Scotland's predicament – a dose of reality!

The Scotland Act wouldn’t exist and devolution wouldn’t have happened if it put the Union in jeopardy. There is and can be, no route to independence that remains within the confines of laws, rules and procedures which are designed for the preservation of the Union. Neither is there any path to independence which does not pass through a point at which there is direct and inevitably acrimonious confrontation with the British establishment.

I have been saying this for five years. And I cannot possibly be the only person who has woken up to the harsh reality of Scotland’s predicament. I have no special insights and I find it glaringly obvious that where there is a political imperative every option will be explored to satisfy that imperative. The British state has always considered it imperative to keep Scotland under London control. That’s what the Union is all about. It is about preventing us from being a nation. It’s about stopping us being any more different than is expedient politically and economically. It is about the status of Britain and the British ruling elites’ conceit of themselves.

Given all that, it can hardly come as a surprise that the same ruling elites have contrived over the last 300 years to devise ways of locking Scotland into what we like to insist is still a voluntary political union.

If, as is now beyond question, there is no guaranteed democratic route to the restoration of Scotland’s independence accessible at will and independently of any other authority by the democratically elected representatives of Scotland’s people then this necessarily implies either that the Union was, in fact, annexation of Scotland by England or that Scotland has since been annexed by stealth.

Scotland has been annexed by England-as-Britain. Until the independence movement and the SNP acknowledge this reality, we are going nowhere. We’ve been fighting the wrong battle. We’ve been fighting for independence when we should have been fighting against annexation. We should have been fighting against the Union.



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Act to be

In the legal opinion commissioned by Forward As One, Aidan O’Neill QC argues that the question of the Scottish Parliament’s competence to legislate on a new independence referendum is a question of law, not a political question and “can only ultimately authoritatively be answered by the courts. I both agree and disagree.

I disagree with the assertion that the matter of the competencies of the Scottish Parliament is purely and solely a matter of law. I disagree because it is a constitutional matter and in constitutional matters ultimate authority must lie with the people. Few things are more fundamental to the constitution than the powers vested in (or withheld from) a nation’s parliament. Even if it is argued that parliamentary competencies are a matter of constitutional law, then it is still primarily and in the first instance a political issue because, in a democracy, the constitutional is an expression of the will of the people.

Constitutional law differs from criminal law in that, where the latter is an attempt to codify the established mores of society, rather than ephemeral public opinion, and works best if it is obeyed and changes only by way of a process rigorously isolated from day-to-day politics, the former must be constantly subject to challenge from all quarters as an intrinsic part of a democratic political process in order that it may truly represent the will of the people. Constitutional law is a special case.

I agree that constitutional change must be subject to legal challenge, if only to formally verify that such change has been established to reflect the will of the people in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. I simply insist that fundamental democratic principles decree that the ultimate authority in all matters rests with the people. And that this authority is most directly relevant in matters relating to the constitution.

The overarching criterion for deciding questions of parliamentary competence is democratic legitimacy, not legality. Where a parliament has incontestable democratic legitimacy – as does the Scottish Parliament – the default assumption must be that all competencies lie with that parliament. The manner in which such competencies are exercised may be subject to legal challenge. But the competencies themselves cannot rightfully be withheld or constrained by any agency with less or no democratic legitimacy.

The democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament derives from the sovereign people of Scotland. It is the institution whereby the people pool their sovereignty and mandate governments of their choosing. If the nation is regarded as a community of communities in accordance with the doctrine of civic nationalism, then Holyrood is where all those communities come together to oversee the management of their mutual interests and negotiate the compromises which resolve political divisions. To propose that such a parliament must be subordinate to the parliament of an entirely different community of communities which manages Scotland’s interests only very badly and resolves political divisions by fiat flies in the face of reason.

Of course, Holyrood was never intended to be the locus of Scotland’s democratic soul. But that is how it has turned out. It has been transformed from an impotent puppet of the British political elite into a fully-fledged national parliament – lacking only the powers to which it alone has a legitimate and rightful claim. Powers that were seized and are being withheld by a parliament which serves only the ruling elites of England-as-Britain.

The competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a new independence referendum is being denied by British politicians for political motives. It is entirely proper, therefore, that this should be challenged by political means. The Scottish Parliament must assert its authority by rejecting the authority asserted by Boris Johnson. The superior authority of the Scottish Parliament must be assumed on the basis of its superordinate democratic legitimacy. This authority must be exercised by the Scottish Government according to the mandate afforded it by the people of Scotland. If this is to risk any form of challenge by the UK Government then the Scottish Government must stand ready to meet this challenge. It is only by meeting and defeating such challenge that Scotland’s democracy can be preserved. It is only by meeting and defeating the resistance of the British state that Scotland’s democracy may be restored.

To be, and deserve to be, a normal independent nation, Scotland must act as a normal independent nation.



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It is time!

“It’s time to give Scotland the chance to choose our own future.” – Nicola Sturgeon

Give? Really, First Minister? Not to be pernickety, but how can the British government possibly “give” the people of Scotland something which is inalienably ours? How might they gift us something which isn’t in their gift?

And even supposing it was theirs to give, why would we want it? Why would we want anything the British state might be prepared to give to us? If they are prepared to give it, they must consider it worthless. And if it turns out not to be worthless in our hands, they reserve the right to take it back.

Language matters, First Minister. It both expresses and shapes our mindset. If you habitually speak as if you are a supplicant carving a boon from their superior, then that is how you will tend to think of yourself. It is certainly how others will be led to think of you. Especially if you are, by your words, merely confirming their prejudices.

In refusing a Section 30 order Boris Johnson is not clinging jealously to something that is his. He is trying to impede our taking something that is ours. He is attempting to deny us the full and effective exercise of our sovereign right to determine the constitutional status of our nation and choose the form of government which best addresses our needs, priorities and aspirations.

To speak of Scotland being ‘given’ the chance to choose our own future implies that there is some doubt about the fact that the choice must be ours because the future is. It implies a mindset which regards independence as something that would be nice to have if only we could persuade the British state to grant it to us. Better for that you, as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, should think of independence as an essential thing that is rightfully ours but which is being wrongfully withheld from us by the British state.

Asking for “the chance to choose our own future” also implies a persistent hope that the British political elite will eventually relent. That they can be won over by incessant appeals to reason or principle or conscience. I ask you, First Minister, what cause is there to suppose this to be anything other than a forlorn hope? Does not all evidence and experience indicate that the British political elite is determined to preserve the Union at any cost? Do the words and deeds of British politicians not tell of an abiding disrespect for Scotland and for democracy? Has it not yet become clear to Scotland’s political leaders, as it has to increasing numbers of Scotland’s people, that locking Scotland into the Union is an overarching imperative for England-as-Britain?

And even supposing the right of self-determination was theirs to give and they could be persuaded to give it, do you not recognise that this ‘gift’ would come wrapped in caveats and conditions and conceals traps such as to make it useless for our purposes?

Please, First Minister, stop saying, “It’s time to give Scotland the chance to choose our own future.” Start saying that it is time for Scotland to take what is rightfully ours. Time to defy Boris Johnson and the British government. It is time to stop trying to avoid a confrontation that can only be avoided by abandoning Scotland’s cause. It is time to accept that the route to independence does not and never can lie through Westminster but must be by way of the only Parliament which can claim democratic legitimacy in Scotland. It is time!



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Know thine enemy!

It’s not deluded Unionists we need to be concerned about. Rather, it is those individuals in influential positions within the independence movement who imagine that Boris Johnson’s denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination is “utterly unsustainable”. Or that “the Tory position will not hold”.

For a start, it is not a “Tory position”. It is the position of the British state. It is the position of all the British parties, no matter how they dress it up in the hope of deceiving voters in Scotland. This is not a party political issue. Scotland’s predicament would be the same no matter who was occupying Downing Street.

For some time now I have been expressing concerns about the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue. In doing so, I have stated that Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998) is not there to facilitate the granting of new powers to Holyrood. It is there to allow the British Prime Minister to alter the competencies of the Scottish Parliament in whatever way he chooses. In an attempt to refute this point, an apologist for the Union claimed that the British Prime Minister could not fiddle with the list of reserved powers without first getting the nod from the British parliament.

According to this Unionist, the assertion that the British Prime Minister could ‘revise’ the powers of the Scottish Parliament at will was false because the Tories won’t always have a majority at Westminster. But, as I then pointed out, the British parties WOULD always have a majority at Westminster. Approval for stripping powers from the Scottish Parliament will always be a mere formality in the parliament of England-as-Britain.

Alyn Smyth is guilty of the same erroneous thinking as those who go on Yes marches with banners and chants demanding “Tories out!”. Ours is not an anti-Tory campaign. It is an anti-Union campaign. To lose sight of this is to forget the whole point and purpose of the Yes movement. Of course, it would be great to ‘get rid of the Tories’. Just as it would be wonderful to get rid of Trident. But these are secondary aims. They are contingent on the restoration of Scotland’s independence. It is this that must be the focus of our campaign. And of the efforts of our elected representatives.

Every bit as misguided as the idea that the Tories are the problem rather than the Union – and probably more dangerous – is the notion that the British establishment’s position is “unsustainable”. It is deluded to suppose that this position “will not hold”. The reality is that the British political establishment can not only maintain its anti-democratic denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination, it can also implement whatever measures are deemed necessary to ensure that the people of Scotland are never allowed to chose the form of government that best suits our needs.

This is not to say we should just give up. We must not succumb to pessimism or be daunted by the armour which protects established power. But we must properly appreciate the nature of the forces defending the British state’s structures of power, privilege and patronage. Those defences are not going to crumble under a barrage of righteous outrage however rousing the rhetoric of SNP MPs.

Scotland’s cause cannot rely on the British establishment having a change of heart. If Scotland’s independence is to be restored then it must be restored DESPITE the fervent opposition of the British political elite. Not because we’ve shamed them or won them over. The British state has no shame. And no heart.



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Who cares?

Andrew Learmonth says it’s going to be hard for the “middle ground of voters” not to have a strong opinion on the constitutional issue. One might have thought events of the last ten years would have made it well nigh impossible for anybody but the terminally apathetic and disengaged to avoid developing a very strong opinion on the matter. To whatever extent they haven’t, this needs to be explained.

The forces acting on public opinion can be distilled down to just two – mass media and campaigns. Mass media includes advertising and peer pressure – because the vast majority of the peers doing the pressuring will have defaulted to the mass media version in the absence of a campaign. Campaigns include anything that is intended to alter the default version of public opinion.

Most people don’t care very much about most things. The people who try to care about everything are in institutions right beside the people who care about absolutely nothing. Pick any single topic and you’ll find that only a relatively small part of the populace has a strong view on it one way or another. It looms large in the worldview of the people at either end of the interest gradient and leaves the rest in various degrees of apathy.

Apathy is not too strong a term. Not if we include those who aren’t even aware of the issue on the grounds that they are too apathetic to make themselves aware. The interest gradient is not a regular graduation in either direction from moderate interest. The middle of the spectrum is alienation. Interest only begins to rise towards the extremes. Or, to put it another way, interest drops off very rapidly. Most of the spectrum is apathy.

The crucial thing is the point of engagement. On one side of the point of engagement, there is potentially increasing interest. On the other is a precipitous plunge into apathy.

Mass media caters to that vast middle range either side of alienation and up to the point of engagement. That’s why it’s called ‘mass’ media. It stands to reason, therefore, that mass media has a vested interest in making and keeping that middle range as large as possible. The purpose of mass media is not, as some might suppose, to deliver the client’s message to the audience, but to deliver the audience to the client so that it can be given whatever message is deemed to serve the client’s present purpose and/or objectives. This is not only true in respect of commercial messages. It is just as true with regard to political messages – using the term ‘political’ in its widest sense.

(For grammar mavens concerned about number agreement, ‘mass media’ is one of those terms which can be either singular or plural. Like ‘sheep’, ironically.)

The purpose of a campaign is to drag people to the point of engagement – then hold their interest long enough to effect some change. In this, the campaign is in direct competition with mass media which is all about keeping the audience in that zone where they are most susceptible to manipulation. Mass media manipulates public perceptions so as to make people manipulable so that mass media can… You get the picture. This being so, campaigns must also manipulate perceptions in order to get the audience – or a large enough part of it – to the point of engagement.

If people are not engaged and do not have strong(ish) opinions about an issue it is because there has been no campaign that sufficiently engages them.

Mass media serves established power. The British media are part of the British establishment. To the extent that they are discrete entities, both have the same interest in a malleable mass audience. If the British mass media is doing its job – which it must or it wouldn’t be mass media – then most people in Scotland won’t have a strong opinion about the constitutional issue. Or, to put it another way, if people don’t have strong views on the constitutional issue it’s because the independence movement has failed to mount a sufficiently effective campaign.

It’s no good complaining that the British media are too strong. Few, if any, campaigns can affect the mass media. You can’t make the British media weaker. You can only make your campaign stronger – more effective.

The question, then, is how. How can the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence be made more effective? Answers on a postcard – which should be sent straight to the recycling bin. Because the most influential parts of the independence movement won’t even consider the question, never mind the answers. The ‘thinking’ is that they don’t have to make the effort to get people to engage with the constitutional issue, that will happen because of what the British political elite does. Because of the appalling contempt with which the British political elite treats Scotland. Eventually, people will get angry enough to do something about it.

No! They won’t! People will only get angry if somebody makes them get angry. Their fallback state is not anger. It’s some degree of apathy. Listing outrages while insisting we all remain ‘calm and reasonable in the face of them is not going to make people angry. Unless it’s anger directed at those listing the outrages and insisting we must adhere to an etiquette defined by those who are committing the outrages.

The behaviour of the British government and British media and British political parties during and since the 2014 independence referendum should have been more than enough to provoke the ire of a big chunk of that middle ground. But it hasn’t. It hasn’t because the independence campaign has been woefully ineffective at weaponising that behaviour.



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Don't ask for dumb loyalty

Yet another senior SNP figure pops up to tell us we must have faith in the party leadership and desist from “niggling within our own team”. Presumably, this is aimed at, possibly among others, the people who are expressing grave concerns about the party’s approach to the constitutional issue. I hesitate to call it hypocrisy, but there’s certainly a double standard in Andrew Wilson insisting we treat opponents and No voters with respect while he shows such scant regard for those of us “in our own team” who harbour serious doubts about whether the Section 30 process can work. Doubts which he, of course, makes no attempt to address.

I don’t do faith. I certainly don’t do blind faith. I do confidence when I am persuaded confidence is warranted. I do trust where trust is earned. But I don’t do faith. Faith is belief against evidence. Faith requires that we set aside even the most rational doubts and reasoned concerns. Faith, even outside the context of religion, involves at least partial denial of one’s own intellect. I don’t do faith.

If Andrew Wilson and the SNP leadership are so intent on stopping the “niggling within our own team” then they have, in their own hands, the means to do so. They need only treat those who have concerns about the Section 30 process with some of the respect they tell us we must afford to everyone else. The concerns to which I refer are real and justified. The doubts have cause and can only grow if left unaddressed. Telling us to abandon intellect for faith and be silent demonstrates a lack of respect. Dismissing them as “niggling” suggests a failure to comprehend the reasons people are worried.

I trust Nicola Sturgeon to put Scotland’s interests first. I have confidence in the dedication and ability of our First Minister and her colleagues. But even the most trustworthy of leaders is capable of misidentifying what best serves Scotland’s interests. The efforts of even the most committed and competent team may turn out to be misguided. If others are questioning the wisdom of a particular course of action it will tend to be because those responsible have neglected to ask the pertinent questions. Or they are perceived as having failed to do so.

Asking questions, expressing concerns and airing doubts about strategy does not harm Scotland’s cause. Like all the marches and rallies and inspirational rhetoric and strictly on-message newspaper columns, the debate about strategy becomes part of the clamour for independence. Part of the demonstrable public demand for a new referendum that the First Minister requires.

I do not presume to speak for anyone else, although I’ll wager I speak for most of those expressing concerns and airing doubts about the Section 30 process when I assure Andrew Wilson and others who demand dumb loyalty that questioning the Scottish Government’s strategy on the constitutional issue does not betoken any lack of commitment to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. Rather, it is lifelong dedication to that cause which compels me to speak out.



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What might have been

As a follow-up to my earlier article about where we are and how we got here where we’re going, it occurred to me that it might be thought-provoking to consider how things might have been different. I know some will say that looking back like this is pointless. But let’s consider an exercise in political analysis. If it is valid to speculate about the future in order to better understand what is happening now then it is also valid to review the past in the hope of finding guidance on how to avoid unfortunate outcomes. Taking things apart and putting them back together again in a different form is part of human nature. (Were it not so there would be no Lego.) Think of this as an alternative history in broad strokes.

One might have expected Scotland’s independence movement to be laid low be the result of the 2014 referendum. But even those involved in the various campaigning groups and organisations were taken aback by what actually happened. SNP membership soared. Yes groups not only remained intact but gained new recruits. New groups and organisations formed. Arguably, the Yes movement as a whole was never stronger than in the months following defeat in the 2014 referendum. The political leaders of the movement could, quite literally, have asked anything of Yes activists at that time and it would have been done in an instant. The power was palpable. It just needed to be directed.

Recognising the potential, the SNP convened a commission to review ever aspect of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, with particular focus on the Yes campaign. The review commission drew members from across the independence movement, More than a hundred people gave evidence and thousands of other made written submissions. The activities of the commission were credited with contributing to the SNP’s stunning victory in the 2015 UK general election when the party took 56 of the country’s 59 seats in the British parliament.

Mindful of the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2016 and urged to even greater effort by the forthcoming referendum on EU membership the review commission worked hard and fast producing a preliminary report by the end of January 2015 and its full findings only two months later. Initially, some parts of the report were not published. The argument was that criticisms of the Yes campaign strategy would be picked up on by the media and spun in the usual negative way. Likewise some of the suggestions and recommendations. After some debate, however, it was decided that openness was worth the price of the ‘bad press’ which was going to happen anyway and the full report was made public.

The main findings of the report were that, while the 2014 referendum had produced a result, it had not provided a decision. The deplorable conduct of the No campaign and the fact that it was unclear what a No vote actually meant required that a new referendum be held at the earliest possible date in order to properly determine the will of Scotland’s people. The commission recommended that the Scottish Government take the necessary step to ensure there would be a new referendum in September 2018.

Analysis of the campaign strategies and tactics of both sides produced some of the most controversial material in the report. Basically, what is said was that while the Yes campaign was good it was far from as effective as it might have been. And while the No campaign was appalling there was a great deal that could be learned from it.

The SNP leadership objected strongly to the verdict on a campaign for which the party was almost entirely responsible. Their position was that 2018 was too soon and that any future campaign should stick with the strategy that had increased support for independence by at least 50% in the course of the 2014 campaign. Others argued that delaying the referendum would allow the British government time to put more obstacles in the way of a vote and that it would be difficult to maintain the unity and enthusiasm of the Yes movement without the prospect of a new referendum in sight.

SNP leaders were also offended by the suggestion that their administration in Edinburgh might falter after a long period in office. Past examples which suggested that the sensible thing to do was to get out before the first big policy failure or public scandal. Given that the British government was intent on making life difficult for the SNP and digging frantically for something that could be made to look like dirt, the SNP administration was more susceptible than most to encountering problems in the coming years.

Pressure from delegates at two successive party conferences in late 2015 and spring 2016 forced the party bosses to back down to some extent. The Scottish Government would actively explore the possibility of a new referendum in September 2018 and it was agreed that the strategy for the campaign would be informed by the recommendations of the review commission. Nobody was happy. But very few were angry. What more could one hope for.

Then came the EU referendum. The impact of the result changed thinking about independence completely. Scotland’s vote to Remain being totally discounted and the Scottish Government being almost entirely excluded from the Brexit process were regarded, not only as signifiers of what the Union implied for Scotland, but as harbingers of what the British state intended for Scotland. The SNP quickly confirmed its support for a 2018 referendum. The Scottish Government began laying the legislative foundations for that referendum. And the decision was made that the new referendum would be totally different from the first one.

I say the decision was made. But, actually, it was more a case of it developing. The SNP had to play catch-up with the Yes movement which had matured greatly in the aftermath of the 2014 campaign. New skills had been learned – or discovered – and networking had been vastly improved. The Yes movement, while still retaining its character as a political movement, had developed the capacity to transform itself into a massive campaigning machine. A machine so powerful that even the ‘old-timers’ in the SNP had to defer to it.

One of the most crucial developments was the creation of a liaison committee bringing together the pro-independence political parties and the Yes movement. Two huge difficulties had to be overcome for this to be possible. The political parties – especially the SNP, for obvious reasons – needed to overcome it’s reluctance to be associated with any organisation it did not control. The Yes movement had to overcome its reluctance to appoint people who could speak for the entire movement. That both succeeded to the extent that they did is the single most important thing that made what followed possible.

With the backing of the Yes movement and a platform promising a new referendum, the SNP pulled off another remarkable victory in the 2017 snap UK general election, holding all but two of the seats they they previously held while, thanks to the vagaries of FPTP, actually increasing their share of the vote. British Nationalist tried to portray this as a massive defeat for the SNP and a setback for the independence cause, but even some in the British media weren’t buying it. The public certainly weren’t. In Scotland, the mood for change was growing.

Things moved rapidly after that. The Scottish Government let it be known that if a Section 30 order was not forthcoming it would press ahead with the referendum in September 2018 regardless. It was made clear that any attempt to stop the referendum would be defied and any challenge to the result would be met and defeated. After much ado, the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP still had a working majority and the support (mostly) of the Scottish Greens, passed a proposal to dissolve the Union with England subject to a referendum to be held on Thursday 20 September 2018 in which Scotland’s voters would be asked whether they agreed with this proposal – Yes or No.

The UK Government, after much huffing and puffing, backed down. Their first strategy of encouraging a Unionist boycott was abandoned when several Scottish Labour MSPs and even one Tory refused to join the boycott campaign. It was shunned also by much of civic Scotland and quite sharply criticised by the Electoral Commission. In addition, there was no mood for it in Scotland. In part this may have been due to the referendum legislation which stated that the result would stand so long as turnout was above 80% and that if the turnout reached 65% despite a boycott then the referendum would be rerun within a year.

Much to the very vocal annoyance of hard-line Unionsists, the UK Government stated that it would not challenge the referendum result so long as the upper turnout figure was met and any Yes vote was “decisive”. They would, however, take whatever steps were necessary to ensure that there would be no rerun should turnout fall below 80%. The thinking was that the political cost of obstruct would be greater than was warranted given their ability to ensure that the referendum didn’t succeed. It was a gamble. But the strategists and campaign managers reckoned that they could hold just enough of the No vote from 2014 and deter just enough people from voting – even without a formal boycott – to ensure the vile separatists were defeated. They were wrong. We now know how wrong they were.

Support for independence in the polls had jumped 5 points when the Scottish Parliament passed the proposal to end the Union. Subsequently, it stayed steady at between 50 and 55%. A low-level campaign had, of course, been running for a year or more. By the time the official campaign period started, it was clear what the Yes strategy would be. Following the recommendations of the review commission, a two-pronged effort was launched. One strand of the campaign would focus on the “positive” case for independence but, instead of getting bogged down in policy debates that had no relevance to the constitutional issue, would focus on the powers of the Scottish Parliament; building on what was known about people’s preferences for where decisions were made. Independence would hardly be mentioned. It would be about bringing Scotland’s government home.

The second strand would be the “negative” stuff that was almost entirely left out in the 2014. It would be an anti-Union campaign focusing on the ways in which the Union is detrimental to Scotland. This, together with the way the ballot was to be framed, would ensure that the anti-independence side were put on the back foot, forced to defend the Union rather than attack the idea of independence – which was difficult to target anyway now that it wasn’t being talked about by the Yes side.

Importantly, the form of the campaign strategy allowed the Yes movement to unite and focus and stay on-message. No longer did we have the multitude of competing ‘visions’ of independence which so fatally diluted the first Yes campaign. Everybody now could focus on specific powers that should rest with the Scottish Parliament and/or any of a range of lines of attack on the Union.

The result was 69% Yes on a turnout of 82%. And the rest is alternative history.

That was fun!



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