Not happening

Read it and weep! The counsel of despair wrapped in the shiny paper of academic analysis! What’s long and thin and contains no meat? If your first thought was a hot-dog sausage that’s probably because you haven’t read Gerry Hassan’s article in the Sunday National. You can save yourself the effort by skipping to the closing words – “longer game”. I wish I’d thought to do so. Being aware that the author isn’t responsible for the headline – or, to put it another way, that the headline may not accurately presage the content – I opted to read on in order to ascertain whether Mr Hassan really does write of ‘The long game for indyref2 and Scottish sovereignty”. As you now know, he does. He really should know better.

Not that it is necessary to read to the end in order to realise that Gerry Hassan is merely stirring the thin gruel of conventional wisdom concerning Scotland’s constitutional question. Granted, he throws in a handful of worthy names in an effort to thicken and flavour the watery broth. But there is nothing substantial here. Nothing satisfying. Nothing sustaining. The concoction is based on a stock of unexamined and unquestioned off-the-shelf assumptions. Here’s an example.

The case for a second indyref is based on Scotland voting to remain in the UK, and being told that this was the only way for Scotland to remain in the European Union.

Everybody knows this. At least, everybody Gerry Hassan listens to. It is established as truth solely and entirely because few trouble to subject it to any scrutiny. Few trouble to subject it to any scrutiny because it is established truth. Why question it? There are more important things to do. Those weel-kent names won’t drop themselves. Thus, the opportunity to think and say something novel and interesting is foregone in favour of sticking with the blandly uncontroversial cosy consensus. Ideas are not challenged. Intellects are not exercised. Mindsets remain unchanged.

There must be something wrong with me. I cannot have somebody tell me what is what without wanting needing to whether it is. I cannot encounter a statement such as the one above without feeling the urge to query every aspect of it. The questions flow naturally and inevitably from the assertion. The questions are inescapable.

Mention “the case for a second indyref” and I am compelled to ask why there has to be a “case” for the exercise of a fundamental democratic right. Why must we argue for something that is inalienably ours? Why are we being required to justify something which does not and cannot require any justification? Who are we trying to satisfy? What rightful authority do they have to insist that we persuade them of an entitlement which no authority has the right to withhold?

To find the best answer, first find the best question. In this instance, we must ask what is the necessary and sufficient condition for the exercise of the right of self-determination? It is unarguable that a substantial or significant demand should exist among the electorate or the populace. That is the necessary condition. To determine whether it is sufficient we must ask what might take precedence over popular demand? In a democracy, vanishingly few things have the potential to take precedence over the will of the people. That will must prevail in all circumstances unless a powerful case can be made for denying it.

Immediately, we see that Gerry Hassan has it arse-for-elbow. No “case” need be made for having the people decide an issue fundamental to the governance of their nation. What is necessary is a sufficient case for denying the people that opportunity.

That is a very long-winded explanation of a mental process which should be almost instantaneous and unconscious. I make no apology for this. Because, had that process occurred in Gerry Hassan’s mind he would have written a very different article. His entire approach to the subject would have been altered. He would have approached the constitutional issue with an entirely different mindset. Not doing so was a choice. Unless an individual is utterly devoid of the attribute – or afflicted with pathological intellectual indolence – intellectual curiosity must run its course, save that it be purposefully reined-in.

The consequences of this failure to interrogate the cosy consensus are far-reaching. It initiates stream of fallacious thinking leading inevitably erroneous conclusions. Gerry Hassan makes the point for me when he explains Section 30 as –

… the part of the Scotland Act 1998 which allows the Scottish Parliament to pass laws in reserved matters such as constitutional matters and which needs Westminster’s agreement.

This is just wrong. As it must be given that it is the product of the kind of inadequate thinking described above. Only someone who imagines a case must be made for the exercise of a democratic right would be capable of such a distorted view of Section 30. There is something irksomely ridiculous, and faintly offensive, about the suggestion that Section 30 exists for the purpose of empowering the Scottish Parliament. In order to believe such a thing one would need, not only a highly ‘idiosyncratic’ reading of the actual legislation, but a decidedly ‘quaint’ notion of what the British state is and how it operates. Not to mention a massively wrong-headed view of devolution.

Like devolution and the Union and everything else the British state is and does, Section 30 is exclusively and entirely concerned with preserving and entrenching established power. Its purpose is absolutely unmistakeable from the wording.

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

Scotland Act 1998

Expressed in a less legalistic, and more forthright, fashion what this says is that the British Prime Minister – currently a malignant child-clown named Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – can alter the powers of the Scottish Parliament whenever they want and in any way they deem “necessary or expedient” for their purposes – that purpose being ever and always the preservation of the Union. I think it’s fair to say that Section 30 isn’t sounding like quite the boon to Scotland some seem to suppose it to be. It is simply another device by which the British state may rein in the Scottish Parliament. Or, at least, that was the intention. Belt and braces legislation. Just in case there were any loopholes which might allow Holyrood more power than was intended, Section 30 allows the British political elite to quickly patch up any chink in the armour protecting the Union. (Section 30 Is Not Scotland’s Salvation)

All of which gives rise to yet another question. Why would somebody misrepresent Section 30 in the way that Gerry Hassan does? The answer, I think, can be discerned in the overall tone of his article. In common with the SNP leadership and probably the larger part of the Yes movement, Gerry Hassan proceeds on two associated, and somewhat contradictory, assumptions. Firstly, that the British state will continue to heap increasingly intolerable impositions on Scotland and that this will have the effect of increasing support for independence. Secondly, that despite this predisposition for treating Scotland with the contempt that flows from the very nature of the Union, the British state is, nonetheless, bound by the very democratic principles that the first assumption discounts.

The underlying idea is that the British state will drive the people of Scotland increasingly towards independence as an escape from the ever more onerous repression of autocratic, anti-democratic British Nationalism empowered by the Union, to the point where the British state – which regards resistance to such democratic demands as an existential imperative – must buckle before the demand for an end to the ever more onerous repression of autocratic, anti-democratic British Nationalism empowered by the Union.

The self-defeating circularity of this idea is too obvious to be worth explaining. But what is truly depressing about it is something which may be a little less obvious. Note how it is entirely about what the British state does and what is done to Scotland and how Scotland responds to what is done to it by the British state. Nowhere in there will you find any suggestion of Scotland doing anything. Scotland is the powerless victim. Being proactive isn’t even a possibility.

What makes this depressing is that it all too accurately reflects what is happening in the real world away from academic pontification. Independence isn’t happening for the simple and plainly obvious reason that nobody is making it happen.

Worse! If Gerry Hassan is correct, nobody is going to do anything to make it happen. Not ever! The mindset of those who have the potential to make it happen is such that they cannot conceive of making anything happen. Waves must not be made! Boats must not be rocked! Horses must not be frightened! Say only what is necessary to keep alive the hope that relief will be given. Never so much as hint at the idea that power might be taken. Scotland’s cause is stuck fast in the mire of a conviction that belief is sufficient. That action is not necessary. Action equals aggression and aggression discourages belief.

This attitude may be familiar to those who wade through Pete Wishart’s insufficiently occasional musings and mutterings from Perthshire. Arguably, there is no more stubbornly unthinking proponent of the notion that independence is eventually inevitable so long as we don’t actually do anything to force the pace. Or, for that matter, cause there to be any pace at all. Like his patently inane concept of an ‘Optimum Time’, independence is ‘out there’ somewhere waiting for us to happen upon it. We need only drift along, imperceptibly propelled by gentle persuasion, sustained by nothing more than saintly patience.

We should be untroubled by the British political elite dismantling our democratic institutions and destroying the apparatus of our state and disposing of our essential public services. Don’t think of this as harming us! Think of it as helping us in some way that remains curiously unexplained. Besides, that’s their way. We are better than that. They may have hands to slap, but we have cheeks to turn. Which means we must win. Although, again, the how of it remains a mystery.

For all this palpable nonsense, Pete Wishart does stumble on something meaningful. Although I suspect he neither intended this nor understands the significance of it. Among the seemingly endless list of things he instructs us not to say or do we find a prohibition against “trying to game or trick our way to independence”. There’s an element of this tricking and gaming in Gerry Hassan’s speculation on how things might pan out over the coming indeterminate period. It’s a waiting game, and the trick is to wait. But the eventualities which transpire are convoluted enough to appear convincing. Or, at least, worthy of one of Scotland’s leading political commentators. Gerry is always good value for his publisher’s money.

Lots of stuff might happen. And what happens may have lots of consequences. There will always be a job for those who purport to be able to unravel the impenetrable complexity they describe. The rule is that things can never be simple. If politics was straightforward, anybody could do it – or fathom it. Even ‘ordinary’ people!

Moreover, politics must be devilishly hard and fiendishly complicated so politicians have an excuse for getting it wrong. And so they can convince the rest of us that, when they do get it wrong, they are the only ones who can fix it.

The reality is that politics is surprisingly simple. We’d only be surprised because so much effort has been put into persuading us that it’s beyond our comprehension. At the core of even the most intractable political issue there is always a very simple idea. A quite clear division of opinion. A choice which, however difficult it may be to make, is always easy to express when stripped of the clutter heaped upon it by those with a vested interest in discouraging engagement with the issue and/or manipulating the perceptions of those who do engage.

Scotland’s constitutional issue is simple. I have watched in increasing frustration and despair as it has been buried in a morass of ‘ah buts’ and ‘what ifs’. It is a simply choice between reverting to being a normal nation or persevering with a political union which only the deluded and the dishonest can defend. You make your choice. Then you make it happen. That’s all there is to politics.

Gerry Hassan’s article is profoundly depressing because it so vividly illuminates the fact that, while our political leaders may have made the choice to restore Scotland’s independence, they are neither doing nor proposing anything which might actually make it happen. In all of Gerry’s analysis and speculation, there is not so much as a hint of any bold, decisive action on the part of the SNP – as either party of administration – designed or intended to make the change happen.

If that is not depressing enough, consider that we don’t even expect this any more. Few are shocked or angered when nothing happens. The tantalising carrot of a new referendum has been dangled in front of us for so long we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that it is always just out of reach. We’ve been trained to be content with it still being just in sight. We get excited when it is talked about so much that it seems closer than it ever is.

I’m not fooled. And I can no longer fool myself. It’s hard to say what tipped the balance for me. I question everything. And I some time ago ceased to be able to come up with any satisfying or encouraging answers. One thing I do recall that had a more profound effect on me than even I realised at the time was when, at a Women for Independence event, Nicola Sturgeon mocked the #DissolveTheUnion hashtag. It was clear that she hadn’t a clue about the thinking behind the hashtag. But her jokey dismissal of the very idea of dissolving the Union struck a chill in my heart that has never receded.

There is no independence without dissolving the Union which negates our independence. It is the most fundamental and crucial action which required in order to restore our independence – in order to reinstate constitutional normality. And here we have the individual who is supposedly responsible for taking that action laughing at the very mention of it. Before anyone dismisses this as a momentary and trivial lapse, we lately have another senior SNP politician angrilly berating those who so much as mention dissolving the Union and insisting that nobody who is a genuine independence supporter must ever speak of it.

There’s more, of course. Much more. But there is nothing which doesn’t cause me to end 2019 in total despair for Scotland’s cause. The aspiration to restore Scotland’s independence is as strong in me now as it ever was. Time has not diminished it at all. Gerry Hassan’s counsel of despair, while appropriate to my mood, is quite redundant. I am already resigned to the fact that independence isn’t happening. Because nobody is making it happen.



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Hope versus experience

Ian Blackford’s insistence that the next British Prime Minister will somehow be compelled to grant a Section 30 order is beginning to sound a bit desperate. Almost as if he’s trying to convince himself that respect for democracy will be the deciding factor. His entire argument hinges on the British political elite deciding that the imperative to preserve the Union is outweighed by the demands of democratic justice.

Does Jackson Carlaw sound like someone who has any understanding of democracy, far less respect for it, when he says “we will never give Nicola Sturgeon #IndyRef2” ? Does Boris Johnson’s bombastic ranting about “once in a generation” give the impression that he’s prepared to make any concessions to democracy?

However hard Ian Blackford tries to persuade himself, and us, that democracy must surely prevail, we cannot long avoid the reality that Carlaw’s ignorant, arrogant bluster represents the true attitude of the British establishment. And that includes Jeremy Corbyn.

Just as Ian Blackford entertains quaint notions about the British state deferring to fundamental democratic principles, so some are naive enough to suppose that Corbyn is different. Gerry Hassan’s rose-tinted, starry-eyed perspective is illustrative. Apparently,

Corbyn and McDonnell are not “against” Scottish independence per se. They believe in the principle that such a decision is fundamentally up to the people of Scotland. In this they recognise “the sovereignty of the Scottish people” which many pro-union politicians pay lip service to and which the Commons unanimously accepted in July 2018. They take it as a given.

If that is so, then why do they so assiduously avoid giving any firm commitment to a new referendum? While Ian Blackford strives, by force of rhetoric alone, to make the case that British intransigence on the constitutional issue is ‘unsustainable’, Corbyn is working just as hard to maintain a position which differentiates British Labour from their Tory cousins while not actually making any concessions at all.

According to Gerry Hassan,

Corbyn and McDonnell do not believe in the UK in the way that previous Labour politicians did. They see the UK as a force for imperialism, reaction and militarism around the world. This brings them to align themselves with a position which is anti-British establishment and notes its attachment to the politics of the union and its geopolitical interests. Scottish independence, they understand, is a body blow to such pretensions and power politics.

The idea of British Labour being “anti-British establishment” is every bit as fantastical as Ian Blackford’s notion that the British political elite might put respect for democracy before its own geopolitical interests. Gerry Hassan fails to see that it is precisely because those interests make preservation of the Union an overriding imperative that Corbyn would never be permitted to put the Union in jeopardy even supposing he was minded to do so. It is because of the British state’s pretensions to being “a force for imperialism, reaction and militarism around the world” that locking Scotland into the Union is an absolute necessity.

The obligations of democracy are as nothing compared to the dictates of the British state’s ambition.

Gerry Hassan ends by asking,

But does Labour have the political will and imagination to break with the last vestiges of the conservative elements of labourism as well as the ancien regime which has for too long defined power and privilege across the UK?

Pinning one’s hopes on that ever happening is, if anything, even less realistic than trusting that the next British Prime Minister might acknowledge Scotland’s right of self-determination and respect the democratic will of the Scottish people.



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Do something!

As we would expect of such a respected academic, Gerry Hassan does a fine job of explaining how shifting ideas of the Union have helped bring the UK to its present predicament. Gone are the accommodations and compromises of old-style unionism which enabled the Union to survive in spite of its inherent defects and deficiencies. In its place has risen a narrow, rigid, intolerant, insecure. isolationist, xenophobic nationalism which seeks to forcefully engineer a ‘One Nation’ British state that fits and reflects its own character. The perfect vehicle for political forces equipped with a predator’s instinct for exploitable prejudice.

In doing so, as Gerry Hassan points out, this latest incarnation of the historic Greater England project has dissolved the low-tack adhesive which allowed the Union to be re-configured while maintaining its overall integrity. What configuration we end up with is still a matter of conjecture. But, hopefully, not a matter of chance.

What I find more than a little disturbing is the apparent assumption, implicit in much of the commentary from a progressive/pro-independence perspective, that the pieces will fall in Scotland’s favour. The rather naive notion that the disintegration of the UK necessarily leads to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. The rhetoric of SNP politicians, in particular, suggests an expectation that Scotland will automatically benefit from the Brexit-inspired breakdown of the UK. The sub-text of all the Tweets and sound-bites is that we don’t really have to do anything to restore Scotland’s independence as it will surely result from the British political elite’s actions.

This laissez-faire attitude need not be at all pronounced. It need not even be real. It need only be hinted at – perhaps as an unintended consequence of attempting to reassure anxious Yes activists – and the intellect-cancelling effect of social media then does the work of turning it into a generalised feeling across the independence movement that the battle is all but won and an increasingly shrill insistence that the ‘enemy’ should not be interrupted while they are making mistakes – even if those mistakes promise to be horrendously costly for Scotland.

What is missing from the prevailing narrative within the independence movement is any call to action. Rather, we have a call to inaction. We are urged not to do anything that might have any effect at all. Because it is assumed that developments presently in train must lead to independence, we are warned off doing anything that risks disrupting those developments. Which, because the processes are largely incomprehensible, means we are exhorted to do nothing at all. Leave it to the experts! Have faith in Nicola!

I just don’t think it is realistic to suppose that it will all turn out right in the end so long as we don’t spoil it. I am totally persuaded that, in order to achieve a desired outcome, we must act to steer developments in the direction of that outcome. Scotland’s political leaders appear to be shying away from the determined, decisive action around which the whole Yes movement can coalesce.

If you don’t do anything, you can’t be blamed for doing the wrong thing. And if you insist loudly enough that anything others might do is liable to be the wrong thing, you create plenty of potential scapegoats should your inaction prove to be a mistake. If it turns out well, you’re a hero. If it turns out badly, somebody else is the villain.

It’s politics, of a sort. But is it the kind of politics that the situation calls for? Is it the kind of politics Scotland needs?

I know it’s not Gerry Hassan’s style, but it would have been gratifying to see a further paragraph at the end of his article. The observation that “we are in the advance stages of the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as we have known it” seems incomplete absent a statement of what must be done to ensure that what happens then is what we want. Or at least an acknowledgement that something must be done.



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Bare-arsed defiance!

braveheart.pngI’ve probably watched Braveheart three or four times. I could watch Mel Gibson’s 1995 ‘arse and archery’ epic again today and still enjoy it. It’s that kind of movie. A fine piece of cinematic story-telling replete with powerful characters and rich in visual spectacle. It’s a bit of fun. But is it more than that? Is Braveheart culturally or politically important?

The film has always been controversial. There have always been those prepared to embarrass themselves by criticising Braveheart as if it was intended to be a historical documentary. Denouncing Braveheart for its lack of academic rigour is a bit like condemning the Frankenstein movies for their failure to accurately represent the intricacies of transplant surgery. There’s missing the point; and there’s taking an intergalactic detour around it.

Then there are those who choose to regard Braveheart as some kind of totem for Scotland’s independence movement. From my observations, these are mostly Unionists. A large part of my personal enthusiasm for the film derives from the fact that it is such an irritant to British Nationalists. I know of no actual research on the matter, but I’d venture a small wager that a suitable study would show Braveheart to be all but exclusively an obsession of those most vehemently opposed to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. Even political commentators who are supposedly worthy of respect quite commonly use the word ‘Braveheart’ as a woefully simplistic shorthand for what they imagine to be the motivation behind Scotland’s independence cause.

There are even those who insist that the whole independence campaign was provoked by Braveheart. It is not at all uncommon to find people insisting that, prior to Braveheart, your average ‘Sweaty’ was content with his or her lot, and would have remained so if they had not been roused to revolt against the natural order by the heavy symbolism of defiantly bared proletarian bums. If Che Guevara had been Scottish those iconic posters and T-shirts might have looked very different.

Disobligingly declining to conform to such facile British Nationalist stereotypes, I never regarded Braveheart as having any great political significance. While being glad of anything that might challenge – however inadequately – the stolidly British history traditionally taught to Scotland’s children, I never thought of Braveheart as relating to the modern civic nationalist movement in any meaningful way. But recent events have prompted me to revisit my attitude to something I had previously perceived to be no more than a bit of mass-appeal Hollywood hokum.

Call me contrary! But when something arouses the self-righteous ire of Mike Small and triggers the tut-tutting reflex of cultural gate-keepers such as Pat Kane, I am temperamentally inclined to look upon that something with a degree of favour inversely proportional to their elitist disapprobation. Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to set off Gerry Hassan’s supercilious sneering. But my first instinct is to sympathise with the target of his scornful disdain.

So it was that I began to consider whether I may have been wrong to dismiss Braveheart as mere superficial entertainment. I started to wonder if the movie might have acquired some special significance in the context of a Yes movement which, at the time the film was made, was not only non-existent but utterly unimaginable.

Jason Michael McCann may be guilty of some rose-tinted revisionism when he writes the following

Say what you like about Braveheart, at a time when we were taught next to nothing about Scottish history in our own schools it put the common people of Scotland’s past right at the very heart of our national story. The veterans on the field were given lines, we saw the pain and intimacy of the couple’s wedding disrupted by the English Lord, the love of Elder Stewart for Hamish his son, and the affable if utterly mad Irishman Stephen. It was their Scotland we were rooting for because that was our Scotland. It’s hard to know the rats when the poll tax isn’t taking food from your table, or expect clean toilets when dad has upped and left and mum is drunk. You can sneer at Braveheart only when you’ve never felt that independence might be your only chance.

Besides all this, Braveheart is only a film. It was never intended to be a documentary, it is truth without being fact – a story. And like every good story it lifted those who needed lifting and has no doubt done more for the cause of independence in Scotland than this blog, Bella Caledonia, CommonSpace, and all the rest combined. Those who love to sneer at it may want independence, but what Braveheart did – by accident or by design – was to embolden the hearts of those of us who really need independence. So, to the sneerers – Shut up! And to the rest – Sit down and enjoy the show!

I am rather doubtful about the extent to which anybody actually saw the film this way back in 1995. At least, not consciously. I certainly cannot claim to have analysed Braveheart as an allegory of class struggle. But the analysis has a certain resonance. It seems perfectly possible that the movie may have had a subliminal appeal much as Jason describes. If that analysis is valid, then it must have implications for the present-day symbolic relevance of the film and the ways in which that symbolism is deployed.

Mike Small disapproves of the decision to screen a heavily edited version of Braveheart as a ‘warm-up’ for the Hope Over Fear Rally in Freedom Square on Saturday (15 September). But my very strong suspicion is that what troubles him most is that nobody sought his approval. Scotland’s ‘radical’ elite simply don’t like the fact that the Yes movement is not under their control. They resent the fact that they have so little influence. They are frustrated by the fact that they have been unable to harness the Yes movement to their various agendas.

Showing Braveheart at the Hope Over Fear Rally is an act of (metaphorically) bare-arsed defiance, not only against the British establishment and its lackeys in Scotland, but against the mainly left-wing cliques who would claim ownership of the Yes movement, and so destroy it. By reclaiming Braveheart as a symbol of popular democratic dissent, we reassert the status of the Yes movement as a genuine grassroots democratic phenomenon – diverse, inclusive, unstructured and joyfully rebellious.


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