Stumped for words when you meet one of Scotland’s new political obverlords? Never fear – JOHN McTERNAN has some sage advice


Next time you meet a nationalist, ask them what independence is for. You’ll have to ask two or three times and after a lot of flapping gums you’ll finally hear the following: “Well, at least we wouldn’t be taken into an illegal war… And we wouldn’t have any Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

So that’s it then, the longest lasting and most successful union of two countries anywhere in the world has to be broken because of the Iraq War. Well, here’s a newsflash – the war is over, and we’re never going to invade Iraq. As for the deterrent – for that is what is meant by WMD – it is noteworthy that what is never said is that independence would allow Scotland to close Her Majesty’s Naval Base on the Clyde. But that’s what is meant by getting shot of WMDs. Why the obfuscation? The 11,000 jobs that would move to England.

But, please, don’t be tempted to mock or tease. Having listened to the desperate emotional spasm, press on. Say: “Fine, but what else? Maybe something a bit closer to home. How about the economy?”

When they finally talk about controlling tax, nod in a respectful fashion and ask: “So, if you controlled corporation tax what would you actually do?” When they confess that they’d like to cut the rate, gently remind them that they must be the only people in Scotland who think that big business pays too much tax.

But don’t be cruel. Don’t ask: ‘Whaur’s your social democracy, noo?” That would be to intrude on private grief.

Finally, get to the heart of the matter and ask how will schools, hospitals and universities get better. Sit back, and relax while you hear a litany of free-dom – free this and free that. A sprinkling of anti-private sector rhetoric. (Resist the temptation to interrupt and ask how this squares with business-friendly corporation tax cuts.) And a bold statement that it’ll all be so much better than England. Nod enthusiastically, and ask: “Yes, but how is that any different from now?”

Use the ensuing stunned silence to tiptoe away.

John McTernan was head of policy to First Minister Henry McLeish, a senior advisor to Tony Blair and special advisor to Jim Murphy MP when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. He now writes for the Telegraph and the Scotsman. He doesn’t seem to like nationalists much. Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcternan.

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37 thoughts on “Conversations with a nationalist

  1. Why the obfuscation? The 11,000 jobs that would move to England.

    Official government statement is 8-900 jobs!

    Labour multiplies or divides at will for political posturing.

    Under Thatcher manufacturing went down from 25% to 22% and surprise Blair/Brown knocked it down to 11.5% party of the people eh.

    1. Meant to put this in to back things up.

      Parliamentary Answer on 21 Feb 2005:

      Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will estimate how many (a) direct and (b) indirect civilian jobs in (i) Scotland and (ii) the rest of the UK rely upon the Trident programme. [214416]
      Mr. Hoon: The number of civilian jobs which directly rely upon the Trident programme is estimated to be 936 in Scotland, with an additional 6,640 in the rest of the United Kingdom. The number of civilian jobs which indirectly rely upon the Trident programme is estimated to be 300 in Scotland and 5,700 for the rest of the UK.

  2. “[T]hey must be the only people in Scotland who think that big business pays too much tax.”

    I beg to differ. The Conservative, Liberal Democrat and, oh yes, the Labour party groups in the Scottish Parliament went on record as believing that big businesses pay too much tax when they voted down the SNP ‘Tesco Tax’ in the last Parliament.

    On top of which, since when did only ‘big’ business pay corporation tax? Isn’t the opposite true – that ‘big’ businesses pay proportionately less tax (Witness Barclays bank’s £11.6 billion profit/1% tax ‘windfall’) than SME’s.

    Look at the evidence gathered for the ‘Tesco Tax’ debate earlier this year. CBI Scotland (100 members) were against the tax. The Federation of Small Businesses of Scotland (3000 members) were in favour of it.

    Isn’t the point of corporation tax incentives to grow SMEs, not just to add to the profits of already successful mega-corporations. Isn’t Scotland well positioned in several burgeoning sectors (Software, life sciences, renewables) with SMEs capable of rapid and exciting growth – provided they are able to attract the right levels of investment?

    And if all that is the case, wouldn’t investing in a Scottish SME sector, that grows real, life-changing careers, for the benefit of Scottish skills, Scottish prospects and Scottish workers be a more socially-democratic approach then simply kow-towing to the demands of Megabucks Plc?

    “[H]ow is that any different from now?” Well, I can think of 99,056.50 reasons, a figure equivalent to the amount in pounds Sterling donated to the Labour Party, by Tesco, since 2003. A figure that John, presumably, is desperate to inflate still further.

    1. Several points need made here.

      First, the “Tesco tax” is not the same as corporation task, so stop pretending it is.

      Second, the rate of corporation tax has a negligible effect on small growing businesses, because they are investing their profits in growth and therefore have very little tax liability.

      Third, the most effective way of encouraging SME growth is by improving the availability of investment and debt funding, not by marginal tax rate adjustments.

      The reality is that corporation tax cuts overwhelming help large corporates, not SMEs, and job creation in this country, which is what we overwhelmingly need, is led by SMEs, not large corporates.

      I’m not intrinsically averse to corporation tax being controlled by the Scottish Parliament, but John is dead right to point out that what this present Scottish Government want to do with that control is what should be concerning us.

    2. Firstly, let’s set the donations argument aside as it’s patently absurd given the SNP accept huge donations from the likes of Brian Souter.

      Secondly, corporation tax is already set at a lower rate for SMEs. That’s not what’s being proposed. The talk is of competing with Ireland in a race to the bottom and encouraging large companies to use us a tax haven. That doesn’t bring investment, doesn’t bring jobs and doesn’t bring security – those companies are highly mobile and will move to another location when it becomes advantageous to them to do so.

      Genuine investment can encouraged by a number of methods, principally a well educated workforce and a stable investment climate. Cutting corporation tax does not help there. The additional cuts the SNP proposals will entail further threaten the former and chopping and changing the tax system threatens the latter.

      There’s a trend to harmonise corporation tax across the EU and creating smaller differentials for that reason.

  3. Hey John. Is it still your position that there won’t be a referendum, as you stated on Newsnight Scotland on May 6th? Barely audible over the stunned laughter of Iain Macwhirter and Gordon Brewer was your voice insisting that any thought of Holyrood actually holding one was, and I quote, “bollocks”.

    I ask, obviously, because if there’s not going to be a referendum then the purpose of independence is somewhat moot.

  4. (Oh, and just to demonstrate a bit of quid-pro-quo goodwill, while I’m waiting for you to answer my question I’ll answer yours, in just four words: no more Tory governments.)

  5. I assume this is Mr McTernan flying his colours high? Hopefully then newsnicht won’t be trying to pass him off as a neutral voice again

  6. I’m trying to take this site seriously despite its silly name and tartan decorations but then John comes along with his misinformation and bitterness and reinforces the belief that the site is just a joke for the amusement of nationalists.

    When you work out why you were drubbed at the election maybe then people will take you more seriously and stop laughing.

    Until then, I’ll chuckle away at John’s bitterness and his wonderful grasp of Scottish politics with his:

    “gently remind them that they must be the only people in Scotland who think that big business pays too much tax”.

  7. Yeah a nation wanting self determination to allow it to pursue its own policies and agendas and also the ability to bring the full weight of its own resources to combat its unique problems why would anyone want that? Your right John all that’s just stupid!

  8. Once you have said ‘Nationalist’ reeling from your probing questions, you can then go on to present Labour’s plan for tackling the myriad problems facing Scottish society. Oh wait…….

  9. Independence is for making the lives of the people of Scotland better. Delivering on the social democratic aspirations that the Labour Party used to have but abandoned a long time ago.

    That’s the point about this debate: the SNP wants independence for a purpose – to do things, to build a better country, to make better political and economic decisions so that there are better outcomes for all the people who live in Scotland. The Labour Party have no idea why they support the Union – they just do. Because, erm, you know, Alex Salmond doesn’t. And he’s bad. So there.

    That’s the difference between the two positions: the SNP has a clear and clearly articulated set of beliefs – or at least arguments that they are willing to discuss and debate – about the kind of Scotland they want to create. The Labour Party has knee-jerk, thoughtless, ideological oppositionalism. That was overwhelmingly rejected on May 5th. I had hoped this site would try to get beyond such pointlessness. Clearly, since you appear to think John McTernan has something sensible to add to the debate, I had overestimated you.

  10. You’ve also got constructive ideas to add to the debate though John, right?

    10 posts into this brave new world and you’ve already resorted to mud throwing at the SNP and their supporters. This is why you can’t have nice things. This is why you lost my vote.

    What frustrates me about Scottish Labour is that it (wilfully?) fails to grasp that a desire for independence does not equate to a desire for an SNP government in an independent Scotland. What about those of us who would like to see a Labour government with full power to govern our country?

    Mind you, I no longer count myself as part of this group. Scottish Labour has no leader, no vision, no policies, and no ideals. Scottish political discourse is suffering badly as a result.

  11. Excellent post. But, policy aside, SNP values antithetical to social democracy/Socialism. Any good leftist’d tell you in a second parochial, exclusionary nationalism is antithetical to progressive principles.

    Way I look at it we should rub SNP noses in the poverty of their aspiration. Dare them to call a referendum soon. Don’t blame them for running scared. Clegg’s kicking on AV reminded must freak Salmond out.

    Take care,


    1. “Any good leftist’d tell you in a second parochial, exclusionary nationalism is antithetical to progressive principles.”

      Then it’s fortunate that the SNP promote a totally inclusive civic nationalism.

      I never cease to be amazed at the way Scottish labour activists celebrate the fact that Scotland – which never votes Tory – has to endure a Tory government 50% of the time.

      1. I love this idea that so many lazy leftists in large European countries (which funnily enough often used to be centres of colonial power) have – namely that nationalism is inherently negative and of no intrinsic value whatsoever. What would these people say to the hundreds of countries that have become independent in the last century? That their nationhood is not valid? That they should have shut up and yoked their cultures and economies to an dominant external centre? That democracy is not for them? The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of democracies in the world only exist because of a binding sense of civic nationhood, and some of those loyal to Britain cannot even bring themselves to acknowledge that the problem for them is that they are struggling to articulate this from a British perspective. John’s article here is a rather characteristically lame attempt to flip this problem on its head. He is a superb asset to the movement for an independent Scotland.

      2. I don’t buy your civic nationalist arguments. Your project is ultimately exclusionary. Labour voters in Manchester, Rhyl, London and Cornwall have to put up with Tory govt as well but they don’t decide to construct exclusionary and ultimately arbitrary borders between themselves and the rest of the country. Your political project is a retreat.

        1. “Labour voters in Manchester, Rhyl, London and Cornwall have to put up with Tory govt as well but they don’t decide to construct exclusionary and ultimately arbitrary borders between themselves and the rest of the country.”

          More fool them. I’m not stopping them.

          ALL borders are arbitrary, including the UK’s.

        2. You just don’t get it do you.

          Scotland is a separate nation, it wants to be an independent nation again and play its own role amongst the states of the world, why are you trying to deny us that democratic right?

          Do you want Czech and Slovakia to be joined together again? Do you want Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, etc, to be subsumed by Russia again? Should Norway be forced back into a union with Denmark or Sweden again?

          Are you really arguing that these nations shouldn’t have had the right to self determination?

          The intolerant and narrow minded views of your argument are truly astounding

          1. Hey bruv

            Chill out. I’m not denying you anything. In fact, I’d like a referendum immediately so Salmond could get have his Clegg AV moment. I think you’d get whipped badly because I doubt most folk in Scotland will share your parochial political aspirations.

            Take care

  12. In this post and also in his rambling article in today’s Scotsman, Mr McTernan displays exactly the kind of relentlessly negative attitude that has lost Labour the past 2 Scottish elections. It almost seems this kind of self destructive behaviour is pre-programmed into his DNA.

    He also continues to insist on his self denial of the fact that the people of Scotland are the ultimate decision makers. Even though on paper the Westminster Parliament may have this power, in practice they would be very foolish to ignore the will of the people on any major issue.

    Fair enough attack the SNP for things you disagree with them on, but the abject failure to offer any alternative means that if they keep going as Mr McTernan is at the moment, Labour will continue to lose in Scotland for some time. By this I mean Labour losing (and the SNP winning) at council and Scottish Parliament level, possibly also the odd Westminster by-election shock now and again too in years to come (although Inverclyde is probably a bit too far our of reach), and the ultimate prize of the Independence Referendum.

    Anyway keep going with this behaviour Mr McTernan, as a nationalist it suits me down to the ground.

  13. I am not sure this is the most constructive post…

    All nationalist movements, including the SNP’s, have their ugly sides. However, the SNP’s positive civic nationalism at its best captures our modern identity and why this matters in a way we have never dealt with. Trying to characterise nationalism as an “emotional spasm” is a crude and inaccurate distortion of the position of most SNP members.

    However, whether you agree with me or not, Paul is right. How well have negative politics worked in the last two elections?

    1. Kenny,
      While I would agree that a “civic nationalism” is better than the ugly sort, I’m not sure I’ve seen a succinct description of what that actually is and how it differs from the usual sort.

      The big problem, as I see it is that the SNP’s brand of nationalism encourages the ugly sort – either from their supporters or others in Scottish society. The snide remarks about judges only knowing about Edinburgh from a visit to the festival, for example will encourage other anti-English sentiment. On the doorsteps, I sometimes encountered examples of people not wanting to vote for our candidate because he was English – or telling me to go home to England. Surely not the sort of attitude the SNP wants to be associated with nationalism?

      1. Nigel Donn SNP MSP for Angus North and Mearns is English, so you’re talking absolute rubbish yet again!

        1. I know he’s English. So was the Labour candidate. As was the Lib Dem candidate. My point was that some people expressed a strong anti-English bias on the doorstep, saying that they would vote SNP and not Labour because our candidate was English. Presumably they didnt know Nigel was English too.

          Thats not the nice type of nationalism.

          1. I’ve lived in Angus for most of my life and my family members included Sir Robert Watson Watt. You seem to be intent on branding the people of Angus as anti-English and that is simply false. You can’t base an opinion on what everyone in an area thinks on the replies of a small proportion. I currently live in Forfar and no Labour representatives came to my door, my neighbour’s doors or that of anyone I know and I have family in Montrose, Brechin, Forfar and Kirriemuir.

          2. I’m not branding the people of Angus as anti-English. I never said that, and you seem determined to put words in my mouth. I merely said that I had come across that view, and it wasnt nice – it was the ugly side of nationalism, as opposed to the ‘civic nationalism’ that the SNP claims to be, and it seems to be swept under the carpet. The vast majority of people in Angus are warm, friendly and welcoming. I live here, I work here, my wife is from Angus, I have family and friends across Angus and indeed across Scotland.

            I found a small number who were anti-English, and my comment is that the sort of remarks we heard from the Justice Secretary feeds into that. I’m sure its not his intent to stir up anti-English feeling, but he (and the rest of the SNP) needs to be aware of it before they open their mouths.

            Of course you cant base an opinion on what everyone in an area thinks on the replies of a small proportion, which is why I didnt. That makes it strange when you talk about no Labour representative coming to your door, or those of your friends and family. I cant deny that, but I did speak to hundreds, if not thousands of people, on their doorsteps and in the streets of Montrose, Brechin, Edzell, Forfar, Inverbervie, Gourdon and Stonehaven (Kirrie is in Angus South) during the campaign from January through to May. Many of them commented on how we were the only canvassers to have visited them. Often we got no reply from the doors we knocked on! Maybe the rosettes put peoople off from answering!

            However, we were a small team (just the candidate and a few others of us) so we obviously wernt able to get around to meet everyone, or knock on every door. I’m sorry we wernt able to speak to you, as I’m sure you would have given us a warm and friendly welcome.

        2. I suspect John Ruddy is using the old tactic of trying to slur independence supporters as being anti-English.

          From a lot of the comments on this site I think some of the posters need to look at their own anti-Scottish sentiments and remarks before implying that those who don’t agree with their unionism (imperialism?) are anti-English.

          If John and his pals want to see anti-Scottish remarks on a daily basis then they just need to read some of the comments in any of the English based press and they’ll see some real bile. Sadly, I don’t see anyone from the unionist camps standing up or complaining against this.

          …maybe they think that this is a Union benefit.

          1. I dont think those comments are right – they’re factually incorrect, besides being personally insulting. I’m sure that everyone in Scottish Labour would condem any such anti-Scottish remarks.

            My point, if you cared to look at it, was that there were a few people who held such views, and that these risk being stoked up by some insensitive remarks from the Justice Secretary. I know that the vast majority of independence supporters dont share those views, but they do tend to pretend they dont exist – which is dangerous.

            The point of Nigel Don being English is a good one, as it shows how illogical those views are, and of course proves that the SNP isnt anti-English itself. But some people are – and having Kenny MacAskill slagging off English courts interfering on the TV feed that view.

          2. What about the establishment view that is perpetuated in the media that somehow England pays for Scotland, that the Scots are scroungers… The amount of times I have heard this regurgitated by people who come from England… That said I do not tar all English people with having that view, indeed some of my English friends who live in Scotland vote to SNP. So if a proportion of Scots have a anti English view, the same proportion of English will have a similar view of Scotland. Personally I think this is due to the fact that we are actually separate nations that have been forced together artificially much like Tito’s Yugoslavia. The so many times that I have felt that the views expressed by individuals from the South East of England (Daily Politics Show) are alien to how I view life or would want to live my life. Indeed when they are talking about Scotland this view is only exacerbated.

  14. I find this kind of partisan name calling to be unworthy of the importance of the debate regarding Scotland’s future. Mr. McTernan needs to step back from the partisan and offer more constructive comments. Labour can be a key part of Scotland’s future, whether in the union or out, but not if all it offers is insult and partisanship.

    The goal they should aspire to is to attract support and convince others of the correctness of their position. Mr. McTernan seems to have lost the plot and has only offered more of the same negativity that led to the electoral destruction and loss of many seats.

  15. After reading John McTernan’s irrational ramblings on the SNP and independence I am wondering if he posted this blog on the wrong site as he is clearly a right-winger who’d be more “at hame” with the Tories. He has no respect whatsoever for the people of Scotland. John Smith and Donald Dewar must be birlin’ in their graves at the mind-set of “Scottish” Labour today!

  16. Conversations with unionists

    “Our proposals have been designed to preserve the Union, the sovereignty of Parliament and the separation of powers.” – Lord Irvine of Lairg The Lord Chancellor, Opening Address to the Conference on Constitutional Reform in the UK, 17 January 1998

    “I feel that devolution has strengthened the UK.” – Alistair Campbell, Sunday Herald, 22 February 2004

    “Devolution has strengthened the UK, preserving the union on the basis of a fairer partnership.” – 2001 Labour Party Manifesto

    “Devolution has strengthened Britain because it has allowed the different parts of the UK to give expression to their diversity whilst celebrating the values that bind us together as a nation.” – Tony Blair, Foreword to Your Region,Your Choice, May 2002

    “Empowering our regions does not mean the break-up of England, just as devolution has not meant the break-up of the UK. It makes our nation stronger and more dynamic.” – John Prescott, Foreword to Your Region,Your Choice, May 2002

    “Devolution has strengthened the United Kingdom, not weakened it, as opponents once claimed.” – Peter Hain, Better Governance for Wales, June 2005

    “It is increasingly clear that devolution has strengthened the United Kingdom.” – Tony Blair, Hansard, 29 November 2000

    “Devolution has created a system which better responds to and reflects the needs of the people and I believe that strengthens the United Kingdom.” – Rhodri Morgan, address to the Oxford Union, 13 March 2003

    “Devolution has strengthened that democracy, giving Scotland a fresh voice within the United Kingdom.” – Jack McConnell, Speech at the Union of the Crowns Dinner, 01 July 2003

    “devolution has strengthened their [the Welsh, Scots and Irish] sense of identity so we can now assert Englishness without in any way damaging Britain.” – David Blunkett, The Telegraph, 15 March 2005

    “Then devolution to Scotland and Wales was a threat to the United Kingdom. Today devolution has weakened the separatists and strengthened the United Kingdom.” – Alan Milburn, Speech to the Fabian Society, 17 Jan 2005

    In light of this renewed nationalist bashing from Labour, are we to take it that devolution might not, after all, have strengthened the Union; are we to understand that all these Labour unionists were wrong?

  17. Toque, don’t forget the then Shadow Secretary of Scotland, Gerald Robertson, who said in 1995…

    “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead”

  18. It is very interesting watching all this from the outside.

    I suspect that folks like Matthew Bond would be shocked silly if he knew how many voters who identify with Labour and have a pattern of voting Labour support independence.

    Equally I am sure there are many Labour activists and members who are fairly pragmatic about independence and who see the dangers of portraying Labour as the great defenders of the Union – especially when that is going to mean working hand in hand with the Tories.

    You guys are going to have to work this out fairly soon, it will be interesting to see if a compromise can be found or if indeed you can find a way around having to take a fixed position on independence at all.

  19. J.McT……Nat-bashing has worked so well over the last few years….keep it up and the Gnats are sure to lose the referendum…..
    If the Gnats are to be defeated Labour has to stop being stupid and attack them where they are weak – civil liberties – and not where they are strong. Remember Ed Balls (of all people!) visiting Scoptland during the election and lecturing Salmond/Swinney etc. on the economy? How thick was that. Never mind that it was condescending; it was incredibly arrogant for a bloke so closely associated with Gordon Brown. Whatever the strong points of GBs chancellorship and premiership, however well he was sold by the tory press who liked his helpful attitute to the wealthy, the fact remains that GB managed to get everything wrong….the poorest people in the country actually became poorer under Blair and Brown that they had been under Thatcher and Major. Worse yet, the richest people did BETTER under Blair and Brown than under Thatcher and Major.
    Ther are still areas where Labour can stuff the Gnats….scrap the supreme court, restore the division of the north sea that has worked perfectly well for centuries, support better civil liberties, maybe even adopt democratic reform….remember, if the Gnats do as well at the next Westminster GE as they did in May, there will be a lot fewer Labour MPs from Scotland. If they do just a little bit better (and they may well at this rate) the relative postions of Labour and SNP might easily be reversed. The Glib Dumbs are probaly going to lose all of their seats apart from Orkney and Shetland, the tories will be lucky to hold the one they’ve got and there could easily be as few as 10 Labour survivors. That’ll really help Ed become PM won’t it?

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