Fearing success

It’s not that “all attempts at socialism in the rest of the world have failed“. It’s just that any attempts at progressive reform which fail are labelled ‘socialist’ by people like Michael Fry. It’s an easy cop-out. It saves them having to explain why the political and economic system they favour militates so strongly against progressive reform. Or, more pointedly, why they favour a system which makes progressive reform so difficult.

It remains a matter of amazement to me that the disasters of capitalism seem to have prompted not a single second thought on the part of at least one rightward-leaning Scottish newspaper columnist. But Michael Fry and his ilk have an easy cop-out for that too. When capitalism fails catastrophically, as it does repeatedly, they simply say that this was not ‘real’ capitalism. Or that it was the ‘wrong kind’ of capitalism.

Add to such self-serving semantic sleight of hand the ludicrous hyperbole used in describing the policies of a pragmatically left-of-centre administration and what results is a distinct impression that Michael Fry’s greatest worry is that the Scottish Government’s progressive policies won’t fail.

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Getting assertive

I wonder if our First Minister is aware of the Precautionary Principle. In the context of the duties and responsibilities of the Scottish Government in the current situation of constitutional upheaval, the Precautionary Principle may be stated thus,

Where there exists a threat of serious or irreversible damage to the nation’s interests, lack of total certainty concerning outcomes outwith the control of policy-makers shall not be used to justify postponing measures to prevent such damage.

This might be more succinctly expressed as,

First do no harm or by inaction allow harm to occur.

There can be no doubt that Scotland being forcibly taken out of the EU represents, at the very least, a threat of serious or irreversible damage to the nation’s economic interests as well as our political, social and cultural well-being.

(In fact, it is the Union which poses this threat by affording the British state the power to impose policies such as Brexit on Scotland; but the First Minister has inexplicably chosen to hang the entire independence cause on the Brexit peg, so we shall go along with that for the moment.)

Given the real and imminent threat posed by Brexit, the Precautionary Principle holds that the Scottish Government’s uncertainty about the precise details of the outcome cannot excuse failure to act to prevent Scotland suffering harm.

It may be argued that the duty of the Scottish Government to prevent harm to Scotland extends to preventing harm to neighbouring or other territories where this may impact Scotland. But, to whatever extent such a duty exists it is overridden by a duty to respect the democratic will of the people of those territories. There is not, and neither could there be, an inalienable right to suffer no harm. People have a democratic right to vote against their own interests. Governments may only intervene to mitigate the harm.

It may further be argued that, given the nature of the devolution settlement, the referendum in 2016 was a UK-wide vote on UK membership of the EU; and that, being still part of the UK, Scotland is bound by the result every bit as much as the rest of the UK (rUK). This argument relies on three assumptions or contentions –

  • That Scotland is not a nation in any but the most trivial sense of that term.
  • That the Scottish Parliament is merely an annex to the UK Parliament.
  • That the Scottish Government is merely an adjunct to the UK Government

The first of these assumptions or contentions may be discounted without discussion. The UK Government recognised Scotland’s status as a nation when the UK Prime Minister signed the Edinburgh Agreement prior to the 2014 independence referendum. This fact alone makes it impossible for the British state to now dispute Scotland’s status as a nation.

The remaining assumptions or contentions are less easy to discount. It can readily be maintained that the Scotland Act 1998 makes the Scottish Parliament effectively no more than an annex of Westminster, and the Scottish Government no more than an adjunct to the British executive. But bear in mind that this is a matter of constitutional law. And that, unlike criminal law – which works best by being rigorously obeyed – constitutional law works best by being constantly challenged.

There exists something which we might call the democratic imperative. An existing constitutional settlement, however thoroughly enshrined in law, may be subsidiary to this democratic imperative. That is to say, the imperative to uphold fundamental democratic principles may carry more weight than the need to abide by the letter of constitutional law. It must be so. Otherwise there could have been no social or political progress. We would still be living with absolute monarchs, warring empires and exploited colonies. (To a greater extent than we are!) Women wouldn’t have the vote and employment rights would be a matter for discussion at secretive gatherings of ‘dangerous radicals’.

All these things changed because the democratic imperative was brought into play. Because the reformed condition had greater democratic legitimacy. Women have the vote because that is more democratic than them being prohibited from voting. The demand for workers’ rights was, and remains, a demand founded on the democratic imperative. Greater democratic legitimacy outweighs lesser democratic legitimacy and the constitutional provisions which maintain that lesser democratic legitimacy.

The Scottish Parliament has democratic legitimacy. This is irrefutable. The manner in which it is elected and the way it operates gives it unimpeachable democratic legitimacy. Compared to Holyrood, Westminster has no democratic legitimacy in Scotland. The fact that Scotland elects 59 members of the UK Parliament is all but meaningless given the grotesquely asymmetric nature of the Union.

If the Scottish Parliament has democratic legitimacy then it follows that the Scottish Government does too. Only in extraordinary circumstances does a system which confers democratic legitimacy on the parliament give rise to an administration whose democratic credentials are seriously questionable. The British political system may be an example of those extraordinary circumstances.

That the the Scottish Parliament is superior to Westminster in terms of democratic legitimacy is not a matter of controversy. That, despite this, it continues to be inferior in terms of constitutional law is a matter of great controversy. There are only two ways in which the conflict between democratic legitimacy and constitutional law can be resolved. Either the UK Parliament concedes the complete authority of the Scottish Parliament in Scotland – which is not going to happen; or the Scottish Government asserts that authority in defiance of the constitutional settlement.

The Precautionary Principle demands that the First Minister of Scotland act immediately to prevent the harm that will be done to Scotland, not only by Brexit, but by the impact of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism. The only way to do this is by asserting the primacy of the Scottish Parliament on the grounds of its democratic legitimacy. That this will entail dissolution of the Union and the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status may be considered a bonus.

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A game of constitutional chicken

Power is often just a matter of what you can get away with. A question of how far you’re prepared to go. In a given situation, one player my appear to have all the advantages, but they succumb to their opponent’s audacity. All the advantages in the world count for nothing if you’re the first to back down. Temerity can compensate for a lot of disadvantage.

The current face-off between the Scottish Government and the British political elite is very much like a game of constitutional chicken. It’s not about who holds the best cards. It’s about who folds first. It’s not about what is lawful or rightful. It’s about how far you can go before being challenged. It’s not about how much power you have. It’s about being prepared to use that power to it’s fullest.

In a democracy, politicians only have the power that the people afford them. Or, at least, that’s the theory – the democratic principle. In reality, politicians tend to have as much power as they can assert without it being disputed. The ‘looser’ the constitutional constraints on political power, the more difficult it can be to dispute asserted power; and so the more likely it is that asserted power will become established power – and even more difficult to dispute. Where the constitution is weak, the audacious can accrue great power.

Few modern democracies have weaker and looser constitutional constraints on executive power than the UK. It is thus by design. The dearth of effective constitutional constraints allows the British executive to acquire powers simply by laying claim to them.

One might think this would lead to dictatorship. That the outcome of this accretion of power to the executive must eventually be a totalitarian state. Indeed, this would be the logical, and almost certainly inevitable, conclusion were there a complete absence of constraints. But at least two factors serve to prevent this. The fact that the UK is a democracy – albeit one with a woefully inadequate constitution – means that the people are a limiting factor. There are elections and no matter how effectively voters are manipulated by the media, they can still occasionally tug the political choke-chain. Or, even more infrequently, they can do something very surprising and use their democratic power effectively to achieve an outcome something akin to what the majority favour.

The ruling elites of the British state have to be mindful of popular democratic power. For the most part, they have it under control. But the public are fickle and voters can behave unpredictably. So some caution is required.

But there is a more prosaic reason the UK hasn’t become a fully-fledged totalitarian state, despite the executive having the potential to wield dictatorial powers. The present arrangement works too well. The ruling elites are served very well by the existing structures of power, privilege and patronage. So why change anything? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

You might want to reflect on that for a moment. As far as the political, social and economic elites of the British state are concerned the existing British political system makes dictatorship redundant. Or maybe you don’t want to think about it at all.

The Union is, of course, a key element of the system that serves the few at whatever cost to the many. While Scotland and England could undoubtedly function perfectly well as independent countries, the entity that has evolved – and continues to evolve – from the old ‘Greater England’ project requires the Union. The survival of neither England nor Scotland depends on the Union. But it is crucial to the preservation of a British political system which serves the ruling elites better than a totalitarian regime might.

It is to be expected, therefore, that the British executive will do everything in its power to preserve the Union. It follows that it will assert whatever powers are required in order to counter any perceived threat to the Union. and that is precisely what is happening.

Power is relative. A political actor can achieve and maintain superiority either by becoming stronger or by making competing political actors weaker. Either by acquiring/asserting new powers, or by diminishing/depleting the powers of competitors. Invariably, the power dynamic involves both. Take a look at what the British government is doing in Scotland now and you will see it both asserting additional or increased powers and seeking to undermine the powers of Scotland’s democratic institutions.

Take a look at what the Scottish Government is doing and you will see a perplexing lack of effort either to challenge the powers being asserted by the British government or, more crucially, to assert the powers of Scotland’s democratic institutions. Few doubt that the British side is audacious enough to assert whatever powers it deems necessary to thwart Scotland’s constitutional aspirations and preserve the Union. Many now wonder whether the SNP administration has the audacity to respond appropriately by asserting its popular mandate.

Much of this reticence and hesitancy on the part of the Scottish Government appears to be due to concerns about the lawfulness of asserting power. The British state is distinctly unencumbered by any such concerns. Perhaps because the British ruling classes have bred into them an awareness that power is just a matter of what you succeed in getting away with. Perhaps because the British ruling elites have for generations operated on the basis of absolute confidence in their entitlement to power. Perhaps because the British executive has the audacity that the Scottish Government lacks.

In the game of constitutional chicken, having a mandate from the people means nothing if you are not prepared to use it. Having a lead in the polls is no use if you are not prepared to act. Having a just and worthy cause counts for nothing if you are not prepared to pursue that cause as aggressively as may be necessary.

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Writing in The National, Ruth Wishart offers an excellent analysis of the not-so-subtle change from Scottish Office to UK Government in Scotland. I would only make the point that the start of this process coincided only coincidentally with the coming of “the UK’s coalition government”. What triggered the metamorphosis was the British parties losing control of the Scottish Parliament.

The day Alex Salmond took office as First Minister was the day the British establishment decided that Holyrood had to be reined in, or closed down. It is that imperative to put the Scottish Parliament back in its box which has driven the transformation of the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland from being Scotland’s representative in the UK cabinet to being the British state’s overseer in Scotland.

This is not a controversial observation. Even the British government has dropped any pretence that the Scotland Office exists for the benefit of Scotland and its people. In this instance, it is totally accurate to say that ‘everybody knows’ what Alister “Union” Jack’s remit is.

The metamorphosis of the old Scottish Office is not yet complete. It will soon emerge as an unelected shadow administration accountable, not to Scotland’s voters, but solely to the British executive. A British government department to govern a British territory in the interests of the British ruling elite.

Wielding powers similar to those of a colonial Governor-General, the head of this department is tasked with undermining, side-lining and by-passing the democratically elected Scottish Parliament in whatever ways he considers will be most effective. To this end, he will be given a generous budget funded entirely by Scottish taxpayers. Money will be siphoned from the Scottish budget and diverted from the replacement for EU funding.

Within a very short time, Alister “Union” Jack will plead that he has insufficient powers to do his job properly. He will call for ever more powers to be transferred to his department from the Scottish Parliament in order that he might more effectively create the “UK-wide common frameworks” that are a transparent euphemism for direct rule from London. This will include powers which will allow him to sanction fracking as an economic necessity and bring NHS Scotland into line with NHS England the better to facilitate privatisation and a sell-off to US corporations which will not do any kind of deal while a ‘lefty’ Scottish Government has control of Scotland’s public health service.

As powers are stripped from the Scottish Parliament, responsibilities will be left. Successful projects will be plastered with Union flags and the UK Government in Scotland will take the credit, while the British media will help to ensure the blame for any failure is placed squarely on the shoulders of the SNP administration.

The British establishment regards the Scottish Parliament as a problem. Has done since at least 2007. The UK Government in Scotland is the solution to that problem. The fact that it is an affront to every principle of democracy and an insult to the people of Scotland is of no consequence. Jealous Britannia will have her way.

The British establishment has, in fact, regarded Scotland as a problem for considerably more than 300 years. Devolution was intended to deal with that problem. That has backfired rather badly. The British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project is seen as the final solution to the ‘Scottish problem’.

As Ruth Wishart says, “time is very much of the essence”. If we are to halt this ‘One Nation’ Project before Scotland’s democracy is dismantled and our very identity obliterated in a storm of Union flags, we must act NOW to #DissolveTheUnion.

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Plea!? Are we not yet above grovelling to Westminster? Are we inferiors petitioning a superior authority for some gracious boon? Why are we politely asking for limited and conditional powers to be grudgingly granted when we should be demanding an end to the withholding of all the powers that rightfully belong with the only parliament that has democratic legitimacy in Scotland?

Talks!? Are we not past the stage of talking? Isn’t it time for some bold and decisive action from the politicians we elected precisely because we thought them capable of bold, decisive action and willing to confront the British state?

There is no path to independence which does not pass through a point at which there is direct and acrimonious confrontation with the British state.

If now is not the time to confront the British political elite, then when? If this is not a worthwhile issue on which to confront them, what is? Listen to George Kerevan.

Why doesn’t ScotGov just ignore Home Office ban, replace Lord Advocate (who has jurisdiction) with someone with a backbone, & open drug rooms in Scotland. How many have to die before we exercise Scottish sovereignty? https://t.co/f8i9s1fPvQ— George Kerevan (@GeorgeKerevan) July 16, 2019

Let there be an end to the pleading! The Scottish Government needs to get off its knees and start aggressively asserting the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and the authority of the Scottish Parliament.

Let there be an end to the talking! At least until the British political elite are prepared to talk to Scotland’s democratically elected representatives as equals and with respect.

Let there be an end to pandering to British imperialist pretensions! The Scottish Government is there to prioritise Scotland’s aspirations. They would be well advised to make a start on that.

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The meaning behind the words

Politicians may, from time to time, mean what they say. But they only very rarely say exactly what they mean. The form of words that they use is carefully crafted and filtered through aides, policy advisers and media relations gurus. Mostly, professional politicians don’t lie. Although the version of the facts that they offer may be so distorted and perverted by that filtering process as to be a long way from the truth, it is seldom an outright untruth such as might come back to bite them on the arse at a later date.

There are, of course, exceptions. But they are exceptions because they are not behaving professionally. They are ignoring the advice and by-passing the filtering process. This may be because they are so junior as to lack a devoted team. Or it may be because they are just plain stupid. They convince themselves that they are great orators and fully on top of their brief, then make complete fools of themselves. Commonly, however, such people are so foolishly arrogant that they don’t even realise they’re making fools of themselves. Between their own lack of self-awareness and the sycophantic reassurance from their entourage, they carry on regardless.

The British political system doesn’t penalise such individuals. On the contrary, it all too frequently rewards them with high office.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt – the final two contenders for the British Conservative Party leadership; and the title of British Prime Minister which is the free bonus prize. I shall leave it to others to judge for themselves whether each of these individuals is a fool behaving professionally, or a professional behaving foolishly.

When trying to discern the true meaning behind what politicians say, it often pays to blur out the actual words and listen instead to the general tone. Take Jeremy Hunt’s responses to journalists prior to the hustings in Perth. Look past all the rhetoric about him being “a passionate Unionist” and how he wants “a Brexit that works for the Union”. Tune out the carefully chosen phrases – “work constructively and positively”, “open mind”, “forward”, “engage fully, responsibly and generously”, “I’m a democrat”. Try to hear the mood, rather than the words. He may not be saying what he means, but what he means will come through in the way he says it.

On second thoughts, don’t totally tune out that last bit where Hunt insist that he is a democrat. It is of particular interest in light of what we find when we listen to the tone of his utterances. He might as well have said, “I’m a democrat, but…!”. Because what comes across is certainly not an unequivocal commitment to democratic principles. The words say one thing. The tone betrays something else entirely.

What Hunt is talking about is, not democracy as we would understand it – and definitely not the democracy we aspire to in Scotland – but something more akin the the managed (or guided) democracy associated with formerly explicitly totalitarian nations. In a managed democracy, elections are held and people vote but no matter who they elect the resulting administration remains effectively unchanged. Elections shuffle the politicians around, but have no effect on policy. Whatever the outcome of elections, whatever the make-up of parliament, whatever the democratic will of the people, the government continues to do what it wants.

This is a million miles from the popular sovereignty of Scotland. It is far, even, from the parliamentary sovereignty of England. This is sovereignty of the executive. This is the dangerous idea that legitimate political authority derives, not from the people or even the monarch, but from those who wield power. It is the notion that what is done is right because of who does it.

The tone of Hunt’s remarks – and in this respect he is no different from any other British politician – tells us that what his commitment to democracy means is that he will generously allow Scotland all the democracy we want so long as we only use in the way that he wants. We can vote for anything we like, so long as it isn’t something with which he “profoundly disagrees”. Our democratic choices are only valid if they accord with his preferences. Our democratic will is conditional on us not opposing his will.

Scotland can be whatever it wants, so long as that is what Jeremy Hunt (the British political elite) wants. That is his idea of democracy. Such is managed democracy.

Having discerned that what Hunt really means when he talks of democracy is democracy ‘guided’ by the British state, we are entitled to enquire as to what we are being guided to. Which is where we deploy another trick of political analysis and look for the imperatives which drive the British state and the options it has in pursuing those imperatives.

Maintaining the Union is a major imperative for the British state. England-as-Britain has to keep hold of Scotland. It is not entirely a matter of economics – geopolitics and pride are significant factors – but the economic implications of Scotland dissolving the Union cannot be ignored. Nor can they be overstated. Brexit is going to be expensive. The British political elite has, through a combination of idiocy and more idiocy, painted itself into a corner where it must deliver Brexit at any cost. And the cost is going to be enormous.

It is questionable whether the UK can bear this cost. England-as-Britain almost certain would not be able to do so. The figures may not mean much, but they suffice to illustrate the point. The cost of Brexit may be £200bn. Scotland’s economy is worth roughly the same amount to the UK. England-as-Britain demands the status of successor state in the event of Scotland restoring its independence. Which means England-as-Britain takes on the entire burden of UK debt plus the additional costs of Brexit. And it takes on this burden with an economy which has shrunk relative to the former UK by around £200bn annually.

Even without Brexit, losing Scotland was going to be economically problematic for England-as-Britain. Which is why the Scottish Government included in its White Paper a number of provisions intended to ease the transition. Unpopular as many of these provisions were among independence supporters, Alex Salmond realised full well that an economically crippled England benefited Scotland not at all.

These provisions were also rejected by the British government. Not because they weren’t aware of the need for them, but because accepting that England-as-Britain would need Scotland’s cooperation post-independence didn’t fit with the narrative of the anti-independence campaign. With the exception of those who were completely taken in by British propaganda, everybody – including the British political elite – was aware that a Yes vote would have prompted several screeching U-turns on the part of the British government.

We know that, regardless of any other considerations, the British government must deliver Brexit. We know that Brexit is likely to be economically crippling to some degree. We know that, failing the kind of relationship with Scotland that British politicians seem determined to permanently destroy, the impact would be considerably greater if Scotland dissolves the Union. We know that, so long as there is an SNP Scottish Government, a Scottish Parliament, and a Yes movement the British establishment must assume that their precious Union is in jeopardy.

Do the math!

It is blindingly obvious that the British state’s imperative to preserve the Union must drive it towards the option of removing the Scottish Parliament from the equation. It has to be Holyrood because proscribing a political party is fraught with problems and the Yes movement is invulnerable on account of its very nature. Besides, removing the Scottish Parliament also removes the Scottish Government. A doubly blow to Scotland’s democracy and to our aspiration to restore constitutional normality.

Whichever British politician we listen to, and whatever form of words they use, the tone tells us very clearly that the British state’s intention is to eliminate the threat of the Union being dissolved by eradicating Scotland’s distinctive political culture and imposing their own brand of managed democracy.

Because we know what the British state’s imperatives are; because we know the circumstances in which the British political elite has placed the UK; because we know the options available to the British government – whoever is PM – and because we know the meaning behind the words when Jeremy Hunt and his ilk speak, we know with a high degree of certainty that the British government will shortly move to dismantle Scotland’s democratic institutions. We know they are going to emasculate, suspend or abolish the Scottish Parliament.

The question is whether we are prepared to let them. How determined are we to stop them? How committed are we to democracy? How resolved are we to rescue Scotland from the rolling juggernaut of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism that threatens everything we have achieved – and everything we aspire to?

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Under pressure

I despair of people who can meekly accept over three centuries of their sovereignty being denied, but find in the fleeting ascendancy of a malignant child-clown an incentive to end the gross constitutional anomaly under which the nation labours. If Boris Johnson being British Prime Minister is the best reason these people can think of for ending the Union then they really need to do a bit more thinking.

But we take what we can get. Motives are of academic interest only. Voters are not required to justify their choices. There is no space on any ballot paper where voters must provide their reasons for voting as they have. Which, in a way, is a pity. I suspect those ballot papers would make rather interesting reading.

It is gratifying that, whatever their reasons, enough people have switched from No to Yes that the First Minister can be “confident” of victory at last for Scotland’s cause in that new referendum she has been promising for what seems like decades, but can’t possibly be more than a few years. Such is the sense of unrequited urgency that is felt, to a greater or lesser degree, across all of the Yes movement bar the increasingly isolated and besieged pockets of Postponer complacency.

The question most are asking is when will that confidence be translated into the bold, decisive action that may yet save Scotland from the onslaught of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist fervour that threatens our democracy, our prosperity and our very identity as a nation? Not to mention our vital public services.

Opinion polls won’t do it. No number of opinion polls, however favourable, will end the Union and restore Scotland to normality. That will only happen when our First Minister decides to cast aside the rules and procedures imposed for the preservation of the Union and the advantage of the British ruling elite. It will only happen when Nicola Sturgeon knows in her heart and her head that the odds favour Yes.

It is her calculation to make. Few doubt that she is politically capable. Fewer still doubt her personal commitment to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But time is running out. The British establishment understands what is at stake. If there is one certainty in today’s chaotic political condition it is that the British state will move to thwart Scotland’s aspiration to be a normal nation again. For established power, that is an imperative.

Knowing the imperative, we need only look at the options available to anti-democratic British Nationalist to be in a position to predict, with some certainty, what they will do. Broadly speaking, the British state can be expected to attack one or more of the five components parts of Scotland’s independence movement – the SNP, which is the lever by which Scotland will be prised out of the detested Union; The Scottish Government, which is the fulcrum on which the lever moves; the Scottish Parliament which form the solid base on which the lever rests and the Yes movement. which supplies the force to move the lever.

It will be pointed out that all of these are already under attack – with the possible exception of the Yes movement, which doesn’t present a good target. what is happening now; what has happened to date in terms of smearing the SNP, denigrating the Scottish Government and undermining the Scottish Parliament is mere sparring compared to the onslaught which awaits us the other side of Brexit. The contenders for the job of British Prime Minister have all made it abundantly clear that bringing Scotland to heel, by whatever means, is among their top priorities. They will seek to make good on their threats.

The burden of responsibility which rests on Nicola Sturgeon’s shoulders is massive. The decisions she must make have profound implications. The task she faces is daunting in the extreme. She must act before the British state contrives new obstacles and impediments. She must act while the various parts of the independence movement are intact and strong. She must act very soon – and with relentless determination.

For our part, we must continue to urge the First Minister to act. The pressure we put on Nicola Sturgeon translates into the power she wields against the British state. So pile it on! Even if it is only to avoid the ignominy of Boris Johnson being able to declare himself Scotland’s overlord.

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