The message and the language

I note the now standard indignation quotes from Pete Wishart and Mhairi Black. The outrage seems very routine these days. The language has grown dull with overuse. The same stock phrases deployed for every new outrage. Had they not specified the British political elite’s proposal to gerrymander the Scottish Affairs Committee it would have been impossible to tell which iniquity the two SNP big-hitters were talking about. In short, it’s boring! Mind-numbingly boring!

I am an unabashed political anorak and proud keyboard warrior in the battle to restore Scotland’s independence. If I find these rote renderings of scandalised sensibilities ditch-water dismal imagine what effect they might have on a wider public purposefully alienated from politics and disengaged from the democratic process. I’ll tell you what effect it will have. None! Joe and Jane McPublic were switched off before either Pete Wishart or Mhairi Black opened their mouths to speak. And nothing in what was said or the way it was said was going to switch them on. They’ve heard it all before. It’s the magnolia emulsioned woodchip in the unregarded background of their lives.

Mhairi Black and Pete Wishart could be reciting the End User Licence Agreement for some Microsoft product for all the attention they’ll get from the very people who urgently need to be told what is happening.

Here’s an interesting fact! The Tories are very bad! What’s that you say? It’s not an interesting fact? Everybody in Scotland already knows this? It is actually a banal, hackneyed commonplace and not in the slightest bit interesting to anybody? Well! Colour me astounded! So, why do SNP politicians keep proclaiming the badness of the Tories as if they were imparting a novel gobbet of political wisdom? What’s the point? Who are they talking to? Won’t everybody who happens to hear them rightly assume that they’ve heard it all before and turn their attention back to the sports pages or that riveting afternoon soap opera about the everyday antics of stereotypical characters in a generic English town? Of course they will!

Nobody in Scotland needs to be told that the Tories are bad. But the Tories are not the real problem for Scotland. Anyone who imagines the constitutional situation would be much different or any better with a British Labour government in London is very naive. They might introduce some superficially progressive policies. But if history is our guide then they would do little or nothing to roll back the economically damaging and socially corrosive changes made by their dancing partners in faux rivalries foxtrot of British politics. The superficially progressive reforms would be invariably inadequate, ill-thought, badly implemented and short-lived. Most importantly, they would be intended for the benefit of communities very different from Scotland and to address issues that are not necessarily relevant to Scotland, or which call for a solution that is shaped by Scotland’s particular needs, priorities and circumstances.

Whether in government or in opposition, the policies and positions of British Labour will always be formulated to appeal to or avoid offending the relatively tiny number of voters in England who actually decide elections within the managed democracy of the UK. The very same voters who are foremost in the minds of British Tories as they develop policy. They’re both hunting the same beast. So they both use the same bait and the same traps – with different camouflage.

In Scotland – and perhaps elsewhere – the epithet ‘Red Tories’ is often used in referring to British Labour. As is often the case this is an oversimplification. It implies that British Labour is not at all different from British Tories. Self-evidently, this is not the case. There are marked differences in many policy areas, even if the difference is less apparent by the time the policies are implemented. What the term ‘Red Tories’ should be taken to mean is that as far as Scotland is concerned they might as well be the same party because both are, first, foremost and incorrigibly British parties. It’s the ‘British’ bit that matters, not the Labour or the Tory bit.

The British Tories treat Scotland with contempt, not because they are Tories, but because they are British. British Labour, being every bit as British as the British Tories, will always treat Scotland with a disdain that is barely distinguishable from the British Tories. The contempt and disdain derive from the same British exceptionalism and British nationalism in both cases. The authority for this total absence of respect is also the same – the Union!

That is what Mhairi Black and Pete Wishart and their colleagues should be talking about. And in such a forceful, forthright and emphatic a manner as might get the attention of a public afflicted with chronic ennui. People should be angry about what is happening. It is perfectly fitting that people should be angered by attempts to further reduce the influence of Scotland’s elected representatives in the English-as-British parliament. When the ruling elites of England-as-Britain make Scotland’s representatives second-class MPs they make everybody in Scotland a second-class citizen. If we cannot be roused to anger by that then we deserve all the considerable and increasing contempt that British politicians throw at us.

It is long past time that SNP politicians learned to feed the anger in order that it might energise Scotland’s cause. It is long past time they learned to make the Union the target of that anger. Instead, they urge us to put up with the insults and the threats because this will drive up support for independence. And so it should! But only if the reality is presented to people in such a way as to make them listen and force them to think. At present, the language contradicts the message. It is a powerful message. But SNP politicians suck all the power out of it by the way they speak.

This has to change. The message is both powerful and urgent. The Union is bad for Scotland, and rapidly getting worse. The Union is the problem. All the rest is mere symptoms of the Union’s malignant grip on Scotland. The people of Scotland need to know this. They need to be told this in language that leaves no room for doubt about the Union’s cancerous effect on Scotland or the threat posed to Scotland by rampant British Nationalism armed with the power of the Union. If the SNP will not make the effort to convey this critical message then the task falls to the Yes movement. And even if SNP politicians do decide to alter the tone and target of their rhetoric the Yes movement must amplify and broadcast the message so that it penetrates the heads and hearts of even the most apathetic of Scotland’s people.

It’s time to stop farting about! It’s time to get angry! It’s time to get loud and outspoken and assertive! It’s time for Scotland to rise up and demand an end to the anti-democratic iniquity of the Union! And it’s bloody high time the SNP got serious about Scotland’s predicament.

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No baby steps!

Chris McEleny is on the right track with this. But he goes neither far enough or fast enough. Holding a series of events to discuss alternative strategies would have been a great idea four or five years ago. And it might have been OK to drag things out until October and beyond if it was October 2018 we were talking about.

It’s pointless presenting Boris Johnson with an ultimatum in any case. Why would we give him a second chance to spit on Scotland? And an ultimatum only works if you have some sanction or penalty that you can impose in the event of the ultimatum not being met. What is Chris suggesting? Nicola Sturgeon goes to Johnson and says give us a Section 30 order or we’ll hold some meetings! Cough up, Sunshine, or we’ll form another group to look at ways of exploring new ideas for forums to discuss the best way to go about setting up new groups! And we’re not bluffing!

So long as the Scottish Government is committed to the Section 30 process Boris Johnson has all the power. This is not news. Some of us have been saying it for years. We warned that the Section 30 process is a trap. Nobody listened.

What else might the First Minister threaten Johnson with? Court? That’ll work. For the lawyers! They’ll get a nice payday. Boris Johnson will get a massive transfusion of smug. Nicola Sturgeon will get a faceful of smelly egg. Whatever the Scottish Government complains about all the British government has to do is point at Section 30 of the Scotland Act and remind the court that the First Minister herself called this the ‘gold standard’. They will then ask the Scottish Government’s lawyer to specify in what way they are contravening the terms of the ‘gold standard’ provision. And the lawyers will be lost for an answer. Because Boris Johnson may be an offensive arse but he hasn’t done anything illegal or unlawful. He has abided by the Section 30 rules. The ‘gold standard’!

The Scottish Government needs to do something bold. Something assertive. Something that isn’t in the British state’s book of traps and pitfalls. Chris McEleny is at least thinking outside the stultifying confines of the British box. For that, he is to be congratulated. Although this isn’t really much of a departure for him. But if you’re going to push the constitutional envelope then push it until it rips. No half measures. We don’t have time to take baby steps. We are at least three years late and 10 points behind where we should be. The gates are closing. If we are to get through them, we need to be taking giant strides.

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Spoilt for choice

Marco Biagi is, I fear, being somewhat naive if he imagines a selection contest involving Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry might be entirely divorced from the ‘party leader’ issue and the constitutional question. The former may be more spin than substance, there being no such vacancy at present. But when did lack of substance ever prevent a media myth gaining traction? The question of who will succeed Nicola Sturgeon has been released into the wild and the media pack has picked up the scent. Any chance of keeping it caged evaporated when the First Minister chose to address not only the issue of her tenure but also of her fitness for her high office – something that nobody was seriously questioning.

Given that the question is being asked – however pointlessly – and given that both contenders for the SNP candidacy in Edinburgh Central are seen as leader material – it would be remarkable if the leadership issue didn’t form part of the context of the selection process. And why should it not? It’s hardly likely that those involved in the selection process will confuse or conflate the two issues. The applicants are seeking to sell themselves to the selection committee. It’s hard to see how being leadership material could be irrelevant.

Neither Robertson nor Cherry gets a particular – some might say unfair – advantage out of this because both are regarded as potential leaders as and when the job becomes available. Each will have their supporters in that regard. But the local support will inevitably be divided anyway. To whatever extent being seen as a possible future party leader influences that support, it is only one factor among many. I think we can be certain that the question foremost in the minds of party members both within and without the constituency will be concerned with which of the two is best placed to win the seat for the SNP in 2021. Assuming, of course, that the Scottish Parliament has not been ‘suspended’ by that time.

Much the same as the foregoing can be said of the constitutional issue and the matter of the Scottish Government’s approach to that issue. Except that it is likely to loom much larger in the minds of SNP members than the non-issue of a leadership contest that isn’t even on the horizon. Joanna Cherry and Angus Robertson each have stated positions on the way the independence campaign should be progressed. It is, I think, safe to say that those positions are distinct. Without presuming to speak for either, I would say only that one is more committed to the ‘endlessly reasonable’ approach while the other is inclined to something more ‘robust’. One supposes there is a route to independence through the British political system. The other tends to suppose some form of intervention by the courts will be necessary. I shall say no more than that for fear of leaving myself open to charges of misrepresentation.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. (Or a hat in the race!) I might even be said to have a foot in both camps as I certainly favour a more ‘robust’ approach and I am persuaded that Scotland’s cause is best served by keeping the fight in the political arena rather than the courtroom. But I am fervently opposed to the Section 30 process and want an approach that is assertive rather than merely ‘robust’.

SNP members in the Edinburgh Central constituency will have their own views on the matter of how the independence campaign should be taken forward. That view is bound to influence their choice as to which potential candidate to support. Again I say, why should it not? Of course, the candidates will have to concern themselves with local issues. But neither they nor anybody else can deny that the constitutional issue exists and is increasingly important. There is no reason why the contenders’ thoughts and ideas on the subject shouldn’t be among the criteria by which they assess the people seeking to represent them in the Scottish Parliament, having taken the seat from the Tories.

As to the worries about ‘acrimony’ creeping into the campaign, that’s largely down to the two principal actors in this drama. But others, rather than getting caught up in a combative atmosphere, might want to reflect on how fortunate they are to have a choice between two people who aren’t clones churned out by a candidate factory to the strict specifications of the party leadership. Two people who differ in many significant ways but who are both equally capable of doing the job, and both equally committed to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence.

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Words like “unstoppable” suggest denial of the stark reality that the momentum of the campaign for a new independence referendum is all too easily stopped. Boris Johnson simply has to say no. And keep on saying no. As Nicola Sturgeon has amply demonstrated, there is nothing she can do about it. Or nothing she is prepared to do about it. In the unforgiving realm of realpolitik, she has calculated that progressing Scotland’s cause costs her more than stopping it costs the British Prime Minister. Which isn’t a difficult calculation given that, as I’ve pointed out many times before, saying no costs Boris Johnson absolutely nothing, and may even garner kudos from the far from small number of British Nationalists – north and south of the border – who relish few things more than a bit of Jock-bashing.

But even if Keith Brown was right; even if his claim of the campaign to have Johnson agree to a new referendum having an “unstoppable momentum” made sense, it misses the essential point that such a campaign shouldn’t even be necessary. The fact that it is proves the anti-democratic nature of the Union. It illuminates the reality that Scotland is not and never has been an equal partner in a voluntary political union. Scotland is the annexed territory of England-as-Britain. It shows, at least as clearly as does the Brexit iniquity, that the Union denies the people of Scotland the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty which is theirs by absolute right.

Comments such as Keith Brown’s and the kind of headline The National makes of it, serve only to encourage dangerous complacency and promote the ludicrous notion that we need only wait and independence will come to us. Would that Keith or at least one of his colleagues among our elected representatives had the intestinal fortitude to tell the people of Scotland the truth that if Scotland’s independence is to be restored then it will involve a major political confrontation with the British state.

The British establishment will deploy every weapon at its disposal in defence of the Union. Its armoury is formidable. The British state’s propaganda machinery alone is more effective in suppressing democratic dissent than every club-wielding police officer on the Spanish government’s payroll. The British political elite will determine the nature of the fight; indeed, has already decided how it shall be, and it will not be pleasant. It will be vicious. It will be as vicious as it needs to be.

If our political leaders do not appreciate this reality and prepare for intense political confrontation then they will fail – and we will lose. To talk of “unstoppable momentum” is to talk as if the fight was already won. It hasn’t even begun in earnest. At present, Boris Johnson is taking full advantage of the power afforded him by the First Minister’s commitment to the Section 30 process. As noted, it costs him nothing to persist in refusing the permission the First Minister seeks and is politically paralysed without. But we should not assume from this that the British government is not prepared to pay dearly for the preservation of the Union. It would be naive to assume they will hesitate to incur a heavy cost in terms of international relationships and reputation to maintain their grip on Scotland. If we are not prepared to match them blow for blow at similar cost then we will lose.

The Yes movement is powerful. It has yet to realise its potential as a political force. Only when it does will Scotland’s cause become truly unstoppable.

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Misidentifying the problem

The problem is not that “the First Minister ‘never had a Plan B’ for indyref2” but that she never had a viable Plan A. But if the obviously infeasible and now dismally failed Section 30 process was her Plan A and Kenny MacAskill wants her to try for a “consultative referendum” followed by an unspecified “Plan B” should this too fail, then surely the “consultative referendum” would then be her “Plan B” making Kenny’s unspecified “Plan B” the First Minister’s “Plan C”. I think we all know where it goes after that. How soon, I wonder, before they exhaust the alphabet. Surely not before we run out of patience.

The great mystery… Correction! ONE of the great mysteries is why the SNP is in this position in the first place. The party has existed, with the same primary purpose, for more than 80 years. Nobody could reasonably have expected them to plan ahead that far. But the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999. The SNP has been strongly represented at Holyrood since then. The party has been in government for 13 years. We had an independence referendum five years ago. You’d think at some point during all this somebody would have sat down and gamed all credible future scenarios. For the SNP to be lost for a workable plan at this stage is unbelievable and unforgivable.

This lack of a plan is even more inexplicable when one considers how few options there are. The people who put their faith in Nicola Sturgeon having some ‘Great Secret Plan’ that will be unveiled at the dramatically critical moment are putting their faith in magic. For such a plan to exist there would have to be options which nobody else is aware of. Options that only she has been able to figure out. Or she would have to magic these options into existence. The latter is, counter-intuitively, the more likely. A great many people have been looking at Scotland’s predicament, including a great many very clever people. None of them has identified a single mystery option such as would be an essential ingredient of a ‘Great Secret Plan’. There is no ‘Great Secret Plan’!

Distressing as it may be, we better all get used to the fact that what we see is all there is. And what we see is a seriously intractable situation. The kind of situation that isn’t resolved by political nous alone. The kind of political situation that calls for imagination and nerve. We all know how clever Nicola Sturgeon is. But clever won’t cut it in this instance. It doesn’t matter how politically adroit she may be, or how much knowledge of the law she can draw on if she can’t do bold, decisive and assertive. When none of the things you’d be expected to do will work, all that’s left is to do the unexpected. And do it with as much flair and brass neck as you can muster.

Forget Plans B through Z! If Plan A is to abide strictly by the British state’s rules and Plan A won’t work then it’s foolish to suppose that anything else will work that also abides strictly by the same rules. And that includes everything that has so far been suggested by anyone in a position to influence the First Minister; if such a person even exists. It’s not an alphabet’s worth of plans we need it is a single course of action that will drive the independence campaign through the maze that defeats even the smartest of politicians. Because that’s what it was designed to do.

Defiance! Not compliance! We’ve done reasonable. It’s time to do unreasonable. We’ve tried to find a key to unlock the shackles of the Union. It’s time to recognise that there is no key. The key was thrown away 307 years ago. There is no get-out clause in the Union. That’s as it was intended to be. Scotland didn’t join a political union. Scotland was annexed. It is ludicrous to expect that, in the act of annexation, the annexing power would create a provision by which the annexed territory might reverse the annexation. Nicola Sturgeon is relying on a provision that doesn’t exist.

The question is not, how do we get independence. The question is how do we end the annexation. No wonder there isn’t a plan! They don’t even know what they’re planning for! No wonder they have no relevant answers! They’re asking the wrong questions! No wonder they aren’t able to find a solution! They haven’t identified the problem!

The problem is not that the First Minister never had a Plan B. The problem is that she is not planning for the situation that actually exists.

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The leadership problem II

As a member of the party, I am perfectly content with Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP. As a citizen of Scotland, I am more than satisfied with her performance as First Minister and our nation’s political leader. As a lifelong advocate of restoring Scotland’s independence, however, I cannot in good conscience claim to have much confidence in her ability or, indeed, her readiness to provide the leadership that Scotland’s cause requires.

I’m sure Nicola Sturgeon would be the first to acknowledge that these are three quite distinct roles, each requiring a particular set of skills which, while they may often be interchangeable, are deployed differently according to the role being fulfilled. Until recently, it was my hope and expectation that the three roles could come together and be satisfactorily handled by Nicola Sturgeon. I now come to the realisation that this appears not to be the case.

Need I point out that Jackson Carlaw is slavering a load of pish? While SNP politicians will surely be found jostling for position as the ‘game’ requires, to suggest that they’re “fighting like ferrets in a sack” is plainly ridiculous. It’s the sort of risible hyperbole one would expect from a politician devoid of ideas and lacking anything meaningful to say. It’s words to fill the space between quote marks. There are primary school children in Scotland able to write a computer program that would do Carlaw’s job and cover for the other British party office managers at the same time.

There is no vacancy. Nicola Sturgeon is not likely to step down any time soon and my reading of the mood in the SNP is that there is no appetite for a leadership contest and likely little tolerance for anyone who seeks to incite one. None of which will prevent the British parties squatting in Scotland’s Parliament and the British media infesting Scotland’s culture from portraying the gentle jostling as the Mother Of All Ferret-in-sack Battles – 72-point bold three exclamation marks. Which is fine, I suppose. It’s just British Nationalists preaching to the afflicted.

There is a real issue here. But it’s not the one that the British establishment’s lackeys in politics or the press will obsess about. They will appreciate and analyse the situation in terms of the British politics that is familiar to them. The politics of two-party hegemony and competing personalities and interminable scandal. They will only be able to understand what is happening in terms of the kind of party leadership contests to which they have become accustomed. That is to say, something that combines the worst elements of The Apprentice and The Weakest Link with Paxman at his most surly, Marr at his most shallow and elements of the beauty pageant catwalk when the girlies get involved – “Prime Minister? In those shoes?”

The notion of an office which might involve several different roles is rather too complex for those accustomed to the simplicities, sound-bites and faux rivalries of British politics. The concept of politics as a contest of ideas is only dimly remembered by the oldest among British political commentators. Their juniors having never seen politics more sophisticated than a Hogarth cartoon.

There is no leadership battle in the SNP. Nor is there likely to be in the near future. Although this comes with all the usual caveats about a week being a long time in politics etc. What is developing, however, is a contest for leadership of the independence movement. Or, more precisely, an increasing acknowledgement of how urgently the independence movement needs leadership combined with a growing realisation that it’s not coming from Nicola Sturgeon.

We don’t have time to interview candidates. We will not be appointing a leader. The necessary leadership will emerge. Hopefully, we will recognise it when it does.

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The telling phrase

I read a large number of newspaper and blog articles every day as well as a great deal of research material and far more below-the-line and social media comments than can possibly be good for me. As I read – and particularly when reading what politicians write and say – I’m always looking for the telling phrase. The bit that says something significant. Often, there’s nothing. Occasionally, there’s so much that it becomes difficult to prioritise the texts and chose which may be worth commenting on. Mostly, it’s possible to find something that I consider meaningful, even if it can be difficult to convince others of the fact.

Not for anything like the first time, the telling phrase in this report comes from Joanna Cherry. Arguably more than any of our other elected representative, and certainly more than Angus Robertson, Joanna Cherry has a propensity for offering the kind of insights that we hope for from our politicians. One such may readily have been taken for a throwaway remark. The kind of phatic rhetorical filler that politicians deploy when they are trying to run down the clock to deny an opponent the chance to speak or an interviewer the opportunity to ask what might be an awkward question. Others may consider it a statement of the obvious. In fact, it is an acute and extremely important observation which highlights a truth that is not widely enough recognised. She says,

[T]he movement for Scotland to be an independent European nation can only be realised from Holyrood…

That’s it! That’s a key point. Scotland’s independence will be restored by way of Scotland’s Parliament. Not consequent to the intervention of any external agency such as the EU or the UN. Not through the ponderously grinding mill of the courts. Certainly not courtesy of the Wicked Step-mother of all Parliaments. Only by way of action in and by the Scottish Parliament will the aspiration to normalise Scotland’s constitutional status be realised.

This should be axiomatic. Holyrood has exclusive democratic legitimacy in Scotland. Only the Scottish Parliament can truly claim to speak and act for Scotland’s people. When you think about it, it’s plainly apparent that if Scotland’s people are to assert their sovereignty then it can only be through the Parliament elected by Scotland’s people. When jealous Britannia says ‘No’ through her worm-tongued mouthpieces in Westminster and Whitehall, how shall Scotland’s people defy the arrogant, grasping crone but through their own democratic institutions?

Joanna Cherry sees this. Perhaps Angus Robertson does too. But while he was making sly, petty comments about her availability, Joanna was the one who gave us the telling phrase.

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