Bare words

It is now three months ─ 91 days, to be precise ─ since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stood in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament and delivered what has come to be known simply as her independence referendum speech. More correctly, we should say that she took to her feet to deliver her latest independence referendum speech. There have been more than a few over the eight years of her inert incumbency. The image at the top of the page shows just a few of The National’s breathless front pages proclaiming the good news. This time it’s different, we’re told. Which, unsurprisingly, is pretty much what we were told all those other times as well. It’s been three months. Maybe now people will be better disposed to scrutinise that announcement and see just how different it is from all the earlier false dawns.

I can announce that the Scottish Government is proposing that the independence referendum be held on 19 October 2023.

Statement to Parliament by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on 28 June 2022

The above is the bit of the speech most people will remember. It is probably the only bit they really heard. A dozen and a half words out of approaching 4,000. But those other words aren’t irrelevant. They are the context for the bit that was intended to grab everyone’s attention. They have meaning. They lend meaning to that sentence. It cannot be fully understood without the context.

Of course, it was never the intention that the sentence quoted above should be fully understood. Nicola Sturgeon is a very proficient communicator. She wrote her speech with two objectives in mind ─ what she was obliged to say; and what she wanted her audience to hear. That is why I rarely if ever listen to such speeches. I prefer to see the bare words stripped of the verbal and non-verbal signals which serve to shape the listener’s understanding of what is being said. We know that with text presented in print or pixels, such as newspapers, there are various tricks and devices by which the writer guides the reader to a particular understanding of the story. It can be a simple matter of emphasis as in the choice of splash or headline.

The standfirst is probably the most direct way of manipulating the reader’s perception of the story. It’s the bit in bold at the start of the piece which notionally and properly sets out the essential facts and casts a hook to draw people into the subsequent paragraphs. Few people get beyond the headline and standfirst. Those that do have already had planted in their head an idea of what is most important about the story. Any information vital to a fuller understanding of the story is pushed to the end of the piece where almost nobody goes.

A more subtle way of affecting the reader’s understanding is the picture. If the story concerns a well-known politician, then they can be portrayed as smug, or foolish or angry as expedient. Positioning on the page matters. Location within the newspaper matters. Pull quotes, sidebars and captions all form part of the context. They all influence how we appreciate the story.

It’s the same with the spoken word. Non-verbal signals, body language, voice, tone, volume, intonation, articulation, pace, projection all contribute to the shaping of the message. As do setting, lighting, occasion and much else. Public speaking is a science and an art. The skilled communicator can plant in the mind of their audience the impression of having heard something markedly different from what was said. Only by examining the transcript can one get to the essence of the matter.

Politicians don’t lie. At least, they try not to lie. The skilled ones don’t have to lie. They can make it so they appear to have said one thing but when challenged on it produce a genuine transcript which proves they said nothing of the sort. Nicola Sturgeon did not lie in her announcement of a new independence referendum. But she was far from wholly honest. What she wanted people to hear was that there was going to be an independence referendum. She had good reason to be confident that most of her audience would seize on that small part of her speech and interpret it as an undertaking to hold a ‘proper’ independence referendum. By ‘proper’, is meant a referendum which stands as a formal exercise of our right of self-determination. That is what many (most?) people think they heard. What was really said was something very different.

Let’s go through that statement and pick out a few excerpts for ‘clarification’. I have marked more than a dozen. That could get quite tedious. I’ll try to pare it down to half that number.

The UK and Scottish Governments should be sitting down together, responsibly agreeing a process, including a section 30 order, that allows the Scottish people to decide.

… I am writing to the Prime Minister today to inform him of the content of this statement.

And in that letter I will also make clear that I am ready and willing to negotiate the terms of a section 30 order with him.

Absorb the import of that and then read the following.

What I am not willing to do – what I will never do – is allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of any Prime Minister.

Notice the contradiction? The first quote is meant to seem wise and reasonable and statesmanlike. That is what is heard. What is said is diametrically opposed to the immediately subsequent claim that She will never “allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of any Prime Minister”. It is the Section 30 process to which she commits that enable and empowers the British Prime Minister to hold our democracy prisoner.

Want to see another oddity?

An unlawful referendum would not be deliverable.

Even if it was, it would lack effect.

The outcome would not be recognized by the international community.

Bluntly, it would not lead to Scotland becoming independent.


… the independence referendum proposed in the Bill will be consultative, not self-executing.

Just as in 2014 – and recognised explicitly in the 2013 White Paper – a majority yes vote in this referendum will not in and of itself make Scotland independent.

For Scotland to become independent following a yes vote, legislation would have to be passed by the UK and Scottish Parliaments.

In the first statement, Sturgeon insists that an “unlawful referendum” would be utterly meaningless and pointless. It would have no effect. By “unlawful” she means any referendum deemed unlawful by the British state. Which means any referendum they don’t want to happen. Which means any proper referendum which might place the Union in jeopardy. It also means any referendum which doesn’t conform to Sturgeon’s own criteria for ‘legality and constitutionality’. Because as she makes abundantly clear, she fully embraces the British state’s authority to deny our right of self-determination. Even if she does so while also insisting that she will never “allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of any Prime Minister”. See how slippery the language is?

Having stated that an “unlawful referendum” would be both undeliverable and in any case ineffectual with the purpose of contrasting this with her own proposed referendum, Sturgeon then states that her proposed referendum is undeliverable and without effect. Where is the contrast?

The proposed referendum is undeliverable by the First Minister and her government. She acknowledges as much every time she talks of negotiation with the British state. If the referendum can’t be delivered absent the consent and cooperation of the British government, then it is undeliverable as far as the First Minister is concerned. It is also identical to that “unlawful referendum” in that it has no effect. There is no direct and inevitable legal consequence. Sturgeon is making people hear that her good referendum is different from the bad referendum while being obliged to ensure that the bare words state the reality that there is not a bit of difference between them so that she has plausible deniability should she ever be pulled up about the false impression she has given. Which given our media, is admittedly unlikely to happen. But she is not stupid enough to tell an undeniable lie.

Next quote.

We must establish legal fact.

That is why, in my view, we must seek now to accelerate to the point when we have legal clarity; legal fact.

I get this a lot from those who are totally taken in by Sturgeon’s artful use of language. They usually refer to the referendum as setting a precedent. What they suppose is that it set a precedent for the Scottish Parliament authorising a proper independence referendum. Although she doesn’t use the term ‘precedent’ (I suspect there is good reason for this), the clear implication is that a favourable outcome in the case before the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) will establish in law the Scottish Parliament’s authority to hold a constitutional referendum. It does not! Even if the UKSC judgement allows the proposed referendum it is only allowing it on the basis that it will have no effect. That is the basis on which the Scottish Government is hoping to be granted a favourable finding. Its argument is that the proposed referendum cannot impinge on a reserved matter because it doesn’t impinge on anything.

The court case cannot set a precedent for something it doesn’t relate to. And it doesn’t relate to a proper constitutional referendum as defined earlier. This is, in fact, one of precious few saving graces of the First Minister’s otherwise appalling proposals. It leaves the question open as to the Scottish Parliament’s competence to hold a proper referendum. It doesn’t preclude making the case that a proper independence referendum cannot be unlawful if authorised by the democratically elected and duly mandated Scottish Parliament. Which is simply one more way in which the proposal, even if it works out, will leave us pretty much where we are now ─ but without a ‘reasonable’ way of demanding yet another referendum.

Of course, there is a general expectation that the UKSC will swat away Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals. She had to take account of this possibility in her speech.

Any notion of the UK as a voluntary union of nations is a fiction.

Any suggestion that the UK is a partnership of equals is false.

Instead we will be confronted with this reality:

No matter how Scotland votes, regardless of what future we desire for our country, the UK Government can block and overrule. The UK Government will always have the final say.

Well, duh! We already know this. It is already established fact. It is not even denied or concealed by the British political elite. So, just as winning the court takes Scotland’s cause not one millimetre closer to realisation, losing the case also gives us nothing new.

The problem here is not that “the UK Government will always have the final say” but that the First Minister accepts the superiority of the British state. She submits to that asserted authority. She cannot possibly act in defiance of that authority because she has affirmed it. She may talk defiance, but she walks abject compliance.

The First Minister’s ‘plan’ is not what you probably imagine it to be. It has absolutely nothing to do with restoring Scotland’s independence and everything to do with stringing the independence movement along by looking like it is decisive action. It simply isn’t. One more quote.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will make the positive case for independence.

We will do so with commitment, confidence and passion.

Let the opposition – if they can – make the case for continued Westminster rule.

And, then, let the people decide.

The proposed referendum doesn’t let the people of Scotland decide anything. It doesn’t produce a decision of any kind. These words are empty bluster. Whatever you’re hearing when she says this, it’s not what she’s actually saying.

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5 thoughts on “Bare words

  1. Plain as Day.

    So lets raise the stakes, oh no I actually mean lower the stakes of course, and use the much less than nuclear threat of a plebiscitory election with a less favourable electorate and a false seats/vote share dual requirement – that’ll show them to deny me a referendum. Well, I tried.

    I wonder if the only question now is at what point NS resigns and heads off into the sunset leaving the smoking wreckage of the independence cause in the capable hands of what’s his name ? That guy – you know ?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. It may be tedious but it is invaluable.

    Some people hear what they want to hear, especially the blindly loyal my party right even when wrong brigade.

    Sturgeon is not brilliantly intelligent. However, she is devious and cunning. That is the lowest form of human intelligence … at which she excels.

    It makes her very dangerous at the helm of the party of Independence.

    Just not a danger to the British.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The people of Scotland are ‘a people’ for the purposes of the right to self-determination;
    The Scottish people are therefore entitled as a matter of law to protection of their right to determine ‘their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’;
    That right is inalienable and cannot be taken away from the Scottish people; and …


  4. Good on ye for entering the Labyrinth of the Sturgotaur , P . Others have done the same and never been seen again – presumably eaten by that bull(shit)-headed human-torsoed aberration or driven insane trying – and failing – to find their way out of that maze of contradictions and false exits .

    At least now if others enter therein they’ll have the golden thread of your logic to guide them back

    Liked by 2 people

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