Well played!

Dominic Cummings has been in receipt of a fair few epithets over the past few days. I’d like to add another – brilliant! This does not in any way detract or deflect from the many less complimentary names he’s been called. It is simply to acknowledge the rather evident fact that as well as living down to any or all of the unflattering ways he’s been described, Dom is a very clever individual.

Perhaps ‘cunning’ is a better word. And it has the benefit of the kind of alliteration so beloved of tabloid headline writers. In fact, I’d be surprised if ‘Cunning Cummings’ hasn’t already been used. Another contender might be ‘calculating’. It must be allowed that ‘Calculating Cummings’ is not quite as euphonious as my first choice, and it breaches the tabloid editorial guideline which stipulates that, unless they are scientific or technical terms currently in common usage – such as coronavirus, words of more than seven letters or three syllables should appear only in the ‘Brain-teaser’ crossword puzzle. But it has the advantage of being accurate. Dom Cummings gives the impression of being an exceptionally calculating individual. He has a habit of calculating correctly.

Before I’m sentenced on the fly to a thorough birching, stoning and/or burning for failure to join in the ‘Two Minute Hate’ with sufficient spittle-spraying enthusiasm let me just point out that if I seem to admire Dom Cummings it is only in the context of his work as a political technician. I don’t know him in any other capacity. Which apparently is no impediment to passing judgement on the man in all of his capacities, but I’m only talking about him as a special adviser (SPAD) to the British Prime Minister, Boris F Johnson. And in that capacity he is certainly distinguishing himself.

How long did Catherine Calderwood last under similar circumstances. Or Professor Neil Ferguson? And yet Cummings has managed to engineer a situation in which him resigning could arguably do more damage to the British government than him holding out. He has contrived to put himself front and centre while his boss isn’t even standing in the wings but is already out of the building and on his way to the pub. His press conference yesterday was a masterly piece of political theatre. It resolved nothing. It answered no questions. But it fogged the glass through which his guilt was being viewed just enough to let a few of his friends in the right places suggest he should be given the genuine benefit of the ersatz doubt. Brilliant!

Everything about Cummings’s performance in the afternoon sunshine yesterday was cleverly calculated. Even the fact that it was staged in the open air. Cummings knows that he is not particularly photogenic and that the TV lights do him no favours. Sunshine is his second-best friend some way behind total darkness. Sunshine says happy. Sunshine says normal. Sunshine says the things he wanted said. So did the plain white, open-necked shirt. He was playing it as the ordinary family man sitting in his back garden enjoying a bit of relief from lockdown. Just like everybody does or would like to do. If he could have got away with it he’d have had kids playing football or splashing in a brightly coloured inflatable paddling pool as a backdrop. Even absent that nice touch, the setting took the politics out of the occasion as much as possible.

Timing is everything. Actually, it isn’t. If it was, what’s the point of all that stuff about costume and scenery? But timing is certainly important. Timing in the sense of scheduling the show right before the daily coronavirus briefing and so having a perfect excuse to end the thing at any point. Timing in the sense of turning up late so as to build expectation, cut to a minimum the amount of time left for questions and, not least, demonstrate that he is an important man doing important work for an even more important personage at a time of national crisis. Brilliant!

Cummings’s communication skills were also on display. He was attempting that trick of appearing forthright while saying nothing. Looking like he’s opening up while revealing nothing. Striking that balance between authority and humility. Being neither this nor that so that it is as easy to describe him as that as it is to describe him as this. Saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing. Being nobody is better than being the wrong person. Leave a tabula rasa and let the professional manipulators of public opinion do their work after the fact.

Don’t try to look innocent. Go for looking the right kind of guilty. Confess a little to conceal a lot. Leave the scent of apology in the air and let other’s imagine its source and subject. Say nothing notable or quotable on the matter under scrutiny. Save all the best lines for the alternative story. Don’t do a Tony Blair! He played a similar character under director Alastair Campbell but just came across as false and smarmy. Blair didn’t commit to role the way Dom Cummings knew he had to. The acting shouldn’t show. The audience only gets to see behind the curtain when exposing what’s behind the curtain is in the script. The emperor is too busy saving and protecting his people to be bothered with getting laced into his finest robes, but here’s a wee peek inside his wardrobe. SPAD’s are not supposed to be visible to the public. It must be true/real because we’re not really supposed to see this. Brilliant!

Dom Cummings handles situations. He plans several moves ahead. He sees where all the pieces of the puzzle go. Something made it imperative that he travel to Durham. He had to assume this would come out. He planned accordingly. Whatever it was that really compelled him to make that trip, he had to know the risks. Except he didn’t see them as risks. He was confident he could cope with the situation. And so far he has done just that.

You may not like the actors or approve of the action. But you have to admit that the acting is brilliant.

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Method in madness

Nicola Sturgeon: Boris Johnson is putting himself before the public

Back in February in an article far to cleverly titled ‘Welcome to Borissia‘ I observed that “The combination of Boris Johnson and Dom Cummings may be revolting, but it is revoltingly successful.” Nothing that has happened in the weeks and months since has given me any cause to revise this opinion. It can happen that people are so focused on the awfulness of what is being done they fail to recognise the skill and expertise involved. In terms of the efficiency with which they commit their crimes even murderers can be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Time can lend a more open-minded perspective. I dare say that 75 years ago it would have cause at least the raising of a few eyebrows to acknowledge how well-served the Nazi regime was by its Minister of Propaganda. Today, it is a commonplace to refer to Joseph Goebbels as a master of his art and science. One should not rely too heavily on this relaxed objectivity, however. I seem to recall that as recently as 2007 Brian Ferry (Roxy Music) got himself into a spot of bother when he expressed an admiration for the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, Albert Speer’s buildings and the iconography of Nazi regalia. This didn’t make Ferry a Nazi any more than my fondness for the art of Soviet-era posters makes me a Communist. But people are ever ready for a fresh hate-figure at whom they can vent their righteous indignation in an exercise that is invariably futile by which can be easily mistaken for the exercise of power.

Recognising the fact that Boris Johnson has a habit of getting pretty much everything he wants doesn’t make me a Tory. Noting the part played by Dom Cummings in this record of success doesn’t mean I admire or approve of the things done or the methods used. It is simply to acknowledge the reality.

Think about it! If they hadn’t been so successful there would have been less reason to despise them.

It would be interesting and illuminating to analyse the reasons for this success. As with Better Together in the 2014 referendum campaign there are lessons to be learned from the winners. Not necessarily examples to emulate. But ideas that might inform a more worthy campaign than that which so grievously deceived the people of Scotland. This is not the place for such an analysis. I will mention only one thing that I have noted about the way Boris Johnson and Dom Cummings operate that seems to contribute to their success. Something relevant to the current stooshie about the latter and the response of the former to presumably facetious demands for the latter’s scalp.

It seems to me that when faced with such demands , the ‘Cummings Method’ is not to ask how the baying mob may be placated and said stooshie abated but to ask whether there is actually a need to do anything. I can very easily imagine Cummings asking his ‘boss’ one question – can they force you to sack me? I can hear him explain that if there is no way anybody can force his sacking then to sack him would be a sign of weakness. If you don’t have to do what your opponents want you to do, don’t!

I’m not exactly struggling to find lessons in this approach which might serve our First Minister well.

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Geese and witches

What is sauce for the Dom Cummings goose is sauce for the Sarah Smith gander. OK! That doesn’t quite work. But you take my point. Or rather I don’t accept Ruth Wishart’s. Which is that the two individuals in question are very different and the misdeeds under discussion cannot be compared. I disagree.

I will not be joining any witch-hunt against either of these people. Hounding public figures for sport is an activity which tends to reveal more about the hounds than their prey. And none of it flattering. How quickly holding to account descends into an undignified scrabble for scraps of scalp. But I look at the incidents which have made both Cummings and Smith the story rather than the story-teller and I see the same phenomenon. I see words and actions which betray a particular mindset. A mindset which the furore would suggest is an affront to the public’s sensibilities.

Even the mindsets revealed are fundamentally similar. In both these cases – and, I’d hazard, in most such cases – it is about entitlement. This may be most apparent, even explicit, in the case of Cummings. But is Sarah Smith really so different? Cummings exhibits the attitude of someone who considers himself part of an elite. The privileges afforded that elite he regards as no more than his due. Not privilege at all, really. No more than the trappings of the status he has earned entirely by his own skill and effort. His actions were not misjudged. They were judged in relation to a particular estimation of his status. There was, according to his mindset, no mismatch between what he did and what he is entitled to do.

Neither is it accurate to describe as an error of judgement Sarah Smith’s comment about Nicola Sturgeon enjoying the political opportunities of the current public health crisis. She didn’t choose the wrong word. She chose the word which she considered appropriate. To the very limited extent that she has expressed regret it is not for saying something inappropriate but for too clearly revealing what she considers is appropriate. What she said reveals that underlying sense of entitlement every bit as much as what Cummings did. Even her response when pressed reveals the same disdain for the opinions of others.

The problem is not that what Smith said was wrong or that what Cummings did was wrong, but that what each said or did is NOT wrong according to the mores and standards of the culture in which they both are immersed – the culture of entitlement. If their words and deeds are considered unacceptable then removing them from their positions will resolve nothing. Because only people with that sense of entitlement will fit in that position. The culture requires it.

Hunting witches is ultimately pointless because the culture which produces witch hunters must also produce witches to be hunted. If you are offended by either or both witches and witch hunters then you must change the culture, not the actors within it. And if you are powerless to change the culture – perhaps because it’s not yours to change – then your only option is to separate yourself from that culture in favour of something more amenable.

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Conveniently unchangeable

Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.

George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell can always be relied on for a thought-provoking quote. It’s many, many years since I read The Road to Wigan Pier, so I can’t claim to have any recollection of this little aphorism. I encountered it in some corner of the web that I wandered into on one of my virtual sojourns. Don’t ask me where. But it must have made an impression because it was still rattling about in my head a couple of days later. Almost as if it was nagging me for attention. So I’m giving it some that was going spare.

Having given it some thought I think I now know why these words lodged so stubbornly in my mind. It will hardly surprise anyone to hear that for “revolutionary opinion” I immediately read “restoration of Scotland’s independence”. I reckon advocating the abolition of the Union counts as a revolutionary opinion. Unionists certainly seem to think of it as such. But it was this idea of such views drawing strength from futility that I found simultaneously intriguingly counter-intuitive and strangely familiar. The feeling that it should be wrong, but isn’t.

I know it isn’t wrong because it relates to something in my own experience. Something I’d been puzzling about in some nook or cranny of my cluttered mind for some time. When no less a figure than George Orwell urges you to drag a thought out into the light for a bit of scrutiny, what else can you do?

In fact it didn’t take much scrutiny to figure out why this quote spoke to me as it did. For some time there’s been something curious going on in the minds of some Yes activists. I refer to the people who believe they are part of something which has the power to transform Scotland having defeated the efforts of the British state to preserve the Union. People, moreover, who reckon they can manipulate the voting system so as to win list seats and do something useful for the independence campaign once in Holyrood. These are people endowed with an uncommon belief in themselves. People convinced that they possess powers extending to the borders of the supernatural.

However, suggest to these people that they might usefully apply this power to restoring the essential political arm of the independence movement and mighty is the scoffing. Can’t be done! They won’t listen! They’ll never change! The only thing that distinguishes their conviction that nothing can be changed from that referred to by George Orwell is that it is far from secret. They’ll proclaim the inherent incorrigibility and innate immutability of the SNP leadership at the drop of a Tweet. They will reject outright any possibility of altering by so much as the proverbial bawhair the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. And do so at the same time as insisting they can take a new party from a standing start to somewhere over 10% of the vote in a single election. All as part of a project which aims to do nothing less than save an entire nation from the scourge of rabid British nationalism.

Am I the only one who sees a contradiction here?

What Orwell’s insight did was start me wondering whether there might be some kind of positive, constructive tension in this contradiction. Even if it was no more than the kind of cussed contrariness which bids people of a certain character to defy the odds. Could the ‘cunning plans’ of the list parties be drawing strength from a conviction that nothing can ever change the SNP? Or is it more likely that they have found it necessary to convince themselves of the absolute intransigence of the SNP leadership in order to rationalise their ‘cunning plans’ to game the voting system? Plans which only make sense if the SNP isn’t part of the calculation.

I think Eric Blair (George Orwell) was on the right track, but slightly wide of the mark. Revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength not from the conviction that nothing can change, but from the expedient conviction that alternatives to that revolutionary opinion are infeasible. If one has set upon a particular position or course of action – or ‘cunning plan’ – then it is rather convenient to hold the view that competing positions and alternative courses of action are unworthy of consideration.

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All my lockdown days

As you may have guessed, there’s supposed to be a count-up displayed here. It works in the WordPress preview. It doesn’t work when up loaded. I might try and fix it.

I entered lockdown on Friday 20 March 2020. I have not left the house since that date. I find no compelling reason to ever leave the house again. I did think about doing a ‘lockdown diary’. But it would have been a very boring document indeed as nothing much changes from one day to the next. Why should it? I’m sure I’m not alone in having reached a point where I think less about getting life back to the way it was before and more about what aspects of this life I’d like to keep. In my case, the answer is all of it.

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Democratic dilemma

One person, one vote! The majority rules! That’s democracy! That’s all there is to it. Isn’t it? Anoraks like myself may insist that there is more to democracy than this. But ask a hundred people chosen at random from Scotland’s electorate what democracy is and those two things will feature most prominently in their responses. We each get one vote and when all the votes are counted the highest number wins. There might be the occasional mention of popular sovereignty. Maybe the odd reference to ultimate political authority or democratic legitimacy. But, for the most part, people will tend most commonly to reach for those to things as the essential attributes of democracy. One person, on vote! The majority rules! That’s democracy.

But it’s not always that simple. While it’s true that we each get one vote and in that sense we’re all equal, it is also true that some votes count for more than others. We are equal in strict numerical terms, but not equal in terms of the effect of the one vote that each of us has. The first past the post (FPTP) system is notorious for affording disproportionate influence to a relatively tiny number of ‘swing voters’. At every election, individuals and groups seek to enhance the relative value of their votes by means of diverse ‘tactical voting’ strategies. If you live in any part of the UK that isn’t England, it’s likely that your vote could be worthless. Arithmetic and the Union make it so.

Look at any political or electoral map of the UK and, unless you’re very seriously prejudiced, you’ll see that Scotland is different. The outcome of the 2016 EU referendum nicely illustrates the situation. Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted differently from England (with Wales). Scotland voted Remain. England voted leave. Scotland’s vote counted for nothing, Regardless of which way you voted, if you voted in Scotland (or Northern Ireland) your vote had no value. It had no effect.

Political science lecturer Sean Swan summed up the situation rather well. In an article for the London School of Economics back in March 2017 he observed,

Scotland’s position within the UK is intolerable. Under the British constitution, it is irrelevant that 57 of Scotland’s 59 MPs are opposed to Brexit; irrelevant that Scotland voted two to one against Brexit; and irrelevant that Brexit is opposed by the parliament and government of Scotland. Regardless of whether or not there is a majority in favour of outright independence, the status quo reduces democracy in Scotland to a mockery in which neither (Scottish) popular nor (Scottish) parliamentary sovereignty apply.

A democratic outrage: Scotland’s constitutional position and Brexit

Brexit is one example of how the Union devalues democracy in those parts of the UK which are peripheral to England-as-Britain. It is by no means the only such example. The instances of Scotland’s votes being discounted are too numerous to relate. Those maps clearly indicate that Scotland is already separate from England-as-Britain in all sorts of ways. The needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s voters differ markedly from those of England-as-Britain. In Scotland, the way we vote reflects this difference. But the only time our votes count – the only time they have any apparent effect – is on those increasingly rare occasions when our preferences happen to coincide with the preferences of a majority of voters in England-as-Britain. Failing that, our votes don’t count. Whatever we vote for, what we get is what a different country votes for.

But supposing the EU vote was the only instance of Scotland’s vote being ignored, it would be enough. Only a single instance is necessary to demonstrate the fact that the Union is ant-democratic. A thing is anti-democratic if it so much as has the potential to deny a fundamental principle of democracy. If there is any democratic principle that the Union doesn’t at least have the potential to deny then I have been unable to discover it. If further proof of this were needed then we need only look to the way the Union asserts for the political elite of England-as-Britain legal authority to veto Scotland’s right of self-determination.

As tyrants know and totalitarian states demonstrate, control of certain aspects of the life of a nation is equivalent to control of all aspects of the nation’s life. Lip service may be paid to democracy by honouring the principle of one person, one vote even as genuine democracy is denied by the differential weighting of those individual votes.

Similarly, the idea of majority rule becomes less clear-cut when there is the capacity – or the potential – to alter the definition of a majority. If majority is a shifting concept then it is inevitably going to be shifted by those with the power to do so in order to favour those who have that power. All power ultimately serves itself. If there exists a power to influence what constitutes a majority then this influence will be used to enhance and entrench that power. It is in this way that established power comes to be established. Again, it needs only one example to prove the point. In 2014, a majority for No counted. In 2016, a majority for Remain didn’t.

Somebody is bound to point to the fact that sometimes the shifting concept of a majority works to Scotland’s benefit. Mention the ‘40% rule’ which denied us devolution in 1979 by redefining a majority as insufficient to rule and they will point out that this was rectified with the 1997 referendum. But only because it was what established power wanted. Had the British state not wanted devolution; had it not been deemed to suit the purposes of England-as-Britain, then it would not have happened. The Union gives the British political elite that power. The 1997 referendum may be held up as an example of British democracy is action. But can it be counted as democracy if it is subject to the whim of a ruling elite? Is it genuine democracy if it could have been denied – even if it wasn’t?

We voted for devolution. And we got it. That’s democracy. Isn’t it? Even if that vote could have been overruled? Even if it wasn’t overruled only because devolution was permitted only on the strict condition that it didn’t undermine the Union which guarantees the superiority of England-as-Britain? Even if the purpose of devolution was to tighten the British state’s grip on Scotland rather than loosen it?

Herein lies the dilemma. How can the exercise of democracy undermine the exercise of democracy? How might we vote away our right to vote? If we accept the fundamental democratic principle that all legitimate political authority derives from the people, how can democracy include the right to diminish that authority? Does democracy not bestow on us a responsibility to defend democracy even if – especially if – the majority favours the erosion of democracy?

Can the majority rule against majority rule? Does the minority in such a circumstance have a solemn duty to defend democracy against the majority?

These are important questions. They relate directly to Scotland’s predicament. And to how we respond to that predicament. That the Union is incompatible with democracy cannot be in doubt. How then should we relate to those who insist that the Union be maintained – even if they are the majority?

Does removing an impediment to democracy take precedence over the commonly accepted rules of the democratic process? Is the principle more important than the practice?

As a democrat, I am bound by the choices and decisions of the majority. As a democrat I am compelled to abolish the anti-democratic Union. Can I, in good conscience, accept the Union because it is favoured by the majority even knowing that the Union adversely affects the very democracy which requires that I respect the will of the people?

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Time to come home?

Immediate reaction to the suggestion that Scottish MPs are to be ‘locked out’ of the British parliament might range from a so-what shrug to a small celebration. I doubt if there was much ‘anger’ away from newspaper headlines. Any mention of the Scottish contingent at Westminster is as least as likely to prompt questions about why they’re there at all. There’s not much righteous indignation at the contempt shown to Scottish MPs left in Scotland. Ian Blackford has requisitioned it all. His not infrequent venting of that righteous indignation tends to prompt questions about the advisability of sitting right under Britannia’s arse if you don’t like being shat upon.

It’s difficult to get worked up about the British political elite’s casual contempt and calculated discourtesy because these things are so much part of our political life. I expect nothing else from the British state other than that it will treat Scotland in the manner it regards Scotland – as an annexed territory necessarily subordinate to ‘Mother England’. I expect better of our elected representatives than that they should meekly accept this inferior status even while complaining about it. I don’t know about anybody else but I’m more likely to be roused to anger by the fact that we still send supplicants to petition the British parliament for the boon of those things which less pusillanimous nations hold to be theirs by right than by the fact that those supplicants and petitioners are treated accordingly.

Outside the bubble of the SNP Westminster group, few ask why they are treated so badly by the British. Many more ask why they continue to submit to this treatment.

I shouldn’t have to explain that by ‘Scottish MPs’ I mean the 48 SNP MPs plus Neale Hanvey. The others are British MPs from British parties representing British interests. They cannot be regarded as Scottish MPs. The vicinity of Britannia’s arse seems the natural place for those who regard it as an honour to be in receipt of her excretions. The likes of Alister Jack and Ian Murray belong in the British parliament. They are British. They are proud to be British. And if the price of being British is being shat upon copiously and constantly then this is a price they will gladly pay. They accept that their associations with Scotland mean this is the best they can expect. Their expectations are well met.

What remains to be explained is why the Scottish MPs remain in Britannia’s chanty. A common view is that they are ‘in it for the money’. Or that they enjoy the status as well as the perks and privileges. Or that they’ve ‘gone native’. Some or all of these explanations may apply in greater or lesser measure to a few or many. But I find these explanations unsatisfying. Human motives and motivations are seldom if ever so simple and clear-cut. Even politicians – and even British politicians – are only rarely so shallow. And the shallowest of them are otherwise occupied squatting like malignant cuckoos on the opposition seats in the Scottish Parliament.

There is nothing wrong with appreciating the material rewards of any job if those rewards are earned. And for the most part, MPs work fairly hard. Sometimes very hard. The hours are unsocial the travelling is arduous the facilities are decrepit the bureaucracy is a mire the procedures are arcane the ceremonies are ludicrous much of the work is tedious the people you have to work with even more so and the job is extremely insecure. I wouldn’t do it for twice the money. Besides, people generally have to go through the mill just to become MPs. All that shaking sweaty hands and coming away with enough of somebody else’s faecal matter to test for prostate cancer. All that kissing snottery bairns smelling of shit and sour milk. All those single-issue obsessives with their four-hour ‘wee talks’ on urban foxes. All those damp and draughty halls with their junk PA systems that whine almost as much as the five people who’ve come along expecting free tea and scones. All those constituency selection panels making you feel like that nutter who brings their grandma’s collection of Frank Ifield memorabilia to the Antiques Road Show convinced it’s worth millions.

For me, they can have their salaries and their pensions and their expenses and their subsidised bars. None of it is enough to compensate for the crap they have to take in the course of their political careers.

I’ve less sympathy for the SNP MPs who have ‘gone native’. If indeed there are any. I find it difficult to believe they could ever be absorbed into a club which so evidently doesn’t want them as a member. But people can have a considerable capacity for convincing themselves. They may genuinely believe they have gained entry to the elite and might even persuade themselves that it is in order to better serve constituents and country. Invariably, they are being manipulated. It’s what the British establishment is good at. Perceived threats which can’t easily be crushed may always be neutralised by other means.

Ask those SNP MPs why they’re at Westminster and I’m sure they would make a convincing case that they’re doing a public service on behalf of the people in their constituency. And I don’t doubt that they try. They may even on occasion succeed. Even the British MPs from Scottish constituencies might do something helpful for their community from time to time. So long as it doesn’t impinge on their service to the British ruling elites. Or cause them any inconvenience. But SNP MPs have a very particular remit. They have a mandate. All power to them if they’re sorting out some single parent’s benefits or trying to bring meaningful employment to their constituency. But what about their role as champions of Scotland’s cause? What about their duty to work for the restoration of Scotland’s independence? How compatible is this with being at Westminster?

Might it not readily be argued that there is no more effective affirmation of the Union the SNP has undertaken to abolish than sending representatives to the place that more than any other represents the Union and all it implies for Scotland? Is there not an intolerable contradiction here?

The more we realise that Scotland’s independence will not be restored by any process involving the parliament of England-as-Britain the more difficult it becomes to justify the presence of SNP MPs in that parliament. They can do absolutely nothing for Scotland’s cause as members of the British parliament. Perhaps they might best serve that cause by coming home.

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