Mike Russell has a ‘plan’ to hold an independence referendum that is “beyond legal challenge”. Boris Johnson has a plan to challenge the legality of any referendum Mike Russell might be planning. I’ve been looking at both these plans. But first we need to be clear on what we mean by a plan. Because neither Mr Russell nor Mr Johnson seem to have much of a clue.
When I’m told that what I’m looking at is a plan I expect to see a systematic series of well defined steps leading to a predetermined outcome within some kind of time-frame. I concede that this expectation may be a product of my borderline obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I recognise that others may be satisfied with a considerably looser definition of the word. I accept that there is some scope for a broader interpretation of the term. But as ever, context is all-important. Given that the word is being used in the context of an existential battle, I feel that it is only appropriate to work with quite tightly defined terms in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding as well as we might.
I have no privileged access to the minds of either of the two people concerned. I have to make assumptions about the intended meaning of their utterances just as we all do in every communication episode. As well as knowing what we mean by a particular expression we have to work out what they mean. If, that is to say, we are aware enough to realise that there might be a big difference between the two.
How we work out what is meant when someone else uses a term such as ‘plan’ will vary with the individual and the circumstances. If we know the person well then we will have a fair bit of information to go on. If they are public figures we will be influenced by the way they are presented in the media. And always our personal prejudices come into play. Our attitudes impinge not only on what we say and do but on how we understand the words and actions of others.
I tend to assume that Boris Johnson is a bungling buffoon and a vacuous ideologue. This last may jar with some readers as it seems to be an oxymoron. That’s because they don’t know what I mean by the term ‘vacuous ideologue’. Which far from coincidentally relates to the point I’m making. However, many readers will know immediately and exactly what I have in mind. Partly because they may be aware of certain of my attitudes and certainly because they are familiar with Johnson’s public persona they will ‘get it’. For the remainder, what I’m trying to convey is the idea of someone who has no cogent or coherent political philosophy but who will propound this philosophy with great vigour and powerful rhetoric. They don’t know what they believe. But they believe it absolutely.
Because my prejudice bids me think of Boris Johnson as a vacuous ideologue I tend to assume that he uses the term ‘plan’ very loosely indeed. A plan may well be defined by him as whatever he so labels. He calls it a plan, therefore that’s what a plan is. Boris has a plan to save the Union and so save the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state and, not at all incidentally, benefit him greatly. He has formulated this plan in response to an existential threat from those who seek to restore constitutional normality to Scotland. If the ‘separatists’ get their way, the ‘Great Britain’ to which Boris is emotionally attached due to the succour it provides him will cease to be. So he has a plan to stop this happening.
Because I am somewhat acquainted with Mike Russell in his role as a prominent politician and know him to be neither a bungling buffoon nor a vacuous ideologue I take the view that the definition of a plan on which he relies is much closer to my own than that used by Boris. Although that leaves a lot of scope for difference between us. When Mike Russell shows me something and tells me that what I’m looking at is a plan then I expect to see a systematic series of well defined steps leading to a predetermined outcome within some kind of time-frame. Or something very similar.
When Boris Johnson shows me something and says look at my plan I expect to see a bungling buffoon stuck on a zip-wire. For no reason other than that is the image I simply can’t help associating with the vacuous ideologue.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I look at these two plans and find that it is Boris’s which most resembles what I think of as a plan. It doesn’t resemble it very closely. About as closely as I resemble a Clarice Cliff tea set. But it has a measure of the ingredients that go into making a plan. Damn it! It really looks like a plan!
Mike Russell’s offering, on the other hand, has more of the flavour of a dish that would customarily be served up by Boris Johnson. Which is to say that it has few of the ingredients that go into making a plan. It’s almost like one of those role-reversal situations that only happen in movies.
I’ve already critiqued Mike Russell’s grandly titled THE ROAD TO A REFERENDUM THAT IS BEYOND LEGAL CHALLENGE – The SNP Scottish Government’s Plan. More succinctly tagged ‘numpty fodder’ by myself. Let’s see what we can make of the British Prime Minister’s plan to thwart those uppity Jock’s.
- To fight the Scottish elections hard rather than offer up constitutional concessions in advance.
- Simultaneously to launch a campaign to persuade Scots of the benefits of the Union.
- To oppose a referendum and hope that causes the SNP to fight among themselves over tactics.
- To only later consider further devolution and only then as part of wider reforms throughout the UK.
- Finally, if there is a referendum one day to control the timing and terms of the vote. One minister told the paper: “I don’t think there is any member of the cabinet who doesn’t realise how important this is.”
The first thing we notice is that Plan Boris – as I shall call it – has only five points as opposed to Mike Russell’s eleven. Should we declare Mike the winner on the basis that he has more than double Boris’s points? They’re not that kind of points! And this is not Jeux Sans Frontières – if the Europhobes will pardon my French. They are – or are being presented as – a systematic series of (more or less) well defined steps leading to a predetermined outcome within some kind of time-frame. Or a plan. And that is what they do. Pretty much.
I looked at Mike Russell’s plan and I learned nothing of any consequence about the SNP’s intentions with regard to the constitutional issue.* Which would seem to fail the first test of something which purports to be a plan. This is the SNP. I want to know how and when they propose to go about restoring Scotland’s independence. I expect that the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs will be the one to tell me. I look at Mike Russell’s ‘plan’ and I’m no further forward. A bit like Scotland’s cause under Nicola Sturgeon’s otherwise proficient management.
I look at Plan Boris and I find out a great deal about the British political elite’s intentions towards Scotland. Admittedly, I was cognisant of these intentions before I looked at Plan Boris. Have been for years. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the information is in there. If anyone was unaware or unsure of the British state’s intentions towards Scotland, they’ll learn all they need to know from a brief examination of Plan Boris. Bear with me as I present my own little study guide. There will be a test.
To fight the Scottish elections hard rather than offer up constitutional concessions in advance.
To bring to bear against Scotland the full might of the British propaganda machine and all the resources of the British state and countenance no compromise. The plan is for a rerun of Project Fear but on a potent mix of steroids and amphetamine.
Simultaneously to launch a campaign to persuade Scots of the benefits of the Union.
Note the word “simultaneously”. This is what is meant be the time-frame which is an important aspect of our definition of a plan. Attend well, also, to what at first blush appears to be just another promise to deliver that ‘positive case for the Union’ that we’ve been hearing about since forever. In fact, it ties in with something I’ve been meaning to write about.
You may have heard me mention that the independence movement has utterly failed to learn any lessons from the campaign for the 2014 referendum. This is especially and most obviously true of the SNP’s leadership. But it goes right across the Yes movement. I don’t intend to say much about yesterday’s SNP National Assembly but one thing I will say is that it could have been an such event in the past six years. The language was the same. The ideas being mooted were unchanged. The thinking had not moved on at all. That’s a generalisation for which I offer an apology only to the handful of attendees I heard saying anything new or showing the least sign of having reflected on the first referendum campaign or of taking due account of the extent to which the situation has changed since 2014.
What point number two in Plan Boris hints at – perhaps more – is that the British Nationalist have taken on board the lessons of the first referendum campaign. They already knew that their negative campaign – what I prefer to think of as Project Doubt – was very effective. But it looks like they’ve also taken note of how well the obsessive positivity of the Yes campaign worked. The Union is a hard sell. But the British intend to throw everything at it. And they have the advantage of being almost totally unconstrained by scruples. The ‘positive case’ – or ‘vision’ – they present need bear no more than a very superficial connection to reality. But that means only that it will have to be a big lie. Big lies work better than small lies.
To oppose a referendum and hope that causes the SNP to fight among themselves over tactics.
This one is seriously clever. Not the bit about opposing a referendum. Although it is worth commenting that there is absolutely no concession to democracy. British Nationalist ideology is anti-democratic. The British are never more insistent on their democratic credentials than when they are most energetic in their denial of democratic rights and flouting of democratic principles.
It is the second part that is almost Machiavellian. It seeks to take credit for what they say is fighting within the SNP but is largely no more than the sort of debate that goes on all the time in any political party that allows that sort of debate. (Let’s say the SNP still does.) But whoever came up with Plan Boris is aware of the element in the SNP which is referred to with the hashtag #WheeshtForIndy. The element which wants the party membership to function like a hive. The ones who insist that there should be no absolutely criticism of the party leadership or critique of their plans – regardless of the credibility of those plans. Or if there must be dissent then it should be confined to a small soundproof room deep underground.
This line in Plan Boris is intended to encourage the #WheeshtForIndy mob so they redouble their efforts to silence any and all voices not cheering for Nicola and congratulating the leadership on the brilliance of their plans. Which, of course, will only force those dissenting voices to increase the volume. Which in turn will… well… you can see where this is going.
There is not the slightest doubt that the #WheeshtForIndy mob will fall for this smart if unsophisticated ploy. They can’t help themselves. They have no way to address the criticism. They can only try to suppress it. There’s a switch in their heads for the something-in-what-you-say light. But there’s no bulb in the socket.
To only later consider further devolution and only then as part of wider reforms throughout the UK.
This part of Plan Boris refers to the intention to unilaterally redefine Scotland’s constitutional status so as to lock us into a ‘reformed’ Union which strips away the most effective parts of Scotland’s democratic infrastructure and consolidates England-as-Britain’s dominant position within this new state.
There is nothing new about this. It has been the British establishment’s plan since 2007. In a sense, it has been their plan since the Union was first imposed on Scotland. It’s just that it has only now come to be regarded as an existential emergency for the British state just as it is for the nation of Scotland. What’s significant is that Plan Boris is so explicit about this malign purpose. Of course, they know that there are no ‘Great Secret Plans’ up any sleeves in politics. But being so brazenly antidemocratic is a relatively recent development. Previously, there was at least a token effort to conceal the plan to finally ‘extinguish’ Scotland. You have been warned.
If there is a referendum one day to control the timing and terms of the vote.
This too is something about which the British have previously been a bit reticent. But it is something I and others have been warning of for years. Many in the SNP are getting all excited about this point claiming it ‘proves’ that the British will soon buckle under the pressure of repeated polite requests and grant their gracious consent to the exercise of our right of self-determination. They gleefully gloat that the British state’s anti-democratic position was unsustainable after all.
As they gloat, these bollards fail to notice the intention being intimated in this part of Plan Boris. What it says is that the British have a contingency plan. Which is to do precisely what some foresaw a long time ago. Namely, agree to a ‘legal’ referendum under the Section 30 process while having a ‘Great Secret Plan’ up their sleeve to ensure that, if the referendum must take place, it is as far from free and fair as the power afforded them by the Scottish Government will allow them to make it.
Look and learn, Mike Russell! This is what a plan looks like!
*To be scrupulously fair to Mike Russell it is necessary to allow that the apparent readiness to face a challenge from the British state is new. I actually think Mike Russell was always up for the fight. At least he is now able to acknowledge that there will be a fight.