Despite recent media interest, Fife can feel removed from the rest of Scotland
SNP activists huddled around a car park on the edge of Anstruther harbour. The sea on one side, North East Fife on the other.
They passed around a box of tablet while they waited for new leaflets. “Gethins is putting a jacket on,” someone said, awaiting the arrival of the local candidate. It was the last week of the campaign and Stephen Gethins’ team was planning one last push for support. It had been a challenging few weeks, not least because the winter timing forced activists into door-stepping on pitch black, freezing cold evenings, and talk had already turned to plans to get the vote out, with locals volunteering their homes as regional hubs to serve a dual purpose as both logistical venues and places to stay warm.
If the atmosphere was tense, the feeling was understandable. North East Fife was represented by Sir Menzies Campbell for nearly twenty years – from back when the Liberal Democrats were just the Liberals – but there has always been a sizeable Tory vote and the seat was held by Conservative MP Barry Henderson prior to 1987. This history has shaped the area, with Campbell’s success built on his ability to mop up votes from those intent on keeping the Conservatives out.
But while tactical voting is not a new concept in the constituency, the level of interest it was enjoying certainly was. This was the tightest seat in the UK, with the incumbent, Gethins, taking the constituency with a majority of just two votes in 2017.
Clearly this election was not fought on local issues. Perhaps once it would have been the specific questions and doubts of local communities that dominated the matters rolling over in the minds of voters, but not now. This was a campaign which orbited around questions of the constitution.
As Gethins told Holyrood, ahead of the vote: “The Brexit debate has sharpened, it’s really sharpened. The difference between 2017 and 2019 is two and a half years of additional Brexit havoc, on top of the one year we had in the run-up to the 2017 campaign. We have noticed it on the doors, it’s the issue that is persistently raised by people. It’s been the dominant issue that I have had raised.”
This focus on EU membership, and the UK’s bungled attempts to leave the bloc, was a new development for the constituency, and for Scottish politics more widely. The last couple of elections have been unusual ones, with the 2015 general election and the subsequent SNP landslide coming as the dust from the 2014 independence referendum was still taking time to settle, and the 2017 vote – a snap election misguidedly called by Theresa May – seeming to catch parties by surprise.
Over in Cupar, 16 miles in-land from Gethins’ leafletting run, Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate Wendy Chamberlain said she had encountered much the same feeling as her rival.
Speaking amid the organised chaos of her party’s campaign office, she said: “Although we would have preferred this to have been an election around climate change and the climate emergency and tackling that, there is no doubt this election was because of Brexit, and the inability to get Brexit done, however that looks. There’s no doubt membership of the EU is a key part of that, but the other key factor is around the continued constitutional issues of Scotland leaving the UK and the fact the First Minister has said she will pursue an independence referendum at the first opportunity, potentially when Brexit isn’t yet sorted, when we don’t have a direction of travel and we don’t know what the UK’s relationship with the EU will be. There are people who might be sympathetic to the thought of there being another independence referendum, but believe that is irresponsible.”
And in that sense, the campaign was an outlier. While parties across the UK clashed over Brexit stances, the tightest constituency in the UK was being contested by two pro-remain parties. In that context, with the Tory vote share down by 11 per cent on 2017, it was clear the party’s traditional supporters would play a key role in the result.
As Chamberlain put it: “There’s no doubt there was a sizeable Tory vote in 2017, albeit they were almost 4,000 behind both ourselves and the SNP. I suppose my position is, this seat was Lib Dem up until 2015 so potentially, those were Lib Dem voters, who voted Tory in 2017 because both the Conservative and the SNP’s message in that election was that it was between them. We proved otherwise having been second in 2015 and taking it so close in 2017 and there’s no doubt those voters, plus potentially the SNP vote that didn’t turn out in 2017, will be key to that, so turnout will be critical.”
But by the early hours of 13 December, the results were in and the SNP’s hold had evaporated. Gethins, the MP since 2015, had lost the seat to Chamberlain, who overturned the SNP foreign affairs and Europe spokesperson’s tiny majority by 1,316 votes.
Chamberlain, a former police officer, became North East Fife’s first-ever female MP. Speaking after the count, she said: “It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions tonight.
“I certainly felt the campaign was going very well and was very positive.
“I have to admit when I saw the exit poll this evening it made me feel quite different, then I came to the count and to feel we were in a better place was hugely encouraging.
“We were very clear in our message, it was about pro-UK and pro-EU. We believe in the value of the UK and the value of the European Union as well.”
So Chamberlain will prepare for the Commons and Gethins and his staff will leave office. And despite the arrival of camera crews and producers from all over the world, the people of North East Fife had generally seemed pretty bemused by the new-found and short-lived media interest. One SNP canvasser describes her surprise at popping out the house and ending up on STV news: “I’ve had to start wearing make-up just in case,” she admitted.
And for Fifers more widely, life goes on. The kingdom was a county constituency from 1708 until 1885, when it was divided into East and West Fife, and it’s now home to four seats, with Chamberlain’s victory coming alongside wins for the SNP’s Douglas Chapman in Dunfermline and West Fife and Peter Grant in Glenrothes, while Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath went to Neale Hanvey, the former SNP candidate who was suspended over allegations of anti-Semitism, who won the seat from Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary, Lesley Laird. He will now sit as an independent until the party’s disciplinary procedures against him are concluded.
Yet despite the influx of interest, Fife has often appeared an area further removed from the rest of Scotland than geography would suggest, and not just because it has retained its status as a kingdom. This is in an area of stark contrasts. Despite the grand stylings of St Andrews, the region is also home to Methil, Buckhaven and Kirkcaldy, some of the most deprived areas in the UK. An ancient university and the home of golf are combined with post-industrial towns and former mining centres. In fact, even the more affluent areas are themselves home to huge divides, with data from the End Child Poverty coalition finding that 27 per cent of children in St Andrews are living in poverty, higher than the Fife-wide average of 25 per cent.
As local authority co-leader David Ross put it, responding to the statistics: “The extent of child poverty in parts of Fife is scandalous. The council is doing what it can to break the cycle of poverty in the long term, as well as addressing the current situation, but the central government’s austerity policies are working against us.
“Building new, affordable homes across the kingdom, investing in education and early years, and continuing to invest in apprenticeships, jobs and training is all about helping future generations maximise their life chances. But, meanwhile, we’re also having to divert budgets into support mechanisms for families that simply can’t make ends meet now.”
And this is the context in which public services are operating – with the local authority still engaged in a near-decade-long struggle with restricted budgets. Audit Scotland identified a 7.8 per cent cut in local authority core revenue funding, in real terms, between 2013/14 and 2018/19, while over the last five years the population in Fife has grown by 1.2 per cent.
Yet there are more positive trends, with Scottish Government stats putting the full-time employment rate at 73.5 per cent, above the Scottish average of 73.2 per cent and with a higher percentage of adults perceiving the local crime rate as the same or improved, compared to Scotland as whole.
Meanwhile, the Fife Alcohol and Drug Partnership’s (ADP) annual report for 2018/19 states that the number of drug-related deaths in the region last year dropped from 66 to 64, despite a rise across the rest of Scotland.
Fife was one of just four health board areas – along with Dumfries and Galloway, Shetland and the Western Isles – to reverse the trend, which saw drug mortality figures rise across Scotland, from 934 in 2017 to 1,187 last year.
But with instances of cocaine and crack cocaine use identified as a contributory factor doubling in the past year, experts advised caution. Heroin and/or morphine was present in 80 per cent of toxicology results, although gabapentinoid misuse was a contributory factor in almost three-quarters of the deaths.
Phillip Heaton, policy officer with the Fife ADP, told the Courier: “Although the total mortality figure fell, it would be dangerous to view this as a trend or stabilisation and the work of groups like Fife’s Overdose Prevention and Drug Death Monitoring Group as well as efforts by other bodies such as Public Health and wider ADP services is as valuable and urgent as ever.
“Any attempt to stabilise and reduce Fife’s drug-related deaths cannot rely on ADP-funded services alone and will require action across systems as well as being shaped by the voice of lived experience as individuals, families, communities.”
Yet despite concerns over health, education and employment, Brexit continues to hang over the area. The UK’s attempts to leave the EU holds huge implications for the future of Fife, with both key industries and lifeline public services reliant on EU workers to survive.
Meanwhile, despite Boris Johnson’s success at a UK-level, union GMB has warned the current Brexit deal could leave up to 10,000 local jobs at risk in the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency alone.
There are around 3,500 manufacturing jobs in the area, with a further 6,300 jobs supported by manufacturing in the wider economy. But these industries rely on membership of the EU customs union for ensuring frictionless trade and zero tariffs, and there is growing concern over the implications of new barriers in sectors ranging from food and drink, to manufacturing, to retail.
And so, in short, the question of Brexit dominated the campaign in North East Fife for a reason. The votes were counted, the four MPs – two new, two returning – prepared for office, and Fifers were left with an uncertain future.