‘Allo ‘allo

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Two fixed camera speeding fines arrive from the friendly French government, each with a laudable disdain for translation options. They may not be able to open their shops on Sunday but the French can sure produce a superb form to fill in. There is a loving care about the precise information, the attention to detail, the colour-coded (three) pages: even the quality of the paper itself. Each is a thing of beauty – officialdom elevated to an art form.

This could be the documentation for a national treaty recognising the newly independent Scottish state or perhaps the formal application for citizenship of the Republic. The tricoleur flies on the summit of each page adorned with the head of the Maid of Orleans who clearly did not die in vain now her people can boast such transcending secretarial skills. It exclaims: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Penalite!

(I made that last bit up).

This is the bitter postscript to a soujourn in Limousin where we barely saw another car let alone a speed camera. I believe I’m right in saying the French don’t approve of fore warning drivers in case they slow down. That would be cheating when there are fountains of francs, or oudles of euros, at stake. I’m not kidding. Each fine is 90 Euros and for passing on my name to les flics, Hertz bill me €19 each time. That’s a total of €218 or £157. I only paid £200 for the entire hire for a week.

The cameras must have been hidden in the hedgerows like snipers so invisible were they. And before you scoff, I wasn’t exactly racing pied a plancher, just ambling along with kids in the rear. On one I was adjudged to be doing 60 kph in a 50 zone and in the other 58. Fifty eight! They allow you five over the limit for a margin of error which means I was four kilometres an hour over the rate in an area with no noticeable speed signs, not even locals peering out of the verges to wave me down.

Four K over the limit (that’s two and a half mph) and charged €90 for the fine means it cost me €25 per mile. And that’s only if I cough up within 46 days because, like your bill on the table d’hote menu, it goes up and up, eventually hitting €375, although for that Maigret comes round and collects it.

Even if I wanted to contest it, they demand the minimum payment upfront as ‘a deposit’. Talk about guilty without trial…

And, yes, I do have to pay. I did break the law, your honour, even if it is a damned nonsense. It was a French registered vehicle, not one the police would have to trace through the British DVLA. And it’s part of the rental agreement that I am responsible for offences and fines so, if I don’t pay, Hertz will pursue me. As yet, I think there is no agreement on pan-European penalty points affecting UK drivers but it’s coming in a couple of years. No wonder Nigel Farage is on Question Time so often.

Anyway, they’ve made it very easy for me to pay online – isn’t global finance wonderful. (Is it too late to blame the kids?)

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Smoke Signals

It took long enough. The BBC indicated it wanted a quick move to replace disgraced John Boothman as head of news but the weeks have dragged on and on. The final interviews were held last Friday morning and yet it took until late morning on Tuesday for the email to go round staff that their new boss was Gary Smith. Good luck, I say.

He can’t be unaware that he is leaving the relative security and obscurity – in public awareness terms – of the London newsroom where he has been editor of UK (as opposed to foreign) news for fully eight years. Before that he was in the Westminster bubble at the BBC’s Millbank offices – all adding up to 20 years in London. Or, to put it another way, 20 years when he wasn’t in Scotland breathing in the cordite air and hearing the furious whispers of our political Babylon.

I’m afraid the evidence is that, Scottish or not, and I think Gary is from Argyll, time spent wallowing in Westminster is no preparation for the nuances and tribal subtleties of a completely different culture. Just think of the journey the SNP has taken over those last 20 years or so through the creation of Holyrood, emergence as all-consuming national party and the implosion of once-powerful Labour. Of course you follow all that from afar but even political animals like Jim Naughtie are caught out on detail in the heat of debate. Naughtie sounded lost at times on Good Morning Scotland, clinging to concepts he learned 30 years previously before leaving for the Guardian and as a result infusing the GMS output with the kind of casual Unionist assumption that is normal in London.

Another fine journalist, Sarah Smith, never had the killer line that comes from deep immersion in a subject while I was watching her late night programme (whose name I forget).

So I suggest that Gary Smith will be very dependent indeed on his lieutenants for the kind of guidance that will avoid pitfalls. The trouble is that BBC Scotland didn’t do much of a job in dodging debris before he was appointed. What chance the experienced ones in the know will be much help to their new boss when they performed with mediocrity before? It isn’t as if he is inheriting a strong product with widespread audience support, is it? Time was when BBC Scotland was pretty much unassailable in terms of broadcast journalism and had a range of programming that was distinctive, if not unique and hit the artistic and intellectual buttons of Scotland on radio with Jimmy McGregor, Colin Bell, Ruth Wishart, Neville Garden or Eddie Mair. Good Morning Scotland hammered its Radio Four equivalent in absolute terms of numbers listening but also captured the AB decision-makers to a greater extent than Today did in England. On television there were weekly current affairs shows, Friday night politics and even, in the early nineties our own Question Time later rebranded Words with Wark. What loyalty does BBC news command today? Which news programmes are must-sees?

The new head will have to convince staff that he is more than a placeman for London. The head of news there is James Harding who came from the Times and seen as one of the high ranking rebels who forced the abandonment of BBC Scotland’s quite daring plan for its own dedicated TV station, a greatly enhanced budget and a federal-style autonomy, a plan actually approved and then ditched. Harding would see part of his empire evaporate under the scheme. The suspicion is that, as direct boss and close colleague of Smith, he sees him as a trusted appointee who will remain loyal to London and ensure the interests of the metropolitan powerbase are respected. This was underlined when it became clear that the decision on which candidates would go forward was decided by Harding sitting with Kenny McQuarrie, the Scotland Director.

Gary Smith has the professional attributes needed for a news-based role but at Pacific Quay the demands are much greater than that. Building credibility with the audience while containing and trimming budgets may be insurmountable. Rebuilding staff morale will take time. Restoring an air of gravitas to radio would be a bonus. (As far as I know he has no experience of radio making him one in a long line of news heads with a one-dimensional outlook (telly) in a multi-platform age).

One disturbing snippet delivered from his colleagues in London was his reluctance to move to Scotland. Yes, you should read that again…

He is established with family down there and it’s normal to meet resistance to moving home. It’s just that normally such family decisions are agreed before going for a job. Was he prompted, partly against his will, to throw his hat it? The worrying aspect has to be that anyone who honestly believed this job could be done in a weekly commute simply hasn’t understood what the job is.

This is an appointment at the heart of public life demanding a profile and networking and the establishment of working relationships across society. It would have helped if his own boss, Kenny McQuarrie had used his years to build those relationships and that public profile which would have cleared a path for a new man coming in. To stay in London while running Scottish news would make a laughing stock of the job and the BBC.

There will be no excuse if Smith isn’t the right man. BBC management made a mistake they were endlessly warned against when they appointed John Boothman. That lesson must be learned. Also this time there was a fine a field of candidates as they could have hoped for which effectively kills off any claim they were limited for choice.

At least one of those failed candidates won’t be pleased this morning. She is an experienced, talented and grounded Scottish broadcaster who was personally encouraged by McQuarrie to go for the job against her own instincts. Told she had the abilities sought, she followed his lead and applied, no doubt convinced she had a green light. To be rejected despite his approach won’t enamour her to the Director.

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Creaks and Groans

SNP: They’ve stopped Scottish MPs voting in Westminster on issues that only affect England.

Voter: Oh aye.

SNP: They will get a final say before anything becomes law but nevertheless…

Voter: So you say.

SNP: And they didn’t legislate for it, they used a statutory instrument to introduce it.

Voter: Is that the time? I’ve a bus to catch…

And who can blame him. A tweak to the rules in the Old Boys’ Club in a weak attempt to compensate for devolution is hardly the stuff to trigger insurrection. In fact some of the Nationalist hysteria is enough to induce a wry smile and a knowing wink – this is one we can build a grievance on.

Adjusting the rules to create the impression that things were being evened up for England should have happened years ago, but the House authorities never had the imagination or the nous to respond – after all they had the Unionist bloc to rely on when it came to the constitution and Labour always ultimately played their game.

There isn’t a voter from Yell to Yetholm who gives a tinker’s cuss about the arcane maneuverings of the Palace of Westminster. No sane person has anything but contempt for their self-serving, serpentine games and no sensate Scot could care less if the MP for Motherwell is denied a vote on grammar schools for Maidenhead.

As the SNP tiptoes through the daffodils of the Great Unwritten British Constitution © Magna Carta, they appear to have forgotten that they forfeited the moral ascendancy by breaching their own rule of omerta on England-only laws when they threatened to vote down the softening of fox hunting legislation.

It is surely a curious strategy too to protest that your voice is no longer heard when your specific selling point is that you are a stronger voice for Scotland…the metaphor is one of crying in the wilderness, so hardly the image of the all-powerful Sturgeonator.

We won’t play Westminster games, they said. We won’t fall into the Establishment trap. And yet here is engineered wrath at a Whitehall farce which exposes how lame the parliamentary system is at satisfying our democratic needs.

Why shouldn’t there be an English Grand Committee stage before a final vote? It still leaves the ultimate judgment in the hands of the whole House. It might mean that some legislation is simply dropped because it won’t get through the last stage but is something that doesn’t happen really likely to impact on Scotland?

There undoubtedly is an issue of funding consequentials but that has been partly met by excluding Estimates Resolutions which determine spending. The role of the Speaker will evolve because he will in effect have to decide what constitutes England-only law. (All that means is he’ll need his Weetabix from now on). To avoid tit-for-tat rebellions by Nationalists who could gum up the work of the House if they feel cheated, the Speaker will feel inclined to be generous in his interpretation of what is England only. (He seems in any case not to be flavour of the month with his own Conservative friends).

While the SNP fumes, the disgruntled English think they’re getting their own back, which is no bad thing. The poor things have had to put up with a lot of revolt from the Celtic peasants they allowed into their hallowed chamber.

It strikes a discordant note for them to complain they are second class MPs because English MPs get a Grand Committee, something Scotland has had since 1895. I’m afraid I am left distinctly cold by rows over procedures in the unrepresentative and medieval home of British democracy.

However…some points worth considering.

First is the enduring truth, discussed here previously, that the Commons has had an overwhelming, automatic and inbuilt English majority since Queen Anne bribed her way into the Union in 1707.

It is statistically impossible for any other part of the UK to outvote England – ever. There are 533 English constituency MPs and 117 from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. ‘England’ has an absolute majority and always will. What the Tories mean is that English Tory policies need a majority to go through, as opposed to simply English policies. If there was an issue of overriding English national interest – say Morris Dancing was to be made compulsory – it only needs English MPs to agree and it happens, irrespective of any other national viewpoint. It is only because English MPs (unlike the current Scottish ones) can’t agree among themselves or, just as likely, can’t find an issue of genuine English national interest at all, that we pretend they don’t have total ownership of parliament. So, in reality, what the government is doing with EVEL is gerrymandering the system to suit itself.

Next comes the logical solution they refuse to countenance – federalism. With three nations acquiring elected chambers and England demanding autonomy, Britain is one step away from a federal state. The combined results of the referendum and the general election have written in huge graffiti on the wall of Downing Street a clear message…we are prepared to stay, but only if we have effective independence of operation. Home rule. Real devolution. A federal Scotland. The British state doesn’t have the intelligence nor the desire to deliver what people want.

Lastly, they are once again poking fingers into their own mousetrap. Like Laurel and Hardy, the British governing elite stumble from cock-up to catastrophe. Error compounds error. Their primary gene is condescension. Somewhere in the foundations of Britain and empire an unblinking self -belief was born, a collective myopia that was closed to the possibility of fallibility. You see it in blind incompetence throughout British history, from Chelmsford leading his men to Zulu slaughter at Isandlwana and the prelude to Rorke’s Drift, to Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul when William Brydon was sole survivor, to today’s disastrous aftermath in Libya…all driven by a leadership class predominantly from the same social hierarchy and the same schools and universities. My current read is 1776 by Thomas Fleming, an account of America’s belligerent departure from Britain’s embrace. It shows how a frightened, disunited and originally loyal population, many seeking reconciliation, was turned into a determined insurgent movement hell bent on independence by the arrogance and contempt of King George and his officers.

All the current crop of public schoolboys has done is create a new grievance, this time easily portrayed as a slight, a dismissal, of Scottish status at the very time the demand is for more, not less, empowerment. Rather than strengthening the Union, they have lit a fire within by allowing EVEL to be played out as a denial of democracy to Scots rather than an enhancement for England. And how will Unionists answer the emerging question of how a Scot might again be Prime Minister in a government he/she does not command totally?

This episode points in one direction – and presumably is the reason why the Nationalists are talking it up – and that is fracture. The creaking Union is now being wedged open from within by a cack-handed government that only understands its own selfish needs. They confirm the blinkered worldview, the lack of prescience and strategic thought of those who front the UK. The creaks and groans of dismemberment sound sweet indeed to a Nationalist.

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Her Majesty’s Press

In catching up with the intellectual zeitgeist that is Scottish politics, I see what used to be the usual suspects’ parade of Nat-bashers has been swelled by more open-minded commentators. It’s as if a dam has burst and a torrent of salty material unleashed. Bobbing in the foaming rush are the icons of infamy – Michelle Thomson, Fiona Hyslop, Fergus Frackman Ewing and even the Sun God herself waving helplessly that her record on education and health deserves a lifebelt. No chance, hen. We’re no’ happy.

The mighty buttress of informed opinion on which we rely to repel injustice and untruth – OK, Iain Macwhirter and Kevin McKenna – has turned its Olympian presence against the forces of nationalism. Even dedicated Nat Alex Bell has been putting the boot in – in the Labour-genuflecting Record.

The Press turning on those it first helped to build up is as ancient as Aesop’s Fables. Pick just about any celebrity or idea that has captured public imagination and you’ll see a pattern. First it’s something new – look, here’s a surprise –followed by the rise to fame being celebrated. Then during the long plateau of familiarity, their pet refuses to perform any new tricks. That’s when it deserves a kick or two to remind it who it owes success to. Finally, as everyone from Billy Connelly to Smeeto, from Susan Boyle to Ally McCoist has learned, they put the boot in and hoof you into the dustbin of infamy. Never look at the media as your friend – it’s like getting a loan from the Mafia.

There are fads in the media because there is no such thing as a truly independently-minded paper. To be a journalist is to run with the pack. However differently you see yourself and however distinctive you try to be, you remain in the wider family and obey its rules. You are scared of ridicule by not buying into a story line. If one paper, no matter how biased or unprofessional, gets a story, it becomes law to the herd who follow up or reference it. Trends are established so that at different times the worst evils in society are, variously, cowboy builders, doorstep conmen, dangerous dogs, East Europeans, mobile phone masts or beef burgers…until they get bored and move on to the next. It even happens with war. Papers stopped putting Iraq on the front page as soon as it failed to produce anything new. The murder of our fellow citizens by terrorists in Northern Ireland went from Front to Page 2 many years ago. The non-story of TinthePark has become, in the lazy and thus far, inaccurate jargon, ‘sleaze’.

To be fair, the SNP has had an amazing run. Amid the cacophony of Unionist spite which characterises the Scottish media (if there truly is such a thing in the real sense), there have been – there are – the insightful and intelligent who have recorded the nationalist phenomenon and presented readers with knowledge and understanding. Being a real journalist as opposed to the party hacks peering under stones, is an honourable calling because, done properly, it provides a service which improves society. If you spend your life as a teacher in Brechin, you can’t be in Holyrood to observe the body language of Nationalist MSPs or hear a whisper from Kezia’s assistant. But when those little signals lead to policies that affect your classroom, you need to know. It all requires dissemination and interpretation. News, and especially politics, is never black and white. The job of the commentator is to paint a picture for you which aids your understanding. When he can do it with wit and colour so you enjoy the process of reading it, he transcends the mundane and becomes an Iain or a Kevin.

We are well on the way to a decade of SNP government. They have dominated every aspect of politics in Scotland, their pet project became a global story, they have grown into a phenomenon, have destroyed their opponents and are now big players in a second parliament. They have the most popular leader in Britain.

This isn’t natural.

The SNP story defies all known logic. It is, in a British sense, a loony ragtag of obsessives, lefties and conservatives who have been bit players in a real sovereign nation for centuries and think that hilarious identity accessories like bagpipes and sporrans entitles them to run their own country. Many Scots agree with this.

In overturning the known world the SNP frightened the habitually superior types who know how to run our affairs from Whitehall and whose status or ability is rarely challenged by most of the media. They created a reaction in the Unionist media of fear and loathing which in turn leads to scary, hyperbolic copy. In Scotland, because of the nature of our media ownership and the inflexible mindset of dogmatic journalists, we got much of the same except from those who saw in this the ingredients of a seriously good story. Here was a complex issue that needed explanation. It involved changing public attitudes, power politics, high intensity strategies and the future of a country. Approached properly, it was the story of a lifetime. And that’s why in some notable examples, we have enjoyed a prolonged period of world class journalism, much of it explaining the SNP success and the demise of the opposition. Becoming a critic, of course, doesn’t mean abandoning journalism. But, I repeat, this championing of a party in power is not normal.

In a democracy, the institutional role of the media is to challenge power. That may be laughable when you read the British Press or listen to some BBC correspondents basically do the government Press office’s job on air. But when it comes to MP’s expenses or steel closures caused partly by cheap imports when the Chinese leader is here, the media starts doing its job. In dictatorships (see China) that doesn’t happen.

Yet how do you challenge a government that hardly does anything wrong? What case do you make against it when its popularity isn’t just huge but growing? How do you attack them when they are also an opposition in another parliament ‘fighting injustice’ and ‘standing up for Scotland’? And how do you criticise them when their opponents are so utterly incompetent in comparison and offer so little in useable material? Damn. This is difficult.

Difficult or not, it has to be done. It’s almost as if we need the old media in attack mode for normalisation to occur.

Governments should be doubted, they should agonise over decisions to avoid challenge. They should get used to being disliked – they run our affairs, don’t they, and are you so happy you’ve nothing to complain about?

It may be that at long last the SNP honeymoon is over and it’s already lasted longer than many marriages. From now on we may expect regular bashings across all the conventional media and quite right too. Let’s have our journalists doing what journalists do in every other country. It will be interesting to see how long the Canadian media give the appealing and popular Trudeau.

But, you know I can’t help feeling some of the criticism is contrived. There is no sign that the wider public thinks the SNP is doing such a poor job. One of Macwhirter’s criticisms is based on the Oxfam report showing how the rich have got richer and inequality is rising but this is a global phenomenon from the financial crash. Those with the means to do so moved their money around or withdrew it. When governments threw money at the banks in quantative easing it shored up share values and other assets, putting cash into the pockets of the wealthy. A public sector worker had no such luxury and was used as the dupe who would pay for it all by the government.

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/aug/23/britains-richest-gained-quantative-easing-bank Even the Oxfam report is woolly on what specific powers the Scottish government has which could have arrested and reversed this situation. When you don’t even control tax and spend, you can’t begin to take on global finance.

But, never mind, this is how things should be with a questioning media and I believe it is also a good thing for the SNP. They have lived with a largely oppositionist media all these years and it simply doesn’t impact on them the way you might expect. When there is public doubt as there was over independence, it does matter that the media is biased because they act to confirm people’s fears. But when you remove the independence issue and ask Scots what they think of the SNP as a devolved administration, they are untouchable, protected by a force field of respect and admiration.

The non SNP Left may not agree but then they don’t represent more than a slice of opinion compared to the bedrock of support. The referendum experience taught Scots much about their media and it is now the new normal to scoff at journalism that once commanded respect. Like so many institutions, the media was exposed during the indyref and found wanting. The Scottish media will never have the same power again.

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J’espere

Just back from France…did I miss anything? And please don’t say the SNP conference. These events are the dullest, most choreographed bit of media tap-dancing you’ll ever come across, no matter how many cheering delegates and how many tambourines. Something must have happened.

Meanwhile I was literally in the geographic centre of the country in a non-tourist, farming area where there are endless hedge-lined fields, broadleaf woods, Limousin cattle and rustic hamlets with half-beamed houses and a million crumbling wooden barn doors. How many barns are there in France and what’s inside them?

You could drive all day and not see a soul – quite eerie. Everything looked shut even when it wasn’t. The pace of life isn’t so much slow as hibernatory. At this time of year Limousin is one long yawn as if saying summer is over, get ready for the winter sleep. Ah, the longueur.

It was a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane that brought me round. It’s the village targeted by the Nazis for eradication in June 1944 days after the Normandy landings. Over 600 were rounded up, moved in sections to different sites and machine-gunned before being burned. The women and children were crushed into the church and suffocated with smoke before the doors were held open to allow the SS to fire into them. There were six survivors. They laid waste to the village which was on a tram line from Limoges and was a popular spot for fishing with cafes, restaurants, fabric makers and hair dressers. And it’s all still there. De Gaulle asked for it to be preserved as a reminder and a new village was built nearby. You walk through the streets past the garage where one group of men were sprayed with bullets. The rusting hulks of 1940s Citroens still sit inside. In the blasted front room of a house where calcified remains were discovered, there is a sewing machine. In the market square where the SS held them before execution, the mayor’s car sits where he left it. There is the church window through which the sole woman survivor escaped and the impossibly well- preserved confessional box in which the bodies of two little boys were wedged, both shot in the neck.

It is a visit to recalibrate your compass. What does real terror feel like? When your eyes meet your mother’s as you are led away, do you reconcile yourself? When the black smoke fills the building do you lift the baby out of the pram to hold it or drape yourself over to protect it? (The pram is there in the sacristy). What happens to humans when all normal protections of law, security and understanding have gone? It was from the ashes of Oradour and other sites like it that an idea was born. Amid the fury and recrimination came the realisation that this was avoidable – that war itself could be pre-empted through treaty which is the formalisation of friendship. The early Franco-German alliance and the European Coal and Steel Community led to today’s EU. It was what we usually call a dream, an aspiration or, in modern political parlance, hope.

All this is a long way from our debate and you can’t walk through Oradour and think of politics as local government reform and tax policy, of personalities and polls. Much as we sometimes deny it because it’s good sport, politics is directly tied to people’s aspirations. It’s what they want for themselves and, as we asked in the indyref, what kind of country do you want to live in? I doubt if anybody of any party would fail to list safety and the pursuit of happiness and, if it were possible to ask villagers of Oradour, they would agree – to be safe and to be happy. Define, according to taste.

What war teaches us is that we all have the capacity for cruelty and the infliction of death but the construction of alliances and laws improves human relations and reduces the risks. France knew the route it must take after 1945 and in seeking those new friendships and pacts, it created a new age of optimism – and prosperity – across Europe. In short, it deployed hope not vengeance.

Sometimes the actions of men are inexplicable, occasionally so grave as to overwhelm our rational responses. That’s when we look beyond the conventional to the ethereal. We search for a reaction that is greater in force than the events that triggered it and there we find it in hope – a desire for, and belief in, better.

Beyond all the politicking of the economy, the health service or land reform, striving humans need a sense of hope. Not because Scotland faces imminent 1945-style attack but because it is a fundamental of the human condition that drives us forward and gives us a reason to continue. Your hope may be different from mine but it will have the same effect.

In catching up since my return, I see pieces by writers puzzled by on-going SNP success when (apparently) they are mired in sleaze. They are impervious to our smears and slights, might be another way of putting it. But I don’t find it surprising at all. They have a simple idea summed up in one word – Scotland – that anyone can make their own and they have a message based on debunking the old ways to create a better country – in other words, hope.

It is an idea that lies at the heart of all marketing and, indeed, is at the root of religion. No other party in Britain has fashioned a way of linking itself so successfully to the idea of hope. In Labour’s case, it has fallen into the trap of ridiculing it in the belief that an attack on high-flown aspirational rhetoric amounts to an attack on the SNP. This is just wrong. Listen to the voices on Billy Kay’s series The Cause on Radio Scotland on how they feel about their country and the future. From my own disbelief at how one group of Scots disparaged their own country in order to win, to others who’d do it all again tomorrow so hopeful, excited and inspired did it make them. People are sick of cynical, tired of the manipulative, hungry for positive. It doesn’t matter how much it’s just politicians’ talk, it’s important that it creates the mood music against which people make their judgments. It means that every time the SNP mess up, they are more likely to be forgiven. Voters aren’t daft. They know what politicians are don’t expect the SNP to be any different. But they believe they are trying to do right, are convinced they want better. You don’t have to like all the policies – who does? But since your government is tied directly to your happiness, don’t you want one that has a convincing line in hopeful language, one that shares your belief that there is a way to make things better? The opinion polls tell us a story the journalists cannot. The SNP have cornered the market in all-Scotland voting intentions and now they have taken out the copyright on Hope. They will own it for a long time to come.

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