Who knew?

I see people are at last waking up to the constitutional implications of Brexit. Talk from Michael Gove of creating a legally defined internal market in the UK has prompted a flurry of panicky criticism from the likes of Scotland’s Constitution Secretary, Mike Russell and outraged condemnation from columnists such as Ruth Wishart. Apparently, there is a serious threat to the devolution settlement involved in the UK’s slapstick departure from the European Union. It seems the British political elite is intent on exploiting Brexit as an opportunity to undermine the Scottish Parliament. It seems that while the unquestionably and inevitably dire economic consequences of this economic vandalism were obvious to one and all, the equally certain and unavoidable constitutional implications somehow got missed. Who knew?

Well, everybody? Or at least anybody who wasn’t too distracted by the all too credible accounts of economic catastrophe to think it through. Even when the EU referendum was still no more than an ominous prospect and the term ‘Brexit’ was not yet on everybody’s lips, the fact that quitting the EU would cause constitutional as well as economic upheaval was glaringly obvious. But, as always, the spotlight fell on the latter while the former was afforded almost no attention. When I say “always” I am, of course. thinking of the 2014 referendum campaign. A constitutional issue all but totally obscured by a thick smog of economic disputation.

There are reasons for this. Whenever established power is talking about something it’s wise to ask what it is that they are avoiding talking about. And when established power is looking for something a topic that serves to obfuscate, they turn to economics. Three things make economics ideal for the purposes of generating a propaganda smoke-screen. Firstly, the sheer volume of material available. Cross the economists’ collective palm with enough silver and they will churn out an utterly bewildering mass of charts and graphs and statistics and reports and analyses and forecasts. More than enough to bury any subject that established power would prefer to keep off the agenda.

Secondly, economics is the go-to topic for scare-stories and doom-mongering. Rosy pictures are also available if required. But Jeremiads are the economist’s speciality. Bad news is headlines. Good news is ‘and finally’. And when politicians have little or nothing to offer then their only resort is to paint the alternative as worse.

Thirdly, nobody understands it. Economic arguments can be as arcane as you want. And if people begin to get a handle on the intricacies you can always introduce more. This is great if you want people to switch off or if you want to portray opponents as too stupid to grasp the ‘science’. Having made things too massively complicated for people to be able to discern the facts you’re seeking to conceal, you can then make yourself a popular hero by ‘clarifying’ and ‘simplifying’ the economics – a process which involves omitting the facts you’re trying to conceal.

So the constitutional implications of Brexit didn’t get much of a look in. Constitutional politics is dismissed as not being about real life in the real world. As if economics was! Those rights and freedoms are all very well, but will you be paying more tax? That’s the important question. Why are you fretting about democracy when people are homeless and hungry? It’s nice to have aspirations, but they just aren’t economically viable. We have to make the hard choices. There is no other way!!!

But those constitutional implications were always there. When I explained my support for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, economics didn’t get a mention. Not that I was unaware of the economic issues. I just didn’t attach much significance to them. The economy is like the weather. It’s considerably less predictable and no more controllable. There are periods of sunshine and spells of rain. You have to get through them. That’s all.

Neither did I explain my support for Remain by great enthusiasm for the EU. I am conscious of the benefits it has brought to a Europe previous blighted by bloody and seemingly incessant conflict. I’m aware of its failings. It’s a human contrivance. I don’t expect it to be perfect. I’m content if it sort of works for the most part.

By far the biggest part of my personal argument for a Remain vote was my concern for how the established power of the British state would exploit the chance to redefine the UK for the purposes of a British Nationalist agenda. I knew for certain that they would not miss the opportunity. The UK was redefined on joining what was to become the EU. It seemed obvious that it would have to be redefined again on leaving. Having just been given a fright in the independence referendum as well as having their hive mind focused by the electoral successes of the SNP, it seemed obvious that the British establishment would be intent on doing whatever was required to preserve the Union.

And so it has transpired. It’s no surprise at all. Why would it be? We were told! Only a year ago, since discarded Scottish Secretary David “Baron Snackbeard” Mundell was banging on about “UK-wide common frameworks”. A term which at the time I warned should send a chill down the spine of anyone who placed the smallest value on Scotland’s distinctive political culture. Or, for that matter, our democracy.

If only that elephant in the room had been brilliant orange and decked with sleigh-bells and fairy-lights! Maybe more people would have noticed it.

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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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A wise move?

Once again, a Minister in the SNP administration offers us rousing rhetoric and encouraging noises but nothing of substance. Mike Russell assures us that independence is coming, but says not a word about how. He says a new referendum this year is “perfectly feasible”, but fails to explain how such a hope can be sustained in the face of the First Minister’s commitment to the Section 30 process.

He urges the people of Scotland to campaign and argue for a new referendum as if that wasn’t what most of us have been doing while he and his colleagues were preoccupied with Brexit. What he doesn’t tell us is how all this campaigning and arguing can have any effect on a British political elite which has not the smallest regard for democratic principles and only contempt for Scotland and its people.

Mike Russell proclaims his belief that “faced with the choice of Brexit Britain or an independent membership of the EU” the people of Scotland would choose the latter. But his belief can be no more than a faith position unless and until it is supported by a credible strategy for making it something more. We don’t need belief. We don’t need a faith position. We don’t need mere fine words. What we need is a practical plan to achieve a positive outcome. And we need Mike Russell or someone at least as senior in the Scottish Government to explain how the Section 30 process can be consistent with any credible strategy or practical plan to facilitate the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination.

I cannot imagine Mike Russell is unaware of the fact that the administration he serves in has taken the independence project down a blind alley. I do not suppose him to be totally oblivious to Scotland’s true predicament or the growing clamour for action to deal with that predicament. Where are the proposals for such action? Where are the ideas? Where is the sense of urgency?

Is there no-one close to the SNP leadership who is passing on the concerns of those who see the Section 30 process as the trap that it clearly is? Personally, I had hoped Mike Russell would fulfil this role. Perhaps he intends to do so. Perhaps that is why he has given notice of his intention to quit. Maybe he is setting himself up to challenge the First Minister on her stubborn commitment to a process which is wholly dependent on obtaining the willing and honest cooperation of the British government. Maybe he is getting ready to propose a change of approach to the constitutional issue ahead of the SNP’s postponed Spring Conference. Maybe he has decided he has nothing to lose and, by announcing his decision to stand down has neutralised any leverage the First Minister might have had.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem believable. It doesn’t sound much like Mike Russell. And surely if he was about to make some proposals for taking the independence projet forward then he would want to stick around to see it through.

It could, of course, be that Mr Russell has simply had enough and wants to retire. That would be understandable. But he is an astute politician. He must have known that the announcement of his decision to bring his parliamentary career to a close would spark speculation. His motives were always going to be the subject of much conjecture. Some might even suppose that he is anticipating the backlash as more and more people realise how bad the situation is and has decided to remove himself from the scene before the mob arrives armed with a battery of awkward questions. I can only commend the wisdom of such a choice.

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Lost moments

There is a whiff of desperation about Mike Russell’s continuing efforts to provoke the elusive “Brexit Bounce” which was supposed to push the polls high enough to perhaps overcome the inertia which has left the independence campaign in a parlous state and Scotland’s predicament more precarious than ever. Mr Russell does a pretty good job of describing that predicament. But I see nothing here that suggests a plan for rescuing Scotland from the looming threat of British Nationalism, not to mention the latest and most ominous incarnation of the ‘Greater England Project’.

The Scottish Government, it appears, is still pinning all its hopes for the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence on anger at a catastrophic Brexit being imposed on Scotland. The impact of this public outrage on the polls is always just around the corner – except when it’s just over the horizon. It’s been imminent for long enough to have necessitated repeated revision of the time-scale to which the term applies. That time-scale has been expanded from months to years and could well be further stretched to decades.

If there was to be a “Brexit Bounce” then it should have started to be apparent within days of the EU referendum as it became evident that Scotland’s democratic will would be treated with customary contempt by the British political elite. Yet here we are, approaching four years later and those polls have barely twitched out of margin of error territory. Taking account of the fact that the entire Brexit debacle has been considerably worse than foretold by all but the most woeful Jeremiads, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the polls would be favouring Yes by around ten points more than they are.

But still Mike Russell clings to the hope that the “Brexit Bounce” is just waiting in the wings ready to make an appearance calculated for greatest dramatic effect. It seems that this “Brexit Bounce” was a crucial element of the administration’s strategy. Without it, the strategy stalls.

We are entitled to wonder why the Scottish Government chose to be so totally reliant on something that is so much out of its control. Public perception of Brexit was always going to be more important than the reality. And the machinery for manipulating public perception is almost entirely in the hands of the British establishment. Thus, despite all the doom-laden rhetoric from Mike Russell and Ian Blackford and the rest what the public has perceived is, not an unfolding disaster, but an ongoing farce. Brexit is seen more as a tediously unfunny comedy than as an alarmingly developing catastrophe.

The SNP has been trying to keep Brexit in the exclamation marked headlines while the British propaganda machine has been deployed to relegate it to the ‘meanwhile’ section. We know which is the most effective.

There are a perhaps surprising and certainly disturbing number of people ‘out there’ who fail to realise the importance of understanding the problem in order to develop a solution. How often do we see criticism of the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue met, not with a considered response to the critique, but with vitriolic condemnation of the critic’s ‘disloyalty’ and diversionary demands for their alternative? How often do we see people insisting that no criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy can possibly be valid unless it is accompanied by a suggested alternative strategy? How often do we see that alternative itself declared invalid so as to avoid the need to respond meaningfully to the concerns being expressed?

How might it be possible to develop an effective strategy while the attitude prevails that only the existing strategy can possibly be effective? Even in the face of the increasingly evident failure of that strategy?

Instead of obdurately depending on the phantom “Brexit Bounce” and persistently promising its appearance Mike Russell and his colleagues should be asking why it has not happened. And they should be prepared to entertain posited explanations – from whatever source – rather than ignoring or dismissing them.

My own explanation would be that the SNP has made the same mistake as the party made in the 2014 referendum campaign. It has let the Brexit issue be taken into the realm of economics rather than constitutional politics. The crucial point about Brexit was (is?) the fact that its imposition on Scotland in contemptuous disregard of the will of Scotland’s people represented a particularly egregious manifestation of the constitutional injustice of the Union. Rarely has there been a clearer demonstration of the inherently anti-democratic nature of the Union.

That is what the SNP should have focused on while encouraging the Yes movement to do likewise. The imposition of Brexit on Scotland by the British state should have prompted an immediate all-out attack on the Union. The economic stuff could have been left to the Scottish Government.

Instead of a short, sharp, focused onslaught against the Union, we’ve had a prolonged ‘poor us’ moan-fest about Boris Johnson and the Tories accompanied by a litany of economic doom-mongering of the very sort that was deployed by Project Fear and which we had urged people to ignore.

Instead of an assault on the cause of the problems we’ve had a repetitive recounting of the symptoms and accounts of the prognosis which are no less monotonous for being ever more horrific.

All of which is grist to the mill of the portentous rhetoric that has become Ian Blackford’s favoured schtick in the British parliament and excellent material for Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp’s presentations. But it bores the skitters out of your average punter. It fails to engage the disengaged. It fails to inspire the apathetic.

If there was to be a “Brexit Bounce” it would be driven by righteous and justified anger at a constitutional outrage. It was never going to be provoked by cold calculation of economic consequences.

The opportunity to boost the independence campaign offered by Brexit has been squandered. The moment is gone. And there is nothing Mike Russell can do to bring it back.

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A couple of months ago I bought some new lamps for our living room. They’re those ones with the bulbs that change colour controlled from an app on your phone. It’s nice to be able to adjust the lighting according to the time of day or what you’re doing. The lamps were bought online and supplied by a firm in Germany and, while I’m more than happy with my purchase, there was a problem with one of them which necessitated contacting the firm’s customer service department – which I duly did whilst making a further purchase. The problem was quickly and efficiently resolved and the new purchases promptly dispatched. All in all, a painless and hassle-free process.

It occurred to me today to wonder whether my dealings with this company in Germany will be so straightforward in future. Previously, I had been dealing with them as an EU citizen in another EU member state. As from 23:00 on Friday 31 January that will no longer be the case. Any future dealings I have with this company will be as a citizen of what the EU refers as a ‘third country’. Other third countries include Albania and Kosovo. No offence to the people of either of those countries, but I can’t help but feel that going from being on a list with France and Germany to one with Albania and Kosovo is relegation of the kind that football clubs only suffer if they’ve done something too outrageous even for the sport’s governing bodies.

The people of Albania and Kosovo would seem to agree with my perspective, given that both those nations aspire to EU membership. Which, I suppose, puts them towards the top of the third country league, whereas the only country ever to quit the EU must surely languish at the very bottom of the lowest division. On the stroke of 11pm tomorrow, my status changes dramatically. And through no choice of my own.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this change in status will have little or no effect on my dealings with a company in Germany. I just don’t know. And that is bad enough in itself. At the moment, I know exactly where I stand. After tomorrow (Friday), I will be unsure. Today, I know that businesses in Germany and all the businesses in all the countries of the EU must treat me as if I was a citizen of the same country. It’s a reciprocal arrangement that works very well. I have been perfectly content with this arrangement for long enough that I can’t remember what things were like before.

I had no desire whatever to forsake this arrangement. I voted accordingly in 2016. But, because of a markedly different kind of political union, my vote didn’t count. The votes of everyone in Scotland didn’t count. It wouldn’t have mattered if every single one of them had turned out and every single one of them had voted the same way, those votes would have counted for absolutely nothing unless voters in England-as-Britain agreed.

It’s hard, at least for those of us who think about these things, to get one’s head around the enormity of this situation. Because England-as-Britain voted Leave by a 6 point margin, Scotland voting Remain by a margin four times greater counts for nothing. 53% in England-as-Britain is decisive. 62% in Scotland is meaningless. Slightly more than half the voters in England-as-Britain want one thing, so nearly two-thirds of people in Scotland just have to suck it up. There is no way to describe this that doesn’t make it sound any less ludicrously devoid of anything resembling democratic legitimacy.

But it gets worse. Not only am I supposed to accept this affront to democracy and relegation to third country status, I am required to do so without complaint. If I object, I am the one who is being unreasonable and indulging in the politics of grievance. If I suggest that a better arrangement would be one which allows both England-as-Britain and Scotland to have what they vote for, I am castigated and condemned for being a divisive separatist. Tautology aside, this in itself is a slight that nobody with a scintilla of self-respect can be expected to tolerate.

The whole sorry saga of Brexit has – or should have – brought people to the realisation that Scotland’s constitutional dilemma is about more than where our government sits and how our affairs as a nation are managed. It is about the kind of people we are. It is about how we think of ourselves, our communities and the community of communities that is our nation. It is about whether we see ourselves as being a nation at all, or whether we see ourselves as merely a region within a British state where what we are as individuals, communities and country is not something defined by consensus among the people who live here but something imposed on us by an external force which not only cares nothing for our consent, but increasingly seeks ways of expressing its contempt for our democratic will.

Brexit is a distillation of all that is wrong with the Union. But we must never lose sight of the fact that Brexit is only a symptom. The Union is the disease. It is the Union which says such iniquities not only can but must be imposed on Scotland. Such is the very nature of the Union.

What kind of people are we? What kind of people do we aspire to be? What kind of people must we be if we meekly accept being dragged out of the EU despite having voted decisively to Remain. Despite having chosen to have the community of communities that is Scotland be part of the community of European nations.

What kind of people are we if, through timidity, inertia or apathy, we forsake the power to decide how we define our identity? What kind of a nation are we if, for want of political assertiveness, we allow ourselves to be locked into a political union which by its asymmetric nature inevitably and incorrigibly denies our sovereignty?

Part of the kind of person I want to be includes my European citizenship. Part of what I aspire to for Scotland involves being part of the great adventure in post-colonial international cooperation that is the EU. But even if you have little or no sympathy for my attitude to the EU, you must surely share the offence and anger I feel at being denied a choice in the matter. Brexit, like so many other choices made by England-as-Britain, is being forcibly imposed on everyone in Scotland regardless of how they voted in the EU referendum. What matters isn’t your agreement or otherwise with the choice but the fact that it is not your choice. The Union means your choices don’t count, even if they occasionally appear to count only because they happen to coincide with the choices made by people in another country.

I am offended that I can be denied a choice in this way. I am resentful that any part of my identity can be defined by others – and particularly by people whose worldview I regard as grotesque and whose ideology is anathema to me. I am angry that I am about to be stripped of my EU citizenship for no better reason than that a self-serving clique of over-privileged, immature buffoons in England-as-Britain have chosen to seek power by pandering to the basest instincts and prejudices of their electorate.

I am angry that the British political system has given rise to such an unworthy political elite. I am furious that the Union makes me and my country subject to their demented whims.

I’ve had enough. It may be more than three hundred years overdue, but I want my country back. I want my right to choose returned to me that was stolen. I want to be treated with a certain amount of respect. I want others to be treated with at least the same respect. I want to at least have the hope of a better nation. I want an end to the Union. And I want it now!

Part of this article was first published in iScot Magazine Issue 59 Jan/Feb 2020.

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No way back

But for that one word, “almost”, David Martin talks a lot of sense and says things that need to be said. In particular, the point about there being no going back on Brexit. This has always been true and one of the things that even those advocating revoking the Article 50 implementation generally failed to acknowledge. The moment the Brexit juggernaut started rolling the place the UK had been disappeared. There could be no going back because there was nowhere to go back to.

Logic would dictate that long and probing consideration should be given to a course of action which not only had profound and wide-ranging implications but which was also irrevocable. Both in terms of planning for Brexit and in terms of voting in the referendum. But that was not the case. As we now know, there had been absolutely no planning for Brexit. The politicians who campaigned for a Leave vote appeared to be as deluded about the true nature of the EU and of the UK’s favourable terms of membership as the consumers of British media propaganda. And, even if factual information had not been swamped by that propaganda so that voters could not readily access it, they were persuasively discouraged from any reflective thought by the simplistic jingoism of the Leave campaign.

Brexit, as far as most Leave voters were led to believe, was both a trivially uncomplicated and a richly rewarding matter. All gain and no effort. People have been falling for that brand of snake oil since the capacity of complex communication made possible the big lie.

One of the most extraordinary things about the whole Brexit farce is the fact that had they actually stopped to think about it or had been obliged to reflect by being asked sensible questions, what many Leave voters actually wanted was the very thing that the UK already had. The UK was, in many ways, the most pandered and appeased member of the EU. (see image above) It enjoyed more exceptions and opt-outs than any other member state. Plus, arguably the best financial deal.

The trouble is that nobody was aware of this. Just as the relentless 50-year campaign of disinformation meant few who voted in the EU referendum knew anything about how the EU actually works, so there was general ignorance about the privileged arrangements that the UK enjoyed. Just as people were encouraged to think of the EU as something monstrous and alien, so they were led to believe that the UK was the put-upon victim in the relationship.

Lies heaped on disinformation heaped on calumny. The UK sold the cow and in return got inedible beans and no magic. No wonder David Martin seems so dejected about it all.

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Crisis? What crisis?


Ian Blackford proclaims that UK faces a “constitutional crisis” over Brexit Bill votes in the three devolved parliaments. The National notes that,

While none of the devolved institutions have [sic] granted permission for Westminster to go ahead with the legislation, the Withdrawal Bill is still likely to pass through Westminster.

Ian Blackford: UK faces constitutional crisis over Brexit Bill votes

What The National doesn’t say is that Westminster does what it pleases with no apparent discomfort or unease. The British parliament completely ignores the devolved parliaments, each of which has greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster, and does so effortlessly. If there is a “constitutional crisis” then the British establishment is, to all appearances, unaware of it. There is certainly no sign that it is at all troubled by this “constitutional crisis”.

Can it qualify as a crisis if one of the parties to events and developments is unaware of it? Or, to put it another way, if the party at the centre of the affair perceives no crisis, are we justified in calling it such?

Or could it be that Mr Blackford has misidentified the parties to the purported crisis? Perhaps he is simply mistaken in thinking that the crisis affects the British political elite. Perhaps, if crisis there be, it is only a crisis for the devolved administrations; particularly the one in Edinburgh. Maybe the explanation for the British political elite’s equanimity in the face of this crisis is simply that it doesn’t really involve them.

If, indeed, we have reached a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined, then perhaps the British political elite doesn’t regard this as a crisis because, to whatever extent the trend of all future events is being determined, they are fully confident that this implies no changes that might be to their detriment.

If there is a condition of instability or danger in the affairs of the UK such as might occasion decisive change, maybe they know with a high degree of certainty that this decisive change will not be to the disbenefit or disadvantage of the established order.

Or maybe the British political elite is exhibiting the smug self-assurance that accompanies overweening power. Maybe they consider the established order invulnerable. Maybe they feel safe in the knowledge that, having the power to make, amend or exempt themselves from the rules of the game, they cannot possibly lose.

Why should this be a crisis for the British state? Nothing can oblige their parliament or government to heed the decisions of the devolved parliaments. The British state suffers no penalty for treating the devolved parliaments with supercilious disdain. Quite the contrary, in fact. Particularly in relation to Holyrood, Brexit has provided the British state with just the opportunity it needed to roll back devolution, slapdown the presumptuous SNP and put those uppity Jocks firmly back in the box labelled ‘Property of England-as-Britain’.

From the outset, discourse around the whole Brexit farce has focused almost exclusively on the economic impact. Little or no attention was paid to the constitutional implications. This despite the fact that the constitutional implications were always huge – as Ian Blackford and the rest now acknowledge. The constitutional implications were also obvious. When I argued for a Remain vote in the 2016 EU referendum the main reason I gave was the fact that leaving the EU would provide the British political elite with an opportunity to unilaterally redefine the UK and the constitutional status of the troublesome peripheral nations. At the extreme, which wise counsel would have us anticipate, this might involve the British constitutionally redefining the UK as an indivisible and indissoluble unitary state – putting Scotland in relation to the UK much as Catalunya is in relation to Spain.

The question was never whether the British would do this. The question was always whether there was any reason that they might not. Any just cause, that is, which they would see as such. Bearing in mind the nature of the British state and its ruling elites, considerations of ethics, morality or democratic principle were never going to enter into the calculation. The British political elite would do whatever was required to preserve and reinforce the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. The Union at any cost! To anyone but them!

There is no crisis for the British state. Ian Blackford has misread the situation. The British can, in this matter as in all matters relating to Scotland, act with total impunity. The crisis falls entirely on the devolved administrations and parliaments. Arguably, it falls most heavily on the Scottish Parliament and the SNP administration in Edinburgh. They will be judged on how they respond to this crisis. And it doesn’t look promising. Ian Blackford says, “really it is about this issue of respect”. Well, if it is, then it’s about how well he and his colleagues earn the respect of the people of Scotland. Because it’s as certain as anything might be that they will never get respect from the British political elite.

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Things to come

It was all so predictable. That’s what makes it all doubly frustrating. So much of what is happening could be foreseen and forestalled. Indeed, it was foreseen. If not in detail then certainly in general terms and with predictions necessarily being updated as events unfold. I was warning about the rolling back of devolution as far back as 2012, perhaps earlier. I expected that the British government would begin stripping powers from the Scottish Parliament if there was a No vote in 2014. I warned that it was one of the consequences that No voters would have on their conscience, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one issuing such warnings. But it would not be proper for me to associate others with what I have to say.

The Scottish Parliament’s fate was decided in 2007 when the SNP formed the first Scottish Government since the Union was imposed. That wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. Devolution was only permitted on the strict understanding that it could never imperil the Union. The electoral system was designed to ensure that no one party could ever achieve a majority. This was intended to ensure that the British parties would retain control in perpetuity by forming coalition governments. Unionists strenuously deny that the system was designed to keep the SNP out insisting, rather, that it was designed to promote a more collegial, consensus-building Parliament. But it’s the same thing. Purposeful or not – and you can make up your own minds about that – the effect was to obviate any threat to the Union by ensuring that the British parties in Scotland were kept firmly in control.

Any plans to weaken the Scottish Parliament after the British parties lost control in 2007 were blown out of the water by the electorate. In 2007, voters had put a big dent in the system. In 2015, they smashed it to pieces by giving the SNP an overall majority. Plans to put the brakes on devolution, or put it into reverse, were derailed. As were the predictions made during the referendum campaign. But if reining in Holyrood had become more problematic, it had also become more imperative. The thing the British establishment feared most; the thing they’d been assured would not follow from devolution, was happening. The SNP was in power. What was worse, they were doing a good job. The administration was competent. That wasn’t supposed to happen either. Worst of all, Scotland under the SNP was visibly diverging from the rest of the UK (rUK) in myriad ways. If that continued, the Union would surely become untenable.

It is not my purpose here to essay a potted history of the period. Suffice it to say that where the British establishment thought it was getting a Scottish Parliament that was unadventurous and a Scottish Executive that was meekly compliant, instead they got a Parliament that threatened to compete with Westminster in terms of authority and a Scottish Government that put Scotland’s interests first. The scene was set for confrontation.

But that confrontation never really came about. There were skirmishes between the two governments. The media made a big fuss about the Scottish Government always “picking fights with Westminster”. But there was no major confrontation. The British political elite still wanted desperately to undermine and weaken Scotland’s democratic institutions. They wanted this more than ever. Hobbling Holyrood had become a political imperative. The Union was meant to do that. But the devolution ‘experiment’ had put the Union in jeopardy.

The British government tried a new tactic. Rather than try to directly trim the powers of the Scottish Parliament, they decided to weaponise devolution and turn it against the Scottish Government. Changes to the devolution settlement, principally in the area of finance, were set up as a mesh of political and fiscal traps. The idea was to discredit the SNP by subtly forcing the administration to make unpopular political decisions and to cause budgeting problems that would be portrayed as ‘SNP incompetence’.

This plan backfired. Largely due to the skill of then Finance Secretary, John Swinney, the Scottish Government managed to avoid most of the traps. They even found money for impressive new projects and to mitigate socially or economically damaging Westminster policies in reserved areas. And they were doing it deliberately!

The situation was desperate. Scotland had always been a separate country, but now it was becoming very much a different country in ways that were obvious even to the politically disengaged. Something had to give.

Then came 2016 and the EU referendum and the beginning of the protracted tragi-comedy that is Brexit. The British establishment saw its opportunity, and seized it. Once again, the consequences of a Leave vote were foreseen. Obviously, nobody anticipated the monumental incompetence of the British government. Nobody predicted they would make quite such a disastrous mess of the whole thing. But certain implications of the UK’s departure from the EU were accurately foretold. Some are about to be proved painfully accurate.

It was entirely predictable that there would be long and loud squabbles about the economic entailments of Brexit. Politicians invariably take debate on to this battleground for the simple reason that they can get economists to say whatever they want. Maybe it would be fairer to say that they can always find an economist who is saying what they want. Economic arguments have the further benefit that they are rarely, if ever, conclusive. No politician wants to find themselves on the wrong side of a concluded argument. So long as they’re arguing, they’re not losing. Not losing is better than winning. If there’s a winner, there must be a loser. And one of these times it might be you. By keeping debate in the realm of economics that risk is minimised.

I probably should leave it there. But I can’t resist pointing out another benefit to established power of making it all about money. Not only does it allow politicians to pick and choose from among a plethora of statistics and charts and tables and graphs in order to construct an economic argument for any purpose, this deluge of data baffles the electors and induces them to switch off and leave it to the experts. Contrary to the received wisdom, I postulate that no voter was ever swayed by an economic argument. Just as politicians can select the economic ‘facts’ that work for them, so voters can pick the economic argument which gives a sheen of rationality to choices that are anything but rational.

But I digress. While dispute raged over the economic consequences of Brexit, little attention was paid to the constitutional implications. During the campaign for the EU referendum I warned that, whatever else it might entail, Brexit would provide the British state with an opportunity to unilaterally redefine constitutional arrangements within the Union. That is what is happening now and it’s what will happen more in the very near future.

The groundwork has been done. The ‘power grab’ of the EU Withdrawal Bill is just the start of it. The endpoint for the British establishment is Scotland locked into UK redefined as a unitary state, indivisible and indissoluble. All significant powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament and absorbed into ‘UK-wide common frameworks’ administered by the ominously named ‘UK Government in Scotland’. A final solution to the Scottish problem. Greater England realised at last!

You can take that as another prediction.

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The year of decision

Relax! I’m not going to do one of those ‘look back at the year’ things. Mainly because, if the BBC is to be believed, the best 2019 had to offer was a wean spewing on the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon changing the date on her referendum promise again and something about butterflies. There was a UK general election in December which confirmed – as if further confirmation were needed – that Scotland would be a very different place from Tory England-as-Britain if our votes actually counted for anything. But look at all the pretty butterflies!

Reviewing the year just gone has become a particularly disquieting exercise for an unabashed Scottish nationalist like myself because I cannot help but observe the carnage and think how different things might be had Scotland not bottled it so badly in 2014. We should have been celebrating three years of constitutional normality. We should have had some successes that we could look back on with satisfaction and perhaps a little pride. We should have been enthused by the prospect of further achievements in the new year. A past we can live with and a future we can contemplate with something less than dread. Is that so much to ask for?

The only reason for mentally rerunning 2019 is the hope that it might end differently. There’s little comfort in knowing that it could have been worse. That probably means only that the worse that might have been is now the worse in prospect.

Not that everybody is so downbeat. If you read The National or listen to SNP politicians or follow the Yes movement on social media you might well suppose that 2019 has brought Scotland to the verge of independence. Not the same verge that we were on at various points in most of the last ten years. A new verge that is somehow more vergey than any of those other verges. This, we are assured, is The Verge. The ultimate verge. Parent to all other verges.

Taking a slightly less rose-tinted perspective, 2019 was more like a gap year. In terms of the two big constitutional issues – the UK’s relationship with the EU and Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK (rUK) – nothing changed. Or if it did change it went backwards. Brexit is still happening. And nobody knows what will ensue. Which could have been said at any time since the EU referendum in 2016.

The project to restore Scotland’s independence is still becalmed, sails flapping uselessly in air stirred only be the random gusting of political rhetoric. I am frequently castigated for being ‘negative’. But if two plus two must equal four then two minus three must, by the unforgiving rules of arithmetic, equal negative one. Strip away the happy-clappy positivity and the wishful thinking before totting up the numbers in the progress and regress columns and you just as unavoidably get a negative result.

Compare and contrast!

In 2011 we knew for a fact that there would be an independence referendum. We don’t have that certainty now.

With all that we’ve learned since about how the Union works and how the British state responds when its structures of power, privilege and patronage are threatened we now know that the confidence we felt back then was rather misplaced. We now know that we only got that vote because the British political elite was convinced that the referendum posed no threat to the Union. Having been disabused of that notion, they are now determined that the sphincter-slackening experience of 2014 should never be repeated. And we are learning that, absent thinking outside the box of the British political system, the Scottish Government has vastly fewer ways of making a referendum happen than the British government has of preventing it. Do the math! In terms of the probability of a referendum in 2020 as promised we are well into negative territory.

In 2012 we had an agreement with the British government and the assurance from the Scottish Government that the referendum would be held in the autumn of 2014. We have neither of these things now.

We not only don’t have the equivalent of the Edinburgh Agreement, we have a yawning gulf of ideological difference and mutual animosity that looks to be unbridgeable. And while we have the political promise of a new referendum in the second half of 2020 we also have awareness of the mechanisms and procedures involved and, unless we’ve succeeded in deluding ourselves, the ease with which the British can throw a variety of spanners in the precariously delicate works.

In 2013 we had a precise date for the referendum. We don’t have that now.

Nor is there the remotest possibility of us being given a precise date. Too many things have to be in place before that can happen. And every one of those things is an unknown variable. There is a vast sea of uncertainty between now and the announcement of a date.

In 2014 we had a clear route to independence. We don’t have that now.

Back then, we had a timetable for the restoration of independence. The dates may have been adrift by a few months either way. But we saw no reason to doubt that independence was coming. And sufficient reason to suppose that it would be delivered sometime in 2016. There is no such timetable now. It is undeniable that we have moved backwards from the position we were in then. The Scottish Government has no timetable. No programme. No plan. If we can’t be sure te referendum will happen, how can we foresee independence happening? In 2014 we knew precisely what we had to do in order to achieve our goal. Now, the route-map to independence is mostly blanks that can only be filled by resort to magic.

In 2015 we had an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament. Now, we don’t even know that there will be a Scottish Parliament by the time of the next elections.

Such is the measure of the uncertainty we face. Since 2011 we have learned a huge amount about the strategies, tactics and methods by which the British state defends established power. The lessons of often very harsh experience. And yet the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue has not changed in the slightest. The last decade might as well not have happened for all the impact it has had on the thinking of the SNP leadership. They are totally committed to using the same process as for the 2014 referendum. And, should the referendum ever get to the campaigning stage, they are absolutely determined that the second Yes campaign should emulate the first one in every significant way.

Alex Salmond was a dancer. He respected his political opponents but had no illusions about them. He knew when to lead and when to swerve and when to go with his partner/opponent. He that it wasn’t enough to know the steps, you had to be able to improvise. He was conscious of the fact that the dance could very easily turn into a wrestling match. And he was aware that, in a wrestling match with the British state, Scotland almost certainly couldn’t win unless we could match them gouge for gouge and low-blow for low-blow.

Nicola Sturgeon is a marcher. A different kind of leader altogether. Not necessarily a lesser leader. Just different. She sees the goal, knows the cause is just and supposes that resolve will succeed. Nicola Sturgeon knows the “case for independence” inside-out and back-to-front. She is well prepared – and better able than any others I know of – to play the game according to the rules. But she seems to expect that the game will be played by the rules. She will steadfastly march the route defined by those rules regardless of her opponents’ ability to change those rules or their willingness to wantonly breach them.

Just as I decline to perform a post-mortem on the year about to pass, I offer no prognosis for the year to come. As noted, there are far to many unknowns – known and unknown – to make prediction anything other than an idle exercise. We can only speculate. We can only say if this then probably that – or perhaps the other. For such speculation to be at all interesting or useful, however, our ifs must be grounded in a realistic appreciation of what really is and what actually might be. No resort to magic. Thus constrained, any speculation I attempt must be far too gloomy for what is supposed to be a time of hope.

One thing I will say with, if not absolute certainty, then certainly a high degree of confidence. 2020 will be a decisive year for Scotland’s cause. By this time in 2020 Scotland will either be set fair on a course to becoming an independent nation again, or it will lie smashed and stranded on the reefs of unscrupulous, unprincipled, unconscionable British power.

The choice, and the responsibility, lies with us – the people of Scotland. In 2014, for fifteen unprecedented hours on Thursday 18 September, we held total political power in our hands. As a nation, we made the choice to hand that power back to a British political elite which, inexplicably, we trusted better than ourselves even in the knowledge that they had used a campaign of lies, threats and false promises to keep their grip on Scotland. In 2015 we had ourselves a wee rethink and, again as a nation, we decided to lend a big chunk of our democratic power to the SNP in the hope and expectation that they would help us rectify the mistake made the previous year. We’ve renewed that loan at every opportunity since.

In 2020 the SNP must justify the trust that we have invested in them. They must use the power that we have loaned them for the purpose intended. They must know that we are capable of calling in that loan. And willing to do so. Because that is how we exercise our power over those to whom we entrust it.

2020 will be an unprepossessing bairn that will grow into an exceedingly ugly creature unless we take hold of it and shape it, Let our New Year message to Nicola Sturgeon be this:

Get independence done! Get it done in any way you can! Resort to whatever methods you must! No more waiting! Just get it done!

A Happy New Year is not in prospect. Not as things stand. What I will wish whatever friends I have left in Scotland’s independence movement is the wits to know who can be trusted, the awareness to recognise what must be done and the strength to do it. And roll on 2021.

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Gold standard for the goose…

Alyn Smith says “Scotland cannot be dragged out of Europe against the wishes of our people“. Meanwhile, the article notes that the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed its second reading in the British parliament with a majority of 124 and that this “means the UK is on its way to finalising its divorce from Brussels by the January 31 deadline”.

Which is it?

It seems odd to say this after the half-arsed slapstick of the UK Government’s handling of the Brexit process, but I have a fairly good idea of how Scotland will be dragged out of the EU with the rest of the UK at the end of January. I have absolutely no idea how Alyn Smith proposes to prevent this. He says it cannot happen. But gives no clue as to what might stop it happening.

Alyn Smith is in good company. As recently as August 2019 Ian Blackford Tweeted “I will not allow Scotland to be dragged out of the EU against its will”. This is typical of the SNP leadership’s rhetoric on the matter of Brexit. But there is, as yet, no substance behind the fine sentiments.

In this, we find echoes of the party’s statements regarding the refusal of a Section 30 order. It is declared ‘unsustainable’. But at no time are we told what is to prevent Boris Johnson from continuing to refuse a Section 30 request. Or, indeed, simply to ignore the request indefinitely.

The refusal of a Section 30 order is denounced as undemocratic. But so is the imposition of Brexit. And, just as the latter is proceeding despite the protestations, we are offered no explanation as to why the former will not do likewise.

Our First Minister is famously determined to ensure that everything the Scottish Government does as it pursues Scotland’s cause is in accordance with what the British state defines as “legal and constitutional”. That is her “gold standard”. Here’s the thing! By that same “gold standard”, imposing Brexit on Scotland is perfectly “legal and constitutional”. Refusing a Section 30 order is not contrary to any British law or constitutional provision.

Within the Union, it is constitutionally perfectly legitimate that Scotland’s 62% Remain vote should count for nothing. That is the principal effect of the Union. Within the Union, Scotland’s needs, choices, priorities and aspirations must always be subordinate to the interests of England-as-Britain.

Similarly, there is nothing in Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998) that provides for the Scottish Government requesting a transfer of powers to hold a referendum, far less anything compelling the British Prime Minister to do so. Or even to respond to a request!

Boris Johnson is adhering to the same “gold standard” that Nicola Sturgeon has adopted as her guiding imperative.

To define either or both the imposition of Brexit or denial of a Section 30 order as illegal and unconstitutional we must refer to the very body of international declarations and conventions which Nicola Sturgeon insists are superseded by the “gold standard” of the British state’s self-serving laws and unwritten constitution.

It’s a puzzle, right enough!

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