‘Twas brillig, and the slithy Gove…


This morning online, Westminster journalists are making it *pretty* clear that anything less than an SNP majority will not be seen as a mandate for indyref2

The National Election Live Blog

We always knew this. Or should I say, this was always knowable. If somebody didn’t know it, this could only be because they had only just returned to Scotland having been abducted by aliens as children and so could be forgiven for being unaware of the nature of the British state. Or because they chose not to know it. Needless to say, very many more people fall into the latter category than the former. In part because alien abductions are not as common as you might suppose. Mainly because it is hard to imagine any life-form which would willingly put up with a contrary, argumentative, belligerent Scot for more than one or two Earth days. Conclusion? Many people chose to ignore a glaringly obvious political reality.

Here’s how it works. A multi-party majority in terms of parliamentary seats in favour of something to which the British state is opposed does not constitute a mandate for that thing. A single-party majority in terms of parliamentary seats in favour of something to which the British state is opposed does not constitute a mandate for that thing unless it is accompanied by a majority of the popular vote. A single-party majority in terms of parliamentary seats accompanied by a majority of the popular vote in favour of something to which the British state is opposed does not constitute a mandate unless there is a majority of those entitled to vote. A single-party majority in terms of parliamentary seats accompanied by a majority of the popular vote that is also a majority of those entitled to vote in favour of something to which the British state is opposed does not constitute a mandate unless Michael Gove did not have his fingers crossed behind his back all the time.

Them’s the rules. Don’t complain to me! I didn’t make the rules. That’s just the way it is. The way it always has been. The way gods and nature intended. The best way. The British way.

The UK Government do not recognise that the SNP have a mandate for a second referendum as it did not win an outright majority – a view strongly rejected by the First Minister and Scottish Greens.

[Michael] Gove also told the BBC that “a majority of people who voted in the constituencies voted for parties that were opposed to a referendum”, and that Sturgeon “didn’t secure a majority as Alex Salmond did in 2011. That is a significant difference.”

The National – Michael Gove claims Scots didn’t vote for indyref2 despite pro-indy majority

If Scotland’s independence movement had one job in the election thankfully now over it was to avoid gifting Michael Gove this kind of argument. Partly because he is suspected of being a member of the alien race alleged to have abducted at least one Scottish child. Mainly because he is associated with the British political elite and the creature-struggling-to-maintain-human-form charged with applying the rules outlined above. Not that there was any real hope of totally preventing the Govian denying the existence of a mandate for a new constitutional referendum. But the task was to make it as difficult as possible for him (it?) to do so without looking very foolish indeed. Not that he (it?) would balk at looking foolish. I don’t know what Govian culture has to say on the matter. But British political culture absolutely requires that those associated with the British political elite be joyfully prepared to lay down their dignity for the established order. Along with their principles and humanity and… well… all the things which make us non-Govian, I suppose.

(Incidentally! It seems broadcasters are reluctant to host the Govian as it’s necessary to incinerate the chair it (he?) uses after every appearance. Or at least, that’s the rumour I’m trying to start.)

The less credible the justification offered for denying the existence of a mandate, the better this suited the independence movement. Some will protest that we should not concern ourselves unduly about what the Govian and his colleagues say. But we’d be foolish to discount completely those who have ready access to the British state’s formidable propaganda apparatus. Politicians fret about the ‘optics’. Or, as we used to say before the advent of rampant spaddery, they worry about appearances. Which is only to be expected given how important public perception is to the professional politician. They are, after all, massively dependent on being able to manipulate those perceptions. Heaven forfend that the plebs should catch a glimpse of their own reality! Had the outcome of the election been separated by a rather less astronomical distance from what was ideal for Scotland’s cause, the Govian would have found it all but impossible to avoid the worst optics since a seagull shat on Galileo’s telescope.

The ideal outcome for the independence movement would have been a Scottish government with a secure working majority elected on a #ManifestoForIndependence with a record high turnout and over 50% of the vote on both ballots. The Govian would probably still have tried to deny that this constituted a mandate for a new referendum. But the optics would be such that his (its?) protestations would not only prompt ridicule, but provoke anger. The public will live with having the pish taken out of them by the ruling elite only so long as the ruling elite is careful to ensure that people can easily fool themselves into mistaking the pish-taking for respect. Strip the Govian of his (its?) plausible rationalisations and folk get that wee glimpse of the pish-taking reality. Of such glimpses are tipping points made.

Of course, it became clear in the course of the election campaign that no approximation of this ideal would be possible. None of the parties standing candidates espoused the #ManifestoForIndependence. Most importantly, the SNP declined to do so. Most importantly because the mandate is held by the Scottish Government and no other party stood any chance of being the party of government. Absent the political courage to make a real commitment to effective action, the best that could be hoped for was that the Govian wouldn’t be gifted a soft-ball. As it turned out, the Govian was gifted a very soft ball.

(Little-known fact: The back-story about the Govian’s human father-equivalent being a fishmonger was concocted to explain the faint but unpleasant odour that follows it (him?) around. The Govian himself (itself?) wanted to parry comments about the sickening smell with what would have been a humorous anecdote on his own planet but which would surely have been actionable anywhere on Earth other than a couple of American states.)

I’m not interested in apportioning blame. There’s enough to go around and it would be an exercise in futility to argue about who deserves the fractionally larger share. Scotland was failed by its entire political class, its political activists, its media and its voters. Scotland failed Scotland. Is that no’ an auld sang? It is infinitely more important that we understand the nature of the failure rather who failed worst or most. I venture to suggest that we start by considering it as a failure of conception. The Yes movement as a whole misconceived the problem in various ways and so opted for a range of ineffectual pseudo-solutions. Stressing once more that I am not seeking here to assign differential culpability, I’ll offer a couple of examples of this misconceiving.

The SNP leadership conceived the problem entirely in terms of retaining power. For all the talk of this being the most important election in Scotland’s history and similar rhetoric, Sturgeon and her people approached the election as a normal party-political tussle. If anybody can be said to have come out the winner, it’s the SNP. Not because they’ve scored some game-changing electoral victory or struck a decisive blow for Scotland’s cause, but because they’ve got what they were happy to settle for. Indeed, the outcome could be said to be ideal for Sturgeon and what now must be regarded as exclusively her party. She stays in power for another five years with the Scottish Greens as partners she can easily do business with but without the kind of majority that might have made it difficult to fend off calls for urgent action on the constitutional issue. It is surprising if not shocking the extent to which the interests of Sturgeon and the Govian align. It suits her procrastinating purpose just fine that the British political elite should have a plausible excuse for denying that there’s a mandate for a referendum which can readily be spun as a legitimate reason for denying the existence of such a mandate. She gets to rail against the anti-democratic Tories while not quite completely convincingly rejecting the legitimacy of that excuse.

In short, it leaves the constitutional issue in precisely the same limbo as prior to the election. In terms of the way the SNP leadership conceives the problem, this is a near-perfect ‘solution’. Anything that might be regarded as a big win for Scotland’s cause would have been rather tricky for Sturgeon.

Alba too would have been put in a difficult situation had their campaign met with any success. I never discounted the possibility of Alba winning one or two seats. Unlikely as this was, the quirks of the Scottish electoral system and the foibles of the electorate made it a possibility. My ‘issue’ with Alba was not that they could not achieve some electoral success but that there was no possibility of that success serving Scotland’s cause in any way at all, far less in the massive way that was being claimed by and/or on behalf of the party. Had Alba returned a handful of candidates then it would very quickly have become evident just how powerless and ineffectual they were.

Alba provides an almost textbook example of misconceiving the problem. They regarded the problem as being too many Unionist MSPs. Or more precisely as a failure of the electoral system to produce parliamentary proportionality that satisfactorily reflected the national division on the constitutional issue. Many of you will hasten to point out that it is not the job of the electoral system to reflect such single-issue divisions. And you’d be quite correct. We might well wonder how this would even be possible. Proportionality in terms of political parties may not be perfect, but it’s probably the best that can be done. And the Scottish electoral system does that rather well. Alba wanted an outcome that massively favoured the independence cause. They sought this despite the national division on the constitutional issue being close to even, according to polls. But bear in mind that, as with the SNP, we are talking about a very particular conceptualisation of the situation. A conceptualisation that is partisan and self-serving and has no necessary binding to reality.

The British parties can be dealt with as a bloc since they shared the conceptualisation of the election all but entirely in terms of preserving the Union. Even individual party interests were largely subordinated to this aim. In that sense, the British parties too can be regarded as having won. They wanted to stop a referendum. For the time being at least, they have. That this is down to the Yes movement’s failure rather than their own cleverness will hardly matter to British Nationalists. Their own cleverness is less dependable.

You may have noted that what doesn’t get a mention above is a conceptualisation of the election as an opportunity for politicians to hear the people and for the people to make themselves heard. It is an iron law of our politics that the politicians hear only what they want to hear. As both cause and consequence of this the people don’t work nearly hard enough at making their voice heard.

I make no bones about the fact that at gut level, my sympathies lie with the Alba Party’s perspective. My inclination is towards anything that puts Scotland’s cause front and centre. But I’m also a realist. The notion of a supermajority and what it implied for the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence was always pure fantasy. But it was a devilishly appealing fantasy. One very easy to get caught up in. It is for this reason that I regard the scepticism that others see as cynicism and the realism that is denounced as negativity as blessings. However intoxicating the fantasy, my feet remain firmly fixed to the ground with nails of pragmatism.

Had the Alba Party enjoyed anything like the electoral success its more avid supporters were predicting then the Govian would not now be shaking the stick of electoral arithmetic to justify the British state’s denial of democracy. He would have been wielding the sword of a ‘broken’ electoral system incapable of delivering any kind of mandate and in need of immediate ‘reform’. That would have been the price of misconceiving the problem.

While my hormones bid me join with Alba’s ‘kick out the Unionists’ chorus, my neurons tell me that the British parties got it right. Aye. You read that right. The British Nationalists had the right idea about the election. Once again the Yes movement can learn from its opponents – albeit very much too late. In conceiving of the election as being all about the Union, the British Parties got it spot on. Had the Yes movement mirrored that conception then the outcome could have been very different. As they saw it as being all about saving the Union we should have treated it as being all about ending the Union. That should have been the overarching principle guiding all thinking about the election a year and more in advance.

Ideally, it should have informed the thinking of the SNP leadership. Unfortunately, that was never likely. The SNP under Sturgeon was never going to prioritise the constitutional issue over partisan – and personal? – interests. Largely because the party under Sturgeon long since ceased to differentiate between the two. The guiding theory is that what’s good for the party is good for the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. We have nearly seven year’s worth of evidence to the contrary.

How different might things have been, however, if the Yes movement had coalesced around the idea of the election being all about the Union. Would this have been sufficient to force Sturgeon’s hand? We’ll never know. But it certainly might have been. Especially if the pandemic hadn’t intervened to the considerable if entirely coincidental benefit of the clique of crazies now running the party. We can only speculate. What is remarkable is that such a large part of the Yes movement found it so easy to believe in the magical solution offered by Alba and so impossible to believe in their own power to effect change by normal political means.

My expectation of the election could hardly have been lower. But even the anti-climax has proved to be a huge disappointment. I had allowed some small part of myself to hope – I will not say believe – that the outcome would give the Yes movement pause for thought. I see little evidence of this. Instead, I see grotesquely misplaced triumphalism from the SNP, gloating smugness from the British parties and corrosively bitter recriminations from Alba. All of them credit themselves with anything that can be spun as success while finding easy scapegoats and villains to blame for failures that cannot be denied.

For my part, I blame everybody. As I see it, Scotland has been failed by politicians and political activists alike. I do not exclude myself. I look back at the last year and see my failure to push the #ManifestoForIndependence idea as well as I might. I suspect every single one of us in the Yes movement can do likewise. We can all look back on our own contribution to Scotland’s cause and, if we do so honestly, we will see where we were inadequate or just plain wrong. I suggest that this might be a better use of our personal resources than participating in the ugly squabbles among Yes activists currently festering on social media.

I want to leave the last word to my friend Neil Mackay, who will be known to most for the massive contribution he has made to Scotland’s cause through All Under One Banner and Now Scotland. I here reproduce verbatim a statement issued by Neil yesterday (Sunday 9 May). The guy makes a lot of sense.

The last four and a bit months have been dominated by the Parliamentary inquiry process then the Holyrood election. These two developments happened back to back, with the Yes movement going from ‘civil war’ to the natural divisiveness of an election campaign.

Now that is over. Now we have a SNP Govt which has promised to deliver a Referendum in the next Parliamentary term, and it’s the task of the movement to push for this to happen as a matter of urgency, with Independence for Recovery being absolutely critical.

l, like everyone else, have my own views about what went wrong and what went well, and it’s vital that such discourse is not suppressed as time goes on. However, if the movement is to be successful we must move beyond most of the arguments which have dominated the year so far.

The Parliament is at the command of the people at all times, not just once every five years. The people have ultimate authority every single day. Now is the time to realise this and for the Yes movement to recalibrate and refocus towards powerful mass mobilisations and peaceful civil disobedience to push the Scottish Govt to call IndyRef2 and make Scotland ungovernable for the UK Govt.

As such, from this moment, I will clear my side of the road and stop participating in and perpetuating many of the arguments that have come to dominate our movement. It’s time to draw a line and move forward if we are to succeed in restoring independence and breaking up the British state.

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7 thoughts on “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy Gove…

  1. I think you are being a bit harsh on the non politicians, Peter.
    What more could folks do, but to elect those they thought/hoped would be in a Party that claimed to want Independence? And for the most part, that was SNP.
    I wouldn’t blame the voter for the SNP leadership ignoring what they are supposed to be there for.
    Given the fact, next to no Public meetings were taking place, the general voter was almost totally excluded.
    If senior figures in SNP won’t listen to well read and known pro Independence supporters with connections to SNP, like yourself, or for that matter elected politicians in councils and at Parliament, what chance the general Public?
    Any wonder some of them simply walked out?

    As to ALBA, it is bitterly disappointing they didn’t get anyone elected.
    SNP didn’t help with their insistence on both votes SNP. So we saw near to a million votes utterly wasted.
    We see too, the Space Alien from the distant Galaxy Gove, totally dismiss those million plus List votes and majority for Independence, simply because they were List votes. Tho we see too, he and his lot, are at same time thankful for that List system, that got them their 57 MSPs!
    However, I think the greatest blame with that lies with the Media, both BBC and STV.
    And it has to be said ALBA, itself was a wee bit to blame in that it came into the fray far too late. But circumstances around the Salmond Saga at Parliament most likely had a major role in the timing.
    But they didn’t expect the unjustified stonewalling from the Broadcasters. Especially when we see how in Wales, those same Broadcasters allowed anybody and everybody onto the televised debates. But then, none of those groups were a real threat to ending the Union. Salmond is a real threat!
    Had they been given that opportunity to get on the air, it might just have been successful in a few places.
    I guess some of their grand claims of “forcing” The Scot Govt to do this and that didn’t help much.
    Something you had already warned about.
    However one “success” ALBA has come up with, is that they have forced SNP to talk up the Independence Ref, and to take it seriously, knowing now, they cannot rely on the goodwill of the pro Independence supporter indefinitely, for any much longer.
    Other than that, the whole sorry thing has been pretty much as you outline.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “As to ALBA, it is bitterly disappointing they didn’t get anyone elected.”

      That wouldn’t have made the slightest difference. It made for a good story. It fooled a few voters. But it was always total nonsense.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. “There’s no such thing as magic”
            Dearie me, look which creature supports the Scottish arms!
            No seriously wouldn’t an Alba MSP be able to question the government etc. in a place where the answer couldn’t be ignored by the press and other media? (Just asking)

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes. Occasionally. To understand what is possible you need to have a grasp of the Scotland Act 1998 and the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament. With a couple of MSPs Alba wouldn’t have much of a voice. And Sturgeon has shown herself to be highly adept at shrugging off attacks and awkward questions. Alba would create barely a ripple on her pond.

              Unless, of course, those Alba MSPs were breaking the rules or doing/saying something irresponsible or bringing the parliament into disrepute or – best of all – attacking the SNP. Then they’d be all over the media. They want to be all over the media. So guess what they’d be inclined to do.

              Liked by 1 person

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