Making a start

Only a few weeks ago I would have respectfully disagreed with George Kerevan. I would have insisted that the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon had to take a leadership role in the independence campaign in order that the latent power of the Yes movement could be harnessed. I envisaged the SNP setting out a clear, concise strategy and Yes groups taking their lead from this. I thought it necessary that the SNP should be in the vanguard because, as George notes, it all ultimately comes down to the party which is in government. The entire campaign is about enabling the Scottish Government to act through the Scottish Parliament to initiate the restoration of Scotland’s independence.

My concern was that without the SNP providing leadership the Yes movement would lack the solidarity, focus and discipline that a political campaign requires. I feared that we would once again take a pillow to a sword fight. Or, more likely, a gunfight. And I was concerned that, were the Yes movement’s energies invested in some other leadership there might be a problem transferring those energies and the momentum they’d generated to the SNP/Scottish Government when this became necessary.

Events and development over the last few weeks have forced me to rethink my position. Although I still think the ideal would be to have the party of government taking the lead role in the campaign, this unavoidably depends on said party being capable of fulfilling that role. I have reluctantly come to recognise that, despite the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon having the potential to do so, neither she nor her party looks at all like realising that potential.

Which is why I now find myself agreeing with George… mostly! We obviously need a body that will fulfil the leadership role vacated – or never taken up – by the SNP. That body must derive from the Yes movement. It must have the broad support of the movement in a way that SIC has never achieved. And it must recognise the need to defer, fully and without rancour, to the SNP administration when this becomes necessary.

The Yes movement needs to become, or give birth to, a campaigning organisation. Preferably and all but certainly the latter. I am certain nobody wants the Yes movement to change. Nobody wants it to stop being a movement – loose, organic, diverse and ungoverned. But developing and managing a political campaign demands an organisation rather than a movement. In stark contrast to the Yes movement, the Yes campaign organisation must be unified, focused and disciplined.

Such an organisation cannot be imposed on the Yes movement. Rather, it must arise from it. The Yes movement has proven itself adept at ‘hiving off’ chunks of itself to provide the more hierarchical organisational structures needed to accomplish particular tasks. All Under One Banner is perhaps the most notable example. We must harness this capacity for emergent leadership to create an organisation which will run the independence campaign at least as well as AUOB runs marches and rallies.

Where I part company with George Kerevan slightly is when he talks of an organisation which “works from the bottom up”. It is an unavoidable fact that running a large and complex campaign calls for a certain amount of top-down direction. Without this, it would almost certainly be impossible to achieve the kind of coordination and responsiveness that a political campaign requires.

George suggests the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) as a model. I’m sure we could do very much worse. But I am wary of such models. Too readily, we tend towards designing the organisation to conform to the model rather than fit the task and the context. What suits the Catalans may not suit the Scots. What works for them may not work for us. So long as we are mindful of this and strive to create our own distinctive organisation rather than simply emulate somebody else’s, we should be OK.

And George leaves one important question unanswered. How do we start?

One of life’s many ironies is that sometimes it takes a ‘dictator’ to kick-start even the most non-hierarchically democratic organisation. If somebody doesn’t seize hold of the thing and batter it into some kind of functional shape, nothing gets done. So, George! Suppose you are that ‘dictator’. What’s your first move?



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Unblocking the road

Joanna Cherry is probably mostly right. Peter Wishart is dependably Pete Wishart.

My support for Joanna Cherry’s position is qualified for two principal reasons. The first is that it needs to be made clear that, while the Scottish Government should certainly prepare for a court battle, it must not be the Scottish Government which initiates court action. To support the claim that it is proceeding as it is entitled to, the Scottish Government must proceed as if it was so entitled. Why should the Scottish Government initiate court action to establish the Scottish Parliament’s authority to facilitate the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination if it is claimed that the Scottish Parliament already possesses this authority?

The purpose is not to establish either the right of self-determination or the Scottish Parliament’s competence but to assert these.

Consider the ‘optics’. Rather than seem to be trying to extract from the British government something they have the power to withhold how much better, and more honest, is it if the situation is presented as the British government trying to deny our democratic rights.

Also, I see no point whatever in asserting the right to have a pretend referendum. Suppose the court confirms that the Scottish Parliament has competence to facilitate a “consultative” referendum. That still leaves open the question of competence to facilitate the full and effective exercise of our sovereignty in deciding the constitutional status of our nation and choosing the form of government which best suits our needs. And isn’t that what we’re fighting for?

The Scottish Parliament has exclusive democratic legitimacy in Scotland. We cannot and must not settle for it having less than the powers which this entails.

Pete Wishart’s refrain is, as is customary, “Not yet!”. And his insistence on procrastination is as devoid of explanation or supporting argument as ever it was. He boldly asserts that losing a legal challenge would ” set the case for Indy back significantly”. But he doesn’t elaborate. Presumably, we are supposed to just take his word for it. We are not supposed to question his wisdom. Sorry, Pete! I question everything!

I ask the obvious and necessary questions. Where are we now? Where would we be should a court case be lost?

Where we are now is at a road-block in limbo. We are wholly committed to a process which crucially relies on the goodwill and good faith of the British political elite. So, a process which can never lead to a referendum and/or the restoration of Scotland’s independence. We are going nowhere. We have no possibility of going anywhere whilst committed to the Section 30 process. And there seems no way that this commitment can or will be abandoned.

Where will we be if the court doesn’t find in our favour? That very much depends on the precise nature of the action and of the court’s finding. But the worst-case scenario must be that the court upholds the British governments claim that the Scottish Parliament does not have competence to hold a constitutional referendum. (Note that it makes no difference whether this is in relation to a “consultative” or a full referendum. If one is ruled out, they both are. So why aim low?)

It might be argued that this makes us worse off because the British government now has court backing for its anti-democratic position. But all it really means is that the case goes to a higher court. Which is, at least, some kind of movement. And it is movement towards the highest court of all – the one presided over by the people of Scotland.

It is difficult to see how asserting the thing we are fighting for puts us in a worse position than not asserting it. The idea that independence will come if we just continue to accept the Union for long enough makes no sense whatever. There can be no momentum without movement. Right now, because of some bad choices, we are in a place where we have precious little room for movement. Either we remain stationary at the road-block in limbo, or we go drive on and defy the British government to try and stop us.



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The wrong question

It’s the wrong question. Whether the British Electoral Commission should have any involvement is a moot point. The Scottish Parliament has decided. But it’s the wrong question.

One of those strange contradictions that seem to be a feature of politics is to be found in the observation that the new referendum will not be like the 2014 referendum coupled with an insistence that the new referendum campaign must be exactly the same as that for the 2014 referendum. Various politicians and other leading figures in the independence movement seem perfectly comfortable with pointing out all the ways in which the circumstances have changed, and advising that this fact inform our thinking on campaign strategy for the new referendum, and then describing a strategy that is indistinguishable from the one used in the old referendum campaign.

The language is identical. All the talk of “listening” and “conversation” and “being positive” is precisely what was inculcated into campaigners all through the first referendum campaign. The Section 30 process must be followed exactly as it was then. The questions must be the same as it was then. The entire referendum must be framed just as was the 2014 referendum campaign. No lessons have been learned from that campaign. None!

The main lesson to be learned from the first independence referendum campaign is that we should not conduct such a campaign again. This is not to say that the strategy adopted then was wrong. In many respects, there was no choice. Compromises had to be made. Much of what was done was perfectly appropriate in the circumstances that prevailed at the time. Context matters.

The context is very different now. It has been changed, not least by the first referendum itself and the British state’s response to it, both during and after. It was changed by EVEL. It was changed by the Smith Commission and the subsequent tinkering with devolution. It was changed, perhaps most obviously, by Brexit. What is appropriate to this new context is, in many ways, the opposite of what was suited to or dictated by the context of the 2014 campaign.

Things that weren’t mistakes back then now look like mistakes with hindsight and would be mistakes now. That is why they look like mistakes with hindsight. We are looking at them through the prism of the present context. Or, at least, some of us are.

Perhaps the most fundamental example of something that wasn’t a mistake then but would be now is making independence the contentious issue. Independence is normal. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which is the ‘naturally’ contentious issue.

And there’s another problem with putting independence front and centre rather than the Union. The following is from an article I wrote in September 2019.

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.

That was NOT the question!

The lesson is not exactly subtle. Don’t do that again! For various reasons, it was the best – or only – way to go about things the first time, which we may best regard as preparing the ground for the referendum that actually matters. We’re not at that stage any more. We should have moved on. We should now be putting the Union on trial.

The question on the ballot paper must make the Union the contentious issue. Rather than asking if Scotland should be an independent country we should be asking if Scotland should dissolve the Union. The question should be formulated in such a way as to ensure Yes and No responses have the same implication as in the first referendum.

This would transform the debate and avoid it being no more than a rerun of the previous debate – which would tend to deter engagement. It would be an entirely new debate for an entirely different referendum.

Why is it not obvious that this is what is required?



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The Cherry approach

Keith Brown says “the reality is that people want [a referendum] and they want it to be made in Scotland, not in Westminster”. Which begs the question, why then is the Scottish Government so obsessed with the Section 30 process which, by definition, affords Westminster a role in the making of Scotland’s referendum?

He goes on to say “the longer the Tories try to block a referendum the higher support for independence will rise”. Which sounds to me like an attempt to rationalise prevarication on the part of the Scottish Government. It sounds as if the ‘plan’ is to invite the British government to spit in Scotland’s face repeatedly in the hope that repetitious disrespect will move the polls without the need for the Scottish Government to actually do anything – other than take the credit if the polls eventually twitch into favourable territory.

Could there be a more undignified way to go about the business of restoring Scotland’s independence?

Apart from which, the obvious problem with this ‘plan’ is that disrespect from the British state is the norm that people in Scotland have learned to live with. We are inured to the contempt. What indignation there is gets vented on trivial matters such as Scottish banknotes being refused by some ill-trained checkout assistant in an English supermarket.

And so to Joanna Cherry. The Sunday National reports her as suggesting “as a way forward against the “current impasse” could be for Holyrood to pass a bill to hold an advisory referendum”. Although when we look at the actual quote we find that the word “advisory” doesn’t appear. The Sunday National may have reason to suppose Ms Cherry meant to say “advisory”. But given that she is both a proficient politician and a highly experienced QC, my assumption would be that she tends to say what she means, and mean what she says. And what she says is,

Having Holyrood pass a bill to hold a referendum could be part of a multi-faceted strategy to move us away from the current impasse and stop the constant and unproductive talk about Section 30 orders and seeking ‘permission’ to act from Westminster.

Until the Sunday National spoiled it by inserting the word “advisory” this was looking like it might at least hint at an eminently sensible approach. The only sensible approach. We know that the Section 30 process cannot provide a path to a new referendum and the restoration of independence, regardless of whether a Section 30 order is granted or refused. We know that there is no effective process that the British state will not deem ‘illegal’. We know that the referendum must be made and managed entirely in Scotland.

We know that the primacy of the Scottish Parliament on the basis of its democratic legitimacy must be asserted. We know that assuming competence to conduct the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination would be a practical and viable way of both rejecting the sovereignty of the British parliament and asserting the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. We know that this is the necessary next step on the road to independence.

Taking Joanna Cherry at her word, I am fully behind her on this. Which means nothing, of course. But if enough of the Yes movement gets behind her – including SNP members – then Nicola Sturgeon will surely be compelled to rethink her approach to the constitutional issue.



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A 'UDI' of our own

James Kelly seems to have changed his tune about a course of action which he previously denounced as unthinkably irresponsible ‘UDI’. More acute observers, of course, realised a long time ago that if Scotland’s independence is to be restored this will never be by any process deemed ‘legal’ by the UK government. It’s either ‘UDI’ or nothing. Where ‘UDI’ is understood to mean a process which excludes the UK government from any involvement and which must, therefore, be branded ‘illegal’ by a British political elite intent on preserving the Union at any cost.

Calling the referendum at the centre of this process “consultative” is a cop-out. It is an attempt to appease British Nationalists by assuring them that we’re only pretending to exercise our right of self-determination and won’t actually do anything. It’s a binary question of the kind that is perfectly suited to being decided by plebiscite. Assuming a properly framed ballot question and an adequate turnout, the result cannot be other than a clear expression of the will of Scotland’s people. Which, in turn, cannot be other than binding on the government and parliament elected by the people of Scotland and accountable to them.

It didn’t take a survey to know that it was nonsense to assume that ‘UDI’ would alienate large numbers of voters. All it took was some understanding of human nature. To anybody with a modicum of such understanding, bold, assertive action is obviously just the thing to catch the public’s imagination – and the mood of the nation.

The only question remaining is who might take this bold, assertive action that will inevitably be dubbed ‘UDI’ by anti-democratic British Nationalists. And whether it will be done properly. Whether the words “bold” and “assertive” are taken to heart.

The current SNP administration doesn’t look a likely candidate. But we shouldn’t give up on them just yet. To get the job done, we need a particular tool. The SNP is what we have to hand. The parlousness of Scotland’s predicament makes delay seriously inadvisable. So we must use what we have. The Yes movement has to get its act together and force Nicola Sturgeon to do what needs to be done – or to step aside in favour of someone who will. The latter trailing as the second choice some distance behind the former.

Forget the less than half-measure of a “consultative” referendum. Appeasement will always be perceived as weakness and encourage retaliatory action. The Scottish Government must be absolutely resolved and determined. The aim is to break the Union, not caress it.



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Denunciation wars

Derek Mackay’s behaviour was self-evidently unacceptable for a person in his position. Although it is worth noting that had he been an ‘ordinary’ citizen of Scotland what he did would barely have raised an eyebrow. It certainly wouldn’t have been deemed newsworthy. Few employers would have considered it cause for disciplinary action. This is not to minimise the foolishness of Mackay’s conduct. It is merely to recognise the facts. Facts which are in danger of disappearing in a fog of competitive outrage and frantic virtue-signalling.

There are people in society who are held to a higher standard. Rightly so. It is entirely proper that those who are entrusted with authority or high office should be constantly mindful of their duty to meet the public’s high expectations. But neither authority nor high office makes the incumbent other than human with all the failings, flaws and fallibility that this entails. Defects of character and deficiencies of integrity which are seldom more in evidence than on those occasions when predatory politicians get the scent of blood.

Everything is exaggerated. And increasingly exaggerated. As if the partisan palate is ever more readily jaded and demanding of more and more seasoning. The smallest misdeed is gleefully seized upon by political rivals and fashioned into a career-destroying – and on occasion life-destroying – weapon. Various political rivals and even “friends” try to outdo one another in their public expressions of shock and horror for fear that an inadequate response might be maliciously construed as condoning the offence. The misdeed comes to be defined by the ramping reaction to it rather than being judged by normal standards.

The solemn self-righteousness of politically expedient indignation is every bit as patently contrived as the theatrical exhibitions of grief which follow the death of some ‘much-loved celebrity’ or ‘national treasure’ as inevitably as bodily decay. And with much the same nausea-inducing effect on more cynical observers. Sites of tragic death become instant makeshift shrines littered with mawkish ‘tributes’ to the departed from people whose mourning is grossly disproportionate to their non-existent relationship with its object.

The meretriciously maudlin melodrama of competitive grief is a close cousin of the leck-strutting displays of hyperbolised denunciation which can be prompted by even the most objectively trivial transgression.

Derek did a daft thing. He is paying dearly for his incomprehensible stupidity. But nobody died or was seriously harmed by his foolishness. I am prepared to cut the guy some slack and I barely know him. You’d think those claiming to be his close friends might be at least as supportive. Should the quality of forbearance not also be something we expect of our politicians? Or at least some sense of proportion.



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The dilemma of conflicting imperatives

The trouble with saying that this isn’t what it looks like is that it induces people to think about what it looks like rather than what it’s being presented as. A bit like telling someone not to think about a pink elephant. Deferring the spring conference looks very like a pink elephant.

The problem wouldn’t arise, of course, if there weren’t reasons for supposing the SNP might wish to postpone the conference that have nothing to do with whatever it is that isn’t a pink elephant. If there weren’t widespread concern within the party and beyond about Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional question then people would not be able to ascribe ulterior motives to those responsible for putting conference off for three months.

People tend to think the worst of politicians and party managers. I wonder why.

Let’s deny them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let’s suppose the worst. Let’s assume the conference has been delayed to save the platform-sitters from having to face awkward questions from delegates who are less than enamoured with elements of their leadership’s performance. Will a two or three month delay solve the problem? Let’s think!

If the party hierarchy thinks a conference in March or April would be marked (marred?) by scenes of discontent and even dissent then they must reckon there to be cause for that discontent/dissent. And if they think it’s safe to have the conference in June, they must be calculating that the aforementioned cause of discontent and/or dissent will be eliminated before then. Which in turn suggests that something significant is going to happen in the interim.

What might that be?

Speculation is rife. Well, it is in my head. Thing is, there’s not that much to speculate about. It’s that old thing about imperatives and options again. The key to some kind of understanding of the ebb, flow and swirl of the political tides. Or at least, the key to turning idle speculation into informed analysis.

In terms of the constitutional issue, the British state’s overarching imperative – what drives its behaviour – is the need to preserve the Union at quite literally any cost. Their options all derive from the Union and the power relationship that it creates and perpetuates whereby the British state – or England-as-Britain or Borissia – is in all respects and at all times around eight times more powerful than Scotland. As if every voter in England-as-Britain had eight votes to every one vote for individuals in Scotland. (This, incidentally, is a major factor in the increasing number of English people in Scotland supporting independence. They are better placed to see the imbalance than ‘native’ Scots who have only ever lived in Scotland.)

What this means is that the British state has, if not unlimited options, certainly uncountable options. Effectively, the British political elite can do as it pleases with and to Scotland. The Union was intended to solve the ‘Scottish problem’. It was meant to remove Scotland as a threat to England. To achieve this, a grotesquely asymmetric political union was devised and imposed on Scotland. Even three hundred years ago the people detested the Union. But Scotland’s ruling elites were assured that they would be protected from the effects of this imbalance of power.

That constitutional arrangement; that grotesque imbalance of power, remains fundamentally unchanged to this day. Society has changed beyond recognition since 1707. But the Union has not changed accordingly. Such changes as there have been – notably devolution – were intended to reinforce and preserve the imbalance rather than to reform and rectify it.

In the UK, people in Scotland are second-class citizens at best. The Union makes it so. We have a second-class parliament. The Union so stipulates. We have a second-class government. The Union allows no more. Not second-class in the sense of qualitatively inferior. Certainly second-class in terms of political power. Our Scottish Parliament may have immeasurably greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster. But it must always be subordinate. Our Scottish Government may be considerably more effective in addressing the needs, priorities and aspirations of the nation’s people. But it must always be subordinate to even the worst of administrations in London. Our people may be little different from the resident of Borissia. But we do not have the same right to choose the government that best suits our needs. The Union underpins this inequity.

This is the reality of the Union. A reality that is abhorred by many who appreciate the true nature of Scotland’s predicament; tolerated by those whose fear or apathy outweighs their self-respect and sense of justice; embraced by those whose conceit of themselves is that they are, or can hope to become, part of the cossetted elite.

But to our speculation. The foregoing has, I hope, served to explain why the British state has so many options. Or, to put it another way, so few constraints on how it acts towards Scotland. This is why restoring Scotland’s independence will require an exceptional effort on the part of boldly imaginative and utterly determined people.

Which brings me to the Scottish Government. No! really! Settle down!

What is the Scottish Government’s imperative? What drives the SNP administration? There can be no doubt that in relation to the day-to-day governance of the nation, the SNP administration seeks to serve the interests of Scotland’s people. And does so with quiet competence. Perhaps too quiet. Everybody will have their pet gripes, of course. But overall, the SNP administration has done a truly remarkable job considering the daunting constraints of devolution and an increasingly hostile British state.

All of which may well be part of the problem. The SNP is not only supposed to provide good government. It is also the de facto political arm of the independence movement. A role which bestows upon the party duties and responsibilities quite distinct from the duties and responsibilities of government. In relation to its role as a party of government the SNP’s imperative must be to stay in office. To win elections. To conduct itself in such a way as will enable it to win elections.

In relation to its role as the political arm of the independence movement, however, the driving imperative must be the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But to the considerable extent that options for action are related to power, the SNP is relatively powerless against the British state and its uncountable options. This we know. This we understand. What may be less well recognised or appreciated is the conflict between the two imperatives driving the SNP. On the one hand, its role as the governing party means it must conform to and comply with the unjust conditions imposed by the Union. On the other, its imperative in relation to its role as the party of independence obliges it to behave contrary to those conditions.

Basically, the SNP can’t do its job as a government if it fulfils its role as the party of independence.

Which imperative wins? Ultimately, the party must choose. It may well be that this choice was on the cards for the SNP’s spring conference. Whispers are growing daily about grassroots pressure on the party leadership for a change of approach to the constitutional question. It would, from a pragmatic point of view, be understandable if the leadership preferred to postpone this confrontation. Much as they’ve avoided the confrontation with the British state which will come at some point if the shackles of the Union are to be broken.

If the postponement is to allow the party bosses time to prepare for the coming contest of priorities – or imperatives – I’m fine with that. It’s a crucial issue. It deserves and requires preparation. If the postponement is for the purpose of preempting the confrontation by taking some kind of extraordinary action, I’ll be even better pleased. But if the postponement turns out to be nothing more than kicking the can down the road from reluctance to face up to the issue, I will not be well pleased.



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