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. 

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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

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