Three of the best

depute_leader_candidatesOnce again, SNP members have been faced with the difficult task of choosing among candidates of the highest calibre. Whoever wins, the contest has proved yet again that the SNP has a wealth of talent at its disposal. It has also demonstrated the strength of the party’s internal democracy. The manner in which these contests are conducted is a credit to the party and to the distinctive political culture which the British state is determined to eradicate.

My approach to differentiating the three candidates involved focusing, not only on the personal qualities and abilities of the individuals, but also on the fit between those attributes and the role of Depute Leader as I understand it. I was also mindful of the role(s) currently being filled by the candidates and how this might be affected by being elected.

My conclusion was that Julie Hepburn is the candidate best suited to the role of Depute Leader.

To some extent, this choice was influenced by the fact that I am persuaded that both Chris McEleny and Keith Brown have much to offer in other ways. And that being Depute Leader might actually limit them unduly. I see Keith as a projects man. His talents are best deployed if he has a sort of ‘roving commission’ to step into situation where strong leadership and effective management skills are required.

Chris, I’d like to see leading moves to secure (or restore?) strong representation for local government within the party as part of the wider reorganisation that is ongoing – even if only slowly.

Most importantly, however, I am firmly convinced that Julie is best qualified and most capable in relation to what I consider the three most important aspects of the Depute Leader role at this critical time for the SNP and the independence project. Without going into detail, these relate to –

  • Connecting (networking) the branches and groups within the party.
  • Connecting the membership with the party leadership.
  • Connecting the party with the wider independence movement.

Whoever wins, these must be their priorities. I’m sure each of the candidates would bring something to the role of Depute Leader. I am certain that Julie would bring something extra.

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From outside the soundproof room

Julie Hepburn
Julie Hepburn

I’m not sure why Julie Hepburn has called for calm in the “row” over the timing of the next independence referendum. I wasn’t even aware that it was a “row”. I was under the impression there was an attempt to have a discussion. And that discussion is not just calm, but becalmed. It’s going nowhere. Because the different perspectives on the issue are being debated in quite separate spaces.

The only ones who appear other than calm are those frantically trying to close down the debate altogether. Or, at least, to close down that part of it which going on in the space marked ‘Public’. The attitude seems to be that it’s OK for politicians and prominent figures to express a view on the matter of when the new referendum should be held, but that anybody else doing so is ‘divisive’ and ‘damaging’.

I have been called a “hysterical agitator” for presuming to disagree with Pete Wishart. Apparently, getting elected bestows omniscience. Simply being an MSP or MP implies possession of profound knowledge and great wisdom. (We have to wonder what went wrong in the case of Richard Leonard.) To question the pronouncements of our political leaders is, it seems, an act of heresy. Pete Wishart is fantastic. He shits fantastic pearls of fantastic wisdom that the rest of us swine aren’t equipped to appreciate. We should all just shut up and stop asking awkward questions about the emperor’s fantastic new clothes.

Pete Wishart’s fine. As I’ve said elsewhere, he’s an excellent constituency MP and has been doing a damn fine job as chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee. But he is about as all-knowing and all-wise as the Wizard of Oz. There is something rather ridiculous about idea that his is the ultimate word on anything. His opinion on the matter of when the next independence referendum should be held is no more valid that anybody else’s. Like any opinion, it is only as good as the evidence and reasoning on which it is based. Like any opinion which has been publicly stated, it is there to be challenged. Like any opinion which is genuinely held and openly expressed, the person holding and expressing it should be willing and able to defend it.

But that’s not what’s happening. It’s as if Pete Wishart and Chris McEleny and Keith Brown and the rest are talking at us from inside a sealed and soundproofed room. Everything being said outside that room is being widely represented as an irrelevant and unwelcome intrusion. If we are not being told to shut up, we’re being told to calm down. Which is no more appropriate.

Julie Hepburn says,

We undoubtedly have a mandate for an independence referendum, and I trust our First Minister to make the right judgement when the time comes and have every confidence our views as SNP members will greatly inform that decision.

There is absolutely no question about the mandate. And we have every reason to trust Nicola Sturgeon’s judgement. But we have to wonder how the views of SNP members – or the wider Yes movement – might “greatly inform” the decision on the date of the new referendum if those voices are silenced or dismissed, as some very evidently want. And we have to wonder how anybody can become aware of the pros and cons of the various positions if there is no debate in which the arguments are comprehensively rehearsed.

Julie Hepburn goes on to say,

But if we continually focus on the when, then I believe we risk neglecting the more fundamental question of how – how to do we win an independence referendum?

In this, we see again a disturbing failure to appreciate or acknowledge why the issue of timing is critical. If we do not focus on the when then we risk neglecting the fundamental issue of what the British political elite will be doing while Julie Hepburn is busy trying to “build a renewed case for independence” – whatever that might mean. If it actually means anything at all.

The “case for independence” is like one of those Lego kits that has all the parts for building a particular thing – a moon buggy, for example. You can dismantle it and put the bits back together in all manner of different ways. But you’re never going to end up with anything better than the moon buggy. Once you’ve built the moon buggy, you have your moon buggy. There is no extra super moon buggy that can be built from the available parts.

British Nationalists are, of course, perfectly content that the Yes movement should devote all its resources and energies to endlessly reconfiguring the case for independence. They’re always going to demand a better moon buggy. That process is potentially infinite. It takes us precisely nowhere. They, meanwhile, sit there with a grotesque, dysfunctional contraption of randomly assembled Lego parts feeling no need at all to explain what it’s meant to be. They just stick a Union flag on it and it gets to be whatever they want it to be.

At the risk of stretching the analogy beyond breaking point, the timing of the referendum is crucial because British Nationalists have already started stealing our Lego parts. Some of us are warning about this process of attrition. We’re doing so calmly. Maybe Julie Hepburn and her colleagues should consider opening the door of that soundproof room so they can hear us. They might even think about coming out and actually talking to us.

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This time it’s urgent!

Julie Hepburn
Julie Hepburn

I’m not about to get into discussing the merits of candidates for the SNP Depute Leader job. It’s far too early for that. Although the fact that nominations aren’t even open yet hasn’t prevented some people making up their minds and the media declaring at least two ‘favourites’ – neither of whom has declared their candidacy and one of whom has actually ruled himself out. It’s all in danger of becoming rather ridiculous. So I’ll just bide my time.

The issue of a new referendum is another matter, however. It seems to have become bound up with the Depute Leader contest in a manner and to an extent that may not be helpful. Some things can’t be helped, I suppose. On this, at least, Julie Hepburn talks some sense. Up to a point.

““It’s important to note that whoever becomes depute leader will not be deciding unilaterally what the strategy is and when the decision will be.”

This is important. I see a lot of ill-informed comment along the lines of suggesting that the SNP needs a Depute Leader who will ‘challenge’ Nicola Sturgeon on various issues. That is NOT what the job entails. The Depute Leader is, as the name suggests, a stand-in for the party Leader. They have to be the Leader’s shadow. They have to be able to step in and speak for the party precisely as the Leader would. There cannot be any significant disagreement or conflict. Certainly not in public.

It is this consideration which may rule out certain candidates. Those who are aware that the Depute Leader role imposes significant constraints on the incumbent’s freedom to speak and act according to their personal beliefs may be disinclined to elect to the position someone whose value to the party and the country lies in their ability to be something of a thorn in the side of the SNP leadership.

It is good that Julie Hepburn reminds us of this. Although I fear her words may too readily and too soon be forgotten.

Having got off to such a good start, it is all the more disappointing to find Julie’s comments on the subject of a new referendum reflecting the same woeful lack of urgency found in a recent article in The National by her old boss, Pete Wishart.

Whatever Louis Armstrong may say, we do not have all the time in the world. While it would be great to be able to wait for the optimum moment (although how you’d know it was the optimum moment is a mystery), we can’t. While it would doubtless be a fine thing to have absolute certainty about the outcome before we even launch the campaign, that’s not how it works in the real world.

And now, more perhaps than ever before, we desperately need some hard-headed realism in the Yes movement. If we have not settled the constitutional question within a year, then the entire terrain upon which the independence battle is being fought will have altered. And not in ways that favour the Yes side.

It isn’t only about what we do. We have to be aware of moves being made on the other side. When, for example, David Mundell talks of ‘UK-wide common frameworks’, we cannot afford to dismiss this as mere political jargon. We have to consider what it means. We have to work out what it implies for Scotland. We have to assume the worst. We have to proceed on the basis that he is talking about an entirely new structure; set up initially to take on powers repatriated from the EU, but capable also of taking powers removed from the Scottish Parliament. And if they can weaken the Scottish Parliament then we have to assume that they will. We cannot afford to be complacent.

It’ll start with things like agriculture and fisheries. The argument will be that this needs to be dealt with on a UK-wide basis. The Scottish part of it will be handed to the Scotland Office on the grounds that this will better facilitate coordination of policy with the UK Government. They will claim that it’s not really taking powers away from Scotland because the powers are going to the Scotland Office. And it has the word ‘Scotland’ in it. So stop being such a ‘grievance-monkey’ and get on with the day job using the powers you have. You can just hear it, can’t you?

Then it will be argued that, in order to make the ‘UK-wide common framework’ more efficient, the Scotland Office needs to have further powers. It will be argued that it makes no sense to have agriculture and fisheries responsibilities split between the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office. So they all have to go to the latter. Because that’s where the ‘common framework’ is. Right? Duh!

Thus begins a process of attrition. With the help of the media, and regardless of the reality, these ‘common frameworks’ will be hailed a stupendous success – at the same time as the Scottish Government is being loudly and repetitively accused of failing at everything it is responsible for. There will be a clamour for more powers to be transferred to the pure dead brilliant team at the Scotland Office. Resistance to this process will be portrayed as putting ‘narrow nationalism’ before the needs of the economy.

At the same time, it will be maintained that the new arrangements need to be secured. There needs to be ‘certainty’. So the ‘threat’ of independence must be eliminated. Legislation will be passed at Westminster prohibiting constitutional referendums. Or introducing a requirement for the approval of both the Commons and the House of Lords. Or stipulating a qualified majority. Or some combination of these and, perhaps, other measures. The ground will have shifted. The possibility of a referendum will have receded almost out of sight. The chances of winning will have diminished to near-zero.

This is not a story about some hypothetical scenario for a remote future. This is actually happening. And it’s happening now. By the end of 2018 the British government will have everything in place to make a new referendum, and/or a Yes win, as close to impossible as makes no practical difference. By October or November the post-Brexit shape of the UK will be settled. It will be a fait accompli.

Of course, given the present UK Government’s record, it’s all but certain that they’ll screw this up in some way. But do we really want to pin all our hopes on their incompetence?

#Referendum2018! This time it’s urgent!

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