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“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;

Welcome to your gory bed,

         Or to victory!”

That song, often sung in celebration of Scotland and its desire for independence was written by Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Perhaps I should translate it for readers who are unfamiliar with the Scottish dialect. It means (and true Scots please forgive me for this):

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,

Fellow-Scottish people, we who have shed our blood fighting alongside William Wallace, the Scottish knight and fighter for Scottish independence who helped lead his people during the First War of Scottish Independence, defeating an English force at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;

Statue of Robert the Bruce near the Stirling Castle © Wikicommons
William Wallace statue near Bemersyde House, Scottish Borders

Fellow Scots, who have also fought under the leadership of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots from 1306 until 1329. He took over leadership of the Scottish forces from William Wallace and seized the throne, only to see his army defeated by England’s Edward 1, but he later defeated an English army at Loudoun Hill and went on to hold his first parliament as King of the Scots in 1309. He then defeated a much larger English army at the famous Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The war dragged on for several years, however, although Bruce was recognised by the Pope as King of an independent Scotland in 1326.

Welcome to your gory bed,  Or to victory!”

Welcome to your blood-soaked grave, or to celebrate the defeat of the English and to win the war.

More recent bids for independence have been rather more peaceful and less reliant on plate armour, chainmail and the claymore, the traditional two-handed Scottish sword whose name derives from the Scots Gaelic words, claidheamh-mòr, which means “great sword” in Gaelic. It was not the only weapon used by Scottish soldiers, of course, but it became so famous that it has even lent its name to an anti-personnel mine that is still used by the various armies of today under its Scottish name, despite having been invented and named by an American. Scottish regiments have long been famed as very effective fighters.

In the 11th century, much of Scotland, especially the wealthy south and east, was ruled by a single monarch, the King of the Scots. The Scots themselves had occasionally recognised English overlordship, but the King himself was too powerful to have to fear “private enterprise” attacks of the sort that had devastated Wales or Ireland. But it was also arguably not rich enough (and probably too far from London) to attract the attention of an ambitious English king. Just how many sheep does anyone want anyway?

Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots kills Sir Henry de Bohun on the first day of the Battle of Bannockburn © Wikicommons

The Scots had benefited when King David made the most of the various civil wars during Stephen’s reign to take Northumbria from England, but by and large Scotland remained focussed on Scottish affairs, with the Kingdom extending its boundaries among the islands and along the western seaboard generally until the King of Norway ceded the Western Isles in 1266 under the Treaty of Perth. Contemporary military treaties and marriages show that Scotland was becoming increasingly European in its outlook. It still is : in the Brexit referendum, most Scottish voters chose to keep their country in the EU. It was English voters, swayed by false propaganda and untrue media stories spread mainly by Conservative members of parliament, who settled the country’s future.

Just at the moment, the political party devoted to obtaining independence for Scotland, the Scottish National Party or SNP, needs to be effective at fighting what seems to be a concerted effort to discredit it, or perhaps remove it altogether, partly brought about by some silly decisions and a bit of bad party management. My attention was first drawn to the issue of Scotland’s independence when I became a television correspondent covering the European Parliament and moved to Brussels, one of my favourite cities, and it was there that I met Winnie Ewing, a Scottish Nationalist in the European Parliament. I always found her feisty, determined, well-informed, thoroughly European and never afraid of a fight. It was an attitude she needed, and a very similar accolade was paid to her by the last leader of the SNP before the present holder of that post (and Scotland’s First Minister until 2023) Nicola Sturgeon. She said it was Winnie Ewing who had encouraged her to go for the leadership of the party.

Winnie Ewing stunned the political world by storming to victory in the Hamilton by-election on November 2, 1967 © SNP.org

| Where’s the money? (What money?)

Among the silly decisions that emerged towards the end of Sturgeon’s remarkably successful reign was the revelation that her husband, Peter Murrell, who was the SNP’s Chief Executive, had deliberately misled party members (and everyone else, including the media) about the number of members the party has. It came out as plans were being drawn up for a leadership contest. By that time, Sturgeon herself had resigned and her husband had been arrested, with the police searching the couple’s home following a dawn raid on the house and on Morrell’s office. As The Courier and Evening Telegraph memorably put it: “Not since the glinting guillotine of the French Revolution has there been such a swift and decisive end to a political power couple’s reign.” We should recall that Louis XVI and his wife, the Habsburg princess Marie Antoinette, who was just 14 when the marriage took place, both went to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Peter Murrell and Nicola Sturgeon in 2022 © Henry Nicholls/WPA Pool/Edm

Sturgeon’s rôle as leader of the party has now ended, her place having been taken by Humza Yousaf, who now faces a massive challenge to restore public confidence in the party. The recent problems have already been cited by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as reasons to refuse to listen to any arguments put to him by Yousaf. Politics is a very dirty business, and the SNP has a high price to pay for allowing its leaders to take their eyes off the ball. After all, the affair has been most humiliating for the SNP and for all those who still want Scottish independence.

The problem (well OK, ONE of the problems) is that people suspect foul play even where there demonstrably is none. The SNP will also face problems over finding money with which to pay its bills. There is a scheme to help fund opposition parties throughout the UK, introduced in 1975 by Edward Short and known ironically, as “Short Money”. The amount parties receive depends on their audited accounts. As the third largest party in Westminster, the SNP should do well, receiving almost £1.2-million (€1,36-million) last time around, which it spends on staff, of which there are around 25 at Westminster. To qualify, the party must present an auditor’s certificate by a certain deadline, but the SNP’s auditors left the party last year and new ones have yet to be appointed. If the party doesn’t get the money, some staff are almost certain to lose their jobs. That will happen if the party fails to meet the deadline for filing audited accounts, as would appear to be highly likely. The SNP’s leader at Westminster, Stephen Flynn, has asked the House of Commons for extra time in which to complete and submit the party’s accounts, but the House of Commons would be prevented by the rules from granting the request.

Stephen Flynn © UK Parliament

Can Yousaf restore trust in the party in the meanwhile? Can he get the money the SNP needs? If not, can he remain as party leader and First Minister? Or are staunch believers in an independent Scotland going to be reduced to saying: “Come back William Wallace (or Robert the Bruce), all is forgiven.”

What’s more, how can anyone explain the existence of a luxurious motorhome parked outside the Dunfermline home of Murrell’s mother, a 92-year-old widow, where it had remained unused for two years? It has now been seized by the police. It belongs to the SNP, but why? Could it be an emergency “battle bus” for the Holyrood elections, to be brought into service only if the COVID pandemic comes back? Then why was it not returned to the seller when it was found not to be needed? Again, there is no clear answer, not even from Colin Beattie, the SNP’s former treasurer. Nobody seems to know why it was bought in the first place. When he was asked if he’d been involved in the purchase, Beattie replied: “No, I didn’t know about it,” which is also odd. But according to The Herald newspaper, “The SNP accounts for 2021, which Mr Beattie signed off on 30 June 2022, include new ‘motor vehicles’ worth £80,632 (€91,104) after depreciation among the party’s assets.” It gets stranger and stranger, yet the payment for the mysterious motorhome comes from money raised and subsequently set aside to fund another independence referendum, an idea that seems to be off the road at present. Yousaf’s task in restoring public confidence will certainly not be an easy one.

A Scottish Daily Express headline about Colin Beattie’s resignation © Scottish Daily Express

| GOING ANYWHERE?

Quite apart from the unexplained motorhome, there have been suggestions that some of the £600,000 fund for another referendum were spent on a fridge-freezer. No-one has yet explained what such an item has to do with Scottish independence or referenda of any kind. Unless it was to help Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) acclimatise themselves to possibly being out in the cold for years? That is not a serious comment; the SNP will undoubtedly make a come-back. Meanwhile, being a left-leaning party, they can expect to lose quite a few seats to the Labour Party, whose social and economic policies most resemble its own.

Ian Blackford © SNP.org

The SNP’s urgent requirement for an auditor was demonstrated recently by an email sent out to several such companies, saying: ““We are urgently seeking a statutory auditor to comply with our obligations to the Electoral Commission as well as an audit of our Westminster group at the House of Commons.”

Time is clearly running out, which explains the urgent nature of the email from Susan Ruddick, who is currently acting chief executive of the SNP. Various senior figures in the SNP, including former Westminster leader Ian Blackford, have assured the media that the party remains solvent.

Blackford admitted that membership numbers had taken a hit but maintained that the SNP can still boast of having 70,000 members and said the SNP will certainly contest any elections. The party has every reason to believe that old quotation from Shakespeare’s wonderful play, ‘Hamlet’,

Màiri McAllan the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition

spoken by Claudius: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” The SNP clearly needs William Wallace or Robert the Bruce to be in charge. Meanwhile, however, Humza Yousaf, and the MSP who was his closest rival for that leadership position, Kate Forbes, have urged members to “stay the course” in the face of yet more accusations of secrecy and financial mismanagement.

One of the biggest problems facing the SNP in governing Scotland is the constant interference from British Conservatives, trying all the time to undermine policies on such issues as climate change. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition, Mairi McAllan, has hit out at UK government moves to limit the ability of a Scottish administration to establish links with governments overseas. She described the moves as ‘unacceptable’, after UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly ordered British officials to sit in on any meetings between SNP ministers and foreign governments.

The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh Wikicommons © Ermell

The Conservatives claim it’s to ensure that Holyrood doesn’t ‘undermine British government policy’, but many in the SNP see it as an attempt by English ministers to constrain Scotland’s freedom of action. McAllan has described that as “unacceptable”. Meanwhile, the Conservative Peer who negotiated Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union for Boris Johnson has once again demonstrated his apparent dislike of democracy.

The Daily Record reported that: “Lord Frost’s call for the Tory Government to strip Holyrood of powers shows he and his fellow Brexit fanatics have lost the plot. Devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people, and the Parliament has gradually acquired extra powers.” From his speeches and comments, it would seem that Lord Frost would not be happy until the Union Jack is flying over every capital in the world.

Lord Frost © Roger Harris

The newspaper said that Lord Frost wants to reverse every move towards devolution, regardless of public opinion: “The idea that short-term challenges justify a reversal of devolution is opportunistic nonsense. Devolution is bigger than any one party and to suggest otherwise is absurd.” Lord Frost doesn’t have many fans among those who opposed Brexit, either. They dismiss him as an ultra-nationalist who simply hates all foreigners. He clearly sees the Scots as foreigners, too, who must be brought under English control. This could be an exaggeration, of course, but few of the things Lord Frost has said in public have run counter to that verdict.

The Daily Record is scathing about the record of the UK Conservatives in power and who Lord Frost seems to think should be in control of Scotland in the light of the problems currently besetting the SNP itself: “It is also worth thinking about the record of the governing party Lord Frost believes should benefit from a power grab. A party that over the past 13 years has punished the poor with policies such as the bedroom tax and the rape clause. Ministers who cut the top rate of income tax while telling the rest of us to tighten our belts. Tories who partied hard in Downing Street during lockdown while ordinary Scots were unable to attend funerals of loved ones. A party whose reflex is to appeal to the lowest common denominator by demonising vulnerable minorities. And a government which, under Liz Truss, nearly wrecked the economy with the most reckless budget in decades.” The newspaper is clearly not fond of the UK’s government or ruling party.

| Where you were

The SNP Government has now launched an initiative first promised by Nicola Sturgeon that Scottish citizens should have access to services near their homes. It should be possible for their needs to be met no more than 20 minutes away from wherever they live.

Joe Fitzpatrick © Scottish Government

It’s not going to be easy in a country as large and spread out as Scotland, but the consultation process has begun. Planning Minister Joe Fitzpatrick launched the scheme at the Scottish Young Panners Network annual conference in Stirling. “We want to help people to meet their daily needs within a reasonable distance of their homes,” he told delegates, “While helping them to live healthier lives and contributing towards the achievement of our net zero targets. We can really get to the heart of what matters to people by working with them to shape our towns and communities of the future.” There will be a lot of obstacles to overcome in order to achieve such an ambitious goal. Those behind the scheme hope it will reduce car use and encourage people to walk or cycle more.

Sadly, it probably won’t encourage more people to get around using the ferries that are supposed to carry people to and from Scotland’s many islands. The SNP had promised to overhaul the ageing service with brand spanking new vessels. In March, after the Scottish government-owned Ferguson went into administration. the contract reallocated to a company in Turkey. However, further delays to their construction were announced, with the one vessel due for launch in May now not expected to sail before the autumn. The other promised vessel, still unnamed and only known as “hull 802”, promised for service by March 2024, won’t be hitting the water before September that year. Those whose livelihoods depend on being able to get to and from the islands must wait yet again. In his December 2022 budget, ex-Deputy First Minister John Swinney said that an extra £60 million (€68-million) had been allocated to completing construction of the vessels at Ferguson’s shipyard. Ex-shipyards boss Jim McColl has accused Sturgeon of lying and has suggested improper dealings. The building of new ferries was a job put out to tender and won by Ferguson Marine in 2015, but there are now claims that a Polish shipyard offered a better deal and an earlier completion date, although they failed to win the tender.

© Wikicommons Jim McColl

McColl has claimed that the two vessels will be obsolete by the time they hit the water. In fact, the £220-million (€250-million) contract to build the vessels went to a shipbuilder in Turkey.

There is a danger here, in the light of all the delays, that people living on the islands may be obliged to move elsewhere, simply to enable movement. The Scottish government have always said they take the islanders’ transport difficulties seriously, but there’s little evidence of that, with regular ferry users branding the existing system “chaotic”, saying that businesses on the islands are “at the point of extinction” and that the problems extend beyond delays to building vessels to a deadline. One has to wonder how this ongoing saga of disaster fits with the “twenty minutes from home” policy, too. It’s hard to imagine how someone living in, say, South Uist or Barra could get to an appointment in central Glasgow in twenty minutes. As it is, it’s already being predicted that the inadequacy of the ferry service will hit tourism to the islands this summer, which would be a shame, because there are few places more beautiful on Earth than those wonderful, wild Scottish islands. It would be worth rowing there in a small boat, if the ferries aren’t running.

The SNP’s treasurer, Colin Beattie, was arrested as part of the investigation but has been released without charge, although the matter may not be over. Police Scotland released the following statement: “A 71-year-old man who was arrested earlier today, Tuesday, 18 April 2023, as a suspect in connection with the ongoing investigation into the funding and finances of the Scottish National Party, has been released without charge pending further investigation.

Colin Beattie © SNP.org

The man was questioned by Police Scotland detectives. A report will be sent to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.” Needless to say, the England-based right-wing newspapers are having a field day, trotting out lots of anti-Scottish stories, some of them of somewhat dubious provenance. The fear among SNP planners is that the crisis – effectively self-made – has severely damaged the case for Scottish independence. The confusion that has come to light, with very senior ministers denying all knowledge of the crisis, is certainly not reassuring.

| WE DID IT! WELL, SOME OF IT

Meanwhile, however, the party itself is boasting about Humza Yousaf’s achievements. “Every single day, Humza and his team have been relentlessly focused on delivering progress for the people of Scotland – protecting people against the Tory cost of living crisis and building a fairer nation,” says the party’s website. This help takes the form of cutting unaffordable energy bills and providing £15-million (€17-million) to help fund school-age childcare. These and others like them are proud boasts, so clearly the SNP is not quite in the doldrums that the more right-wing press would prefer. The SNP have also attacked the Conservative government’s anti-immigration laws, describing them as “cruel and unnecessary”. In a broadcast to party members, Yousaf has boasted that the SNP is not dwindling, as their political rivals claim, but is actually winning over more members. He pointed out that party number have now reached 74,800, yet neither the Conservatives nor Labour Party will reveal their membership numbers in Scotland. Yousaf accused the other two parties of hypocrisy and pointed out that the SNP remains Scotland’s biggest political party, which it undoubtedly is and likely to remain so.

Humza Yousaf’s official announcement concerning the Coronation

I started this article with a quote from Robert Burns from the poem “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn”, written in 1799. True Scottish nationalists may like to recall the next verse when recalling Lord Frost’s comments about curbing the autonomy already given to Scotland: “Now’s the day, and now’s the hour, See the front of battle lour; See approach proud Edward’s power, Chains and slaverie.” Stirring stuff, indeed, and not written to make readers love England more, but those most critical have the law on their side, in which case another Burns poem springs to mind: “A fig for those by law protected! LIBERTY’s a glorious feast! Courts for cowards were erected, Churches built to please the PRIEST.”

Robin.Crow@europe-diplomatic.eu

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