Yesterday I did something quite unusual for me. I re-blogged an article from another site. I very seldom do this because I rarely encounter articles that I consider warrant republishing. When I find what I reckon to be a piece worthy of wider notice, I share it and link to it. This is what I hope people do with my contributions, so I assume it suits other bloggers just as well. The article I re-blogged is authored by Sara Salyers, who may be known to you from her work with the Scottish Sovereignty Research Group (SSRG). The Remedy for All that’s Wrong is well worth reading for the issues that Sara explores and the manner in which she does so. But there is another and arguably more important reason for highlighting Sara’s article. It is as least as important for the fact that it explores rarely examined aspects of the constitutional issue as it is for the actual content. It is different. It is coming at the issue from an alternative angle. It is thinking out of the stultifying box of what I have termed the Sturgeon doctrine. We really, really need this!
It is not my intention to ‘review’ Sara’s article in any detail. I hope others will read it and be inspired to try a bit of fresh thinking for themselves. I will say only that I’m not convinced that Sara offers a “remedy” that is relevant to the malaise afflicting this nation. Not because that remedy is likely to be ineffective, but because it cannot be fast-acting enough to rescue Scotland from the rampant disease of British Nationalism combined with the extraordinary ineptitude and maliciousness of the present British government. Scotland’s predicament is such that it must be addressed as a matter of urgency. This is where most (all) of the alternative routes to independence fail. We need action now! If the time-frame of any suggested “remedy” extends beyond a year then it is, for various reasons, disqualified as a candidate for serious consideration as a way forward.
This is most definitely not to say that the work done by Sara Salyers is without value to Scotland’s cause. Regular readers will be aware that I often refer to the impossibility of finding a route to independence through the legal and constitutional framework that has developed under the influence of the British ruling elites’ imperative to preserve the Union. It’s not that there’s just a single law saying the Union is permanent and cannot even be questioned ─ as per the Spanish constitution and the implications it has for Catalonia’s independence movement. The legal and constitutional framework to which I refer is less an impenetrable barrier than a collection of obstacle, impediments, hindrances and entanglements which in principle could be navigated ─ making it possible to claim that a democratic route to independence exists ─ but which in practice acts more like that impenetrable barrier.
The work done by Sara Salyers and by SSRG as well as the likes of Tim Rideout and Richard Murphy and even Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp and many, many others all has value even if none of it provides a solution. It all has value in that it contributes to a ‘framework’ somewhat analogous to that referred to above. Whatever the solution is, it will benefit from being armoured against inevitable British Nationalist attacks with plates of solid research and well-constructed academic arguments. Just so long as we don’t mistake that research and those arguments for the actual solution. The ‘framework’ of research and academic argument is there to protect the solution much as the ‘framework’ of British law and constitutional contrivance protects the Union.
The immediate worth of contributions such as Sara’s is, as I said earlier, the fact it represents the kind of novel, explorative thinking that has been all but entirely snuffed out within the SNP. The is the Sturgeon doctrine, and nothing else. Nothing else can be discussed within the party. The very suggestion of an alternative approach is enough to get one branded a traitor to the cause. This effective prohibition on discussion of possible alternative approaches was never better exemplified than when Chris McEleny was harangued by elements of the party conference audience in 2019.His ‘crime’ was to propose a possible ‘Plan B’ to fall back on should the Sturgeon doctrine prove as ineffective in the coming months as it has been since she became SNP leader and First Minister and de facto head of the independence movement. An incident which, for all it involved a relatively tiny clique of Sturgeon loyalists, remains a shameful stain on the SNP which has not been made any less shameful by Sturgeon’s later adoption of something barely distinguishable from Chris McEleny’s ‘Plan B’.
Chris is no longer a member of the SNP, of course. He left to help launch Alba Party. A move which I hazard to presume was prompted by the effective (and strangely ironic) ban on independent thinking within the SNP at least as much as anything else. I’m not entirely sure that there isn’t a frying pan/fire situation here. Alba’s supporters are no less intolerant of ‘others’ than SNP loyalists. And while there may be more room for free thinking and open debate within Alba, I am less than impressed by the product. Alba may be a tad more radical it its vision of of Scotland being independent, when it comes to offering a solution that properly addresses the practicalities of becoming independent, it scores no higher than the SNP.
Chris McEleny’s partner in the ‘crime’ of suggesting a ‘Plan B’ back in 2019 was Angus Brendan MacNeil MP. Angus chose to remain in the SNP. A perfectly legitimate choice. And one that I personally am very glad he made. Because Angus has since shown himself to be that rare thing indeed ─ a ‘person of consequence’ within the SNP who is prepared to toe the party line on the constitutional issue only in the sense of giving it a bit of a kick from time to time. Something he does today with a column in The National (Why we should hold a Holyrood election as a vote on independence).
In his article, Angus is gently but pointedly critical of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘plan’ to use a UK general election as a de facto referendum on whether she should yet again go to the British Prime Minister pleading for a Section 30 order. Not an independence referendum, as advertised. Neither the proposed October 2023 referendum nor the ‘Plan B’ de facto referendum would contribute anything meaningful to Scotland’s cause. Neither would bring us any closer to independence. But Angus deftly avoids the controversy caused by pointing out these truths choosing instead to criticise the Sturgeon doctrine in less provocative terms.
Given that the referendum route is 99% dead and the Westminster election route is not about to be gifted by the Tories, does Holyrood act positively or dither on the sidelines, moaning about the battering from the coming clearly predicted dark economic storms on the population?
Ultimately, it is down to collective choices and leadership to make the weather. The alternative is the anxiety of missed opportunity and continuing with passive coping strategies – such as asking Westminster to gift us an election, please.
He should, of course, have specified that it is the Section 30 referendum route which is “99% dead”. Although that would be a risibly optimistic diagnosis. I continue to maintain that there must be a referendum. Only a binary constitutional referendum can stand as a decisive exercise of our right of self-determination. A plebiscitary election is a poor substitute at best. As Angus points out quite forcefully, using a UK general election as a de facto referendum is a very bad idea. Such a bad idea that the failure to challenge it makes senior figures in the SNP leadership look like timid lapdogs too fearful to speak up least they provoke the wrath of their ‘mistress’. It is to Angus Brendan MacNeil’s great credit that he is prepared to put his head above the parapet as he has with today’s article as well as earlier statements.
Angus MacNeil is clearly able to think for himself and is prepared to give voice to his thoughts. Would it be overly optimistic to hope that the out-of-the-box thinking of someone who has status within the party of government might somehow link to the fresh perspectives being offered by people like Sara Salyers? Would it be naïve to suppose that Angus’s relatively gentle prodding might become the virtual arse-kicking the SNP leadership so urgently needs? Could we be approaching a tipping point at which the voices of dissent from the Sturgeon doctrine become too many and too loud for even our First Minister to ignore?
Or am I clutching at straws? I find so little cause for hope in the way the constitutional issue is being handled under Nicola Sturgeon’s direction that I gladly seize on anything that might be taken as a sign that the independence movement as a whole might yet be awakened to the reality of Scotland’s predicament before it’s too late. Who will join with Angus Brendan MacNeil in at least subjecting the Sturgeon doctrine to normal scrutiny ─ however belatedly? Could Angus MacNeil turn out to be the point around which the independence movement coalesces?
Can Scotland be saved?
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15 thoughts on “Out of the box”
Spot on again, Peter. I think that Sara’s contribution, Salvo’s, SSRG’s and others’, would be best reserved for international law and to run parallel to domestic political effort on the independence front. No, a plebiscitary election is useless if it is only asking for permission for a referendum, and of no more actual use that a S30 Order request for a referendum, neither of which would actually decide anything, but simply be another referendum to decide a referendum. Utterly pointless.
The only way a plebiscitary election could possibly work is, if, on winning a majority of seats or votes (not both, and not at 60% + either), we moved directly to a declaration of independence. That would mean that we have to trust the SNP, if it’s to be another version of SNP 1 & 2, to deliver immediately following the election win, or we have a loose alliance of all independence interests and consider them together as a win for independence. The electorate would need to be informed in advance, of course, for political legitimacy.
The SNP will never agree to the latter, not with Sturgeon still at the helm, and I would not trust her one iota to deliver the former either, and not just another useless mandate or cringing request for a S30 Order referendum. She will never take the decisive action that is required. Her entire focus is on SNP survival, and not just survival, but hegemony, in Scotland. In the event of winning a plebiscitary election, nothing less than a unilateral declaration of independence would suffice thereafter, because Westminster/Whitehall will not agree to a bi-lateral independence declaration.
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Not much to argue with there. Except for the fact that where you se a grand conspiracy I see no more than ordinary politics playing out. And I have t say yet again that if you’ve given up on the current Scottish Government and First Minister taking the action necessary to restore our independence then you’ve almost certainly given up on Scotland’s cause. Barring some development I would struggle to imagine, action will either be taken before the next UK general election or we will be hit with imposed constitutional ‘reform’ that will make restoring Scotland’s independence functionally impossible.
It’s all about effective political power. It is effective political power which translates the strength of a movement into actual change. That effective power lies in the hands of the party of government. The party of government in Scotland is the SNP. That is not going to change before the next UK general election. These are the facts. Work it out from there.
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No, Peter, I don’t see a grand conspiracy. I see a government that has put its own long-term survival before the well-being in the longer term of the people. If that government will never do as you expect it to do, as it was elected to do, what is the answer? It is no different from the Tories: they need to start at the bottom and work up to make the changes necessary for anything to work; they won’t, ergo no change. The SNP is a party in thrall to forces much bigger than independence or the Westminster government. All politicians have surrendered to the influence of neoliberalism and corporatism, and that includes those of the SNP, so they are going to do nothing that opposes that in any meaningful way. I’m sorry, but I have lost all faith in people like Angus Brendan, Joanna Cherry, et al. The removal of Nicola Sturgeon and her immediate cohort will achieve very little because the SNP is riddled from top to bottom with neoliberal corporatists and ideologues like her. In that, they are no different from all the mainstream parties.
I remember speaking to a number of WW II veterans, and they all said the same thing: “… when the war ended, we were absolutely determined not to return to the same old politics. We wanted something different … ” Out of that was born the welfare state, social housing on a scale never before envisioned, education for all, not just the few and the means to go to university for those from the bottom rungs of the societal ladder who had the ability, universal transport, the opening up of the job market, and so. It was the first time that the Tories were forced into compliance, and, for the majority, these were good times, even if we were not particularly well-off as individuals or as families. Our society was as whole and cohesive as it has ever been for a few short years. That is the Scotland I want for my grandchildren.
We have returned, with the collaboration and collusion of politicians from every party, to the same old class structures and constrictions since Thatcher. The SNP has bought into this social and economic illusion, and that, more than anything else, is the reason that they will never, as things stand with Nicola Sturgeon and her cohort at the helm, push for independence. From that point of view, independence is a mirage cleverly made to appear a real, attainable goal while they keep on ensuring that it is just out of reach. Alf Baird is so right in his analysis. The SNP, as both a party and as individual politicians within that party, have too much invested in the status quo to do what it will take.
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An election, by definition, cannot be a plebiscite. They are two different things. It is quite common for people to stand for election on single issues, but no-one would claim it is a plebisite because there will always be other people who aren’t.
Hence the psuedo-whatever / de facto-whatever language. It’s equally valid to call the idea a bogus referendum.
I would imagine that a ‘cost of living crisis? Nae policy but Independence!’ etc, campaign has great potential to be disasterously comical, but if it did gain any traction the only result would be to put pressure on the UK government to OK another referendum.
Mr E: an election could fairly easily be a plebiscitary election if the SNP stands on the platform of a win for all independence parties’ votes and/or seats would trigger an automatic declaration of independence. This has actually been recognised as valid and legitimate by successive Westminster regimes till very recently. Do remember that the SNP has (as do all the other independence parties and interests) independence as its core policy and that is its raison d’être, or at least, again, was until fairly recently. Now, it is more difficult to be sure. If you are going to prevent the SNP or any independence party from campaigning on its core policy, then you must do exactly the same for every other party – if they win, they will not be allowed to put their core policy into operation. Cue chaos.
Incidentally, why would they have just one policy? Independence would be the core policy and so long as the electorate understood that, what is the problem? Plebiscitary elections are neither illegal in the UK nor uncommon elsewhere. Of course there’s a cost of living crisis – thanks to the Tory core policies of Brexit and ‘enrich ourselves and our mates at everyone else’s expense’. That is why Scotland is in such dire straits, but., hey, we haven’t suffered enough yet, eh, and have no right to object to the suffering? Our rightful resources have been stolen from under us with no benefit to us, and you have the gall to suggest our escape route is comical!
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Look it up in a dictionary Lorna.
First of all, Lorna, I should remind you that NOTHING which threatens the Union would EVER be “recognised as valid and legitimate” by NY Westminster government, regardless of ANYTHING that might have been said beforehand. One of the more valuable insights to come from evaluating the 2014 referendum in the light of what has happened since is recognising that the referendum was NOT destined to lead to independence. There is not now the slightest doubt that Cameron would have wiped his arse with the Edinburgh Agreement had there been a Yes vote. The British are perfectly capable of claiming to be respecting a formal agreement whilst proceeding as if it didn’t exist.
Recognising this must inform our thinking in various ways. We must suppose that a new referendum that’s just like the old referendum will be of no use to us at all. We need a very different referendum. We must further suppose that the difference must include the decisiveness of the new referendum. It must be formulated in such a way as to produce not merely a result but a decision. The referendum must have direct legal consequences that are tightly defined from the outset. If there is a Yes vote, then this happens.
The referendum must be recognisable as a formal exercise of our right of self-determination. It must be conclusive. It must end the matter. when the votes are cast and counted, there ceases to be a ‘constitutional question’. That question will have been answered in a manner that cannot be denied.
A plebiscitary election can never offer this conclusiveness. Or rather, it is one of these things that might work in principle but almost certainly won’t work in practice. It would work in principle only if all parties to the vote were agreed that it is to be a plebiscite. And if all parties honoured that agreement. In reality, it would be just too easy for the British to create doubt about the process and/or the outcome. All it would take would be for the British parties to choose to fight the election with little or no mention of the constitutional issue. With some other issue ─ let’s say reform of the tax/benefit system ─ were to be placed front and centre in the election campaign, then it could very reasonably be claimed afterwards that it was impossible to say with the necessary degree of certainty that people had voted on the constitutional issue.
Creating a lack of conclusiveness would be simplicity itself for the British state given the fact that it would be able to call on 99% of the media to assist. And it would be easier still if it was a UK election rather than a Scottish one. Which is part of the idiocy of Sturgeon’s ‘plan’.
As ever, we come back to the need for the vote to satisfy certain criteria in order that it will stand firm as the exercise of our right of self-determination. And election pretending to be a referendum cannot satisfy those criteria. The vote must be binary and the options must be distinct, defined and deliverable.
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Sorry, Peter, meant to add: a Holyrood election now would mean disaster for the SNP. They might not be voted out, but their strength would be cut dramatically, so angered are many of the electorate against the policies being introduced, basically without proper scrutiny. Many people vote SNP for the free prescriptions, et al, who would never support independence, as we discovered in 2014. Many women have been alienated, too. The SNP has done this to itself – or, rather, it is the greatest ploy if you want to continue in office without ever putting an independence vote to the test.
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I have to agree that an extraordinary Scottish general election comes with great risks. Which means, of course, the Sturgeon has legitimate justification for not making such a move.
I think it is more of a risk than a general election because, if the SNP grip on power in Scotland falls, and ALBA or any other means to get to independence is not strong enough, it is the end for the foreseeable. They have us over a barrel, and I loathe them for it, for what they have done to our cause and our country and our people, and all for personal/party gain and/or the total lack of a spine. They are mainly devolutionists and should not be at the helm of a party of independence. It is going to take a miracle for them to change tack now.
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MacNeil is a man o independent mind, a rare sight in the SNP these days . He was one of the reasons my backside was riddled with splinters before I got off the fence and left the SNP. I felt that when there was folk of his calibre still batting , there was a hope of the party becoming less oligarchic. All strength to his elbow.
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Aye. I’ll confess that I thought Angus a bit of a lightweight. As I know from my own experience, if you’re attractive and personable people tend to suppose those are your only or main qualities. If you have some charisma, folk tend to think it’s charisma alone that carries you. I openly admit that I misjudged Angus. There’s more to the man that a winning smile and a charming manner. Me? I have to make do with being handsome and sociable.
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Your modesty does you much credit . You mentioned clutching at straws . I prefer to think it’s reeds not straws that are in the wind . Remember Thor Hyrrdalh , his Kont-tiki was made of reeds and he crossed oceans .
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I like Angus Brendan, Joanna Cherry and others in the SNP on a personal level, Peter, but, until yesterday’s GRA reform debate, few had shown any inclination to actually rebel against the party’s diktat. I always knew that this issue would divide them far more than the lack of movement on independence, but yesterday, the cracks in the dam appeared and it’s leaking just a bit in several places. The second stage of this legislation could see the dam bursting and independence come to the fore again, even if Sturgeon tightens the reins and plasters over the cracks. Yesterday showed that she is neither omnipotent nor immortal (in the political longevity stakes) and there will be others (they know who they are) watching and waiting. Sometimes, politicians and vultures have much in common. Och, I like your curmudgeonly side, Peter. It is a badge of honour and a right of passage for the older members of society. Shows you’ve lived long enough to see through the b******s and to say so without feeling beholden to social conventions.
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Would not disagree with any of that lorncal. Vultures? weel here’s a thocht, they’ll be a lang wye fae starvation wi the political carrion currently heaped aboot Holyrood.
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