AUOB Edinburgh 2019 Speech

The following is the text of a speech delivered at the
#AUOBEdinburgh March & Rally on 5 October 2019.

What is the best thing the SNP has done?

The party has been in government now for more than 12 years. Pretty much everybody bar the bitter, blinkered, bigoted British Nationalists agree that they’ve done a reasonable job.

The voters certainly seem well enough pleased. Ask most of them and they’ll say “SNP? They’re a’ right!”

Some might even wax passionate enough to say “They’re no bad!”

But what’s the single best thing they’ve done for Scotland?

You’ll all have your own ideas about that. But I’ve got my own particular favourite.

For a long time, if you’d asked me what’s the best thing the SNP ever did in government, I’d have picked getting rid of that demeaning ‘Scottish Executive’ title and becoming a real Scottish Government!

That was important. That sent a message to the British establishment. That told them “Hey! That’s the end of the pretendy! There will be no more pretendy!”

I wouldn’t pick that now. Not because it isn’t important, but because it led to something even more important.

The SNP administration back then didn’t just say they were a real government, they acted like a real government. So much so that now, nobody doubts it. We take it for granted.

Scotland has a real government and a real parliament. A government with a real mandate from the people. A parliament with real democratic legitimacy.

The British political elite don’t like it! But that’s the way it is. Successive SNP administrations have made Holyrood the locus of Scottish politics. That’s my candidate for the most significant thing they’ve done.

The SNP has brought Scotland’s politics back to Scotland. Now they just have to bring Scotland’s government back to Scotland. All of it!

And that’s where we hit a couple of wee snags.

Having very successfully made the Scottish Parliament the main arena for politics in Scotland, our political leaders now seem intent on moving the focus back to Westminster.

Brexit! I don’t have much to say about it. There isn’t much that need be said about it. There’s only three things people in Scotland need to know about Brexit.

  1. Brexit cannot be fixed. The British political elite have screwed things up in a manner that is remarkable even for them. There is no way to fix Brexit.
  2. There is no Brexit deal that can negate Scotland’s Remain vote.
  3. Brexit is not our problem.

So why the hell are our political leaders so obsessed with it? Why are they embroiled in what’s going on at Westminster? Scotland’s politics isn’t done at Westminster! It’s done here in Edinburgh – Scotland’s capital city.

“Oh but we’ll be affected by Brexit!”, I hear people say. ”We can’t get away from it!”

Of course we’ll be affected! All the more reason our politicians should be here in Edinburgh working on solutions for Scotland instead of getting tangled up in England’s mess.

Scotland’s politics has to be done in Scotland. We won’t find solutions in Westminster. Westminster won’t act for us. Westminster won’t protect Scotland’s interests. We have to do that ourselves… here… in Scotland!

And that includes a new referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status. Why would we give Westminster an effective veto over our referendum?

Why would we let Westminster set conditions and make rules for our referendum?

Why would we accept Westminster being involved in any way in our referendum?

Yet that is precisely what the Section 30 process does. It moves vital aspects of our referendum out of Scotland and hands them over to Westminster.

Scotland’s new independence referendum must be entirely made and managed in Scotland. Our First Minister must seize control of the process. Our Government must legislate for the process. Our Parliament must have oversight of the process.

It’s our referendum!

It is our referendum and there must be no external interference!

It’s our right of self-determination, therefore it is our referendum!

It doesn’t belong to the First Minister, or to the Scottish Government, or even to the Scottish Parliament. The referendum belongs to the people of Scotland!

The legal validity of our referendum rests on a solid body of international laws and conventions.

The democratic legitimacy of our referendum derives from the sovereignty of Scotland’s people.

Our referendum has nothing to do with Westminster! And Westminster should have nothing to do with our referendum!

Let’s walk away for Brexit!

Let’s walk away from Section 30!

Let’s walk away from Westminster!

Let’s walk away from the Union!

Let’s bring Scotland’s government home!

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Explanations required!

I take no pleasure whatever in comparing Nicola Sturgeon to Richard Leonard, but I cannot help but note the inconsistencies and contradictions in her own position.

The First Minister recognises that the British parties will try to ‘rig’ the referendum in any way they can. Nothing at all surprising about this. We know them to be totally unprincipled and shameless. We had evidence enough of that during the 2014 referendum campaign, and since. That British Nationalists will do anything to preserve their precious Union and further the ‘One Nation’ cause is a truism of Scottish politics. They will rationalise absolutely any conduct – however deplorable this might be in any other context – if it is in furtherance of their anti-democratic aims and in defense of the British ruling elites.

The First Minister knows all this. She knows as a matter of incontrovertible fact that the British parties squatting in the Scottish Parliament – in collusion with their masters in London and the British media – will seek to ‘rig’ the referendum. She knows this for the same reason the rest of us know it. She knows because the British parties are already speaking openly about the ways in which they intend to manipulate the referendum process to their advantage. It’s not a secret! It’s not a suspicion! It’s a fact!

And it is something that we have been aware of for some considerable time. Certainly since before the First Minister committed so completely and exclusively to the Section 30 process. Which is where the contradictions and inconsistencies in her position start to show. If the First Minister is, as she should be, concerned about the referendum being rigged by British Nationalists, why has she committed to a process which provides them with the means and opportunity to do so?

By committing to the Section 30 process, Nicola Sturgeon has ‘invited in’ the very forces which she acknowledges as being a potentially serious threat to the fairness and democratic validity of the referendum. She has granted to the British political elite the power to impose rules and conditions on the referendum which amount to the rigging that she says she is concerned about. It does not compute, as I’m sure the kids stopped saying many moons ago supposing they ever did.

This is not the only contradiction and/or inconsistency in the First Minister’s position. She has also acknowledged the possibility – some would say probability or even certainty – that the British government intends to ‘suspend’ the Scottish Parliament. Again, this is something which has been, at the very least, on the cards for a very long time. Some of us saw the writing on the wall as far back as 2007, when the SNP formed its first administration. That writing on the wall was carved in stone when the voters broke the system in 2015 to give the SNP a majority.

The Scottish Parliament is an obvious target for those who seek to lock Scotland into the nightmare of a ‘One Nation’ British state where democracy is regarded as an impediment to ‘success’ measured solely in terms of the increasing wealth of a tiny clique; and human rights and civil liberties as a hindrance to ‘efficiency’ measured only in terms of the British executive’s ability to do whatever it pleases. Scotland’s claim to, and pursuit of, constitutional normality is critically dependent on four components working together – the SNP; the Scottish Government; the Scottish Parliament and the Yes movement. Of these, the British state only has direct and immediate authority over the Scottish Parliament. It stands to reason that they will seek to ‘neutralise’ Holyrood so as to disable the machinery of Scotland’s cause.

Knowing this, as she must, the First Minister seems determined to afford the British state as much time as it needs to put in place the measures and infrastructure that will enable it to shut down the Scottish Parliament and transfer all its powers to the so-called ‘UK Government in Scotland’ – an unelected and unaccountable shadow administration which has been constructed right under the noses of Scotland’s people. As telling a testament to British imperialist arrogance as might be imagined.

Brexit – which Scotland voted against and which the Scottish Government had a solemn duty to prevent being imposed on us – seems inevitable. That Scotland will be wrenched from the EU against our will and without even the minimal protection of a bad deal looks to be all but certain. It appears that this is what the British government is waiting for. Brexit will be the signal that sets off a major assault on Scotland’s democratic institutions. Anyone who doubted this before now has to contend with the reality that the pen which can eradicate the Scottish Parliament at a stroke is in the hand of a malignant child clown called Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

The Scottish Government has failed to act to save Scotland from Brexit and it has failed to act to prevent the Scottish Parliament being crippled or destroyed. A duo of failures which stand in stark contrast to all the indignant speechifying and Twitter ‘slamming’ which has been the ineffectual background noise to events over the past five years.

I am not, of course, suggesting that Nicola Sturgeon is in any way similar to Richard Leonard. She is acute, where he is dull. She is articulate, where he is incoherent. She is committed to serving Scotland, where he is committed to serving the ruling elites of the British state. Where the similarities begin and end is with these deeply unfortunate contradictions and inconsistencies.

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Choosing sides

Five years ago mine was one of very few voices warning of the British Nationalist threat to Scotland’s democratic institutions. It seemed obvious to me that, not only did the ‘One Nation’ project require the emasculation or closure of the Scottish Parliament, but that the political culture growing in England could not tolerate the continuing existence of a contrasting and competing political culture in Scotland. An effort to eradicate Scotland’s distinctive political culture would be inevitable. Such distinctiveness is anathema to British Nationalist ideology and contrary to the interests of the forces which have put Boris Johnson in power.

I mention this not by way of saying “Ah telt ye!” – although I reserve the right to do so – but by way of highlighting how significant it is that my warnings are now being vindicated by politicians as senior as Mike Russell.

I just responded to a Tweet from a businesswoman saying that, only a week or two ago, she would have considered my anxieties misplaced and my calls to action “extremist”. Her views have changed. People are waking up to the true nature of what I refer to as the British state, or England-as-Britain. By which I mean those forces which have co-opted Boris Johnson to serve their interests. The very forces which, by means of the Union, have foisted Johnson on Scotland in the same way as they have imposed on an unwilling nation Brexit and austerity and much besides.

Please do not imagine that those forces will be discouraged by this growing awareness of their purposes and intentions for Scotland and the rest of what they regard as the periphery of their domain. Do not imagine they will be in any way deterred by Mike Russell’s warning. Just as these forces see democracy and the law as things to be flouted or circumvented, so they see democratic dissent as something to be suppressed. From the British Nationalist perspective, the most effective way to suppress the wave of democratic dissent rising in Scotland is to eliminate the Parliament which gives a voice to that dissent. It is the obvious thing to do if your purpose and intent is the eradication of Scotland’s distinctive political culture, along with all those aspects of Scotland’s national identity which are not considered exploitable.

Gratifying as it is to see our political leaders recognising the real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democracy, this is worthless unless it is backed up with action. Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell have now acknowledged the reality of this threat. Many other politicians and commentators will surely follow. We need to know that they are prepared to effectively address this threat. We need to know that they are ready to do whatever is required to counter the threat. And we need to back them to the hilt as they confront the might of the British state.

Scotland’s Unionists are faced with a choice. It is important that those of us who long since realised the true nature of the Union should be mindful of how difficult this choice is going to be for many who have maintained a lifelong loyalty to the Union. But choose they must. Scotland is in jeopardy of a kind that it has faced only rarely in it’s long history. Jeopardy such as might sensibly be regarded as unprecedented. Sometimes, you just have to pick a side. Sometimes the choices are just so stark that there can be no compromise; no middle way.

The choice now confronting everybody who calls Scotland their country is between the Scotland we know, the Scotland we aspire to, the Scotland we hope to bequeath to future generations; and a Scotland pressed into serving those forces which put Boris Johnson in power.

What side are you on?

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The Niemöller effect

A small thing. Easily dismissed. Scottish Civil Servants being peremptorily and unilaterally excluded from meetings with the EU is the sort of thing that it’s easy to make little of. It’s can readily be portrayed as no more than the petty squabbling of jealous bureaucrats. But, of course, it is much more serious than that.

Apparently minor incidents such as this are part of a process by which Scotland’s democratic institutions are sidelined and undermined in preparation for being dismantled completely.

The people of Scotland need to understand that the right-wing coup currently taking place in England-as-Britain will not be considered complete until Scotland is completely absorbed into a new British state given over entirely to the malign forces which put Boris Johnson in power.

This is an accelerating process. We do not have the time that some imagine when, even if they recognise what is happening, they make the mistake of thinking the process is going at a steady pace. In fact, it is exponential – or something close. Each incident is portrayed as being isolated and inconsequential. But they are all connected. Each one facilitates others. Each one exploits the complacency that follows acceptance of earlier incidents. When the public is inured to the little things, those malign forces move on to bigger things.

We might call it the Niemöller effect, after German theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller who famously said,

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

They are coming for the Scottish Parliament. We cannot afford to be complacent.

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Scotland’s has a Parliament

So, our First Minister has at last caught up with those of us in the Yes movement who have been warning for years that Scotland’s democratic institutions are in jeopardy. Or, more likely, she is finally prepared to speak publicly about the likelihood of the Scottish Parliament being ‘suspended’. I find it hard to believe Nicola Sturgeon was oblivious to the threat. But it is easy to understand why, as a senior politician, she might have been reluctant to admit any concerns. It’s not that long since talking about the Scottish Parliament being closed down would have called down a torrent of mockery and condemnation from the British establishment for ‘scaremongering’.

Now, it is those who try to deny even the possibility who open themselves to mockery. It is those who try to dismiss the threat who must be condemned. The threat is real. The threat is imminent.

All of which creates a major problem for the British parties in Scotland. What does Richard Leonard say now? How does Ruth Davidson rationalise Boris Johnson’s unceremonious attack on the British democracy that she holds to be sacrosanct? If anybody was listening to Willie Rennie, what sort of simpering drivel would they hear? How do any of them defend a Union which places Scotland at the mercy of Boris Johnson and whatever form of unthinkable worse that is yet to come?

England has chosen its path. As Stu Campbell points out on Wings Over Scotland

The UK has a democratically-elected government which is currently due to run until the summer of 2022. And that government has a mandate to deliver Brexit, in any form, come what may.

It’s a common cry from Remain-supporting politicians and media alike that Johnson has “no mandate” for no-deal. But all leaving personal opinion aside, it’s simply impossible to support that argument.

Two-and-a-half years ago, the UK parliament voted overwhelmingly – 498 to 114 – to enact Article 50, the mechanism by which a member of the European Union leaves the organisation. The terms of Article 50 are clear, and stipulate a no-deal exit unless a deal is done. The EU has already granted the UK two extensions on the timetable, which have produced absolutely nothing.

Scotland has no right to interfere with the choices made by the people of England. And no capacity to do so even if such interference could be justified. There have been opportunities to stop the Brexit madness and to avoid the hard-right British Nationalist coup currently underway. Voters in England have spurned every chance to choose differently.

Ii is time for the Scottish Government to leave England-as-Britain to its own devices. However noble you may consider the efforts of Nicola Sturgeon and Ian Blackford to have England’s voters draw back from the abyss, it is now time for them to acknowledge that the effort is doomed to fail – because the people of England don’t want it. They want what they’re getting. However anathema it may be to most of us here in Scotland, what is happening in London right now is precisely what the majority of people in /england voted for.

Scotland has made different choices. It is time the Scottish Government focused on ensuring that those choices are honoured.

Many of us realised that the Scottish Parliament’s future started to look perilous in 2007, wth the first (minority) SNP administration. When the voters broke the system to elect a majority SNP government in 2011, the fate of the Scottish Parliament was sealed. The British establishment was only prepared to tolerate devolution so long as the Union was not compromised. It was only a matter of time before they found a way to end the ‘experiment’.

The only way to avoid Scotland’s democratic institutions being dismantled is for the Scottish Parliament to assert its primacy on the basis of its exclusive democratic legitimacy. The Scottish Government must propose that the Scottish Parliament declare itself the sole voice of Scotland’s people and agent their of democratic will. It will then be for the people of Scotland to vote on whether to #DissolveTheUnion in order that Scotland should should be able to choose and follow its own path..

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It is all so fragile

My wife and I are working our way through the first series of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment. It makes for disturbing, and at times harrowing viewing. Thought-provoking on many levels. And the thoughts it provokes can be dark, indeed. Comparisons will doubtless be deemed invidious. But, as a study of power relationships, it is for me very reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm. But The Handmaid’s Tale is very much more affecting. It will make you angry. It will make you afraid. It will lead you to despair of humanity. Because, for all it’s extremes, Atwood’s vividly imagined dystopia is horribly credible.

One of the things that struck me as most frightening about the TV dramatisation was the the way in which the descent into this dystopia is portrayed as happening almost unnoticed by people intent on the pursuit of what quickly come to seem ludicrously trivial gratifications. It was this, too, which put me in mind of Animal Farm. Each stage in the process of moving from democratic civilisation to barbaric totalitarianism appears, in isolation, perfectly reasonable. Or a passing phenomenon. Later, extraordinary measures are deemed necessary to deal with exceptional circumstances. Acceptance of each step in the process paves the way for tolerance of the next. Until there is no way back. Too late, the realisation dawns that what has been so casually squandered can never be recovered.

How fragile it all is!

Could this happen in real life? Is it already happening? If Margaret Atwood is right, we may be unaware. We may already have accepted too much. We may already have developed the tolerance which will allow our rights and freedoms to slip away from us. Not wrenched from our grasp, but given up without demur. Almost as if we were relieved to be freed from the responsibilities which are the necessary corollary of those rights and freedoms.

Brexit looms! Scotland is about to be forced out of the EU against the democratic will of Scotland’s people. That is serious. It is an outrage. And yet we see in the meek acceptance or dutiful rationalisation of this outrage precisely the dumb, fatal complacency that is so powerfully conveyed in The Handmaid’s Tale. We see the same failure – or refusal – to look beyond and beneath immediate events. As ever, we are distracted by talk of economic consequences. Brexit will destroy jobs! Brexit will cost each of us £2,456.76 per year! Brexit will mean empty shelves in the supermarkets and delicatessens! We are constantly encouraged to focus on those gratifications that we have yet to see as ludicrously trivial. Will we learn before it is too late?

Will we lift our eyes and see beyond Brexit to see the dismantling of Scotland’s democratic institutions and the decimation of our public services and all the other extraordinary measures that will be deemed necessary to deal with exceptional circumstances? Will we look beneath the seemingly benign bungling and entertaining eccentricities of the British political elite foisted on us by the Union and discern through the fog of media distortion a regime with motives hardly less malign that that portrayed by Margaret Atwood?

Will we remember that, only a few short weeks ago, the idea of the UK Parliament being prorogued to allow the British executive a free hand would have been, if not unthinkable, then hardly the topic of serious political discourse? Will we realise that the mere fact of the ‘suspension’ of democratically elected parliaments being discussed is part of the process by which the public consciousness is prepared for the actuality? Today’s fodder for political anoraks imperceptibly metamorphoses into tomorrow’s inevitability. And it’s somehow OK because we knew it was going to happen.

Will we think to follow this chain of developments even further? Perhaps to the invoking of the Civil Contingencies Act, with all that this entails? Or will we tell ourselves, and each other, that there is no chain; no connection; no linkage leading from one to the next? Will we see only isolated developments, each of which can be comfortably ignored or readily rationalised?

Will we all wake up one day to find ourselves in a world of nightmares, and wonder how it could have happened?

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Beware Brits bearing gifts

Discussion of a ‘Wings Party’ standing for regional seats in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election is, of course, entirely an academic exercise. And a bit of a distraction. There are far more pressing concerns; such as whether there will actually be any Scottish Parliament elections in 2021. Losing the pro-independence majority at Holyrood is a worrying prospect. But it pales into insignificance next to the possibility (probability?) that we may have lost the entire Scottish Parliament by 2021.

On first reading Stuart Campbell’s article outline his thinking, I thought it sounded very plausible. But long experience has taught me to be wary of plausible-sounding schemes. The whole RISE/’rainbow parliament’ thing that so nearly lost us the pro-independence majority in 2016 was dangerous mainly because it was made to sound so plausible. The difference – and it is an important one – is that RISE had no support base at all, while a Wings Party would, on paper at least, come with a substantial level of support built in.

There’s also the fact that RISE was promoted by persons of what we shall generously term ‘limited credibility’. Certainly far less credibility than Stuart Campbell has acquired over years of offering analysis which manages to be coldly forensic despite his evident passion for Scotland’s cause.

That passion is evident in causes other than independence. Some of which are bitterly controversial within the independence movement. I don’t see this as detracting from Stuart Campbell’s credibility in any way. Whether or not one agrees with his views, there can be no doubt that they are sincerely held, and strongly argued. Many focus, not on those views or his arguments in defence of them, but on the manner in which he expresses himself. This is a familiar evasive tactic commonly deployed by those who have come to the debate ill-equipped to deal with the content of opposing arguments and are, therefore reduced to attacking the superficial aspects of presentation.

As much as I will say about the Wings Party proposal at this time is that it is somewhat more persuasive than the RISE fantasy. What we must bear in mind is that you cannot game the voting system for the Scottish Parliament elections. All you can do is gamble with it. The RISE thing asked us to take a ridiculous gamble where we stood to lose something of incalculable worth with a chance of winning that was as close to zero as makes no difference. Many took that gamble because they were so dazzled by the magnificence of the prize as to be unable to see how unattainable it was.

The best that can be said of Stuart Campbell’s idea is that it constitutes less of a gamble than the RISE folly. How much less nobody can say as there are too many factors which cannot be clearly discerned at this distance from the 2021 Holyrood election. And, in any case, there are matters which demand our immediate attention. Matters of vastly greater importance than some tactical voting ploy in an election that is more than 18 months away for a Parliament this may well have been ‘suspended’ by the British state as the ‘One Nation’ project is rolled out.

Which brings me to a concern that has been growing in my mind since the publication of Stuart Campbell’s interview in The Times. Being ever mindful of the real and imminent threat to Scotland posed by juggernaut of rabid British Nationalism, I am ever watchful for signs of the British political elite’s devious doings. They no longer try to conceal their efforts to delegitimise the Scottish Parliament; marginalise the Scottish Government and demonise the SNP. It is no longer possible to sensibly deny the British state’s intention to dismantle Scotland’s democratic institutions and destroy Scotland’s distinctive political culture. Although some seem intent on dumbly disregarding this purpose.

I have always considered the fourth component of the independence campaign – the Yes movement – to be impervious to attack by the forces of anti-democratic British Nationalism. There is no formal structure; no hierarchy, no leadership that can be targeted. But suppose a target could be created. Suppose the power of the British media could be deployed to associate a particular personality with the Yes movement. Suppose an association between some ‘celebrity’ figure and the Yes movement could be contrived that was so strong as to make it possible to implant in the public consciousness the notion of this figure being the ‘official’ representative of the Yes movement.

When I see Stuart Campbell being interviewed by The Times and making appearances on British TV and radio, I ask myself why. Why is this happening? Why him? Why now? And I don’t like the answers I come up with.

I do not for one second suppose that Stuart Campbell thinks of himself as the figurehead of the entire Yes movement. I don’t think he seeks such greatness. But he may well have this greatness thrust upon him.

I rather think Stuart Campbell may not be the sort of person who welcomes advice. I recognise, too, that he is not a stupid man and that the advice may be entirely redundant. Nonetheless, I would counsel him to beware Brits bearing the gift of recognition. They will use you if they can. They will set you up as the ‘poster-boy’ of the Yes movement in the hope that, when they bring you down in a welter of vicious smear stories, the Yes movement will also be damaged.

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