With friends like this…

John Bercow talks a great deal more sense than Pete Wishart. But this will come as little surprise to regular readers of the latter’s ghastly blog, with its ill-thought statements and industriously censored comments. In the latest edition of his mindless musings and extemporaneous mutterings from Perthshire Pete Wishart didn’t only argue for conceding the British Prime Minister’s authority to veto Scotland’s right of self-determination. He also referred to the UK as the “parent state”. Effectively arguing that Scotland is somehow derived from and necessarily subsidiary to the UK. Such revisionist history might be expected from the likes of Neil Oliver. It is not a million miles away from the drivel peddled by Rory Stewart as his contribution to Better Together’s denigration of Scotland. But coming from the SNP’s longest-serving MP it is nothing less than shocking.

While disingenuously claiming that an ‘advisory referendum’ is “being presented as a cost-free strategy to break the deadlock” Wishart himself presents his own strategy of indefinite delay and total compliance with the British state’s rules as a consequence-free strategy. At least, he doesn’t address any of the potential or inevitable consequences. If anybody presumes to question his strategy of fearful inaction and meek compliance they will find themselves blocked on Twitter and their comments deleted from his blog.

Apparently, Pete Wishart wants us all to forget about a referendum this year – thus contradicting Nicola Sturgeon in a way that might well constitute a breach of the Westminster group’s code of conduct – and focus instead on winning yet another mandate for the SNP in the 2021 Holyrood elections. He fails entirely to explain why this mandate should be any different from all those that went before and were ignored by both the British and the Scottish Governments. He says that if the SNP this shiny new mandate “there will be no available grounds on which the UK Government can legitimately continue to oppose”. Is he acknowledging that the UK Government had legitimate grounds for refusing to recognise those previous mandates? What are these ‘legitimate grounds? He doesn’t tell us. How could there possibly be ‘legitimate grounds’ for denying Scotland’s right of self-determination? He neither explains nor entertains enquiries on any of these points.

To be fair, Pete Wishart does touch on the possibility that the British state will continue to deny any mandate that Scotland’s voters give the SNP. He allows that if they do then he might be prepared to admit that “the ‘section 30’ road may indeed be running out”. Let’s gloss over the fact that anticipating the willing and honest cooperation of the British establishment in a project to dissolve the Union was always a self-evidently forlorn and foolish hope. Let’s see what Mr Wishart’s proposed course of action would be in the event of there being no change for the better in the British establishment’s contempt for Scotland and democracy. He says, “It is at this stage we consider all options to progress our cause.” Wow! That’s impressive!

What these options might be remains a total mystery given that Pete Wishart’s principal purpose in penning this dire diatribe was to reject all other options as ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. What is left after he’s ruled out everything other than the Section 30 process and that has failed as anticipated by more thoughtful persons? He doesn’t say. And he won’t accept any questions on the matter.

I have news for Pete Wishart. Some of us have been considering all options for years. Some of us didn’t close our minds to those options. Some of us have known for years that neither the Section 30 process nor mere ‘gentle persuasion’ was going to “progress our cause”. Some of us have tried very hard, against fervent opposition from such as yourself, to persuade the SNP to at least open up discussion about our options. All to no avail.

Determined that the culinary catastrophe of his cake shouldn’t lack a cherry on top, Pete Wishart regurgitates the idiocy that “independence has never been closer”. Had he been less determined to shut out all dissenting, questioning or critical voices he might have been aware of how plainly, unavoidably idiotic it is to claim that we are closer to independence now than we were when the polls opened on Thursday 18 September 2014. He didn’t listen. He didn’t think. It’s a fine-sounding phrase and possibly an effective platitude, so long as nobody gives the assertion any more thought than he did. He remains blissfully unaware of the impression he gives when he spouts such patent drivel. We might be forgiven for wondering how many potential converts to Yes he deters by bringing his party and the independence movement into disrepute.

Nicola Sturgeon needs to disown this distasteful and daft dribble and drool. I’m not suggesting she should censor Pete Wishart in the way he does any who criticise or question him. But she really should dissociate the party from such objectionable views and senseless blabber.

Addendum

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After Aileen McHarg basically told us all to wheesht and stop making a fuss about Pete Wishart referring to the UK as the “parent state” I thought I should try and hunt down the definition of what she claims is a technical term. I was unable to find one. Maybe it’s very, very specialised technical language.

What I did find was an article in which Dr Rebecca Richards (http://t.ly/0EXEO) a Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University, is quoted at some length. If her take on the meaning of ‘parent state’ is authoritative then maybe people shouldn’t be quite as complacent as Aileen McHarg would have us be.

From my reading of Dr Richards’s views on the matter it would seem that if Scotland’s status within the UK is as Pete Wishart asserts then it is all but impossible that Scotland’s independence can ever be restored. Even if that can possibly be the case it is exceedingly strange to find the case being argued by an SNP MP. Which begs a number of very awkward questions which,were they to be put to him, Mr Wishart would doubtless deal with in his customary contemptuous manner.



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A BritNat referendum?

I doubt very much whether there are any senior ‘Scottish’ Tories who “now back indyref2”. It may well be that there are many senior ‘Sottish’ Tories who believe it necessary to rethink the arid and blatantly anti-democratic denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination which characterised Ruth Davidson’s reign as Queen of the BritNats. Which was, in fact, the sole characteristic of that undistinguished reign.

It would be surprising if anyone of normal intelligence wasn’t prompted to reconsider a one-line manifesto which, having hoovered up the votes of all Scotland’s most hard-line British Nationalists, had nowhere else to go. A party whose appeal is to the extreme must be limited by the appeal of that extreme. Its potential support hits a sharp cut-off point where that extreme comes up against the mass of moderate opinion. In electoral terms that cut-off point seems to be within a point or two of 20%. It is all but inevitable that some in the upper echelons of the ‘Scottish’ Tories must have recognised this. Even if Jackson Carlaw lacks the intellectual acuity and political nous to do so.

But advocating for a new independence referendum? I don’t think so. Preserving the Union is as much, perhaps more, of an imperative for British Tories as it is for the other British parties. None of the British parties will ever facilitate or tolerate any process which places the Union in jeopardy. The Union must be preserved at any cost to Scotland and its people. Unlike when David Cameron agreed to the 2014 referendum, a vote now would all but certainly favour the restoration of Scotland’s independence. So there is no way any senior ‘Scottish’ Tory is going to “back indyref2”. Unless they can be assured that the Yes campaign might be thwarted.

There is a strong possibility that those senior ‘Scottish’ Tories, along with other British Nationalists, have identified Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process as a weakness that they can exploit.

Andy Mciver is correct when he says that the SNP administration’s supposed policy problems aren’t sufficient to significantly weaken the party, far less have any knock-on effect on support for independence – which all but the most blinkered British Nationalists realise is a separate thing. But a referendum held under the constraints of the Section 30 process can quite readily be manipulated to greatly disadvantage the Yes side. After all, the whole purpose of Section 30 is to serve as a choke-chain on the Scottish Parliament. Given that the Scottish Parliament is crucial to any process which might lead to independence, the British political elite retains ultimate control so long as the Section 30 process is being adhered to.

The ‘Scottish’ Tories are unlikely to come out in favour of a new independence referendum. They cannot afford to lose the British Nationalist vote. But they may seek to broaden their electoral appeal by softening the rhetoric and being less openly anti-democratic. Carlaw will go wherever the political wind blows him. If it is decided that the party should go into the 2021 Holyrood elections portraying itself as grudgingly prepared to accept a new referendum on certain conditions, Carlaw will read whatever script is handed to him. The worst that might happen is that their vote would hold. Which is probably the best that they might realistically hope for.

Should this less strenuous opposition to a new referendum become apparent it may be seen as cause for cautious celebration in some quarters. It will certainly be hailed by the British media as making the ‘Scottish’ Tories more electable and Jackson Carlaw a credible contender for the office of First Minister. It may even be welcomed by the less thoughtful parts of the Yes movement. Which would be a serious error.

We must all be mindful of the fact that anything British Nationalists are prepared to countenance must, by definition, be contrary to the aims of the independence movement and against Scotland’s interests. Any referendum that British Nationalists find acceptable must be powerfully suspect from a Scottish perspective.



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Unblocking the road

Joanna Cherry is probably mostly right. Peter Wishart is dependably Pete Wishart.

My support for Joanna Cherry’s position is qualified for two principal reasons. The first is that it needs to be made clear that, while the Scottish Government should certainly prepare for a court battle, it must not be the Scottish Government which initiates court action. To support the claim that it is proceeding as it is entitled to, the Scottish Government must proceed as if it was so entitled. Why should the Scottish Government initiate court action to establish the Scottish Parliament’s authority to facilitate the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination if it is claimed that the Scottish Parliament already possesses this authority?

The purpose is not to establish either the right of self-determination or the Scottish Parliament’s competence but to assert these.

Consider the ‘optics’. Rather than seem to be trying to extract from the British government something they have the power to withhold how much better, and more honest, is it if the situation is presented as the British government trying to deny our democratic rights.

Also, I see no point whatever in asserting the right to have a pretend referendum. Suppose the court confirms that the Scottish Parliament has competence to facilitate a “consultative” referendum. That still leaves open the question of competence to facilitate the full and effective exercise of our sovereignty in deciding the constitutional status of our nation and choosing the form of government which best suits our needs. And isn’t that what we’re fighting for?

The Scottish Parliament has exclusive democratic legitimacy in Scotland. We cannot and must not settle for it having less than the powers which this entails.

Pete Wishart’s refrain is, as is customary, “Not yet!”. And his insistence on procrastination is as devoid of explanation or supporting argument as ever it was. He boldly asserts that losing a legal challenge would ” set the case for Indy back significantly”. But he doesn’t elaborate. Presumably, we are supposed to just take his word for it. We are not supposed to question his wisdom. Sorry, Pete! I question everything!

I ask the obvious and necessary questions. Where are we now? Where would we be should a court case be lost?

Where we are now is at a road-block in limbo. We are wholly committed to a process which crucially relies on the goodwill and good faith of the British political elite. So, a process which can never lead to a referendum and/or the restoration of Scotland’s independence. We are going nowhere. We have no possibility of going anywhere whilst committed to the Section 30 process. And there seems no way that this commitment can or will be abandoned.

Where will we be if the court doesn’t find in our favour? That very much depends on the precise nature of the action and of the court’s finding. But the worst-case scenario must be that the court upholds the British governments claim that the Scottish Parliament does not have competence to hold a constitutional referendum. (Note that it makes no difference whether this is in relation to a “consultative” or a full referendum. If one is ruled out, they both are. So why aim low?)

It might be argued that this makes us worse off because the British government now has court backing for its anti-democratic position. But all it really means is that the case goes to a higher court. Which is, at least, some kind of movement. And it is movement towards the highest court of all – the one presided over by the people of Scotland.

It is difficult to see how asserting the thing we are fighting for puts us in a worse position than not asserting it. The idea that independence will come if we just continue to accept the Union for long enough makes no sense whatever. There can be no momentum without movement. Right now, because of some bad choices, we are in a place where we have precious little room for movement. Either we remain stationary at the road-block in limbo, or we go drive on and defy the British government to try and stop us.



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The wrong question

It’s the wrong question. Whether the British Electoral Commission should have any involvement is a moot point. The Scottish Parliament has decided. But it’s the wrong question.

One of those strange contradictions that seem to be a feature of politics is to be found in the observation that the new referendum will not be like the 2014 referendum coupled with an insistence that the new referendum campaign must be exactly the same as that for the 2014 referendum. Various politicians and other leading figures in the independence movement seem perfectly comfortable with pointing out all the ways in which the circumstances have changed, and advising that this fact inform our thinking on campaign strategy for the new referendum, and then describing a strategy that is indistinguishable from the one used in the old referendum campaign.

The language is identical. All the talk of “listening” and “conversation” and “being positive” is precisely what was inculcated into campaigners all through the first referendum campaign. The Section 30 process must be followed exactly as it was then. The questions must be the same as it was then. The entire referendum must be framed just as was the 2014 referendum campaign. No lessons have been learned from that campaign. None!

The main lesson to be learned from the first independence referendum campaign is that we should not conduct such a campaign again. This is not to say that the strategy adopted then was wrong. In many respects, there was no choice. Compromises had to be made. Much of what was done was perfectly appropriate in the circumstances that prevailed at the time. Context matters.

The context is very different now. It has been changed, not least by the first referendum itself and the British state’s response to it, both during and after. It was changed by EVEL. It was changed by the Smith Commission and the subsequent tinkering with devolution. It was changed, perhaps most obviously, by Brexit. What is appropriate to this new context is, in many ways, the opposite of what was suited to or dictated by the context of the 2014 campaign.

Things that weren’t mistakes back then now look like mistakes with hindsight and would be mistakes now. That is why they look like mistakes with hindsight. We are looking at them through the prism of the present context. Or, at least, some of us are.

Perhaps the most fundamental example of something that wasn’t a mistake then but would be now is making independence the contentious issue. Independence is normal. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which is the ‘naturally’ contentious issue.

And there’s another problem with putting independence front and centre rather than the Union. The following is from an article I wrote in September 2019.

Not only did the question on the 2014 ballot paper make independence the contentious issue, it ensured that the Yes campaign was built around a contested concept. There was then, and still is, no single agreed definition of independence. The term, as it applied to Scotland, meant many different things to different people. Myriad individuals and groups within the Yes movement all presented voters with their own conception of and vision for independence. The Yes campaign became a confusing fog of competing messages and was thereby rendered very much less effective than it might have been.

Because independence is a contested concept, it is inherently susceptible to being misrepresented and burdened with all manner of prejudicial associations. It was, in other words, highly vulnerable to precisely the kind of negative propaganda effort to which the anti-independence campaign predictably resorted.

That was NOT the question!

The lesson is not exactly subtle. Don’t do that again! For various reasons, it was the best – or only – way to go about things the first time, which we may best regard as preparing the ground for the referendum that actually matters. We’re not at that stage any more. We should have moved on. We should now be putting the Union on trial.

The question on the ballot paper must make the Union the contentious issue. Rather than asking if Scotland should be an independent country we should be asking if Scotland should dissolve the Union. The question should be formulated in such a way as to ensure Yes and No responses have the same implication as in the first referendum.

This would transform the debate and avoid it being no more than a rerun of the previous debate – which would tend to deter engagement. It would be an entirely new debate for an entirely different referendum.

Why is it not obvious that this is what is required?



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A 'UDI' of our own

James Kelly seems to have changed his tune about a course of action which he previously denounced as unthinkably irresponsible ‘UDI’. More acute observers, of course, realised a long time ago that if Scotland’s independence is to be restored this will never be by any process deemed ‘legal’ by the UK government. It’s either ‘UDI’ or nothing. Where ‘UDI’ is understood to mean a process which excludes the UK government from any involvement and which must, therefore, be branded ‘illegal’ by a British political elite intent on preserving the Union at any cost.

Calling the referendum at the centre of this process “consultative” is a cop-out. It is an attempt to appease British Nationalists by assuring them that we’re only pretending to exercise our right of self-determination and won’t actually do anything. It’s a binary question of the kind that is perfectly suited to being decided by plebiscite. Assuming a properly framed ballot question and an adequate turnout, the result cannot be other than a clear expression of the will of Scotland’s people. Which, in turn, cannot be other than binding on the government and parliament elected by the people of Scotland and accountable to them.

It didn’t take a survey to know that it was nonsense to assume that ‘UDI’ would alienate large numbers of voters. All it took was some understanding of human nature. To anybody with a modicum of such understanding, bold, assertive action is obviously just the thing to catch the public’s imagination – and the mood of the nation.

The only question remaining is who might take this bold, assertive action that will inevitably be dubbed ‘UDI’ by anti-democratic British Nationalists. And whether it will be done properly. Whether the words “bold” and “assertive” are taken to heart.

The current SNP administration doesn’t look a likely candidate. But we shouldn’t give up on them just yet. To get the job done, we need a particular tool. The SNP is what we have to hand. The parlousness of Scotland’s predicament makes delay seriously inadvisable. So we must use what we have. The Yes movement has to get its act together and force Nicola Sturgeon to do what needs to be done – or to step aside in favour of someone who will. The latter trailing as the second choice some distance behind the former.

Forget the less than half-measure of a “consultative” referendum. Appeasement will always be perceived as weakness and encourage retaliatory action. The Scottish Government must be absolutely resolved and determined. The aim is to break the Union, not caress it.



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The dilemma of conflicting imperatives

The trouble with saying that this isn’t what it looks like is that it induces people to think about what it looks like rather than what it’s being presented as. A bit like telling someone not to think about a pink elephant. Deferring the spring conference looks very like a pink elephant.

The problem wouldn’t arise, of course, if there weren’t reasons for supposing the SNP might wish to postpone the conference that have nothing to do with whatever it is that isn’t a pink elephant. If there weren’t widespread concern within the party and beyond about Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional question then people would not be able to ascribe ulterior motives to those responsible for putting conference off for three months.

People tend to think the worst of politicians and party managers. I wonder why.

Let’s deny them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let’s suppose the worst. Let’s assume the conference has been delayed to save the platform-sitters from having to face awkward questions from delegates who are less than enamoured with elements of their leadership’s performance. Will a two or three month delay solve the problem? Let’s think!

If the party hierarchy thinks a conference in March or April would be marked (marred?) by scenes of discontent and even dissent then they must reckon there to be cause for that discontent/dissent. And if they think it’s safe to have the conference in June, they must be calculating that the aforementioned cause of discontent and/or dissent will be eliminated before then. Which in turn suggests that something significant is going to happen in the interim.

What might that be?

Speculation is rife. Well, it is in my head. Thing is, there’s not that much to speculate about. It’s that old thing about imperatives and options again. The key to some kind of understanding of the ebb, flow and swirl of the political tides. Or at least, the key to turning idle speculation into informed analysis.

In terms of the constitutional issue, the British state’s overarching imperative – what drives its behaviour – is the need to preserve the Union at quite literally any cost. Their options all derive from the Union and the power relationship that it creates and perpetuates whereby the British state – or England-as-Britain or Borissia – is in all respects and at all times around eight times more powerful than Scotland. As if every voter in England-as-Britain had eight votes to every one vote for individuals in Scotland. (This, incidentally, is a major factor in the increasing number of English people in Scotland supporting independence. They are better placed to see the imbalance than ‘native’ Scots who have only ever lived in Scotland.)

What this means is that the British state has, if not unlimited options, certainly uncountable options. Effectively, the British political elite can do as it pleases with and to Scotland. The Union was intended to solve the ‘Scottish problem’. It was meant to remove Scotland as a threat to England. To achieve this, a grotesquely asymmetric political union was devised and imposed on Scotland. Even three hundred years ago the people detested the Union. But Scotland’s ruling elites were assured that they would be protected from the effects of this imbalance of power.

That constitutional arrangement; that grotesque imbalance of power, remains fundamentally unchanged to this day. Society has changed beyond recognition since 1707. But the Union has not changed accordingly. Such changes as there have been – notably devolution – were intended to reinforce and preserve the imbalance rather than to reform and rectify it.

In the UK, people in Scotland are second-class citizens at best. The Union makes it so. We have a second-class parliament. The Union so stipulates. We have a second-class government. The Union allows no more. Not second-class in the sense of qualitatively inferior. Certainly second-class in terms of political power. Our Scottish Parliament may have immeasurably greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster. But it must always be subordinate. Our Scottish Government may be considerably more effective in addressing the needs, priorities and aspirations of the nation’s people. But it must always be subordinate to even the worst of administrations in London. Our people may be little different from the resident of Borissia. But we do not have the same right to choose the government that best suits our needs. The Union underpins this inequity.

This is the reality of the Union. A reality that is abhorred by many who appreciate the true nature of Scotland’s predicament; tolerated by those whose fear or apathy outweighs their self-respect and sense of justice; embraced by those whose conceit of themselves is that they are, or can hope to become, part of the cossetted elite.

But to our speculation. The foregoing has, I hope, served to explain why the British state has so many options. Or, to put it another way, so few constraints on how it acts towards Scotland. This is why restoring Scotland’s independence will require an exceptional effort on the part of boldly imaginative and utterly determined people.

Which brings me to the Scottish Government. No! really! Settle down!

What is the Scottish Government’s imperative? What drives the SNP administration? There can be no doubt that in relation to the day-to-day governance of the nation, the SNP administration seeks to serve the interests of Scotland’s people. And does so with quiet competence. Perhaps too quiet. Everybody will have their pet gripes, of course. But overall, the SNP administration has done a truly remarkable job considering the daunting constraints of devolution and an increasingly hostile British state.

All of which may well be part of the problem. The SNP is not only supposed to provide good government. It is also the de facto political arm of the independence movement. A role which bestows upon the party duties and responsibilities quite distinct from the duties and responsibilities of government. In relation to its role as a party of government the SNP’s imperative must be to stay in office. To win elections. To conduct itself in such a way as will enable it to win elections.

In relation to its role as the political arm of the independence movement, however, the driving imperative must be the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But to the considerable extent that options for action are related to power, the SNP is relatively powerless against the British state and its uncountable options. This we know. This we understand. What may be less well recognised or appreciated is the conflict between the two imperatives driving the SNP. On the one hand, its role as the governing party means it must conform to and comply with the unjust conditions imposed by the Union. On the other, its imperative in relation to its role as the party of independence obliges it to behave contrary to those conditions.

Basically, the SNP can’t do its job as a government if it fulfils its role as the party of independence.

Which imperative wins? Ultimately, the party must choose. It may well be that this choice was on the cards for the SNP’s spring conference. Whispers are growing daily about grassroots pressure on the party leadership for a change of approach to the constitutional question. It would, from a pragmatic point of view, be understandable if the leadership preferred to postpone this confrontation. Much as they’ve avoided the confrontation with the British state which will come at some point if the shackles of the Union are to be broken.

If the postponement is to allow the party bosses time to prepare for the coming contest of priorities – or imperatives – I’m fine with that. It’s a crucial issue. It deserves and requires preparation. If the postponement is for the purpose of preempting the confrontation by taking some kind of extraordinary action, I’ll be even better pleased. But if the postponement turns out to be nothing more than kicking the can down the road from reluctance to face up to the issue, I will not be well pleased.



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What would YOU do?

What would you do? What’s your alternative, smartarse? You’re very good at criticising, but where are your positive suggestions?

I am asked questions like this all the time. Variations on the demand to know what I would do instead have become the standard response when I point out things that the Scottish Government and/or the First Minister are doing that I maintain are mistaken or misguided. There’s been quite a lot of that lately. Much to my dismay. And that’s something people would do well to bear in mind. I get no pleasure from criticising the administration and condemning Nicola Sturgeon. More the latter than the former because the administration, generally speaking does a good job. It is in the matter of the constitutional issue that I take exception and that is all on Nicola Sturgeon’s shoulders. Although Mike Russell may take a bit of flak as well.

I would much rather go back to my previous practice of circumspection. Not that I wouldn’t criticise the party, but I would only do so if the criticism was weighed against the interests of Scotland’s cause and tipped the scales. Even then, I was cautious about the tone of the criticism. I still am. I’m appropriately obliged to the hundreds of people who have been presumptuous enough to point out to me how essential the SNP is to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. I can only assume that these people comment in ignorance of my lever analogy. One really shouldn’t condemn from a position of ignorance.

I have to assume, also, that the interlocutors in question are afflicted with some form of reading difficulty. Because in all of the material I have written berating and bemoaning Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ on the constitutional issue I have never once suggested or implied or hinted or left room for the honest impression that I didn’t acknowledge the vital role of the SNP in the independence project. Nor have I ever done anything other than encourage people to vote SNP at every opportunity. So much so that I was only today referred to by someone obviously unacquainted with my more recent output as an “SNP arse-licker”.

What would you do? The question, however it is framed and regardless of the accompanying epithets (mostly woefully unimaginative), irks me. It irks me somewhat for the false allegations, as described above, stated or implied. It irks me more because the question is commonly deployed, not as a genuine enquiry, but to divert from whatever criticism I’m making. Let’s not talk about what’s actually being done by the people with power. Let’s talk about what someone who has no power might hypothetically do if he did. It’s a feeble and rather cowardly way to avoid having to admit that they cannot address the criticism. They have nothing meaningful to say about whatever defect or deficiency it is that I’ve identified. They have no way to refute the arguments. So they try to change the subject. Pathetic!

It irks me when people imply, or explicitly state, that criticism cannot be valid if no alternative is offered. I’ll let that one lie here and steam gently taking care not to step in it as I move on.

But the question irks me most because it is very unfair. It asks me what I would do in a situation that is not of my making. A situation which, had I the power that is being hypothetically attributed to me, would not have arisen. It demand’s to know how I would clean up somebody else’s mess.

If people were to ask what would I have done, that would be a fair question. And no more hypothetical than the one I’m being asked. And it might even be a sensible, useful question. There’s a chance that figuring out how a situation might have been averted might reveal clues as to how it may be rectified. At the very least, such revision could provide insights relating to the actual situation and a better understanding of the problems. At the very, very least there may be valuable lessons for the future nested like pearls in the oyster of rewritten history.

I am now going to assume that somebody has asked the sensible question. I shall pretend someone has had the wits to ask what I would have done. All the while mourning the fact that I have to pretend.

What would I have done differently? How would I have avoided the present situation? Anyone with the sense to ask that question would almost certainly wish to point out that a future event or development can only be averted if it can be foreseen. You can’t avoid it if you don’t see it coming. I maintain that it was perfectly possible to predict how things would pan out given various educated assumptions.

The story of what I would have done begins on Friday 19 September 2014. Or maybe a day or two after that. But no later. I really did start thinking about a second referendum almost immediately after the unfortunate (euphemism!) outcome of the first one. I set myself the immediate task of working out the earliest possible date for this new referendum after which I undertook a review of the past campaign to see what lessons might be learned. I won’t go into the process by which I arrived at a date; I’ve told the story enough times to be bored with it and it’s not that important. What matters is that it wasn’t just picked at random. It was a rough calculation, not a complete guess. The date was Thursday 20 September 2018.

This was the earliest date for a new referendum. When the EU referendum came along, I had to take another look. By one of those weird coincidences that give superstitious folk goosebumps. it turned out that taking the EU referendum into consideration Thursday 20 September 2018 went from being the earliest date for a new referendum to the latest. This was due to the constitutional implications of what would come to be called Brexit.

Of course, I couldn’t know the result of the EU referendum beforehand. But it wasn’t difficult to figure out what the consequences would be whichever way it went. The September 2018 date was intended to allow Scotland to escape Brexit. Or, more precisely, the constitutional implications of the UK leaving the EU. Bear in mind that my calculations didn’t take account of the extensions. Cut me a bit of slack here! By the time we were at the Article 50 extension stage it was already too late for a September 2018 vote.

The preparation for that vote should have started in 2015. That left plenty of time before for a thorough review of the 2014 campaign, and sufficient time after for the process leading up to a vote – principally, the passing of legislation.

I would have fired the starting gun immediately after the 2015 UK general election on 7 May. I would have announced the date and set out a timetable for the preparations. I may be accused of exploiting 20/20 hindsight concerning the result of that election. But while I can’t and wouldn’t claim to have foreseen the scale of the SNP landslide, I was confident that, riding the wave of enthusiasm that followed the 2014 referendum, the SNP would do well. Certainly well enough to provide an excellent backdrop against which to announce the new referendum.

People will say that ‘we didn’t have the numbers’ at that time. But the surest way to get the numbers is to give people something to latch onto. The surest way to not get the numbers is not to do anything at all. People aren’t inspired by inaction.

The main problem with launching so far in advance would have been maintaining momentum. But we had the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 as well as a number of other electoral events. And, with a big group of MPs at Westminster it would not have been difficult to engineer enough ‘activity’ to keep the issue live and lively. The 2016 Holyrood elections would not have been as fraught as they were because the spirit which existed post-2014 would not have been allowed to subside and dissipate in the way that it did. And there would have been the passage of various bits of legislation in the Scottish Parliament to keep the media interested. The Referendums Act just enacted last December was, like so much the Scottish Government has done, at least two and as much as four years late. I would not have allowed that time to be squandered.

Already it can be seen how things would have been totally different if we’d gone for #Referendum2018. And I am firmly persuaded we could have won. The conditions would have been better because we would have acted to make them better rather than sitting around waiting for them to magically improve. The campaign itself would have been better because, having properly learned the lessons of the 2014 campaign I would have ensured that the 2018 campaign was different in a number of significant ways. I’m not sure if details of this are relevant here. I’ll gladly answer questions about what I would have done in terms of the actual campaign. And, indeed, what I would still do were there to be a campaign in the future.

Instead of seizing the moment, we gave the British government time to recover from every one of its serial fuck-ups. Now, we’re up against an administration with a substantial majority, led by a man who, for all his buffoon image, has so far got everything he wanted and, most important, a British government with the ideological mindset to fully exploit the power afforded it by the Union without pause or scruple or any consideration of principle.

Most of the foregoing is stuff that I was happy to talk about in the years between 2014 and 2018. And talk about it I did – both online and at countless gatherings. And people were coming round to the idea of a 2018 referendum. But it was not to be. There were some things that I declined to talk about back then, however. Things that I could foresee, but which I foreswore to speak of. For reasons which should become obvious.

Even in 2015 I could see that the good ship SNP was going to hit the odd rock within a very few years. Not that I had specific predictions. Just that history tells us parties which are in government for a decade start to encounter problems. I think we can safely say I was correct. And you can see why it would have been inappropriate to say anything about this at the time. Just as in was both inappropriate and inadvisable to mention the fact that cracks would eventually start to show in the Yes movement. Fortunately, the Yes movement has proven to be remarkably resilient and robust. Without doubt, it is the best thing to come out of the 2014 campaign. But how long can people keep marching as they see their destination receding?

Similarly, it was possible five years ago to see which way the British government was headed. I don’t claim to have predicted that Boris Johnson would become Prime Minister. I wish I’d had a tenner on that in 2014! But it was entirely possible to read the trends. The British political system was bound to excrete a Boris Johnson eventually.

Brexit hadn’t even become a word and it was obvious it would be a total shambles. Without ten years of planning and preparation, it couldn’t be anything else. What was important to recognise was how this would influence the government in London and the electorate in England-as-Britain. It might have been assumed that the government would be weakened by making such a hash of things. But the way the British system works is that governments which fuck up deal with the problems they’ve created for themselves by making themselves stronger. And in the process they become more populist. So the anticipated backlash from the voters never materialises.

Five years ago it was possible to see where British ‘demockracy’ was headed. I would have avoided being dragged down with the rest of the UK. I would have been campaigning while these fuck-ups were happening or fresh in people’s minds. I wouldn’t have been asking the voters to think back and try to get angry again about something the British media barely reported at the time and have played down ever since. I wouldn’t have adopted a strategy of allowing the worst to happen in the hope of political advantage.

The one thing I came nowhere near to predicting is Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the constitutional issue. Quite honestly, if you were to ask me what I would do now, I’d be stumped. I’m not even sure this can be fixed. In five years we’ve gone from the certainty that independence would be restored to clinging to the last vestiges of confidence that we will even have a referendum before the British Nationalist juggernaut crushes the final bit of hope.

It could all have been so different.



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