Dani Garavelli's Election Focus: East Dunbartonshire

On a sweeping curve of a leafy avenue in Bearsden, where some properties exchange hands for more than a half a million pounds, three homeowners in a row have Vote Jo Swinson placards prominently displayed in their outsized gardens.
Telephone boxes in Kirkintilloch recall the days of the Lion Foundry. Picture: John DevlinTelephone boxes in Kirkintilloch recall the days of the Lion Foundry. Picture: John Devlin
Telephone boxes in Kirkintilloch recall the days of the Lion Foundry. Picture: John Devlin

One of them, Gordon Henry, a retired charted accountant, says he is backing the Liberal Democrats to keep out the SNP, whose policies he dismisses on economic grounds.

Having worked in the financial sector, he believes plummeting oil revenues would make independence a disaster and that companies such as Standard Life are already primed to move their headquarters to England should a second referendum result in a victory for Yes campaigners.

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Henry’s contempt for the SNP has been fuelled by the length of time his previous house took to sell – the result, he claims, of John Swinney’s Land and Buildings Transaction Tax, which doubles from 5 per cent to 10 per cent on homes over £325,000 – and by the party’s record on education which “used to be the best in the UK, but is now on a level with Vietnam”.

“I’m a natural Tory, but I am happy to vote for Jo. She was a good MP, very active in the constituency.” What about her SNP rival, John Nicolson? You know – the man who took the seat from her in 2015? “I’ve never seen or heard of him since the day he was elected. I wouldn’t even have known his name,” he says.

This is East Dunbartonshire, one of the Liberal Democrats’ top three target seats in Scotland. Last time round, the SNP moved from fourth to first place as Swinson, the MP since 2005 and a junior minister, paid the price of her party’s coalition with the Tories and its U-turn on tuition fees.

Two years on, however, she hopes her pro-UK, pro-European stance will go down well in a constituency where 61 per cent of voters opted to stay in the UK and 71 per cent to stay in the EU. She is urging former supporters to return to the fold and overturn Nicolson’s 2,167 majority.

Swinson’s confidence will have been bolstered by the local elections, where the Lib Dems doubled their councillors from three to six. The SNP, meanwhile, lost a councillor, but still eclipsed Labour to become the biggest party. For the first time ever, East Dunbartonshire local authority is being led by a minority SNP administration.

Here in Bearsden, the prevailing wind seems to be blowing in Swinson’s direction; but elsewhere in the constituency, loyalties are divided, with voters pledging temporary allegiance to all parties and none.

A couple of miles away, lunchtime shoppers mill about Milngavie precinct, which – with its clock, cafés and play area – has retained the hustle and bustle of a traditional village square. The conviviality isn’t extended to everyone, though; a foreign busker playing a plaintive tune on an ad hoc string instrument attracts some disapproving glances and cutting remarks.

Old friends Jan Galloway and Celia Clegg, who voted to leave the EU, are united in their opposition to the SNP and a second indyref, but have chosen different ways of expressing it. Galloway, who likes Theresa May, will probably vote for Swinson, because she works hard for the constituency and has a better chance of winning, while Clegg, who likes Ruth Davidson, will put her cross beside Tory candidate Sheila Mechan. “It might be a lost vote,” she concedes, “but you have to go with your heart as well as your head.”

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Andre Alexander, owner of Fantoosh Fish, its chill counter heaving with freshly caught seafood, on the other hand, is confident Nicolson will hold on.

“Jo Swinson is putting on a strong show. We’ve had three letters all personally addressed to us – she really is going for it,” he says. “But she is campaigning for a second EU referendum and against a second independence referendum, so there’s a contradiction there. She also claims she would be a strong voice against Brexit in Westminster, but so, too, would John Nicolson.”

Alexander is not vehemently pro-independence, “but Labour have put up such a poor opposition that, if you’re remotely interested in social justice, the SNP is the only option you are left with,” he says.

To the east of the constituency, Kirkintilloch is a once-prosperous town, which fell by the wayside as the pits and foundries that were the main source of employment closed.

Today, cast iron products from the Lion Foundry – the famous red phone boxes, a green and white bandstand and the ornate Hudson water fountain – are spectral reminders of its industrial past.

Another source of the town’s wealth, the Forth and Clyde Canal, has been regenerated and a Thomas Muir Heritage Trail set up to encourage tourists; Peel Park, site of a former Roman fort on the Antonine Wall, has undergone extensive restoration; and much of the High Street has been tarted up, though some shop units are still empty.

Close to the museum, young couple Alan and Ashley Robertson, who were born and brought up in the town, say they intend to keep voting SNP. Both of them are graduates – Ashley has a degree in computing and Alan, a degree in physics – and Ashley credits the party’s commitment to free tuition with making it possible for her to go on to university. Now working in child care, she also supports its plans to extend the number of free childcare hours from 600 to 1,400. Unfortunately for Nicolson, however, the Robertsons have recently moved house and so will now be voting in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East instead.

John Clelland is a one-time Labour supporter who defected to the SNP in 2015 and now plans to vote for Tory candidate Sheila Mechan. “The SNP are adamant we need to give this independence vote another go and I don’t want that,” he says. Clelland won’t countenance backing the Lib Dems because he wants out of the EU. I ask him about the Tories’ legacy in a town that depended on heavy industry. “Times move on. Maggie’s been dead a while now,” he replies.

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For Marie Gregory – whose father worked in the Lion Foundry – however, the party will always be toxic. A former dance teacher, she voted SNP in 2015 (and Yes at the referendum) but, like so many people I have met over the past few weeks, she is weary of elections and has lost faith in politicians’ ability and commitment to effect change. “I would never not vote,” Gregory says. “But I am so disillusioned with the world and the mess our wee town is in now. Unless I hear something to change my mind soon, for the first time in my life, I’ll be spoiling my ballot on 8 June.”

The candidates standing in East Dunbartonshire are Labour: Callum McNally; Conservative: Sheila Mechan; SNP: John Nicolson; Liberal Democrat: 
Jo Swinson