No baby steps!

Chris McEleny is on the right track with this. But he goes neither far enough or fast enough. Holding a series of events to discuss alternative strategies would have been a great idea four or five years ago. And it might have been OK to drag things out until October and beyond if it was October 2018 we were talking about.

It’s pointless presenting Boris Johnson with an ultimatum in any case. Why would we give him a second chance to spit on Scotland? And an ultimatum only works if you have some sanction or penalty that you can impose in the event of the ultimatum not being met. What is Chris suggesting? Nicola Sturgeon goes to Johnson and says give us a Section 30 order or we’ll hold some meetings! Cough up, Sunshine, or we’ll form another group to look at ways of exploring new ideas for forums to discuss the best way to go about setting up new groups! And we’re not bluffing!

So long as the Scottish Government is committed to the Section 30 process Boris Johnson has all the power. This is not news. Some of us have been saying it for years. We warned that the Section 30 process is a trap. Nobody listened.

What else might the First Minister threaten Johnson with? Court? That’ll work. For the lawyers! They’ll get a nice payday. Boris Johnson will get a massive transfusion of smug. Nicola Sturgeon will get a faceful of smelly egg. Whatever the Scottish Government complains about all the British government has to do is point at Section 30 of the Scotland Act and remind the court that the First Minister herself called this the ‘gold standard’. They will then ask the Scottish Government’s lawyer to specify in what way they are contravening the terms of the ‘gold standard’ provision. And the lawyers will be lost for an answer. Because Boris Johnson may be an offensive arse but he hasn’t done anything illegal or unlawful. He has abided by the Section 30 rules. The ‘gold standard’!

The Scottish Government needs to do something bold. Something assertive. Something that isn’t in the British state’s book of traps and pitfalls. Chris McEleny is at least thinking outside the stultifying confines of the British box. For that, he is to be congratulated. Although this isn’t really much of a departure for him. But if you’re going to push the constitutional envelope then push it until it rips. No half measures. We don’t have time to take baby steps. We are at least three years late and 10 points behind where we should be. The gates are closing. If we are to get through them, we need to be taking giant strides.

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We need a different ‘Plan A’

Well, of course the amendment has been ruled out of order. It was, as the “SNP insider” said, having been assigned the task of feeding some information to The National in the hope of reducing the impact of the official statement when it comes, “completely incompetent”.

The amendment submitted by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny was bound to be thrown out, not only because it sought to take one resolution and turn it into another, but because the resolution it sought to shoehorn in was the same one as had already been rejected.

I am not surprised that the amendment has been ruled out of order. And I will not be joining the inevitable knee-jerk protests about the SNP supposedly ‘suppressing debate’. I do not strongly object to the amendment being thrown out for precisely the same reasons as I accepted the initial ‘Plan B’ resolution being rejected. It just isn’t a very good plan. Whether put forward as a resolution that was never going to get past the conference agenda committee or as an amendment that was never going to get past the conference agenda committee, the fact remains that ‘Plan B’ is deeply flawed – as I explained back in July.

I was not merely being negative about it. I also suggested an alternative course of action which would have achieved much of what was intended by the original resolution. What I proposed was that Angus and Chris table an amendment to the resolution in the names of John Swinney and Maree Todd – which is what they did; although it’s hardly likely that it was at my urging. But, rather than the somewhat clumsy way the pair went about trying to hijack that resolution, my idea was to submit an amendment which would hitch a ride on it.

I would like to have seen Angus and Chris table an amendment that fitted with the self-congratulatory tone of the Swinney/Todd resolution but added a plea for the Scottish Government to recognise the urgency of Scotland’s predicament and the need to be aware of all the ways in which the UK Government would seek to put obstacles in the way of Scotland’s journey to independence. It would have been very difficult for the committee to reject such a motion. And ‘Plan B’ could have been referred to in moving and seconding the amendment.

Of course, this would not be a debate on ‘Plan B’ that would lead to a vote by conference delegates. But that’s probably just as well. Because any debate would surely expose some or all of the issues identified in the article mentioned earlier. It is even possible that the resolution could have been voted down. Which would pretty much be the end of the matter.

Angus MacNeil is correct when he says,

The clock is ticking, but we still don’t have a plan to save Scotland from a no deal Brexit in just two months time.

He goes awry, however, when he adds that he and Chris support ‘Plan A’. Because that ‘plan’ is doomed. It is, if anything, even more flawed than the alternative which they proposed.

I find it incomprehensible that Nicola Sturgeon should have so resolutely committed to a process in which Scotland is the inferior party in every respect. A process which acknowledges the superiority of the British state and all its agencies. A process which puts Scotland’s cause totally at the mercy of the British state’s rules and apparatus.

She is unquestionably right to maintain that the UK Government’s continuing refusal to grant a Section 30 order would, under prevailing circumstances, be wholly unreasonable and definitively undemocratic. What she does not seem to realise, or stubbornly refuses to formally recognise, is that the requirement for a Section 30 is iself anti-democratic in that it imposes constraints on Scotland’s inalienable and unconditional right of self-determination.

We do not need a debate about an alternative plan. We need an urgent reexamination of the plan to which the First Minister has committed. We don’t need a ‘Plan B’. We need a ‘Plan A’ which relates to the situation as it is now, not as it was in 2012.

We need a plan which recognises that there is no route to independence which adheres to the rules made by those who are determined to preserve the Union at any cost. A plan which recognises that those rules must be broken if the Union is to be broken. A plan which recognises that there is no route to independence which does not involve direct and acrimonious confrontation with the British state – and which prepares us for that confrontation.

That must be ‘Plan A’. Because, if ‘Plan A’ fails then it is highly unlikely that there will be an opportunity to implement any ‘Plan B’. The British state is far from averse to closing down democratic routes to social and constitutional reform. It is now clear that it is determined to do so in order to lock Scotland into a Union which is unilaterally redefined to serve a British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project. A project which requires that Scotland’s democratic institutions be dismantled; our distinctive political culture eradicated; and our public services readied for feeding to the hyenas of corporate America.

Right now, the Scottish Government looks like it is isn’t even trying to save Scotland from this fate. In fact, it gives the impression of being oblivious to the threat. Only the power of the Yes movement can change that. And only if the Yes movement unites to put pressure on the First Minister.

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Options and priorities

As I have said on many occasions, the most valuable thing a political leader can have is a range of options. I have also acknowledged Nicola Sturgeon as a worthy pupil of one of the most astute politicians of our time – her erstwhile mentor, Alex Salmond. So I find it totally inexplicable both that she should discard options for taking forward the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence and that she should do so by choosing a route so fraught with potential pitfalls.

Unlike many other SNP members and a good number of my fellow Yes activists, I was perfectly content that the MacNeil/McEleny ‘Plan B’ resolution was rejected. I won’t go through all the reasons for this here, but they included the First Minister’s concern about distraction as well as recognition of the difficulties involved in making an election work as a substitute for a referendum. And the fact that a conference resolution isn’t needed for Plan B. The SNP can just stick in their manifesto for any election a declaration that a favourable outcome will be taken as a mandate to start negotiations. Who’s going to object? Apart from the usual suspects

I suggested then that Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny might have had more success putting forward an amendment to the resolution in the names of John Swinney and Maree Todd, which they have now done; although I don’t for one moment suppose my words had any bearing on that decision. Besides, I also advised that they should drop their ‘Plan B’ and instead submit an amendment advocating a greater sense of urgency from the Scottish Government and exhorting the First Minister to keep her options open on on the matter of process rather than insisting on rigid adherence to procedures established by the British government. Obviously, Angus and Chris have not heeded this part of my advice.

I take the view that getting Plan A right is vastly more important than having a backup plan. Not least because, should Plan A fail, it’s unlikely that there will be an opportunity to resort to Plan B. If the British establishment is aware of the potential of Plan B, and how could they not be, then they will have a countermeasure ready to be deployed.

Nicola Sturgeon is absolutely correct in sating that focus must be on her plan. Where I part company with her is that I insist this focus shout take the form of critical scrutiny, rather than obedient acceptance.

I suggest that the four SNP MPs now backing a Plan B route to independence would serve Scotland’s cause better were they to take the lead in questioning the efficacy and wisdom of following the Section 30 route.

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Evading the issue

There may be very good reasons for a resolution failing to make it onto the final agenda for the SNP conference. It is inevitable that people will feel aggrieved when a resolution is rejected that concerns a matter of particular interest to them. It is pretty much part of the pre-conference routine for there to be complaints that the agenda is being ‘rigged’ to avoid topics that some of those on the platform might consider potentially embarrassing. Folk have their ‘pet subjects’. Their personal estimation of the importance of that subject is likely to far exceed that of a dispassionate committee. It will be difficult for them to understand how a resolution on what they hold to be a topic of central importance can fail to be included in the agenda.

It may be that a topic has already been thoroughly debated at a recent conference. It may be that party policy on the matter is so firmly settled that further debate is seen as pointless. It may be that the resolution itself is not well drafted, or that the procedures and guidelines for submitting a resolution have not been adhered to.

I found it very easy to understand why the ‘Plan B’ resolution submitted by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny was not accepted. Many others, perhaps being less objective, are incensed that it has been rejected. It would be an extraordinary agenda setting process that didn’t offend someone.

What, for me, was most disappointing about the MacNeil-McEleny resolution was the fact that it didn’t address the issue of urgency. If the party managers are keen to avoid discussion of independence it is not because the matter of a ‘Plan B’ might cause the leadership some discomfort. It is because any debate around the topic of independence has the potential to lead to awkward questions about ‘Plan A’. More specifically, about the timetable for ‘Plan A’. That’s what the SNP leadership desperately want to avoid.

Perhaps a more effective tactic would have been to submit a resolution directly – if, perhaps, subtly – addressing the evident lack of any sense of urgency in the Scottish Government’s approach to resolving the constitutional issue.

Alternatively, an appropriately worded amendment to the resolution in the names of John Swinney and Maree Todd might have served to get the issue of urgency before delegates. One advantage of such an amendment is that rejection would be tantamount to an explicit admission that the party leadership doesn’t want the issue debated.

There may be very good reasons for that too.

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Step back to step up!

I like Angus MacNeil. I regard him and Chris McEleney as two of the most potent allies of those in the Yes movement who are trying to inject a desperately needed sense of urgency into the SNP leadership’s lackadaisical approach to the constitutional issue.

I don’t like Angus MacLeod very much at all. I hold him largely responsible for the appalling treatment meted out to the individual known to most of us as Grousebeater. But I’d taken against the man long before that. Admittedly, my instincts could be wrong. Undoubtedly, Angus “Mumbler” MacLeod has fared badly on the conference platform in comparison with the likes of Derek Mackay, and that may have unduly influenced my attitude. But I just don’t like him.

So it pains me that I am obliged to agree with Angus MacLeod. It pains me even more to say that Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny haven’t handled this matter at all well. It’s going too far to describe their resolution as “whimsical” and Angus MacLeod’s use of such language serves only to reinforce the impression of an unfortunate lack of respect for party members. Nobody should doubt that Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny acted with the best of intentions and the worthiest of motives. But if party members deserve to be respected so too do the procedures adopted and approved by the membership. Angus MacLeod is surely correct to say that proper procedures were not followed. And it is certainly true that the MacNeil-McEleny resolution, while definitely not “whimsical”, was woefully ill-thought.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have repeatedly pointed out the problems with this ‘Plan B’ ( To the best of my knowledge, none of the issues identified has been addressed by either Angus MacNeil or Chris McEleny. That is deeply unfortunate and suggests that the resolution might not have survived the heat of debate at conference. One should never make a proposal or express a view that one is not prepared to defend against all criticism.

This situation cannot be allowed to fester. My advice to Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny would be to avoid getting carried along on the wave of knee-jerk support that the pair are enjoying at the moment. It won’t last. And the conference agenda committee is not going to back down. Getting embroiled in a fight with Angus MacLeod and the rest is not a productive use of your talents and public profile. I’m not going to give you any of that s**t about ‘damaging the party’. The SNP is not harmed by internal debate, it is strengthened. But conference time is a scarce resource. It has to be allocated wisely and used efficiently. Debating ‘Plan B’ was never a good use of conference time.

The best thing would be to step away from this discarded resolution altogether. Normally, when a resolution is rejected, those responsible for drafting it will have the option to rework it and try again. The MacNeil-McEleny proposal is not worth the effort. It is a non-runner. Tacking new legs on it isn’t going to help. The second option when a resolution is rejected is to start afresh. And that is what Angus and Chris should do. I, for one, would be totally supportive of an appropriately worded and properly constructed resolution impressing on the Scottish Government the need for a sense of urgency. Such a resolution would have the added advantage of providing an opportunity to rehearse, in a very public forum, all the reasons why a sense of urgency is required.

I sincerely hope Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny have a bit of a rethink while they can abandon their ‘Plan B’ proposal with honour and pride and credibility intact. While I’m at the wishing tree, it would also be nice if Angus MacLeod could try to be a bit less of a tosser.

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Let’s get confrontational!

This whole ‘Plan B’ episode is painfully reminiscent of the time when Pete Wishart came out with that nonsense about postponing a new referendum indefinitely in the hope that the independence fairy would deliver something called the ‘optimal time’. Along with many others, I had a number of questions about this approach to addressing the constitutional issue. Or might one more pointedly say, this determined effort to avoid addressing the constitutional issue. Now, as then, nobody wants to answer the questions. Now, as then, the ‘plan’ really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But relatively few are subjecting it to any scrutiny. And nobody is responding to enquiries. Pete Wishart went as far as blocking me on Twitter so as to avoid questions about his outlandish notions.

Great as it is to have two such well-respected individuals putting some pressure on an SNP leadership which seems uncommonly relaxed about Scotland’s predicament, the ‘Plan B’ put forward by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny simply doesn’t measure up. And debating it at conference would be a pointless waste of time. Let me explain.

There are, as I see it, three serious problems with the idea of using an election as a substitute for a referendum. For a start, there is the matter of the fundamental difference between a parliamentary election and a referendum. The latter is, or is meant to be, a binary choice between two clearly stated, deliverable options. It is difficult enough to set up a referendum in such a way as to get, not just a result, but an incontestable decision. What is difficult in the case of a referendum is as close to impossible as makes no odds using a necessarily multi-issue election as a substitute.

It might be possible to have a single-issue parliamentary election. In theory, it is possible – if all parties contesting the election cooperate. If they all agree that the election is to be fought on one issue only, and if they all campaign exclusively on that issue, then it effectively ceases to be an election and becomes a referendum.

What are the chances of the British parties cooperating in this way? And, if you’re contorting an election so as to make it something close to a referendum, why not just have the referendum? Because the British state won’t ‘allow’ a referendum! So why would they ‘allow’ a referendum thinly disguised as an election?

It is weirdly naive to suppose that a British state which would go so far as to deny Scotland’s democratic right of self-determination wouldn’t sabotage an attempt to use an election as a substitute.

And it would be so easy for them to do so. They need only contest the election on any and every issue except independence in order to be able to claim that not everybody was voting on the issue of independence. The one thing pretty much everybody in the independence movement is agreed upon is that the process of restoring Scotland’s independence must sport impeccable democratic credentials. An election used as a proxy referendum would be wide open to challenge.

Then there’s the matter of time. The next scheduled appropriate election – and surely a ‘Plan B’ worthy of the name cannot gamble on an unscheduled election – isn’t until the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021. There is considerable doubt as to whether there will even be a Scottish Parliament by then. What is absolutely certain is that the British political elite will not be idle. An overarching imperative for them is locking Scotland into a political union unilaterally redefined for the purposes of the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project. Any ‘plan’ for taking forward the cause of independence that involves delay beyond Brexit has to address the near certainty of the Scottish Parliament being ‘suspended’ and the likelihood of the British government unilaterally declaring Scotland part of an ‘indivisible and indissoluble’ British state.

Then there’s the fact that there is already a mandate for a new constitutional referendum. A very clear mandate with all the democratic legitimacy anybody could wish for. That mandate is being flatly denied by the British state. Why would it be any different for this new mandate? Why wouldn’t the British simply ignore that as well? Especially as we’d be implicitly admitting that the existing mandate was such as could be ignored. By saying we need another one, we’d not only undermine the democratic legitimacy of the mandate we already have, but of any and all mandates.

Any ‘plan’ that seeks to avoid confrontation with the British state’s anti-democratic denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination woefully misses the point that this bullying behaviour must be challenged, not side-stepped. It does Scotland no good whatsoever to work around the injustices of the Union, leaving them intact. The Union is a constitutional device by which the people of Scotland are denied the effective exercise of their sovereignty. It must be confronted. It must be challenged. It must be broken.

Finally, addressing the fuss being made about the ‘Plan B’ resolution not being selected for debate at conference; what would be the point? No debate is required. It’s not necessary to debate using an election in the way suggested by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny. The SNP can simply put it in their manifesto for any UK or Scottish general election. The SNP has a standing mandate to pursue independence by any democratic means. Using a majority in an election as a device is perfectly legitimate and requires no prior approval from members. Are members going to object? Is anybody in the Yes movement going to protest?

British Nationalists will be outraged, of course. When are they ever anything else? Ruth Davidson will put on her best scowl and denounce the ploy using the voice that she imagines to be Churchillian but actually makes her sound severely constipated. The British media… well… they’re the British media….

People are saying we need a ‘Plan B’. We really don’t. We need a ‘Plan A’ that works. We can’t afford to fail. We can’t even afford to contemplate failure.

Angus and Chris are to be commended for at least trying to press the issue. But their mistake is to suppose that there might be a path to independence delineated by the rules and procedures of the British political system. There is no such path. There is no route to independence which does not require the breaking of those rules and departure from those procedures. There is no way to walk out of the Union. We have to break out.

The Union’s grip on Scotland will not be broken by some cunning plan or devious ploy or artful political manoeuvre. It will be broken when Scotland’s First Minister stands up in Scotland’s Parliament and declares the Scottish Government’s intention to #DissolveTheUnion.

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No alternative

I am disappointed for Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleney. However misguided their ‘Plan B’ was, I know their intentions were good and their enthusiasm genuine. Nobody should be in any doubt that these are two of the ‘good guys’. Among our elected representatives, they are all but alone in expressing the sense of urgency felt by so many in the Yes movement. Not to mention the sense of disappointment and frustration.

The fact is that their ‘alternative route to independence’ really isn’t. It was never going to fly, even if it could get off the ground. It was never going to fly for reasons I have set out in detail. It was never going to get off the ground for the reasons given by an anonymous “SNP insider”.

Unfortunately, Angus and Chris were addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. We do no need an alternative route to independence. We do not need a ‘Plan B’. The hard truth is that if we don’t find the right route to independence now then we’re unlikely to have the opportunity to implement any backup plan. And increasing numbers of Yes activists are entertaining serious doubts about the SNP’s ‘Plan A’. Some members will certainly be “disappointed” that SNP conference will not debate the party’s approach to resolving the constitutional issue. More than a few, both in the SNP and in the wider independence movement, will be frustrated and angry that the leadership is unwilling to rethink an approach which they see as seriously – perhaps fatally – flawed.

If the British political elite is willing to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination then why would anybody suppose that they’d stop short of ‘suspending’ the Scottish Parliament? And if they do that, why wouldn’t they take steps to thwart any possible alternative route to independence? Once established power resorts to undemocratic and anti-democratic means to suppress a challenge to its status, it has no choice but to continue on that course – wherever it might lead. Any climb-down would be too humiliating to contemplate. And it would involve admitting seriously questionable behaviour.

And it’s not as if we are merely facing the prospect of the British state resorting to methods associated with oppressive regimes. They are already embarked on such a course. It started with opposition to the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination. That opposition has now become prohibition. There’s only one way it can go from there.

The British state could, even now, pull back from the brink. But that is not going to happen. In all of British politics not a single voice is to be heard issuing a word of caution about the way the British government is behaving towards Scotland; far less denouncing this anti-democratic conduct. Instead, we have candidates for the post of Tory leader/British Prime Minister indulging in macho Jock-bashing to amuse and enthuse their British Nationalist constituency.

It truly beggars belief that, against this background, the SNP leadership can imagine it appropriate or politically realistic to contemplate taking the Section 30 route used in the first referendum and rerunning the 2014 campaign.

We would not be so desperate for a ‘Plan B’ if we were at all convinced that there was a workable ‘Plan A’. The SNP is doing absolutely nothing to persuade us that they are even aware of the threat posed to Scotland by a rampant ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism intent on preserving the Union at any cost. That threat is real and imminent. It is looming over us now. We are desperately awaiting some sign that our political leaders are preparing to deal with it.

Angus and Chris may not have come up with an answer. But at least they are asking the questions. More power to them!

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