A question of trust

ruth_davidsonFar from the least of the problems with Theresa May’s latest attempt to make the rough-hewn square peg of Brexit fit the well-formed round hole of reality is the question of trust. For example, when the British government undertakes to pay “due regard” to European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings relating to the rules the UK will share with Brussels, why would anyone assume this to mean that the British government will respect those rulings? Anyone even minimally aware of the British state’s record in relation to such undertakings would have to be exceedingly sceptical. Anyone familiar with ‘The Vow’ made to Scotland in 2014 would openly scoff at the notion of trusting the British political elite.

If there was any intention to respect ECJ rulings, why not just say so? Why not make that commitment explicit? Why resort to such vague terms? When such woolly language is used it becomes a matter of how it is defined. And of who does the defining.

This being the British political elite, it is safe to assume that they reserve to themselves the role of ultimate arbiters in this, as in all things. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to expect that “due regard” might be defined in the same self-serving manner as the British political elite defines the “consent” of the Scottish Parliament to whatever it is that the British political elite wants to do to Scotland. Thus, the British government will be deemed to have given “due regard” to any ECJ ruling if –

(a) the ruling is accepted
(b) the ruling is ignored
(c) the ruling is rejected

To most of us, I’m sure, this is the stuff of Orwellian madness. But, to those mired in the dogmatic exceptionalism of British Nationalist ideology, it all seems perfectly reasonable. The reasonableness derives from it being British, regardless of the content. This may seem improbable. Many will ask how it is possible – absent some pathology – for any human intellect to deny such glaring inconsistency, contradiction and illogic. But we are dealing here with minds capable of the kind of doublethink which allows British politicians to pay lip service to Scotland’s Claim of Right whilst using those same lips to spit on Scotland’s right of self-determination.

And there is no escaping the fact that the British government actually drafted an amended the Scotland Act which Jonathan Mitchell QC condemned as “a rapist’s theory of consent”.

30 (4) For the purposes of subsection (3) a consent decision is—
(a) a decision to agree a motion consenting to the laying of the draft,
(b) a decision not to agree a motion consenting to the laying of the draft, or
(c) a decision to agree a motion refusing to consent to the laying of the draft;

In any negotiation there must be trust. There must be a certain minimum confidence that the parties to the negotiation are acting in good faith. There must be a reasonable expectation that undertakings made will be honoured. The British political elite has shown itself to be deceitful, duplicitous and dishonest. They cannot be trusted. Therefore, there can be no basis for agreement.

If there is no reason for the EU to trust the British state, there is even less cause for Scotland to do so. We trust the British government at our peril. We are paying a steep price for having believed British politicians in 2014. The cost of trusting them now will be far, far higher.

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The art of politics

The SNP’s rivals – by which I mean both the British parties and the other pro-independence parties (OPIP) – are obviously massively disappointed that the SNP has not obliged them by providing ammunition to be used against them. In a characteristically clever piece of political manoeuvring, Sturgeon has done just enough to qualify as meaningful reform in the eyes of the wider electorate, but not so much to scare off the voters expected to give the SNP another term in May.

For many of us, this is the way politics should be done. A carefully calculated amalgam of principle and pragmatism. Quietly effective administration that allows incremental change while eschewing the kind of grandstanding that can, and so often does, go badly awry.

We shouldn’t take too seriously the raging and petulant foot-stamping of the British parties and the OPIPs. The former, as we know, will react with indignant apoplexy even when the SNP administration makes the very concessions they demand –  for example, on the budget. The latter know damned well that there was not the slightest possibility of any inevitably disruptive and controversial plan to abolish the Council Tax this close to an election. Their outrage really is no more than worthy but theatrical posturing for the benefit of their already committed supporters.

None of this will make the slightest difference in the coming election. Cautious as the changes to local taxation may be, even timid from some perspectives, they represent precisely the kind of measured policy-making that has won the favour of a huge swathe of the Scottish electorate.

Of course it is plodding and guided to an evident extent by the electoral interests of the party. But anybody who imagines Scottish voters are offended by such hard-headed realism is guilty of the kind of naivety that they attribute to others. And so long as the plodding is generally taking the country in a direction that people are comfortable with – or, at least, not terrified by – then the SNP will continue to win elections, while their rivals flail around looking for a way to emulate this winning formula.

The voter’s dilemma

“I get why people who are passionate about independence have mostly thrown their energy into the SNP.”

“The SNP is not the only way to reinforce support for independence.”

In those two short sentences Carolyn Leckie neatly summarises the curious doublethink affecting a sizeable part of the independence movement. An intellectual appreciation of realpolitik – or, at least, a claim of such appreciation – existing alongside an almost visceral rejection by the hind-brain of the necessary implications of what the fore-brain knows to be true.

I have previously expressed the underlying dilemma somewhat differently in the aphorism,

“You can be pro-independence and non-SNP. But you can’t be pro-independence and anti-SNP.”

Carolyn Leckie is rather evidently feeling the torment of this conflict.

There is no irreconcilable contradiction in wanting a diverse, progressive parliament whilst also recognising that there is absolutely no realistic prospect of achieving this in the coming election. There is no magic voting strategy which will give us precisely the parliament that we want. And we wouldn’t want there to be. Because if there were such an easy route to determining the make-up of the Scottish Parliament than this method might also be available to those who would create a parliament markedly  different from the one that we want.

It is not unnatural, or even discreditable to aim for that which we find desirable. Especially if it is something as worthy as a better politics. But an excessive focus on that aim can blind us to just how far we have travelled towards our goal. And cause us to lose sight of the path to that goal. Carolyn Leckie appears not to appreciate just how different our politics is already as a consequence of the Yes campaign. And her perfectly understandable desire to recapture (or cling to) the spirit of that great endeavour has, perhaps, overwhelmed the instincts of a “hardened, and older, political hack”.

It may not be totally clear to her, but if the ultimate goal is the better politics and the better society that independence makes possible, then the almost certainly futile pursuit of a short-term “fix” of a parliamentary diversity my be no more than a distraction from the greater cause. A quite possibly fatal distraction.

Carolyn Leckie says that she is “not taking too kindly” to what she talks of in terms of pressure and demands that she give both votes to the SNP in May. But if, as she claims, she “gets” the arguments for doing so then the “pressure” is not coming from people like me. It is coming from that internal conflict between head and heart. Her head tells her that #BothVotesSNP is the only rational strategy in terms of protecting what has been achieved and taking the independence movement forward. But her heart craves the immediate gratification of a grand political gesture.

All I, and others are saying to people such as Carolyn Leckie is, by all means vote the way you want. But be aware of the implications. Do so in the awareness that it is not a choice without consequences. Do not entirely lose sight of the realities of Scotland’s political circumstances.

Arguably, the most useful of the various simplistic dichotomies available to us as we contemplate the issue at hand is that based on the difference between being independent and becoming independent. In a generalisation of the kind which is essential to such simplistic dichotomies we might state that the pro-independence political left in Scotland is highly focused on the former. They think almost exclusively in terms of what can be achieved with independence. They see independence as serving a particular policy agenda. (And, being the left, there is already a proliferation of policy agendas.)

In the discourse of the left, there is little or no consideration of the process of becoming independent. No thought of the practicalities. Almost nothing beyond an insistence, from some, that they must be part of a process that they disdain to even think about – dismissing such ‘managerialism’ as an affront to the purity of their ideology.

The other half of this simplistic dichotomy is concerned with becoming independent. It is about process and practicality. It is about recognising and dealing with the realities of extricating Scotland from an anachronistic and grossly asymmetric political union. It is aware of the fact that this must be done from within a political system that is totally dominated by a powerful and antagonistically defensive establishment. It sees the necessity of playing the British establishment at its own game. Because until we are independent, that is the only game there is.

But perhaps the most important thing about the ‘becoming’ side of our dichotomy, as opposed to the ‘being’ side, is that the latter’s disregard for the former is not reciprocated. We can put all our efforts into becoming independent without losing sight of what being independent means.

There is no disputing the point that ‘becoming’ independent takes precedence. Without it, there is no ‘being’ independent. And none of the things that we hope and intend will flow from being independent. We must beware pernicious arguments such as that there is no point to independence if this or that outcome is not tied to it. Or the suggestion that much, if not all, of what might be achieved as an independent nation can be realised by some simpler method, such as electing a few representative from this or that political faction.

There is no realistic path to independence, on any reasonable time-scale, which does not involve the use of the Scottish National Party as the agents of the people of Scotland. Carolyn Leckie is right to remind everyone that the independence movement is “broad and diverse and not under the control of any single party”. But what made the Yes campaign so powerful and effective was the fact that it harnessed that breadth and diversity to a single aim – the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. It set aside party politics and policy agendas in favour of a shared commitment to bringing Scotland’s government home – ALL of Scotland’s government, for ALL of Scotland’s people.

The error lies in imagining that the SNP seeks to usurp that spirit of common cause for the sake of some purpose which is never quite identified. The attitude seems to be that they are successful, ergo there must be something wrong with them. (Is that a “Scottish” thing?)

But it is not the SNP that is tying the cause of independence to any policy agenda. It is not the SNP that is making support for independence conditional on ‘being’ independent meaning one particular thing. It is not the SNP that is diffusing the energies of the independence movement into mass of favoured causes.

It is most certainly not the case that the SNP seeks to “control” the entire independence movement – as if that were even possible. On the contrary, the SNP exists to serve that movement. It is, inescapably and undeniably, the political arm of the independence movement. It is essential to the success of that movement. But it is also entirely dependent on that movement. It only has the power that we give it. And we only give it that power for one purpose – to take us through the process of ‘becoming’ independent. A process which requires careful and clever management.

The question then becomes, given where we are in terms of the political realities of the moment; and given what the role of the SNP is in relation to the independence movement; why would anybody who aspires to the restoration and transformation of Scotland even consider voting in a way that might jeopardise the SNP majority – and thus the entire independence project? (Not to mention the implications for our governance and economy in the interim.)

I say to Carolyn Leckie, we don’t need to “recreate a broad, grass-roots Yes movement”. That movement still exists. It is not the movement she remembers from “standing in the middle of a sun-bleached Buchanan Street in Glasgow on the Saturday before the referendum”. And there is some sadness in that. But it is no longer that movement, not because it has decayed, but because it has matured. It has gone from being a movement that changed Scotland’s political culture to being embedded in the new political culture that it created. If it is invisible, it is because it has become the change it wanted.

Not that this implies an end to the process of change. Only that we now have other ways of bringing change about. We have the very thing we were seeking. We have political power. The potential power of our popular movement has been transormed into real political power. In order to be effective, that political power needs to be focused and purposefully applied. Like it or not, within the British political system that absolutely requires that the political power be concentrated in a single political party.

I say to Carolyn Leckie, and others who are tempted to risk squandering the political power that the independence movement has won, giving both your votes to the SNP in May’s election is NOT a betrayal of that movement. It is something which is, in its way, as important to that movement as the “sassy, vibrant, creative energy” that young people brought to the first referendum campaign.

A massive mandate for the SNP is the essential next step in taking the independence movement forward. That is what will make an impact. That is what will be effective. You may detest political ‘big sticks’ but don’t be fooled into imagining we can take on the might of the British state without one. The SNP is our ‘big stick’. As ‘big sticks’ go, it’s not bad – largely because we fashion it for our purposes. Let us not throw it away in the faint hope of finding some prettier twigs along the way.

Wrong narrative

All of this from Pete Wishart, Tommy Sheppard and others might make some kind of sense if anybody was actually pressing for an immediate second referendum. Or if the Scottish Government’s ability to call another referendum was critically dependent on a manifesto commitment to a specific timetable. Or even if talk of a “once in a generation” undertaking wasn’t the vacuous nonsense that it is. Inexplicably, these people are allowing the British establishment to dictate the narrative. And I suspect I am not alone in being both disappointed and thoroughly pissed off.

Let’s deal with the most obvious fallacy first. I am, frankly, appalled that a politician with Pete Wishart’s experience should make a statement to the effect that the SNP had committed to an independence referendum being a “once in a generation” event. I can only assume that he’s read this so often in the British press that, like so many others, he has been duped into accepting it as fact. But, not only was no such undertaking ever given by the party, it would be utterly meaningless even if it had. As Nicola Sturgeon has very firmly pointed out, the whether and when of a second referendum is entirely a matter for the people of Scotland. We tell the politicians. They don’t tell us. Individual politicians may offer their personal opinions on the matter, but only the people of Scotland have the legitimate authority to decide.
Pete Wishart needs to pay closer attention to what his boss is saying.

But that is not the only aspect of the unionist narrative that is being echoed by SNP politicians who really should know better. The idea that the manifesto must contain a detailed commitment to a second referendum in order for that to be possible is every bit as fallacious as the “once in a generation” nonsense. The wrong-headedness of it is exposed by a set of simple logical statements.




Absent a manifesto statement explicitly ruling out a referendum in the period of the next parliament, commitment to the principle of a referendum is absolutely implied.

And there is going to be no such ruling out of a referendum. Again, Mr Wishart and his colleagues need to listen to the party’s leader.

Our manifesto will set out what we consider are the circumstances and the timescale on which a second referendum might be appropriate, but we can only propose.

It’s then for people in Scotland, whether it is in this election or in future elections, to decide whether they want to vote for our manifesto and then if there is in the future another independence referendum, whether that’s in five years or ten years or whenever, it will be down to the people of Scotland to decide whether they want to vote for independence or not.

So at every single stage this is something that is driven by and decided by the people of Scotland, not by politicians.

Nicola Sturgeon has precisely seized upon the essence of the issue. Instead of responding to demands for an immediate referendum that are all but entirely a product of the British establishment’s propaganda machine, she is acutely aware that the real issue is our right of self-determination. It is the right of the people of Scotland to be the ultimate authority in relation to the constitutional status of their nation that must be affirmed and defended.

I am at a loss to understand why Pete Wishart is taking his lead from the unionist narrative rather than from a party leader who clearly has a firm grasp on the situation. I accept that it is necessary to emphasise the SNP’s standing as the only credible party of government in Scotland. But I see no reason why this should require talking down the party’s role as the political arm of the independence movement.

The people of Scotland are not stupid. They are perfectly capable of understanding this dual role.

If the SNP is to be the spearhead of the independence movement, it’s senior figures should not be confirming unionist drivel about a “once in a generation” promise. They should be treating it with the derision it deserves.
They should not be allowing unionists to set contrived constraints on the Scottish Government’s right to demand a referendum on behalf of the people of Scotland. They should be forcefully arguing the case that a democratically elected Scottish Government ALWAYS has that right.

They should not be allowing that the right of self-determination can be limited by the text of a party election leaflet. They should be insisting that this right is absolute and inalienable.

A “Pick ‘n’ Mix” Parliament?

There are a number of problems with the notion of orchestrating voters in order to create a “Pick ‘n’ Mix” parliament. Others have tackled the psephological aspects. I would suggest that not the least of the problems is illustrated by the lack of any consensus about outcomes. It seems form ll of this that, even if it were possible to achieve coordinated tactical voting – which it really isn’t – the result would remain unpredictable.

Superficially, the idea of having a large number of non-SNP pro-independence MSPs seems attractive. And ridding our parliament of as much as possible of the British parties is obviously desirable. But there is reason to question how effective a group of “Other Pro-independence” MSPs might be. In the first place, what chance is there that they would, in fact, be a group. This is the infamously factional and fractious left that we’re talking about. Experience tells us that they are likely to expend more of their energies on internecine squabbling and partisan point-scoring than in working together towards a common goal.

We have to wonder, too, if these non-SNP pro-independence parties actually share a goal, either among themselves or with the SNP and/or the broader independence movement. Much has been made of the diversity of the Yes campaign. And rightly so. But the thing that unified the diverse parts of the Yes campaign was a straightforward, no-strings commitment to independence which was not conditional on any particular political agenda. Of all the pro-independence parties, only the SNP maintains this stance. For all the others it’s a matter of “independence if” and “independence but”.

When we talk about the potential effectiveness of these non-SNP pro-independence MSPs we have to be clear about the context. As the opposition at Holyrood they would have to try very hard to be worse than British Labour in Scotland and the other British parties. It would certainly be good to have an opposition which was doing more than just throwing a ludicrously protracted tantrum at having been dispossessed of the power and status to which it presumes entitlement.

But in the context of advancing the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence, there is reason to doubt that these other pro-independence parties would have much impact. Principally because the British media would simply airbrush them out of the picture altogether. Cast your mind back to the referendum campaign and ask yourself how often Yes Scotland or any of the myriad organisations and groups operating under the Yes Scotland umbrella were even acknowledged. As far as the Brit-centric mainstream media was concerned, it was all about the SNP and Alex Salmond. The same attitude would prevail in relation to RISE, Solidarity etc. To the considerable extent that being effective in the independence campaign requires a significant media profile, these parties and their MSPs would be only marginally effective as they were denied any media profile at all.

Look at the way the Westminster elite have sought, with some success, to sideline and exclude the SNP group at Westminster, despite their massive democratic mandate. A handful of Green/RISE/Solidarity MSPs at Holyrood will be as nothing by comparison.

The only exception to this media blanking of the entire Yes campaign other than the SNP was when one or other of the Yes groups or organisations did something that could be spun as embarrassing to the SNP. Likewise, any non-SNP MSPs at Holyrood after May would only ever find themselves getting any media attention if they were sniping at the SNP administration. They would, in effect, be used as sticks to beat the SNP, and little else.

And we have good cause to suppose that these other pro-independence parties would lend themselves readily enough to being thus used by the British nationalist propaganda machine. Far too many of their supporters appear content to take their cue from the British parties and the British media rather than formulate their own rational and nuanced critique of the SNP. If all we are going to get from the Green/RISE/Solidarity contingent is a dumb parroting of “SNP BAD!” drivel then we’d find no improvement over the British parties at Holyrood. Indeed, it might be argued that we’d be worse off. At least we can attack the inanity of the British parties’ anti-SNP propaganda without being seen to condemn another part of the independence campaign.

That these other pro-independence parties are guilty as charged will be proved by their response to these remarks. That response will consist almost entirely of an echo of the unionist line that exposing the distortions and dishonesty of the anti-SNP propaganda equates with a claim that the SNP “can do no wrong”. More thoughtful people will realise that refuting one allegation, or even a series of allegations, in no way implies a total absence of imperfection. But it is much easier to eschew such thoughtfulness and go straight to idiocies about “blind allegiance”.

To summarise, I see two very big questions looming over the notion of a “Pick ‘n’ Mix” parliament. Is it even feasible? And even if it was, would it be of any great utility to the independence campaign?

My expectation is that Scotland’s voters will, for the most part, disregard all the conflicting and confusing pleas for cunning tactical voting. I think they will make their choices in much the same diverse ways as ever. I am not about to join in with those who presume to tell people how to vote. Not least because I am perfectly aware that I will be ignored. And deservedly so. I would say only this. In the SNP we have a force sufficient to shake the British establishment. That force has been created by the people of Scotland, and it is at their disposal. It is our big stick.

As I have found occasion to remind people, the SNP offers the ONLY path to independence. It is the agency by which the people of Scotland will achieve the goal of securing their nation’s independence. Without the SNP, that simply isn’t going to happen. You can be non-SNP and pro-independence. You cannot be anti-SNP and pro-independence. Bear this in mind both in the campaign for the Holyrood elections and when you vote. Think very carefully before being tempted to set aside the dull, misshapen, imperfect but very, very big stick that we have in favour of some smooth and shiny but rather small new stick.