A possible compromise?

How do we move forward? That’s the question everybody is asking. Or at least those who haven’t already made up their minds how they want to move forward and decline to review that choice. We should always be prepared to review our choices. To paraphrase my own online bio, none of our attitudes should be immutable; none of our conclusions should be final; none of our opinions should be humble. We should be amenable to adjusting our worldview as we learn more of the world that we view. We should stand ready to revise our conclusions in the light of new evidence or persuasive argument. Our opinions need only be humble if they are ill-informed and/or inadequately considered. Nobody can be right all the time and about everything. But we can all choose not to express an opinion unless and until we are prepared to defend it in rational debate. Or, for that matter, against attacks which eschew reason altogether.

My conviction that Scotland’s independence must be restored has not wavered for so much as a second in all the sixty years of my political awareness. My commitment to the cause of ending a political union which is inherently inimical to Scotland’s democratic health and demonstrably deleterious to our nation’s prosperity has not lessened over time. But both conviction and commitment have changed over time. They have become respectively more sophisticated and more pragmatic.

My Scottish nationalist conviction could hardly have become less sophisticated than the ‘Auld Enemies’ attitude in which it had its origins. Children have a strong sense of justice. They readily recognise injustice when they encounter it. But as children we generally lack the capacity to reflect on the injustice we see. We see little or none of the complexity. We see only that something is wrong. And look only for someone to blame. Like many Scottish nationalists of my generation and earlier, I went through a ‘Hate the English’ phase. Not an active, angry hatred of the kind that breeds an urge to do harm. More a sullen resentment that my certainties were not respected. Parents reading this will know that young people on the cusp of adolescence can elevate certainty and sullen resentment to an acme that would be lethal were it weaponised. We know that it can be weaponised. We know how lethal it can be.

Like most of my politically aware peers I was over my ‘Hate the English’ phase before I turned twelve years of age and was able to join the Scottish National Party (SNP). I then entered my ‘Partisan’ phase. Not mindless, unquestioning loyalty to the party. Never that! But the party did loom large in my life until the distractions of puberty pushed constitutional politics down my list of priorities. But never off it completely.

The distractions of sex were duly replaced to a large extent by the not totally unconnected distractions of family and all the third-rate soap-opera stuff that tends to fill the middle forty years of our lives. And all the time our attitudes are changing – unless we cling to them like precious possessions. We are reaching different conclusions – unless we’ve screened out the information and avoided the experience and generally neglected the fresh thinking that would inform fresh conclusions. The opinions we hold may have changed and our ability to articulate and defend our expressed views will almost certainly have improved – unless we are unjustifiably proud of the views formed in our youth and hold then to be above reproach. Adult bigotry bears a striking resemblance to the certainty and sullen resentment of youth.

This is beginning to read like an autobiography. It’s not. I’m merely making the point that our personal political philosophy is something which evolves. Given a normally functioning intellect, the attitudes, conclusions and opinions born in the mind of a child will survive unaltered only to the extent that they are able to find a niche in a constantly changing environment. For the most part, they will change under environmental pressure. Some will flourish. Some will die. New ideas will be born.

My own thinking on the constitutional issue has changed considerably over the course of my life to date. The pace of that changed has increased appreciably over the last ten years. Inexplicably, thinking on the constitutional issue elsewhere has changed not at all since 2014. What we might call ‘official’ thinking on the Yes campaign hasn’t changed since 2011/2012. In the meantime, Scotland’s predicament has changed dramatically. As little account seems to be taken of those environmental changes as of the lessons which the first referendum campaign held for those willing to learn them. For those willing to change their thinking.

A useful maxim is that you can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand. Such understanding is aided by reducing a complex problem to its essentials and stating it in those terms. Highly complex issues may need to be described in more than one statement. Always remembering, of course, that this is an exercise in abstraction. While it may be illuminating it serves no useful purpose if the parts of the problem don’t fit back together and into the context from which the whole has been abstracted.

I do not pretend that the constitutional issue isn’t complex. I do insist, however, that it can be distilled down in a way that aids understanding and consideration. We are talking about the foundation stones of a democratic nation. We can’t afford to leave it to the ‘experts’ who we find comfort in assuming understand everything. Or at least that they understand things better than the ‘ordinary person’. I’ve never met a person who was ordinary. I am firmly persuaded that the constitutional issue – as well as other matters represented as being too complicated for the ‘ordinary person’ – can be made accessible to any reasonably well-informed individual of normal intelligence.

I am not an expert. I am a reasonably well-informed individual of normal intelligence. It just happens that this is a matter to which I have been able to give a great deal of thought over many years. What I say may be ‘only one person’s opinion’. But it cannot sensibly be discounted on that basis alone. That my opinion may be misguided doesn’t mean it must be.

It is safe to say that anybody with an interest in politics is focused one thing – the Scottish Parliament elections in May. Maybe two things; if you consider the fight to restore Scotland’s independence separately. Which would be a mistake. Because the two things are inextricably bound up together. The election is a democratic event. Democratic events are important. Democracy itself is a process. But within that process democratic events determine the direction of the democratic process.

The democratic event of the election is important because it may well be the last properly democratic event we have in Scotland. If the current regime in England-as-Britain has its way then Scotland’s democratic institutions and infrastructure will be dismantled and direct control from London will be imposed in the guise of the ‘UK Government in Scotland’. We must decide upon the most effective way to use this democratic event to do three things.

  1. Ensure a representative Parliament and a viable Scottish Government
  2. Ensure a Scottish party / pro-independence majority in Parliament
  3. Ensure a Scottish Government with a mandate for independence

Number one is, I think, self-evident. We need a viable government for obvious reasons and a representative Parliament because this is what has helped improve governance of Scotland.

We must ensure that the Parliament is dominated by Scottish parties because the alternative is that the British parties will gain power.

We must make sure the party forming the Scottish Government has a working majority and a mandate for independence because this may be our last opportunity to do so. If the Scottish Parliament survives the next five years of being dominated by Westminster it will be in a severely neutered form. A start has already been made on reducing its effectiveness and its standing as the locus of Scotland’s democracy. That process will only accelerate unless we have a Scottish Government prepared to act in defence of Scotland’s Parliament and our democracy.

Be perfectly clear about this! It is our responsibility to ensure a favourable outcome to the election. By favourable I mean an outcome that approaches the ideal of a Scottish Parliament which is strongly pro-independence and a Scottish Government with a solid majority and a massive mandate for a manifesto which includes as its central commitment an undertaking to take action in the Parliament which will initiate the process by which Scotland’s independence is restored.

We’ll come to the matter of what that action should be in a moment. First of all we have to deal with a fact that is going to be hard for some to accept but which is nonetheless incontrovertible. It IS all about the SNP!

For this election, like it or loathe it, it’s entirely about the SNP. Or as close as makes no real difference. Looking at the situation dispassionately – which I am well able to do as although I remain a member of the SNP my loyalty to the party has aligned with the leadership’s respect for members – certain undeniable realities become immediately apparent.

  • Only the Scottish Government can act as required
  • Only the SNP can be the party of government
  • Only a party committed to a manifesto for independence can act as required
  • Only if the SNP adopts a manifesto for independence can we have a Scottish Government which can and will act as required.

There may be a few things in there that require clarification. But there is no mistaking where the train of logic takes us. It’s all about the SNP!

There is absolutely no point in complaining about it. I don’t particularly like it. Under normal circumstances I would abhor a situation in which so much depended on a single party. Especially when some very ominous question marks hang over that party. But there is no escaping the facts no matter how strenuously you deny them. It’s all about the SNP!

There’s no point hoping this will change before the election. It won’t. It is effectively impossible to change the situation. What Scotland’s cause needs is spelled out above. Only the SNP can supply those needs. Only the SNP can fulfil the role of the party of government which starts a chain of actions which will lead to a free and fair referendum and the restoration of Scotland’s independence. It’s up to us to ensure that the party does what is required. Because it IS all about the SNP!

If you are not prepared to proceed on the basis that it’s all about the SNP then you should just get out of the fucking way of those who take a more pragmatic approach. It doesn’t matter what your reasons are. I know what they are. I even agree, to an extent at least, with many of those reason. But none of them are good enough reasons to sacrifice what may be the last democratic event which can be used to restore Scotland’s independence. None of them and not all of them together!

Now that we have hopefully settled that small matter we can take a look at what’s being offered as ways to use our last opportunity to restore Scotland’s independence. For we have no choice but to regard it as such. We certainly cannot depend on another opportunity coming our way before the British state ensures that there will never be any more opportunities coming our way.

The SNP’s ‘plan’ is to first go down the Section 30 route and if that doesn’t work hold a referendum anyway. The bit about holding a referendum anyway actually represents progress in the party leadership’s thinking. Even if being anchored to the millstone of the Section 30 process means that this balloon wouldn’t soar supposing it wasn’t lacking the necessary gas. There is no further explanation of how they would go about holding the referendum they promise. But at least they’re promising it. Which will be good enough for those who have better things to do with their minds than use them to think through such a ‘plan’.

The assurance that there will be a referendum regardless is weak. It is flimsy. In its present form it would be unconvincing even if it weren’t being offered by a group of politicians whose credibility has been rather eroded over the past six years. It’s not good enough. It’s certainly not what we need the SNP to be taking into the election. Because it does not sufficiently commit the party of government and thereby the Scottish Government to the kind of action that Scotland’s cause requires.

And that’s before we consider the Section 30-related part of the ‘plan’. I do not propose to rehash here all the criticism of and concerns with the Section 30 process. I have done that often enough elsewhere. For now, I’ll settle for stating Plan A as succinctly as possible.

The plan is to proceed as if we need a Section order and then if we don’t get a Section 30 order proceed as if we don’t need a Section 30 order. Presumably after saying they were only kidding when they said a Section 30 order was required.

This is the sort of political gibberish I’d expect to fall out of Boris Johnson’s head during an impromptu interview. I expect more of the SNP. In particular I expect more of Mike Russell. Frankly, I still cannot get my head around the fact that a man of his undoubted intelligence and integrity put his name to this pish. What the hell is going on!?

Plan A is a non-starter. The bit about holding the referendum regardless of the inevitable howls of outrage from the British establishment is maybe worth hanging on to. The rest goes in the bin.

Then there is Plan B. Which is to proceed as if we need a Section order for a referendum and then if we don’t get a Section 30 order proceed as if we don’t need a Section 30 order or a referendum. Presumably after saying they were only kidding when they said a Section 30 order was required.

You’re right! Up to this point it is almost exactly the same as Plan A (slightly revised). so all the as yet totally unaddressed concerns about asking for a Section 30 order apply here as well.

How Plan B earns this designation is by proposing that the coming democratic event be turned from an election into a referendum. But it has to be an election (That’s the law.) so we can only pretend that it’s a referendum. The plan is for it to be both. A plebiscitary election. This is a recognised form of democratic event and as such it cannot be condemned. There may be many situation which can be satisfactorily resolved by a plebiscitary election. I take the view that Scotland’s constitutional status is not one of them.

When we vote to restore Scotland’s independence the result must be conclusive. This can only be achieved in a referendum that is as binary as a referendum needs to be in order to qualify as a referendum. It cannot be achieved in something as open to interpretation and challenge as a plebiscitary election.

Despite the plebiscitary election maybe serving some purpose, Plan B goes in the same bin as Plan A, and for the same reasons. Firstly, the proposal to compromise the sovereignty of Scotland’s people by requesting a Section 30 order. Secondly because it does not propose the necessary action in the appropriate place. Even suppose Yes was to ‘win’ the election-cum-plebiscite and even suppose this was generally accepted we would still require that the Scottish Government take the required action in a Parliament prepared for such action.

What is this “required action” I promised to explain? You’ll find it in the #ManifestoForIndependence that I have proposed with a bit of support from others.

  1. Repudiate the Section 30 process for cause
  2. Assert the competence of the Scottish Parliament in all matter relating to the constitution
  3. Recall Scottish MPs from Westminster to serve in a National Convention
  4. Propose the dissolution of the Union subject to a referendum
  5. Hold said referendum entirely under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament

For present purposes it is number 2 that is relevant. The first step in restoring Scotland’s independence must be to assert the appropriate competence of the Scottish Parliament. This is because the Scottish Parliament is required to authorise the referendum, oversee its conduct and implement its decision.

In fact, Plan A implies this when it proposes that a referendum be held without a Section 30 order. What else might this be other than a referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament. Which would require that the necessary competence be asserted or imply that it already existed to be affirmed.

As an aside, this poses a bit of a problem for those who scoff at or rail against the idea of UDI. It is difficult to see how the Scottish Parliament can assert its competence in the matter of a constitutional referendum without this competence encompassing all constitutional matters. If this, why not that. Asserting the Scottish Parliament’s competence in all constitutional matters is about as close as you can get to UDI without saying UDI. Who would ever have thought that a government led by Nicola Sturgeon would be proposing UDI. Even if only very tentatively.

We needn’t trouble ourselves too much here with the remainder of the #ManifestoForIndependence. It’s the bit relating to the Scottish Parliament that is relevant. Because it is the “required action” that I have been referring to. It is the key. It is what unlocks the door to restoring Scotland’s independence.

I said earlier that my thinking on the constitutional issue is always evolving. I have sounded-out a few people with my latest thinking and it has received a generally positive response. It’s nothing spectacular. But there may be enough to prompt a bit of thought on the matter. That would be useful.

I have made it clear, I think that I do not consider a plebiscitary election an appropriate method by which to exercise our right of self-determination. I have set out my objections. I am not aware of these objections having been addressed in any meaningful way. But the idea of a plebiscitary election seems to be gaining traction. Largely, I suspect that when people are frustrated pretty much anything a bit novel becomes attractive. Accepting that a plebiscitary election might happen despite my objections, it occurred to me that it would be better if this vote dealt not with the question of Scotland’s constitutional status but with the status of the Scottish Parliament.

A vote on securing the Scottish Parliament better lends itself to a plebiscitary election. It is necessary anyway. It enables us to hold the referendum at a time of our choosing and absent direct interference from the British state.

People are more likely to vote for the Scottish Parliament than for independence. So we’re more likely to get a result that is conclusive even in a plebiscitary election.

If pressure mounts for a plebiscitary election on elevating the status of the Scottish Parliament and it is pointed out forcefully enough that this is already implied by Plan A, then it is a relatively small step from there to getting this into the SNP’s manifesto.

It might also be that the idea would appeal to proponents of Plan B. It would involve only a fairly minor tweaking of their proposal. Then all we have to do is get them to repudiate the abomination that is Section 30.

There is obviously much more that could be said on this matter. My hope is that this essay will provoke discussion. Or rather that it will encourage a discussion that is already ongoing. There is something in this. I’m not yet sure I have fully explored either the possibilities or the problems. Over to you.

3 thoughts on “A possible compromise?

  1. Peter you challenge my thinking in ways that I relish. I may have said, I returned with English husband, to live in Scotland after 35 years in England. I returned because I passionately want to be in an independent Scotland. I’m relearning about Scottish constitutional matters and more. You are part of this education. It’s great fun tbh.

    Liked by 1 person

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