre left (these days, at least), is probably much more fluid, allowing it to have policies that can address the small 'c' conservative voter in these areas.

I think the public is more pragmatic than dogmatic and whilst many want to see a more left-wing approach to day-to-day matters, that affect most people's lives, if there is a common-sense policy that would be helpful there, then make the case for it.

Isn't that what the SNP has been doing anyway?

I don't think the SNP has done much wrong. It just feels like it right now because of losing 21 MPs, but if you take the philosophical view, in 2015 many of those votes were loaned to get Scottish Labour out of power, and they have gone back 'hame' now.

If the SNP wants to achieve its ultimate goal of independence, it needs to keep pushing the matter, as it was before the general election got thrown in the way.

Bill Ramsay

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 13:03

I will repeat a story I first heard many years ago and have repeated on umpteen occasions when confronted with the "natural" Tory majority in the North east line.

In the 1962 Bye Election that saw David Steel returned to the commons for the first time.

He said to the Labour candidate,
" For me to win you need to loose your deposit"

Indeed if I recall correctly I came across this in a speech by one A Salmond,
soon after he returned to the fold after the 79 Group expulsion.
I repeated it at the SNP National Executive Saturday past.

Of course we are now in a fourth , entirely new, political paradigm in as many years with the advent of very focused unionist tactical voting.


Wed, 06/21/2017 - 10:13

Going more left wing translates in the NE as "spend more in Glasgow and Edinburgh".
Central belt (esp Glasgow)domination is a big fear of the NE and I am not sure Sturgeon, Humza et al are the people to change it


Wed, 06/21/2017 - 10:16

On another point Albert McQuarrie held East Aberdeenshire 1979-83 and Banff and Buchan 83-87 so it hasn't always been SNP either


Wed, 06/21/2017 - 10:43

If only, like in this case, to highlight just how uninspiring and bland politicians can be, let's have more of them writing. You never know, maybe one of them has a bit of spark.

This article sounds like regurgitated Wikipedia, and surprise that people in Edinburgh, where I presume she lives for part of the time, don't have paddocks, ponies and brand new Landcruisers.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.