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From Strasbourg to Stirling: An MEP aims to switch parliaments


DRYMEN, Scotland — The woman in the fluffy unicorn slippers is not a fan of Boris Johnson. Or Jeremy Corbyn.

“Honest to God! One’s as bad the other. They’re just nit-picking at each other,” she says on her doorstep in the village of Drymen in central Scotland. She sighs the deepest of sighs when asked about Brexit: “Everybody’s just so fed up with it.”

She’s talking to Alyn Smith, an MEP for the Scottish National Party who’s standing for a seat in the U.K. parliament in this week’s general election.

It’s in constituencies like this that the election will be decided — seats where the previous MP won with a small majority last time around. Stephen Kerr of the Conservatives took Stirling from the SNP by a margin of just 148 votes in 2017.

If the Conservatives can hold onto these seats and overturn their opponents’ narrow winning margins in others, Johnson will win a majority in parliament and push through his Brexit deal. If Johnson doesn’t win enough of these constituencies, a range of other outcomes looks possible, including more deadlock over Brexit or a second referendum.

His pitch is simple: He wants to stop Brexit, he doesn’t like the “Punch and Judy” politics of Westminster and his European experience is an asset.

Stirling also reflects the way Scottish politics has evolved in recent years. The SNP and the Conservatives are now the top two parties, at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the other big issue in this election: Scottish independence.

As rain patters off his bright yellow SNP umbrella, Smith and a small team of activists go from door to door in Drymen, canvassing for support. Some locals tell Smith they’ve seen him on TV. “Crimewatch, was it?” he jokes. POLITICO tags along, clutching a red-muffed microphone in the cold air to record a feature for the EU Confidential podcast.

Smith is a well-known member of the European Parliament. He won a standing ovation with an impassioned speech after the Brexit referendum in which he stressed that Scotland had voted to remain in the EU, even if the U.K. as a whole chose to leave. But how does he convince voters they should let him switch to the House of Commons?

His pitch is simple: He wants to stop Brexit, he doesn’t like the “Punch and Judy” politics of Westminster and his European experience is an asset.

“The European style of politics is politicians sit down, put the badges to one side and try and work out an answer,” he repeats on doorsteps across the village.

Delegates applaud Alyn Smith MEP during a Brexit Q&A | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

That message is well suited to this constituency, where more than two-thirds of voters backed remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum.

A couple of hours accompanying Smith and his activists is a refreshing reminder to this expat Scot of at least a couple of things. One is that Scots like a chat, or a blether. Other words are revived from dormant memory: This damp, gray weather is definitely dreich. And Smith talks of a “scunner factor” — something scunners you if it causes strong dislike or disgust, and a lot of people are fair scunnered with politicians.

It’s also a reminder that voters don’t fit neatly into boxes. We meet a woman who’s pro-SNP but fed up with Nicola Sturgeon — a surprise when the party leader is seen as a vote-winner. And even though Scotland voted heavily to remain in the EU, there are Scottish Euroskeptics, even if some of their points of reference may be a bit out of date — as one of the activists, John, reports back after a doorstep chat.

“They were saying that they reckon there’s a butter mountain in Europe, that there’s a grain mountain in Europe, and that Europe is the worst thing that ever happened to the world, that they’d be much better trading with America because they’re far more honest,” he recounts.

There’s also a man who asks why voting isn’t private. No one knows quite what to make of that one.

One thing that’s not so surprising is that Johnson doesn’t go down well on these doorsteps. The prime minister’s key ratings are lower in Scotland than in the U.K. as a whole.

“We had the Conservative chappie here the other day,” a woman in late middle age, on the doorstep with her husband, tells Smith.

“I was very polite but I told him that they should be ashamed of themselves and they’ve got a fool and an idiot who’s running the Tory party at the minute.”

Her husband chips in: “We call him the mini-Trump here.”

It’s clear he doesn’t mean it as a compliment.

When he talks to voters, Smith makes clear he supports Scottish independence but also suggests that’s a question to be settled at a later date.

The couple are strongly pro-SNP. But to claim this seat, Smith will have to win over others not so keen on the party, and its policy of pushing for an independence referendum next year. That’s the price the SNP says it will demand from Labour, if its MPs are in a position to help Corbyn into Downing Street after the election.

When he talks to voters, Smith makes clear he supports Scottish independence but also suggests it’s a question to be settled at a later date. If anti-independence voters want to “lend” him their vote in this election to try to stop Brexit, that’s OK with Smith.

That makes tactical sense. In 2014, nearly 60 percent of voters in Stirling voted against Scottish independence. Although the U.K. voted for Brexit two years later, most polls indicate a majority of Scots still oppose independence.

Conservative calculus

The following, chilly morning in central Stirling, a couple of women from Greggs bakery are giving out free cups of tea to stallholders in a street market. At one stall, a French woman is selling a mixture of homemade Scottish and French pastries.

Round the corner, activists holding clipboards and wearing blue safety vests gather outside the local Conservative Party HQ before heading off for a day of canvassing.

Stephen Kerr, the Conservative candidate who won the seat at the last election, steps out for a chat.

“When other little boys in Scotland were dreaming of scoring the winning goal at Wembley or the winning try at Twickenham, against the English, I was dreaming of being a member of parliament,” he says with a smile. “And that makes me sound very, very sad but that has been my ambition.”

What’s his key message on the doorstep?

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Alyn Smith | Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

“Basically, we’re saying vote for the Scottish Conservative and Unionists because we believe in Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. We don’t want a second independence referendum, we don’t want a continuation of the political upheaval and uncertainties,” he begins, before declaring that the party also wants to get Brexit “sorted” and move on.

Kerr also plays the local card, noting that his main rival is not from Stirling — a fact that also caused disquiet among some SNP activists when Smith was selected to fight the seat for the party. When he’s not been in Brussels or Strasbourg, Smith’s home has been Edinburgh — about 60km away from Stirling.

“He’s just moved into the area,” Kerr says. “He’s a welcome addition. I think he may just have got the keys to his flat last week.”

Posters in the windows of his campaign HQ declare that Kerr and the Scottish Conservatives can stop “indyref2” — another independence referendum. “Only Stephen Kerr can beat the SNP in Stirling,” declares another, showing the two parties were neck and neck at the last election, with others some distance behind.

So Kerr’s main message is that he wants to stop Scottish independence. And Smith’s is that he wants to stop Brexit. In this patch of Scotland, at least, the two leading parties seem keener to talk about stopping the other’s flagship policy than promoting their own.

A few days after canvassing in Drymen, Smith was back in the European Parliament — voting to approve Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission. In the debate before the vote, he declared his remarks would be “my last speech in this house.”

Whether Smith wins or loses in Thursday’s election, he may be right. If he wins, he’ll take up a seat at Westminster. If he loses, the chances are that the Conservatives will have won a majority, Brexit will go ahead — and British MEPs will be gone by the end of next month.



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