Just the ticket

It goes without saying that the current public health crisis must be the Scottish Government’s first priority at the moment. But Chris McEleny is correct to point out that “there are still other major issues facing the SNP and Scotland”. Perhaps more importantly, he reminds us – all of us – that however much some might wish it, these issues are not going to simply evaporate while the government and the media are distracted by more immediately newsworthy matters. The coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly a genuine problem. But don’t imagine for one minute that politicians around the world weren’t thinking of ways to exploit it before they started thinking of ways to deal with it. Scotland NOT excluded.

As obvious as the fact that the coronavirus outbreak must preoccupy the Scottish Government for the next several months is the fact that the British parties squatting in our Parliament together with their political masters in London will be eagerly looking for ways of turning the situation into a cudgel with which to pummel the SNP administration and the independence movement. The British state’s propaganda machine doesn’t stop just because people are falling ill and dying. It has no heart. It has no conscience. Expect no let-up in the relentless campaign of smear and calumny targeting NHS Scotland. To the slobbering hyenas of the British media, the additional burden on our health services means only new openings for attack. An overburdened system is a vulnerable system. The pack has scented prey.

Boris Johnson’s regime will be glad of attention being diverted from the Brexit shambles and the trade deal negotiations which have been rapidly descending to the same level of grim farce as has characterised the rest of the Mad Brexiteers’ asinine adventure. It is entirely possible, too, that the coronavirus will provide Johnson with a fine excuse for going back on his word not to seek another extension. Who could condemn him if he pleads inability to cope with concurrent cock-ups? He’s barely human, after all.

It is not only in Downing Street where the worry of dealing with a major public health threat will be laced with a vein of relief. I don’t for a moment suppose that Nicola Sturgeon will dwell on the fact, but fact it remains that the coronavirus outbreak is politically very convenient. It is perfectly possible for something to be both a tragedy and blessing, of sorts. It’s an ill wind that can’t be turned to some political advantage. Were unfolding events not all too regrettably real but following the script of some Netflix drama, one would be forgiven for thinking the pandemic too timely to be true. Fate can be cruel and/or kind. But very rarely both in such accommodating conjunction.

The health crisis comes at a time when the SNP, both as a party and as the administration, was facing increasing disquiet about its approach to the constitutional issue. None will admit it, but many in the party’s upper echelons will be discreetly heaving a sigh of relief that they will not now be required to face delegates any time in the near future. A chicken-wire screen in front of the stage is one movie cliche that conference managers will gladly eschew.

There will be some relief also that public health precautions now preclude other large gatherings at which criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ may have been voiced along with ever more insistent calls for a rethink. Or a ‘Plan B’, as Chris McEleny might say. But the disquiet and discontent don’t go away just because there’s a public health crisis. The constitutional is all-pervasive and all-encompassing. It is overarching and underlying. It is more than three centuries old and only becomes more urgent as time passes. Injustice does not diminish with time. The longer it persists, the more corrosive it becomes. Nor is it diminished by intervening events – no matter how serious these may be. The coronavirus tragedy will not be the first to be outlasted by the imperative of restoring constitutional normality to Scotland.

There is absolutely no reason why the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence might not or should continue by whatever means are left to us and by whoever is not otherwise occupied dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. We can expect a screeching chorus of “Now is not the time!” from the BritNat harpies. We should be thoroughly inured to their self-serving faux outrage by now. There is never a time when it is not appropriate to act in defence of democracy and for the ends of justice.

The Yes movement may not be able to march. Yes groups may be obliged to cancel planned events. SNP branch and constituency meetings will fall victim to essential restrictions on gathering of any size. But this means only that we are freed to apply our energies elsewhere. There is much that can still be done online, for example. It may be a good time to start your own blog. Or to devote more time to reading and sharing existing material in support of Scotland’s cause. The web provides us with unparalleled facilities for communicating and collaborating on all manner of projects. Writing letters to newspapers may be something you’ve always intended to do but never found time.

Email still works fine. Why not let SNP MSPs and MPs know how you feel about the fact that the independence project has stalled – and not because of the pandemic! Tell them of your concerns. Ask them questions. And when answers aren’t forthcoming, ask again!

It would be all too easy for this latest setback to become a cause for despondency and despair, coming as it does on top of the disappointments and frustrations of the past five years. We must avoid this. We must use this time. If politicians can exploit such situations, so can we. We just need to use our imaginations, our skills and the networks built by the Yes movement.

As some of you may have suspected, all of this has been leading up to my own suggestion as to what the Yes movement and SNP members could be doing over the coming weeks. Regular readers will be aware that I had previously envisaged Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP providing the leadership that the Yes movement requires in order to become an effective machine for fighting our political campaign. This has not happened. Let’s say no more at this juncture than that the necessary leadership has not been forthcoming. My own ‘Plan B’ is that the leadership should come from within the Yes movement. The question which remained to be answered concerned the practicalities. How would it be done? I believe I may have the answer to that question.

I had been thinking that building a campaign with the necessary unity, focus and discipline would require a new organisation born out of or hived off from the Yes movement. The aims of the organisation would be threefold –

  • to compel the Scottish Government to take a more assertive approach to the constitutional issue
  • to facilitate by any means necessary the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination
  • to devise a strategy to force constitutional reform built on the twin aspirations to build a better nation and end the injustice of the Union.

It has been brought to my attention, however, that a suitable organisation may already exist in the form of the SNP Common Weal Group. The stated aims of this group are, I am persuaded, sufficiently in accord with the aims set out above as to make it a suitable candidate for transformation into the kind of pressure group and campaigning organisation that is required if Scotland’s cause is to progress. I would urge everyone in the SNP and the Yes movement to at least consider how they might contribute to this transformation.

In the short-term, my hope is that this article might spark a more focused debate about taking the independence campaign out of the doldrums. In the longer-term… well… there is no longer-term. I am convinced that if the grassroots does not seize the initiative – seize it hard and seize it quickly – then the project to restore Scotland’s independence may suffer setbacks from which it will not easily or soon recover.



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Stalled!

This past week or two I’ve been reminding myself why I stopped using Facebook. It’s not the idiots. You can’t avoid them without abandoning social media altogether. It’s not even the fact that Facebook allows the idiots to spout their idiocy at greater length than Twitter. Just as you develop an algorithm in your brain which edits out the advertising from your conscious attention, so a similar ‘brain-switch’ is triggered by the first few words of a comment that the algorithm predicts will be unworthy of your attention. What I’m saying is that, as with all mass media, there’s a knack to being an active consumer. Being an active consumer means being selective as well as being critical. Question everything. But learn to spot the stuff that’s going to have only gibberish for answers.

I dislike Facebook because it has become this huge, clunky, clumsy, creaking machine. It’s like somebody asked Terry Gilliam and Maurits Cornelis Escher to collaborate on designing a social media platform. My laptop hates it! It’s a brand new machine and definitely not low-spec. But after ten minutes or so on Facebook it starts wheezing like it’s using Capstan Full Strength to treat a bad case of emphysema. Facebook turns site navigation into a mystery tour. At any given time, a haphazard selection of buttons function like the ‘Random article’ link on Wikipedia. The difference being that on Wikipedia you’ve a fairly good chance of landing on something interesting. On Facebook it’s vastly more likely you’ll encounter material with what we might euphemistically refer to as ‘niche appeal’. A detailed account of somebody’s gran’s verruca treatment complete with pictures may be gripping stuff for the odd deviant imagination but it’s quite jarring when you think you’ve clicked a link to a post about the Dutch tulip industry.

Facebook torments me. But it has its compensations. One thing I like is the way some comment can trigger a train of thought or the memory of something I’ve been meaning to write about. That happened recently when I read a remark about the SNP trying to appeal to ‘new moderates’ in an effort to increase support for independence. This immediately brought to mind some thoughts i’d had on this very matter but had not, as far as I could recall, turned into to pixel-dust and committed to the care of the cloud fairies. I’ve copied and pasted my response, expanded it a bit and tidied up some stuff.

The trouble is, the SNP is not appealing to any new moderates. Because there are no new moderates. All the moderates are already included in the 50% Yes share polls are showing. The appeal needs to be to another category or categories of voters altogether. A more emotional appeal. A more aggressive appeal. Voters have hearts as well as heads. And there is no law or rule that says voters cannot be guided by their hearts as much as their heads.

We need a campaign that addresses people’s sense of injustice. We need a message that sparks anger. Not rage! Anger! Righteous anger.

We need the other bit of the campaign. The bit that was missing from the 2014 campaign because it was effectively prohibited. The negative to go with the positive. Simply campaigning for independence will not work. Or, to put it another way, campaigning for independence has done its work. It has won as many votes as it can. We need to unleash the other side of the campaign. The artillery barrage. The anti-Union campaign.

I can explain – have explained – why a campaign restricted to campaigning for independence can only do so much. Nobody listened. The SNP leadership still won’t listen. Independence cannot be the sole focus of an effective political campaign because it is a disputed concept. A binary political campaign – as in a referendum – must have a tangible, deliverable offering. The thing that everybody in the campaign agrees on as the end to be achieved. The thing that people actually vote for. Independence cannot serve that function because there is no possibility of general agreement among campaigners or voters about what independence means.

Independence always and for everybody means ending the Union. Dissolving it. Breaking it. However you want to put it. The Union is the target.

There’s an analogy which might help explain why a continuing campaign of “gentle persuasion” is a wasted effort. And it is, self-evidently, futile. The polls have barely moved in circumstances that should be ideal. Topping 50% is great for headlines in The National. But it’s less of a cause for celebration when you recognise that Yes should be at 60% and rising. In the context of Scotland’s independence campaign, 50% and barely twitching is evidence of failure.

It’s the law of diminishing returns. I used to do stock and production control in a big manufacturing plant producing perishable goods. There was a lot of what we called ‘variance’. That is to say, the stock we had was at variance to the stock we should have. Around 10% of production was being lost. All production all of the time. I introduced measures which brought that down to just over 1%. I continued to make improvements designed to prevent the variance rising. But I didn’t go chasing the 1%. Because it would have been too costly. Finding that 1% would have involved compromising production and labour relations. It just wasn’t worth it.

Some think that because their strategy of selling independence using “gentle persuasion” worked in the 2014 referendum – although not well enough – that all they need to do is persist with the same method. That assumes that votes over and above the ones already won are as easy to get as the ones already won. They are not! They are much more difficult to get. And they are not susceptible to “gentle persuasion”. We know that because that’s what the polls tell us. What little swing there has been to Yes can more than be accounted for by demographic changes and other factors. The “gentle persuasion” strategy has done nothing since 2014!

Let me put it another way. The “gentle persuasion” devotees imagine the campaign in a linear way. They think of it like a walk between to places marked on a map. If you’re at 10% you just have to keep walking in your sensible shoes and you’ll get to 20%. Walk a bit further and you’ll reach 30%. And so on. But a map is two-dimensional and deceptive. In reality, the journey begins as a stroll along a level, even path but at some point the path becomes broken and rocky and you find you should be wearing proper walking shoes. The path gets rougher and steeper until you can make no progress without full mountaineering kit and the skill to use it.

Now imagine you have a bungee cord tied round your waist and tied off way back at 0%. That is the reality of a political campaign. At every stage, you need the right tools and techniques. As you progress the difficulty of gaining ground increases on an exponential curve – until you can go no further.

What we will see – what we are seeing already – is a stubborn determination to hold to the “gentle persuasion” strategy which, as it struggles to have some impact, starts to make increasingly expensive compromises. If “gentle persuasion” isn’t selling this brand of independence and “gentle persuasion” is the only technique we’re allowed to use, then we are forced to adapt the ‘product’ we’re trying to sell until it appeals to a new market. Until it is saleable using our sole technique. And it’s not only the form of independence that will be ‘modified’ downward to find this new market. It will be everything associated with the project to restore Scotland’s independence. If it is thought that the process is what puts people off, then the least scary process must be selected.

But what happens when there is no process that is both reassuring to the apprehensive and viable? What happens if the only process that will work sounds a bit scary even if the fears are groundless?

That’s where we are at the moment. A strategy has been adopted which can’t make progress because those in charge refuse to use the tools and techniques which are required. They keep telling us the strategy is working fine. They keep telling us we’re getting closer. They keep telling us that bungee cord holding us back is about to break. And some believe it. Some have their eyes so firmly fixed on the destination that they can’t see the ground beneath them. They can’t tell that they’re not moving. Yet!



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Of questions and reframing

Michael Gove: A creature of unknown origins struggling to maintain human form.
Michael Gove: A creature struggling to maintain human form.

Michael Gove is correct. You won’t see or hear those words very often. And never without some qualification. My own qualifying supplement is that Gove is correct, but only partly, coincidentally and in a sense.

That the British Electoral Commission is wasting its time is true in the sense that, as an agency of the British state, it should have no role in the process that will restore Scotland’s independence. It is also true that the British Electoral Commission is wasting its time in the sense that it is testing the wrong question. But we’ll come back to that.

Given that the British Electoral Commission should not play any part in Scotland’s exercise of its right of self-determination it follows that whatever process the British Electoral Commission is involved in cannot be intended to lead to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. This necessarily implies that Scotland’s First Minister had some other purpose in mind when she formally requested that the British Electoral Commission re-test the question that was asked in the 2014 referendum. One more way in which Nicola Sturgeon is going over old ground and repeating the mistakes of the past and failing to learn lessons and acting as if nothing has changed since the first independence referendum and so it’s perfectly appropriate to do everything the same way as it was done then.

Michael Gove is almost certainly correct about this other purpose being to maintain the pretence of a 2020 referendum as not-quite-promised by the First Minister. It is difficult to fathom what other reason she might have for embarking on such an exercise. No legislation has been proposed or passed in the Scottish Parliament to enable a referendum this year. Until that legislation is passed, nobody can know what the question on the ballot paper will be. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a different question might be suggested and that this could be the question chosen by MSPs. The First Minister may think it a good idea to act as if nothing had changed since the first referendum. But MSPs might disagree. It’s a gratifying thought, even if no more than that.

Which brings us back to Michael Gove’s assertion that the British Electoral Commission is wasting its time because the First Minister’s request that they re-test a question which has already been tested in the most effective way possible is merely “an exercise designed to persuade Scottish National Party members that a referendum is imminent”. He is only partly correct. The exercise is designed to fool the entire Yes movement into believing that a referendum is imminent. But, of course, there is no way a British Nationalist such as Michael Gove will admit to support for independence beyond the ranks of SNP members. He has to stay on-message. Scotland’s cause must be portrayed as a minority obsession.

As already noted, the re-testing of the 2014 referendum question is a waste of time not only because it has already been subjected to the ultimate test of use in an actual referendum in addition to passing all pre-testing but because, supposing the First Minister comes to her senses, it will not be the question asked in a future referendum and because, supposing the First Minister comes to her senses, no agency of any external government will be permitted a role in the process the next time Scotland’s people exercise their right of self-determination.

What that testing of the old question tells us is that, while it may have been adequate and acceptable when it was agreed, that was more than seven years ago. The political landscape has undergone tectonic changes since January 2013. It is, at the very least, questionable whether the same question could be adequate and acceptable in dramatically altered circumstances. I would maintain that it is unquestionably inadequate, unacceptable and just plain wrong.

I was never happy with the question asked in the 2014 referendum.

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Put that question to the people of any other nation and they’ll assume you’re ignorantly offensive or simply daft. Independence is normal. Independence is the default status of all nations. The people of other nations take it for granted that their nation should be independent. Other than those who have experienced occupation by an aggressive imperialist and/or totalitarian power, they would probably have difficulty imagining anything different. Independence is normal. Only in cringe-ridden Scotland would such a question be asked. Only in meekly, obsequiously subordinate Scotland could such a question be asked without provoking widespread outrage and anger. Only the colonised mind might find this question acceptable. Only the colonised mind would fail to challenge and reject the premise that Scotland “should” be anything other than a normal independent country.

The question originally proposed by Alex Salmond’s administration was only slightly better. Only marginally less offensive. And only is one were making generous allowance for the context of devolution and the constraints this imposes on the Scottish Government.

“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

This at least hints at independence being the default assumption. Which is almost certainly why the British government objected to it. The British establishment cannot allow that anything other that the iniquitously asymmetric Union is ‘normal’. As one would expect, the British Electoral Commission sided with the British Establishment of which it is part. The question was disallowed, effectively for acknowledging normality.

To be fair, it is likely that Salmond anticipated this. He is, after all, one of the most astute and wily political operators of our time. The sort of player it would suit the British establishment to have removed from the field. He was bound to be aware that the British political elite would protest every proposal he proffered for no other reason than that it was he who was proffering it. They had to be seen to be keeping the uppity Jocks in line. Especially the uppiest of all uppity Jocks. Knowing the first proposal was going to be rejected, Salmond ensured that the second was something he could live with.

He did much the same with the so-called “second question”. Which was actually a third option on the ballot for some form of enhanced devolution – or ‘devo-max’. This was the last thing Salmond wanted as it would split the constitutional reform vote at significant cost to the Yes option. His crafty solution was to drop a hint in a speech that it was his preference. The response from the British government was precisely as he expected. And exactly what he wanted. The “second question” was excluded.

The ballot question that was settled on struck me not only as offensive to the un-colonised or decolonised Scottish mind, but as massively misleading in that it made independence the contentious concept. Independence is normal. It is not and never can be a contentious concept. It is the concept of a nation’s status that is assumed by pretty much everybody in every other nation. Although there are some in some nations who are eager to threaten the independence of other countries, few if any question the appropriateness of independence for their own nation. Only in Scotland will you find people who consider the independence of their own nation a contentious concept – and a horrifying prospect.

Making the concept of independence the focus of debate gave the anti-independence campaign a huge advantage. It got Unionists and British Nationalist off the hook very nicely. The last thing they wanted was a debate about the Union and what it means for Scotland. But, by rights, that is what the referendum campaign should have been. It should have been a rigorous examination of the Union and forceful interrogation of those who seek its preservation at any cost to Scotland. It wasn’t. The question defines the campaign. And the question in the 2014 referendum forced the Yes side to defend the constitutional normality of independence rather than attacking the constitutional aberration that is the Union. And it allowed the forces intent on continuing to deny the sovereignty of Scotland’s people to dodge questions about their ‘precious’ Union and to focus on generating a thick fog of doubt around the concept of independence. The question in the 2014 referendum was an absolute gift to the anti-independence campaign.

It was doubt wot won it! A more apt nickname for Better Together than ‘Project Fear’ would have been ‘Project Doubt’. The entire No campaign was an exercise in reframing. The issue was reframed from being about the Union to being about independence. The question on the ballot did much of the work for them. Questions generate doubt. It’s human nature. If as you leave home to go on holiday somebody asks if you remembered to lock the back door, it doesn’t matter how certain you were that you had, as soon as the question is asked you start to have doubts. Doubts that may haunt you and ruin your holiday. Doubts that may even put you off going away altogether.

So it was with ‘Project Doubt’. The No campaign was essentially just an incessant stream of questions blasted into the minds of Scotland’s voters by the British media. Questions create doubt. The British establishment and its lackeys in Scotland knew that this was all they had to do. People tend to be averse to change of any kind. They also tend to be risk averse. All that was required was that the independence which is generally regarded as normal should be made to appear a very dubious prospect for Scotland. A step into the unknown. A leap in the dark. The question provided the foundation for a No campaign that was entirely an edifice of lies and intimidation.

All of this was aided by the fact that independence itself is not in undisputed concept. There is no single definition. There could be no unified Yes message because the Yes movement is so proudly diverse. The campaign for independence itself generated doubt because it was never clear which of the variations on the theme of independence was the independence being campaigned for. A situation that was only aggravated by the tendency of all too many in the Yes movement to run with propaganda cues being fed to the anti-independence campaign by the British media.

It all stems from the question asked on the ballot paper. National independence may have some legal definition. But in the context of Scotland’s civic nationalism the term refers at least as much to intangibles such as promise and potential as to a status specified in law. It is not possible to build an effective political campaign around a disputed concept. An effective campaign message cannot be vague or diffuse or ambiguous or ambivalent. The question asked in the 2014 referendum campaign ensured that the Yes side would be obliged to attempt the impossible. That the Yes campaign did so well was entirely down the the huge numbers of Yes campaigners and the massive effort they put in. They did Scotland proud. And they did it despite a question that stacked the deck against them from the outset.

Nicola Sturgeon proposes to use the same question. Think about that.

The 2014 referendum should have been, in the words of Dr Elliot Bulmer, a “constitutional conversation” about “rights, identity, values and principles”. Instead, it ended up being an unseemly and unedifying squabble about money. This was the second wave of the No campaign’s reframing exercise. The constitutional question was reframed as an economic issue. How better to generate doubt than to let loose the economic doom-mongers who can be hired to make an economic case against breathing if the intention is to suffocate the credulous en masse. Which, perhaps counter-intuitively, would be very, very wrong.

There were lessons to be learned from this. None appear to have been learned. Nicola Sturgeon is still talking about “making the economic case for independence”.

Independence is normal. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which should be under scrutiny in a constitutional referendum. It is the constitution which should be the topic of debate.

Self-evidently, this describes a referendum and a campaign both entirely different from the previous one. And yet Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP seem determined to replicate that first referendum and campaign in every way possible. The same Section 30 process. The same referendum question and, given that the question defines the campaign, the same unseemly and unedifying squabble about money. No lessons learned and no meaningful account taken of the drastically altered political landscape. It makes no sense!

If it did make some sense, somebody would be able to explain it. I have been questioning this ‘strategy’ for some years now. Certainly since 2015. As I write, I have yet to receive a sensible response. I am inundated with requests and demands to stop asking the questions. But I have been given no answers to questions I have asked inter alia about the Section 30 process. Nobody is willing or able to address the serious concerns that are now being voiced by more and more people in the party and the Yes movement. Attempts by others to open up discussion about strategy have been shut down quickly and with an efficiency that is slightly disturbing. And still none of it makes any kind of sense.

The lessons of the past are clear and easy enough to take on board even if not quite so simply translated into action. Those lessons can be distilled down to two statements about a new referendum.

The referendum process, from beginning to end, must be entirely made and managed in Scotland. It must, in compliance with international laws and conventions; in keeping with best practice; of necessity; and insofar as it may be practicable, prohibit and exclude any and all external interference and influence in the exercise by the people of Scotland of their inalienable democratic right of self-determination.
The referendum must seek the verdict of the people of Scotland on the Union. The referendum campaign must be focused on the constitutional issue being decided. The question on the ballot must relate to the Union. However the question is worded, it must ask that the people of Scotland decide whether they want Scotland to remain bound in the Union.*

Achieving this will require that the entire idea of the referendum be rethought and the campaign reformulated. It will involve an exercise in reframing at least as comprehensive and effective as that by which the British state thwarted Scotland’s aspirations in the first referendum.

It will require a Scottish Government and a First Minister prepared to act boldly and decisively and determinedly. It will require that our elected representatives act like the political leaders of a nation for which independence is a natural condition and rightful status. It will require that we all act as the citizens of an independent nation would if called upon to defend their independence and their distinctive political culture.

And it all needs to start five years ago.

* I should have said something about the form of the ballot paper and the manner in which the question is put. This was a clumsy omission for which I apologise and which I shall now seek to rectify.

The question should take the form of a proposal to dissolve Union with voters being invited to agree (YES) or disagree (NO). This YES/NO arrangement must be maintained. The Yes ‘brand’ is far too well-established and much too intimately bound to the independence campaign for it to be altered without causing confusion. To a lesser degree perhaps, the same could be said of NO. These words now define the two sides in the constitutional debate. Messing with that is a recipe for disaster.

The proposal on the ballot paper will reiterate the proposal passed by the Scottish Parliament. It may be feasible, and thought wise, to have a concise statement of the proposal on the front of the ballot paper and a longer, fuller explanation on the reverse. Copies of the proposal, in all relevant languages, will already have been widely distributed in the course of the campaign.

I shall offer two distinct and valuable advantages to putting the question in this way.

Firstly, everybody will know exactly what they are voting for (or against). There can be no subsequent argument about what a particular vote ‘means’. It’s there in clear print on every ballot paper.

Secondly, neither official campaign organisations nor the media will be able to misrepresent the issue. It may be considered efficacious to require that campaign organisations be required to carry the proposal text on all publications. It may even be a good idea to make misrepresentation of the proposal a criminal offence.



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The final option

As an ‘early adopter’ of opposition to the Section 30 process, I have been pointing out the folly of hoping that process might serve Scotland’s cause at least since it became clear that the First Minister intended committing Scotland to this folly. Reviewing the 2014 independence referendum in the days and weeks subsequent to the tragedy of the vote, the first conclusion I came to was that there would have to be another referendum. The second conclusion was that pretty much everything about this new referendum would inevitably and necessarily be very different from the first one. It now seems to me that we should not think of this as a new referendum at all, but as the completion of a process begun in 2011.

One of the responses I often get when criticising Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process is the insistence that she must be seen to be trying to use this process so that she can say she tried everything. Of course, this response is nonsensical on the face of it because doing the same thing again isn’t trying everything. It is not trying anything different. It is avoiding trying anything that hasn’t been tried before. Therefore, the best that she can say to whoever it is that she feels the need to say it to is that she had tried everything except anything that hadn’t previously been tried. Which, logically, would be likely to mean most things.

If Nicola Sturgeon was determined to try everything before moving on to whatever it was she was minded to do having tried everything else, why did she not toss some eye of newt and toe of frog in a cauldron and simmer gently until Scotland’s independence was restored? The reason she didn’t resort to magic is, obviously, that the chances of potions and incantations being effective were as close to zero as made no difference. Why then did she feel obliged to try something which had barely a better chance of being effective? It’s at least as easy to imagine Scotland’s independence being restored by a process involving a lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing hell-broth as it is to suppose it might come about through a process that is critically dependent on obtaining the full agreement and willing cooperation of the British establishment.

What about the thing she was minded to do after she’d expended lots of time and energy trying things that had been tried before and things that were vanishingly unlikely to work? Surely this thing must be something she considered likely to succeed. Otherwise, why hold it in reserve? But if she had in mind something that she thought would work, why was she bothering with things that wouldn’t? Why not just go straight to whatever it was that she was minded to go to when she’d tried everything else – except witchery?

What is this thing that she was minded to do when she’d…. blah blah blah? Why has she not gone to this thing now that it is clear that the thing that was tried before and was never going to work has been tried again and, as anticipated, hasn’t worked? Why has she not at least hinted at the nature of this ultimate option? Why has nobody been able to figure out what it may be?

By far the most common response to my criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s whole approach to the constitutional issue isn’t really a response at at. Not a meaningful response. More of an evasion. With monotonous regularity I am asked what my alternative is. Why is Nicola Sturgeon not asked what her alternative is? After all, she is the one with the power. She is the one making the decisions. Why are her apologists more interested in what I would do in a hypothetical universe than in what is going on here in the real world? Strange!

It shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out what the final option is. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you’ve eliminated magic and the honest cooperation of the British political elite whatever is left is your only option. As Nicola Sturgeon has squandered whatever other options she might have had while trying things that were tried before and things that self-evidently could not work, whatever is left must be the thing that she was going to do when she’d finished farting around with futile efforts.

So why doesn’t she just get on with it? As we try to work out what this final option is, it appears that we must consider only things which are better done later rather than sooner. Apparently, it is something that had to wait until after Scotland had been wrenched unwillingly from its place in Europe. But being thus forcefully deprived of our EU membership was, according to Nicola Sturgeon, the worst thing ever. So, whatever the final option is, it must be something so good as to be worth having even at the cost of Scotland suffering the worst thing ever. What could it be?

Could somebody check and see if Nicola Sturgeon has recently submitted an expenses claim for a cauldron? Maybe have a look at Peter Murrell’s Amazon wishlist while you’re at it.

I’m not being flippant. No more flippant than the situation warrants. The situation really is as confused and ridiculous as the foregoing implies. When the most glaringly obvious lesson of the first referendum was that the next one had to be totally different, Nicola Sturgeon decided to try and approach it as if the circumstances were unchanged. It cannot sensibly be claimed that the situation now, in 2020, is in any way similar to the situation in 2011. And yet Nicola Sturgeon acts as if the old solutions are relevant to the new reality. It is truly inexplicable.

Two underlying constants remain. The two imperatives to which the situation may be reduced as an aid to understanding. The British state’s existential imperative to preserve the Union. And Scotland’s existential imperative to end the Union. But even these constants are not unchanged since 2011. Both are very much more intense now than they were then. Scotland’s imperative is the irresistible force. England-as-Britain’s imperative is the immovable object.

But this simplification doesn’t tell the whole story. The irresistible force versus immovable object analogy doesn’t hold because it assumes parity of power. And we know that no such parity exists. We know that the Union, by its essential nature, tips the balance of power massively in favour of the immovable object. There is balance only in the sense that the situation is irresoluble. Scotland’s imperative isn’t going away. The asymmetry of the Union means that it can, in principle, be resisted forever. But the force that turns out not to be irresistible is nonetheless ineradicable.

It is assumed, by the terminally naive, that the British state’s role as immovable object is untenable or insupportable or otherwise fated to fail. It is assumed, by the incredibly credulous, that the British state’s intransigent immovability will serve to intensify the irresistibility of Scotland’s force unto the point where the immovable moves. But that only works if the immovable object gives a shit about the strength of Scotland’s aspirations. It doesn’t. It is assumed that there is a magic number which, when touched by the polls, will cause the immovable object to split and sunder. There is no such magic number. There is no level of support for independence which can require acknowledgement from England-as-Britain. Again, that is the nature of the Union. As in all things, the Union stipulates that Scotland’s imperative must always be subordinate to that of the British state.

It was ever thus. Even in 2011, this was the reality of the situation. The difference was that the reality remained concealed beneath the polite pretence of democracy. The British political elite, represented by David Cameron, was maintaining the charade of democracy when they agreed to the first referendum. Alex Salmond went along with this charade because it was expedient. He had to deliver a referendum even if it was all no more than political theatre. Whether he was aware that it was a sham is not known. Astute political operator that he is, it’s easy to believe that he knew full well the British had no intention of honouring the Edinburgh Agreement. No mere concord or contract could overcome the imperative to preserve the Union. Whether Scotland’s political leaders knew it or not, the Brits were always going to renege on the deal.

The mask began to slip almost immediately as the campaign got underway. By the time Yes was hitting 50% in the polls, the ugly face of jealous Britannia was plainly visible to those who were prepared to look. Even victory could not fully restore the pretence of respect for democratic principles that David Cameron had worn as he signed the Edinburgh Agreement with perfidious fingers crossed behind his back.

This is what makes Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue so hard to comprehend. There is no longer any attempt to hide the fact that the British state simply will not countenance democratic principles which put the Union in jeopardy. And yet Nicola Sturgeon remains stuck in the role Alex Salmond had to play when he was on stage with David Cameron. It’s a different play. The actors have all changed and they are all working from a new script. They’re all doing it wrong except oor Nicola!

We are now in the third act of this four-act drama. And Nicola Sturgeon still shows no signs of being aware that she’s not in the play she thinks she’s in. She is intent on reprising a familiar part. The gossip columns hint that she has her eye on a leading role in Broadway production.

It may be testing the limits of this theatrical analogy but I would suggest that Scotland’s voters are the audience while Yes activists are the producers. Currently, most of the audience is still applauding Sturgeon’s performance because, even reading from the wrong script, she sells it like a pro. And the punters appreciate the work she’s doing in Holyrood so are reluctant to stop clapping. The producers, however, see what’s happening and are appalled. They know they need to intervene before the drama turns into a farce.

I promise I’m now done with theatrical allusions. The metaphor has served its purpose. It nicely describes the situation in terms that are easily understood. But it still leaves us wondering what happens next. And not in the good way associated with a well-written mystery.

There’s a reason for abandoning the theatre analogy other than that it has grown tedious. I mentioned earlier that we were in the third act of a four-act play. We really don’t want to stay for the fourth act. The fourth act is interminable and very, very ugly.

What is clear is that something truly dramatic has to happen. The impasse must be broken and broken as a matter of urgency. That means going off-script. It means going improv. (Sorry!) It means we must accept that the new situation demands a fresh approach. The old ways don’t work in the new reality. The idea that we can somehow revert to the pretence of British democracy (demockracy?) that existed prior to the 2014 referendum is sheer fantasy. And we somehow have to get this through to Nicola Sturgeon – as a matter of extreme urgency!

A different approach was always going to be required. That has been apparent for at least five years. And that approach was always going to be basically the one thing. The only thing that is left when all the other things are ruled out. Early in that five years, there may have been a number of options or variations available. It was always going to be necessary to confront the British state. But there were opportunities to ‘finesse’ the political manoeuvring. It is doubtful if that can be done now. It is doubtful if it is even worth trying.

The final option is UDI.

Not UDI (unilateral declaration of independence) as this tends to be understood. The term is only used because of the pejorative connotations that were hung on it during the Rhodesia crisis of the mid-1960s. The term is nonsensical in that any independence must be declared otherwise nobody would know it had happened. And all declarations of independence are necessarily unilateral as only the people of the state assuming or resuming independence have the right and authority to make that choice. Use of the term is intended to imply an equivalence between Scotland today and Rhodesia more than half a century ago which is totally specious. Rhodesia’s declaration of independence was deemed illegal by the UN not because it was unilateral but because it lacked democratic legitimacy. There was no majority rule in Rhodesia. The African nation was governed by the tiny (5%) white minority. That minority could not possibly qualify for the right of self-determination. That white minority was guilty of withholding from the black majority its right of self-determination in a manner comparable with the way in which the British ruling elite is denying Scotland’s right to choose the form of government which suits our needs.

There is absolutely no question of Scotland’s declaration of independence being anything other than unilateral because nobody else has the authority to to declare Scotland independent. There is absolutely no question of Scotland’s unilateral declaration of independence being undemocratic as that declaration is entirely conditional on affirmation by a majority of Scotland’s people as determined in an impeccably democratic plebiscite. The government of England-as-Britain may denounce it as illegal. In fact, it almost certainly will. But neither the UN nor the EU nor any of the international community will echo the rUK’s denunciation because they would have no grounds for doing so. The indignant outrage of British Nationalists has no standing in international law.

UDI it is! But our UDI, defined by us.

All we have to do is ensure that the process by which the unilateral declaration of independence is endorsed is indisputably democratic. This requires, among other things, that the UK government be totally excluded. Under international law, it can have no role as its status is that of an external agency. To be unarguably democratic, the referendum must be entirely made and managed in Scotland.

Other democratic criteria that apply are such as the widest possible franchise (Black people get to vote so not at all like Rhodesia!) and independent oversight of every stage in the process. (Just not by the British!) None of this is rocket surgery. It’s all stuff that has been done before many times and stuff which Scotland is perfectly capable of and qualified to do.

Nor need the referendum precede the declaration. The declaration of independence must take the form of a proposal by a grand assembly of Scotland’s democratically elected representatives that the Union be dissolved and Scotland’s rightful status as an independent nation restored. This proposal having been approved by the Scottish Parliament it can be put to a popular vote. This is a declaration of intent that is, of democratic necessity, subject to confirmation by the electorate. Indeed, the declaration must come first, and as a matter of the utmost urgency, in order to secure a democratic route to a referendum (and the restoration of independence) that the British will otherwise do absolutely anything to obstruct.

This is what must happen. There is no point in debating it because it is the only option still open to us. It is a Scottish UDI or it is a return to London rule via the British state’s agents in Scotland and rapid absorption into a right wing British state with eradication of any distinctiveness.

“But what if it all goes wrong?”, I hear you wail. What if it does? We will certainly be no worse off than we would be if we didn’t make the effort. Consider that the change of approach being suggested (demanded?) does not merely apply to the process by which we get to a referendum but to the form of that referendum and the nature of the campaign prior to the vote. Even if you suppose it possible that the people of Scotland might be offered a case for maintaining the Union that they find sufficiently persuasive to vote accordingly, the British Nationalists simply resume where they left off before being so rudely interrupted by democracy.

We literally have nothing to lose by acting as if we are a nation worthy of a place among the independent nations of the world. We have everything to lose by imagining we can trust Scotland’s fate to British ‘demockracy’.



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Talking to toasters

An actual smart toaster. Click for article. Opens in new window/tab.

We are, in my opinion, closer to achieving the goal of Independence than we have ever been…

BtL comment on The National

Really? Closer than we were when the polls opened on Thursday 18 September 2014? Really?

My advice would be to leave the inane, vacuous platitudes to the politicians. They are well paid for making themselves appear almost as clever as street furniture.

After that, I have to wonder if there is any point in explaining the folly of the rest of your comment. Ach! I’ll give it a go!

You say support for independence is growing by the day. I have seen evidence of no such steady growth. Being a realist, what I see is polls which show an occasional upward blip, but rarely if ever beyond margin of error territory. I see polls which are at least ten points below where we might reasonably expect them to be given the very circumstances which you go on to describe.

The way you talk about it you’d think “biggest recruiting sergeant we have ever had” was a new phenomenon. But the fact is we’ve had such a Tory government for the whole of the period since the first independence referendum. When do you anticipate this recruiting effect becoming evident?

You say, “Our job in the Movement is to encourage those who are on the cusp of joining us to make that last step onto our boat.”

Do you think it helps that this boat is very plainly set on a disastrously wrong course? Do you think it helps if the larger part of the crew are so preoccupied with shouting down and shutting up those who point out the catastrophic navigation error they give the impression of being content that the boat should run onto the rocks? Do you think it helps that you’re asking people to hop aboard a doomed ship and, furthermore, to undertake NEVER to question the captain’s orders even as they hear the hull splinter beneath them on the reef?

You say we should “let the Tories and others make the mistakes”. What mistakes would those be? With my realist specs on what I see is that Boris Johnson has got, or looks set to get, everything he wanted. What have we got that wasn’t imposed on us by Boris and his gang while our government did… what? Sat back and assured us it was all good because it would drive up support for independence. Except that it hasn’t. I know why. You never will. Because you would never even consider the possibility that Nicola Sturgeon might have got it wrong despite overwhelming evidence that she has done precisely that.

What evidence? The fact that neither a new referendum nor independence is in prospect. There is probably no more deluded claim in politics right now than the imbecilic assertion that we are closer to independence than ever. And I’m including UK AND American politics in that statement!

Finally, you state that “the demand for Independence will be unstoppable”. How? When? Where is the substance to this assertion? What prevents it from being anything more than a totally empty assertion?

It seems that you have failed to notice a couple (at least!) of highly pertinent facts. Firstly, the Section 30 process cannot work without the willing and honest cooperation of the British political elite. And that cooperation is NOT going to be forthcoming on any timescale other than the geological. The assertion that Boris Johnson can’t keep on saying No is rendered ludicrous by the fact that it costs him not even an insignificant effort to say No every twenty minutes for the remainder of his time in office. At which point, the next British Prime minister takes over the effortless task of denying Scotland’s right of self-determination. So! Another empty assertion!

Secondly, Nicola Sturgeon has committed Scotland to the Section 30 process just referred to. Committed! No possibility of any change of approach. No response to concerns expressed about this approach – other than the big SHUT UP to which you seem to want to add your voice. Not even any discussion of an alternative course of action. Not Allowed!

Here’s the thing! I never publish anything that I’m not prepared to defend. If I make a statement or take a position or whatever, I will stand by it. I will argue my case. I will happily – nay eagerly! – listen to counter-arguments. For what better way to prove the worth of my position than to have it vigorously challenged. I welcome such challenges.

But I am confronted at every turn by people who make grandiose claims about Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ while flatly refusing to defend those claims against even the mildest of scrutiny. I am constantly condemned and castigated for daring to question this strategy. But, to date, nobody – not one single person – has even attempted to explain how this ‘strategy’ can possibly take us to a new referendum and independence BEFORE the mountains melt in the sun. Or before the British state closes down all potential democratic routes to the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

Instead, I am offered intellect-insulting claptrap about independence never having been closer and told to stop rocking the boat – the one that’s drifting onto the rocks anyway, making a bit of rocking a rather trivial matter.

In my more despairing moments – which are many – I idly wonder whether it is more than happenstance that the depressing decline in the standard of discourse within the Yes movement has coincided with a period of rapid expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT). I find myself unable to discount the possibility that in some of my social media exchanges I might actually be interacting, all unawares, with a ‘smart’ kitchen appliance.



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The message and the language

I note the now standard indignation quotes from Pete Wishart and Mhairi Black. The outrage seems very routine these days. The language has grown dull with overuse. The same stock phrases deployed for every new outrage. Had they not specified the British political elite’s proposal to gerrymander the Scottish Affairs Committee it would have been impossible to tell which iniquity the two SNP big-hitters were talking about. In short, it’s boring! Mind-numbingly boring!

I am an unabashed political anorak and proud keyboard warrior in the battle to restore Scotland’s independence. If I find these rote renderings of scandalised sensibilities ditch-water dismal imagine what effect they might have on a wider public purposefully alienated from politics and disengaged from the democratic process. I’ll tell you what effect it will have. None! Joe and Jane McPublic were switched off before either Pete Wishart or Mhairi Black opened their mouths to speak. And nothing in what was said or the way it was said was going to switch them on. They’ve heard it all before. It’s the magnolia emulsioned woodchip in the unregarded background of their lives.

Mhairi Black and Pete Wishart could be reciting the End User Licence Agreement for some Microsoft product for all the attention they’ll get from the very people who urgently need to be told what is happening.

Here’s an interesting fact! The Tories are very bad! What’s that you say? It’s not an interesting fact? Everybody in Scotland already knows this? It is actually a banal, hackneyed commonplace and not in the slightest bit interesting to anybody? Well! Colour me astounded! So, why do SNP politicians keep proclaiming the badness of the Tories as if they were imparting a novel gobbet of political wisdom? What’s the point? Who are they talking to? Won’t everybody who happens to hear them rightly assume that they’ve heard it all before and turn their attention back to the sports pages or that riveting afternoon soap opera about the everyday antics of stereotypical characters in a generic English town? Of course they will!

Nobody in Scotland needs to be told that the Tories are bad. But the Tories are not the real problem for Scotland. Anyone who imagines the constitutional situation would be much different or any better with a British Labour government in London is very naive. They might introduce some superficially progressive policies. But if history is our guide then they would do little or nothing to roll back the economically damaging and socially corrosive changes made by their dancing partners in faux rivalries foxtrot of British politics. The superficially progressive reforms would be invariably inadequate, ill-thought, badly implemented and short-lived. Most importantly, they would be intended for the benefit of communities very different from Scotland and to address issues that are not necessarily relevant to Scotland, or which call for a solution that is shaped by Scotland’s particular needs, priorities and circumstances.

Whether in government or in opposition, the policies and positions of British Labour will always be formulated to appeal to or avoid offending the relatively tiny number of voters in England who actually decide elections within the managed democracy of the UK. The very same voters who are foremost in the minds of British Tories as they develop policy. They’re both hunting the same beast. So they both use the same bait and the same traps – with different camouflage.

In Scotland – and perhaps elsewhere – the epithet ‘Red Tories’ is often used in referring to British Labour. As is often the case this is an oversimplification. It implies that British Labour is not at all different from British Tories. Self-evidently, this is not the case. There are marked differences in many policy areas, even if the difference is less apparent by the time the policies are implemented. What the term ‘Red Tories’ should be taken to mean is that as far as Scotland is concerned they might as well be the same party because both are, first, foremost and incorrigibly British parties. It’s the ‘British’ bit that matters, not the Labour or the Tory bit.

The British Tories treat Scotland with contempt, not because they are Tories, but because they are British. British Labour, being every bit as British as the British Tories, will always treat Scotland with a disdain that is barely distinguishable from the British Tories. The contempt and disdain derive from the same British exceptionalism and British nationalism in both cases. The authority for this total absence of respect is also the same – the Union!

That is what Mhairi Black and Pete Wishart and their colleagues should be talking about. And in such a forceful, forthright and emphatic a manner as might get the attention of a public afflicted with chronic ennui. People should be angry about what is happening. It is perfectly fitting that people should be angered by attempts to further reduce the already derisory influence of Scotland’s elected representatives in the English-as-British parliament. When the ruling elites of England-as-Britain make Scotland’s representatives second-class MPs they make everybody in Scotland a second-class citizen in their own country. If we cannot be roused to anger by that then we deserve all the considerable and increasing contempt that British politicians throw at us.

It is long past time that SNP politicians learned to feed the anger in order that it might energise Scotland’s cause. It is long past time they learned to make the Union the target of that anger. Instead, they urge us to put up with the insults and the threats because this will drive up support for independence. And so it should! But only if the reality is presented to people in such a way as to make them listen and force them to think. At present, the language contradicts the message. It is a powerful message. But SNP politicians suck all the power out of it by the way they speak.

This has to change. The message is both powerful and urgent. The Union is bad for Scotland, and rapidly getting worse. The Union is the problem. All the rest is mere symptoms of the Union’s malignant grip on Scotland. The people of Scotland need to know this. They need to be told this in language that leaves no room for doubt about the Union’s cancerous effect on Scotland or the threat posed to Scotland by rampant British Nationalism armed with the power of the Union. If the SNP will not make the effort to convey this critical message then the task falls to the Yes movement. And even if SNP politicians do decide to alter the tone and target of their rhetoric the Yes movement must amplify and broadcast the message so that it penetrates the heads and hearts of even the most apathetic of Scotland’s people.

It’s time to stop farting about! It’s time to get angry! It’s time to get loud and outspoken and passionate and assertive! It’s time for Scotland to rise up and demand an end to the anti-democratic iniquity of the Union! And it’s bloody high time the SNP got serious about Scotland’s predicament.



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Stoppable

Words like “unstoppable” suggest denial of the stark reality that the momentum of the campaign for a new independence referendum is all too easily stopped. Boris Johnson simply has to say no. And keep on saying no. As Nicola Sturgeon has amply demonstrated, there is nothing she can do about it. Or nothing she is prepared to do about it. In the unforgiving realm of realpolitik, she has calculated that progressing Scotland’s cause costs her more than stopping it costs the British Prime Minister. Which isn’t a difficult calculation given that, as I’ve pointed out many times before, saying no costs Boris Johnson absolutely nothing, and may even garner kudos from the far from small number of British Nationalists – north and south of the border – who relish few things more than a bit of Jock-bashing.

But even if Keith Brown was right; even if his claim of the campaign to have Johnson agree to a new referendum having an “unstoppable momentum” made sense, it misses the essential point that such a campaign shouldn’t even be necessary. The fact that it is proves the anti-democratic nature of the Union. It illuminates the reality that Scotland is not and never has been an equal partner in a voluntary political union. Scotland is the annexed territory of England-as-Britain. It shows, at least as clearly as does the Brexit iniquity, that the Union denies the people of Scotland the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty which is theirs by absolute right.

Comments such as Keith Brown’s and the kind of headline The National makes of it, serve only to encourage dangerous complacency and promote the ludicrous notion that we need only wait and independence will come to us. Would that Keith or at least one of his colleagues among our elected representatives had the intestinal fortitude to tell the people of Scotland the truth that if Scotland’s independence is to be restored then it will involve a major political confrontation with the British state.

The British establishment will deploy every weapon at its disposal in defence of the Union. Its armoury is formidable. The British state’s propaganda machinery alone is more effective in suppressing democratic dissent than every club-wielding police officer on the Spanish government’s payroll. The British political elite will determine the nature of the fight; indeed, has already decided how it shall be, and it will not be pleasant. It will be vicious. It will be as vicious as it needs to be.

If our political leaders do not appreciate this reality and prepare for intense political confrontation then they will fail – and we will lose. To talk of “unstoppable momentum” is to talk as if the fight was already won. It hasn’t even begun in earnest. At present, Boris Johnson is taking full advantage of the power afforded him by the First Minister’s commitment to the Section 30 process. As noted, it costs him nothing to persist in refusing the permission the First Minister seeks and is politically paralysed without. But we should not assume from this that the British government is not prepared to pay dearly for the preservation of the Union. It would be naive to assume they will hesitate to incur a heavy cost in terms of international relationships and reputation to maintain their grip on Scotland. If we are not prepared to match them blow for blow at similar cost then we will lose.

The Yes movement is powerful. It has yet to realise its potential as a political force. Only when it does will Scotland’s cause become truly unstoppable.



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