Scotland's local government elections ended up being, as expected, another proxy ballot on independence or, as the Scottish Conservatives preferred to frame it, a 'referendum on a referendum'. The mandate game, however, is a dangerous one to play, for if you accept – and I do – that the party winning the largest number of councillors and largest share of the vote 'wins' the election, then you could argue that the SNP emerged from last Thursday's polling with yet another mandate for a second independence plebiscite.
But that's not how it appeared. A press release from the SNP almost protested too much in arguing that it had won the poll, taking meticulous care to chart all the different ways in which it had bested its Unionist rivals. Expectation management, however, is key; Nationalists spoke of taking overall control in Glasgow (long considered a prize given Labour's previous hegemony) and other authorities but failed to do so. The Conservative party, meanwhile, continued its revival by pushing Labour into second place and winning councillors in the most, well, un-Tory of areas.
A lot of folk still find this outcome rather hard to digest. At least the SNP has overcome its initial denial phase, now belatedly accepting that the Conservative revival is real and they actually have a fight on their hands in certain constituencies (although Ruth Davidson risks her own failure of expectation management by talking
up seats like Moray and Gordon), but for some fellow travellers the desire to explain away the result led to some hyperbolic conclusions, chiefly that the 'loyalist vote' was to blame.
Not only is there no evidence of such a voting block in Scotland – it arguably vanished about half a century ago – but even if there were it would hardly explain Tory gains beyond Glasgow and the west coast. Personally, it also rankled. A while ago I got pelters, online and in print, for arguing that Scotland's increasing polarisation along constitutional lines amounted to 'Ulsterisation'. I was absolutely not making a religious point, yet the righteous indignation (and succession of straw men) that greeted my analysis was strangely absent in response to an assertion which effectively painted every new Tory voter as some sort of sectarian bigot. I wonder why?
I watched all this unfold as I caught a series of flights from Edinburgh to Erbil, the main city in the Kurdish region of Iraq, an explanation which baffled a series of TV and radio producers as I told them I wouldn't be able to give my hot take on the local government elections. Given my global bucket list, I'd long thought Iraq would pose a challenge, but in the event, it turned out to be surprisingly straightforward: budget flights to Stansted and Istanbul, and then a second Pegasus flight to the shiny new Erbil international airport. I didn't even need a visa, though the flight did land at 2 o'clock in the morning.
Usefully, the friend I was travelling with (a fellow country bagger) knew a Scots-Kurdish lawyer working in the city and he acted as our host for the day. Erbil's ancient citadel was the main 'sight', an impressive fortification that dominates the city centre, while nearby was a bustling market, including the 'Bourse', a money-changing hub where the most remarkable mounds of cash were on display, often protected by little more than a stone to keep them in place. I saw a 500 euro note for the first time, and also found out that the US dollar had reached 1.29 to the pound. Nearby was an animal market, with cow's heads on stone slabs and thousands of birds; northern Iraqis, it seems, are enthusiastic pigeon fanciers.
Having boomed from around 2003 – the allied invasion of Iraq proved beneficial in this part of the country – the autonomous region has suffered more recently, not only from the global financial crash but because ISIS is situated just 55 miles from the city, as far away from Erbil as Glasgow is from Edinburgh. Naturally, there's talk of independence, and the Kurdish president has promised a second ballot (there's already been an informal vote) at some point this year. It isn't straightforward, but given Baghdad has been withholding fiscal transfers for the past three years – no Barnett formula here – they at least know independence won't make them worse off.
On Saturday night, the three of us over-imbibed at a nightclub close to one of Erbil's numerous high-end hotels. It was hipper than anything I'd seen in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and full of Middle Eastern guys with the most astonishing quiffs, including several who were openly gay. As my new friend observed darkly, just an hour’s drive away and everyone present would be in danger of getting their heads chopped off. I found myself admiring a city managing to enjoy itself with such inhospitable neighbours.
It also struck me that I'd just visited a country to which many of the recent political fluctuations in my own stomping ground (by which I mean Scotland and the UK), including the forthcoming election, could be traced, a point made by the academic Michael Moran in his stimulating book 'The End of British Politics?', which ends with an account of the Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war. Moran makes the point that there British military adventurism over-reached, with disastrous domestic and international consequences.
From Erbil I caught a flight to the Turkish capital of Ankara, another city at the centre of recent shifts in global politics. Just a few weeks ago Turkey voted narrowly in (yet) another referendum to move from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government, and on the streets of its busy capital I could still make out campaigning detritus from the inevitably contested ballot.
There wasn't much else to see, although I did get to visit Anıtkabir (literally, 'memorial tomb'), the imposing mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, leader of the Turkish war of independence and the founder and first president of secular Turkey. I watched the changing of the guard, as did students from a local university celebrating their graduation, and joined them to inspect display cases full of Atatürk's rather luxurious belongings. Outside I tried to refresh my memory of his biography via Wikipedia but found the page wouldn't load. Only later I remembered that Erdoğan, Atatürk's less impressive successor, ordered it blocked at the end of last month.