How can I be sure?

When looking for a word to describe something – such as the 2020 SNP Conference – I will often check the dictionary definition of those that occur to me. Even if I know the meaning of a word there is something about seeing this in print or pixels which makes me more aware. Perhaps it’s because seeing the definition written down obliges the brain to reprocess the information, as when you look at a familiar image upside-down or in an unusual context. This reprocessing brings to consciousness things ignored by the ‘lazy’ brain that sees no point in doing again something that it has already done a number of times. Similarly, the very act of looking up the dictionary definition of a word encourages the brain to reconsider – or consider differently – a term so commonplace as to otherwise be used without much thought.

The word which initially came to mind was ‘dire’. That it was my first thought may in itself be significant. But looking at the dictionary definition got me wondering if using the word ‘dire’ to describe the event might not be to overstate its awfulness. That it was in many (most?) ways awful is hardly in doubt. It may not have seemed so to those with little or no experience of a live conference with which to make comparisons; or those not fully cognisant of what conference is supposed to be and do; or those who maintain that everything the SNP does should be applauded enthusiastically regardless of how unimpressive it might be in case the Unionist media are watching. For the rest of us it was a far from pleasing or satisfactory experience. But was it dire?

In part, the dictionary defines ‘dire’ as meaning ‘nearly hopeless’. That sense seems apt. Even an old cynic such as myself cannot help but maintain at least the faintest spark of hope so indelibly is Scotland’s cause imprinted on us. My expectations of conference were low. But even making allowances for the special circumstances forced on the party by the public health crisis the SNP Conference was disappointing. Those special circumstances imposed constraints and difficulties. But they also opened up new opportunities. There’s always a chance that the technology will go wrong. And there are things that no technology can do… yet. But there are things it can do very well. Anyone even slightly aware of what might be done with a platform such as Hopin could see that the technology was not being fully or well utilised. But that is another discussion. And one that I’m sure is already happening online.

From the political perspective, anyone looking to take renewed hope and revived spirit away from this event was bound to feel let down. But few among the more politically aware entertained such ambition. The height of my ambition was that the conference wouldn’t be a total disaster. It wasn’t. It was only ‘nearly hopeless’. But was it dire?

‘Dire’ can also mean ‘fraught with danger’ and ‘causing fear, dread or terror’. It certainly wasn’t that. Anyone who was concerned or even deeply worried about the fight to restore Scotland’s independence prior to the conference will be no less so because of it. But there was no real risk that the event would be catastrophic for Scotland’s cause. If there was ‘fear, dread or terror’ these were of the very mild variety. Describing the conference as ‘dire’ would be just a little over the top. So, what then?

Don’t worry! I’m not going to walk you through the whole process of choosing one word to describe the 2020 SNP Conference. I’ll skip straight to my final selection – ‘insipid’! The event was bland. It lacked significance and it will have no impact. It had no significance for policy. It will have no impact on policy. It’s potential to be significant for Scotland’s cause was not realised. It’s impact on that cause will be minimal. There was never going to be a great leap forward for the independence campaign. It would have been good if we’d progressed a single step without taking two backwards. We did neither. Where stands Scotland after the conference? Pretty much where it did before. Some may be relieved at that. I find myself curiously unmoved. Insipid will do that.

There were two aspects of the annual conference to which I and I’m sure many others were looking for hopeful signs. In terms of the issues with the party’s internal governance the elections to the National Executive Council (NEC) were crucial. I’m going to assume those reading this are aware of what these issues are. Cataloguing them is in any case too depressing to even contemplate. It’s the first of December. We are ‘officially’ into the season of good cheer. Let’s give it our best shot. The question is whether the outcome of the NEC elections gives us cause for good cheer. Let’s just say that the results didn’t have me reaching either for the scissors to cut up my party membership card or the razor to slash my wrists.

Stu Campbell on Wings Over Scotland summarises things rather neatly.

Alyn Smith is OUT as Policy Development Convener, replaced by Chris Hanlon.

Rhiannon Spear is OUT as Women’s Convener, replaced by Caroline McAllister.

Fiona Robertson is OUT as Equalities Convener, replaced by Lynne Anderson.

All of these are dramatic changes for the better.

Joanna Cherry is IN. Neale Hanvey is IN. Roger Mullin is IN. Dorothy Jessiman is IN. Catriona McDonald is IN. Douglas Chapman is IN. All ditto.

There are still a few Twitler Youth cowering in some of the danker corners of the NEC, but they’ll be feeling lonely because basically it’s been a rout. There’s a small chance the SNP might yet be saveable.

A few groans here and there but overall these as drowned out by cheers – however cautious and tentative. From a personal point of view my pleasure in seeing Alyn Smith ousted is made delight by the fact that the ousting was done by Chris Hanlon. So long as he has supportive figures around him I reckon Chris will be a powerful force for reform in every aspect of the NEC’s operations. He will need that support. Because there is still enough of the previous regime – what Stu Campbell refers to with characteristic candour as the “Twitler Youth” – to cause problems. Especially as they presumably still have the backing of the party leadership.

We will have to wait and see how effective the new brooms are. And how stubborn the debris of the old guard is. It will take some time for change to become apparent. And far longer to remove the stains on the character and reputation of the party left by some of the more unfortunate picks from last time.

And that is the problem. Time! As far as the constitutional issue is concerned there is no time. We require action now! At the very least we need the assurance of bold, decisive action by the next (SNP) Scottish Government. While I know that many on those on Stu Campbell’s ‘IN’ list are determined to bring to the NEC a fresh focus on the constitution, we must not hope for miracles. For hopeful signs that bold, decisive action was going to be offered by the SNP we naturally look to Nicola Sturgeon. We listen intently to her conference address. We turn to the transcript which we dissect minutely looking for something to seize upon that might give us the hope advertised in the Conference slogan.

Did we find anything? Yes and no! I dislike giving an answer so ambivalent as to be meaningless. I’m not someone given to being non-commital. Nor do I have the excuse of an aversion to knee-jerk responses. There’s been plenty of time to study Nicola Sturgeon’s speech. Some kind of conclusion is due.

The difficulty is that politics has its own language. Anyone who has watched the TV series Yes Minister will know what I mean by that. The language of politics is guarded. It is often the linguistic equivalent of the nod, wink and nudge. It hints at meanings while leaving scope for indignant denial. It makes veiled threats – and substanceless promises. It says different things to different receivers of its messages. It is slippery and elusive and vague and ambivalent and ephemeral and…. You get the point, I’m sure. In the language(s) of politics and diplomacy nothing is ever what it seems. Unless it is exactly what it seems. Or until someone else says what it seems to them and it is not what it seems to you.

I can only offer my personal interpretation of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech and therefore my personal conclusion that there may be more cause for hope than for despair. For today, I’ll settle for that. Tomorrow I’ll be back demanding more.

First of all it must be said that as political speeches go it was masterful. Despite my criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue and her non-leadership of the independence movement, I have always recognised her qualities and abilities as Scotland’s First Minister. I would want no other. We have the best First Minister we could possibly hope for. Nobody is talking about replacing her. Not in my hearing. Not without being very emphatically contradicted. I hope that is clear enough. Although no statement of support for Nicola Sturgeon will prevent the usual suspects from accusing me of campaigning against her. C’est la numpty!

Nicola Sturgeon is a superb First Minister. It is essential that we bear this in mind even as we condemn her failure to provide leadership on the constitutional issue and criticise some aspects of her leadership of the party. The latter is for the new NEC to deal with and I am reasonable confident that it will. The former remains a serious concern. Was this concern addressed in her speech and if so how and how adequately? Let’s see.

A transcript of the speech has been published by The National. From this I have sought to extract the passages which are most relevant to the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. There are a few so I shall attempt to take them in order. But it is important that references to independence may have been scattered or separated for a purpose. It’s all part of the language of politics. Note that I have removed the special formatting used for a speech that is to be read from a paper script or a teleprompter.

The SNP is the party of independence. We want Scotland to take her place as an equal, independent country. To be in the global family of nations, playing our part in building a better world.

A simple statement of the SNP’s principal aim as defined by the party’s constitution. The facetious imp in me wants to ask if this was her reassuring us that she hasn’t forgotten what the constitution says the party’s main goal is. That imp may be mischievous but it’s not necessarily wrong. I suspect there may be something in what it implies. We need this reassurance when we shouldn’t. More significantly, this hints that Nicola Sturgeon is aware of this need. The words may be read as an acknowledgement of her failure to win the full confidence of the entire Yes movement – including SNP members (As the term Yes movement always must!). Or it can be read as a recommitment to the aim of restoring Scotland’s independence. Either way, it’s good to hear.

The independence case is a powerful one. More and more people in Scotland are being persuaded by it. And I believe – passionately – that it is one with the power to unite.

An independent country, where those of us who live here shape the future and work together to overcome our challenges, will be good for all of us.

A country fairer and more equal than it is now will be good for all of us.

An economy that provides greater job and income security will be good for all of us.

A Scotland that is an equal partner with our friends in the rest of the UK and across Europe will be good for all of us.

So as we set about the task of rebuilding our country, there’s a question that all of us in Scotland must ask ourselves. The answer to this question will define our country’s destiny and determine the life-chances of this and generations to come.

Who do we want to be in the driving seat of shaping Scotland’s future?

Should it be Scottish Governments – of whatever party – elected by the people of Scotland and with the priorities and interests of Scotland at heart? Or Westminster governments that time and again we have rejected?

Will we, the people of Scotland, place trust in ourselves? Or will we leave our future in the hands of a Westminster system that is so clearly taking us in the wrong direction?

In many ways this is the most important passage as it hints at the overall strategy Nicola Sturgeon intends should be pursued in seeking to win even greater support for the restoration of Scotland’s independence. There is still talk of making a “case for independence”. But it isn’t merely a case of presenting independence in terms of a vision of what it might be like – which is always problematic because not everybody in the Yes movement shares the same vision and many of the putative persuadees will dislike whatever vision is presented to them. There is no single vision with universal appeal. There is no single universal form of words that will satisfy every voter.

So, it is gratifying to hear Nicola Sturgeon now introducing some of the negative messaging which was so regrettably excluded from the Yes campaign for the 2014 referendum. It is gratifying to hear her now attacking the Union – even if it is by way of comparison of the performance of her own administration and the Boris Johnson regime rather than a more direct onslaught. It is a promising sign that she may be ready to go on the attack. In there somewhere might be the kind of leadership Scotland’s cause so desperately needs.

The Scottish Government hasn’t got everything right – far from it. But I doubt there are many people in Scotland who would have wanted Westminster to be more in charge of our pandemic response. In the depth of crisis, we have looked to and trusted our own government and Parliament to steer us through.

A wee bit of self-criticism or self-deprecation to start helps to lend piquancy to the main message. The essence of that message being that we should trust our own government rather than the British government because the Scottish Government has demonstrated that it is worthy of that trust while the British government has proven that it cannot be trusted.

It’s a powerful message. The mistake would be to pin this question of trust too exclusively to the matter of the respective governments’ handling of the pandemic. Nicola Sturgeon avoids that mistake. She instead links the question of trust to the recovery from the crisis and gives “concrete examples of how, even in areas that are still substantially reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government is nevertheless acting now to rebuild and renew” to buttress her point. Following up with a key question.

If this is what we can do with limited powers, how much more could we achieve if we didn’t have one hand tied behind our backs?

I have long maintained that Better Together’s most effective weapon in the 2014 referendum campaign and the thing that all but certainly clinched it for now was not fear but doubt. By the simple expedient of asking questions they created doubt and exaggerated existing doubt. For just as long I have maintained that this is an important lesson for the Yes movement in formulating a new campaign for a new referendum. The difference being that we don’t have to resort to dishonesty and asinine scaremongering in order to prompt people to question the Union – perhaps for the first time.

This is what Nicola Sturgeon’s question does. It is subtle. More subtle, I think, than it needs to be or should be. But I’m not the First Minister of Scotland. I’m just a blogger with a few hundred readers. I can say whatever the f*** I want in whatever way I want. Nicola Sturgeon is required by her status and position to adhere to certain protocols and rules. Including the rules of political language. In that context, this question is probably as good as we might hope for at this juncture. The Yes movement can take this and run with it.

One message! Many voices! So runs my answer to the moaners and bleaters and whiners who complain about the odd expletive or ‘robust’ language used by Yes activists. There can and must be a core message. There cannot be a single universal form of words in which that message must be couched. The message must be expressed in a manner appropriate to both sender and receiver. The sender must come across as honest and genuine in a way that may not be possible if they are obliged to use somebody else’s words – or someone else’s voice.

Nicola Sturgeon has used her politician’s words and her politician’s voice. But the message is there. Lightly scratch the surface of her message and you find the call to action – end the Union! We can be more explicit and forceful in conveying this call to action. Nicola Sturgeon can’t. Not yet. But at least we may take it that she recognises what the message must be.

And she knows how to reinforce that message. She hammers home the need for confidence in ourselves with a series of question on major areas of public policy, beginning with,

Who do we want to be in charge of our social security system? Scottish Governments elected by you – with your priorities at heart – or Westminster governments that have to be shamed into feeding hungry children?

All good stuff! As is this.

the Scottish Parliament has offered protection in devolved areas like health, education and the environment. The Tories don’t like that. But they have a problem – they know they’re unlikely to win an election to the Scottish Parliament. So they’ve decided instead to undermine it and find another way to impose their agenda.

Having – in their minds – taken control back from the EU they now want to take it back from Scotland too. Boris Johnson is using Brexit – which people in Scotland voted overwhelmingly against  – to fundamentally undermine the Scottish Parliament – which people in Scotland voted overwhelmingly for.

That’s turning democracy on its head.

Portraying the Union as a threat is an essential component of a campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. The Union is not only a threat to our aspirations for the future but to the devolution most are content with even if they are not yet persuaded that the only way to protect what they like about devolution is to turn it into independence. The Union even threatens our democracy.

Describing the union as a threat wasn’t done enough, if at all, in the 2014 referendum campaign. That Nicola Sturgeon seems prepared to take up this cudgel suggests the kind of combative spirit we have long wanted to see. More of the same please, Nicola!

Again, the message is driven home by follow-up points such as this,

A stronger Scottish Parliament is not on offer from Westminster. Far from it. They intend to take away powers our Parliament already has.

I can remember a time when Nicola Sturgeon and/or other leading figures in the SNP would have condemned this as excessive and hyperbolic. Deplorable scaremongering of the kind resorted to by Better Together. Will we hear Nicola Sturgeon being told to #WheeshtForIndy?

She’s not done. This too is powerful stuff.

So the choice for Scotland is pressing. Are we prepared to have the powers we voted for stripped away – at a time when we need them most? Are we prepared for our Scottish Parliament to be undermined and dragged down by Westminster? Or will we decide to make our Scottish Parliament independent?

The sense of urgency is marked. And a marked change from the waiting strategy to which we have never grown accustomed. Note too that independence is associated with the Scottish Parliament and not the SNP. This is also excellent messaging and something the Yes movement must emulate. It is similar to the message that in the 2021 Scottish Parliament it is not the SNP we are seeking to empower with a massive mandate, it is the Scottish Government we are seeking to equip as well as we might for confrontation with the British state.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. It is possible to find in Nicola Sturgeon’s language signs that she is aware of the kind of campaign that is required. More importantly perhaps, there are indications that she may be ready to conduct and even lead this more assertive and more explicitly anti-Union campaign. The campaign strategy may be on the way to the kind of reframing that is essential. But campaigning for what? When and how does this campaign get connected to an actual referendum? Does Nicola Sturgeon have anything to say on this? Perhaps she does.

Next May we will ask you, the people of Scotland, to put your trust in us to continue that task of building a better country. I will ask you to judge us on our record and endorse our plans for the future. And in that election, I will seek your authority – no-one else’s – for a legal independence referendum to be held in the early part of the new Parliament. 

This is surely as close as we’ve come to a formal commitment to pursue the restoration of Scotland’s independence in the next Parliament. Of course, we have yet to see what form this commitment takes in the SNP’s manifesto. But I get the distinct sense that Nicola Sturgeon may be edging towards something not too dissimilar from the Manifesto for Independence I have been commending. (see above)

I see a number of people baulking at the word “legal”. It looks like an unnecessary and unfortunate qualification of the preceding assertion of the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. Probably because that’s what it is. But we must remember that Nicola Sturgeon is addressing many different audiences. She obviously felt this weasel word was necessary to preempt accusations that she was proposing some form of UDI. She isn’t! More’s the pity. But there’s a change of tone here which I think is significant.

I read Nicola Sturgeon’s speech and I find in it marginally more cause for hope than for yet deeper despair. I see some justification for wary optimism. I think there is still the possibility that Nicola Sturgeon might have taken a few baby steps towards being the best leader of the independence movement a First Minister can be. I think it possible that I may have misjudged her when I said she doesn’t have the stomach for the kind of politics that confrontation with the British political elite entails.

Then I think, this is what I’m supposed to think. This is what the language used by Nicola Sturgeon was intended to prompt me to think. So I’m not so sure. Are you?

8 thoughts on “How can I be sure?

  1. I thnk you’re about right in your interpretation of her speech, I did think of doing similar but couldn’t be bothered for two reaseon, one being independence and devolution under threat did run through the speech so for a below the line posting it would have been a long long post, rather than the usual 4 or 5 3 or 4 line paragraphs for effect.

    The second is that this speech is a bit of a “reinforcement” speech for those reading it, in that for many they would look at it and say “yeah yeah”, or on the other hand “I told you so”. It was actually refreshing to see some change their minds from being quite attacking, to optimistic. And we’ll see who is right over the next 3 months, while the Question should go to the EC, and the draft short legislation with date before Holyrood before the end of session in mid-March.

    Interesting days.


  2. Regarding the prior NEC composition I take issue with your reference to “some of the more unfortunate picks from last time”.

    Surely you have missed the second letter from “picks”? Or is it merely “picks” with a silent ‘r’?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On a more serious note I like your analysis of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech. It does seem to hint at a more belligerent approach going forward. So all hope is not lost maybe.

    But I can’t help thinking about the boy who cried “Wolf!”.

    As you say, we’ll have to wait and see – our EU privileges will cease properly on 1st January thus fulfilling the ‘material change’ criterion whilst the Internal Markets Bill will soon become law (if it has not already).

    As you say, we’ll have to wait and see.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had completely lost trust in Nicola Sturgeon and her mandarins. Now I’m open to the possibility of have trust restored. But trust is not an all or nothing thing. It’s incremental and depends on evidence. So the next few months will tell.


  5. Legal, not so much an unfortunate qualification rather a deliberate one in my estimation.

    NOWHERE in her speech does she indicate willingness in renouncing her rigid adherence to the Gold
    Standard Section 30 which currently shackles this Nation\s progress. Speeches unfortunately can mean all things to whichever ears they alight on and are crafted thus.


    Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: Peter A Bell

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