Ghosts of referendums past

It’s that day again! The 18th of September has rolled around again in the relentless way that anniversaries tend to do. It is now a firmly established tradition that, on and about this day each year, we are regaled with reminiscences of the 2014 independence referendum and prompted to revisit our own memories of that time. Countless articles will be written each trying to extract some meaning from the anniversary – or to impose some meaning on it.

Five years!

That’s approximately 200 million heartbeats for the average person. Or a single parliamentary term. If you’ve been married for five years then you will almost certainly not be giving each other symbolic gifts made of wood. The English language has five vowels and human beings have five senses. If astrology is your thing, the number five is lucky for Gemini and Virgo. But if you really were lucky astrology would never have become your thing. In numerology there are five core numbers. If you’re into numerology then you may be well-placed to count your blessings that you dodged the astrology bullet. The earthworm has five hearts. I have no idea how many times they beat, individually or in aggregate, in the space of five years.

It’s amazing what you find out when you’re looking for a novel hook on which to hang an article. Something to provide context. Something to lend significance. Something to help capture and express my personal feelings on this notable day.

David Bowie is always good for a bit of inspiration. Better him than Orwell or Arwood or Bradbury or any of the other dystopian writers to whom my mind tends to turn when I look around me at the world. And there just happens to be a Bowie song called Five Years! Obviously, that can’t be mere coincidence. Ask any astrologer or numerologist.

In his Ziggy Stardust persona, having just learned of Earth’s imminent demise, Bowie laments, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got!”. So much for escaping dystopian visions! But the phrase does resonate on this fifth anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum. Because that’s pretty much what I was saying in the aftermath of that event.

To be totally accurate, I wasn’t actually saying we had five years to rectify the tragic mistake that Scotland made on Thursday 18 September 2014. It’s just the way it turned out. My early ‘calculations’ had to be adjusted to take account of intervening events and developments so that it ended up being five years. Allow me a bit of latitude here, please. Taken as a whole, my message over the past five years has been, “Five years! That’s all we’ve got!”.

In September 2014 I argued that the earliest possible date for a new referendum was September 2018. By 2016, following the EU referendum, I was arguing that September 2018 should be assumed to be the latest date for a new constitutional plebiscite. The subsequent extensions to the Article 50 transition period pushed that date back a year to September 2019. So, five years. That’s all we had. And now we’ve had it.

Scotland’s independence movement has had five years in which to regroup after the setback of the 2014 referendum. Five years to reorganise. Five years in which to evaluate the previous campaign. Five years in which to formulate and hone a strategy for the next campaign. Five years of opportunity. What do we have to show for it?

Essentially, we have nothing to show for it. Things have happened. People looking for silver linings can point to those things and feel good about the situation. But little has changed. The things that have happened don’t all join up into something that qualifies as significant change. In terms of the independence campaign, we are now where we were, not five years ago, but nearer ten. The major issue then was the demand for a referendum versus the British state’s arrogant and obdurate denial of our right to have that referendum. What has changed? The First Minister continues to issue almost daily appeals for the powers to hold a ‘legal’ referendum. Other than the increasingly vicious contempt with which these entreaties are met, what has changed? In this regard, the last five years might as well not have happened.

Six and a half years ago we had a date for a referendum. Now, we don’t even have that!

The Yes movement has not been idle for those five years. I have watched it mature into a movement with massively more power and potential that was the case going into the 2014 campaign. But that power is wasted because the movement is rudderless. The potential is being squandered because it has no outlet other than marches and rallies and a proliferation of ancillary projects. In all of that five years, no meaningful progress has been made in forging the vital link between the Yes movement and the SNP. It would be easy to descend into the ‘blame game’ on this point. And to some extent we have no choice but to go there. Understanding why something has failed is a prerequisite of rectifying it. But, for present purposes, it is sufficient to note that we’ve had five years to do this and we have made no discernible progress.

In the course of that five years the SNP has gone from being effectively absent from the independence campaign to being so utterly preoccupied with Brexit as to make that period of absence look like meaningful engagement. While much of the left in Scottish politics has, with some justification, been criticised for being ‘in’ the independence campaign but not ‘of’ it, the SNP is ineluctably ‘of’ it but not ‘in’ it. It is the party of independence – of that there can be no doubt. But it seems not to have been an active participant ‘in’ the independence campaign since 2014. When I think back over the past five years, my overall impression is of the SNP being on the fringes, I hear what Nicola Sturgeon and other SNP politicians say. But I can’t help feeling that their words are reaching me having had to penetrate a bubble. And I can’t figure out whether it is they who are inside the bubble, or me.

It’s been five years. I expected more. Like everybody else I know in the Yes movement, five years ago I was filled with hope and enthusiasm and determination and confidence and the absolute certainty that Scotland’s cause would prevail. Five years on, there are more and more days when those feelings come to me only as pale ghosts.

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Inappropriate language

I don’t need an opinion poll to tell me “it would be unacceptable for any government in Westminster to block Scotland’s democratic right to choose“. This is not a matter of opinion. It is an incontrovertible fact that nobody has the legitimate authority to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination; least of all the entity from which Scotland is ‘seceding’.

I know I quibble about the language used by SNP politicians such as Ian Blackford and John Swinney. But language is important. Issues are perceived as being defined by the language politicians use. Particularly when operating in a hostile media environment, politicians have to be constantly aware of which narrative they are following. They must be on their guard against slipping into the pervasive narrative of that hostile media. They need to be ever mindful of the language they use.

Of course it would be “unacceptable” for the British government to “block Scotland’s democratic right to choose”! But it would be more than that. It would be wrong! In every sense of the word, it would be wrong! Even to attempt to deny the fundamental democratic right of self-determination is wrong. It cannot be right. It cannot rightfully be done.

Every word spoken by Scotland’s elected representatives should be informed by an unshakeable belief in Scotland’s cause. Every utterance must be couched in the language of an independent nation. There can never be the slightest suggestion of concessions which could be seen as compromising the sovereignty of Scotland’s people.

If Scotland’s right of self-determination is not subject to the approval of the British political elite, how much less might it be affected by the vagaries of opinion polls. Only the Parliament elected by the people of Scotland has the legitimate authority to determine whether there is sufficient demand to warrant a constitutional referendum in Scotland. Our Parliament has already made that determination. Opinion polls are irrelevant. The notion that the opinions of people furth of Scotland might have some bearing on the matter of a new independence referendum is beyond ridiculous. It is a matter for the Scottish people alone.

So why the hell is Ian Blackford hailing this poll as “significant”? Why is he not challenging the narrative which imbues it with significance? Why is he using such inappropriate language?

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That was NOT the question!

John Swinney is not one of the people I usually associate with the SNP’s notoriously clumsy political communication. I have always considered him one of the party’s sharpest minds. Which makes it all the more perplexing that he should so thoughtlessly misrepresent the 2014 referendum by claiming that “Scotland voted to remain as part of the United Kingdom”. We most decidedly did not!

It is not possible for Scotland’s people to have voted to remain part of the UK because that question was never put to them. The question on the ballot paper five years ago was ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. There was no mention of remaining part of the UK.

There will be those who insist that there is no difference between saying No to independence and saying Yes to the Union. Thus exhibiting a woeful shallowness of thinking such as I never supposed John Swinney might fall prey to.

For a start, the question actually asked makes independence the contentious issue which it should never have been. Independence is not contentious. Independence is normal. Independence is the default status of nations. To discover how fundamentally slanted the question is, just imagine it being put to the people of any other nation. They would consider it ridiculous and offensive. Not only, or even primarily, because their nation already is independent, but because it would never occur to them that this status is something which could or should be called into question.

Not only did the question on the 2014 ballot paper make independence the contentious issue, it ensured that the Yes campaign was built around a contested concept. There was then, and still is, no single agreed definition of independence. The term, as it applied to Scotland, meant many different things to different people. Myriad individuals and groups within the Yes movement all presented voters with their own conception of and vision for independence. The Yes campaign became a confusing fog of competing messages and was thereby rendered very much less effective than it might have been.

Because independence is a contested concept, it is inherently susceptible to being misrepresented and burdened with all manner of prejudicial associations. It was, in other words, highly vulnerable to precisely the kind of negative propaganda effort to which the anti-independence campaign predictably resorted.

When people voted No in 2014 they were not voting FOR anything. They were voting AGAINST an idea of independence as something abstruse and fearful They were voting AGAINST what they had been led to believe was a “leap in the dark”; a voyage into uncharted waters where lurked ravenous monsters. They were voting AGAINST a nightmarish vision painted by a malignant rabble of liars and deceivers in the British government, the British parties and Better Together / Project Fear; with the willing assistance of the British media.

They most assuredly were not voting to remain in the UK.

Contrary to the impression given by John Swinney, the people of Scotland have never given their consent to the Union. They have never been asked. I would suggest that it is long past time this democratic deficiency was rectified.

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Crises and choices

John McDonnell offers an interesting argument for preserving the Union. Filter out the word-spray intended to put a patina of sense on that argument and what remains is the proposition that the more successive British governments do harm to Scotland the less feasible democratic constitutional reform becomes. The inescapable logic being that doing harm to Scotland is an effective way of preserving the Union. Which necessarily implies that those who wish to preserve the Union are powerfully motivated to do harm to Scotland.

This is not a new argument, of course. It is simply a variation on the theme of constant crisis as a means of social control. A theme familiar from the writings of George Orwell and other peddlers of dystopian visions. Perpetual war is probably the most common form of constant crisis. But this looks like it may soon be be knocked off the top spot by climate change. And, as you would expect, the dismal science of economics is always a contender.

Constant crisis is a particularly useful tool for social control because it is flexible enough to be adapted for almost any set of circumstances. The nature of the crisis is, obviously, an important factor. It needn’t be something as serious as armed conflict – which includes such as the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’. It can be something relatively low-key – such as the economic instability which is an ever-present background hum in our lives.

Just as the intensity of that background hum can can be turned up or down as may be expedient, so the manner in which the constant crisis is related to individuals and groups can be fine-tuned to maximise the coercive effect. This can go from the constant crisis being the problem which regrettably requires that people be controlled, to people resisting control being the problem on account of the crisis.

Evidently, John McDonnell feels the need to ramp up the threat level. Brexit isn’t enough. In his desperation to convey a sense of crisis he throws climate change and child poverty at us as well. With all this going on, so the argument goes, it would be irresponsible to indulge the democratic right of self-determination. It is only a matter of adjusting the size and shape of the crisis and pretty much anything can be portrayed as an indulgence or a distraction or a waste of resources.

What is missing from McDonnell’s ‘thinking’ is any consideration of the fact that circumstances are the product of choices. A chain of causal connections links the nature of present circumstances to past choices. The matter of how and by whom those choices are made can never be irrelevant. Constitutional politics is concerned with the core questions of who decides, how those decisions are arrived at and the processes by which decisions are implemented. Constitutional debate can never be a mere indulgence.

If the crisis being deployed as a justification for compromising democracy is real, it is a product of self-evidently bad choices made by the British political elite. If the crisis is false or exaggerated, it’s because the British political elite choose to deceive us. Why, then, would we trust their choices? Why would we entrust them with the power to make choices that affect Scotland? Why would we not choose to make those choices ourselves?

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The beast beneath

There’s a delicious parody of Boris Johnson’s supporters in The National today. Shona Craven’s cleverly crafted lampoon takes us through a series of specious arguments and self-serving rationalisations of the sort offered up by Johnson’s apologists as he tramples on every democratic principle he can find like a child in a tantrum stamping on their toys. The line separating burlesque from reality all but disappeared the day Boris Johnson became British Prime Minister. But Shona manges to find that line and remain so precariously on the side of the sendup that one could be forgiven for occasionally wondering whether her article is mockery or reportage.

The following will give a flavour of the piece.

Some commentators are saying that if the Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Session’s ruling, the Prime Minister will have to recall parliament, or resign, or throw himself in a ditch. What those people don’t seem to understand is that these are extraordinary times, which call for an extraordinary leader. A leader who isn’t like all those other namby-pamby politicians. A leader who is a real person, just like you and me – except stronger and cleverer, obviously. A leader who will go to the EU summit and square up to his opponents, humiliating the girly swots who want to keep the peace in Europe because they’re rubbish at fighting, and banging together any heads that are buried in negative impact assessments.

Amusing as this piss-take may be, there is a serious point being made. Shona Craven shows how a very reasonable-sounding argument can form the foundation for an edifice of increasingly extreme propositions, each borrowing from the faux rationality of those that preceded it. Departing from the hardly controversial suggestion that extraordinary circumstances might benefit from extraordinary leadership, we journey through series of plausible and persuasive points until we arrive at a place that seems like where we ought to be despite the fact we’re pretty sure we didn’t want to go there.

At every convenient point on this journey we are reminded that our guides and companions are people just like us; lest we suppose ourselves being led by anyone who could possibly have an ulterior motive. We are further reassured to know that the man at the helm is also just like us. So we should not be concerned by how closely he and his crew resemble the very people we set out to escape.

Once we accept that we need a strong leader, we can then be persuaded that it defeats the purpose to have people questioning his judgement and impeding his efforts to deal with whatever crisis it is that has persuaded us of the need for a strong leader. Once these hindrances are removed it makes perfect sense to do away with the institutions within which they operated and through which they were empowered to limit our strong leader’s scope for action.

If these institutions no longer exist, then what is the point of the processes and procedures which maintain them? Wouldn’t we be wise to rid ourselves of the costly, and now pointless, exercise by which we appoint people to represent our interests? What’s the point in having a strong leader if you still have to make choices and decisions for yourself? Don’t we all have busy lives? Don’t we all have better things to do? Aren’t we all suffering from democracy-fatigue?

Shona Craven’s column is part parody, and part allegory. While you may be amused by the parody, you should also be alarmed by the allegory. Her article – and perhaps this one – should be read alongside a transcript of Boris Johnson’s toe-curling yet sinister ‘People’s Question Time‘ exercise back in August. As you read, reflect on the fact that authoritarian regimes tend to arrive without fanfare. They come garbed in the humble raiment of sweet reason and benign intent. We do well to look for the beast beneath.

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Corruption breeds corruption

I love the passion Tommy Sheridan injects into his articles. And few things rouse that passion more than the British honours system and the House of Lords.

Like so many things associated with the British states, the British honours system is corrupt. But this doesn’t necessary imply that honours systems themselves are a bad thing. I like to imagine that Scotland might have some sort of arrangement by which people who have acted with particular distinction in the service of community or nation receive recognition. A system which is not corrupt. A system which operates to the general benefit without bestowing individual privilege.

The problem, of course, would be ensuring that such a system didn’t become corrupt. That seems to be a tendency when people are involved. But I don’t think it’s beyond the wit of man – or woman – to devise a system which has adequate built-in checks and balances.

Which is yet another condemnation of the British honours system. If, as I assume, it is perfectly possible to devise a system which is neither corrupt nor corruptible, why has the British system been allowed to become ever more corrupt? I would suggest it’s because it is British. It is inextricably tied up with the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute and define the British state.

I would be not at all displeased if independent Scotland demonstrated that it is possible to have an honours system which is not corrupt so long as the state itself is not corrupt.

As to the House of Lords, I find it almost as offensive as Tommy does. But I am cautious about calls for abolition. For one thing, the House of Lords does serve a purpose. There are what are called ‘working Peers’ who actually do a job – scrutinising and amending legislation etc.

More importantly, the House of Lords can be, and often has been, a check on executive power. And if there is one thing the British state needs it is some kind of check on executive power. Any kind! Recent events serve to illustrate this need very starkly.

Of course, the way members of the House of Lords are appointed is as much part of that corrupt system of power, privilege and patronage as the honours system. I am most decidedly not arguing that it should be retained. And perish the thought that Scotland would ever emulate such an appalling institution.

I am cautious about calls for abolition solely because I am concerned about what would replace the House of Lords. More particularly, I’m concerned about who would decide what the replacement would be. Bad as the House of Lords is, I can easily imagine something worse. And if I was looking for a way of making it worse then I’d assign the task of designing a replacement for the House of Lords to the British political elite.

Corruption breeds only further corruption.

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Fine words

Ian Blackford portentously declares that the next UK general election will be “one of the most important in Scotland’s history”. If we are to take him at his word, we must know what makes it so. What is it about this election that makes it so significant for Scotland? How might the election impact Scotland? In what way will the outcome of the election determine Scotland’s future?

What are Ian Blackford’s – and, we must assume, the SNP’s – priorities in this election? What do he and they hope to get out of it?

Of course, as Mr Blackford speaks, there is no election. Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the next UK general election isn’t due until 5 May 2022. Few people, however, expect the current regime to last that long. The smart money isn’t betting on anything right now. But there is talk of opposition scheming to bring down the government and force an election in December. Spare a thought for the canvassers and leafleters who will have winter weather to contend with.

What you may have noted is that this date is beyond the most recent Brexit deadline. So it’s not at all clear what the point might be in “putting Scotland’s opposition to Brexit” at the heart of the election campaign, as Ian Blackford states is the SNP’s intention. Whatever else might be achieved, there is no way for an election to turn back the clock or alter the past. By December, Brexit will be a fait accompli. Scotland will have been wrenched from the EU against the will of the Scottish voters. By December, the deluge of Mad Brexiteer triumphalism provoked by a no-deal Brexit may just be starting to abate. The harsh realities of Brexit may even be beginning to bite despite the British government’s efforts to bury them under a pile of money and propaganda.

Is Ian Blackford suggesting that the SNP will be asking people to vote for them as a protest against Brexit and/or the contempt shown for Scotland’s democratic will by the British establishment? It’s a strategy of a sort, I suppose. But ‘Vote SNP as a futile gesture’ is hardly the most compelling campaign slogan ever devised.

Maybe the SNP is hoping for a further extension in the further hope that there may yet be hope of stopping Brexit. Some hope! It is true that the British parliament has passed legislation which will force the British Prime Minister to request another Article 50 extension if, by October 19, he hasn’t managed to persuade MPs to vote for either the ‘deal’ that they’ve already repeatedly rejected or a ‘new deal’ which currently exists only in Boris Johnson’s roiling imagination. Commentators are busy speculating about the possibility that the malignant child-clown might simply ignore this legal requirement.

There is little reason to suppose Boris Johnson might be prevented from breaking the law by a personal moral code evidently even less substantial than the ‘new deal’ which hasn’t actually been proposed and which the EU isn’t actually prepared to negotiate even if it actually had been proposed. But Boris probably won’t have to risk whatever penalty he might incur by defying the law and refusing to ask for more time. There’s a very good chance that the EU will not grant this request; especially if there are no fresh proposals – not involving wishful thinking and magic – which might break the deadlock. Johnson need only deploy the dithering and bluster which are his political stock in trade and the UK leaves the EU at 23:00 on 31 October by default.

The hope of stopping Brexit is looking rather forlorn. Opposition after the fact is a decidedly hollow basis for an election campaign. Indeed, the SNP might be well-advised to avoid any mention of Brexit, lest they remind voters of just how ineffectual their opposition has been. What else might they say about Brexit other than that they failed to prevent it being imposed on Scotland. Perhaps the campaign slogan might be ‘At least we tried!’.

Fortunately, Ian Blackford isn’t suggesting a campaign which relies entirely on a combination of credit for effort and post hoc protest. Alongside that “opposition to Brexit” at the heart of the SNP campaign will be a demand that Scotland’s people be given “our right to choose our own future with independence”. Which immediately prompted me to wonder why we are asking for this right if it is already ours. If it’s a right it requires no permission. If it’s ours we have no need to seek that permission. Already this second prong of the SNP’s election campaign strategy is starting to look as wobbly as the first.

What Ian Blackford is referring to is, needless to say, the Section 30 order that our First Minister has declared essential for a ‘legal’ independence referendum. On the matter of the process which must be followed to make the referendum legitimate, Nicola Sturgeon is in full agreement with those who are determined to ensure that a referendum doesn’t happen. You may count me among those who find this a curious position for the First Minister to have contrived for herself. She has committed to a process which is fraught with problems and pitfalls and, in doing so, she has ruled out all other options by effectively branding them illegal. You may count me among those who find this squandering of options totally incomprehensible.

But let us set aside, for the moment, the fact that the Section 30 process is undoubtedly toxic. Let us consider only the demand for a Section 30 order as a plank in the SNP’s platform come the next UK general election. Various questions may be asked of such a demand. Is it reasonable? How you answer that will depend on whether you recognise the toxic nature of the Section 30 process. And whether the question relates to the reasonableness of the requesting or the granting. A better question might ask if it is reasonable to be required to ask for permission to exercise a right which you already have the right to exercise. However, we’ve already covered that ground.

Another question that might be asked of a demand made as part of an election campaign is whether it is realistic. Is it possible for the demand to be met? How likely is it to be met? Is there any point to it?

The answer to these questions depends on the outcome of the election. Whether the demand is realistic or attainable or meaningful is all down to the make-up of the House of Commons in the wake of the election. Rather helpfully, Stu Campbell on Wings Over Scotland has done the arithmetic for us. He has modelled various scenarios ranging from the highly probable to ludicrously fantastical. In none of these scenarios does the SNP Westminster group end up in a position to secure that Section 30 order. Even winning 51 of Scotland’s 59 seats, the SNP simply wouldn’t have the necessary numbers.

None of Stu Campbell’s scenarios had the SNP win all the seats. But I suspect the end result would be the same. Whatever the weight of public support for independence it will always be outweighed in the British parliament by the overwhelming majority of Unionist MPs. The obvious conclusion being that it is utterly pointless to suppose Scotland’s independence might be restored via Westminster. It will only be restored by the Scottish Government acting through the Scottish Parliament in a way that breaks the British state’s rules but with the support of the Scottish people.

In summarising, let’s look at what Ian Blackford said,

The SNP will be putting Scotland’s opposition to Brexit and our right to choose our own future with independence at the heart of the contest… 

Scots urged to register to vote ahead of ‘crucial’ General Election

In the next UK general election, it looks like the SNP will be campaigning to stop something that’s already happened and to get something we already have by demanding something they can’t get and which they shouldn’t be asking for because asking for it does harm and getting it does even more harm.

You may count me among those who are not at all impressed. Not for the first time, Ian Blackford offers fine words which leave the parsnips quite devoid of butter.

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