This is the full version of the letter which was (for obvious reasons) edited down for publication in The National.
In the days after the election, the sea of blue which has engulfed most of the North East of Scotland, leaving only a tiny scrap of yellow in the heart of Aberdeen, confounded commentators and politicians alike. I spent a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook, trying to explain to people that Aberdeenshire, and the various constituencies which cover it, can’t be easily reduced to single driving factors.
Most of politics can’t, much as those of us who comment on it might wish it, and much as we might sometimes act like the broad strokes are the truth. However, Tommy Sheppard’s sweeping dismissal of the entire region as lost to Conservatism forever because of one bad election has raised the hackles of pretty much everyone, especially those of us who work so hard to reach people in some of the most complicated and disjointed constituencies in the country. I agree with many of his points about the SNP needing to make the decision to commit to the left-wing, but in making such broad statements he has perfectly exemplified the most common of all the criticisms of the Scottish Government we hear up here: that the Central Belt is all that counts, and we are expendable.
It’s not true, and it’s never been true, but we fight a long, uphill battle to demonstrate that to people. Key figures in the SNP voicing such dismissal makes our work that much harder. So what’s the truth of Aberdeenshire? I’ll tell you what I can, from my experiences of growing up and living here almost all my life.
I grew up in Aboyne, a small village (or it was, then) on Royal Deeside. While journalists complained about lack of 4G coverage on Theresa May’s recent visit to Crathes, those of us who grew up here knew exactly why that ‘cabin in a random forest’ had been chosen. In 2014, I visited a small festival in Banchory (the nearest major settlement to Crathes) a few weeks before the referendum. A chainsaw carver was positioned in one corner of Banchory’s park, and when she was finished, a large wooden ‘No’ logo was the artwork. The ferret which won the ferret racing was called ‘Better Together’. Even as small Scottish towns go, Banchory is odd. Still, we’ve got a hardy group of campaigners, who don’t let that stop them from chapping doors and handing out leaflets, and in the 2015 General Election Deeside went yellow. It was a surprise to many of us, because the Liberal Democrat shade of yellow was usually more popular, but it’s a testament to the hard work of the campaigners, councillors and MSPs who served their communities well.
I was raised Tory, rejected it at 19, and floated between the Lib Dems and Labour for a while because I had a deep distrust of the SNP. I had been told my whole life that they were fantasists who believed that money grew on trees (even then, the ‘magic money tree’ Tory talking point), who didn’t care about anywhere north of Stirling. I was in my 30s before, pressed by my brother, I thought to research it and see if I was right. I wasn’t, and I went through the six-month process of unpicking all my assumptions about politics in Scotland and revising them based on evidence. The distrust ran deep, though, where I grew up, among the people I knew. I made the same mistake the Tommy Sheppards of the country do: assuming that any one pocket is representative of Aberdeenshire.
This is the real truth of Aberdeenshire: it’s an idyllic place, where extraordinary wealth holds sway through landowners and oil executives. There is also deep deprivation, but it is mostly hidden from view. In most of Aberdeenshire, the deprivation doesn’t look like the estates of Glasgow or the smoking tomb of Grenfell Tower. It looks like a cottage on a wealthy landowner’s estate where the windows are single-glazed and the people inside haven’t had a working shower for a year, but where the rent is just low enough that they can’t afford to move somewhere more habitable, and they daren’t risk pushing for what they’re entitled to in case the laird decides to up the rent without warning. It looks like people who can just about get to work and back, but the next MOT will leave them without transport, because they live miles from the nearest public transport route, and without their car they’ll lose their job. One in ten people receiving out-of-work benefits are sanctioned in Aberdeenshire, the highest rate in all of Scotland. The links to poor infrastructure and isolation are pretty clear to anyone who knows the area. Yet the people who are struggling to feed their families or buy shoes for their kids will go completely unnoticed by the majority of the people living in that area – it doesn’t look like poverty, not how we imagine it, though the results are the same.
The oil crash has left tens of thousands of people out of work, and has resulted in unexpected knock-on effects. These unemployed people are not the Daily Mail’s idea of a scrounger on benefits, but they lived their lives using lines of credit based on their high-paying jobs. Negative equity leaves them trapped in homes they can no longer afford. Many have moved away, leasing out their homes to try to recoup some of the mortgage, but oil workers’ spouses are often teachers and nurses, and so the knock-on shortage of key public sector workers has further stretched resources. It’s hard to attract people to a city with such a high cost of living and relatively little to show for it – the thriving music scene of the 90s and early 00s is gone, and successive Labour/Tory coalitions have invested in high-cost corporate sectors rather than independent, community-based initiatives. In the Shire, what were once rural farming villages became commuter towns, and now their aging populations are retiring to live with family elsewhere, and younger people cannot afford the homes they leave behind.
The SNP has done some amazing work in trying to ensure that people in Aberdeenshire have access to equitable services, but it’s hard to explain to people concerned about class sizes in Aboyne that schools in other parts of the country are concerned about the building falling down on them. It’s hard to explain that, when deciding where to prioritise funding for health services, places with high population concentration or where the most accidents happen are going to be the primary targets. It can feel like we’re left behind, especially as our villages empty out and our high streets fill with ‘vacant’ signs. That so many of the problems each individual constituency faces are issues of local governance, or result from deals made by governments in London decades ago, is a hard truth to deal with. It makes us sound like we’re making excuses, when really it’s just that many people don’t understand the different levels of government and what they cover.
So what separates us from other rural areas in Scotland? There’s a particular worldview that’s very common in most areas around here. It crosses through coastal villages to farming towns to tourist traps. It’s not easily reducible to ‘pro-Union’ or ‘anti-EU’. People here believe that they’re the most rational people in the country. That they understand the hard decisions, and they see further than others do. They have a tendency towards believing that left-wing politics is naïve or dishonest, and yet their actions don’t bear this out. They think that the Central Belt is weak for getting all that money, but want some of it themselves. They laugh at the Americans who don’t acknowledge climate change and yet they fight any measures meant to mitigate it, like compulsory planting along floodplains or limits on maximum extraction, with all their might. They believe that their unionism and anti-EU sentiment is borne solely out of rationality, not emotion, patriotism or nationalism.
And yet, there is a fierce, radical thread running through the Shire. For all that, one of our campaigners recently met an elderly woman while canvassing who told him about her days burning the Union flag on the Castlegate in the 60s. Banff & Buchan, Angus and Moray have been SNP strongholds for decades, largely because of the fierce work our representatives have done for their constituents over and over again, in the face of mockery and hostility, getting the work done. There is blurry footage on Youtube from the 80s of our MPs taking Thatcher herself to task for ignoring Scotland. There is bitterness about the CFP, and the CAP, but there are also people who know that EU funding is what allows their livelihood to survive. We do great work in life sciences and technology development, which we should be investing in for all our futures. Our communities are less likely to be unionised than in the Central Belt, but they’re no less informed or committed to political action. The only real problem is that, in Aberdeen as in the Shire, the two versions of these areas do not interact on any wide level – they are parallel communities, occupying the same space but experiencing entirely different realities. In Aberdeen, it’s not uncommon to have the same street include low-quality social housing at one end and £400,000 houses at the other, but the people each end interacts with, the places they shop, the activities they pursue, all are separate.
Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have been protected somewhat from the most vicious of the Thatcherite fallout because we mostly had fishing, farming and oil rather than key manufacturing and mining industries. The effects have been more subtle, more protracted, but just as real. They’re coming home to roost, and the Tory MPs now occupying the area will have to deal with them if they’re going to do something approximating their jobs. They’ll have to go to Westminster to talk about the sanctions regime, foodbank use, infrastructure, EU investment in sciences, ensuring that our fishers aren’t sacrificed by the Tory government again as they were in 1970, ensuring our area has what it needs to survive the transition from the oil boom to the more streamlined industry which will now go forward into an uncertain future. Or they’ll blame it all on the SNP, again.
Aberdeenshire is far from lost. The next five years are, in fact, vital to the kind of country we want to build. We are at a crossroads, and the paths we choose will determine whether or not the North-East will thrive. It’s more important than ever that we work to ensure that we have a say in the choices to be made, that we drive the discussions towards ensuring that people understand that we have responsibilities to each other and that the wealth masks a lot of struggles, that the luxuries of the wealthy should not come at the expense of the people going hungry less than a mile away.
We lost the seats in Aberdeenshire for a lot of reasons, but it’s not because the electorate are irredeemably Tory. We owe them better than to validate their belief that whether we’re ignored by London or Holyrood, it’s all the same.