Ghosts of referendums past

It’s that day again! The 18th of September has rolled around again in the relentless way that anniversaries tend to do. It is now a firmly established tradition that, on and about this day each year, we are regaled with reminiscences of the 2014 independence referendum and prompted to revisit our own memories of that time. Countless articles will be written each trying to extract some meaning from the anniversary – or to impose some meaning on it.

Five years!

That’s approximately 200 million heartbeats for the average person. Or a single parliamentary term. If you’ve been married for five years then you will almost certainly not be giving each other symbolic gifts made of wood. The English language has five vowels and human beings have five senses. If astrology is your thing, the number five is lucky for Gemini and Virgo. But if you really were lucky astrology would never have become your thing. In numerology there are five core numbers. If you’re into numerology then you may be well-placed to count your blessings that you dodged the astrology bullet. The earthworm has five hearts. I have no idea how many times they beat, individually or in aggregate, in the space of five years.

It’s amazing what you find out when you’re looking for a novel hook on which to hang an article. Something to provide context. Something to lend significance. Something to help capture and express my personal feelings on this notable day.

David Bowie is always good for a bit of inspiration. Better him than Orwell or Arwood or Bradbury or any of the other dystopian writers to whom my mind tends to turn when I look around me at the world. And there just happens to be a Bowie song called Five Years! Obviously, that can’t be mere coincidence. Ask any astrologer or numerologist.

In his Ziggy Stardust persona, having just learned of Earth’s imminent demise, Bowie laments, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got!”. So much for escaping dystopian visions! But the phrase does resonate on this fifth anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum. Because that’s pretty much what I was saying in the aftermath of that event.

To be totally accurate, I wasn’t actually saying we had five years to rectify the tragic mistake that Scotland made on Thursday 18 September 2014. It’s just the way it turned out. My early ‘calculations’ had to be adjusted to take account of intervening events and developments so that it ended up being five years. Allow me a bit of latitude here, please. Taken as a whole, my message over the past five years has been, “Five years! That’s all we’ve got!”.

In September 2014 I argued that the earliest possible date for a new referendum was September 2018. By 2016, following the EU referendum, I was arguing that September 2018 should be assumed to be the latest date for a new constitutional plebiscite. The subsequent extensions to the Article 50 transition period pushed that date back a year to September 2019. So, five years. That’s all we had. And now we’ve had it.

Scotland’s independence movement has had five years in which to regroup after the setback of the 2014 referendum. Five years to reorganise. Five years in which to evaluate the previous campaign. Five years in which to formulate and hone a strategy for the next campaign. Five years of opportunity. What do we have to show for it?

Essentially, we have nothing to show for it. Things have happened. People looking for silver linings can point to those things and feel good about the situation. But little has changed. The things that have happened don’t all join up into something that qualifies as significant change. In terms of the independence campaign, we are now where we were, not five years ago, but nearer ten. The major issue then was the demand for a referendum versus the British state’s arrogant and obdurate denial of our right to have that referendum. What has changed? The First Minister continues to issue almost daily appeals for the powers to hold a ‘legal’ referendum. Other than the increasingly vicious contempt with which these entreaties are met, what has changed? In this regard, the last five years might as well not have happened.

Six and a half years ago we had a date for a referendum. Now, we don’t even have that!

The Yes movement has not been idle for those five years. I have watched it mature into a movement with massively more power and potential that was the case going into the 2014 campaign. But that power is wasted because the movement is rudderless. The potential is being squandered because it has no outlet other than marches and rallies and a proliferation of ancillary projects. In all of that five years, no meaningful progress has been made in forging the vital link between the Yes movement and the SNP. It would be easy to descend into the ‘blame game’ on this point. And to some extent we have no choice but to go there. Understanding why something has failed is a prerequisite of rectifying it. But, for present purposes, it is sufficient to note that we’ve had five years to do this and we have made no discernible progress.

In the course of that five years the SNP has gone from being effectively absent from the independence campaign to being so utterly preoccupied with Brexit as to make that period of absence look like meaningful engagement. While much of the left in Scottish politics has, with some justification, been criticised for being ‘in’ the independence campaign but not ‘of’ it, the SNP is ineluctably ‘of’ it but not ‘in’ it. It is the party of independence – of that there can be no doubt. But it seems not to have been an active participant ‘in’ the independence campaign since 2014. When I think back over the past five years, my overall impression is of the SNP being on the fringes, I hear what Nicola Sturgeon and other SNP politicians say. But I can’t help feeling that their words are reaching me having had to penetrate a bubble. And I can’t figure out whether it is they who are inside the bubble, or me.

It’s been five years. I expected more. Like everybody else I know in the Yes movement, five years ago I was filled with hope and enthusiasm and determination and confidence and the absolute certainty that Scotland’s cause would prevail. Five years on, there are more and more days when those feelings come to me only as pale ghosts.



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Inappropriate language

I don’t need an opinion poll to tell me “it would be unacceptable for any government in Westminster to block Scotland’s democratic right to choose“. This is not a matter of opinion. It is an incontrovertible fact that nobody has the legitimate authority to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination; least of all the entity from which Scotland is ‘seceding’.

I know I quibble about the language used by SNP politicians such as Ian Blackford and John Swinney. But language is important. Issues are perceived as being defined by the language politicians use. Particularly when operating in a hostile media environment, politicians have to be constantly aware of which narrative they are following. They must be on their guard against slipping into the pervasive narrative of that hostile media. They need to be ever mindful of the language they use.

Of course it would be “unacceptable” for the British government to “block Scotland’s democratic right to choose”! But it would be more than that. It would be wrong! In every sense of the word, it would be wrong! Even to attempt to deny the fundamental democratic right of self-determination is wrong. It cannot be right. It cannot rightfully be done.

Every word spoken by Scotland’s elected representatives should be informed by an unshakeable belief in Scotland’s cause. Every utterance must be couched in the language of an independent nation. There can never be the slightest suggestion of concessions which could be seen as compromising the sovereignty of Scotland’s people.

If Scotland’s right of self-determination is not subject to the approval of the British political elite, how much less might it be affected by the vagaries of opinion polls. Only the Parliament elected by the people of Scotland has the legitimate authority to determine whether there is sufficient demand to warrant a constitutional referendum in Scotland. Our Parliament has already made that determination. Opinion polls are irrelevant. The notion that the opinions of people furth of Scotland might have some bearing on the matter of a new independence referendum is beyond ridiculous. It is a matter for the Scottish people alone.

So why the hell is Ian Blackford hailing this poll as “significant”? Why is he not challenging the narrative which imbues it with significance? Why is he using such inappropriate language?



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Section 30 won’t work

Great argument from Stu Campbell at Wings Over Scotland. Unfortunately, he comes to the wrong conclusion. We don’t need a Plan B. We need a better Plan A.

The problem with a creating a Plan B is that this assumes you’re going to get a second bite at the cherry. The attitudes and behaviour of the British political elite strongly suggest that this is not a safe assumption. We would certainly be wise to proceed as if we anticipated getting only one shot; if for no other reason than to eliminate any residual complacency and replace it with the necessary – and unquestionably warranted – sense of urgency that is currently missing from the Scottish Government’s approach.

What is the common factor in all these electoral calculations which lead to “OUTCOME: NO INDYREF”? Section 30! The problem is not the electoral arithmetic but the Scottish Government’s insistence on adhering to a process which, As WOS has shown, leads in every conceivable, barely conceivable and inconceivable scenario, to “OUTCOME: NO INDYREF” and, therefore, no independence.

Any outcome which doesn’t lead to the Union being dissolved in the very short term provides the British establishment with opportunities to create new and increasingly intractable obstacles to restoring Scotland’s independence. If we don’t get Plan A right, you can just forget the rest of the alphabet.

There is no route to independence through the twisting and shifting pathways created and controlled by the British state for the purpose of protecting and preserving the Union. Quite why anybody would think there might be is a total mystery given that this involves disregarding such a glaring contradiction. If we want independence, we must break the Union. And if we are determined to break the Union then we must be prepared to break the rules imposed in the name of and for the sake of the Union. Why is that not obvious?

There is another common factor in all the scenarios Stu Campbell has prepared. The all lead, not just to “no indyref”, but to the inevitable conclusion that the Section 30 process must fail. And when it fails, we are right back in the position of having to break the rules to break the Union. So why go through all that crap just to end up right back where we are now except with new difficulties to overcome in order to attain our goal?



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I don’t get it!

I don’t get it. Nicola Sturgeon says, “No Westminster government, of any party, has the right to stand in the way of the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine their own future.” If that is the case, then why is she intent on asking their permission? Why would you beg consent if consent isn’t required? If the British state has no right to stand in our way, why is Nicola Sturgeon behaving as if they do?

The people of Scotland are sovereign! There is no ‘but’ at the end of that statement. There cannot be. In one breath she says that the people of Scotland have a sovereign right to determine their own future. In the next she says that this supposedly sovereign right is subject to the approval of the British political elite. Both things cannot be true. Sovereignty cannot be conditional.

I don’t get it. Nicola Sturgeon says that another election win will “reinforce” this sovereign right that is, apparently, only sovereign in a certain ‘political’ sense. It’s only a ‘sort of’ sovereignty. Why would that sovereignty need to be reinforced unless it was in doubt? Nicola Sturgeon may entertain such misgivings, but I sure as hell don’t!

I don’t get it. Why would anybody imagine an election victory for the SNP would demolish the British establishment’s opposition to a new referendum? It never did before. The SNP has enjoyed almost unprecedented electoral success over the past few years and British antipathy to the idea of Scotland exercising its sovereign right of self-determination has only become more fervent. Opposition to a new referendum hasn’t been weakened by SNP election wins, it has grown more desperately resolute.

To summarise; Nicola Sturgeon wants us to do something she insists we have to do despite the fact that the sovereignty she claims means that we absolutely do not have to do it, in the hope that doing this thing will have an effect that it never did before.

I just don’t get it!



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Locked in!

When politicians start ruling on what is and isn’t democratic, you know the political system is broken. When that politician is Boris Johnson, you know the political system is diseased unto death.

In a properly functioning political system, it should never be necessary for anyone to rule on the democratic legitimacy of any action or process or policy. It should be obvious. There should never be any doubt because the criterion for assessing democratic legitimacy is so simple and all-encompassing – the people decide.

That’s it! That’s the only rule. At every opportunity, the people decide. Wherever there is doubt, the people decide. If the people have the final say, it’s democratic. If the people are prohibited or prevented from having the final say, it’s undemocratic. If the role of the people as the final arbiters in all matters concerning the nation is in any way limited or constrained, it is undemocratic. If politicians seek to usurp that role, that is undemocratic. If the status of the people as the source of all legitimate political authority is fully recognised – in principle and in practice – that is democratic. If that status is contemned, that is undemocratic.

The very last people who should rule on what is and isn’t democratic ere those who wield the power that is authorised and legitimised by being ruled democratic. That is a recipe for despotism.

I’m sure Boris Johnson entertains a conceit of himself as a benign despot. I have not the slightest doubt that when he looks in the mirror, the face he sees staring back at him is the face of a strong leader such as has historically come to England’s aid in her time of need – rather than the pouting, smirking balloon-face of a petulantly malicious child-clown that the rest of us see. His is a mind in which despotism is easily rationalised as a firm hand on the rudder of state. In that mind, democracy is whatever serves this warped, deluded self-image.

Boris Johnson supposes himself a born leader; the inheritor of all the qualities which define the heroes who inhabit the Great British Myth from Saint George, Slayer of Dragons to Saint Margaret, Destroyer of Communities. If he is destined to lead, the people must be fated to follow. Is that not the natural order?

If there is one thing worse than a wannabe autocrat in a position of political power, it is the people who pander to the delusion in order to turn political power to their own purposes. Purposes which are rarely of the benign sort which might be pursued by less devious means. Purposes which can be discerned by noting the things that are declared ‘undemocratic’.

We should be able to dismiss the nonsense about there being a “very clear promise” attached to the 2014 referendum stating that it would be a “once in a generation event”. This is a lie. There never was any such promise. Nor could there be. No politician can constrain the inalienable right of self-determination. Even if such an undertaking had been given and could be valid, in order to be so it would have to be enshrined in the legislation relating to the referendum, or in the Edinburgh Agreement. Next time some British Nationalist comes out with this drivel about “once in a generation”, ask them to show you the relevant legal provision. Ask them to tell you the precise wording of the alleged promise. Just don’t ask them how it could possibly be democratically legitimate as this would require an understanding of democratic principles that is evidently absent from British Nationalist ideology.

We should be able to discount this “once in a generation” lie. But we have to allow for the British media’s efforts to give such lies the status of truth, if only by means of repetition without challenge. The BBC and the British press will, as a matter of habit and practice, insinuate the idea into the public consciousness. That’s their job, as they see it.

But this may not be the worst of it. We are well-advised to attend carefully to what British politicians say so as to discover what they are thinking. And the most telling part of Boris Johnson’s reported remarks is not the the old lie about a “once in a generation” promise. A disturbing hint of what noxious notions are gestating in the British Prime Minister’s mind is to be found in the following,

I think that it’s odd that both Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP claim to be attached to democracy when their mission is to smash up the oldest and most successful political partnership in history, in the form of the Union …

Boris Johnson: ‘No reason’ for second Scottish independence referendum

The bit about Jeremy Corbyn is just another lie, of course. Corbyn is avery bit as much a British Nationalist as Boris Johnson. What is significant in this remark in the clear implication that proposing to dissolve the Union is undemocratic. The utterance falls just short of declaring that the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence is undemocratic.

When politicians start ruling on what is and isn’t democratic, you know the political system is broken. When that politician is Boris Johnson, you know the political system is diseased unto death.



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Where is the spirit?

Truly depressing stuff from Nicola Sturgeon. I read the headline ‘This was the day independence became completely inevitable‘ and immediately supposed our First Minister was at last going to say something that at least hinted at the possibility that she might be on the verge of considering actually doing something to bring about the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But, having scoured the article all I find is well-worn platitudes and stern condemnation tagged on as an afterthought to yet more of our First Minister’s obsession with England’s Brexit.

Of course, Brexit will adversely affect Scotland. But only if we, the people of Scotland allow it. And to prevent it we need our First Minister to step up. We need her to be bold and decisive. We need her to be entirely focused on Scotland’s cause and not the forlorn cause of trying to rescue England from the consequences of its own democratic choices.

It is patent nonsense to say that “a No-Deal Brexit was not on the ballot paper in 2016”. Of course it bloody was! It is the default outcome of invoking Article 50. If England’s voters were unaware of this before the 2016 EU referendum then that’s down to their politicians, their media and their own reluctance to make an effort to inform themselves. But the result of that referendum stands regardless.

The people of England are getting precisely what they voted for. And it is being delivered by politicians who have all the mandate the British political system requires. What Boris Johnson is doing may be outrageous, but in terms of the ‘British constitution’ it is totally legitimate.

So why is Scotland’s First Minister – whose first responsibility is, by definition, to Scotland – so insistent on trying to “work with others” within the British political system to undo something that is a product of the British political system? Why is she not primarily concerned with the fact that the Union allows this product to be imposed on Scotland?

What will it take for the First Minister to realise and/or recognise that Brexit is merely a symptom and that the Union is the disease? What will it take for her to stop putting her faith in a British political system which is so plainly deleterious to Scotland’s interests?

What does the British political elite have to do to really piss her off to the point where Nicola Sturgeon admits that she must break the Union that places Scotland at the mercy of the likes of Boris Johnson?

Our First Minister looks forward to Holyrood going back into session next week and the Referendums Bill resuming its leisurely parliamentary progress. But she does so immediately after acknowledging the threat to the Scottish Parliament that many of us have been aware of for years. It’s almost as if she trusts Boris Johnson not to ‘suspend’ the Scottish Parliament as casually and arbitrarily as he did the British parliament. That is depressing.



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Shaping the campaign

Andrew Tickell comes to the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion concerning the motives behind the British Electoral Commission’s insistence on ‘influencing’ the question asked in the new referendum. It’s because it’s the British Electoral Commission. And the important word there is ‘British’. It is an agency of the very entity which seeks to preserve the Union at any cost. It is only to be expected that it will reflect the “Sir Humphrey grade cynicism” of the British political elite.

Any intervention by any agency of the British state must constitute undue – and very likely unlawful – outside interference in the process by which Scotland exercises its right of self-determination.

Andrew’s exploration of the importance – or otherwise – of the language used in a referendum question is as perspicacious as we would expect. But one comment stands out.

… the basic language of a referendum can powerfully shape how the respective sides are able to campaign

This is a crucial insight. The British Electoral Commission – and by extension the British sate – is pretty much exclusively concerned with the the way the framing of the referendum question affects voters. For obvious reasons. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state largely rely on a highly developed apparatus devoted to the manipulation of public perceptions.

But, as Andrew observes, the referendum question is only part of a complex web of influences affecting voters. It is the campaign as a whole that is the context within which these influences operate. So it stands to reason that the most important thing about the question is the way it shapes the campaign. In relation to a new constitutional referendum, that importance is immeasurable.

Consider the question asked in 2014.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Ask this question of any other nation and you would be regarded as an idiot. The people of those nations might regard the question as offensive, if they thought about it at all rather than dismissing it out of hand. That’s because independence is the normal, default status of a nation. The people of all nations take their independence for granted. It’s the way things are and the way they should be. So a more appropriate question might ask why Scotland must be the exception.

The 2014 referendum campaign was entirely shaped by this questioning of independence. It was the condition of independence that was being challenged, despite this being the ‘natural’ condition of nations. The question was inappropriate and it shaped the campaign in a way that favoured the anti-independence side by forcing the Yes campaign onto the defensive.

Surely simple logic dictates that it is the Union which should be questioned. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which is ‘unnatural’. It is the Union that sets Scotland apart from other nations. It is the Union that prevents Scotland from being normal.

Consider how different the campaign would have been had the question been,

Should Scotland dissolve the Union with England?

Such a question accepts the default assumption of independence and challenges the claim that an alternative constitutional settlement is preferrable. It forces Unionists to justify the Union. It puts the Union under scrutiny rather than the concept of independence which, despite – or perhaps because of – it being so ‘natural’, can be difficult to define.

Independence was placed at the centre of the constitutional issue. But independence is a disputed concept. Think back to the 2014 referendum. Not only were there massive differences between the way independence was portrayed by the opposing sides, there were significant differences even within the Yes campaign. A multitude of them! There was no single universally agreed idea of independence on which the Yes campaign could focus. Campaigning for a disputed concept is seriously problematic. The anti-independence campaign had no such problem.

The Union is not a disputed concept. It is a fact. It is a concrete thing. What is disputed is the justice and efficacy of that thing. Does this not, even at an intuitive level, seem like a more rational basis for a referendum? Does it not makes sense that, if there is to be a debate, then all the parties should be talking about the same thing? A referendum is, by definition, binary. So surely it is a basic prerequisite of a referendum that everybody should be campaign for or against the same thing.

The 2014 referendum campaign wasn’t so much shaped by the question as badly distorted by it. I accept that it almost certainly had to be that way given the circumstances that pertained 7 or 8 years ago. But the lesson is there to be learned. And circumstances have changed dramatically. We must not allow the new campaign to be distorted in the same way. And allowing agencies of the British state to determine the question is a sure way of ensuring that it is.



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