Just the ticket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of questions and reframing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it all needs to start five years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The final option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final option is UDI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A wise move?

Once again, a Minister in the SNP administration offers us rousing rhetoric and encouraging noises but nothing of substance. Mike Russell assures us that independence is coming, but says not a word about how. He says a new referendum this year is “perfectly feasible”, but fails to explain how such a hope can be sustained in the face of the First Minister’s commitment to the Section 30 process.

He urges the people of Scotland to campaign and argue for a new referendum as if that wasn’t what most of us have been doing while he and his colleagues were preoccupied with Brexit. What he doesn’t tell us is how all this campaigning and arguing can have any effect on a British political elite which has not the smallest regard for democratic principles and only contempt for Scotland and its people.

Mike Russell proclaims his belief that “faced with the choice of Brexit Britain or an independent membership of the EU” the people of Scotland would choose the latter. But his belief can be no more than a faith position unless and until it is supported by a credible strategy for making it something more. We don’t need belief. We don’t need a faith position. We don’t need mere fine words. What we need is a practical plan to achieve a positive outcome. And we need Mike Russell or someone at least as senior in the Scottish Government to explain how the Section 30 process can be consistent with any credible strategy or practical plan to facilitate the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination.

I cannot imagine Mike Russell is unaware of the fact that the administration he serves in has taken the independence project down a blind alley. I do not suppose him to be totally oblivious to Scotland’s true predicament or the growing clamour for action to deal with that predicament. Where are the proposals for such action? Where are the ideas? Where is the sense of urgency?

Is there no-one close to the SNP leadership who is passing on the concerns of those who see the Section 30 process as the trap that it clearly is? Personally, I had hoped Mike Russell would fulfil this role. Perhaps he intends to do so. Perhaps that is why he has given notice of his intention to quit. Maybe he is setting himself up to challenge the First Minister on her stubborn commitment to a process which is wholly dependent on obtaining the willing and honest cooperation of the British government. Maybe he is getting ready to propose a change of approach to the constitutional issue ahead of the SNP’s postponed Spring Conference. Maybe he has decided he has nothing to lose and, by announcing his decision to stand down has neutralised any leverage the First Minister might have had.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem believable. It doesn’t sound much like Mike Russell. And surely if he was about to make some proposals for taking the independence projet forward then he would want to stick around to see it through.

It could, of course, be that Mr Russell has simply had enough and wants to retire. That would be understandable. But he is an astute politician. He must have known that the announcement of his decision to bring his parliamentary career to a close would spark speculation. His motives were always going to be the subject of much conjecture. Some might even suppose that he is anticipating the backlash as more and more people realise how bad the situation is and has decided to remove himself from the scene before the mob arrives armed with a battery of awkward questions. I can only commend the wisdom of such a choice.

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No baby steps!

Chris McEleny is on the right track with this. But he goes neither far enough or fast enough. Holding a series of events to discuss alternative strategies would have been a great idea four or five years ago. And it might have been OK to drag things out until October and beyond if it was October 2018 we were talking about.

It’s pointless presenting Boris Johnson with an ultimatum in any case. Why would we give him a second chance to spit on Scotland? And an ultimatum only works if you have some sanction or penalty that you can impose in the event of the ultimatum not being met. What is Chris suggesting? Nicola Sturgeon goes to Johnson and says give us a Section 30 order or we’ll hold some meetings! Cough up, Sunshine, or we’ll form another group to look at ways of exploring new ideas for forums to discuss the best way to go about setting up new groups! And we’re not bluffing!

So long as the Scottish Government is committed to the Section 30 process Boris Johnson has all the power. This is not news. Some of us have been saying it for years. We warned that the Section 30 process is a trap. Nobody listened.

What else might the First Minister threaten Johnson with? Court? That’ll work. For the lawyers! They’ll get a nice payday. Boris Johnson will get a massive transfusion of smug. Nicola Sturgeon will get a faceful of smelly egg. Whatever the Scottish Government complains about all the British government has to do is point at Section 30 of the Scotland Act and remind the court that the First Minister herself called this the ‘gold standard’. They will then ask the Scottish Government’s lawyer to specify in what way they are contravening the terms of the ‘gold standard’ provision. And the lawyers will be lost for an answer. Because Boris Johnson may be an offensive arse but he hasn’t done anything illegal or unlawful. He has abided by the Section 30 rules. The ‘gold standard’!

The Scottish Government needs to do something bold. Something assertive. Something that isn’t in the British state’s book of traps and pitfalls. Chris McEleny is at least thinking outside the stultifying confines of the British box. For that, he is to be congratulated. Although this isn’t really much of a departure for him. But if you’re going to push the constitutional envelope then push it until it rips. No half measures. We don’t have time to take baby steps. We are at least three years late and 10 points behind where we should be. The gates are closing. If we are to get through them, we need to be taking giant strides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Misidentifying the problem

The problem is not that “the First Minister ‘never had a Plan B’ for indyref2” but that she never had a viable Plan A. But if the obviously infeasible and now dismally failed Section 30 process was her Plan A and Kenny MacAskill wants her to try for a “consultative referendum” followed by an unspecified “Plan B” should this too fail, then surely the “consultative referendum” would then be her “Plan B” making Kenny’s unspecified “Plan B” the First Minister’s “Plan C”. I think we all know where it goes after that. How soon, I wonder, before they exhaust the alphabet. Surely not before we run out of patience.

The great mystery‚Ķ Correction! ONE of the great mysteries is why the SNP is in this position in the first place. The party has existed, with the same primary purpose, for more than 80 years. Nobody could reasonably have expected them to plan ahead that far. But the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999. The SNP has been strongly represented at Holyrood since then. The party has been in government for 13 years. We had an independence referendum five years ago. You’d think at some point during all this somebody would have sat down and gamed all credible future scenarios. For the SNP to be lost for a workable plan at this stage is unbelievable and unforgivable.

This lack of a plan is even more inexplicable when one considers how few options there are. The people who put their faith in Nicola Sturgeon having some ‘Great Secret Plan’ that will be unveiled at the dramatically critical moment are putting their faith in magic. For such a plan to exist there would have to be options which nobody else is aware of. Options that only she has been able to figure out. Or she would have to magic these options into existence. The latter is, counter-intuitively, the more likely. A great many people have been looking at Scotland’s predicament, including a great many very clever people. None of them has identified a single mystery option such as would be an essential ingredient of a ‘Great Secret Plan’. There is no ‘Great Secret Plan’!

Distressing as it may be, we better all get used to the fact that what we see is all there is. And what we see is a seriously intractable situation. The kind of situation that isn’t resolved by political nous alone. The kind of political situation that calls for imagination and nerve. We all know how clever Nicola Sturgeon is. But clever won’t cut it in this instance. It doesn’t matter how politically adroit she may be, or how much knowledge of the law she can draw on if she can’t do bold, decisive and assertive. When none of the things you’d be expected to do will work, all that’s left is to do the unexpected. And do it with as much flair and brass neck as you can muster.

Forget Plans B through Z! If Plan A is to abide strictly by the British state’s rules and Plan A won’t work then it’s foolish to suppose that anything else will work that also abides strictly by the same rules. And that includes everything that has so far been suggested by anyone in a position to influence the First Minister; if such a person even exists. It’s not an alphabet’s worth of plans we need it is a single course of action that will drive the independence campaign through the maze that defeats even the smartest of politicians. Because that’s what it was designed to do.

Defiance! Not compliance! We’ve done reasonable. It’s time to do unreasonable. We’ve tried to find a key to unlock the shackles of the Union. It’s time to recognise that there is no key. The key was thrown away 307 years ago. There is no get-out clause in the Union. That’s as it was intended to be. Scotland didn’t join a political union. Scotland was annexed. It is ludicrous to expect that, in the act of annexation, the annexing power would create a provision by which the annexed territory might reverse the annexation. Nicola Sturgeon is relying on a provision that doesn’t exist.

The question is not, how do we get independence. The question is how do we end the annexation. No wonder there isn’t a plan! They don’t even know what they’re planning for! No wonder they have no relevant answers! They’re asking the wrong questions! No wonder they aren’t able to find a solution! They haven’t identified the problem!

The problem is not that the First Minister never had a Plan B. The problem is that she is not planning for the situation that actually exists.

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