If only they would listen

If you prefer to listen then you’ll find an audio version of this article on my podcast site.

…we will hold a referendum when the time is right to hold it and that will be at the conclusion of the pandemic.

Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs

Define “conclusion of the pandemic”, Mr Russell. If the term is not defined it is by definition, meaningless. Some may be content to accept such empty language. They will impose their own meaning on the phrase in a way that satisfies them. If undefined, “conclusion of the pandemic” will mean whatever people want it to mean. But there are those among us who listen more critically to what politicians say. We know that politicians use such empty language purposefully. We are aware of how essentially meaningless terms, if stated with enough confidence and authority, will tend not to be questioned. And if they are, there is always plausible deniability.

What marks “the conclusion of a pandemic”? Mike Russell has used the term so we must assume that he has taken some advice on this. After all, he is not an epidemiologist. Does he speak with the authority of a respected academic? Or with the slipperiness of a political operator? If he can’t define the term then we can only conclude that it must be the latter.

This is no minor matter, after all. The scheduling of a new referendum is of massive importance for a number of reasons. Not least that people want to know. Not that they need to know. Need can always be disputed. I myself have said repeatedly to those who demand a date that it is better for the Scottish Government to have some latitude on this. It is better that they do not limit their options. What we need is not a precise date, but a defined timeframe. If the term “conclusion of the pandemic” is not defined then how can it possibly define the end-point of a timeframe?

But it doesn’t matter whether the people need to know. It doesn’t even matter whether the people have a right to know. What matters is that they want to know. It is this wanting to know – if it is strong enough – that compels them to impose their own meaning on the empty words used by politicians. People want to know when the referendum will be held. Of that there is no doubt. Those who take an interest in these things want an assurance that there will actually be some action on the constitutional issue by the Scottish Government in the next Parliamentary term. Those who take a deep interest would prefer – nay, insist! – that both action and timeframe are defined. Mike Russell has defined neither. Nor has he given us any reason to believe that the much-hyped Referendum Bill will do any better.

The Scottish Government’s record of timorous dithering and pusillanimous prevarication on the constitutional issue over seven long and wearying years bids us require greater assurances than might otherwise be the case. We need a firm undertaking. Vacuous language such as “conclusion of the pandemic” provides assurance only to those desperate enough to find it where they may.

What does it mean? Is there some scientifically ascertained set of parameters which mark the point when a pandemic is over? If the phrase “conclusion of the pandemic” is to have any significance for us then we need to know what those parameters are. And we need a solemn promise from our political leaders that they will take the necessary action at that point. Mike Russell gives us neither.

I’m no epidemiologist either. I can claim no more expertise in the field than Mike Russell. But I have bits and pieces of general knowledge which are relevant in assessing the value of the term “conclusion of the pandemic”. I know, for example, that a pathogen can only be eradicated by the development and deployment of a very highly effective vaccine delivered to every person in the world. I know that eradication of a virus has only been achieved once in all of human history. An effective smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796 by the English physician Edward Jenner. The World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of the disease in 1980 – nearly 200 years later! Is that what “conclusion of the pandemic” means, Mr Russell?

Of course, the very conditions of global connectedness that facilitate a pandemic also enable more rapid deployment of a vaccine. But even taking that into account we can get an idea of how long it might take to eradicate Covid by looking at the current vaccination programmes in Scotland and elsewhere. It’s a process which at the national level will take many months and possibly years, even with the most efficient systems and procedures. The global eradication which would surely mark the end of the pandemic could be expected to take several years. Is that what you mean when you say “conclusion of the pandemic”, Mr Russell?

The situation is further complicated by the fact the coronavirus vaccines now being administered fall far short of the 95% effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine. And further still by the findings of a recently published study which confirms that levels of acquired immunity may not be sufficient to aid eradication. For those under 65 years of age acquired immunity is 80% effective. But for those over 65, which includes the most vulnerable section of the population, acquired immunity is only 47% effective in preventing reinfection. Taking these factors into consideration suggests that Covid might never be eradicated. There might not be a “conclusion of the pandemic”. Does this mean that there will never be a new referendum, Mr Russell?

Who decides? We’ve got a sense of how difficult it is to define far less achieve “the conclusion of the pandemic”. As well as what definition is being used by the Scottish Government, it would be helpful to know who will decide when the elusive conditions have been met. Will it be scientists? Or will it be politicians? Presumably, certification of eradication will be a matter for the WHO. In which case, does this mean that it will be the WHO which decides when the new referendum can take place? Is this what you mean, Mr Russell? Are you telling us that on top of the idiocy of asking the British government’s permission to exercise our right of self-determination we must now await the approval of a UN agency?

It should go without saying that we will never get answers to any of these questions. The questions will never even be acknowledged. In fact, we have no way of putting such questions to our elected representatives. No way of obliging them to answer. Not even SNP members have the means to interrogate the leadership and hold them to account. It also goes without saying that there will be many angry voices raised to insist that the questions shouldn’t even be asked. There is a section of the Yes movement – almost exclusively SNP members it should be said – which will always declare that ‘now is not the time’ for us to be questioning anything the SNP says or does. There is always the screeching, whining, grating voice of the #WheeshtForIndy mob.

If not now, when? If this is not the time to be questioning what our political leaders are doing, have done and propose to to do then what would be a more convenient time? Can it ever be inappropriate to question our political leaders? Are they not always answerable to us? How can they be answerable if they will not answer? If there is no mechanism by which they can be required to answer?

Painted on Peter A Bell

There have been numerous occasions during Nicola Sturgeon’s tenure as leader of the SNP and First Minister when a promise as tenuous and lacking in detail as that which looks like making it into the party’s manifesto has been accepted. Even by an old cynic such as myself. Section 30 is not Scotland's salvation More at peterabell.scot
  1. Painted on
  2. That was not the question
  3. If only they would listen
  4. Facing reality
  5. Old story or new

I have listened to and read what is being said by Mike Russell and his colleagues regarding the constitutional issue. I am underwhelmed. I am disappointed. I am not persuaded that, if returned to government, the SNP will seriously engage in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. They have not done so for the last seven years despite near-ideal conditions for a campaign to end the Union. And nothing they are saying now gives me any confidence at all that they intend to act as required. How can I have any confidence when all I’m being offered is meaningless words?

If it was possible to communicate with the people inside the armoured bubble where reside our political leaders, what would I say to them? What would I say in response to what Mike Russell apparently considers adequate assurances?

I’d say to Mike Russell, with the utmost respect, sir, this is just not f****** good enough! It’s not adequate! It’s totally inadequate!

I’d tell Mr Russell that if this is the best you can do then it will take the threat of the British party alternative to make me vote SNP in May. I’d tell him he and his colleagues have to do better. I’d point out that what is being proposed is an insult to the people of Scotland. I’d tell him we deserve better in return for the support we’ve given to the SNP over many years and decades.

I’d make it clear that this support is not unconditional. I’d take advantage of the opportunity to convey just how disappointed, frustrated and angry I am at being fobbed off with vague political promises hedged with caveats and provisions and exceptions and weasel words. I’d tell them I’m not prepared to accept what they are offering. I’d tell them we deserve more. They owe us more. We have an absolute right to more.

I’d tell them to think again and and do it fast because if otiose terms like “conclusion of the pandemic” find their way into the party’s election manifesto then the pent-up anger simmering in the independence movement is bound to erupt. And that anger will not be directed at Downing Street. It will be rocking the foundations of Bute House.

And in the vanishingly unlikely event that Mike Russell inquired of me what it is that I would like the SNP leadership to do; what I do want to see in the party’s election manifesto, I’d tell him what I’ve been telling everybody who wants to listen and quite a few who definitely don’t want to listen for a very long time.

In a fantasy world where our political leaders actually listen to the people, this person would tell them that the first thing they must do is repudiate the Section 30 process as an illegitimate constraint on Scotland’s right of self-determination.

I’d tell them that the manifesto must include a solemn undertaking that if returned to government the SNP will assert the primacy of the Scottish Parliament on the basis of its democratic legitimacy and the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. Only by doing this can the Scottish Parliament take on the competence to facilitate the free and fair exercise by the people of Scotland of our right of self-determination.

I’d tell them that having effectively restored to the Scottish Parliament all those powers which have for so long been held hostage by the British state then the Scottish Government must use that power. The SNP manifesto must include a solemn undertaking to propose dissolution of the Union with England subject to approval by the Scottish Parliament and ratification by the people of Scotland in a referendum entirely made and managed in Scotland.

I would strongly recommend that the SNP manifesto include a firm promise that the SNP government, acting through the Scottish Parliament, recall Scotland’s Members of Parliament from Westminster to sit on a National Convention with Members of the Scottish Parliament and such representatives of civic society as are deemed appropriate by the Scottish Parliament for the purpose of overseeing the drafting of a Constitution for Scotland and taking responsibility for conducting constitutional referendums to confirm the dissolution of the Union and approve the draft Constitution..

Only then will I be persuaded that the present SNP leadership is genuinely intending to confront the British state as is bound to be necessary if Scotland’s independence is to be restored. If they were listening I’d tell our political leaders that this confrontation was certain to demand of them the utmost determination and tenacity. But I’d also assure them that they would have the unstinting support of every person in Scotland who values our democracy, and our distinct identity as a nation.

If only they would listen.

4 thoughts on “If only they would listen

  1. It really is the worst of weasel words from Mike Russell.

    People who point out the lazy platitudes emanating from the mouths of our SNP leaders are accused of being cynical. We’re not. We are sceptical.

    This view is informed by the inaction of the last 6.5 years. It is fashioned from the hollow blowhard cries of “not being dragged out of the EU against out will” and “vote for us for Indyref2!”.

    The SNP leaders boast, then they cower … cap in hand.

    The SNP leadership is like the Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf!’

    And we’ve heard it all before. Too many times.

    It is the likes of Mr Russell, not their critics within the Yes movement, who are the true cynics.

    Liked by 5 people

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