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Interview: David Mundell, Scotland's only Conservative MP

IT'S not easy being an endangered species.

Scotland's only Conservative MP, David Mundell, is resilient in the face of his seemingly solitary mission                                 Photograph: Kirsty Anderson
Scotland's only Conservative MP, David Mundell, is resilient in the face of his seemingly solitary mission Photograph: Kirsty Anderson

Tougher still when hundreds of thousands of people are clamouring for your extinction. But David Mundell, for nine years the holder of the ultimate wooden spoon of Scottish politics as the one Tory MP, seems to be bearing up.

Having a hinterland helps. Before he became an affront to democracy/evil incarnate/David Cameron's Jock valet (delete as you will), Mundell was an SDP councillor, a solicitor working both sides of the Border, and BT Scotland's head of national affairs.

In 1999 and 2003, he was elected a South of Scotland list MSP, then switched to Westminster as MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, and in 2010 became the Tory minister at the Scotland Office.

In recent months, he's been putting the No case in increasingly rowdy debates from Ayrshire to Aberdeen, often wearing a symbolic Saltire and Union Jack tie donated by a wellwisher.

He says one of his party's key roles is ensuring No voters turn out on September 18. "Inevitably Yes voters are more motivated because that's what their whole political ethos is about," he concedes.

"I'm not jumpy about the result but I'm not complacent. I've still got to be getting people out to vote at five to 10 at night."

He says Alex Salmond motivates No voters. "They feel they mustn't let him prevail."

But with characteristic waspishness, he also admits the SNP is formidable, especially the Nicola Sturgeon and Salmond double-act.

"The discipline's been incredible to date. I do admire Nicola's willingness to shovel the s***e. You know when it's bad, because she'll be sent out there."

But he claims the Yes campaign's key weakness is an inability to answer basic questions about independence, particularly the currency.

Regardless of the economic arguments ("Who the hell is Joe Stiglitz to the average man in Ecclefechan?", he groans, referring to one of Salmond's favourite advisers), Mundell says a formal currency union is a non-starter.

"England won't wear it, that's the problem. People in England won't want to bankroll an independent Scotland. The gut feeling of your average punter in Basildon is not going to be, 'Scotland's left, I'm going to underwrite them.'

"It's never going to get through parliament. You couldn't sell it to the electorate of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It's just not going to happen."

To what extent is the idea of a Tory-free Scotland motivating people to vote Yes?

"I don't think it will be a determining factor," he says optimistically. "People understand this change is forever. Just because you don't get the government you want, you don't tear up the country.

"I've never voted for the party that was in government in the Scottish Parliament.

"But I don't think it should be abolished or we should have the independent state of Dumfries and Galloway because it might be Conservative."

Why do folk hate the Tories so much?

"I don't acknowledge that that is the case."

Oh, come on.

"I don't think that is the case. Conservative support in Scotland is on the rise."

But the worst thing Salmond threw at Alistair Darling in last week's TV debate was to say, "You're in bed with the Tory party".

That message resonates, doesn't it?

"Alex Salmond was quite happy to be in bed with the Tories when he had his minority administration in Holyrood in 2007, and John Swinney was [going] round begging for Tory votes to get the budget through ... People know that if they want to change the UK Government they can do so at next year's General Election."

Also cited by Yes is the surge in foodbank use, which many blame on Tory welfare reforms, especially the sanctions which dock jobseeker benefits for petty bureaucratic reasons.

In the Commons last year, Mundell said he was "very proud" to open a foodbank in Peebles.

How can anyone be proud to open a foodbank?

"I'm proud of the people who worked to make that happen ... providing support for people who are more vulnerable in the community. I very much regret the politicisation of foodbanks."

In June this year, he also told Holyrood's welfare reform committee: "There is no doubt some people have gone to foodbanks because they have been subject to sanctions or a delay in receiving benefits." Are sanctions fair?

"We're trying to ensure that they are ...

''I would rather see a situation where nobody felt that they needed to use a foodbank. But I don't believe that simply an increase in welfare payments or not having sanctions would lead to that."

But surely if folk had more money for food they would draw on ­foodbanks less?

"Well, you might make that supposition."

Is it a wild supposition?

"I don't think it sounds a wild supposition. But in lots of wealthy countries people use foodbanks. It's not straightforward. And it's most certainly not the case that if Scotland became independent we wouldn't have foodbanks and child poverty. That's complete nonsense."

He's confident of a No. But if it's a Yes?

"A very nice gentleman on Facebook has offered to come to my house and pack up my belongings, so I can be decanted back to Westminster.

"But he's not sure whether he'll have enough carbolic soap to fully disinfect the property.

"I'm waiting for that," he laughs.

So are a lot of the voters.

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