It is futile to try to explain to British Nationalists such as Douglas Ross and Willie Rennie that the choice of whether and when we exercise our right of self-determination is a matter entirely and exclusively for the people of Scotland. No politician, least of all those representing British establishment parties, has the right or the authority to deny or constrain the democratic right of the people of this nation to determine its constitutional status and choose the form of government which best serves their needs, priorities and aspirations. British Nationalist are not capable of understanding such fundamental principles of democracy. Or not willing to confess to such understanding. Which amounts to the same thing.
The British political elite – and those who claim or crave to be counted part of it – understands democracy as something which must first serve the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. The interests of the people are secondary at best. In the British worldview the people are seen not as the source of all legitimate political authority, but as a countervailing and/or competing force which constitutes a threat to established power. The likes of Ross and Rennie and Richard Leonard and Ruth Davidson and Murdo Fraser and Jackie Baillie and Annie Wells and the whole gaggle of British politicians who squat in Scotland’s Parliament make no distinction between serving the people and managing the herd; between respecting the will of the people and manipulating the mob; between honouring the democratic choices made by the people and making those choices for them.
You will not dent their belief in their righteousness. You will not shame them. And you will not educate them in the ways of true democracy. They’re just not interested. As individuals, they may be as close to decent as most of us manage. As politicians they are better thought of as automata mechanically linked to those structures of power, privilege and patronage. Neither the dictates of conscience nor the demands of intellect can affect the functioning of those links. The British politician’s relationship with established power is mutualistic. Their relationship with the people is parasitic. The British politician in Scotland can no more break or alter their relationship with the British ruling elite than either the algae or the fungi which together form lichen can alter their relationship with each other. They can no more cease to be parasites in or on Scotland’s body politic than can the flea or the tapeworm desist from feeding off its host.
It is futile to try to explain to British Nationalists such as Douglas Ross and Willie Rennie that the choice of whether and when we exercise our right of self-determination is a matter entirely and exclusively for the people of Scotland. They cannot understand. And would not choose to do so even if they could. This is not merely a question of ideology. It is about worldview and mindset. It is simply not in the nature of the British politician in Scotland to be democratic in the way that this is understood by those of us who identify with the host rather than the parasite; those of us for whom mutualism is the basis of a functioning society rather than a matter of personal and partisan expediency.
As First Minister of Scotland and leader of the de facto political arm of our independence movement and by extension the face Scotland’s cause as well as the voice of Scotland’s people, Nicola Sturgeon must be assumed to be counted among those whose understanding of and attitude to democracy contrasts so starkly with that of the British politicians occupying places in the Scottish Parliament. We must assume that she could not get to be all those things otherwise. We must assume this or accept that the cancer of the Union has eaten away more of Scotland’s distinctiveness than we may have previous supposed. If Nicola Sturgeon is not the leader Scotland needs her to be then this suggests that our politics has become more British than Scottish. Only a more than superficially British political system could produce a First Minister who would betray Scotland. It would have to be indistinguishable from the British political system which produced a Prime Minister like Boris Johnson.
I do not suppose that Nicola Sturgeon would betray our nation or its people or its cause because I don’t accept that our politics has deteriorated to the extent that would be required. I am confident that there exists in Scotland a political culture quite distinct from that which prevails in England-as-Britain. Were this not so, why would British politicians such as Ross and Rennie and the rest be so determined to prevent our politics taking its ‘natural’ democratic course? That this course leads to a free and fair referendum by means of which the people of Scotland exercise our right of self-determination cannot sensibly be denied. Indeed, The British parties admit us much by necessary implication. If that free and fair referendum is not regarded by them as the inevitable consequence of Scotland’s political culture taking its ‘natural’ course why would they be so obsessive eager to divert that course onto a more British path? Why would they be striving so frantically to have Nicola Sturgeon abandon that course but for the fact that they know where it must lead?
Nicola Sturgeon has made mistakes. She is subject to human frailty and fallibility just as we all are. One of those mistakes was to allow that the pandemic might be a serious impediment to politics as normal. If this was not an error of judgement than it implies that she considers Scotland somehow less capable than the scores of other countries which have not allowed the pandemic to stop them holding elects and/or referendums with all the attendant campaigning – even if necessarily adapted to the circumstances. She allowed that normal politics could not or should not proceed in Scotland – almost uniquely among the nations of the world – and in doing so she afforded credibility to an argument that the British Nationalists could not otherwise have deployed without embarrassing themselves. Not that this would have deterred them. But Brexit alone – and the fact that it went ahead despite the pandemic – should have clinched the argument even without reference to all those other elections and referendums. The power of that argument has been diminished by Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘cease and desist order’ to her party and – somewhat presumptuously – to the Yes movement.
We can easily afford to ignore Ross and Rennie. Or at least to parsimoniously ration the time and attention we grant them. All the important questions at this time are being asked of Nicola Sturgeon. Her opportunity to address those questions lies in the draft Bill detailing the process by which she proposes to take the constitutional question back to the people promised before the end of the current parliament. The first question she must answer is whether she has sufficient confidence that Scotland can do what many other countries have done in terms of allowing democratic politics to proceed as normally as may be possible in the circumstances. Or whether she intends to use the pandemic as an excuse for more of the pusillanimous procrastination that has been so deleterious to Scotland’s cause.
But by far the most important question to be answered with publication of the draft referendum Bill is whether she now chooses the course of Scotland’s political culture or whether she continues to insist on giving primacy to the ways of British politics. The draft Bill will set out the process by which Nicola Sturgeon intends that a Scottish Government led by her will take us to a free and fair referendum. The nature and form of this process will largely determine the timeframe of the process. It will also determine whether the referendum is the free and fair procedure that Scotland’s people deserve and demand.
The draft Referendum Bill will inform the most crucial content of the SNP manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections in May. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this. Quite literally, the fate of our nation hangs on how Nicola Sturgeon answers the question about which course she intends to pursue – the course which affirms the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and asserts the democratic legitimacy of Scotland’s Parliament; or the course which compromises popular sovereignty and concedes the subordinacy of our Parliament.
There are those within the Yes movement – many of them well known and a few I consider personal friends – who maintain that Nicola Sturgeon’s past errors and misjudgement are indicative of ingrained traits which must be reflected in all her decisions. They refuse to consider the possibility that she would do other than choose the latter of the two courses outlined above. They cannot contemplate a draft Referendum Bill, and therefore an SNP manifesto, which renounces the British Section 30 process in favour of a democratic process entirely made and managed in Scotland and capable of delivering the free and fair referendum which cannot be the outcome of the process preferred by those for whom the very idea of Scotland having a distinctive political culture is anathema; and who will happily trample every democratic principle to preserve a Union which remains ‘precious’ to them regardless of how much it harms Scotland.
I disagree. I recognise Nicola Sturgeon’s failures and failings as no more an incorrigible product of her character than they are for people in general. I reckon she’s as motivated as any of us to avoid failures and correct failings. Perhaps more so given the profound and far-reaching implications of the choices she must make. I calculate (the term ‘believe’ has connotations which I consider unfortunate) that Nicola Sturgeon is perfectly capable of doing ‘the right thing’. And that there it is probable that she will do so.
But whether she does ‘the right thing’ or not has no bearing on what is required of the Yes movement at this time. We must proceed as if we are confident that Nicola Sturgeon can be persuaded to divorce herself from the Section 30 process and adopt an entirely different approach to the constitutional issue. Because there is nothing else for us to do. Nothing that can possibly be effective in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. If the SNP does not go into the 2021 Holyrood election with an infrangible commitment to a process leading to a free and fair referendum then all hope is gone of saving Scotland from the British Nationalist scourge. Forget ‘Plan B’! If we do not have a Plan A that works then there will be no further opportunities. British politicians such as Ross and Rennie will gladly help make sure of that.
The British political elite cannot both allow Scottish democracy and preserve the British Union. These things are mutually exclusive.
Those trying to persuade Nicola Sturgeon to take that Scottish course have to contend with fanatical opposition not only from British Nationalists appalled to the point of apoplexy by any suggestion that Scotland should exercise its right of self-determination despite their objections, but from two sources (at least!) within the Yes movement. Screeching in one ear we have the #WheeshtForIndy mob who believe that Nicola Sturgeon is infallible. Yelling at us from the other side we have the various ‘cunning plan’ factions who consider Sturgeon irredeemable. One lot wants us to forsake the effective course of action in favour of blind faith. The other lot wants us to forsake the effective course of action in favour of fantasy politics.
The weighty question in this context is whether you are prioritising the fight to restore Scotland’s independence or giving precedence to egos, agendas, partisan loyalties and personal animosities. While Nicola Sturgeon is pondering the weighty questions that fall on her shoulders, these loyalists and factionalists might want to reflect on their attitudes and their actions.