Universalism is one of those things that you either get right away or you probably never will. The capacity to understand the concept is directly proportional to social conscience. Those who don’t get it are worthy of vigorous shunning. Mostly, they’re arseholes. Some make an effort. But they find the concept elusive. One moment they will have a firm hold on it, the next it has turned to sand and slipped through their fingers.

I wonder if it is possible to truly comprehend universalism and not embrace it with enthusiasm. What manner of creature would it be that could do this? To understand universalism and oppose it is to knowingly and purposefully disadvantage swathes of society. How might this be justified?

I am, of course, referring to social universalism. The term is also used in theology and anthropology in ways that are different but closely related. The common theme in the word and the idea of ‘all’. All are equal. Every individual ultimately belongs in a single common category regardless of how many other categories they occupy. All!

This necessarily implies that whatever applies to or is relevant to that ultimate category must, by force of logic, apply to all regardless of any other category or categories they occupy. It is universal.

Commonly, people misunderstand universalism by supposing that is is something that it is not. That it means something that it doesn’t. It does not mean that everybody is the same. It doesn’t even mean that all are equal. What it means is that all the differences and inequalities cancel each other out. That there is balance. Equilibrium.

Universalism doesn’t mean dragging everybody down to a level. Nor does it mean raising everybody up to a level. It means allowing everybody to find and maintain the level at which they are comfortable. All are equally comfortable. Contentment is universal.

The American Declaration of Independence refers to the pursuit of happiness as one of the rights common to all. An early draft, which I prefer to the one that survives, states,

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.

Better that it had said pursuit of contentment. Happiness is ephemeral and transitory. No normal human being can be in a state of happiness all the time. Of course, the text actually qualifies this right as the “pursuit of happiness”. Leaving open the possibility that this condition might never be attained. Or might be attained only occasionally and intermittently and not without the effort of pursuit. One might reasonably wonder what kind of right it is that one has to work for. How can something be “inherent & inalienable” and at the same time only available to those who apply themselves to the effort of obtaining it?

Contentment is a very different proposition. Any of us can find contentment as an incidental by-product of our behaviours. We don’t have to strive for it. We may simply happen upon it. Indeed, it may not be definable as contentment if its achievement is effortful. In similar contrast to happiness, contentment readily be imagined as a permanent condition. It is perfectly possible to be content all the time. Indeed, contentment better conforms to its own definition the more permanent it is.

Pursuit of happiness devolves into a constant quest for instant gratification. To whatever extent we believe we have an undeniable right to pursue we take unhappiness to be both a denial of our rights and a personal failure. Circumstances conducive to neither happiness nor contentment. Circumstances conducive only to feelings of insecurity and anxiety.

The task of government, by this argument, is not to defend the individual’s right to pursue happiness but to create and maintain conditions in which all may find contentment. The aim is not to maximise happiness with insecurity and anxiety as by-products but to optimise contentment. By definition, insecurity and anxiety must thereby by banished.

A society pursuing happiness is a frantic society. It is therefore stressed and stressful society. From which it follows that it is a diseased society in the truest of senses that it is a society devoid of ease. It is a society in which the possibility of finding contentment has been reduced to something near zero. It is a sick society within which people tend to get sick. It is a disordered society in which organisations tend to become disordered. It is a corrupt society in which institutions tend to become corrupted. It is a society such as that which we have created for ourselves.

It is a society structured according to a socio-economic system which takes as its source of motive power the tensions created by imbalance. Inequality, inequity, injustice and insecurity – the four horsemen of the stress apocalypse. It is a system which functions by breaking people and breaks people by functioning. It is a system designed to fail because it has to be constantly failing in order to work – as in facilitate the accumulation of wealth by the few while affording the many just as many moments of instant gratification as it takes to convince them that real happiness – an end to anxiety – is only a bit more pursuit away.

Just as Buzz Lightyear wasn’t flying but falling with style, so our socio-economic system isn’t succeeding but failing with profits. No amount of style will stop Buzz eventually hitting the floor in what he will always call a ‘landing’ however little it may be controlled, so our socio-economic system must always fail in ways that its apologist will always refer to as a ‘blip’ or an ‘over-correction’ no matter how much it might feel like a bruising, bone-shattering crash to the rest of us.

Universalism makes a difference. It should be regarded not as a cure for a sick society but as an essential characteristic of a well society. Universalism isn’t a fix for all our problems. But when the concept and principle of universalism is generally understood and appreciated and applied, we will know we have at the very least gone some way towards creating a society with which we may justly be content.

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Break the chain

Break the chain of infection!

Pathogens such as viruses spread along chains of infection – from infected person to new host. The only certain way to stop the spread of a virus such as Covid-19 is to break as many of those chains as possible. To starve the virus of new hosts.

The only way to break the chains of infection and starve the virus of new hosts is to isolate potential new hosts from potentially infected person. When there is no way to easily and reliably tell whether a person is infected or infectious then this means isolating every individual from every other individual. If no two individuals in a population come into contact or proximity, the virus cannot spread. There are no chains of infection along which it can travel.

The more breaks in the chain there are, the less chance there is of anyone becoming infected. None of us has any way of knowing if we are on a chain that has been broken at some prior point.

The only way to be certain that the chain is broken is to be the break.

Will you be a link in a chain of infection? Or will you be a break?

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The next trick

Joanna Cherry gets it! She understands the situation and the circumstances and the dynamics. This much is evident from her column in The National today. She sees the opportunities and the potential pitfalls. And she is not shy about presenting a perspective which contrasts sharply with that set out by Nicola Sturgeon. All of which is very welcome. We needed this.

The contradiction of Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist order to the independence movement is explicit enough to be effective but framed in such a way as to avoid constituting a direct challenge to the party leader. Almost as if it had been composed by a lawyer. But let us not mistake this for anything other than a challenge – not for the leadership but to the leadership of the SNP. A challenge to the ethos of small ‘c’ conservatism and hyper-caution with which the leadership has lately become imbued. A challenge to the mindset which allowed the independence campaign to become moribund long before the current public health crisis was even on the horizon.

It was always the case that the SNP, both in Edinburgh and in London, was going to have to work within the British political system even as the party sought to break Scotland free from it. That is the nature of devolution. It is the nature of the Union. It’s the realpolitik. This meant that there was always the danger of the party becoming mired in that system. It’s how the British state operates. Those challenges to established power which cannot be crushed are absorbed. Or they are absorbed only to be crushed.

This is not to imply that the SNP group at Westminster has ‘gone native’. Not completely, anyway. Nor does it imply that the party leadership, rightly centred at Holyrood, has become ‘tame’. Not completely, anyway. It is only to say that there is a necessary compromise to be made between being the radical spanner in the works of the British political system and being enough of a cog in the machine to function as an administration in Scotland and Scotland’s (token) representation in the British parliament. The barely veiled sub-text of Joanna Cherry’s article is that the current leadership has got that balance wrong.

Somebody had to say it. Somebody other than a cantankerous, irascible, contrary and most of all inconsequential old blogger, that is. Somebody with presence had to speak out. Somebody with political heft and clout. Somebody who would be listened to even by those disinclined to hear any criticism of Nicola Sturgeon or the SNP. With all due respect to Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, this was always going to be Joanna Cherry MP. Angus’s interventions have been very welcome and have served the important purpose of keeping alive the spirit of the independence movement which Nicola Sturgeon was attempting to subdue. But I’m sure he understands full well that Joanna Cherry’s voice is the one which will reach those who need to hear.

Nicola Sturgeon cannot afford to ignore either Joanna Cherry’s warning about the fate of Winston Churchill or her call for the lifting of that cease and desist order. This will have to be addressed. Concerns about her commitment to the Section 30 process were not addressed – were pointedly and even contemptuously ignored – because those concerns were not voiced by anyone of Joanna Cherry’s stature. Ms Cherry cannot be ignored. Not even the First Minister may treat her with disdain. Belatedly, the SNP leadership will be obliged to rethink its strategy of disregarding constructive criticism and closing down ‘inconvenient’ debate.

Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself as a political leader. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak hit us, she was recognised as an extraordinarily able party leader and a highly competent First Minister. She is popular and respected. Her handling of the public health crisis has greatly enhanced a reputation such as few politicians can aspire to. But, as Joanna Cherry points out, this is not enough. As Winston Churchill discovered, people always want to know what your next trick will be no matter how amazing the last one was. They always demand more no matter how much they have been given. They always ask, “What have you done for us lately?”, no matter how much you’ve done for them recently.

The electorate may be occasionally grateful, but is is always demanding. And the Scottish electorate is arguably more demanding than most.

Joanna Cherry’s intervention provides Nicola Sturgeon with an opportunity to signal a shift in strategy. It need not be dramatic. Not immediately. It need not come from Nicola Sturgeon herself in a manner which might be portrayed as a climb-down. The signal could come from anyone close to the leadership. A few names spring to mind, but I suspect none of them would be grateful is I mentioned their names in this context. Just ask yourself who among Nicola Sturgeon’s closest allies speaks with an authority to match that which Joanna Cherry brings to this issue.

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The best of reasons

I don’t see independence as a party-political issue. Apart from the fact it is a core policy of the SNP, there is no reason why other parties can’t support it. It’s not tied to any political ideology.

Morag Williamson

Some would say that yet another Yes group can only be a good thing. Some would doubtless proffer a neatly pre-packaged opinion couched in the scriptural language of repenting sinners and/or returning prodigals. The more the merrier, some might say, choosing threadbare cliche over tired Biblical quote. Neither of which is an acceptable substitute for rational, analytical thinking.

There is a very narrow sense in which it is fair to say that more is indeed cause for merriment regardless of any other consideration. In terms of votes in a referendum to determine Scotland’s constitutional status, numbers are all that matters. Nobody is required to pass an exam to be allowed to vote. There is no space on the ballot paper for a compulsory explanation of why the individual voted as they did. Nobody is under any obligation to justify the choices they make when exercising their democratic right to vote. There are no marks for style. As far as the process is concerned, reasons are of no consequence.

It may be contended that if an individual opts to make public how they voted and their reasons then they should be prepared to defend their stated choice and the thinking behind it. But they cannot be required to do so. Democracy not only means that you get a vote it also means that you can use that vote as you please. The reasoning is irrelevant. Only the vote counts. In that sense, more people making the journey from No to Yes is always a good thing.

It may just as reasonably be contended, however, that when it comes to campaigning for votes the reasoning is highly relevant. An individual’s attitude to an issue is bound to influence the manner in which they campaign. The core idea around which individuals coalesce to form a group must have a bearing on what that group brings to the campaign. As Richard Dawkins explained to his young daughter, there are both good and bad reasons for believing. What is true of religious belief is also true of political attitudes. The latter being more important due to its more immediate implications for public policy.

There are good and bad reasons for wanting to restore Scotland’s independence. I should be able to say that there are also good and bad reasons for wanting to preserve the Union. This is problematic because in a lifetime of deep interests and involvement in the constitutional debate I have never encountered or been offered a positive case for the Union. This is not mere rhetoric. To the extent that reasons may be objectively assessed, there are no good reasons for Scotland remaining in the Union. Or, if there are, Unionists themselves have yet to discover them. Or perhaps they’re keeping those good reasons secret. In which case, why?

Better, perhaps, that we say reasons lie on a spectrum of rationality. Simplistic dichotomies are seldom other than abstractions, which may be useful as thinking tools but should never inform conclusions. There are not only bad reasons reasons for wanting to preserve the Union there are also very bad reasons. By the same token, there are good reasons for wanting independence and there are better reasons. The quality of the reasoning affects the form and content of the arguments deployed in campaigning. In this context, reasons matter.

All of which explains why I am not greeting the arrival of Yes for EU with a ticker-tape parade and a pyrotechnic display. I consider it natural and essential to ask what this new group brings to the Yes movement and to Scotland’s cause. I look for clues in the public statements of the group’s spokesperson(s). It doesn’t look promising.

The words of Yes for EU executive committee member Morag Williamson quoted above this article do not inspire confidence that the group is bringing anything new or valuable to the independence campaign. I intend no offence to Ms Williamson when I observe that her statement is, in its parts and in aggregate, fallacious. She may not see independence as a party-political issue but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. In fact, she goes on to contradict herself when she observes that “it is a core policy of the SNP”. Can she not see that this makes it party-political by definition? All issues are party-political to the extent that political parties take a stance on them. That independence is a “core policy” of the SNP means that the party has taken a stance on the issue to the greatest extent possible.

Morag Williamson confuses/conflates the hypothetical attitudes of individual party members with official party policy. That individual members of the British parties in Scotland may, in theory, be persuaded of the merits of independence does not mean that the party’s stance on the matter can be changed – either as readily or at all. The one does not necessarily follow from the other. An individual cannot campaign and vote for a British party and actively pursue the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. The two things are entirely contrary to one another. In Scotland, you pick a party you choose a side in the constitutional debate. If that’s not party-political nothing is.

She goes on to say that “there is no reason why other parties can’t support it [independence]. It’s not tied to any political ideology”. This is just plain wrong. There is every reason why the British parties cannot and shall never support independence regardless of the attitudes of members. It’s because they are British parties. They are parties of the British establishment. They are parties of the Union. They cannot be other than that because the Union is critical to the structures of power, privilege and patronage with which they have a profoundly symbiotic relationship.

To say that nationalism need not be “tied to any political ideology” is not the same as saying that it cannot be associated with any political ideology. Indeed, nationalism as an ideology in and of itself would, if it could exist, be an arid and vacuous thing. Rather, nationalism is a component of ideology; as is social conscience and appreciation of human nature. In practice nationalism is a component of all ideologies and – contrary to Morag Williamson’s claim – is always tied to an ideology. Nationalism is politically neutral. It is merely the measure of concern with the affairs of a particular legislative area. The particular community of communities within which the holder of the ideology has direct democratic influence. It is the ideology which lends meaning to the nationalism. It is ideology which determines the form and nature of the nationalism. It is the ideology to which the nationalism is tied which makes it good or bad.

There is a shallow but regrettably widespread tendency to associate nationalism only and exclusively with extreme and/or totalitarian ideologies; and, therefore, to consider it bad. People are all too often blind to the nationalism in their own ideology precisely because it is neutral. It is benign so long as the ideology with which it is associated is not malign. The benign tends to go unnoticed.

It would appear that Yes for EU brings to Scotland’s cause fallacies which are unfortunately all too common already. An impression which intensifies as Ms Williamson continues,

A few of our group were very keen on keeping the UK together and many have come round to the view that the EU is so important that a campaign for independence is the best way to get back in.

Ultimately, it may not matter why people vote Yes in the next independence referendum just so long as they do. But, as noted earlier, the motivations of campaigners must be significant. It may be perfectly valid to argue that independence is the best way to rejoin the EU. It may even be argued that independence is necessary for the purpose of rejoining the EU. But is rejoining the EU a sufficient reason for restoring Scotland’s independence? More prosaically, to what extent is the Yes campaign helped or hindered by arguing that rejoining the EU is the only or main reason for restoring Scotland’s independence? It may be a reason. But can it be the reason? It may be necessary. But does it satisfy the other essential criterion? Is it sufficient?

There are many such secondary or ancillary arguments for restoring Scotland’s independence. There are, I suspect, always such supplemental arguments for (or against) any public policy proposal. There may be economic or cultural arguments, for example. But what is the nub of the matter? Any and all valid arguments may legitimately be deployed in pursuing reform. But there surely must be a core cause that is served by these supplementary arguments. The fundamental reason for seeking reform. The thing that must change for the cause to be realised.

Whatever other arguments may be used, a campaign must be founded on and informed by this fundamental argument. It follows, therefore, that all individuals and groups involved in the campaign should be aware of this fundamental argument in order that they may ensure that their secondary arguments actually serve the cause and neither distract nor detract from it.

The restoration of Scotland’s independence is a matter of basic justice. It is a matter of fundamental democratic principle. It is a question of righting a wrong. Of rectifying a gross and grotesque constitutional anomaly. The Union is unjust and undemocratic. And that is why it must be dissolved and Scotland’s rightful constitutional status restored. That is what lies at the heart of the constitutional issue. That is what must inform the campaign for independence.

Some may welcome new groups into the Yes fold unquestioningly, on the assumption that more is always better. Only better is always better. And it is better if campaigning groups are motivated not just by good reasons but by the best reason.

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A wasted dawn?

Stuart Cosgrove is right to have no faith that the Tories will do anything other than seek to restore the normal that was the problem in the first place. His mistake is to reserve his distrust for the Tories when it is the entire social, political and economic system that is defective.

Ponder this! The Tories couldn’t build a new normal even if they were minded to do so. Nor could British Labour. There may be some reason to suppose that the SNP might do somewhat better in this regard had they the normal powers of a national government. At the very least, it is possible to believe that the SNP would be inclined to strive for a transformation of society rather than a restoration of the thing we had instead of society prior to the pandemic. But there is no reason to imagine that even with the best of intentions the SNP could succeed in creating a liveable, viable society in Scotland.

Stuart Cosgrove is correct when he concludes that the drive for genuine, meaningful change must come from us – we the people! But first we must correctly identify the problem. And it’s not the Tories. It runs much deeper than that.

Nor should we stop at particulars such as racism or economic marginalisation when looking for the root of the problem we hope to address. It may be helpful, I would venture, to think of our post-pandemic project not as rebuilding or reforming or reshaping society but as re-balancing. Addressing, not only the various imbalances which blight society as we have become accustomed to experiencing it, but the underlying tendency to those imbalances. Just as there is no point in returning to a normal which was the problem so it makes no sense to create something imbued with the same dynamics which produced the imbalances of old.

The weary old saw about being the change you want to see gains fresh vitality in this context. What a waste of a new dawn if it heralds only a day like those that preceded it. Creating a new society is not just a matter of legislative and structural and institutional reforms. It starts with our mindset. If we want to live differently, we must first think differently.

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It’s all gone wrong!

Recent experience suggests the constitutional imagination of many senior UK politicians and commentators still seriously struggles to encompass the idea of devolution. They don’t understand it. They don’t understand what it is for. In their heart of hearts, they don’t value it.

Andrew Tickell

Or perhaps they do understand what it is for. Perhaps their frustration derives, not from a failure to understand devolution, but from the failure of devolution to fulfil what British Nationalists understand to be its purpose. If your understanding is that the purpose of devolution is to kill Scotland’s constitutional aspirations “stone dead” then the last twenty years must have been a torment of thwarted anticipation. If you take to heart Enoch Powell’s assurance that “power devolved is power retained” then you may well respond with annoyance to continued questioning of where power lies – or should lie. If you acceded to the devolution experiment having been persuaded that the experiment was devised so as to constitute no threat to the Union then you are bound to be a bit pissed off about how things have actually worked out.

Devolution didn’t prove Tom Nairn wrong when he said “the last thing the British state was prepared to do was to re-evaluate the centre of its politics”. Devolution was not, for British Nationalists, a re-evaluation of Westminster’s supposed sovereignty over all things. It was an affirmation of that superiority. The act of granting power is itself an assertion of superior power. The power to grant power necessarily implies the power to withdraw the power that has been devolved. Real power is not given. To be real, power must be taken. If your purpose is to preserve a power relationship which is being challenged than one very effective way is to forestall the taking of power with devolution.

As British Nationalists understand it, the purpose of giving a modicum of power to those uppity Jocks was to forestall them taking all the power to which they are entitled. Devolution was, for British Nationalist, always about withholding power more than granting it. The abiding condition of devolution is that ultimate power must always reside with the British state. The British political elite felt unthreatened by devolution because they retained a de facto veto over all devolved powers. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state remained sacrosanct. The Union would be preserved.

Believing this, the reality must be hard for British Nationalists to accept. The outrage they evince at Scotland’s First Minister conducting herself as a real political leader is not feigned. They are genuinely affronted by the fact that Nicola Sturgeon has earned the status that she has. This is not how it was supposed to be. They are profoundly perplexed by the fact that Scotland’s independence movement didn’t evaporate in the wake of the No vote in 2014. They are baffled by the continuing electoral popularity of the SNP in defiance of a propaganda campaign that should have seen them off years ago.

None of this is because the “constitutional imagination” of the British Nationalist “struggles to encompass the idea of devolution” so much as that they have their own idea of devolution. And this ain’t it. They thought to subdue Scotland with a strong sedative and it has instead acted as a stimulant. They thought to create a placid servant but have contrived to make a monster. They understand very well what devolution was supposed to do. What they can’t understand is why it isn’t doing it.

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The pro-independence faction of the SNP

“Simply astonishing. And we’re on 54% for Holyrood. Often see people on here saying we’re finished or they’re leaving the party. The Scottish people seem to like what we’re doing.” – Pete Wishart

Poor Pete! He just doesn’t get it. Maybe if he actually listened to some of the people who are “saying we’re finished or they’re leaving the party” he’d know that it has nothing to do with the SNP’s performance as an administration. As it is, he evidently hasn’t a clue why so many members are in despair at or angry with the party. More disturbingly, perhaps, he appears not to care. So long as the SNP is doing well in the polls, all is right with Pete’s wee world.

More troubling still is the fact that this disdain for what is rapidly becoming the pro-independence wing of the nominally pro-independence party extends all the way to the top. The higher echelons of the party have come to define success as being ahead in the polls and/or winning elections. Progressing the cause of independence has ceased to be a measure of success. Those who continue to consider it the principle measure of success are now seen as an impediment to ‘real’ success of the kind that delights Pete Wishart.

Of course, winning elections is important – as a means to an end. Being ahead in the polls is at least pleasing – to the extent that it suggests the means are being secured and the end made more certain. It’s not that the pro-independence wing of the SNP grudges the party its success by other measures. We just want the constitutional issue restored to due prominence.

As far as it’s possible to tell from his comments, Pete Wishart is unaware of this. He is oblivious to the concerns of the pro-independence portion of the membership because he has consistently and stubbornly refused to listen to those concerns. He has flatly refused to answer questions, even from his own constituents, and instantly blocks anyone who expresses the smallest doubt about his perspective or the wisdom of the party leadership.

You would think that members threatening to quit the party would be a matter of grave concern to the SNP hierarchy. But the reality is that the members who remain focused on the restoration of Scotland’s independence are viewed by the party leadership and senior management as at best a bit of a nuisance and even as a serious embarrassment. I have previously defended Wishart and his colleagues against charges that they were only interested in saving their seats. They make it increasingly difficult.

And please don’t bring up Covid-19. The situation I describe has developed over a period of around five years and was well established long before the current public health crisis. It didn’t happen overnight. But we have now reached a situation where some of the most influential people in the SNP are looking at the polls and attributing the party’s performance to the fact that the constitutional issue is being sidelined. And along with it those who deem Scotland’s cause to be of primary importance.

There we have the third measure by which the SNP leadership and management gauge their success . Along with winning elections and staying ahead in the polls, success is measured by how effectively they close down discussion of the constitutional issue and sideline the party’s growing pro-independence faction.

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