I have questions

Like many people in Scotland, I suspect, I have been struggling to come to terms with a seemingly inexplicable contradiction. I can illustrate the problem with a couple of comments culled from Twitter – both from Nicola Sturgeon. (Ignore the BBC Tweets as you would normally.)

The first is a near-perfect political statement. The wording, the tone, the content, the entire package is almost flawless. I’d advise any politician to avoid phrases such as “I’ve made clear”. If you have made something clear then it should be clear and it must therefore be entirely redundant to state that you’ve made it clear. If you feel the need to state that you’ve made it clear then this can only be because you haven’t, in fact, made it clear at all. Or so people will tend to assume. It is one of those overused phrases which have come to suggest the very opposite of what it says. It’s the kind of thing people use when they want to caricature a generic politician. Unless you want to be that caricature, don’t say “I’ve made it clear”. You might as well end every statement with the words “Honest! Would I lie to you?”.

A textual analysis of that first post would strongly suggest an exceptionally astute politician and a very capable communicator. It’s hard to believe that the second example was authored by the same person. The words “It’s got nothing to do with the constitution” would be woefully naive enough coming from any politician. But from the leader of a party which has a fundamental constitutional issue at its very core, it is nothing short of jaw-droppingly stupid.

The leader of a party which has as its principal aim the restoration of Scotland’s independence should never be caught talking down the importance of constitutional matters. Their every instinct should be tuned to emphasising the overarching importance of the constitution. Because the constitution is about who decides. It is about where power lies and how it is used. It is about political legitimacy and authority. The constitution, and any issues or questions relating thereto, takes precedence over all matters of policy. It must do. Because the constitution defines, describes and delineates decision-making authority in all matters of policy. It is senseless to claim that anything has “nothing to do with the constitution” because the constitution has something to do with everything.

It is a doubly foolish remark on account of the angry denial of constitutional relevance being immediate followed by an observation which points up the relevance of the constitution as well as anything might. When Nicola Sturgeon says “the ‘stay at home’ message remains in place in 3 of the 4 UK nations” she is referring explicitly and directly to the constitutional issue of policy decision-making power. The contradiction is jarring. The statement as a whole speaks of a politician quite unlike the one revealed by the first Tweet. It suggests a politician who simply doesn’t understand the function and purpose of the constitution. How can the person who is so dismissive of the constitution possibly be the leader of a party whose constitution declares its first aim to be arguably the most fundamental constitutional reform there can be?

That is the nub of it. That is what I and others find both perplexing and disturbing. On the one hand we have someone who is all but universally acknowledged to be an outstanding politician. Someone who earns all the plaudits that come her way. Someone who deserves the trust that is placed in her by the public. Someone who, with due regard for her feminist credentials, is worthy of being described as ‘statesmanlike’.

On the other hand we have someone who bears ultimate responsibility for bringing the independence campaign to a grinding halt. It can readily and persuasively be argued that the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence has gone backwards under her stewardship. We look at Nicola Sturgeon’s record as First Minister and see mostly uncommon competence. We look at her record as de facto leader of the independence movement and see only serial misjudgement. We watch in admiration her handling of the current public health crisis. We watch in horror her handling of the constitutional issue. It’s as if we are looking at two different people.

Retiring SNP MSP James Dornan is also perplexed, it seems. If I understand aright from his column in The National, Mr Dornan is baffled by the fact that some people who in his opinion “should know better” are troubled by the ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ situation described above. He seems to be perplexed about why we are perplexed about the perplexing contradictions in Nicola Sturgeon’s comments and the curate’s egg of her performance.

In keeping with this incomprehension, Mr Dornan seems unable to distinguish between the SNP as an administration and the SNP as a political party. Not exactly a trivial distinction. He also appears to be a bit confused about the purpose of political campaigning. He is dismissive, if not disdainful, of those who maintain discourse in “their own bubble of like-minded people”. He neglects to explain how it can be both “their own bubble” and a bubble they share with “like-minded people”. More importantly, how and where does he imagine discourse relating to a particular issue might proceed other than in just such a bubble. Is it not to be expected that those involved in a campaign should be “like-minded”?

Contrary to what James Dornan seems to suppose, there is nothing at all wrong with ‘preaching to the choir’, as some would put it. How else might a campaign be developed and maintained other than by those involved talking to each other?

As if we didn’t already have a considerable surfeit of perplexity, I am unable to understand why the First Minister’s unquestionably laudable handling of the coronavirus pandemic would forfend criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in other areas. The good must be weighed with the bad. It might sensibly be argued that the good outweighs the bad. But it cannot reasonably be maintained that the good completely eradicates the bad. I recall being counselled by a very close friend who had a hard neck giving anybody relationship advice. He said that when a man sees a beautiful woman – poised, elegant, decorous – he should always bear in mind that she farts in bed. We all have our faults. Nobody is perfect. Although, if James Dornan is to be believed, Nicola Sturgeon comes very close. So long as we completely disregard the reality of what she has done to the independence campaign.

But, unsurprisingly, Mr Dornan agrees with Nicola Sturgeon that there should be no independence campaign at this time. We are all supposed to sit at home thinking about nothing else but Covid-19. We all must be totally and exclusively focused on coronavirus-related matters. To entertain so much as a passing thought on any matter other than the mono-crisis is to show callous disregard for those who have died, scant concern for those who may die and disrespect for the front-line key-worker heroes and angels who care for the suffering.

I exaggerate for effect, of course. James Dornan doesn’t go to such lengths. Although others certainly do. Nonetheless, his attitude is painfully reminiscent of the dour religionists who blighted many a childhood holiday on the Isle of Arran with the diktat proclaimed on behalf of a deity with too much time on her hands (she shouldn’t have made so much) that Sunday must be a day of profound and often inelegantly contrived inactivity. I well recall the swings and roundabouts ironically made equal in their uselessness by chains and padlocks. I still can hear the stern warnings from the Joysucker General’s deputies that to contemplate the kicking of a football on the Sabbath would result in consignment to a hell which to my child’s mind at least, could not possible be worse than the one I had to endure on a weekly basis.

One might wonder whether James Dornan is toying with damnation (inc. hellfire) by taking time out from his fretting over the virus to write a newspaper column. That, as they say, is between him and his conscience.

Similarly, Mr Dornan and those who populate his “bubble of like-minded people” take the view that all of politics and most of life has been brought to a halt by Covid-19. Which rather seems like conceding victory to the virus. This isn’t managing a crisis. It is being dominated by it. Managing a crisis is, almost by definition, keeping as much as possible as normal as possible under the circumstances. Which, incidentally, is what makes the First Minister’s management of the situation so admirable. She may not have been able to keep very much very normal, but she succeeds in persuading people that this is what she is striving for. And that the measures she has taken are normal under the circumstances.

I have to tell James Dornan that politics does not stop for a virus. Politics doesn’t stop for anything. All of life is politics. So long as there is human life there will be politics. Because politics is the management of power relationships – from the interpersonal all the way to the international and sooner than many imagine, the interplanetary. All human interactions are transactions conducted in the currency of power. From chimpanzees grooming in the forests of tropical Africa to ambassadors manoeuvring in the UN building in New York, it’s all politics. From the minute to the monumental, it’s all the power trades and trade-offs which allow society to function. Negotiations continue.

You can’t stop politics. Your involvement only ends with death. Sometimes not even then. You can opt out of certain aspects of the negotiations. But the politics goes on without you. And it may not be possible to catch up.

Here’s James Dorman,

Now, I’m a pretty tribal political animal but I would not be comfortable at all if our party was trying to put independence at the forefront of our thinking just now. Thankfully, outside of a few loud voices in Westminster and some activists online I think most of the party would agree with me.

Concentrate on seeing our people safely through this virus, get politics back to normal, or as normal as anything is going to be after this pandemic, and I have no doubt we will see the support for independence rise substantially.

James Dornan: Why independence cannot be the SNP’s priority for now

I have some questions. I have so many questions!

Those loud voices at Westminster and online may be few, but does that make them wrong? Why are there no such voices in Holyrood? Why only Westminster and online? Isn’t the Scottish Parliament the place where we would hope and expect voices to be raised in defence of Scotland’s cause?

Has the public really suspended all concerns other than the virus? Does Mr Dornan suppose we think and talk about nothing else? Given that it ranged over a multitude of topics which could not even pretend to be coronavirus-related, how strongly would James Dornan have disapproved of the WhatsApp video chat I enjoyed (and I mean enjoyed!) with a well-known independence activist yesterday?

How can independence not be the SNP’s priority now and always? How can independence not be at the forefront of the party’s thinking now and always? Has Mr Dornan ever read the party’s constitution? Has the commitment to restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status been removed?

Do any of of us need James Dornan to tell us that the public health crisis must be the Scottish Government’s priority right now? Would it not be more helpful if he used his column to explain why this necessarily means that the SNP and everybody else must cease and desist from all independence-related activity and even discussion until we’re told it’s OK to carry on?

Is James Dornan genuinely so ignorant of the real, on-the-ground effects of lockdown as to be unaware that there are thousands of people who are neither front-line nor key-workers but who are stuck at home abiding by our First Minister’s strictures and with little else to do but engage with others online? Is he truly oblivious to the opportunity that this affords the Yes campaign? Why is he so determined that we should not seize this opportunity? Why the intense effort by the SNP leadership to close down completely the entire independence campaign?

Does James Dorman seriously imagine that we will just be able to pick up where we left off? (Does anyone think that was a good place anyway?) Is he really pinning all our hopes for independence on a grateful electorate rewarding Nicola Sturgeon for her handling of the crisis – even when she herself has declared that “it’s got nothing to do with the constitution”?

Is James Dorman persuaded that the virus has stopped the forces of British Nationalism to the same extent as he hopes to stop the campaign for independence? Have his years in politics taught him nothing?

On one thing James Dorman and I agree. We are most certainly beset by “opportunists seeking to gain advantage, not for the cause of independence but for themselves”. We have the ‘cunning plan’ parties looking to exploit the very dissatisfaction with the SNP that he and his “bubble of like-minded people” have engendered. But what of those who are trying to silence Yes activists and put the entire independence campaign into a covid-induced coma? Should we not reckon on them having an agenda? Should we not suppose that they too are seeking advantage for themselves or something that is definitely not the campaign for independence?

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The next trick

Joanna Cherry gets it! She understands the situation and the circumstances and the dynamics. This much is evident from her column in The National today. She sees the opportunities and the potential pitfalls. And she is not shy about presenting a perspective which contrasts sharply with that set out by Nicola Sturgeon. All of which is very welcome. We needed this.

The contradiction of Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist order to the independence movement is explicit enough to be effective but framed in such a way as to avoid constituting a direct challenge to the party leader. Almost as if it had been composed by a lawyer. But let us not mistake this for anything other than a challenge – not for the leadership but to the leadership of the SNP. A challenge to the ethos of small ‘c’ conservatism and hyper-caution with which the leadership has lately become imbued. A challenge to the mindset which allowed the independence campaign to become moribund long before the current public health crisis was even on the horizon.

It was always the case that the SNP, both in Edinburgh and in London, was going to have to work within the British political system even as the party sought to break Scotland free from it. That is the nature of devolution. It is the nature of the Union. It’s the realpolitik. This meant that there was always the danger of the party becoming mired in that system. It’s how the British state operates. Those challenges to established power which cannot be crushed are absorbed. Or they are absorbed only to be crushed.

This is not to imply that the SNP group at Westminster has ‘gone native’. Not completely, anyway. Nor does it imply that the party leadership, rightly centred at Holyrood, has become ‘tame’. Not completely, anyway. It is only to say that there is a necessary compromise to be made between being the radical spanner in the works of the British political system and being enough of a cog in the machine to function as an administration in Scotland and Scotland’s (token) representation in the British parliament. The barely veiled sub-text of Joanna Cherry’s article is that the current leadership has got that balance wrong.

Somebody had to say it. Somebody other than a cantankerous, irascible, contrary and most of all inconsequential old blogger, that is. Somebody with presence had to speak out. Somebody with political heft and clout. Somebody who would be listened to even by those disinclined to hear any criticism of Nicola Sturgeon or the SNP. With all due respect to Angus Brendan MacNeil MP, this was always going to be Joanna Cherry MP. Angus’s interventions have been very welcome and have served the important purpose of keeping alive the spirit of the independence movement which Nicola Sturgeon was attempting to subdue. But I’m sure he understands full well that Joanna Cherry’s voice is the one which will reach those who need to hear.

Nicola Sturgeon cannot afford to ignore either Joanna Cherry’s warning about the fate of Winston Churchill or her call for the lifting of that cease and desist order. This will have to be addressed. Concerns about her commitment to the Section 30 process were not addressed – were pointedly and even contemptuously ignored – because those concerns were not voiced by anyone of Joanna Cherry’s stature. Ms Cherry cannot be ignored. Not even the First Minister may treat her with disdain. Belatedly, the SNP leadership will be obliged to rethink its strategy of disregarding constructive criticism and closing down ‘inconvenient’ debate.

Nicola Sturgeon has proved herself as a political leader. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak hit us, she was recognised as an extraordinarily able party leader and a highly competent First Minister. She is popular and respected. Her handling of the public health crisis has greatly enhanced a reputation such as few politicians can aspire to. But, as Joanna Cherry points out, this is not enough. As Winston Churchill discovered, people always want to know what your next trick will be no matter how amazing the last one was. They always demand more no matter how much they have been given. They always ask, “What have you done for us lately?”, no matter how much you’ve done for them recently.

The electorate may be occasionally grateful, but is is always demanding. And the Scottish electorate is arguably more demanding than most.

Joanna Cherry’s intervention provides Nicola Sturgeon with an opportunity to signal a shift in strategy. It need not be dramatic. Not immediately. It need not come from Nicola Sturgeon herself in a manner which might be portrayed as a climb-down. The signal could come from anyone close to the leadership. A few names spring to mind, but I suspect none of them would be grateful is I mentioned their names in this context. Just ask yourself who among Nicola Sturgeon’s closest allies speaks with an authority to match that which Joanna Cherry brings to this issue.

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Compare and contrast

Boris is back! There is no telling how thrilled I am. But being ever inclined to look for the silver lining – debased and tarnished as it may be – I welcome the fact that we now get to make direct comparisons between what the heads of the two governments are saying. And how they are saying it. We have grown accustomed to being informed about the situation in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s response straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. Now we get the output from the other end directly instead of having the stable-boys shovelling it up and delivering it to us in buckets. There is literally no telling how thrilled I am.

There’s not much more to be said about the way our First Minister has comported herself over the past few weeks. Her presentation style has been all but flawless. Clear, consistent, calm, confident and always briefed to the point where she speaks with great authority. Sombre as appropriate. Amusing when the opportunity arises. Quick-witted at all times. Restrained when she deems restraint to be called for. Ready to take questions from hostile media and just as prepared to answer them – often in ways they don’t expect; occasionally in ways they don’t like. Dignified but accessible. Straight-talking but courteous. Forthright but discreet. She’s bloody good!

If Nicola Sturgeon takes to the podium on the world stage like a seasoned statesman to speak on matters of great import, Boris Johnson takes the microphone at a wedding like one of the groom’s drinking buddies who has been ordered on pain of castration to put a gloss on a marriage everybody knows will be over before the DJ plays the The Cryin’ Shames – or whatever it is they close with now that it’s not 1968. If Nicola Sturgeon is the witness that the jury believes, Boris Johnson is the witness the jury think really did the crime and should be doing the time even if he didn’t do the crime because he’s such an shifty character.

Nicola’s The West Wing without the accent. Boris is Yes Minister without the laughs.

You get the picture.

Nicola Sturgeon is intent on giving people the facts and stating the situation as honestly as possible even if the news is not good. Or at least she gives that impression. And if that is not all that matters then it is certainly a very large part of it. Our FM inspires confidence. She commands respect. she earns trust. All of which is crucial because there is no strategy for coping with Covid-19 that is not critically dependent on the willing cooperation of the general public. People do what Nicola Sturgeon tells them to do. They have complied with the lockdown restrictions as comprehensively as they have largely because she has convinced them of the necessity and she is the one they look to for information and advice. They look to her as a leader.

Boris Johnson hasn’t a clue. Or at least he gives that impression. If he says hello your first instinct is have that fact-checked. When Donald Trump was suggesting coronavirus infection could be cured by giving internal organs an overnight soak in Domestos, Boris Johnson was the one wishing he’d thought of that first. He’s not interested in the science. He’s only interested in the optics. He’s not interested in providing information. He’s only interested in winning favour. For Nicola Sturgeon this is first and foremost a public health crisis that she is responsible for dealing with. For Boris Johnson it’s a bit of a bother that somebody really needs to get sorted out.

When Nicola Sturgeon says it might be a good idea to cover your face in situations where social distancing is impractical or impossible, people listen and think it’s a sensible precaution that they may well heed her advice on. Unless they’re listening from inside the British media bubble. In which case they’re wondering whether to go with indignant outrage (Daily Express), pompous condemnation (Record), sarcastic mockery (Sun), look at those shoes! (Mail), subtle misrepresentation (Scotsman), crude misrepresentation (Herald), three-legged dog delivers newspapers in Fife village (BBC Scotland).

When Boris Johnson says we’ve “passed the peak” of the crisis people listen and think this is what he’s saying having been talked out of announcing the end of lockdown and urging everybody to go out in the streets and parks of England’s blessed isle and ‘Hug for Britain’! Unless they’re listening in those parts of this blessed isle where they think themselves sufficiently blessed that they can afford to elevate Boris Johnson to the status of national hero and praise him as the man who saved England from that “orrible foreign bug wot the immigrants brought in”.

You won’t hear Nicola Sturgeon using terms such as “passed the peak”. Not that she’s incapable of saying the wrong thing. While lauding her handling of the current public health crisis I don’t forget those aspects of her performance as First Minister which are, shall we say, less splendid. Nicola Sturgeon wouldn’t utter those words only partly because she’s a smart politician who knows better than to give such hostages to fortune – even if she fails to act accordingly all the time. Mainly, I would suggest, she is more cautious about optimistic statements because she genuinely understands the nature of the threat – in a way that Boris Johnson can’t. Or is not disposed to. Or is not equipped to.

There are signs that Boris Johnson is about to give in to pressure and announce some kind of exit strategy and recovery plan. Nicola Sturgeon is, I suspect, very much aware that the virus is not going away and while plans and promises about life after the virus may be what people want to hear but that what responsible governments should be working on is planning for life with the virus.

The likelihood is that the UK Government will opt for a phased end to lockdown with a rapid and escalating response to any signs of a fresh outbreak. They will prioritise “getting back to normal”. That is to say, restoring the status quo ante. The Scottish Government may well part company completely with London on this. I feel certain Nicola Sturgeon is determined to take a more cautious approach, trying to get ahead of the virus and cut it off before considering any easing of restrictions. Or, as The Scotsman would put it, trying to pick a fight with Westminster.

I know which of the two I’ll be listening to. I’m not at all confident that Boris Johnson knows the difference between a peak and a plateau.

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Acting the fool

Anybody who is trying to use the immediate challenges we face in tackling this virus, or to twist what I say in relation to some of these issues to make any kind of pre-existing, political or constitutional point, will not find me willing to play ball. Rigorous scrutiny of the decisions @scotgov is taking is both appropriate and essential – but simply trying to shoehorn these issues into our pre-existing political debates and positions doesn’t help tackle the virus.

Nicola Sturgeon

Is Nicola Sturgeon really so naive as to suppose that a public health crisis can be completely divorced from politics? Or that political and constitutional points can be mutually irrelevant? I rather doubt it. I suspect she is well aware that there is no aspect of life which is not intimately and irrevocable bound up with politics. And that there is no part of politics that does not impinge on some aspect of life. It is unimaginable that she could fail to recognise that, just as politics permeates our lives, so the constitution overarches and enfolds all of our politics.

Nicola Sturgeon is an astute and highly experienced politician. As a political operator, she is undoubtedly outshone by her predecessor. But that leaves her plenty of scope for putting into practice whatever tricks she may have picked up. As the former, she will know full well that absolutely everything in life is political. As I wrote in an article for iScot Magazine,

It’s not that politics intrudes on all of life. All of life is politics. We are all ‘doing politics’ all the time. Human society is a matrix of power relationships. All human interactions, at every level from the interpersonal through the familial and the communal to the international, are transactions conducted in the currency of power and mediated by a process which is the same throughout, even if we are accustomed to calling it ‘politics’ only when we get to the more collective levels of social organisation.

Politics is personal

Nicola Sturgeon knows this. Of that we can be fully confident. She could not have achieved what she has were she in any confusion about the true nature of politics. As a political operator, however, she may be motivated to pretend that she is as naive as described above. The expediencies of various situations may prompt her to speak and act as if she actually supposes politicians can and should be can be apolitical in the midst of a public health crisis. Sometimes, the pretence of credulousness can be disturbingly convincing. As in when she thought to put the constitutional issue on hold for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. She really seemed to believe that this was both possible and wise. Let’s hope it was all an act.

The pretending – or role-playing – is but a device for attacking opponents. By acting as if the constitution has nothing to do with politics and politics nothing to do with a public health crisis she can condemn and hopefully silence those who are foolish enough to provide her with ammunition. Yes, Carlaw! We’re talking about you!

Because Nicola Sturgeon pretends doesn’t mean that we have to. Democracy works better the more people are educated about how it works and informed about how it is working. We are better citizens for developing our understanding of the ways of politics and awareness of the facts and arguments around political issues. Better citizens make a better society. The public heath crisis must be political because dealing with it necessitates political choices. Managing the response involves political decisions. By which I don’t just mean choices and decisions made by politicians but choices and decisions informed in significant measure by plainly political considerations.

And what is the constitution about if not the question of who makes political decisions; how political decisions are made, and what political considerations are legitimate. The matter of closing the border is only one instance of political decision-making. It may seem trivial to some if they fail to recognise that it stands as metonym for all political decision-making. Debate about where ultimate power lies or should lie in relation to closing the border is a proxy for debate about where ultimate power lies in all matters. It represents and illustrates the dichotomy between those who maintain that the exclusive source of legitimate political authority – such as the authority to close the nation’s borders – derives from a divinely-ordained monarch (or the descendants thereof) and those who adhere to the fundamental democratic principle that the only source of legitimate political authority is the people.

The current crisis is a public policy concern. Managing the response brings into play relationships of power. It is political. It is constitutional. It cannot be otherwise. Nicola Sturgeon knows this. And so should we.

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No exit!

The challenge we face is to find a balance that allows us to suppress and control the virus and and minimise absolutely the damage it can do, while also allowing life to go on, if not completely as normal, then at least in as normal a way as is possible.

Nicola Sturgeon

We’ve got to try to seek a new normal, because how we are living our lives right now has consequences and can’t go on forever,

Nicola Sturgeon

As regular readers will be aware, I have a propensity or predilection for picking on particular words and phrases when politicians speak. If the politician in question is worth listening to at all then they are worth listening to carefully. Remember always that prepared speeches are just that – prepared! They are carefully crafted. They are cautiously constructed. What is said can, therefore, tell you a great deal about what the politician is thinking. Or about what they want you to suppose they are thinking. Which also tells you something. What they don’t say can tell you even more.

When politicians speak extemporaneously, they may let something slip. That’s why they tend to keep repeating the soundbites supplied to them by their media advisers. And why they are well-schooled in the arts of diversion and deflection. Again, what they don’t say; the questions they assiduously avoid answering; the topics they are unwilling to address, can be more informative than the vacuous drivel that comes out of their mouths.

It pays to listen. It pays to scrutinise transcripts. It pays to read what politicians write always actively looking for the subtext. It pays not to take their utterances at face value.

Nicola Sturgeon is a politician worth attending to. Few even among her most strident political opponents would deny this. I shall use the word ‘statesmanlike’ because it conveys what I intend and because the more ‘right-on’ alternatives are just ugly. She is worth listening to not least because sometimes she says the ‘wrong thing’. By which I mean she says something that is considerably more forthright than is usual for politicians. For me, this indicates honesty. Or alt least a respect for truth over spin. The person who never said anything controversial never said very much at all.

It is moderately perplexing that Nicola Sturgeon can be so apparently incautious with what she says when she is so famously (or notoriously?) cautious when it comes to political action. As I remarked in a recent article,

It’s as if the Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister and the Nicola Sturgeon who is the de facto figurehead of the independence campaign are two very different people. Or maybe just one person better able to cope with one role than the other.

Us or them!

Nonetheless, regardless and whatever, the First Minister has conducted herself superbly throughout the current public health crisis. To a degree which has surprised even some of us who have long appreciated the openness, grace and skill with which she has discharged the responsibilities of her office. The people of Scotland chose well.

It says a great deal about Nicola Sturgeon’s political stature that her daily briefings are heard furth of Scotland and far beyond the UK’s borders. Her voice carries. She is respected and trusted pretty much everywhere. And we may be confident that she knows what she’s talking about. I know of no occasion when she has not been fully on top of her brief. So, it pays to listen to her.

The two quotes at the top of the page are from recent briefings in which the First Minister has attempted to deal with the matter of a strategy to ease lockdown restrictions and exit the Covid-19 crisis. Her message was clear and consistent with previous statements. Her straight talking manner was, as always, greatly and widely appreciated. I listened carefully. These two remarks caught my attention. They stood out not because of the words spoken but on account of the possible implications. Is there a subtext here? What is that subtext saying? Are these superficially phatic remarks preparing the ground for something more substantial?

To my ear, these words could be interpreted as hinting at us having to learn to live with the virus. They sound to me as if Nicola Sturgeon is edging towards the idea that there may be no exit from the Covid-19 crisis. Like she is trying to introduce the notion in small increments. The strong impression is that she is subtly not ruling out the possibility of the current restrictions, or some version of them, continuing indefinitely.

As always, context matters. The context in which I heard these words as I did includes the still live possibility that having been infected does not confer immunity. It just may be that there is a threat of re-infection – in at least some cases. At present, we just don’t know. But there is enough ‘evidence’ to make this an issue even if none of that ‘evidence’ could be described as scientific. The implications of secondary infection – which I am content to leave to your imagination – are so serious that even a remote possibility has to be taken into consideration.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) got itself into a bit of a Twitter tangle (Twangle?) at the weekend with a subsequently deleted post addressing the question of ‘immunity passports’ for people who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Those well acquainted with the ways of social media will be not the slightest bit surprised to learn that the furore grew around a post which was technically accurate, but insufficiently guarded against the Twitterati’s tendency to find ‘End of Days’ prophecies in the most innocent of statements. The WHO Tweet left them all the scope they needed.

There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from #COVID19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.

Which is correct. There is no evidence because there has not been time for that evidence to be found or developed. There is a default assumption, born of experience, that those who have been infected will have acquired at least some immunity. But there is, as yet, no scientific evidence that this is the case. What the WHO now say it that they “expect that most people who are infected with #COVID19 will develop an antibody response that will provide some level of protection.” Which has slightly less potential to induce paranoia and provoke panic.


Politicians do not like to be the bearer of ill tidings. A few – Nicola Sturgeon being one – have the ability to deliver bad news in a way that actually enhances their reputation ind increases their popularity. They are the exception. For the most part, politicians hate the job of telling the electorate anything other than what they suppose the voters want to hear. They deliver bad news, they get blamed for the bad thing that happens. As we’ve seen with the UK’s political elite throughout the current crisis and before, this preference for emphasising the positive and shunning the negative leads to a great deal of over-promising and under-delivering.

Nicola Sturgeon ‘gets away with it’ largely due to the skills and personal qualities referred to earlier. But she also makes sure to prepare her audience in advance. Generally speaking, bad news isn’t quite so bad if you’re expecting it. My suspicion is that with the remarks quoted above Nicola Sturgeon was taking just such a precaution.

This does not mean that we should anticipate the First Minister taking to the podium for her daily media briefing session to declare that lockdown is now a permanent feature of our lives. Not imminently, anyway. But if and when she does, she can refer to her previous statements on the matter to demonstrate that at least she is not being caught unawares.

In similar manner, having written this, I’ll be able to say “Ah telt ye!”.

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Permission is not power!

Nicola Sturgeon says closing border should be up for ‘discussion’

With respect, First Minister, you DO have the power to close Scotland’s border. Or, to be more precise, you have the authority. The rightful authority. The authority which derives from democratic legitimacy. You have the only authority you need. The only authority that matters. The ultimate authority. The authority of the people. You hold a mandate from the sovereign people of Scotland, the only source of all legitimate political authority.

Possessing that mandate; being endowed with that authority, there can be only one reason that you might not have the power to close Scotland’s borders and that is that you have declined or failed to take that power. For power is never given, First Minister. Real power is only ever taken. Power that is given is but a pretence of power because the acts of granting and accepting necessarily imply a relationship of superior and inferior authority respectively. A relationship which denies power.

Permission is not power, First Minister. By seeking permission rather than taking power you disrespect and diminish the mandate afforded you by the people of Scotland. With respect, First Minister, I would strongly advise against that.

#DissolveTheUnion #ScottishUDI

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Us or them!

Angus Brendan MacNeil has called on Nicola Sturgeon to restart the independence campaign. It will come as a surprise to precisely no-one that I am in total agreement with him on this. The independence campaign should never have been stopped. In fact, it hasn’t been stopped. Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist order was never going to deter anyone who was truly committed to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. Faced with an unprecedented public health crisis, their first wasn’t that all campaigning must stop. Their first thought was about how the campaign could be kept going in spite of the lockdown restrictions. They never imagined that campaigning necessarily involved the kind of interpersonal contact that was rendered impossible by an infectious virus in the population. They had never considered campaigning to be entirely and exclusively about leafleting and canvassing and street stalls and public meetings and social events. They realised immediately that the required response to Covid-19 incidentally created ideal conditions in which to develop the online campaign.

Nobody expected Nicola Sturgeon to be at the forefront of this campaign, or even to be a visible presence. Quite literally everybody knew and was happy to acknowledge that, as First Minister, she must focus all her attention on dealing with the challenges of a massive public health crisis. But the more intellectually acute among us also recognised that politics doesn’t stop for anything. Because everything is politics. There is no aspect of life which is completely detached from politics of one kind or another or at one level or another. While Nicola Sturgeon seemed to suppose that the constitutional issue is an exception, others realised that there are no exceptions to the fact that everything is political, only things that are excluded from our political discourse for purposes that are always malign and never acceptable in a democracy.

It takes a very special kind of blinkered idiocy to imagine that the coronavirus crisis has nothing to do with politics. And an unimaginable level of stupidity to fail to recognise the relevance of constitutional politics. One of the main issues is the question of where and how and by whom decisions are taken. Here is just one example.

Perhaps, the most surprising aspect of the British COVID crisis is that the Scottish Government has allowed its strategy and the operations to be directed by Westminster, which has taken a London-centric approach to the epidemic and with respect to the lock down. 

Coronavirus Crisis: Underfunding, Restructuring, Privatisation and Fragmentation at the Heart of the Crisis in Holyrood and Westminster

This has to be political because the matter of who decides is the very essence of constitutional politics. Angus MacNeil gets it. Like myself and increasing numbers of other, Angus is no doubt wondering how the developing debate around a lockdown exit strategy and what follows can sensibly exclude the constitutional issue. How can we talk about how different things will be without reference to the question of who decides what this difference will be? How can we discuss shaping a new normal without considering the forces that will be doing the shaping?

I think our opponents will tell us its bad taste because they don’t want us to do it. The people themselves are receptive to argument. No amount of telling Jackson Carlaw it’s in bad taste to go shouting about the Union will stop Jackson Carlaw go shouting about the Union.

I have previously commented on the curious manner in which the constitutional issue is declared a ‘special case’.

And it is particularly the constitutional issue that is the matter we are supposed to put entirely from our minds. Nobody suggests that the coronavirus crisis obviates the climate crisis. Nobody has suggested that the conflict in Syria has ceased to be of any importance because only the coronavirus crisis can be important. The public health crisis certainly hasn’t put a stop to the British political elite’s constitutional machinations. If anything, the malignant child-clown in Downing Street is accelerating its plans and intensifying its efforts to forcibly mould these islands into a new state made in the image of the imagined ‘Great Britain’ of a grotesquely mythologised past. Only in Scotland are we expected – required – to abandon our aspirations for something better than Boris Johnson’s tawdry blend of Little England and Greater England where every day is a crossover between Dad’s Army and Terry & June. Don’t you ever ask yourself why?

Three crises

I am not saying that Nicola Sturgeon is stupid. She had reasons for issuing that ‘cease and desist’ command to the party and the Yes movement. I’m simply saying they were not good reasons. Her ‘cease and desist’ order was neither necessary nor sufficient. There was no need for it. And it was never going to work. It is puzzling that an individual who exhibits such superb leadership skills in her handling of the Covid-19 crisis can be so politically inept in other areas. It’s as if the Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister and the Nicola Sturgeon who is the de facto figurehead of the independence campaign are two very different people. Or maybe just one person better able to cope with one role than the other.

I welcome Angus MacNeil’s intervention. I think it is both needed and timely. I also think it is futile – at least in terms of his headline demand. Nicola Sturgeon isn’t about to interrupt one of her daily media briefings to declare the independence campaign on again. I strongly suspect that Angus is well aware of this. His statement was framed to attract media attention, but he’s actually talking to us – the Yes movement. He is making the point that politics hasn’t stopped. He is stating the direct an inevitable connection between the Covid response and the constitutional issue. He is putting that connection out for debate. And he is making it clear that not only is there no good reason to silence that debate, there is very good reason for insisting on it.

It is more than half a century since, on winning the Hamilton by-election, Winnie Ewing declared “Stop the world! Scotland wants to get on!”. Rousing words which had the desired effect at the time. We’ve moved on a bit since then. Well, some of us have. Some of us have realised that the world isn’t going to stop for us any more than politics will stop because of a global pandemic. If we still want to “get on” then we have to keep up. We have to match the speed at which the world moves. If we don’t, then the world moves on leaving us where we are. Similarly, if we opt out of any aspect of the political process it won’t oblige us by stopping until we feel like rejoining. If independence activists aren’t involved in and influencing the debate about Scotland’s future then all we are doing is allowing others to decide that future for us. Do we really want to put Scotland’s future in the hands of people like Alister ‘Union’ Jack?

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