With apologies to Ray Davies.
I was prompted to write this article in part by a recent blog piece by my good friend, Tommy Sheridan and partly by numerous Tweets championing some of the worst follies of the self-styled alternative independence parties. Tommy’s essay labours under the title Scottish #MaxTheYES Strategy is Alive and Kicking Unionists Into Touch. Needless to say, I have questions. The questions that should have been asked not just before Tommy’s article was published, but before the whole ‘list party’ idea gained any traction. Too late now!
Also, I came across the quote in the image above and immediately thought of the so-called alternative independence parties. Which, come to think of it, might be better referred to as the alternative to independence parties. Because whatever they’re campaigning for it isn’t independence. The quote is so apt I feel I must use it again.
Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.Karl Popper
I am not about to begin and end every paragraph with apologies for upsetting people. Partly because that stuff gets very tedious very quickly. Mostly because it would be insincere. I aim to upset people. If nobody is upset I don’t consider I’ve done my job properly. So I’ll get this out of the way now and then folk can get on with being offended if that’s their thing. I’m not saying everybody associated with the alternative independence parties is malign. Some undoubtedly are. If for no other reason than that it’s the sort of project that attracts people with personal and partisan agendas. As does the entire Yes movement. Independence is a powerful bandwagon. Lots of people want to hitch a ride on it. Not all of them have independence as their first priority. Some not even as their second or third priority.
Most of the people supporting these list parties have just been taken in by the rhetoric. They are being exploited. More precisely, their frustration with the SNP and their detestation of the British Tory government are being exploited. Angry, frustrated people are ripe for exploitation. They mean no harm. They are convinced they’re doing the right thing. When you’re frustrated and angry you tend to grab at the first thing that comes along looking like it may relieve the frustration and provide a target for the anger. You tend not to ask the questions it would be wise to ask.
Nor am I picking a fight with Tommy. It’s not him or any individual I’m criticising. It’s the concept. The idea. The folly. It just happens that the title of Tommy’s article encompasses three aspects of this folly. The hashtag #MaxTheYes refers to the idea of a super-majority. “Kicking Unionists Into Touch” refers to getting rid of Unionist MSPs. The word “strategy” refers to… what?
The cunning plan parties certainly have a strategy for selling themselves. They use some fairly standard techniques. Simplisms, slogans, pseudo-science and sound-bites. Rehearsed scripts that have little in the way of substance and lots in the way of hype. They are sold on a prospectus which describes miraculous solutions for what the propaganda identifies as problem. It is only when you ask if these problems are real and whether the solutions are either necessary or sufficient that you begin to discover the vacuity of the whole enterprise. And begin to piss-off a few people in the process.
There’s a strategy for getting people’s votes. But is there a strategy for doing something practical to advance Scotland’s cause. If there is, I’ve yet to find it. It’s pointless asking. If you ask any questions which don’t stem from the assumption that the sales patter is based on either science or scripture according to taste then you’ll be told you’re ignorant or stupid or a Unionist plant or a secret Tory. What you won’t get is any explanation of what these snake-oil parties intend to do for the independence cause if elected. And there’s a very good reason for that. They can’t do anything. They have a strategy for getting elected. They have no strategy after that. They’ll deny the former. They’ll wax disingenuous or evasive or both about the latter.
Or they start banging on about the numbers. Like politics is nothing but arithmetic! That’s what the people who designed the voting system thought. Arithmetic didn’t stop the people of Scotland bucking the numbers and voting in a majority SNP government in 2011. They’ll rattle of their spiel about hundreds of thousands of votes “wasted” because the party they wanted to win didn’t. As if getting those votes on the regional list ballot was sufficient in itself to win. As if it was a first past the post election. Which it isn’t, of course. It’s a proportional system. A rather messy proportional system. But one that has worked rather well for the independence cause up until now.
Theyll tell you the numbers don’t lie. To which the one word response is “shite!”. No! Not “shite!”. GERS! Same thing, really. Next GERSday when they start going on about how it’s all rubbish, what do the Unionists respond with? You’ve got it! The numbers don’t lie. Letters don’t lie either. Phonemes don’t lie. But we can all put letters together to write a lie. We can all use our voices to tell a lie. It’s all about how you put them together. What context you put them in. What context you leave out. GERS demonstrates this every year. The British media does it every day. If you doubt me go take a look at Talking Up Scotland where you’ll find hundreds of examples gathered by Professor John Robertson of numbers being used to lie in newspaper articles and TV and radio ‘news’ reports. And there is the point. Numbers themselves don’t lie. But they can be used to tell lies. They can be used to mislead. They can be used to sell the magical properties of snake-oil.
The whole thing about kicking Unionist MSPs out of Holyrood is a clear instance of misidentifying the problem. So long as they are in the minority, MSPs from the British parties are not a problem for Scotland’s cause. They can’t do anything to obstruct or hinder action to restore Scotland’s independence taken by the Scottish Government. They are ineffectual. They provide headlines for the British media. But the headlines would appear anyway. Even if Unionist MSPs were reduced to one solitary, sorry soul the headlines would change only in that they would start screeching about how Scotland is a one-party state and how broken the the Scottish Parliament is.
The response when you point out that Unionist MSPs aren’t actually the problem is most commonly to accuse you of wanting more Unionists in the Scottish Parliament. Which you will immediately notice does not address the issue. The issue being that they are misidentifying something as a problem so they can sell their ‘solution’. Which is a bit fraudish, isn’t it?
The necessarily fake ‘solution’ for this misidentified problem is, of course, to replace those ineffectual Unionist MSPs with MSPs from the snake-oil parties. Which is nice for those parties and very nice for the individual(s) elected. But what practical use is it to Scotland’s cause? It turns out that when you examine the situation as thoroughly and dispassionately as possible you find that there is nothing they can do. Those Unionist opposition MSPs were ineffectual not because they were Unionists but because they were in opposition. They were in the minority.
And they were there for a purpose. Those Unionist MSPs are there because people persist in voting for Unionist parties. Which they are entitled to do. In Scotland, they are also entitled to representation. We have an electoral system which ensures a proportional parliament. A Parliament which as accurately as possible reflects the votes cast. This system does its job rather well. The Scottish Parliament scores well on various measures of proportionality.
The snake-oil parties propose to make our Parliament less proportional. Either they do this for the purpose of maliciously undercutting the Scottish Parliament’s democratic credentials and authority; or more likely, they just haven’t thought things through that far. They stopped thinking at the point where their ‘solution’ seemed to work. You can only claim to have truly thought things through when you think past the point where you cease to be comfortable. Only when you get into the area where you’re uncomfortable will you find the questions you should be asking. Only there will you find the actual problem(s) and be able to start looking for real solutions.
Unionist MSPs in a minority at Holyrood are not a problem for Scotland’s cause. No doubt I’d cheer as loud as anybody if the likes of Jackie Baillie or Willie Rennie got kicked out by the voters. But I wouldn’t cheer as long. Because I have wits enough to realise how vanishingly little good it does beyond that momentary gratification. I have sense enough to know that it’s not Unionist MSPs in our Parliament that’s the problem, it’s the British parties in Scotland. And we won’t be rid of them until we’re rid of the Union.
The idea of a super-majority is also a case of misidentifying the problem and so coming up with a ‘solution’ which if we were being generous we would call silly. The problem is not too few pro-independence MSPs. There is nothing that can be done with a super-majority which can’t be done with a simple majority. Nothing relevant to this discussion. Unless you’re planning on bringing down a pro-independence government, a super-majority is mocked by chocolate teapots for its lack of utility. There is literally no post-election scenario in which any number of these snake-oil parties’ MSPs could do anything. Nothing useful, anyway. They could probably be an inconvenience to the pro-independence government. Politics being what it is that might well happen. Because it’ll be the only time those MSPs get any attention from the British media. And you can bet they’d be hungry for attention.
I’m not going to run through those potential post-election scenarios here. I’ve already done it elsewhere and I really don’t like repeating myself. Mainly because the message probably isn’t getting across anyway. Think it through for yourselves. Maybe that’ll get the message across. There is no scenario in which those snake-oil party MSPs are not either powerless or redundant or both.
A super-majority sounds good. If you don’t bother to think about it too much – or at all – you could easily be convinced that it’s a very-good-bigger-than-the-other-guy thing. That’s kinda what the words “super” and “majority” convey. But unless there’s qualified majority voting it makes no practical difference. And there’s no qualified majority voting in any situation that could be relevant to the independence cause. The idea of a super-majority is just the shiny bauble that distracts you from the realpolitik.
You only reach the conclusion that gaming the voting system is a good idea if you start from the wrong place. You don’t get there if you start by asking what best serves the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. You only get there if you start by asking what will get me or my party a slice of that Scottish Parliament pie.
Scotland’s politics is a mess right now. There is all manner of craziness going on. It’s like coronavirus isn’t the only infection that’s arrived on our shores. We may feel smug when we look across the Atlantic or across our southern border. But the madness is here too. Part of that madness is the loss of pragmatism. When pragmatism is lost, all manner of fantasies and delusion rush to fill the void. Add fervour to fantasy or dogma to delusion and you have a mix which can only be either toxic or explosive. Scotland’s predicament is perilous and urgent. Rarely have level-heads and rational minds been more needed. Rarely have they been so overwhelmed by the human tendency to fuck things up.
I’m pretty sure I’m not misidentifying the problem.