Back when I started the Devo Files in October last year, the SNP surge which has wrought such terror in the hearts of the Westminster Establishment was just a fluke: a poll or two here and there, so what, they thought; it doesn’t mean anything, they reasoned; it won’t continue over the next few months, they hoped. Yet here we are, on the 24th of March, and the SNP are still significantly ahead of every other party in Scotland despite the relentless Print-BBC-Westminster offensive.
Nonetheless, there are still some seats which have a substantial New Labour majority: Willie Bain, Jim Murphy, and a handful more are still tipped to keep their seat, on account of their votes being so high even a 20-point gain to the SNP might not be enough. With that in mind, let’s look at the constituency Thomas Widmann deemed one of the most formidable constituencies for the SNP – Dumfries & Galloway, whose current majordomo is Russell Brown.
What makes Mr Brown special? Let us delve into the Devo Files…
MP since: 1st may 1997 (Dumfries), 5th May 2005 (Dumfries & Galloway)
Attendance record as of 24th March 2014: 71.6% (3,607 votes out of 5,036)
Rebellions against party policy as of 24th March 2014: 0.22% (8 votes out of 3,607)
Mr Brown is another loyal New Labour MP: indeed, out of the 888 votes he’s attended in the last term, Mr Brown voted against his party police a grand total of 0 times. This is borne out by his voting record.
Public Whip record: 41.7%
Did not vote on a second reading of the Scotland Bill
Did not vote on requiring Scottish ministers to order officers to start counting within four hours of polls closing
Did not vote on devolving regulation of air weapons
Did not vote on keeping insolvency powers with the Scottish parliament
Did not vote on keeping responsibility for regulating health officials at the Scottish parliament
Did not vote on devolving tax powers for quarrying and mining
Did not vote on code of conduct for Scottish ministers in relation to the treasury and borrowing powers
Voted against devolving the Scottish elements of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Voted for devolving responsibility for railways that start and finish in Scotland
Voted against devolving elements of the Crown Estate and accountability of the Crown Estate to the Scottish parliament
Voted against devolving time powers, time zones, and British Summer Time
Voted for devolving powers over food content and labelling
Voted against allowing the Scottish government to tax companies’ profits
Did not vote on devolving the regulation of shale gas to Scotland
Mr Brown presents a conundrum: in the Scotland Bill votes of 2011, he voted for only 2 motions, against 4 motions, and did not vote on 7 issues. Yet on the final devolution motion held in January 2015, after the Vow, after Devo-Max and Home Rule and Super-Mega-Ultra-Hyper-Uber-Over-Devo-Max, after the constant refrains of New Labour being the Party of Devolution… Russell Brown didn’t turn up to vote.
Of Mr Russell’s rebellions, some are truly bizarre. Among other things, he has:
Voted for doctor-assisted euthanasia
Voted against starting sittings in the House of Commons at 11:30am rather than 2:30 on Tuesdays
Voted both ways on the protection of vulnerable children
Voted for a fully appointed house of lords (again) (and again)
Voted against a bicameral parliament
Quite why Mr Brown is so in favour of an appointed House of Lords, yet also voted against a bicameral parliament, is downright baffling – I’m sure I’m missing something.
Other Votes of Interest
Mr Russell’s eclectic rebellions follow in his policy support. He…
Voted moderately for the mass retention of communications data
Voted strongly for Control Orders
Voted strongly for deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan
Voted strongly for identity cards
Voted strongly for the Iraq invasion
Voted strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in coroner’s inquests
Voted strongly for nuclear power
Voted strongly for reducing Parliamentary scrutiny
Voted strongly for New Labour’s post office reforms
Voted strongly for New Labour’s terror laws
Voted strongly for Trident replacement
Voted moderately against registration of lobbyists
Voted strongly against making abusive tax avoidance illegal
Voted strongly against limiting civil aviation pollution
Voted strongly against strengthening the Freedom of Information Bill 2000
Voted strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war
Voted strongly against the prevention of post office closures
Voted strongly against a referendum on alternative vote for MP elections
Voted strongly against free university tuition
Has never voted on corporal punishment for children
The Devo Files
“The Labour Party has always been the party of the devolution. It was a Labour Government that led the charge for a devolved Government in Scotland and this report lays out the next step in this journey. By giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament but maintaining certain issues at Westminster, we are ensuring the Scottish people keep the best of both worlds. The Scottish Parliament will have further taxation powers, yet Scottish people will know they can continue to use the pounds and that their savings and mortgages are safe thanks to the Bank of England. When out speaking to local people about independence, the overwhelming majority have said they want to stay as part of the UK but they would like to see more powers at the Scottish Parliament. The document fully meets their needs.”
– Mr Brown, March 2014
Once again, this is an MP who voted against further devolution on a 2-to-1 basis.
Office Costs: £21,934.38
Connected party: Gillian Carey (daughter) Senior Secretary, £20,000.00 – £24,999.99
Grand Total: £207,639.14 – £212,639.13
Mr Brown’s history with expenses is somewhat fraught. In December 2001, he was one of three MPs embroiled in an expenses claim stramash similar to those which lead to Henry McLeish’s resignation:
TWO Labour MPs in Scotland have been caught breaking parliamentary rules by claiming office expenses to which they were not entitled.
In circumstances similar to those that brought about the resignation of Henry McLeish as Scotland’s First Minister last month, they failed to declare to the House of Commons income from sub-letting their constituency offices.
A Labour Party spokesman said both Westminster and the MPs involved were conducting investigations and no attempt was being made to “cover up” the facts…
… Mr Brown, who had the rent for his constituency office paid in full, received rent from the MSP Elaine Murray who is the new deputy minister for tourism, culture and sport.
Miss Murray said it was inconceivable that Mr Brown would have “fiddled his expenses” and if there was any confusion it was because of the “lax systems at the Fees Office”.
You’d think he’d be more careful, yet Mr Brown also had a few claims of interest in May 2009:
Russell Brown, the MP for Dumfries and Galloway, submitted a claim totalling £4,755.19 for the work at a flat in Dolphin Square, a few hundred yards from the House of Commons.
His claim, under his parliamentary additional costs allowance, included £2,305.19 for bathroom fittings, tiles and materials and £2,450 for the installation of a bathroom suite.
Correspondence from the Commons department of finance and administration shows an official asked him to explain why he was claiming for the work on a rented property because “I would have expected this to have been the landlord’s responsibility”.
Mr Brown explained that he was “contractually obligated to maintain the property”, and Dolphin Square’s managers contacted the fees office to confirm that was the case.
The MP was also questioned over the cost of the refurbishments, claimed for in July 2005, because the limit imposed by the fees office for bathrooms was £3,500.
Mr Brown claimed that other MPs had renovated their bathrooms without a limit being imposed.
“But the other boys got to renovate their bathrooms as much as they wanted!”
“Local People Aren’t Stupid”
Last January, Mr Brown met with Stephen Hammond to discuss the issues regarding the coastguard. He was extremely dissatisfied with the UK government’s handling of the situation:
“That over 400 shifts have been so understaffed is totally unacceptable. When an emergency service is not properly staffed, it is automatically putting peoples’ lives at risk. When they proposed the closure of the centre in Clyde, the UK Government reassured us repeatedly that there would be no downgrade in service and no risk to local people. These figures show that this is not the case. I, along with my fellow MPs, will be meeting the Minister to question him as to why this is happening and what he intends to do about it. The centre in the Clyde should not have been shut in the first place. These figures further underline this fact. I will also question what these means for the future of Liverpool MRCC which has responsibility for the Solway up the Mull of Galloway. In light of these figures, I will question whether going ahead with its closure, which is due next year, is the wisest course of action.”
Mr Brown clearly believes that the UK government has not acted in the best interests of the people of Scotland, or the United Kingdom in general for that matter: he certainly does not believe that the Clyde centre should have been shut at all.
Two years earlier, the Scotland Bill proposed that responsibility over the Scottish elements of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency be devolved to the Scottish Parliament:
The proposed new clause rejected in this vote sought to treat the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as a Cross-Border Public Authority and devolve responsibilities relating to it to Scotland.
The proposed new clause included:
- The funding, operation and planning authority of Maritime and Coastguard Agency facilities in Scotland shall reside with the Scottish Government and the appropriate Scottish Minister.
- These parts of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency which are the responsibility of Scottish Government shall be known as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Scotland).
- The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Scotland) will be responsible for maintaining and upholding domestic and international laws and obligations in the Scottish Waters.
- For the purposes of this section, the Scottish Waters are as defined by the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundary Order 1999.
The SNP supported it, as did Plaid Cymru and the SDLP. The Conservatives, Neoliberal Democrats, and most of New Labour opposed it.
Russell Brown was among the 178 members of the so-called “Party of Devolution” which voted against the devolution of the Coastguard.
You have to wonder: if the coastguard was devolved to the Scottish Parliament, would the Clyde centre have been closed at all? Certainly it’s difficult to imagine the Scottish government serving the coastguard worse than the Coalition have. Eileen McLeod MSP seemed to think so:
“Scotland’s coastguard services are poorly served by Westminster, and it is no wonder that experts are calling for responsibility in this area to be held by the Scottish Government. I will be writing to the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, to raise these concerns with him and call on him to at the very least reconsider proceeding any further with the closure plans. Ultimately only independence will make sure Scotland has the power to properly protect our coasts.”
Mr Brown’s response was as petulant as it was predictable:
“It is shocking that once again SNP politicians use every issue as a political football in their obsession with independence. It is the worst sort of student politics to go around saying that every problem in the world will be solved overnight by independence and Aileen McLeod really needs to grow up. Local people aren’t stupid. In the case of the Coastguard Agency, she must realise that an emergency in the Irish Sea or indeed the Solway does not recognise borders, Maybe she hasn’t noticed but ferries from Cairnryan travel out with Scottish waters.”
Mr Brown’s audacity is amazing. First he utterly lambastes the UK government’s inadequacies and failures in regards to the coastguard; then he brazenly chides Ms McLeod for daring to suggest that maybe someone other than the Coalition – namely, Scots – should have control over their own coastline! He talks about how “an emergency in the Irish Sea or indeed the Solway does not recognise borders” – in the same press release where he details how unequipped, understaffed and under-supplied said Coastguard Agency is! This is as bad as Katy Clark claiming the Scottish Government were “scaremongering” about NHS privatisation during the referendum even when she herself was making the exact same arguments against the Tories. “Two-faced” barely covers it – at least Ms Clark had the sense not to reveal both faces in the same press release.
Despite his bluster, the voting record is clear: Mr Brown thinks Westminster should have control over the Scottish coastguard rather than Holyrood, even if he thinks Westminster are doing such a terrible job that it threatens lives.
You’re right on one thing, Mr Brown: local people aren’t stupid. After all, your constituency is one of the many Ashcroft predicts will vote SNP.
— Russell Brown (@russellbrown4dg) September 12, 2014
“The other MP in the frame, Russell Brown, has a particular problem since he actually sits on the Standards and Privileges Committee and, therefore, has even less excuse for not forwarding the cash-for-sub-let direct to Westminster, as he should have. Labour is confident that both of them will be exonerated by the fees office. No, the problem – as Labour authorities now realise – lies with the rest of the Labour group in Westminster. It’s not for me to name names, but I have it on very good authority that there are current and former MPs who received their full office expenses and never had an office at all.”
– Ian McWhirter on the re-rent saga in December 2001, which of course involved Mr Brown
“This is the absolute height of hypocrisy from David Mundell. He can’t expect us to believe that he is serious about bringing down energy bills when the Government in which he a Minister refused my calls for tough action.”
– Mr Brown has a brass neck to talk about hypocrisy in October 2011, having backed post office closures in 2009 and, well, read on…
“The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who has left the Chamber, was absolutely correct to make the point that the sanctions being imposed were wholly unfair, verging on the criminal. A number of us heard yesterday about someone who was asked to report to the jobcentre and sign on as unemployed at 9.30 on a Tuesday morning. At the same time, they were asked to turn up at a new training organisation at 9.30. They went to the jobcentre and said, “Look, I can’t come at 9:30 on Tuesday morning. I’m reporting to a new trainer,” but was told, “No, you need to come here, otherwise you’ll face sanctions. You’ll need to get a letter from your new trainer.” When they went to the trainer and said, “You’ll need to provide me with a letter that allows me to avoid signing on,” they were told, “We don’t provide letters.” So individuals are being trapped and end up being sanctioned. There is no fairness in that sort of system.”
– Russell Brown talks a good talk in March 2013, yet when it came to the crunch, he voted pretty much the same way as the rest of his New Labour friends – more austerity, more nuclear weapons, welfare cap…
Can It Be Done?
Richard Arkless is an academic, a lawyer, a businessman, and a supporter of independence, who has only now decided to throw his hat into politics following the great awakening of the Scottish electorate.
It is truly amazing that, according to the Ashcroft polls, even Dumfries & Galloway could be taken by the SNP. Such a feat is even more remarkable when you look at the constituency’s history.
Dumfries & Galloway comprises the southernmost stretches of Scotland, and is, as its name suggests, an amalgam of two prior constituencies: Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, and western Dumfriesshire. Mr Brown was the first New Labour MP ever to be elected to Dumfriesshire, breaking a Conservative reign that started in 1963. Galloway is historically loyal to the Conservatives, with a few Liberal victories scattered in the early 20th century. Nonetheless, there is support for the SNP in Galloway – Galloway voted George Thompson in October 1974, while Galloway & Upper Nithsdale voted Alasdair Morgan in 1997. There is clearly a precedent for a return to SNP hands.
|General Election 2005: Dumfries and Galloway|
|Liberal Democrat||Keith Legg||4,259||8.4||-0.5|
|Scottish Green||John Schofield||745||1.5||+1.5|
|Scottish Socialist||John Dennis||497||1.0||-0.6|
|Christian Vote||Mark Smith||282||0.6||+0.6|
|General Election 2010: Dumfries and Galloway|
|Liberal Democrat||Richard Brodie||4,608||8.8%||+0.5|
Mr Brown’s numbers all went up from 2005 to 2010:
2005: 20,924 (41.1%, +8.7, 5.7% majority)
2010: 23,950 (45.9%, +4.8, 14.3% majority)
Meanwhile, the SNP were largely static:
2005: 6,283 (12.1%, -13)
2010: 6,419 (12.3%, +0.2)
The Conservatives, as the second party, only went down:
2005: 18,002 (35.4%, +3.3)
2010: 16,501 (31.6%, -3.7)
At first glance, you wonder how on earth the SNP have a chance. But consider its predecessors. First, let’s look at Mr Brown’s previous constituency, Dumfriesshire:
|General Election 1997: Dumfriesshire|
|SNP||Robert J. Higgins||5,977||12.07|
|Liberal Democrat||Neil C. Wallace||5,487||11.08|
|Referendum Party||David F. Parker||533||1.08|
|Natural Law||Miss Elizabeth Hunter||117||0.24|
|General Election 2001: Dumfries|
|Conservative||John Anthony Charteris||11,996||28.2||+0.1|
|Liberal Democrat||John Andrew Ross Scott||4,955||11.6||+0.6|
|SNP||Gerard Alexander Fisher||4,103||9.6||-2.4|
|Scottish Socialist||John Dennis||702||1.6||N/A|
Mr Brown has thus convinced about 20,000-23,000 voters, with his only competitors in Dumfriesshire the Conservatives: the SNP were third in 1997 and then fourth in 2001. But what about Galloway & Upper Nithsdale?
|General Election 1997: Galloway and Upper Nithsdale|
|Liberal Democrat||John E. McKerchar||2,700||6.4||−2.2|
|Independent||Robert S. Wood||566||1.4||N/A|
|Referendum Party||Alan G. Kennedy||428||1.0||N/A|
|UKIP||Joseph W. Smith||189||0.4||N/A|
|General Election 2001: Galloway and Upper Nithsdale|
|SNP||Malcolm Gilchrist Fleming||12,148||33.8||−10.1|
|Labour||Thomas Kelly Sloan||7,258||20.2||+3.9|
|Liberal Democrat||Neil Caven Wallace||3,698||10.3||+3.9|
|Scottish Socialist||Andy Harvey||588||1.6||N/A|
|Conservative gain from SNP||Swing|
A very different story: there, the SNP had 12,000+ votes, and as much as 18,449 in 1997: New Labour was third in those elections. If 18,449 people voted SNP in Galloway 17 years ago, is it not possible that the SNP surge has reawakened something in them? The two great beasts for Richard Arkless to slay are of course the incumbent Russell Brown for New Labour, the Conservatives have put forward Finlay Carson, and the Neoliberal Democrats have offered Andrew Metcalf as sacrifice. No Greens or Socialists to split the left-wing vote, but also no UKIP to distract the Tories.
In the last hundred years, only once has Inverclyde returned a Conservative MP. In 1983, Renfrew West & Inverclyde (which comprised Gourock, Cardwell Bay, Kilmacolm, Bargarran and Gryffe), 12,139 (29%) voted Labour, 12,347 (29.5%) voted Social Democrat… and 13,669 (32.7%) voted Conservative. A difference of 1,322 (3.2%) is all it takes.
Even if the New Labour and Conservative vote remains strong in Dumfries & Galloway, all that needs to happen is for the SNP vote to be a little more than 30% and second place to be 29%. We’ve already seen the SNP gain 18,000+ votes in 1997…