Choosing sides

Five years ago mine was one of very few voices warning of the British Nationalist threat to Scotland’s democratic institutions. It seemed obvious to me that, not only did the ‘One Nation’ project require the emasculation or closure of the Scottish Parliament, but that the political culture growing in England could not tolerate the continuing existence of a contrasting and competing political culture in Scotland. An effort to eradicate Scotland’s distinctive political culture would be inevitable. Such distinctiveness is anathema to British Nationalist ideology and contrary to the interests of the forces which have put Boris Johnson in power.

I mention this not by way of saying “Ah telt ye!” – although I reserve the right to do so – but by way of highlighting how significant it is that my warnings are now being vindicated by politicians as senior as Mike Russell.

I just responded to a Tweet from a businesswoman saying that, only a week or two ago, she would have considered my anxieties misplaced and my calls to action “extremist”. Her views have changed. People are waking up to the true nature of what I refer to as the British state, or England-as-Britain. By which I mean those forces which have co-opted Boris Johnson to serve their interests. The very forces which, by means of the Union, have foisted Johnson on Scotland in the same way as they have imposed on an unwilling nation Brexit and austerity and much besides.

Please do not imagine that those forces will be discouraged by this growing awareness of their purposes and intentions for Scotland and the rest of what they regard as the periphery of their domain. Do not imagine they will be in any way deterred by Mike Russell’s warning. Just as these forces see democracy and the law as things to be flouted or circumvented, so they see democratic dissent as something to be suppressed. From the British Nationalist perspective, the most effective way to suppress the wave of democratic dissent rising in Scotland is to eliminate the Parliament which gives a voice to that dissent. It is the obvious thing to do if your purpose and intent is the eradication of Scotland’s distinctive political culture, along with all those aspects of Scotland’s national identity which are not considered exploitable.

Gratifying as it is to see our political leaders recognising the real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democracy, this is worthless unless it is backed up with action. Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell have now acknowledged the reality of this threat. Many other politicians and commentators will surely follow. We need to know that they are prepared to effectively address this threat. We need to know that they are ready to do whatever is required to counter the threat. And we need to back them to the hilt as they confront the might of the British state.

Scotland’s Unionists are faced with a choice. It is important that those of us who long since realised the true nature of the Union should be mindful of how difficult this choice is going to be for many who have maintained a lifelong loyalty to the Union. But choose they must. Scotland is in jeopardy of a kind that it has faced only rarely in it’s long history. Jeopardy such as might sensibly be regarded as unprecedented. Sometimes, you just have to pick a side. Sometimes the choices are just so stark that there can be no compromise; no middle way.

The choice now confronting everybody who calls Scotland their country is between the Scotland we know, the Scotland we aspire to, the Scotland we hope to bequeath to future generations; and a Scotland pressed into serving those forces which put Boris Johnson in power.

What side are you on?



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The right way

Mike Russell will be doing no more than stating the obvious if he chooses to tell the SNP Conference that restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status must be done “the right way”. Who is arguing that it should be done the wrong way? This is just one of those glittering generalities with which politicians like to pepper their speeches to gatherings of the party faithful. It’s emotionally appealing. Even intellectually appealing, in a very superficial way. As with most such rhetorical devices, the glitter starts to come off once we start to ask the kind of questions the rhetoric is intended to preempt and evade.

Precisely what is meant by “the right way”? The glibly facetious answer, of course, would be “my way”. Saying that things must be done “the right way” is not dissimilar to insisting that “there is no other way”. In the family of propaganda phrases, they are close cousins. Both refer, not to a policy or course of action which is provably necessary or preferable according to any objective criteria. Glittering generalities, by definition, allude to high value concepts which tend to attract approval even in the absence of any solid information or reasoned argument. When a politician says “there is no other way” people are likely to solemnly agree whether or not they know what the “way” is, and without considering whether there are alternatives. It is a lightly disguised emotional appeal to the desire to be regarded as realistic and sensible. Or to avoid being labelled a woolly-minded dreamer who fails to appreciate the harsh realities.

Likewise, nobody wants to be perceived as being inclined to do things wrongly. So, when a politician states that things must be done “the right way”, we will tend to respond unthinkingly with approval. This approval is then associated with whatever “way” said politician is proposing even though the details remain unspecified.

Obviously, Mike Russell’s speech to Conference will be intended to gain approval for the course of action set out by Nicola Sturgeon in her recent statement on a new independence referendum. The glittering generality about doing things “the right way” is intended to attract such approval in spite any misgivings about that course of action. Or doubts about the appropriateness of the word “action”.

Just as “no other way” is supposed to steer us away from asking about alternatives, so “the right way” is meant to prevent questions about how this claim is justified on behalf of the SNP leadership’s chosen course of action.

It seems to me that, in relation to taking forward the cause of independence, there are two contending definitions of “the right way”. The British way involves recognising the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. It involves accepting the supremacy of Westminster. It involves allowing that “the right way” is whatever way the British state defines. It involves legitimising the authority of the British political elite to decide the rules and control the process by which constitutional change might happen.

It necessarily and inevitably involves denying the sovereignty of Scotland’s people – even while insisting that the people of Scotland are sovereign. It involves an intractable contradiction. Either the people of Scotland are sovereign, or our democratic will can be overruled by a clique of British politicians. Both things cannot be true.

Let’s just be clear that, when Mike Russell talks about “the right way”, he is referring to the British way. When he trots out the glittering generality, this is what he is asking SNP members to approve.

I have another definition of “the right way”. I maintain that “the right way” must adhere to fundamental democratic principles. I maintain that the principle of popular sovereignty must be upheld in all circumstances. I maintain that there can be no compromise with the alien doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty which is not fatal to the principle that all legitimate political authority derives from the people. I maintain that the sovereignty of the people is absolute and inalienable.

I maintain that the right of self-determination is absolute and inalienable.

I maintain that there is the “right way”, and there is the British way. And these are totally irreconcilable.


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Worthy winners

Ian Blackford had a hard act to follow in Angus Robertson and it would not be contentious to say that, for many in the SNP, his background in the financial industry made him a controversial choice to lead the SNP group at Westminster. I think we can safely say that all such doubts have been dispelled by Blackford’s performance in the role.

It might be argued that Jeremy Corbyn’s all but total abdication of his duty as leader of the official opposition in the British parliament provided Blackford with a relatively easy opportunity to shine. It could equally be said that he had exceptional responsibility thrust upon him and that he has acquitted himself admirably in the face of growing hostility towards SNP MP’s and increasingly bitter contempt for Scotland at the heart of the British political system.

Mike Russell’s appointment as Scotland’s Brexit Minister also raised a few eyebrows. Not that anybody doubted his abilities. You don’t survive five years as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning without being an adroit politician and tough operator. But there was a certain feeling that Mike Russell’s political career had peaked and that, in selecting someone in the “twilight stage of his political career”, Nicola Sturgeon may have been underestimating just how demanding the Brexit brief was going to be.

As it turned out, Ms Sturgeon’s judgement has been fully vindicated. The Brexit brief has even more demanding than anyone could have imagined. And Mike Russell has been more than up to the task. It is no exaggeration to say that he has been outstanding in the role and totally worthy of the confidence the First Minister had in him.

Given the way SNP MPs are treated by the British political elite, and the manner in which the British establishment has sought to exclude the Scottish Government from the Brexit process, it might be tempting to cast Ian Blackford and Mike Russell in the role of underdogs. I prefer to think of them as unlikely heroes. Unquestionably, they are deserving joint winners of The National’s politician of the year accolade.


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Mystery prize?

I am baffled. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Mike Russell continues to cling to the hope that there might be a “better deal for Scotland” in sight. There is no reason to suppose that Jean-Claude Juncker is only joking when he says there will be no return to the negotiating table if the ‘deal’ is rejected by the British Parliament. There is no way for the EU to offer Scotland a separate arrangement keeping us within the European single market and customs union. And it’s an absolute certainty that the British government isn’t going to seek such an arrangement on Scotland’s behalf – or agree to it if, by some unknown means, the EU were to make the offer despite having said that there would be no further negotiation. So, where is this ‘deal’ going to come from? Who are these “others” with whom the Scottish Government is going to work in order to secure the ‘deal’?

Mike Russell does not strike me as the type to indulge in wishful thinking. Presumably, he has identified some way that a special arrangement for Scotland might be achieved. Presumably, he has a realistic hope of success in this venture. I just can’t figure out how. What am I missing?

I sincerely hope I’m missing something. Because the alternative is that Mike Russell’s talk is just another delaying tactic putting off the moment when Nicola Sturgeon must take some kind of decisive action to resolve the constitutional issue. If, as I strongly suspect, this special deal for Scotland is a political impossibility, then talk of it can only be an attempt to rationalise more of the waiting which seems to have become established as the Scottish Government’s main strategy.

There really can’t be any justification for further delay. Even if a deal to keep Scotland within the European single market and customs union was a realistic prospect, it is not what we voted for. It would not negate that 62% Remain vote. To even consider such a deal is to contemplate compromising Scotland’s democracy in a manner and to an extent that even those who understand the rationale for compromise will find very hard to accept.

It’s not all or only about Brexit. Even if it were possible to significantly mitigate the impact of Brexit, as Mike Russell appears to believe, this would do absolutely nothing to address the grotesque constitutional anomaly which makes it possible for the British ruling elite to treat Scotland with utter contempt. And inevitable that they will continue to do so.

So long as we are bound by the anachronistic, anti-democratic Union, the people of Scotland will be denied full and effective exercise of our sovereignty. If we accept Scotland being dragged out of the EU contrary to the will of the people – regardless of the terms – then we will be expected to endure further and greater abuses at the hand of a British political elite resolved to impose its ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist ideology on Scotland.

It is time for Mike Russell and all of us to acknowledge that, even if there was some Brexit ‘deal’ that we’d be prepared to accept, however reluctantly and at whatever cost, beyond that lies another affront to our democracy and insult to our pride that we will not wish to tolerate. And beyond that, another. on and on. Worse and worse. Until we end the Union.

Why wait? It is time!


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If the Union offends thee…

ian_blackfordAlong with Mike Russell, Ian Blackford is emerging as one of the heroes of Scotland’s independence movement. Unquestionably, this is because both these individuals are unafraid to reflect in their rhetoric some of the indignation and anger felt by people across Scotland and beyond.

What may seem strange to some is the extent to which the British establishment seems oblivious to and/or disdainful of this outrage. The British political elite appears genuinely incapable of appreciating how its behaviour is viewed in Scotland. Either that, or they simply don’t care. Or maybe there is some awareness, but it is countered by powerful denial. I suspect there is an element of all of these at work.

There are certainly those in the British political parties who simply cannot understand why anybody would challenge the authority of the British state or question the efficacy and desirability of British governance. To them, the British ruling class is a natural phenomenon, much like the winds and the tides. They take for granted the British ‘right to rule’ just as they do the air that they breathe. when Ian Blackford and Mike Russell talk about the deficiencies and failings and offences of the British state, they might as well be speaking the Gaelic for all the British understand of what they say.

Some, no doubt, are just as aware of these deficiencies, failings and offences as Blackford and Russell and the rest. But, from the arrogant and perverse perspective of British exceptionalism, getting away with these things is a mark of superiority. They not only don’t care about the harm they do, they revel in it. Gross abuse of power and abysmal incompetence are, like the elaborate raiment and ornate headgear sported by aristocracy, the ostentation which signifies status.

Then there are those who simply blank out the discomfiting reality. We see all to clearly in aspects of the Brexit fiasco the astounding capacity for denial that exists within the ranks of the British political elite. If they are capable of deluding themselves about how that whole bourach is going, it’s easy to see how David Mundell might have convinced himself that he really does speak for Scotland and that we all respect and admire him just as we love and adore Ruth Davidson.

What this all adds up to is a British state which is sick to its core. Chronically sick. Terminally sick. From Scotland’s perspective, ending the Union will be like amputating a diseased limb.


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We’re off!

filthy_hands.pngIt is a happy coincidence that I set off today on a wee speaking tour just as the SNP administration sets about proving the legislative process by which Scotland will be extricated from the Union. For, make no mistake, that is what is happening in the Scottish Parliament right now. The Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill is important in its own right. As Mike Russell put it,

It is simply not acceptable for Westminster to unilaterally re-write the devolution settlement and impose UK-wide frameworks in devolved areas without our consent.

This may be read as relating specifically to the situation thrown up by the Brexit fiasco. But the obvious, unavoidable, undeniable corollary is that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government must address, as a matter of urgency, the underlying constitutional anomalies behind the threat to Scotland’s democracy that he describes. If the British political elite can do this, what else might they do?

Our elected representatives would be derelict in their duty if they failed to take a stand in defence of Scotland’s democratic institutions. They deserve the active and vocal support of every person, in Scotland and elsewhere, who values the principles of democracy.

On a personal note, it’s only to be expected that my travelling will interfere with my blogging, at least to some extent. But I am aware that people in the Yes movement are keen to know what’s going on across the country. I’ll do my best to report from all the places I’ll be visiting over the next few weeks. Let’s keep in touch.


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Crunch time!

scotlands_parliament.pngMike Russell notes that the primary duty of the Scottish Parliament and its Members is to serve the people of Scotland and protect their interests. One would hope and expect this to be no more than a statement of the obvious. We would tend to assume that this is a sentiment with which every MSP would concur. It would seem to be a fundamental principle, that those elected to a Parliament owe full allegiance to the people who elect them. In most circumstances, this would simply be taken for granted.

But Scotland’s circumstances are exceptional. The great divide in Scottish politics is such that the allegiances of those on one side of that divide cannot be assumed.

We hear a great deal of talk about ‘divisive’ politics. Much of it is strident and angry. As if division was some horrifying new phenomenon being introduced to our politics by ‘bad’ politicians, rather than simply a perfectly normal feature of all politics. Without division, there is no politics. Politics is a contest of ideas. Democratic politics allows everybody to participate in that contest. Democracy provides a means by which the people can be active in the contest of ideas, both as advocates and as judges. In a true and properly functioning democracy, all political authority derives from the people, and only the people can be the ultimate arbiters in the contest of ideas. In an ideal democracy, all the people affected by political choices participate in the process of debate and decision-making.

It is not politicians who create division. Their role is to represent the people in the contest of ideas. To facilitate the democratic process. To conduct the process of debate and decision-making for and on behalf of the electorate.

Politicians should be judged on whether, and how well, they serve the polity. That is all. But there may be a question as to which polity they actually serve.

There are, of course, many divisions in politics. Where politicians seek to portray division as a bad thing, it will always be only very particular forms or instances of division that are condemned. Commonly, the division being denounced will be on a matter where the politician doing the condemning feels their arguments are weak. Rather than engage in the contest of ideas on a particular issue, they object to there being a contest at all. Typically, they will seek to award themselves a bye in that particular contest. They declare themselves winners, not by dint of their superior arguments, but by rejecting the idea that they should have been called upon to formulate and advance any arguments in the first place.

It goes without saying that these are politicians who cannot be judged favourably on the basis of their service to a democratic process that they are trying to obstruct and circumvent. The politician’s job is to address divisions – hopefully, in a mature and rational fashion – not to deny them. Divisions denied or inadequately addressed will tend to fester and degenerate into conflicts.

There are few, if any, trivial divisions in politics. Political divisions reflect social divisions. The contest of ideas is not an abstract intellectual exercise. The ideas being contested derive from various social imbalances, the way these are perceived and proposals for rectifying or ameliorating them. Every division is important to someone. The outcome of every bout in the political tournament impacts on real people. Politics matters to everyone.

Having said that, there is a scale of greater and lesser divisions. It must be so, for surely there is a scale of greater and lesser ideas to be contested in the political arena. While no division is totally insignificant, there are ideas – concepts – which lie at the very core of our politics, because they relate to the very nature of our politics and our society.

The greatest of divisions are, inevitably, constitutional. It is necessarily so because all other divisions ultimately come back to the matter of who decides and how the decisions are made and how they are implemented and how they are upheld and how they may be amended or rescinded. The late Tony Benn elegantly and succinctly captured the essence of constitutional politics when he formulated the five questions which must be asked of established power.

What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?

However much some politicians may deny and evade and minimise and deflect, it is an incontrovertible fact that the greatest division in Scottish politics is on the matter of the Union. More specifically, to the flaws which make the Union constitutionally untenable. The asymmetry – or ‘democratic deficit’ – which means Scotland’s interests can never be adequately represented, served or protected. And the explicit denial of the principle of popular sovereignty in favour of a concept of parliamentary sovereignty which is at best archaic, and, at worst, anti-democratic.

To properly understand Scotland’s politics it is essential to understand the core constitutional issue. To adequately appreciate the ‘Grand Divide’ in Scottish politics it is necessary to grasp the ideas which lie on either side of that divide. Ideas which are being ever more vigorously contested.

Articles, long essays and entire books have been written exploring and explaining and critiquing these ideas. Here, brevity is required – even at the cost of oversimplification and generalisation.

On the one side, we have the idea of Union and those who wish to preserve an archaic, anachronistic, anomalous and evidently dysfunctional constitutional settlement.

On the other we have the idea of independence and those who favour the normalisation of Scotland’s constitutional status, the restoration of powers to the Scottish Parliament and government by a democratically elected administration.

Which brings us back to the matter of our MSPs and the question of their loyalties. Whatever else it may be, the Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill is a test of the allegiance of MSPs. In supporting or opposing the Bill they will effectively be choosing between.

  • The Scottish Parliament to which they were elected and which has genuine democratic legitimacy.
  • A different parliament in a different country with a different political culture voted by a different electorate and serving a different polity. A parliament where Scotland has little more than token representation and where sits a government with no mandate from the Scottish electorate.

The people of Scotland are surely entitled to expect that, at a minimum, those they elect to represent them at Holyrood should accept the authority of the Scottish Parliament. We might reasonably anticipate that they would acknowledge the democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament and respect it’s decisions and rulings as truly representing the will of Scotland’s people.

Further, are we not entitled to insist that those we elect to the Scottish Parliament be willing to affirm the democratic right of self-determination and acknowledge that this right is vested wholly in the people of Scotland to be exercised entirely at their discretion? How can someone legitimately sit in the Scottish Parliament who denies the right of Scotland’s people to freely chose the form of government that best suits their needs?

The question for MSPs is clear and simply. Do you accept that your primary role is to serve the people of Scotland and protect their interests? Or is your allegiance to a British state which is inherently incapable of serving the people of Scotland and which is actively working against their interests in ways that are countless, but vividly exemplified by Brexit?

The people of Scotland are watching their elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament. We are waiting to see which of them deserve to be there.


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