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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Preparing the hyena feast

The article in The National under the headline Corbyn reveals unredacted document showing ‘NHS is on the table in trade talks’ refers throughout to “the NHS”, implying a single entity. This is misleading. There are, in fact four quite separate and distinct public health services in the UK.

  • NHS Scotland
  • NHS England
  • NHS Wales
  • Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for Northern Ireland

We may, however, assume that the US corporations seeking access to and control of “the NHS” think of it as a single entity even if, as we should expect, they are sufficiently well informed to be aware of the reality. What is certain is that they will want the same access to and control of all four health systems. And, with the support of the US Government, they will demand that the UK Government facilitate this as a condition of any trade deal.

We know also that, post-Brexit, the UK Government will be so desperate to conclude a trade deal with the US which can be spun as an example of the benefits of leaving the EU that they will agree to pretty much any and all conditions set by the US negotiators. We must ask ourselves, therefore, how the UK Government might go about facilitating this ‘sell-off’ of all four health services as part of a single deal given that there are significant differences in the way they are structured, funded and managed. We should also ask ourselves what demands the US negotiators might make in this regard.

It seems extremely likely that the US negotiators will want the four health services combined under a common UK-wide framework. Which is handy, because the UK Government has prepared for just such an eventuality. Readers may recall discarded Scottish Secretary David Mundell referring to these “UK-wide common frameworks” on numerous occasions – and with great relish as he at the time supposed he would be in charge of the Scottish bit of these common frameworks through the shadow administration called ‘UK Government in Scotland’. We may also note that these “UK-wide common frameworks” are openly being discussed in relation to agriculture, agricultural support, fisheries etc.

While there has been no mention of a “UK-wide common framework” for health services we would anticipate that any proposals of this nature would be kept under very tight wraps. Tighter even than those that secured – or failed to secure – the document Jeremy Corbyn now claims to have in his possession. Even if no specific proposals exist, which seems highly unlikely given the language of the aforementioned document, the UK Government has seized powers which could provide the means to ‘surreptitiously’ force the four health services into adopting common practices in various areas – notably, powers over public procurement.

Additionally, the UK Government has seized powers over elements of reciprocal healthcare, which would allow them to claim some kind of precedent for the imposition of a common framework in other aspects of health services. We know how that argument goes – there is already a “common UK-wide framework” in respect of that, and this is closely associated with that, so obviously there should also be a “UK-wide common frameworks” for this.

And let us not forget the provisions of Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998), which gives the British Prime Minister sweeping authority to unilaterally alter which powers are devolved and which reserved. Read with due trepidation.

“Her Majesty may by Order in Council make any modifications of Schedule 4 or 5 which She considers necessary or expedient.”

Taken altogether, we may safely conclude that the intention of the UK Government is to effectively abolish the separate health services by absorbing them into NHS England in order to present a more tempting prey for America’s corporate hyenas. We can be sure that NHS Scotland will be particularly targeted due to the fact that those predators find distinctly unpalatable the Scottish Government’s commitment to preserving a genuine public health service founded on a principle of universality that is alien and anathema to them.

Some will protest that this is overstating the threat to NHS Scotland. Can we afford to take the chance?

PS – How could I have forgotten this? ‘Boris Johnson warns SNP will ‘forfeit all right’ to manage NHS‘?



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The list

Nicola Sturgeon’s list of demands is, of course, premised on a minority British Labour government which, as things stand, looks like a very remote possibility indeed. The Tories have a 10+ point lead in the polls, and that doesn’t look like changing. Boris Johnson appears to be bullet-proof. It doesn’t seem to matter what he does, so long as he’s a Brexiteer, England-as-Britain wants him as its Prime Minister. Which means he and all his idiocy also gets foisted on Scotland.

Nor is Corbyn looking like someone who can transform things. Whatever lights of charismatic radicalism he may be hiding under the bushel of his unremitting dullness, he is obliged by the British political system to chase the same voters as have apparently pledged unquestioning fealty to Boris Johnson and the freak-show which is the British Conservative Party.

Nicola Sturgeon is certainly aware of this. She knows that she can demand this and that for no other reason than to highlight the fact that British Labour is not going to stop Brexit; or scrap Trident; or do any of the things their faithful followers have convinced themselves their party would do if only it could steal enough of Boris Johnson’s clothes to fool those critical voters without actually becoming indistinguishable from the malignant child-clown. Or, alternatively, if Jeremy Corbyn could stir the apathetic masses to action in a way that one wouldn’t really expect of someone who has the compelling presence and personal magnetism of a substitute geography teacher.

What Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t seem to be aware of is that British Labour is no more likely to accede to her demand for a Section 30 order than it is to revoke Article 50 or dismantle the British state’s nuclear deterrent. All of these belong on the same list as Nigel Farage’s image appearing on a commemorative €100 note – the list of things that just aren’t going to happen.

It’s easy to understand why she demands things like an end to the Brexit insanity. Forcing your opponents to reject policies which are popular with voters can be a very effective campaigning tactic. But that’s not what is happening with the attempt to make Jeremy Corbyn signal his readiness to immediately grant a Section 30 order in exchange for SNP MPs serving as a crutch for a minority British Labour administration. Albeit a rather wobbly crutch. Nicola Sturgeon genuinely seems to suppose that this is a realistic possibility.

Why anyone might believe something so far-fetched is a mystery. To give credence to the notion that any British Prime Minister might facilitate or cooperate with a process which jeopardised the ‘precious’ Union flies in the face of the stark political reality of British Nationalist ideology and England-as-Britain’s need to maintain its grip on Scotland.

There’s lots of truly weird stuff going on in politics right now. But all of that weirdness would be as nothing compared to the British state sacrificing its interests in the name of democracy and decency. That stands on its own right at the top of the list of things that just aren’t going to happen.



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Johnson’s game

During the 2014 referendum campaign when Better Together / Project Fear was peddling scare stories about Scotland being expelled and excluded from the European Union, one of the reasons I gave for discounting this possibility was the fact that the EU bureaucracy takes a pragmatic rather than a dogmatic approach to such issues. That pragmatism means they tend to be somewhat flexible in seeking to find ways of resolving issues which entail as few complications as possible. Which is why they would all but certainly have opted for the two successor states solution had Scotland voted Yes.

Boris Johnson has evidently learned the lesson of the EU’s pragmatism and flexibility. He took advantage of it to secure the semblance of a ‘new deal’ despite the EU insisting that negotiations were closed. He obviously assumes he will be able to pull off the same trick as regards securing something that can be portrayed as a ‘trade deal’ before the end of the transition period.

There is no way a fully worked-out trade deal can be completed in the time available. Not even if the UK administration was remotely competent. The evidence of Brexit tells us they are anything but that. Johnson is depending on the EU going along with his little ploy just for the sake of not stirring up a crisis.

Expect a rerun of the antics leading up to Johnson declaring that he had squeezed a brilliant new deal out of the EU. The trade negotiations will involve incessant carping about the EU not cooperating and trying to bully ‘poor little Britain’. Meanwhile, the tiniest movement on the part of the EU will be declared a major concession and a triumph for ‘powerhouse Britain’. The British will take exorbitant credit for anything that can be spun as a success by the British media. All criticism will be deflected onto the EU bureaucrats and, if possible, political opponents.

The EU could put a stop to these silly games. But they won’t. That would involve taking a firm stance of the kind that is not compatible with pragmatism.



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Empty lines

On December 12th, voters have the chance to send Boris Johnson a message and escape this Brexit fiasco once and for all.

The above quote is attributed by the Sunday National to SNP candidate for West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine, Fergus Mutch. It is not an original line. In fact, it is the line being pushed across the entire SNP election campaign at the moment – complete with the social media hashtag, #StopBrexit, and a rather intrusive gif. It’s a good line. That is to say, it sounds good. It has the superficial appeal common to all such glittering generalities. But neither Fergus Mutch nor, as far as I can determine, anyone else who speaks for the SNP has seen fit to explain or expand on the line in a way which might lift it out of the category of an emotionally appealing phrase amenable to being repeated with great conviction despite being devoid of supporting information or reason.

It looks good in a Tweet. It doubtless sounds good when parroted on the doorsteps. But what if somebody asks the obvious questions? What happens if Fergus Mutch, or any of the SNP campaigners instructed by the party to deploy this line, encounters an awkward bugger like myself who isn’t about to be satisfied with facile sloganeering?

What happens if somebody asks what message is being sent to Boris Johnson? Or why there might be any point in sending him any message at all?

What happens if somebody asks how this “Brexit fiasco” might be either escaped or stopped? What happens if they insist on being given an explanation of the process by which voting in a particular way – presumably for their local SNP candidate – on 12 December leads either to Scotland escaping an imposed Brexit or Brexit being stopped altogether?

Is it fair, or sensible, to send out candidates and campaigners to sell this line to voters without arming them to deal with such questions? And, if they have been armed with the answers, where might the rest of us access the relevant information?

While I’m on the subject of awkward questions, were we not assured that independence was to be at the heart of the SNP’s election campaign? Dare I suggest that #DissolveTheUnion is a lot closer to what we were promised than #StopBrexit. And it has the advantage of being something that could actually be done.



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