Won't somebody think of the millions

One of things about writing a blog that is the source of much fun and often a deal of frustration is the process of deciding what to write about. Obviously, when you’re a politics anorak like myself there are the major political topics of the day. Occasionally, however, there’s just nothing that pokes your imagination with a sharp stick. You look at the news web sites and it’s wall-to-wall scandal involving some celebrity or royal or politician. If the streets are littered with journalists writhing in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy you can assume a particularly salacious story has broken involving one or more individuals combining the essential attributes of substantial wealth, unearned privilege, elected office and an uncommon (preferably unnameable) sexual peccadillo. That sort of stuff leaves me cold.

Then there’s the situation we have just now, What I call a mono-crisis. As the term suggests, and as is illustrated by the COVID-19 megafuss, this refers to the sort of incident or development that comes to occupy all the top spots on the news pages. The sort of thing that quickly becomes a hook on which to hang any and every piece of reporting and writing. When you scroll down a bit from Coronavirus death toll and find Coronavirus recipes you know you’ve got a mono-crisis.

Somewhere between these extremes you get the single-issue campaigns and hobby-horse issues trying to piggy-back on the mono-crisis frenzy while it lasts as well as the well-meaning advice and the ‘Lovejoys’ – collectively known a the colon pieces. (I hasten to point out that this refers to the punctuation mark and not the lower intestine.) Here’s an example from today’s Sunday National – Coronavirus: ‘We need new ways to protect women from violence’. This is not to diminish the issue of domestic violence. It is merely to illustrate a piggy-backing colon piece headline. No judgement on the article itself is implied or, indeed, possible given that I haven’t yet read it. There’s bound to be an article somewhere in today’s papers that brings together coronavirus and climate change and/or coronavirus and nuclear disarmament and/or coronavirus and some other hobby-horse issue. Often involving an appeal for charitable giving. Again, no judgement.

The Sunday National also provides an example of the advice variety of colon piece, although this time the colon is implied. How can you take care of your emotional well-being during COVID-19? In a lesser publication, this might well be a quick rewrite of a piece that appeared last November or early December under the headline How can you take care of your emotional well-being during the Festive Season?

What about the ‘Lovejoys’? Named for the character in The Simpsons this refers to the appeals to consider a particular demographic or special interest group. The line ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’ has passed into everyday language, often replacing ‘children’ with some other specific category of people. Recently, for instance, we’ve heard ‘Won’t somebody please think of the self-employed!’. You can probably think of your own examples. Again, I am obliged to state that these may well be deserving groups of individuals. I’m talking here about media, not people.

The point is that a mono-crisis breeds predictable offshoots of various sorts which pack the media and push everything else out of sight. Which may suit some people just fine.

One last mention of a particular type of offshoot – the gesture. This is the pieces urging people to make a common gesture to mark, celebrate or memorialise a date event or person. You know the sort of thing – ‘Put a candle in your window as an expression of the nation’s gratitude for the work done by candle manufacturers!’. That sort of thing.

The focus of the mono-crisis becomes almost like a commodity or a brand. Or even a celebrity. It is attached to all manner of things either to pique he interest of browsers or to fill the spaces between advertising material. Coronavirus/COVID-19 is no different. It gets used. It gets exploited in diverse ways. That’s neither necessarily a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just the way people work. And the way the media work. It can be a good thing if it leads to people being better informed and more aware. It can be a bad thing if it trivialises a serious issue or misleads people.

The latter is an aspect of the mono-crisis phenomenon which is a significant concern. The mono-crisis can drag on for weeks or months or years. People being what they are, interest wanes. So there is always the temptation to embellish mono-crisis-related stories to make them more titillating. Just yesterday, I encountered some buffoon on Facebook talking about the population being “wiped out”. We may dismiss this as being of no consequence both because it is such an obvious and ludicrous exaggeration and because it’s on Facebook – where stupid goes to get a lobotomy. Research that I’ve just made up has shown that your IQ drops by one point for every hour spent on Facebook. The guy ranting about coronavirus wiping out populations had obviously been on Facebook for several days.

Early estimates put the case mortality rate no higher than 1%. That’s a much smaller percentage of all infections, around 80% of which will result in only mild symptoms and may not even be noticed. At population level the impact is negligible.*

It would be good if we could dismiss such nonsense. But how often have we found that today’s social media drivel is tomorrow’s Herald headline? One Facebook reference is enough foundation for some ‘journalist’ to author a piece ‘asking the question’ as to whether there is growing panic about mass deaths. The sort of article that offers solemn warnings about irresponsible exaggeration spiced with lurid language of the kind it purports to be condemning. MILLIONS WILL DIE! has the same effect as WILL MILLIONS DIE? when shouted from headlines.

I was thinking all this as I perused the papers looking for inspiration. The train of thought was prompted, in part, by Mike Russell’s comment piece in the Sunday National, the gist of which may be gathered from the headline – Politicians are solely focused on Covid-19 fight. That headline caught my attention. It is interesting, not so much for what it says, but for the reaction it is likely to prompt. It’s surely safe to assume that most people seeing that statement would feel reassured. They’d think it a good thing and a proper thing that politicians should be exclusively focused on the public health emergency. It is a mono-crisis, after all. We all know what ‘mono’ implies from common expressions such as ‘monotonous’, monosyllabic and ‘monomaniacal’. And we all know what a crisis is because there is never a time when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis, just recovering from a crisis or preparing for an imminent crisis. It’s appropriate that our politicians should be “solely focused” on the current mono-crisis. Isn’t it?

A few people – probably very few – would look at that headline and think to themselves that this exclusive focus on a single matter was extremely irresponsible. No matter how serious the issue, there are always other issues. Some of these are chronic and will deteriorate rapidly if not properly managed and overseen. We don’t elect politicians to deal with a single issue. We elect them to manage all the nation’s affairs. ALL the nation’s affairs! Either Mike Russell is indulging in a bit of rhetorical micturation or our elected representatives are being derelict in their duty.

Context is essential to a proper understanding of any situation. It allows us to bring to bear a sense of proportion. Of course, it is right that there should be concern for those affected by COVID-19. But what about the 99.997% of the population who will not die from coronavirus-related causes? Do they not deserve some consideration also? Should our politicians not be focusing at least partially on the future beyond this mono-crisis?

Another thing that nudged my neurons when considering what to write about today was a comment on a previous blog article. The individual posting the comment gave the impression of being incandescent with indignant out rage calling me “inhumane” and suggesting that articles such as mine should be the target of some kind of official censorship. My offence? Apparently, I am a monster because I wrote about the pandemic from the perspective of a political commentator rather than from the point of view of someone actually witnessing the suffering of the afflicted. It seems that this is the only perspective that is permissible. To even entertain in one’s private thoughts, never mind one’s published writing, the wider implications of the pandemic equates to some kind of heresy. Context is prohibited. A sense of proportion is forbidden. Proper understanding is improper. It all lends a new and ominous meaning to the term mono-crisis. Not only must we focus solely on the one issue, we must see it in only one way.

This comment had a profound effect on me. I decided not to write about coronavirus.

* https://www.vox.com/2020/3/5/21165973/coronavirus-death-rate-explained



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Three crises

There is no law of nature or humanity which provides that there can only ever be one crisis facing a nation or the world at any given time. And yet this is what apologists for the SNP’s failure ask us to accept. They effectively insist that because there is a public health crisis, nothing else may concern us or occupy a moment of our attention lest we be condemned as cold and uncaring – heedless of the human cost, if not actually responsible for some part of it. It would be interesting to examine this curious mindset. It could be informative to reflect on the causes of this extreme tunnel-vision. In particular, it might be illuminating to consider the role of the mass media in creating a population whose attention can so readily be manipulated by or on behalf of powerful forces in society.

But that is not my purpose here. Perhaps another time. For now, I think it important to consider the reality which is being excluded by the contrived and quite unnatural obsession with a public health threat which, while undoubtedly serious, is now being exaggerated to rationalise the irrational exclusion of all political and social issues from public attention.

As is very often the case, Scotland is the exception. It is strange that the thing that is most insistently excluded from public attention, the thing that is most immediately and comprehensively set aside, so consistently tends to be something that is of particular relevance to Scotland. Part of this irrationally obsessive mindset involves the well recognised phenomenon of abstraction from any historical context. Events are regarded as one-off. Singular. Unique. Failures of the capitalist economic system, for example, are reliably portrayed as unprecedented when, in reality, they are frequent enough to be commonplace. Economic crises are presented as isolated instances when, in fact, our economic system is in a constant state of crisis. It simply suits some purpose of the powerful to have us concentrate all our attention on one small section of the timeline. Like blanking out all but a few selected frames in a movie or ripping out all but a small number of pages from a book and convincing everybody – or enough people – that this is the whole story.

Lest you think this phenomenon manifests only in the realm of global economics I’ll mention one further instance which always comes to mind when this abstraction is discussed – the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. One aspect of this magnificently horrific incident evident to those inclined to consider its wider implications was that it was not considered fitting to consider wider implications. The incident was lifted entirely and completely out of the great play of history and placed centre stage and alone with every light in the house thrown on it and everything around it cast into darkness. Any attempt to restore the incident to, for example, the context of US foreign policy was, shall we say, vigorously opposed. In fact, even to attempt such a thing risked being metaphorically burned at the stake for heresy. If the attempt was made in America the immolation might be less metaphorical.

As with bank collapses and terrorist atrocities, so with the current public health emergency. It’s the only thing there is. One crisis only allowed. Nothing else matters. To suggest that something else matters is to invite accusations of attempting to diminish or dismiss the seriousness of the ‘real issue’.

But the world is not so monochromatic. There’s every shade of grey and every other hue besides. This is not a controversial observation. All but the most devoted coronavirus obsessives might agree were the question put to them directly. There is no law of nature or humanity which provides that there can only ever be one crisis facing a nation or the world at any given time. The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious public health issue. But it is not and cannot be the only issue. Life goes on quite literally regardless of the things that inevitably loom large in our personal sphere – such as bereavement – and the things that are made to loom large by those who stand to benefit from having them loom large enough to push everything else out of our sight.

In Scotland, what always and immediately gets unceremoniously pushed below the bottom of our list of priorities is the constitutional question. Is that not something worth pondering? The constitutional issue is one day the single overarching matter in Scotland’s politics, and next day nowhere to be found. How does that happen? Why this issue? To stay firmly within living memory, the tipping of the global capitalist system from constant to particular crisis in 2007/2008 instantly prompted shrill demands that Scotland’s constitutional issue be completely removed from the agenda. Note that it had to be purposefully, forcefully removed. Other issues could be relied upon to find their place in the calls upon the public’s attention and concern. Actual effort was demanded to ensure that the constitutional issue was consigned to the sub-basement of priorities. Have you never wondered why?

Likewise with the Brexit fiasco. Ever since the Leave vote in England and Wales meant that Brexit would be imposed on an unwilling Scotland, the shrill voices of those who presume to decided such things on our behalf have asserted as fact that it is not possible to both deal with Brexit and be in any measure preoccupied with Scotland’s constitutional issue. Only and always and most insistently Scotland’s constitutional issue. Have you never wondered why?

Now it’s COVID-19. Almost the moment the existence of the virus became known it was seized upon as yet another justification for taking the constitutional issue ‘off the table’ completely. Do you not wonder why? Are you not yet beginning to see a pattern emerging?

And it is particularly the constitutional issue that is the matter we are supposed to put entirely from our minds. Nobody suggests that the coronavirus crisis obviates the climate crisis. Nobody has suggested that the conflict in Syria has ceased to be of any importance because only the coronavirus crisis can be important. The public health crisis certainly hasn’t put a stop to the British political elite’s constitutional machinations. If anything, the malignant child-clown in Downing Street is accelerating its plans and intensifying its efforts to forcibly mould these islands into a new state made in the image of the imagined ‘Great Britain’ of a grotesquely mythologised past. Only in Scotland are we expected – required – to abandon our aspirations for something better than Boris Johnson’s tawdry blend of Little England and Greater England where every day is a crossover between Dad’s Army and Terry & June. Don’t you ever ask yourself why?

There is no law of nature or humanity which provides that there can only ever be one crisis facing a nation or the world at any given time. At this moment, there is a public health crisis. But there is also a constitutional crisis. The public health crisis needs to be addressed and can be handled without any difficulties which aren’t the product of human folly. But what of the 99% who survive? What of their future and the future of the generations to follow? When the COVID-19 pandemic ceases to hog the attention of the mass media and hence the general public, Scotland’s constitutional crisis will still be there. It will still need to be resolved. It will inevitably be even more urgent given that British Nationalists are not being in the slightest bit hindered in their campaign by the coronavirus pandemic. Does that not lead you to wonder whether it is a good idea to drop the independence campaign completely? Has it suddenly ceased to be important that we set up some resistance to the escalating onslaught on our democratic institutions, our distinctive political culture, our essential public services, our civil and human rights as citizens of Scotland and our very identity as a nation?

Which brings me to the third crisis I want to bring out of the deep, ominous shadow cast by COVID-19 (and whatever is to be the next mono-crisis) and into the light of public attention. There is a constitutional crisis in Scotland. But our means and effort to address this are also in crisis. The Yes movement is in crisis. The independence campaign is in crisis. And it has bugger all to do with coronavirus. Responsibility for this crisis lies squarely on the shrugging shoulders of the SNP. With their apologists perhaps due some small share of blame. It’s bad enough when the British political elite tries to demote our constitutional crisis to insignificance and with it our aspirations for a better nation and a better society. It is an entirely different and vastly more serious matter when our own government and the party on which the independence movement has hitherto relied collude with the British state in this demotion. That, I submit, is a whole new crisis. And one from which we should not be distracted if we are to have any hope of saving Scotland from the fate that is being decided for us by forces unaccountable to the people of our endangered nation.



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Lies and scapegoats

What Mike Russell might have said was he under the influence of some magical truth potion is that the Scottish Government is delighted to have an excuse for ‘calling off’ a referendum that was never going to happen. His letter to Gove is a device to reinforce the message that it’s not the SNP administration’s fault that the independence project is totally staled, it’s the virus. Mr Russell and his colleagues are hoping we’ll forget that the independence project was idling in a blind alley long before the COVID-19 outbreak hit the headlines. The campaign hasn’t moved since 2014. The public health emergency is not a reason or an explanation. It’s an excuse and a post hoc rationalisation.

It is important that people know this for the same reason it’s always important that people know when their government is trying to deceive them. Awareness aids prevention. Just as being aware of how contagion spreads and what can be done to protect against it improves your chances of avoiding infection, so awareness of official dissimulation improves your ability to resist manipulation.

Untruth is a disease that infects politics and weakens democracy. Like a virus, lies spread through society by various means. Like a virus, lies mutate in order to survive. Like a virus, lies disrupt the organism. Awareness is our best defence. It would be good if we could eradicate all the ‘bugs’ which cause disease, but those bugs are part of the matrix of life. Even if it were possible to wipe them out the consequences would be unknowable and potentially very harmful to the rest of the matrix. Similarly, deceitfulness is part of human nature. Eliminating it would require that we change all of human nature. Given that our success as a species is largely accounted for by the way we think and behave, tampering with the model might not be a good idea.

We have to live with lies just as we have to live with other disease-causing agents such as viruses. We have to both resist and accommodate them. Awareness is essential to both resistance and accommodation. If you can’t recognise lies or don’t understand how they work, you can’t develop resistance or discover what compromises can safely be made.

It’s all about power, of course. Everything is. All human interactions are transactions in power; a constant and largely unconscious bargaining process in which we seek to optimise our power so as to minimise our fear. The name for this process is ‘politics’. We may only call it politics when it moves sufficiently far from the realm of interpersonal relationships and into the realm of society, but it’s all politics. It’s all the same process. The social and societal life of every human being is one long political negotiation of relationships of power.

It is beyond ridiculous to imagine that this process can be stopped. It is beyond ludicrous to suppose that it might be possible to opt out of the process. And yet this is precisely what Nicola Sturgeon is insisting we do. Precisely what she is asking us to believe is feasible. And far too many people are falling for this deception.

Politics doesn’t stop for anything other than death and extinction. All that can be stopped is active participation in politics. Politics proceeds regardless of whether one participates or not. So the idea that the active participation of the independence campaign can be halted for a period of months and perhaps years without deleterious effect is borderline insane. When British Labour MP Ian Murray says “This is no time for constitutional politics.” he is talking delusional nonsense. Either that or he knows perfectly well that constitutional politics cannot be stopped and what he is actually doing is trying to get ‘wethepeople’ to self-isolate from it. To disengage. To cease and desist from participation.

The same is true of Mike Russell and Nicola Sturgeon. Although the underlying motives and motivations may be different, they are now just as eager as Murray and other British Nationalists to shut us out of ‘their’ politics. Quite simply, our engagement and participation threaten their power. So they orchestrate a deceit in order to put our engagement and participation on hold.

We know very well by now what drives British Nationalists. What we need to be aware of – and far too many aren’t – is that the cease and desist order from Nicola Sturgeon to the Yes movement is no different in its fundamental purpose from the British Nationalist ‘Say no to indyref2’ campaign with its portrayal of the democratic process as ‘divisive’ and of participation in that process as an onerous imposition. Both are intended to have use decouple ourselves from the political process and ‘leave it to the professionals’. Give them the power. It’s a ruse as ancient as politics itself. Power is relative. What better way to increase one’s own power than to dupe others into voluntarily relinquishing their power?

The SNP’s version of this well-worn old ploy differs only in the details of the motive. There was a growing realisation among activists and supporters that the independence campaign had been driven into a blind alley by Nicola Sturgeon. The rumblings of disquiet and dissent were growing even within the party. A tipping point was approaching at which the SNP’s power would be seriously threatened. That power is critically dependent on the financial and electoral support of the pro-independence constituency. Once it became evident to all that the SNP had not only dropped the independence ball but stabbed it, crushed it and set fire to it, then the supply of both votes and cash would dry up.

The COVID-19 outbreak is the perfect scapegoat for the SNP’s failure. If it hadn’t been the public health crisis it would have been something else. Although it is as difficult to see just what they might have pushed the blame onto as it is to discern how the independence campaign moves forward from here. Before COVID-19, the party was in a very serious quandary. No way forward. No way out. No options. No room for manoeuvre. Promises had been made which couldn’t be kept. Commitments had been made which couldn’t be met. Objectives had been set which couldn’t be reached. For professional politicians, this is both a nightmare and a disgrace.

So they lie to us. They tell us “all campaigning” must be “suspended”. That is a lie. There is never a good reason to disengage from constitutional politics because constitutional politics is absolutely fundamental to democracy. Obviously, the precise nature of the campaigning would have to change due to the restrictions necessitated by the public health crisis. But instead of encouraging us to adapt to the situation the SNP has sought to have us disengage. Why?

They tell us the independence campaign can be halted for the duration of the emergency and then picked up again afterwards. That is a lie! Politics doesn’t stop just because you disengage from it. Politics simply proceeds without you. For example, the Brexit fiasco and its attendant constitutional implications for Scotland. That isn’t being “suspended”. So, whenever Nicola Sturgeon decides it’s acceptable to resume normal levels of campaigning, the ground will have shifted. If the emergency is ‘managed’ in such a way as to drag it out for up to two years, as some are suggesting, the ground will have shifted on a tectonic scale. Resumption of business, as usual, will no more be possible for the Yes movement than for any other organisation that fails to move with events.

They tell us that COVID-19 is to blame. That it’s the virus which makes this disengagement by the Yes movement necessary. That is a lie! It is inevitable that the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence will be affected by the crisis. But the manner in which it is being affected and the extent to which it is being impacted are entirely matters of political expediency. And everybody in Scotland needs to be aware of this.



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Tragedy and godsend

For years we have been pleading with Nicola Sturgeon to show the Yes movement some leadership. The first time she actually steps up, it’s to order a halt to the independence campaign. Apparently, there is only one thing happening in the world at the moment and if we don’t all focus our entire attention on that thing every waking moment and in fitful dreams when sleep overtakes us then we are really terrible people. All is coronavirus! Coronavirus is all! You shall have neither consideration nor concern for anything other than coronavirus and matter directly relating thereto, on pain of being denounced as a callous, uncaring sub-human aberration.

It’s not only the entire independence campaign that has been on hold. All disbelief has also been suspended. You can tell the mindless mob absolutely anything and if you attach the word “coronavirus” to it and speak in sufficiently portentous tones you will be believed and your instructions will be meticulously followed. The crisis must be served. Whatever the crisis demands it must be given. The crisis is the deity and politicians are the priesthood interceding selflessly on behalf of their flock and passing on those demands. Demands which by strange coincidence happen to be precisely what serves the interests of the priesthood.

That there is a genuine public health crisis is not in doubt. But potentially far more damaging in the longer term than coronavirus is the pandemic of hysterical credulousness that has transformed people into Play-Doh for politicians. There’s a contagious viral disease spreading through populations. But there’s never a day when that isn’t true. The preventative precautions amount to no more than what sensible people do as a matter of habit. And the actual seriousness of the disease is massively exaggerated by the standard methods employed by mass media to sensationalise, scandalise and titillate.

Truth is said to be the first victim of war. The first victim of any crisis appears to be context. Every news source is trumpeting constantly updated count of victims and fatalities. Milestone numbers are ‘breaking news’ pushing everything else off pages and screens. 1,000 DEAD!!! It’s a scary number. Scary in the same way as the random but jaw-dropping figure attached to Scotland’s mythical deficit is scary. It’s the scariest figure they can get away with. They use scary numbers for a reason. To scare you! Why? Because frightened people are more easily manipulated.

Experts are, of course, boring. They are boring because they insist on providing boring context when all the interviewer or reporter wants to hear – and wants the audience to hear – are scary stories and scary numbers. That’s why non-passive consumers of mass media messages always question everything. Just as simple hand-washing and the kind of social distancing urban-dwellers profess to crave are effective defences against disease, so scepticism and awareness of how propaganda works offer good protection against the all too often malign manipulative purposes of the media.

If you are reading this article, and have read this far, I’m assuming you are not one of those passive consumers of media messages. They, in any case, are all out scouring the land for the hand sanitising gel that they’ve never used in their lives before but now might well kill to possess. So long as they don’t have to get within sneezing distance of their victim. Being actively critical consumers of media messages, you will be interested in a bit of that ‘common-sense’ context that succumbed to virulent news values in the early days of the current emergency. Nae bother!

I decided to do a little experiment just to see how easy it is for the general public to find the kind of information which serves as an antidote to the scaremongering of media and politicians. I settled on a very obvious search term – “coronavirus survival rate” – and made it the rule that I had to take the first article returned as my source. This happened to be Health.com and an article by Leah Groth dated 16 March 2020 and titled What to Know About the Survival Rate of Coronavirus—And How Many People Have Died From the Illness. After quoting ‘boring expert’ Jeremy Brown, MD, director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health (US) pointing out that “there’s not enough information that’s readily available yet to determine the true survival rate of COVID-19”, the article provides the following.

As for the data we do have, that information also shows a low fatality rate and high survival rate for COVID-19. In a viewpoint article published February 24 in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), the authors looked at the case records of 72,314 patients, 44,672 of which were confirmed as having COVID-19. Of those confirmed cases, 36,160 cases, or 81%, showed only mild symptoms, while 14% were severe and 5% critical. The overall case-fatality rate, or coronavirus cases that ended in death, was only 2.3%, or 1,023 deaths, out of the total number of confirmed cases.

Also worth noting, according Dr. Juthani: “[Coronavirus] appears to be more deadly for adults, especially those with other medical conditions”—no deaths have been reported in children, nor were any reported in those who had a mild or severe case of the illness. Dr. Brown also points out that those with chronic heart or lung problems and those who are immunocompromised are also at a higher risk of death.

What a difference context makes. For a bit more context here are some scary numbers about influenza deaths through the ages.

  • 1889 Russian flu pandemic: About 1 million flu deaths
  • 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: Over 40 to 50 million flu deaths, including about 675,000 in the United States. The flu infected over half of the world’s population by the end of this pandemic.
  • 1957 Asian flu pandemic: Over 1 million flu deaths, including about 69,800 in the United States
  • 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic: About 1 to 3 million flu deaths
  • 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic: Between 8,870 and 18,300 deaths in the United States and up to 203,000 deaths worldwide specifically from H1N1

The current COVID-19 pandemic is serious. But other stuff is still happening despite it. Life, as they say, goes on. It went on during and after the epidemics listed above. It is going on here and now. We’re just being discouraged from looking too closely at the other stuff that’s going on. A lot of effort is being put into making the coronavirus crisis into a monumental diversion. Mostly, to divert us from what is still going on in the realm of politics. Do not imagine for one moment that politicians all around the world – along with the Mini-me Machiavellis who advise them – were not thinking of ways to exploit the pandemic long before they started considering ways of dealing with it.

This is not to say that politicians contrived the crisis. Merely that they take opportunistic advantage of it. Which will not prevent the conspiracy theories proliferating like bugs. It’s always the same. The terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers provide a telling – and appalling – example of the way in which politicians exploit such tragedies. There is absolutely no doubt that the murderous hawks in the Bush regime used the ‘9/11’ attacks as a vehicle for their own warmongering purposes. The fact that it suited them doesn’t mean that they had anything to do with the planning and execution of the attacks. Only with hindsight does the human mind find the connections that create the patterns it craves.

The good news is that, as yet, nobody is using the coronavirus outbreak as a pretext for launching a war. Although I have to qualify that by stating that I haven’t been following Donald Trump’s Twitter feed today. Or ever, for that matter. We can be certain, however, that politicians are exploiting the crisis in more low-level ways. Many in ways that they consider harmless. The crisis is happening anyway. So why not use it. So long as using it doesn’t make it worse or interfere with relief efforts, where’s the harm? If anybody mentions morality we can always point at ‘9/11’ and urge them to consider the context that makes what they’re doing relatively moral by comparison.

We don’t have to look far for an example of this low-level political exploitation of a crisis for political ends. Only as far as Edinburgh. Only as far as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP.

It is a fact that, while initially denied by most and only lately acknowledged by increasing numbers of people, Ms Sturgeon was guilty of a serious error of judgement in committing to the British state’s Section 30 process as the means of securing a new constitutional referendum. It was an approach which was critically dependent on obtaining the willing, honest and comprehensive cooperation of the British government. It was never going to work. It failed immediately, disastrously and very evidently – despite there being surviving pockets of ‘True Believers’ who put faith before reason and genuinely suppose that the cooperation described will yet be forthcoming. We just have to wait. We should be good at that by now. Many of us will never be good at waiting when delay means missed opportunities and increased risk to Scotland’s democracy.

Ever since Boris Johnson contemptuously dismissed Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘demand’ for a Section 30 order she has been at a total loss as to what to do next. Not that the curt and discourteous refusal came as a surprise to many folk. But the Scottish Government simply hadn’t planned for it. I know that defies belief. But that’s not because it’s untrue. It’s only because it defies reason. The failure to plan for refusal of the Section 30 request is just one of those things we have to accept as defying explanation. Although explanation of a sort is possible. Nicola Sturgeon did not plan for rejection of her request, despite this being anticipated, because there was nothing she could plan. The only options left were ones which she is not politically able to pursue. Having committed completely, inextricably and irreversibly to the Section 30 process she had to just plough ahead and hope for the best. As so often happens when people resort to hoping for the best, she got the worst. Or, at least, something rather unpleasant. Coronavirus came to her rescue – all the ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ apparently being otherwise occupied delivering pizza on their ‘White Steeds’.

Whatever else it is, the COVID-19 outbreak is undoubtedly the the perfect cover for Nicola Sturgeon. And that is the point that so many are missing as they screech at spit at me for pointing out the simple truth that the world is more complicated than a newspaper headline and it is almost never the case that a thing is just the one thing. Most things can be two or more different things depending on perspective and our late lamented friend, context. It is perfectly possible for something to be simultaneously a human tragedy and a political godsend. Not all the high-minded posturing and frantic virtue-signalling to be found on Facebook will make the world any less complicated than it is.

Just as things can be two things at once, so people can do more than one thing at a time. They can engage with more than a single all-encompassing preoccupation. So normal is it for people to deal with a number of activities in their lives that we regard the opposite as an illness. We call such people ‘obsessive’. We send them for counselling. We practice our social distancing on them.

So it was that when I received an email from Nicola Sturgeon ‘instructing’ me – a campaigner for independence of almost 60 years standing – to cease and desist, I was displeased. I was very displeased. I know a wee bit about communication, particularly in relation to political campaigns. And this was the wrong message.

I will gloss over the unseemly presumption of Nicola Sturgeon suddenly deciding she does want to lead the Yes movement after all. And my personal bemusement at being ordered from the field by someone who has, by her own choice, no authority over the movement of which I am proud to be part. Let’s just deal with the offending line highlighted. That it is the wrong message from the viewpoint of a political campaign hardly needs to be stated. At a time when the Yes campaign is going to be seriously hampered by restrictions occasioned by the public health crisis, what was required – what was appropriate – was a message of encouragement. Not a declaration of surrender. What would have struck the right note was a message acknowledging the difficulties but appealing for an effort to overcome those difficulties. Something about keeping the campaign going because what we are campaigning for will still be crucially important to our nation and future generations long after coronavirus has done its worst.

So, how do we explain this totally defeatist line? My suspicion is that it is the work, not of Nicola Sturgeon – although she signed it and is therefore responsible – but of one of those Mini-me Machiavellis I mentioned earlier. Told that the pandemic was to be used to avoid The Boss having to admit she’d driven the independence project into a brick wall, the overenthusiastic underling went a bit too far and order a complete halt to “all campaigning”.

It rather goes without saying that, whatever the explanation for this message being sent out, it is unacceptable. And yet the impression I get is that most people in the Yes movement have meekly accepted it. The naivety is dumbfounding. These people seem to suppose that British Nationalists won’t exploit the situation for their own ends. They appear to imagine we can just park the Yes campaign while we go off to do something else, however worthy, and come back to find it still there and ready to pick up where we left off. Which, you may recall, is not a good place. It’s not going to get better with time.

The independence campaign was in a parlous state on account of the horrible blunder of Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process. Recovering from that dreadful misjudgement was going to require urgent action by a united Yes movement. Nicola Sturgeon has now driven in another wedge to widen the fissure caused by the Section 30 debacle. The Yes movement is weakened and partially paralysed by her cease and desist interdict. I saw only a slim hope of recovery from the situation we were in before COVID-19 struck. That hope is now invisibly slender. And coronavirus is only partly to blame.



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Just the ticket

It goes without saying that the current public health crisis must be the Scottish Government’s first priority at the moment. But Chris McEleny is correct to point out that “there are still other major issues facing the SNP and Scotland”. Perhaps more importantly, he reminds us – all of us – that however much some might wish it, these issues are not going to simply evaporate while the government and the media are distracted by more immediately newsworthy matters. The coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly a genuine problem. But don’t imagine for one minute that politicians around the world weren’t thinking of ways to exploit it before they started thinking of ways to deal with it. Scotland NOT excluded.

As obvious as the fact that the coronavirus outbreak must preoccupy the Scottish Government for the next several months is the fact that the British parties squatting in our Parliament together with their political masters in London will be eagerly looking for ways of turning the situation into a cudgel with which to pummel the SNP administration and the independence movement. The British state’s propaganda machine doesn’t stop just because people are falling ill and dying. It has no heart. It has no conscience. Expect no let-up in the relentless campaign of smear and calumny targeting NHS Scotland. To the slobbering hyenas of the British media, the additional burden on our health services means only new openings for attack. An overburdened system is a vulnerable system. The pack has scented prey.

Boris Johnson’s regime will be glad of attention being diverted from the Brexit shambles and the trade deal negotiations which have been rapidly descending to the same level of grim farce as has characterised the rest of the Mad Brexiteers’ asinine adventure. It is entirely possible, too, that the coronavirus will provide Johnson with a fine excuse for going back on his word not to seek another extension. Who could condemn him if he pleads inability to cope with concurrent cock-ups? He’s barely human, after all.

It is not only in Downing Street where the worry of dealing with a major public health threat will be laced with a vein of relief. I don’t for a moment suppose that Nicola Sturgeon will dwell on the fact, but fact it remains that the coronavirus outbreak is politically very convenient. It is perfectly possible for something to be both a tragedy and blessing, of sorts. It’s an ill wind that can’t be turned to some political advantage. Were unfolding events not all too regrettably real but following the script of some Netflix drama, one would be forgiven for thinking the pandemic too timely to be true. Fate can be cruel and/or kind. But very rarely both in such accommodating conjunction.

The health crisis comes at a time when the SNP, both as a party and as the administration, was facing increasing disquiet about its approach to the constitutional issue. None will admit it, but many in the party’s upper echelons will be discreetly heaving a sigh of relief that they will not now be required to face delegates any time in the near future. A chicken-wire screen in front of the stage is one movie cliche that conference managers will gladly eschew.

There will be some relief also that public health precautions now preclude other large gatherings at which criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ may have been voiced along with ever more insistent calls for a rethink. Or a ‘Plan B’, as Chris McEleny might say. But the disquiet and discontent don’t go away just because there’s a public health crisis. The constitutional is all-pervasive and all-encompassing. It is overarching and underlying. It is more than three centuries old and only becomes more urgent as time passes. Injustice does not diminish with time. The longer it persists, the more corrosive it becomes. Nor is it diminished by intervening events – no matter how serious these may be. The coronavirus tragedy will not be the first to be outlasted by the imperative of restoring constitutional normality to Scotland.

There is absolutely no reason why the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence might not or should continue by whatever means are left to us and by whoever is not otherwise occupied dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. We can expect a screeching chorus of “Now is not the time!” from the BritNat harpies. We should be thoroughly inured to their self-serving faux outrage by now. There is never a time when it is not appropriate to act in defence of democracy and for the ends of justice.

The Yes movement may not be able to march. Yes groups may be obliged to cancel planned events. SNP branch and constituency meetings will fall victim to essential restrictions on gathering of any size. But this means only that we are freed to apply our energies elsewhere. There is much that can still be done online, for example. It may be a good time to start your own blog. Or to devote more time to reading and sharing existing material in support of Scotland’s cause. The web provides us with unparalleled facilities for communicating and collaborating on all manner of projects. Writing letters to newspapers may be something you’ve always intended to do but never found time.

Email still works fine. Why not let SNP MSPs and MPs know how you feel about the fact that the independence project has stalled – and not because of the pandemic! Tell them of your concerns. Ask them questions. And when answers aren’t forthcoming, ask again!

It would be all too easy for this latest setback to become a cause for despondency and despair, coming as it does on top of the disappointments and frustrations of the past five years. We must avoid this. We must use this time. If politicians can exploit such situations, so can we. We just need to use our imaginations, our skills and the networks built by the Yes movement.

As some of you may have suspected, all of this has been leading up to my own suggestion as to what the Yes movement and SNP members could be doing over the coming weeks. Regular readers will be aware that I had previously envisaged Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP providing the leadership that the Yes movement requires in order to become an effective machine for fighting our political campaign. This has not happened. Let’s say no more at this juncture than that the necessary leadership has not been forthcoming. My own ‘Plan B’ is that the leadership should come from within the Yes movement. The question which remained to be answered concerned the practicalities. How would it be done? I believe I may have the answer to that question.

I had been thinking that building a campaign with the necessary unity, focus and discipline would require a new organisation born out of or hived off from the Yes movement. The aims of the organisation would be threefold –

  • to compel the Scottish Government to take a more assertive approach to the constitutional issue
  • to facilitate by any means necessary the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination
  • to devise a strategy to force constitutional reform built on the twin aspirations to build a better nation and end the injustice of the Union.

It has been brought to my attention, however, that a suitable organisation may already exist in the form of the SNP Common Weal Group. The stated aims of this group are, I am persuaded, sufficiently in accord with the aims set out above as to make it a suitable candidate for transformation into the kind of pressure group and campaigning organisation that is required if Scotland’s cause is to progress. I would urge everyone in the SNP and the Yes movement to at least consider how they might contribute to this transformation.

In the short-term, my hope is that this article might spark a more focused debate about taking the independence campaign out of the doldrums. In the longer-term… well… there is no longer-term. I am convinced that if the grassroots does not seize the initiative – seize it hard and seize it quickly – then the project to restore Scotland’s independence may suffer setbacks from which it will not easily or soon recover.



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A politician speaks

I’m not sure a strategy of escalating measures is appropriate in the circumstances. It seems to me that what is required to deal with coronavirus is drastic preemptive action rather than reacting to a worsening situation. Why, for example, only ban gatherings of over 500 people. Is infection less likely to spread in a group of 499 than in a group of 501? Surely, on average, the same percentage of people will be infected. if the infection rate is 60% then in a gathering of 1000 people 600 will contract the disease. Two gatherings of 500 people resulting in 300 new infections each give exactly the same outcome. It does nothing to stop the spread of the disease.

Fortunately, a combination of good sense and fear is likely to more effective as it deters people from assembling in groups of any size. Self-isolation after symptoms are in evidence also does nothing to stop the spread of the disease as it is, by definition, a measure taken after the disease has already spread. What stops a pandemic in its tracks is a total cessation of any physical contact or proximity between individuals initiated the moment the virus is detected in the population. This may not be practicable. But the precautionary principle would require us to take this ideal as our starting point and scale back only when and to the extent cannot be avoided.

Escalating towards the most effective measures in response to data about the spread of the disease cannot be effective as you will always and necessarily be acting too late. It’s not epidemiology. It’s just good sense.

So why isn’t it happening? What other reason than political cowardice?

The UK Government is arguably further behind the curve than many other governments. But I see no cause for smug superiority while our own First Minister makes idiotically contradictory statements in which she claims “all possible steps” are being taken then immediately refers to steps which are not being taken as a matter of choice.



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Stalled!

This past week or two I’ve been reminding myself why I stopped using Facebook. It’s not the idiots. You can’t avoid them without abandoning social media altogether. It’s not even the fact that Facebook allows the idiots to spout their idiocy at greater length than Twitter. Just as you develop an algorithm in your brain which edits out the advertising from your conscious attention, so a similar ‘brain-switch’ is triggered by the first few words of a comment that the algorithm predicts will be unworthy of your attention. What I’m saying is that, as with all mass media, there’s a knack to being an active consumer. Being an active consumer means being selective as well as being critical. Question everything. But learn to spot the stuff that’s going to have only gibberish for answers.

I dislike Facebook because it has become this huge, clunky, clumsy, creaking machine. It’s like somebody asked Terry Gilliam and Maurits Cornelis Escher to collaborate on designing a social media platform. My laptop hates it! It’s a brand new machine and definitely not low-spec. But after ten minutes or so on Facebook it starts wheezing like it’s using Capstan Full Strength to treat a bad case of emphysema. Facebook turns site navigation into a mystery tour. At any given time, a haphazard selection of buttons function like the ‘Random article’ link on Wikipedia. The difference being that on Wikipedia you’ve a fairly good chance of landing on something interesting. On Facebook it’s vastly more likely you’ll encounter material with what we might euphemistically refer to as ‘niche appeal’. A detailed account of somebody’s gran’s verruca treatment complete with pictures may be gripping stuff for the odd deviant imagination but it’s quite jarring when you think you’ve clicked a link to a post about the Dutch tulip industry.

Facebook torments me. But it has its compensations. One thing I like is the way some comment can trigger a train of thought or the memory of something I’ve been meaning to write about. That happened recently when I read a remark about the SNP trying to appeal to ‘new moderates’ in an effort to increase support for independence. This immediately brought to mind some thoughts i’d had on this very matter but had not, as far as I could recall, turned into to pixel-dust and committed to the care of the cloud fairies. I’ve copied and pasted my response, expanded it a bit and tidied up some stuff.

The trouble is, the SNP is not appealing to any new moderates. Because there are no new moderates. All the moderates are already included in the 50% Yes share polls are showing. The appeal needs to be to another category or categories of voters altogether. A more emotional appeal. A more aggressive appeal. Voters have hearts as well as heads. And there is no law or rule that says voters cannot be guided by their hearts as much as their heads.

We need a campaign that addresses people’s sense of injustice. We need a message that sparks anger. Not rage! Anger! Righteous anger.

We need the other bit of the campaign. The bit that was missing from the 2014 campaign because it was effectively prohibited. The negative to go with the positive. Simply campaigning for independence will not work. Or, to put it another way, campaigning for independence has done its work. It has won as many votes as it can. We need to unleash the other side of the campaign. The artillery barrage. The anti-Union campaign.

I can explain – have explained – why a campaign restricted to campaigning for independence can only do so much. Nobody listened. The SNP leadership still won’t listen. Independence cannot be the sole focus of an effective political campaign because it is a disputed concept. A binary political campaign – as in a referendum – must have a tangible, deliverable offering. The thing that everybody in the campaign agrees on as the end to be achieved. The thing that people actually vote for. Independence cannot serve that function because there is no possibility of general agreement among campaigners or voters about what independence means.

Independence always and for everybody means ending the Union. Dissolving it. Breaking it. However you want to put it. The Union is the target.

There’s an analogy which might help explain why a continuing campaign of “gentle persuasion” is a wasted effort. And it is, self-evidently, futile. The polls have barely moved in circumstances that should be ideal. Topping 50% is great for headlines in The National. But it’s less of a cause for celebration when you recognise that Yes should be at 60% and rising. In the context of Scotland’s independence campaign, 50% and barely twitching is evidence of failure.

It’s the law of diminishing returns. I used to do stock and production control in a big manufacturing plant producing perishable goods. There was a lot of what we called ‘variance’. That is to say, the stock we had was at variance to the stock we should have. Around 10% of production was being lost. All production all of the time. I introduced measures which brought that down to just over 1%. I continued to make improvements designed to prevent the variance rising. But I didn’t go chasing the 1%. Because it would have been too costly. Finding that 1% would have involved compromising production and labour relations. It just wasn’t worth it.

Some think that because their strategy of selling independence using “gentle persuasion” worked in the 2014 referendum – although not well enough – that all they need to do is persist with the same method. That assumes that votes over and above the ones already won are as easy to get as the ones already won. They are not! They are much more difficult to get. And they are not susceptible to “gentle persuasion”. We know that because that’s what the polls tell us. What little swing there has been to Yes can more than be accounted for by demographic changes and other factors. The “gentle persuasion” strategy has done nothing since 2014!

Let me put it another way. The “gentle persuasion” devotees imagine the campaign in a linear way. They think of it like a walk between to places marked on a map. If you’re at 10% you just have to keep walking in your sensible shoes and you’ll get to 20%. Walk a bit further and you’ll reach 30%. And so on. But a map is two-dimensional and deceptive. In reality, the journey begins as a stroll along a level, even path but at some point the path becomes broken and rocky and you find you should be wearing proper walking shoes. The path gets rougher and steeper until you can make no progress without full mountaineering kit and the skill to use it.

Now imagine you have a bungee cord tied round your waist and tied off way back at 0%. That is the reality of a political campaign. At every stage, you need the right tools and techniques. As you progress the difficulty of gaining ground increases on an exponential curve – until you can go no further.

What we will see – what we are seeing already – is a stubborn determination to hold to the “gentle persuasion” strategy which, as it struggles to have some impact, starts to make increasingly expensive compromises. If “gentle persuasion” isn’t selling this brand of independence and “gentle persuasion” is the only technique we’re allowed to use, then we are forced to adapt the ‘product’ we’re trying to sell until it appeals to a new market. Until it is saleable using our sole technique. And it’s not only the form of independence that will be ‘modified’ downward to find this new market. It will be everything associated with the project to restore Scotland’s independence. If it is thought that the process is what puts people off, then the least scary process must be selected.

But what happens when there is no process that is both reassuring to the apprehensive and viable? What happens if the only process that will work sounds a bit scary even if the fears are groundless?

That’s where we are at the moment. A strategy has been adopted which can’t make progress because those in charge refuse to use the tools and techniques which are required. They keep telling us the strategy is working fine. They keep telling us we’re getting closer. They keep telling us that bungee cord holding us back is about to break. And some believe it. Some have their eyes so firmly fixed on the destination that they can’t see the ground beneath them. They can’t tell that they’re not moving. Yet!



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