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This week we’ve been celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament…if celebrating is the right word. It is certainly the focal point for our current debate over independence, which boils down to the question: just how much power should the parliament have ?

The late John Smith MP Devolution "the settled will"

The late John Smith MP
Devolution “the settled will”

Almost everyone wants it to have more power. Unfortunately we are not being offered a range of powers in the referendum question, only a yes or no to independence. And looking back on it, this is one of the mistakes the Better Together campaign made at the beginning of this whole divisive affair.

John Smith, the Labour leader who’s death 20 years ago has been marked this week with the opening of a new Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University, once famously remarked that devolution was “the settled will” of the Scottish people. It has been anything but settled. John Smith may have started the ball rolling but Donald Dewar kicked it on with his famous remark – “devolution is a process not an event.”

So more powers are being devolved from Westminster all the time, the latest involves half of all income tax, landfill tax, stamp duty on house sales etc. The Better Together parties have promised still more powers, though, disastrously, they’ve not been able to agree on a detailed alternative to independence. Thus the referendum debate has become even more confused and uncertain.

Can David Cameron help create a "united front" against independence?

Can David Cameron help create a “united front” against independence?

The prime minister came to Glasgow on Thursday to try to forge a united front against independence, even invoking the spirit of John Smith. But Mr Cameron’s “sunshine” speech was not exactly helped by the Chancellor back at Westminster who repeated his warning that there can be no currency union after independence. And the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was able to dismiss the spring offensive as a “Tory takeover of the No campaign.”

The referendum has however brought the dying tradition of the public meeting back to life. I was at a referendum debate in Edinburgh last Sunday afternoon – sponsored by the local churches – and every seat was taken. I could see steam coming out of peoples’ ears as they tried to keep their feelings under ecclesiastical control. The Church of Scotland – which holds its general assembly this coming week – has called for a service of national reconciliation in St Giles Cathedral in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in September.

It could be a humbling experience, if the campaigns turn nasty or if the result is close. Perhaps we Scots will be revealed as not the greatest practitioners of democracy in the world. After all, the parliament we have built over the last 15 years is not without its flaws. Its successes I think have included free personal care, free university education, the national parks, the smoking ban and being a national forum. But its failures are legion: the cost, the expenses scandals, its timidity over taxation, its failure to spread power down to local communities and its turgid and ineffective committee system.

Commonwealth Games Ticket fiasco

Commonwealth Games
Ticket fiasco

But parliaments are not the only things that can go wrong. The organisers of the Commonwealth Games suffered humiliation at the hands of their computer experts earlier this week. The sale of the last 100,000 tickets had to be suspended when the on-line and telephone systems designed to handle the stampede collapsed. Then our newest jail, HMP Grampian in Peterhead, which only opened in March, erupted in an old-style riot. Forty prisoners went on the rampage, beating up their new furniture and fittings. Police had to be brought in to restore order.

The brutal world of football also suffered a few shocks this week. The new owner of Hearts, Ann Budge, brought along her new brush on Monday morning and swept away the manager Gary Locke and eight other coaches and players. Instead she’s brought in a former manager Craig Levein and promoted Robbie Neilson to first-team coach. The Paisley club St Mirren have also promoted Tommy Craig from within. And in both cases, the new philosophy seems to be to nurture home-grown players rather than take part in the bidding war for outside talent. Not before time.

About the only place were tranquillity reigns is the European election. There are unlikely to be any riots or stampedes at the voting stations on Thursday. But we are all waiting to see if the SNP increase their number of seats from 2 to 3, whether Labour will keep their two seats and whether the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will hold on to their single seats or whether they will be taken by the Greens or UKIP. Who would have thought that democracy could be so exciting ?

Will control of Scotland soon pass here?
The coming year will be a challenge for all parties

Politicians and others have issued their New Year messages. This year – more than most – they agree on one subject – if not their response to it.

Alex Salmond's New Year Message

Alex Salmond’s New Year Message

Alex Salmond released his message on video where he urged voters to “take responsibility” for Scotland’s future. He said the eyes of the world would be on Scotland, in what would be a “truly amazing year”, one in which Scots could take “the opportunity of a lifetime” by voting for independence in 2014.

Calling for the debate to be ‘constructive’, he appealed to Scots to think “about the sort of country we want Scotland to become. Let’s not wake up on the morning of 19 September next year,” he said, “and think to ourselves what might have been. Let’s wake up on that morning filled with hope and expectation – ready to build a just and prosperous nation.”

Labour leader, Johann Lamont argued that people should look forward to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and learn lessons from athletes competing there. “We all have a duty to show the best of Scotland,” she explained, “and shape the debate to ensure it is inspiring for all of those people who are yet to engage or been switched off by what has happened up until now. If we are going to have the kind of debate that this country deserves, then we all need to do what will be asked of those runners, cyclists and swimmers heading for Glasgow this summer – up our game and rise to the occasion.”

Willie Rennie 'Reading the tea leaves'

Willie Rennie
‘Reading the tea leaves’

For the Scottish Liberal Democrats, party leader Willie Rennie hoped that the coming year would “reaffirm Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom”. In a curious comment, he said he had been “checking the tea leaves” and found that it was going to be a good year. “I am confident the economy will continue to grow,” he added, “and that we’ll create more jobs, cut taxes further and increase pensions higher.”

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, called on Scots to vote “with their hearts and their heads” to reject independence. “Already, thousands of people are involved in the two campaigns – some are long standing members of political parties for whom door-knocking is second nature, but others have been spurred into activism for the very first time. This is healthy and good as we need as many voices to be heard as possible.”

From a business perspective, the Director of CBI Scotland, Mr Iain McMillan, called on the Scottish Government to be “open and realistic” about the risks and costs of independence. In an unusually forthright message, he pointed out that “in publishing its White Paper on independence last month, the SNP Scottish Government set out its case for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom and becoming an independent country.” But he then went on to question aspects of it.

Iain McMillan Forthright message

Iain McMillan
Forthright message

On the EU, he warned that Scotland might not be able to “negotiate from within” (as claimed in the White Paper) and went on to suggest that “the different immigration policies outlined in the White Paper may in time result in border controls being imposed at the Scottish border with other parts of the UK.”

As well as raising questions about Scotland’s future use of the Pound and an independent country’s access to defence contracts, he went on to suggest that the “laws and rules, currently common to both Scotland and the rest of the UK, will diverge over time thus raising the cost of conducting business across the Scottish border with other parts of the UK. Scotland’s tax system will diverge from that in other parts of the UK and result in more costly and complex operations. Companies will have to deal with more than one regulator in a number of sectors, including financial services, thus fuelling additional costs for business.”

Blair Jenkins Urged Scots to vote

Blair Jenkins
Urged Scots to vote

All this is happening at a time when the campaigns from both sides have urged the public to get involved and vote in next year’s referendum. In an unusual display of unity, Alistair Darling, leader of Better Together, called on everyone to vote so “the decision we make is decisive”. He also made an appeal over the future, saying that “first and foremost we should not divide Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Blair Jenkins, Chief Executive of ‘Yes Scotland’ claimed the issue was “too big to be left to politicians alone”. He stressed there was a broad “diversity of views, visions, background and cultures” in the Yes campaign. “Among the many sectoral groups adding their weight to the Yes campaign,” he said, “are Polish for Yes, French for Yes, Third Sector Yes and Yes LGBT.”

On the 18 September 2014, voters will be asked the yes/no question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

When the going gets tough…

In the days following the tragedy at the Clutha Vaults in Glasgow, we somehow felt that satire (even of the political-only kind) was a little inappropriate. But with the Festive Season now upon us and a New Year in the offing, it seemed right to offer the Clippie’s final thoughts this year on a couple of related issues.

The first has to do with the leader of the ‘No’ Campaign, the Rt Hon Alistair Darling MP

The second is related – but designed to bring a little ‘balance’ to the debate

Next year, no holds barred?

It can be humbling to look at the sky on a clear night

The cold clear nights of November have given us some awe-inspiring views of the heavens. There’s nothing quite so humbling as looking at the night sky. This evening I’m taking my scout troop up to the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh to see what a tiny role we play in this galaxy of 100 billion stars.

Alex Salmond MSP

Alex Salmond MSP

But I like to think that, out there somewhere, there are many little Scotlands struggling to make ends meet and debating their future in a starry united kingdom. On Tuesday, Alex Salmond (first minister, Scotland, Earth) will “launch” his long-anticipated white paper on independence. It is supposed to answer all the questions voters have about the referendum next year. Can Scotland pay it’s way? What would happen to the currency, our pensions, the armed forces, our membership of the EU?

Actually, the SNP government has already answered these questions many times in the last few months. On Tuesday this week, Mr Salmond was again outlining the economic case for Scotland going it alone. We could, he suggested, create 200,000 jobs over the next 20 years by exporting more, investing in manufacturing industry, getting more women into work, cutting corporation tax and relaxing the rules on immigration.

Alistair Darling Fantasy economics

Alistair Darling
Fantasy economics

Alistair Darling the former Labour chancellor and now leading the No campaign said this was “fantasy economics.” And he pointed to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which concluded that there was a £10bn black hole in the Scottish public finances which would need to be filled by either raising income tax by 9p in the pound (or increasing VAT to 27 per cent) or cutting public spending by 8 per cent. It transpired however that the Institute was making equally dismal estimates for the UK as a whole.

I don’t myself believe the referendum will be decided on such detailed arguments as the state of the public finances or the number of frigates in the Scottish navy, or the terms on which we would join the EU, or even the general health of the economy. I think it will be decided by emotional and cultural values. I am immediately contradicted, of course, by an opinion poll this week which found that 47 per cent of Scots would vote for independence if they felt they would be £500 a year better off (ICM poll in The Scotsman). But people will tell pollsters almost anything !

Carwyn Jones First Minister of Wales

Carwyn Jones
First Minister of Wales

Readers in Wales might be interested to learn that their first minister Labour’s Carwyn Jones made a flying visit to Scotland this week to encourage Scots to stay within the Union. It made for a “balanced” United Kingdom, he said. He also cast doubt on whether an independent Scotland could have a place on a Sterling Zone currency board.

But to stick with my feeling that the referendum will be decided on cultural values, we had a number of indications this week of the kind of country we want to be. Dundee put in a very energetic bid to be the UK City of Culture in 2017 but graciously gave way to a forgotten city somewhere in the East Riding of Yorkshire, saying it would carry on with its £1bn modernisation programme anyway.

The blacklisting of workers by large firms will not be tolerated, the Scottish government has declared. The likes of Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Laing O’Rourke and McAlpine’s will have to assure the government they do not operate a blacklist or they will not be awarded public contracts.

Jean Armour's Statue in Mauchline

Jean Armour’s Statue in Mauchline

MSPs also this week agreed in principle to a bill allowing gay marriage. There was a free vote: 94 for, 15 against, 5 abstentions and 8 did not vote at all. Among the doubters were those who were worried that churches which oppose gay marriage would be forced to conduct such ceremonies to avoid court cases over discrimination.

I don’t know what Jean Armour would think about gay marriage but she certainly stuck to her husband Robert Burns “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” It’s now emerged that in 1786 she gave him a silver pocket watch with a touching little love note inside. It’s a hand-pierced piece of paper showing two love-birds and the initials J and R. The watch has come from an anonymous collector and is expected to fetch £2,500 at auction in Edinburgh next week.

From the inner workings of the heart and a pocket watch to the whirrings of the universe, this column knows no bounds. To put things in perspective again, I’ll finish with the words of another poet, Hugh McDiarmid:

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn
Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shaks her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk’s a wheen o blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin,
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn.
But greet, an in your tears ye’ll drown
The haill clanjamfrie!

Ringing the changes at Westminster

Michael Moore must be thinking today that politics can be brutal. As Scottish Secretary, he thought he’d done the job “pretty effectively” – but all he gets is the thanks of his party leader and the long walk to the back benches, the only cabinet minister on the Lib Dem side of the coalition to lose his job. He is replaced by the party’s former chief whip, Alistair Carmichael. Understandably, he’s “very disappointed” at the decision but has the grace to wish his successor well.

Michael Moore Former Scottish Secretary

Michael Moore
Former Scottish Secretary

The reasons for the change are explained in the letter from Nick Clegg. In it, he praises the MP for not only having “successfully piloted through legislation to enable Scotland to take a major step towards the party’s long held goal of Home Rule, but you have also ensured that the referendum next year will give the Scottish people a clear and decisive question on which to cast their vote.

“It should be recognised that you secured both the Scotland Act and the Edinburgh Agreement in the context of a majority SNP government at Holyrood, and against a backdrop of an external political narrative that often suggested the legislation would fail and a referendum agreement could not be secured.”

Alistair Carmichael MP The new Scottish Secretary

Alistair Carmichael MP
The new Scottish Secretary

But he went on to say that he believed that the party and indeed the coalition now needed “to draw on different experience in the final year running up to the referendum itself and I am keen that just as we have benefited from your formidable skills over the past three years that we take advantage of other experience within our ranks during this period.” Mr Moore was appointed Scottish Secretary three years ago.

After the news broke, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted her “best wishes” to Mr Moore. “A tough opponent but always pleasant,” she said. “He can take pride in the achievement of the Edinburgh Agreement.” This was the deal, reached exactly a year ago, which set out terms for next year’s independence referendum. It was signed with much fanfare by both the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, in Edinburgh.

Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement last year

Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement last year

The exact reasons for Mr Moore’s dismissal aren’t clear at the moment. However, the BBC’s The BBC’s John Pienaar told Radio 5Live that Mr Carmichael was very popular amongst other MPs and was considered to have “a louder voice and bigger boots” than his predecessor.

The change takes place on a day when the Coalition’s leaders are ringing the changes in their teams. David Cameron, a prime minister who is admittedly reluctant to make reshuffles, is trying to broaden the appeal of the Conservative party. In particular, this means offering a higher profile to women and MPs from Northern England. For example, Esther McVey, MP in the marginal Wirral West seat, has been appointed the new employment minister.

Ed Miliband, Labour leader, will also change his shadow cabinet. In anticipation of this, Anne McGuire has already announced that, after five years as first the minister, then the shadow minister for the disabled, it was time to allow someone else to take on the role. The MP for Stirling said she would continue campaigning against an “unprecedented attack” on the disabled by the Government and parts of the media as a backbencher and co-chair of the all-party disability group.

David McLetchie MSP

Tributes have been paid to David McLetchie, former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, who has died from cancer at the age of 61. A lawyer, he was elected to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999. A list MSP for the Lothians, he led his party until 2005 when he stood down following controversy over his expenses. As a mark of respect, the flags over Holyrood will fly at half-staff until after the funeral.

Ruth Davidson MSP Scottish Conservative Leader

Ruth Davidson MSP
Scottish Conservative Leader

The current leader of the Scottish Tories, Ruth Davidson said: “Our heartfelt sympathies are with his family at this desperately sad time.”

The First Minister, Alex Salmond, described Mr McLetchie as “a very considerable politician of the devolution era”; while his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon described his as “a fine parliamentarian and a true gentleman.” She added that he was “a tough opponent but one who was always willing to find common ground and build consensus. He never allowed political disagreements to become personal – it was always easy to share a laugh with David, notwithstanding the cut and thrust of political debate.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrat’s leader, Willie Rennie, said Mr McLetchie was a “towering figure” who would “forever be regarded as a public servant who made a difference. Whether as party leader or foot soldier he commanded immediate respect and trust from friend and foe alike. I will miss his humour and intelligence.”

Johann Lamont MSP

Johann Lamont MSP

Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, described his death as “a huge loss to the Scottish Parliament”. She went on: “For all of us who knew and worked with David, we will remember his passion, drive and determination. Scotland has lost a committed public servant who has been taken from us far sooner than was right. We will all remember David for the substantial contribution he made to public life in Scotland.”

The leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie, said that despite having many political differences, he found the MSP to be “a sharp wit, a serious debater and a decent man”, adding that Holyrood would be “poorer without him.”

The Director of CBI Scotland, Iain McMillan, said he was “very sorry to learn of the death of David McLetchie. Over the years, my colleagues and I worked closely with David on matters of public policy and we had a very high regard for him. He was also a very fine man and we will miss him greatly. Our thoughts are with David’s family at this sad time.”

by John Knox

The age of austerity, it seems, is now to be followed by the age of uncertainty. Like a hill walker lost in the mist, we are not quite sure where we are. We know we are at the end of the UK party conference season and half way through the parliamentary term. We know we are heading into the Scottish party conferences and into the great referendum campaign. But we cannot see more than a hundred days ahead and no one knows where all this is leading.

We are, I think, still in shock after falling off the economic cliff in 2008. The latest report from the International Monetary Fund makes frightening reading. Growth forecasts are down again – in the euro zone growth is predicted to be almost down to zero next year, in Britain it’s down to 1.1 per cent.

“We need action to lift the veil of uncertainty,” said the IMF’s managing director Christine Lagarde. Unemployment, she said, was reaching “terrifying and unacceptable levels” and she called on governments to do more to stimulate growth and to give up their strict debt-reduction targets.

It is the same message from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. The manufacturing, retail and tourism industries are all in decline and more than half their members predict a further decline next year.

We face political uncertainty too. The Conservative conference headed off in a wayward and distinctly right-wing direction…..more government cut-backs, attacks on workers’ rights, £10b to be cut from welfare benefits, more anti-EU rhetoric, warnings of troubles in the world economy coming to overwhelm our sceptred isle.

Meanwhile, over at the Labour Conference, Ed Miliband banged the drum for “One Nation” politics but failed to say how we would ever get there. And the Liberal Democrats tried to distance themselves from the Tories but voted through the spending cuts.

In Scotland we have Labour heading into the winter with yet another “review” of policies we all thought they were signed up to….free personal care for everyone, free university education, free bus passes. And we have the SNP preparing for their referendum, the most unsettling policy of all.

To be fair, the SNP are offering leadership, a supposed way out of the mess we are in. They are pointing to an independent, social-democratic Scotland, in Europe and in NATO (if all goes according to plan at the party’s conference in Perth.) And this certainty about the correct road ahead will be to the SNP’s great advantage when it comes to referendum day in 2014.

Unless, of course, the unionist camp can come up with an alternative certainty. But this seems unlikely at this stage. The economy will have to be back in sustained growth by 2014, unemployment will have to come down, public services will have to be in reasonable shape, the pensions issue will need to be resolved and the opposition parties will have to offer a stronger form of devolution. It’s a lot to achieve in two years.

The uncertainty at home is reinforced by the uncertainty abroad. The euro zone is still in crisis five years after the great crash. The USA is going into a close election between very contrasting visions of the future. China is keeping us all guessing about who will be the next Communist Emperor and what his policies will be. Who can say which way Tsar Putin will take the Russian Federation. The Middle East remains a powderkeg. And terrorist attacks could take place just about anywhere.

The slaughter in Syria has shown us how weak the United Nations has become – in just a few short months. It was able to intervene to save the people of Benghazi from Qaddafi’s air force last year but has been unable to do the same for the people of Homs and Aleppo. The UN has also failed to get international agreement on climate change, energy policy and aid for the billion people who still live in earth-scratching poverty.

The certainties of the post-war era have gone – the strong international institutions, the commitment to full employment, the development of the welfare state. Even the smaller certainties of the Thatcher/Reagan era and the Blair/Brown boom have collapsed. Corruption, deception and incompetence in institutions like parliament, the church and professional sport have left us all feeling let down and uncertain which way to turn.

The arrival of the small-screen culture has made things worse with its instant access to news and information and the so-called “wisdom of the crowd.” There are more differing opinions out there – all, it seems, backed up by their own experts.

It is tempting to turn to some sort of philosopher/king, a mahatma, to guide us through these uncertain times. But there is no Gladstone, or Karl Marx, or Roosevelt or Churchill or even Thatcher or Blair with an agenda which captures the mood of the day and turns it into action.

Perhaps the way out of this bog is for our ordinary politicians to be frank about our problems and to give a lead. And the rest of us have to have the restraint not to punish them for it. We all love Boris because -agree with him or not – he speaks his mind. We need more of that.

Joanne Lamont was given credit for opening up a debate about universal benefits but she should also be prepared to give a lead. Which benefit is she thinking of scrapping ? Apparently we will not find out till after the referendum. Alex Salmond wants more economic powers for Scotland but he won’t say if he wants to raise income tax or cut corporation tax.

And we all need to be more realistic. Take economic growth, for instance. It looks like it will be about 1 per cent a year for the next few years, so why are we complaining about a 1 per cent cap on wage rises ? We all know we had too much credit during the boom years, so why are we moaning about the shortage of credit now ?

We all accept that climate change will be catastrophic in the long term, so why are we not prepared to accept a higher tax on carbon ? We are all living longer, so why are not prepared to pay higher contributions towards our pensions ? We know that preventive public spending is better than acute spending, but we still protest about hospital closures ? We know that education is the key to a better way of life but we don’t want to be taxed to pay for it .

And the politicians let us away with such contradictions, in fact they share them. Instead we should be starting to build stepping stones out of this bog of contradiction and uncertainty. Let’s make our systems more robust – energy supplies, rail systems, bank regulations, pension plans, international institutions – even if that means we have to pay more for them. One way to provide stability is to localise our economies and our public services public, so if one area breaks down it can be supported by the others. It may lead to a poorer world but a calmer one.

Glasgow City Chambers
Glasgow City Chambers

Glasgow City Chambers. Picture: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

It tells you something about the state of Labour in Scotland that stopping the SNP taking control of Glasgow City Council is seen as a triumph.

How are the mighty fallen indeed. One is reminded of the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos, a master politician who had great military and diplomatic successes. He even managed to find an able and talented successor (something which eluded most Roman emperors in the east or west). Sadly, his “empire” was a tiny slice of western Turkey – so his triumphs were a very pale shadow of the Roman Empire, which stretched from the Persian Gulf to Carlisle.

However, a triumph is what the Glasgow result will be seen as by many – despite the wider decline of Labour north of the Border.

Had the SNP taken Glasgow it would have been seen as a milestone on the party’s juggernaut-like progress to 2014. Now, to reprise the Alex-Salmond-as-dictator theme, the result in Glasgow will be seized on as Wee Eck’s Stalingrad.

Neither picture is correct.

What we have learned is that the electorate – despite what many think and despite the meagre fare they are fed – are not donnert sumphs. They’re no’ daft and can tell the difference between different elections. Local issues affect local elections, national issues national ones.

The way people voted in the 2010 Westminster election told us nothing about the 2011 Holyrood election. The 2011 pattern has not been reprised in Glasgow in 2012. It would therefore be rash to throw this result forward to the independence referendum, where the Yes campaign will need to win in the West.

(One thing that will be different in 2014 is the turnout, which at time of writing is under 40 per cent. It is a damning indictment of Scotland’s local politicians that so few of the electorate feel engaged enough to vote.)

There is a lesson here for the Yes campaign, though, and it’s this: the SNP is a political party with policies and personalities that not everybody likes. Independence is a single issue, which can be separated from party allegiance.

Politics is often tribal, especially in Glasgow. Some people will never be persuaded to vote for the “Tartan Tories”, but they might well be biddable on the issue of independence.

The Yes campaign needs to reflect this if it is to win in Glasgow in 2014 (or sooner). It will need to prominently feature non-SNP voices to persuade non-SNP voters to say Yes.

Polling place in Lochgilphead Picture: Patrick Mackie

For me, it’s the stubby pencil on a string, the wobbly plywood screens and the sense, walking out, that you have done something small but important.

For others, it’s the actual act of putting a mark against a name that’s important, of then folding the paper and putting it into a ballot box so old and battered it looks like it fell off a lorry sometime in 1955.

For all of us, though, there should be something very powerful in the act of voting, because it links us directly – through that simple act of marking a paper with a pencil – to our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom trod the same creaky polling station floorboards in their time as we shall do this week.

But the numbers of us who do take part in this strange ritual, who head out into the cold on polling day for the half-hour or so it takes to vote, are going down all the time.

It is easy to see why. Compared with the hysterical tears, the screams of joy and the instant gratification that result from voting on TV talent shows, real, proper democracy can seem a bit dull. Only one in every three Scots will take the time to vote in this week’s local elections, almost certainly fewer than the number who vote for The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.

The reasons for such apathy are perfectly valid. Nobody really knows who the candidates are, politicians everywhere now enjoy such a low place in the public’s esteem that most are just treated with contempt, and there is a general feeling that nothing much will change, whoever is elected.

There is also a genuine sense of voter fatigue: in the last 15 years, we have had four Westminster, four Holyrood, three council and three European elections.

But none of these excuses are good enough. Scotland is in the process of choosing its place in the world, whether it wants to remain part of the United Kingdom or forge out on its own as an independent country. That is seismic, momentous and the biggest decision in our history.

Crucially, though, this is not a decision we will make on one day – on 18 October 2014. This is a decision we are all in the process of making over these next two-and-half years.

The council elections are a step along that way. They represent the only real test of political opinion in Scotland ahead of that referendum. As such, they are vital in setting the tone for what comes afterwards and for establishing momentum ahead of that crucial poll.

That is why Allison Hunter, who leads the SNP group in Glasgow, urged voters to use the council elections as a “stepping stone” to independence. A remark, incidentally, which sparked the combative response from Labour’s Gordon Matheson that “no one steps on Glasgow”.

It is also why the SNP has invested so heavily in its marketing effort for these councils. SNP party political broadcasts used to consist of Alex Salmond talking earnestly into the camera for several minutes. Not any more.

The SNP’s local election broadcast is such a slice of slick advertising slushiness that it could easily have been selling holidays, or pensions, or any lifestyle product. It is an expensive piece of broadcasting – and it shows.

Labour managed to entice Doctor Who actor David Tennant to do the voiceover for its election broadcast, but ruined what should have been a chance to inject a little star quality into its campaign by cutting to boring old bald men in suits talking to the camera after only a few seconds.

Both Labour and the SNP need a good and decisive win. For the Nationalists it is partly about keeping last year’s momentum going, but also about establishing itself as Scotland’s true national party.

If the Nationalists can emerge as the largest party in places such as Glasgow (which has endured uninterrupted Labour rule for 32 years), it will really mean that the SNP can fight and win anywhere in Scotland.

It will also mean that the SNP’s success last year was not a one-off, a national swing attributable to a poor Labour campaign and a brilliant Salmond-led one by the SNP. If the Nationalists can achieve consistent widespread local success, it will show everybody in politics that their support goes right down to the grassroots and is not dependent on the vagaries of national campaigns.

For Labour, it is equally – if not more – important that the party starts to show it has begun a fightback. When Labour lost control of the Scottish Executive in 2007, many in the party thought it was a blip and normal service would be resumed in 2011. When that didn’t happen and the party actually went backwards, the realisation sank in that Labour was in decline and couldn’t start to plan to recapture Holyrood again until it had started to win again.

This week’s local elections are vital in that rebuilding process, not just in terms of starting the campaign for the referendum and the next Holyrood elections, but also simply to stop the erosion of confidence which has plagued the party since last year’s defeat.

There are senior figures in the Scottish Labour Party who know that the party was guilty of complacency for many years. It didn’t really build its support bases in west and central Scotland because, under the first-past-the-post system then used in council elections, it didn’t need to.

But when the single transferable vote was introduced in 2007, the opposition parties started to win ground from Labour – and, with councillors on the ground, the other parties found it easier to build the local infrastructure that would help them get more and more councillors.

So when anyone remarks on Thursday that they can’t be bothered to vote, it might be worth reminding them that these are, actually, pretty important elections. They represent not just a step along the way to the referendum but the only real public test of opinion between the 2011 elections and the 2014 referendum.

Indeed, they are far more important, I would suggest, than voting for even the most lachrymose crooner on the telly.

Norma Austin Hart Picture: City of Edinburgh Council

Hats off to Norma Hart – or Norma Austin Hart as we must now call her. It is only because of her that anybody has actually realised there are local elections going on at all.

Ms Hart/Austin Hart is standing for Labour in the Edinburgh ward of Liberton and Gilmerton, where her main rival is fellow Labour stalwart Bill Cook.

Mr Cook, of course, has a surname which starts with a C – so, in any normal process, he would naturally earn the right to a higher spot on the ballot paper. But not any more.

Ms Hart’s recent decision to change her name to Norma Austin Hart means that it will be her, with her new A at the start of her name, and not Mr Cook, who holds the higher spot on the ballot.

Why is this important? Because it seems that many voters have already become so weary of our new fairer, more democratic and more inclusive system of proportional representation that they just go down the list, marking a 1 beside the first name, a 2 beside the second and so on.

This voting pattern is broken up slightly by those who vote in party order but who also give their first preference to the higher name on the paper.

Everybody in local government politics knows this is how the system works, but Ms Austin Hart insists that she did not change her name to put her higher up the paper than Mr Cook.

She maintains that Austin is her maiden name and she was merely changed it back to a form of her original name because she is remarrying, rather than take her husband’s name.

“The truth is I’m getting married,” she said. “I’m taking it as an opportunity to line up my personal name, my business name and my political name.”

It must be just a coincidence, then, that this decision – taken before nominations closed – resulted in her securing the all-important higher placing on the paper.

But whether or not Ms Austin Hart changed her name to get herself a high position on the ballot paper, her decision – and the publicity it has sparked – has revealed a few interesting (if not entirely palatable currents) in our local democracy.

The first is that the single transferable vote (STV) system is not working entirely as it should.

The Liberal Democrats secured this form of proportional representation for council elections in Scotland in return for their support of the Jack McConnell-led Scottish executive, post-2003. Their arguments at the time were clear and sounded good.

They pointed to the dominance of Labour in town halls across the west and central parts of Scotland, often without securing a majority of the votes cast, and demanded that something fairer and more accountable be put in its place.

STV seemed the logical answer, but it is now clear that it only works if the candidates are well enough known to the voters that they will actually be making a clear and cogent choice when they make their preferences.

If a voter doesn’t know one candidate from another but supports, say, the Labour Party, how is he or she you going to vote? Most will just hand their votes to the Labour candidates in the easiest order possible and that usually means 1 nearest the top and so on.

STV is a great system in theory and superb in practice when the electorate has a full and rounded knowledge of the candidates standing for election, but it is being turned into a name-centred lottery by an electorate which doesn’t really know enough about those on the ballot paper.

However, this isn’t really a fault of the electorate. There will be some voters who will have studied the literature dropping through their letterboxes, who will know the relative strengths and weaknesses of the individual candidates and know precisely who they want to vote for and in what order – but they will be in a minority, a substantial minority.

More than that, though, those knowledgeable voters will have cultivated this knowledge in spite of – not because of – the general media coverage of the elections.

Ms Austin Hart’s case has been highlighted in the press, but only because it personalises the election in a humorous way. The rest of the campaign has drifted along almost unnoticed.

Part of this is because local election campaigns are always quite dull. No editor is going to clear a front page for a council election story unless it involves sex, money, animals and preferably all three.

But it is also because we, as a country, are kind of electioned-out. We had a groundbreaking Westminster election in 2010, an even more momentous Scottish election in 2011 and now we have to come down to earth with boring old local government elections – no wonder the voters are finding it hard to get worked up about them.

In the 15 years since Labour came to power at Westminster in 1997, we have had four Scottish elections, three Westminster contests, three European elections and a referendum. Is anybody surprised that there is a certain amount of voter fatigue setting in?

These elections do matter in terms of local democracy, but they matter also because they will be seen as a progress report on the SNP government. If the SNP do well, it will give Alex Salmond and his ministers an extra fillip as they drive through towards the referendum in 2014.

If Labour do well, then the results will give Johann Lamont confidence as she tries to regain some form of electoral platform to fightback against the nationalists.

The parties know that, which is why they will send their members out to the polling stations to vote next month. But the rest of us? An alarming number will stay at home. Turnout could be down around the 30-40 per cent level, which will be depressing.

And those who do go to vote? Many will look at the unfamiliar names, scratch their heads and start marking their preferences on the list from the top down.

That may be good news for Ms Hart/Austin Hart, but not that great for local democracy.