Who cares?

Andrew Learmonth says it’s going to be hard for the “middle ground of voters” not to have a strong opinion on the constitutional issue. One might have thought events of the last ten years would have made it well nigh impossible for anybody but the terminally apathetic and disengaged to avoid developing a very strong opinion on the matter. To whatever extent they haven’t, this needs to be explained.

The forces acting on public opinion can be distilled down to just two – mass media and campaigns. Mass media includes advertising and peer pressure – because the vast majority of the peers doing the pressuring will have defaulted to the mass media version in the absence of a campaign. Campaigns include anything that is intended to alter the default version of public opinion.

Most people don’t care very much about most things. The people who try to care about everything are in institutions right beside the people who care about absolutely nothing. Pick any single topic and you’ll find that only a relatively small part of the populace has a strong view on it one way or another. It looms large in the worldview of the people at either end of the interest gradient and leaves the rest in various degrees of apathy.

Apathy is not too strong a term. Not if we include those who aren’t even aware of the issue on the grounds that they are too apathetic to make themselves aware. The interest gradient is not a regular graduation in either direction from moderate interest. The middle of the spectrum is alienation. Interest only begins to rise towards the extremes. Or, to put it another way, interest drops off very rapidly. Most of the spectrum is apathy.

The crucial thing is the point of engagement. On one side of the point of engagement, there is potentially increasing interest. On the other is a precipitous plunge into apathy.

Mass media caters to that vast middle range either side of alienation and up to the point of engagement. That’s why it’s called ‘mass’ media. It stands to reason, therefore, that mass media has a vested interest in making and keeping that middle range as large as possible. The purpose of mass media is not, as some might suppose, to deliver the client’s message to the audience, but to deliver the audience to the client so that it can be given whatever message is deemed to serve the client’s present purpose and/or objectives. This is not only true in respect of commercial messages. It is just as true with regard to political messages – using the term ‘political’ in its widest sense.

(For grammar mavens concerned about number agreement, ‘mass media’ is one of those terms which can be either singular or plural. Like ‘sheep’, ironically.)

The purpose of a campaign is to drag people to the point of engagement – then hold their interest long enough to effect some change. In this, the campaign is in direct competition with mass media which is all about keeping the audience in that zone where they are most susceptible to manipulation. Mass media manipulates public perceptions so as to make people manipulable so that mass media can… You get the picture. This being so, campaigns must also manipulate perceptions in order to get the audience – or a large enough part of it – to the point of engagement.

If people are not engaged and do not have strong(ish) opinions about an issue it is because there has been no campaign that sufficiently engages them.

Mass media serves established power. The British media are part of the British establishment. To the extent that they are discrete entities, both have the same interest in a malleable mass audience. If the British mass media is doing its job – which it must or it wouldn’t be mass media – then most people in Scotland won’t have a strong opinion about the constitutional issue. Or, to put it another way, if people don’t have strong views on the constitutional issue it’s because the independence movement has failed to mount a sufficiently effective campaign.

It’s no good complaining that the British media are too strong. Few, if any, campaigns can affect the mass media. You can’t make the British media weaker. You can only make your campaign stronger – more effective.

The question, then, is how. How can the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence be made more effective? Answers on a postcard – which should be sent straight to the recycling bin. Because the most influential parts of the independence movement won’t even consider the question, never mind the answers. The ‘thinking’ is that they don’t have to make the effort to get people to engage with the constitutional issue, that will happen because of what the British political elite does. Because of the appalling contempt with which the British political elite treats Scotland. Eventually, people will get angry enough to do something about it.

No! They won’t! People will only get angry if somebody makes them get angry. Their fallback state is not anger. It’s some degree of apathy. Listing outrages while insisting we all remain ‘calm and reasonable in the face of them is not going to make people angry. Unless it’s anger directed at those listing the outrages and insisting we must adhere to an etiquette defined by those who are committing the outrages.

The behaviour of the British government and British media and British political parties during and since the 2014 independence referendum should have been more than enough to provoke the ire of a big chunk of that middle ground. But it hasn’t. It hasn’t because the independence campaign has been woefully ineffective at weaponising that behaviour.

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Beyond madness?

Given that Boris Johnson’s rejection of her Section 30 order ‘demand’ was anticipated Nicola Sturgeon’s response looks decidedly weak. The observation that the British political elite cares nothing for democracy and holds Scotland in total contempt is just stating the obvious. The claim that the British state’s position is “unsustainable” in the face of it quite evidently being sustained just looks silly. And the stuff about how the awfulness of the Brits will bring about a surge of support for independence might be credible but for the fact that the awfulness of the Brits is the stuff of ancient lore, and the tale of an imminent pro-independence surge seems almost as old.

In terms of action, we get nothing. Apparently, despite having been able to see the rejection letter coming, Nicola wasn’t prepared for it. She needs maybe another week. The nearest we get to anything of substance is the announcement that she will be seeking another parliamentary referendum. Presumably, because there’s a free M&S voucher if you collect enough of the things.

The concern for those of us not inclined to greet the First Minister’s every word with a standing ovation is that the approval she seeks from MSPs will be a straight copy of what was asked for in March 2017. Namely, permission to as permission. Because that’s what all strong leaders do. Isn’t it?

If Nicola Sturgeon goes back to the Scottish Parliament with a motion that mentions “discussions with the UK Government on the details of an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998” then SNP MSPs should tell her to think again. Perhaps reminding her of the definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome then endlessly repeating a course of action which never had a real possibility of the outcome you’re seeking surely goes well beyond mere madness.

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Leave it to the experts

Amidst the eight hundred or so articles I’ve written since I started blogging in February 2012 you will find several which take as their subject warnings about what the future may hold if events play out in particular ways. Warnings, for example, published in the period before the 2014 referendum warning about the consequences of voting No. Or, subsequent to the first referendum, warnings about the implications of too long delaying a new referendum. Here are a few examples, with passages emphasised.

This is from 5 April 2018.

I had hoped to find in his [Pete Wishart] latest writing on the subject answers to such questions as what criteria are to be used in assessing the “optimum time” and how, having delayed the vote, he proposed to deal with the British government’s moves to make a new referendum impossible and/or unwinnable. I’m none the wiser on any of these points.

Referendum 2018

From 7 April 2018.

We can be sure, also, that while emasculating the Scottish Parliament the British government will also introduce measures for the purpose of making an independence referendum ‘unlawful’ and/or unwinnable. If the democratic route to independence is likely to be used, it must be closed off. If the people of Scotland might presume to exercise their democratic right of self-determination, that right must be denied.

Threat and response

From 23 April 208.

The difference – and pretty much the only difference – between the anti-democratic British Nationalists and Pete Wishart is that, while he still supposes there might be a new referendum at some undefined time in the future, Ruth Davidson, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie) are determined that the referendum be postponed until such time as the British government, to which they give total allegiance, has implemented measures to ensure that a new referendum is impossible and/or unwinnable.

Sage advices

From 19 July 2018.

Scour that timeline as you may, you will find no mention of the steps the British government will be taking in order to make a new independence referendum impossible or unwinnable or both. Which is odd given that Gordon [MacIntyre-Kemp] otherwise seems to suppose the British government to be the only effective actor in all of politics. His timeline is almost entirely a tale of what the British elite does, and how the Scottish Government might react.

It’s what we make it

Finally, from 21 July 2018.

In all this talk of postponing the new referendum, whether it be until 2019 or 2021 or 2022, I see no explanation of how those commending delay propose to deal with the measures that the UK Government will surely implement in order to make a referendum impossible or unwinnable or both. It’s as if they think the British state is a benign entity which is just going to sit back and wait until we get our act together. It’s as if they are dumbly unaware that locking Scotland into a unilaterally redefined political union is one of the principal imperatives driving British policy.

I despair!

Now look at the image below showing the relevant detail of a Bill (Referendums Criteria Bill 2020) currently being considered in the British parliament.

As I express concerns about Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process and the SNP’s whole approach to the constitutional issue one of the most common responses I get is to tell me to shut up because ‘the powers that be’ know better than I do.

Do they?

I have been told that, for various procedural reasons, this Bill might make no further progress in the British parliament. To focus on this, however, is to miss the point. The point being that the Bill existed in the first place. It serves to illustrate the ways in which the British establishment will seek to close down all democratic routes to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. Something which could easily be foreseen.

It has been further stated proposal of the Referendums Criteria Bill 2020 was prompted by the 2016 EU referendum and the ensuing chaos. So what? Does this mean it wouldn’t have applied to Scotland? No! Does it mean it wouldn’t have serious implications for the independence campaign? No!

Does it mean there is no possibility of further efforts to make a new referendum impossible and/or unwinnable? No!

Is the Scottish Government ready to deal with those efforts? You’d like to think so. But….

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What's to stop them?

Simple question. What’s to stop them? What’s to stop the British government denying Scotland’s right of self-determination indefinitely?

Ian Blackford asks,

How many times do the people of Scotland have to vote for the SNP to give the Scottish Parliament a mandate to have an independence referendum?

Rather than ask what the number is he’d have done better to ask if there is a number. If one mandate can be dismissed then so can two. And four. And eight. And any number you care to think of. It is no more problematic for the British government to dismiss mandate number 1,765 than mandate number three. Or four. Or whatever it is that we’re at now. If anything, it gets easier for them. They’ll quickly get into a routine.

There is no cost to them. It costs the British government nothing to ignore a mandate for a new referendum. The cost is zero. It doesn’t matter what zero is multiplied by, it is still zero.

Ian Blackford asks,

Is he [Borish Johnson] really prepared to ignore a party that has got 80% of the seats from Scotland in this place and has won 45% of the vote?

Yes, he is. We know he is. Because he’s said he is very often and with as much clarity as he is capable of. And why not? Why shouldn’t he ignore 100% of the seats on 100% of the vote? The set of rules and procedures which Nicola Sturgeon has called the “gold standard” allows any British Prime Minister to ignore any vote in Scotland. Look at our 62% remain vote. 62% is more than 45% and two successive British Prime Ministers have ignored it with effortless ease and at absolutely no cost.

Any British Prime Minister can ignore any vote in Scotland with effortless ease and at absolutely no cost because that set of rules and procedures which Nicola Sturgeon calls the “gold standard” is built on the foundation of a political union contrived and imposed for the purpose of ensuring that the British Prime Minister and the parliament of England-as-Britain will be able to ignore all votes in Scotland in perpetuity.

A question for Ian Blackford. How is that situation going to change if the SNP isn’t prepared, and the Yes movement isn’t allowed, to even mention the possibility of ending the Union?

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BritNat plans?

It is not only Tories who are “fearful of independence”, as John Drummond seems to suppose (Tories are fearful of independence … let’s ask them to share their plans for it). it is all British Nationalists. Remember Better Together / Project Fear? This focus on the Tories rather than the British state is seriously ill-advised. We are not seeking a change OF British government. We are seeking a change FROM British government.

The comparison with South Africa is spurious. Where FW de Klerk and the National Party came to recognise that apartheid represented an economic threat, British Nationalists are either convinced that independence will be economically disastrous or they don’t care. They want to preserve the Union at any cost. They are driven by a ‘blood and soil’ nationalist ideology and only use economic scare stories to rationalise what is entirely an emotional devotion to a myth of Britishness.

Thus, British Nationalists – Tory or otherwise – see no need to plan for independence. They are absolutely determined to prevent it from happening. For many, even imagine independence is heresy.

The question we should be asking these British Nationalists is what they intend to do about the ~50% of the population that wants independence should their anti-democratic ambitions be realised. I suspect there’s vastly more chance of them having plans for that than for Scotland’s independence being restored.

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Power and effect

Neil Mackay

It’s not often one gets to say this, but Gerry Hassan’s column in the Sunday National (Scottish independence: the rise of people power in Scotland) is an enjoyable as well as an interesting read. Enjoyable – perhaps even inspiring – because it is about something which is inevitably close to the heart of everyone associated with the Yes movement – people power. What is the Yes movement but a wonderful example of people coming together to use their collective democratic power for a worthy purpose?

Like all the best popular movements, the origins of Yes are a bit vague. Inevitably so since such movements are not created but, rather, emerge from the populace – the demos. Popular movements are not launched, they arise. There may be a single spark, but it ignites many fires. In the case of the Yes movement, the spark was the 2014 referendum and the separate fires were the various Yes groups which sprang up all over Scotland. Initially, these groups were initiated by Yes Scotland, the official pro-independence campaign organisation. With a speed which I think it’s safe to say startled everyone, these groups began forming spontaneously, facilitated and fanned by social media. At some indefinable point, due largely to the networking capacity offered by the web, that scattering of individual groups became a movement. An amorphous, organic and rather chaotic phenomenon gradually realising the potential of its power.

Power itself is useless. In order to do anything it must be fed into some kind of machine. It is the machinery which does the actual work. As Gerry Hassan makes clear, All Under One Banner (AUOB) is an illuminating example of a mechanism by which raw people power is transformed into operational effect. It is organisations such as AUOB which draw together the different strands of disparate and diffuse people power, amplifying it and applying it to specific tasks or functions.

Which brings us to what I have previously referred to as the ‘organisation problem‘.

Yes is a diverse, open, inclusive, unstructured popular movement. It is NOT an organisation. That is as it should be. That is its strength. It is not hierarchical. It is an amorphous, informal, organic network. That is the essence of its power.
There are no leaders of the Yes movement. But there are leaders IN the Yes movement. Leadership arises as leadership is required. When that leadership ceases to be necessary, it merges back into the movement ready to be called upon if needed. The Yes movement has no need of leaders so long as it has this potential for emergent leadership.

Some of the Yes movement’s activities demand organisation. People put effort into creating the appropriate organisation within the movement. This is NOT a simple task. Creating an organisation within an organisation is relatively easy. Creating an organisation within a movement which eschews and is averse to formal structures is a hugely demanding task.

In that article I went on to observe that,

It takes a special kind of character to even attempt such a task. It takes extraordinary commitment, dedication and sheer hard work to see it through.

Neil Mackay is representative of that kind of character. Although anything but a ‘one-man band’, Neil’s name serves as a metonym for AUOB and, to some extent, for all the organisations which have been formed within the Yes movement.

The lesson here is that, however much the idea of people power may appeal to us, it doesn’t actually do anything absent the individuals and organisations which give it operational effect. The idea of Scotland’s independence being won by people power is at best misleading fallacy and at worst counter-productive delusion. There is a purist notion of people power which rejects, or only reluctantly accepts, the need for any machinery. This is simplistic nonsense. Ultimately, power of any kind has to use, or be used, by some form of organisation in order to have any effect. And organisations rely on individuals with particular abilities and attributes. Organisations like AUOB. Individuals like Neil Mackay.

Political parties are also part of the machinery which gives effect to popular power. All too many people won’t accept this. How often do you hear people say that they ‘hate political parties’, or ‘detest party politics’? I could discuss at length how this is a prejudice which established power is happy to encourage. And why wouldn’t they? What could suit prevailing power better than that countervailing power should spurn the means to challenge the status quo?

People power requires the machinery of organisations in order to build a campaign. That campaign requires a political party in order to be translated into effective action through the institutions and processes of democracy. There is, and can be, no direct connection between people power and social or political reform. It is critically important to recognise that movement, campaign and party are separate and distinct. They interact. But each has its function and all are crucial to success in effecting change.

The analogy which best represents this relationship portrays the SNP as the lever by which Scotland will be prised out of the Union; the Scottish Government is the fulcrum on which the lever turns; the Scottish Parliament is the base on which the fulcrum rests, and the Yes movement is the force which must be applied to the lever. No component works without the others. Each component must perform as required and work well with the rest of the system.

Which brings me (at last!) to my main point. From all of the foregoing it can be seen that it matters a great deal that people power is correctly directed. No useful purpose is served if that power is organised into a campaign only for that campaign to be spent on a political agent which cannot translate that power into the desired political effect. Which is why I was delighted to see the following quote from Neil Mackay.

AUOB’s aim is to push the Scottish Government and to emphasise the power underneath them. We are here to hold them to account and to hold their feet to the fire as much as we do to Westminster.

Look back at that lever analogy. Do you see any mention of Westminster? It is not there because it has no place. It contributes nothing to the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. If Westminster was to be shoe-horned into our analogy it could only be as the resistance to the lever’s movement. Scotland’s independence will not be restored by, or by way of, Westminster. People power applied to the British establishment is, in terms of the objective, all but entirely squandered. The British state has a capacity for disintegrating and/or deflecting and/or absorbing popular pressure that has been acquired and perfected over several centuries. There is no possibility of help for the Yes movement from that direction.

Neil Mackay is right. The power of the Yes movement must now be turned on the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon, both in her role as our First Minister and in her role as leader of the SNP. Their purpose is to provide the Yes movement with effective political power. The Yes movement must put pressure on them to use that power effectively.

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The power of disdain

Patrick Harvie is seriously mistaken if he imagines that Boris Johnson is “ignorant of the political fallout from his actions”. Or should we say inactions? He understands the implications perfectly well. Or, if he doesn’t, he has people around him who do. One might credibly suppose the moment of epiphany for Johnson came during the ghastly zip-wire incident. Ghastly for him, at least. Hilarious for the rest of us. That may have been the moment when he realised that it is better to do nothing than make a total arse of anything.

Do nothing, and there’s nothing for the media to latch on to. There’s only so many ways you can say nothing happened. If the media aren’t shoving it in the public’s face every twenty minutes then it isn’t happening. Pretty soon, it never happened. Do nothing and you skip straight to the ‘never happened’ bit.

Boris Johnson has a record for doing and saying things which get him entirely the wrong kind of attention. It makes sense, therefore, that his advisers would encourage him to do and say as little as possible. The basic rule is that if it has the slightest potential to become a YouTube sensation, leave it out. Boris’s propensity for inadvertent slapstick is such that, even with the best efforts of his minders, we still get episodes such as the great hiding in a fridge incident. But at least he didn’t get roasted by Andrew Neil.

It works! The tactic is effective. If it’s a bit awkward, dismiss it! Discount it! Disregard it! Treat it with disdain. The proof of the pudding is that the pudding is now Prime Minister.

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