British Labour in Scotland (BLiS), Ian Murray, Gordon Brown, George Foulkes and federalism

Why am I writing about British Labour in Scotland (BLiS), Ian Murray, Gordon Brown, George Foulkes and the federalism fantasy when there’s actual important stuff going on?

To be honest, I thought I had a really witty opening – something about balloons trying to breathe life into horses that had long ago been flogged to death.

But then there just wasn’t anything more to say.

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Building blocks

Always one to look for the silver lining I’m taking some comfort from the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has at least put a stop to the inane “never closer to independence” drivel we used to get from Alyn Smith. I was curious to see what replacement drivel he’d come up with (Partly joking, Alyn!) so I checked out his column in today’s National. Imagine my surprise when I found him talking about independence in defiance of Nicola Sturgeon’s strictures on the matter. He appears to have picked up on the developing theme in Scotland’s political discourse which acknowledges that the restoration of Scotland’s independence must have its place in the discussion about shaping a post-pandemic world. Jonathon Shafi has authored a fine introduction to what promises to be a lively and productive debate.

This is, of course, quite contrary to the tone and content of Nicola Sturgeon’s infamous cease and desist message to independence activists. It is gratifying to see that her ill-thought instruction to stop all campaigning may not have had as much influence as I feared. On reflection, it never could. As if I needed further cause to condemn the foolishness of that statement, I now realise that it was pointless and silly for another reason. There was never any way that independence could be excluded from discussion of what we seek to build once we can regard the pandemic as over. Imagine if someone suggested that all campaigning on the climate issue had to stop. Imagine trying to discuss the future without taking account of what environmental campaigners are saying. It would be nonsensical.

It is just as nonsensical to exclude Scotland’s constitutional issue. Or, indeed, any constitutional issue. Because, as I have noted many times before, the constitution is fundamental. Constitutional politics directly addresses issues of power, legitimacy and accountability. You cannot deny the primacy of constitutional politics without dismissing the matter of sovereignty. You cannot sensibly discuss decisions relating to sweeping reforms without considering the question of who ultimately makes these decisions; how the decisions are made; who is responsible for implementing the decisions; who has the rightful authority to enforce the decisions. All of this comes under the heading of constitutional politics. It is never not the time to be talking about such things.

Those who say, “Now is not the time!” have an agenda. You can be fairly certain that it is not entirely about human suffering, the tragic loss of life and the grief of the bereaved. There are those who will insist or imply that to think and talk of anything other than the pandemic and its human cost is to be heartless and inhumane. You don’t need a powerful memory to recall a time when there was a different reason for now not being the time. And one before that. And before that. The fact is that those who have power will always find a justifications (or rationalisation) for deferring discussion of how who has power; how that power is acquired; in whose interests power is exercised; to whom is power accountable; and by what means or process is power transferred.

Alyn Smith says something that is definitely not drivel.

All the problems we face are global, be it climate change, organised crime, the migration crisis or indeed a fight against a pandemic. We need an organised structured co-operation to do that. Of the bodies available to us – the UN, G20, World Trade Organisation, Nato and the EU – we’re not eligible for G20, the WTO is creaking from crisis to crisis, Nato is about defence and the UN in the absence of agreement has no teeth. The EU is it, and if it didn’t exist we’d want to invent something like it.

This is, in its essence, a potent statement of the task facing all of us – and I do mean all of us – as we deal with the damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic. In terms of the broad sweep and relentless flow of history, the deaths will be the least of that damage. There is nothing we can do for the dead but mourn them and remember them. There is much that we can and must do for the living of this and future generations. As Alyn Smith notes, accomplishing any meaningful part of the task we face, and achieving so much as a fraction of the potential it presents, will require structures capable of cooperating on a global scale. Where I part company with Alyn is his tendency to think at too large a scale. What he says about the EU is undoubtedly true. It is a bold and largely successful experiment in post-imperial international association which may well hold lessons for us – good and bad – as we strive to build those new structures. But it’s the wrong scale.

Jonathon Shafi recognises the importance of scale.

In a word gripped by a pandemic, economic crisis, climate change and intensifying geopolitical rivalries, the whole conversation around the veracity of small, independent, self-sustaining nations will transform. Local control will, I suspect, gain in popular support – especially as transnational institutions fail to deliver the solidarity their populations expect, and as free-market capitalism lies exposed and undermined even by the American state whose hegemonic position in the world was key in bringing about globalisation as we know it.

Small, independent, self-sustaining nations! That is the scale at which we should be thinking. Nations can be problematic. But they work. They are the evolved solution to the seemingly insuperable difficulties of unnaturally large communities. They are the largest unit of socio-economic organisation with which people can identify. A nation is a community of communities. At its best, the nation can emulate – though rarely if ever replicate – the cohesiveness of smaller communities. The nation has to be the default base unit of global cooperation because, if one maintains that the formation and management of those structures should be done with the informed consent and willing participation of the people, then that cohesiveness is essential.

The UK, as presently structured, fails abysmally to meet the criteria for the kind of small, internally cohesive nations which can be the building blocks of global cooperation. Dismantling the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state must be a priority. That starts with the abolition of the Union.

Now is the time to be talking about independence. Now is the time to be planning the restoration of Scotland’s independence in order that we may be the small, independent, self-sustaining and cohesive nation that the new world demands. As I wrote in an earlier article,

We are told that we will emerge from the pandemic into a world that is significantly, if not massively changed. It is an undeniable fact of life that if the forces of democracy don’t manage the change then other forces will. And we may not like the society that they create.

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Lazy politics

Ian Murray is talking nonsense, of course. But of all the nonsense spouted by British politicians in Scotland this guff about federalism has to be my favourite. I like it, not because it is an idea worthy of discussion, but because I’m lazy. Not as lazy as Ian Murray, who can’t be bothered trying to think of something fresh to say. Or even to develop this federalism guff from a vacuous soundbite into something resembling a thought-out policy. I’m not that lazy. But I am lazy enough to appreciate the fact that each time Murray or some other British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) mouthpiece drag the threadbare federalism coat out of the dressing-up box they resort to when trying to look like a real political party, we know three things –

  • That we needn’t trouble ourselves too much with a counter-argument because they have no arguments to counter.
  • That we needn’t trouble ourselves too much with a counter-argument because their ‘policy’ announcement will be almost immediately slapped down by their bosses in London.
  • That we needn’t trouble ourselves too much with a counter-argument because we still have that article we wrote the last time they visited the dressing-up box. Or was it the time before?

This is from an article written in May 2018 – please make allowances for the stuff that is out of date – in response to a piece by Kevin Pringle published in the Sunday Times; in particular, the following,

That is pretty much my position, too, but it begs a question. If independence is a means to certain desirable ends, is it possible to define a Britain in which similar aims could be achieved? In other words, could Scotland in the Union ever be contemplated by a utilitarian Scottish nationalist?

For me, the answer is yes, but it would have to be a UK on a very different trajectory to Brexit Britain: federal, strong and stable in the EU; with a written constitution; an economic policy that works for all the nations and regions and is divested of its post-imperial pretensions, including nuclear weapons. I think that independence is more realistic.

The things Kevin Pringle rightly identifies as the basic (minimum?) conditions for an acceptable – and therefore potentially viable – federal Britain are the stuff of fantasy politics.

  • Written constitution?
  • An economic policy that works for all the nations and regions? UNIMAGINABLE!
  • Divested of post-imperial pretensions?

All of this, together with anything else that so much as resembles modern democracy, is anathema to the ruling elites of the British state. Talk of imposing a working federal arrangement on the British state makes about as much sense as talk of squeezing me into a tutu and having me perform with Scottish Ballet.

And there’s another problem, quite apart from the fact that federalism and the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state are mutually exclusive forms. For a federal arrangement to be feasible it would not only have to be fair and equitable, it would have to be seen to be fair and equitable. Which means that the negotiation of the arrangement would have to be seen to be fair and equitable. Which, in turn, could only be the case if all the parties involved participated in those negotiations on the basis of parity of power, equality of status and mutual respect. Which, to close the circle, could only be possible if those parties to the negotiations were already independent nations.

Independence precedes and is a prerequisite for the negotiation of any constitutional arrangement which involves the ceding or pooling of sovereignty. Only independence permits the full exercise of sovereignty which provides the rightful authority to cede or pool sovereignty.

Federalism cannot proceed from the British state any more than pea and ham soup can proceed ‘fae a chicken’.

Independence is not only more realistic but essential and inevitable. Any constitutional arrangement which succeeds in terms of the imperatives, aims and objectives of the British state necessarily fails in terms of the needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s people. It is not remotely possible that negotiation of a new constitutional settlement could command the confidence of Scotland’s people other than in the wake of the dissolution of the Union.

The now ritualised espousing of federalism by British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) is not a case of them genuinely exploring constitutional options. It is a case of them striving for relevance in a political environment where absolute commitment to the preservation of the British state is increasingly regarded as an untenable oddity.

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No innocents! No heroes!

As one of those who have been more sympathetic than perhaps most towards Dr Calderwood I have to say that I was considerably less charitably disposed towards her following the revelation that she had made a previous visit to her holiday home in Fife. That did not advise Police Scotland of this when they spoke to her and may also have failed to inform the Scottish Government puts an entirely different complexion on the affair. The penalty imposed on Dr Calderwood would, I continue to maintain, have been excessive for a single misjudgement. But the impression now is that her behaviour was not only reckless but wilful.

My views on the hounding of individuals by the media and those happy to let the gutter press lead them by the nose remain unaltered. I deplore the inhumanity of it more than I deplore Dr Calderwood’s unforgivable but sadly very human folly.

I also deplore the double-standards by which Dr Calderwood is punished severely for her conduct but the behaviour of the photographer who stalked her and the newspaper which paid him to do so is barely examined.

Surely during a public health crisis such as we are labouring under at the moment the media have a duty, formal or otherwise, to behave responsibly. Yet it appears that The Sun had a freelance photographer stalking Dr Calderwood with a view to undermining the credibility of someone who, it is generally agreed, was playing a major role in the Scottish Government’s efforts to combat Covid-19. Quite apart from their own flouting of a presumption against non-essential travel – the photographer had to get to Fife and back – it might readily be argued that The Sun behaved at least as badly as Dr Calderwood.

The newspaper will doubtless respond with some boilerplate about freedom of the press and ‘the public’s right to know’. But however much weight these arguments might have in normal times, how can it sensibly be claimed that circumstances which are so dire as to override Dr Calderwood’s right to travel aren’t serious enough to affect news values or the priorities of the media.

I am resigned to the fact that pre-pandemic we lived in an environment where the careers and well-being of individuals making a valuable and even a unique contribution to society were as nothing compared to the media’s ‘right’ to trivialise issues and sensationalise events the better to satisfy an audience conditioned to crave titillation and immediate gratification. We are constantly told that Covid-19 will change everything. Not so, apparently.

Dr Calderwood has lost her job and possibly her career on account of her failure to adjust to the fact that she’d lost her right to travel. The public has lost the services of an individual who, by all accounts, was doing important work particularly well. The First Minister has lost the benefit of continuity of advice. But for the gutter press it’s low-life as usual.

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Because we can

Catherine Calderwood should not have disregarded measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 that she was largely responsible for formulating and having adopted. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is why she has been hounded from her post as Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer. Dr Calderwood was targeted because she was vulnerable. The pack is predatory. And that’s how pack predators operate. The single out the weak and harry them to exhaustion. The photograph of Dr Calderwood visiting her second home was the equivalent of blood in the water. The ravening mob responded as atavistic instinct compels.

It may, of course, be argued that Dr Calderwood invited the attack. That she was the author of her own fate inasmuch as she should have taken greater care not to look like a potential victim. She is not some wobbly-legged fawn fresh to the world and yet to learn its vicious ways. She did not rise to the position she held without encountering – and escaping – predators. She should have known better.

It could very well be argued that she could/should have been better protected by the herd. There seems general agreement that the country benefited from her abilities and qualities. Had she been more fortunate, the stronger members of the herd would have confronted and deterred the predators. Or the herd, following some instinct of its own, might have crowded round and offered shelter in sheer numbers. She should have been so lucky.

The pursuit of Dr Calderwood played out as such pursuits so often do, with the prey being brought down and savaged. Temporarily sated, the packed mills around the corpse savouring what it assumes to be its power mindlessly unaware that it was merely the instrument of forces beyond its ken.

I don’t defend what Dr Calderwood did. But what she did was far less deplorable than what was done to her in response. We are human beings. Contrary to appearances, we are not slavering beasts. We can choose not to be slaves to the lizard-brain bequeathed to us by evolution. We can opt out of the hunt. We can subordinate our base urges to our higher intellect. We can reason. And, having the capacity to reason, we are capable of being reasonable.

That is true power. Power to go where we will rather than where we are led either by our primitive instincts or those who are skilled in manipulating them. The power to choose – for good reasons or none – not to hunt today. Or not to hunt this particular prey. Every once in a while we need to let one go. Just to show that we have the power to do so. Just because we can.

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Life after Covid-19

For a number of very good reasons, Craig Murray’s blog has long been essential reading for anyone with an interest in Scotland’s affairs. His passion for independence is matched by his abhorrence of injustice. I suspect these things are not unrelated.

Craig’s coverage and commentary on the Alex Salmond trial has been exemplary. He has done a remarkable job of keeping us informed while (mostly) avoiding falling foul of the restrictions on reporting. He has powerfully conveyed a sense of the turbid intrigue surrounding Salmond’s prosecution without finding himself banged-up for contempt. I applaud him. I may even buy him a pint when circumstances permit.

I write this having just finished my third reading of his recent demolition of Dani Garavelli’s appallingly biased and dishonest account of the same trial that Craig has so admirably kept us abreast of. His methodical dissection of what is nothing short of a vicious propaganda assault on Alex Salmond is reminiscent of Stu Campbell (Wings Over Scotland) at his forensic best. The outrage is palpable. And entirely justified. There is little point in me trying to add anything to what Craig has written about Garavelli’s travesty of reporting and shameless character assassination masquerading as journalism. It takes a lot to outdo the Britsh mainstream media in terms of baseness, sordidness and sheer despicability, but Ms Garavelli has managed it. She should be ashamed!

But she won’t be ashamed. Because she has embraced an ideology which holds that no conduct, however immoral or unethical in any other context, is impermissible when defending or promoting a grotesque perversion of the feminist ideal. Justice in particular ceases to be a concern. Nothing illustrates this better than Garavelli’s article. What most of us would surely hold to be basic justice is turned inside out and upside down as the evidently innocent are counted guilty while the apparently guilty are given a free pass.

I’ll be honest and admit that I find it all but impossible to give an account of this ideology. I quite literally cannot get my head around anything that is so completely partial. So utterly antithetic to the fundamental principles which make society possible. It is alien. By which I mean that it is not contained in or derived from the essential nature of human society. We simply could not live by a ‘code’ which holds justice to be the servant of prejudice. By the same token, it should be that such a pernicious ideology could not take root in society. But there is good reason to suppose that it is exerting a baneful influence at the highest levels of the Scottish Government.

There has been an unmistakably concerted effort to take Alex Salmond out of the political equation. A project which goes far beyond the bounds of even the most Machiavellian of political machinations. At any other time, this would be the kind of thing that ends political careers and brings down governments. But, like so much else, the whole thing is being buried under the major public health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are entitled to question whether this is acceptable.

We are told that it will be time enough to deal with this malignancy at the heart of the SNP administration once things get back to normal. But what kind of normal will there be to get back to if we do not deal with such issues? What long-term damage might be done if we turn a blind eye to possible corruption and misdeeds in our government. Just how much are we prepared to let slide as we focus on the health threat? What are we prepared to sacrifice in the name of tackling this threat? How necessary is it that we disregard political and social threats in the meantime?

Can we – should we – abrogate our responsibility to the future on account of a present, but passing, emergency?

We are told that we will emerge from the pandemic into a world that is significantly, if not massively changed. It is an undeniable fact of life that if the forces of democracy don’t manage the change then other forces will. And we may not like the society that they create.

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Endeavour to persevere!

Mike Russell’s column in the Sunday National stressing the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and “keeping going” falls a bit flat. Not that he is wrong. The current public health crisis has just the elements of threat, uncertainty, lack of control and isolation which can trigger despair. It is important to talk up whatever positives can be found in such an extraordinary situation both for the sake of our own mental well-being and as a counter to those who take delight in emphasising and exaggerating the negatives. What can’t be cured must be endured! Dwelling on inconveniences and misfortunes over which you have no control is seriously unhelpful. There is almost always an upside. Find it and put it at the forefront of your thinking. Congratulate yourself on how well you’re coping. Keep going.

The words that popped into my head as I read Mike Russell’s piece were “Endeavour to persevere!”. You might immediately suppose this to be an allusion to the eponymous inspirational poem by George Wootton. I confess, however, that I was unaware of this gentleman and his works. More prosaically, I was put in mind of a scene from the 1976 Clint Eastwood movie The Outlaw Josey Wales in which the character Lone Waite – played memorably by Chief Dan George – recounts an ‘inspirational’ anecdote of his own.

I wore this frock coat in Washington, before the war. We wore them because we belonged to the five civilised tribes. We dressed ourselves up like Abraham Lincoln. We only got to see the Secretary of the Interior, and he said: “Boy! You boys sure look civilised!” he congratulated us and gave us medals for looking so civilised. We told him about how our land had been stolen and our people were dying. When we finished he shook our hands and said, “Endeavour to persevere!” They stood us in a line: John Jumper, Chili McIntosh, Buffalo Hump, Jim Buckmark, and me — I am Lone Watie. They took our pictures. And the newspapers said, “Indians vow to endeavour to persevere.”

We thought about it for a long time, “Endeavour to persevere.” And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.

Watch on YouTube

Now, I’m not saying that Mike Russell’s encouraging words are as empty as the rote platitude offered by the unnamed politician in Lone Watie’s tale. But his stress on “keeping going” is strangely at odds with pronouncements by other politicians – notably, Nicola Sturgeon. She, you will surely recall, was at great pains to insist that the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence should most definitely not keep going. It must stop – completely and immediately. Keeping going is, it would seem, good advice so long as you don’t keep going with the things that certain people would rather weren’t kept going. Endeavour to persevere, by all means. But on the strict condition that you’re persevering only with endeavours which don’t inconvenience certain vested interests.

It’s not only Nicola Sturgeon who wants to be selective on our behalf about where and how our perseverance is applied. One of the emerging tropes of the current public health crisis is the diverse ways in which we are importune to be mindful exclusively of Covid-19. The many variations on the familiar theme of “Now is not the time!”. It seems that whatever one ventures to discuss that is not immediately virus-related someone will respond with “Now is not the time to be thinking about [whatever]!”. There seems to be no topic other than the pandemic and its impact which one will not be chastised for broaching. The back burner is getting decidedly crowded.

There are exceptions, of course. Just as everybody has a seemingly endless list of things that can or must be put off until after Covid-19 has been ‘dealt with’, so they tend to have some issue deemed too important to be deferred. In marked contrast to the independence campaign in Scotland, time and attention must be reserved for the Brexit process. Now is always the time for pet projects and personal hobby-horses.

I find this odd. After all, many and perhaps most of us find ourselves with an unusual amount of time on our hands. This must be so as employment is reserved for those deemed essential while the rest of us are required by law to stay almost entire within the confines of our homes. We are not permitted to do anything that might involve coming withing two metres of other people. Which means we are prohibited from doing most of the things that we would otherwise be doing. We can’t all be occupied testing mucus, stitching face-masks or re-purposing vacuum cleaners as ventilators. You’d think most of us would have plenty time to ponder what would be the important issues of the day were it not for the pandemic, and will inevitably still be the important issues once the prohibition on thinking about anything other than Covid-19 has been lifted.

One might almost think our politicians were aware of this and rather anxious about the possibility of the proletariat using new-found free time to study and reflect upon and discuss those important issues. There is just a hint of desperation about the way we’re selectively told that “Now is not the time!” for this or that. The eagerness with which we’re urged to keep on keeping on is somewhat undermined by then being told not to keep on going here or there. We’re not quite in the realm of control-freakery. But we’re on the border.

If we must endeavour to persevere why can’t we choose what we endeavour to persevere with? Why can’t we endeavour to persevere with whatever we think is important? If we are to keep on keeping on, why should we not take advantage of the chance to keep on keeping on with things that we would normally be distracted from by the demands of work and the pleasures of socialising?

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