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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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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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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Unappealing options

As you get older and your memory starts to deteriorate, you have to deal with an increasing number of problems. You graduate from forgetting to do things to forgetting whether you’ve done things. Just as you get used to being unable to recall names, you start to forget faces. No sooner have you figured out a coping mechanism for that than the next – and probably the worst – stage is upon you and you begin to imagine you recognise faces. Before long, you start to dread leaving the house as every encounter with people involves a stressful struggle with fading faculties.

Similarly, having just resigned yourself to your inability to hold information in your head – such as your children’s names and, betimes, your own – you start reading or hearing bits and pieces of information and thinking you’ve already been given that information, but have forgotten. This may seem trivial, but if the information is important or significant or time-sensitive, it can cause flashes of panic such as an older person can well do without.

I had one on those momentary panic attacks this morning on opening the Sunday National to learn that “Nicola Sturgeon last week set out the next steps on indyref2 after the rejection of a Section 30 order by Boris Johnson“. Did she? How could I have forgotten that? What were these “next steps”?

As the panic subsided I realised this was just a case of a journalist looking for a good scene-setting opening for their article and plumping for one that plays small havoc with the reality. Of course, we’re still waiting to hear what the “next steps” are. A statement has been promised for next week – Wednesday, I think, but don’t take my word for it – when we may learn something memorable.

Not that there will be any great surprises. As Judith Duffy demonstrates when she’s done giving me palpitations, there aren’t that many options and, unless the First Minister has conjured something so novel as to be beyond imagining by anyone else, all the options are known. Judith helpfully lists them and examines each in turn. Almost as if she’s trying to make amends for that opening sentence.

The first, and many feel the most likely option is continuing to push for a Section 30 order, perhaps with the possibility of cross-party support thrown in to give the impression of something new. Not just Section 30 but Section 30 plus! New improved Section 30 with added grudging and condition-ridden concessions to democracy from a handful of British politicians.

Somehow contriving polling indications of a rise in support for independence and/or a new referendum is supposed to add to the pressure on Boris Johnson to change his mind about allowing us to exercise a right he has no legitimate authority to stop us exercising. Pressure that is presently notable only for its absence. Boris Johnson sleeps easy with a very strong hand which includes an 80-strong majority in the House of Commons, sovereignty of parliament enshrined in law by way of the Brexit Act and, of course, the Union. All of which militate against him feeling any pressure at all no matter how often Nicola Sturgeon ‘demands’ a Section 30 order. And no matter how many opposition politicians and assorted celebrities and academics take her side in the matter.

There may be an explanation here for the FM’s delay in responding to Johnson’s totally anticipated Section 30 knock-back. She may be waiting in hope that the first post-election poll(s) will show a significant rise in support for independence. She will be doubly relieved should she get her wish in this regard. She will be glad to see increasing support for independence, of course. But she will also be quietly relieved to have an excuse for continuing to try rely on the goodwill of a British government which, to date, has shown only ill-will in all matters relating to Scotland.

By persisting with the Section 30 process Nicola Sturgeon isn’t only hoping Boris Johnson will change his mind, she’s hoping he’ll undergo a change to his very nature. This conjures images of a cocooned ugly Boris caterpillar emerging as a beautiful butterfly having metamorphosed in the gentle heat of ‘pressure’ from various sources – none of which the now-transformed grotesque Boris-bug held in any regard at all.

Moving on before the corrosiveness of my cynicism about option one burns a hole in my laptop screen, next on Judith’s list is the option of holding a referendum without a Section 30 order. I think this is what is meant by the ridiculous term ‘DIY referendum’. As if there could be any other kind. A flat-pack referendum from IKEA, perhaps? Or a ready-made referendum advertised as requiring no home assembly with free next-day delivery for Amazon Prime subscribers? Maybe the alternative to a ‘DIY referendum’ is one held on our behalf by the Swiss – them having lots of experience. Or maybe it’s just a daft term that we should consign to the bin without further thought.

This option has been suggested by, among others, SNP MSP Alex Neil. He has called for Holyrood to hold its own “consultative vote” on independence. Another rather silly term given that every plebiscite is a consultation with the electorate. But by calling a referendum ‘consultative’ or ‘advisory’ it is implied that the result won’t, or won’t necessarily, have any effect. No immediate or automatic action will flow from the result. It’s a referendum that needn’t cause Unionists any concerns as it will do nothing and change nothing. Other than, maybe, the ‘dynamic’ of the constitutional debate.

What distinguishes this option is that it is normal. This is the way it would be done anywhere else. The government would make a judgement that there was sufficient public demand for a referendum and the whole thing would be dealt with under the auspices of parliament with oversight by some kind of electoral commission. Normality is NOT asking the permission of or inviting interference from any ‘foreign’ agency. If Scotland were a normal country, there would be no obstacles or hindrances to the people of Scotland exercising their right of self-determination.

However it may be dressed up, the real reason for rejecting this option is that Scotland is not a normal country. Scotland is, as has been explained elsewhere, more akin to annexed territory than a nation which is party to a voluntary political union. The difference being that the latter would have direct and unimpeded access to a process by which the political union could be discontinued. Because of the Union, we cannot freely exercise our right of self-determination. And because we can’t freely exercise our right of self-determination, we remain bound by the Union which denies us our sovereignty and our basic democratic rights.

Scotland is effectively annexed by England and trapped. As somebody once said of the 1707 Union, England has caught hold of Scotland and is disinclined to let go.

Next on Judith Duffy’s list of things Nicola Sturgeon might consider as a “next step” is the option of challenging the refusal of a Section 30 order in court. According to the experts, the success of such a legal challenge would be dubious at best. And even winning isn’t winning, because the British state can simply change the law so as to cancel out the win. And even if the case is won and the British state accepts defeat then all that’s been won is confirmation that an independence referendum must be authorised by the British state and a referendum that is critically dependent on the goodwill of the British state which, if it existed, would have obviated the need for a court case.

Apart from the legal issues, and the fact that a court case could be extremely protracted, the Scottish Government taking the British government to court would be a strategic error. As the saying goes, it’s better to ask forgiveness rather than request permission. The Scottish Government should, at all times, act as if it is the democratically legitimate government of Scotland. Because it is! An ‘official’ government wouldn’t seek consent from anyone to hold a referendum. It follows, therefore, that the Scottish Government should act first and be prepared to meet any legal challenge initiated by the British government. In the language of our times, the ‘optics’ are better. The British look like the ones trying to obstruct the democratic process. Which they are!

Which brings us to what I reckon is Nicola Sturgeon’s favoured option – putting things off until the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. The SNP is good at winning elections. Unsurprisingly, I can’t remember how many elections they’ve won. All of them for the past 12 or 13 years, if I recall correctly. It is understandable, therefore, that Nicola Sturgeon would prefer – perhaps relish – the prospect of an electoral test rather than taking the matter out of the political realm and into the courts; perhaps to languish there for many years.

The problem is that Ms Sturgeon has already come close to exhausting the patience of SNP members and Yes activists. There is a serious risk that failure to deliver the not-quite-promised 2020 referendum will dishearten and even alienate the very people the SNP relies on to man their formidable campaign machine.

And what would be the point? From the outside, it might look like a landslide win for the SNP in 2021 would put even more pressure on the British government. Personally, I’m far from convinced that denying a fourth or fifth or sixth mandate is any more difficult for the British political elite than denying the first. If anything, it’ll get easier with practice.

Yet again with this option we come back to the problem that the Union makes Scotland less than a normal nation. The Union makes Scotland subordinate to England-as-Britain in all matters and at all times. The British state could, in principle, respond to the supposed increased pressure, not by acceding to the request for a Section 30 order, but by abolishing the Scottish Parliament. Something British Nationalists are eager to do anyway.

To the British political mind it makes perfect sense that Scotland’s drive to independence should be permanently halted solely on the grounds that it is a threat to the Union. The self-serving circularity of this ‘reasoning’ would trouble them not at at all.

The final option on Ms Duffy’s list is a referendum on having a referendum. A referendum to prove the level of public demand for an independence referendum. To me, this would seem to combine many of the problems of a so-called ‘DIY referendum’ and the difficulties associated with using the 2021 Holyrood elections as a proxy referendum.

I have long argued that, if the First Minister has the right to demand a Section 30 order then she has the right to hold a referendum. Or, to put it another way, if Boris Johnson has no right to refuse a Section 30 order, as the FM and her ministers have claimed, then he has no authority to block a referendum. Similarly, if the British Prime Minister can discount a mandate for a referendum why would he not discount a mandate to hold a referendum on holding a referendum. The proposal comes up against the problem of infinite iteration. A referendum requires a referendum which also requires a referendum and so on forever and ever. Once you start asking permission, you’re never done asking permission because the very act of asking permission acknowledges the other’s right to demand that you ask permission.

My memory may be defective, but my mind is, I think, still reasonably sharp. Certainly sharp enough to recognise that the statement to be made by Nicola Sturgeon next week may be the most important of her political career. All eyes will be on her. Expectations are high. It’s the sort of situation where a politician would like to have room to manoeuvre. The kind of circumstances when a politician realises the value of options. The moment when they may regret having squandered so many.

None of the options listed by Judith Duffy gets the First Minister out of the bind she has created by her commitment to abiding by the rules set by those who don’t want her to have any options at all. We will learn next week whether she has come up with some way out of the Union entanglement, or whether we’ll all be asked to tune in again next week. If we remember.



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Crisis? What crisis?

Dictionary.com

Ian Blackford proclaims that UK faces a “constitutional crisis” over Brexit Bill votes in the three devolved parliaments. The National notes that,

While none of the devolved institutions have [sic] granted permission for Westminster to go ahead with the legislation, the Withdrawal Bill is still likely to pass through Westminster.

Ian Blackford: UK faces constitutional crisis over Brexit Bill votes

What The National doesn’t say is that Westminster does what it pleases with no apparent discomfort or unease. The British parliament completely ignores the devolved parliaments, each of which has greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster, and does so effortlessly. If there is a “constitutional crisis” then the British establishment is, to all appearances, unaware of it. There is certainly no sign that it is at all troubled by this “constitutional crisis”.

Can it qualify as a crisis if one of the parties to events and developments is unaware of it? Or, to put it another way, if the party at the centre of the affair perceives no crisis, are we justified in calling it such?

Or could it be that Mr Blackford has misidentified the parties to the purported crisis? Perhaps he is simply mistaken in thinking that the crisis affects the British political elite. Perhaps, if crisis there be, it is only a crisis for the devolved administrations; particularly the one in Edinburgh. Maybe the explanation for the British political elite’s equanimity in the face of this crisis is simply that it doesn’t really involve them.

If, indeed, we have reached a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined, then perhaps the British political elite doesn’t regard this as a crisis because, to whatever extent the trend of all future events is being determined, they are fully confident that this implies no changes that might be to their detriment.

If there is a condition of instability or danger in the affairs of the UK such as might occasion decisive change, maybe they know with a high degree of certainty that this decisive change will not be to the disbenefit or disadvantage of the established order.

Or maybe the British political elite is exhibiting the smug self-assurance that accompanies overweening power. Maybe they consider the established order invulnerable. Maybe they feel safe in the knowledge that, having the power to make, amend or exempt themselves from the rules of the game, they cannot possibly lose.

Why should this be a crisis for the British state? Nothing can oblige their parliament or government to heed the decisions of the devolved parliaments. The British state suffers no penalty for treating the devolved parliaments with supercilious disdain. Quite the contrary, in fact. Particularly in relation to Holyrood, Brexit has provided the British state with just the opportunity it needed to roll back devolution, slapdown the presumptuous SNP and put those uppity Jocks firmly back in the box labelled ‘Property of England-as-Britain’.

From the outset, discourse around the whole Brexit farce has focused almost exclusively on the economic impact. Little or no attention was paid to the constitutional implications. This despite the fact that the constitutional implications were always huge – as Ian Blackford and the rest now acknowledge. The constitutional implications were also obvious. When I argued for a Remain vote in the 2016 EU referendum the main reason I gave was the fact that leaving the EU would provide the British political elite with an opportunity to unilaterally redefine the UK and the constitutional status of the troublesome peripheral nations. At the extreme, which wise counsel would have us anticipate, this might involve the British constitutionally redefining the UK as an indivisible and indissoluble unitary state – putting Scotland in relation to the UK much as Catalunya is in relation to Spain.

The question was never whether the British would do this. The question was always whether there was any reason that they might not. Any just cause, that is, which they would see as such. Bearing in mind the nature of the British state and its ruling elites, considerations of ethics, morality or democratic principle were never going to enter into the calculation. The British political elite would do whatever was required to preserve and reinforce the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. The Union at any cost! To anyone but them!

There is no crisis for the British state. Ian Blackford has misread the situation. The British can, in this matter as in all matters relating to Scotland, act with total impunity. The crisis falls entirely on the devolved administrations and parliaments. Arguably, it falls most heavily on the Scottish Parliament and the SNP administration in Edinburgh. They will be judged on how they respond to this crisis. And it doesn’t look promising. Ian Blackford says, “really it is about this issue of respect”. Well, if it is, then it’s about how well he and his colleagues earn the respect of the people of Scotland. Because it’s as certain as anything might be that they will never get respect from the British political elite.



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Act to be

In the legal opinion commissioned by Forward As One, Aidan O’Neill QC argues that the question of the Scottish Parliament’s competence to legislate on a new independence referendum is a question of law, not a political question and “can only ultimately authoritatively be answered by the courts. I both agree and disagree.

I disagree with the assertion that the matter of the competencies of the Scottish Parliament is purely and solely a matter of law. I disagree because it is a constitutional matter and in constitutional matters ultimate authority must lie with the people. Few things are more fundamental to the constitution than the powers vested in (or withheld from) a nation’s parliament. Even if it is argued that parliamentary competencies are a matter of constitutional law, then it is still primarily and in the first instance a political issue because, in a democracy, the constitutional is an expression of the will of the people.

Constitutional law differs from criminal law in that, where the latter is an attempt to codify the established mores of society, rather than ephemeral public opinion, and works best if it is obeyed and changes only by way of a process rigorously isolated from day-to-day politics, the former must be constantly subject to challenge from all quarters as an intrinsic part of a democratic political process in order that it may truly represent the will of the people. Constitutional law is a special case.

I agree that constitutional change must be subject to legal challenge, if only to formally verify that such change has been established to reflect the will of the people in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. I simply insist that fundamental democratic principles decree that the ultimate authority in all matters rests with the people. And that this authority is most directly relevant in matters relating to the constitution.

The overarching criterion for deciding questions of parliamentary competence is democratic legitimacy, not legality. Where a parliament has incontestable democratic legitimacy – as does the Scottish Parliament – the default assumption must be that all competencies lie with that parliament. The manner in which such competencies are exercised may be subject to legal challenge. But the competencies themselves cannot rightfully be withheld or constrained by any agency with less or no democratic legitimacy.

The democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament derives from the sovereign people of Scotland. It is the institution whereby the people pool their sovereignty and mandate governments of their choosing. If the nation is regarded as a community of communities in accordance with the doctrine of civic nationalism, then Holyrood is where all those communities come together to oversee the management of their mutual interests and negotiate the compromises which resolve political divisions. To propose that such a parliament must be subordinate to the parliament of an entirely different community of communities which manages Scotland’s interests only very badly and resolves political divisions by fiat flies in the face of reason.

Of course, Holyrood was never intended to be the locus of Scotland’s democratic soul. But that is how it has turned out. It has been transformed from an impotent puppet of the British political elite into a fully-fledged national parliament – lacking only the powers to which it alone has a legitimate and rightful claim. Powers that were seized and are being withheld by a parliament which serves only the ruling elites of England-as-Britain.

The competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a new independence referendum is being denied by British politicians for political motives. It is entirely proper, therefore, that this should be challenged by political means. The Scottish Parliament must assert its authority by rejecting the authority asserted by Boris Johnson. The superior authority of the Scottish Parliament must be assumed on the basis of its superordinate democratic legitimacy. This authority must be exercised by the Scottish Government according to the mandate afforded it by the people of Scotland. If this is to risk any form of challenge by the UK Government then the Scottish Government must stand ready to meet this challenge. It is only by meeting and defeating such challenge that Scotland’s democracy can be preserved. It is only by meeting and defeating the resistance of the British state that Scotland’s democracy may be restored.

To be, and deserve to be, a normal independent nation, Scotland must act as a normal independent nation.



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