Constituency profile: Aberdeenshire West
The constituency is currently Conservative, but it’s going to be a tight contest, with the SNP looking to win it back
Situated in the rural countryside west of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire West takes in Royal Deeside in the south, part of the Cairngorms National Park to the west, Huntly in the north and meets the suburbs of Aberdeen in the east.
It is a well-off area, one of the least deprived in the country, with a number of affluent villages and towns such as Braemar, Banchory, Ballater, Aboyne and Westhill.
The economy of the area centres around agriculture, outdoor tourism, and the oil and gas industry.
Part of the constituency was once represented by Alex Salmond, in its previous guise of Gordon, and the area used to be a long-term Liberal Democrat stronghold, but it is currently held by the Conservatives with a majority of 900, making it one of the most marginal seats at this election.
Aberdeenshire West was formed in 2011 from parts of two previous Scottish Parliament constituencies: Gordon and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.
Gordon was represented by the Lib Dems’ Nora Radcliffe from 1999 until 2007 before being taken by Salmond for the SNP in 2007.
Meanwhile, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine was held by the Lib Dems’ Mike Rumbles from 1999 until 2011.
When parts of the two constituencies combined to form Aberdeenshire West in 2011, the seat went to the SNP’s Dennis Robertson on 42.6 per cent of the vote, with the Lib Dems in second place and the Conservatives third, but this changed dramatically in 2016, when the Conservatives’ Alexander Burnett leapt ahead to take the seat on 38.6 per cent of the vote, the SNP dropped to second place and the Lib Dems to third.
The corresponding Westminster seat of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine has followed a similar pattern: Lib Dem from its creation in 1997 until 2015, then SNP from 2015 to 2017, when it went to the Conservatives’ Andrew Bowie, who held the seat at the 2019 general election but with a much-reduced majority of 843 compared to 7,950 two years before.
And a lot has changed since December 2019 that might affect the result in this election.
One key issue is Brexit. With Aberdeenshire West being a largely rural area, the impact of Brexit on food exports could influence the way people vote.
But equally the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism and how that has been handled, concerns about the future of the oil and gas industry in a post-COVID green recovery and views on independence will influence voters.
Among other issues likely to be of concern to constituents in Aberdeenshire West are digital connectivity, transport, town centres, housing and healthcare.
The SNP campaign may have been given a boost by the inclusion in the party’s manifesto of a commitment to upgrade the Insch War Memorial Hospital, which has been closed for over a year, something Burnett, as constituency MSP, had been campaigning for.
Looking to hold on to the seat, Burnett is a Banchory-based property developer and business owner who is descended from Aberdeenshire gentry (his father is James Comyn Amherst Burnett of Leys, Baron of Kilduthie).
Among Burnett’s businesses are a biomass renewable heating company, a property development and lettings business, and an estate made up of forestry and agriculture land.
Up against him is Fergus Mutch, the SNP’s former head of communications, who lives in Braemar.
The law graduate previously worked as a parliamentary assistant to Alex Salmond when he was first minister.
Mutch managed Salmond’s Aberdeenshire constituency office during the independence referendum before being appointed head of communications and research for the SNP at Holyrood in 2015.
It was Mutch who stood against the Andrew Bowie in the 2019 general election and reduced the Conservative majority, so while he may not have been well known outside the press in his previous role, he has spent time campaigning in the area to build up a profile locally.
Also standing are Banchory and Mid Deeside councillor Rosemary Bruce for the Lib Dems, who is the party’s spokesperson for social security and older people, and Banchory-based retired local government officer Andy Brown for Labour.
But with the Lib Dems not expected to make a comeback here and Labour tending to languish in fourth place, in reality the contest is expected to be a tight two-horse race between the Tories and the SNP.