British Army camps in Scotland following the Battle of Culloden. –

If you know where you want to go but need to figure out how to get there then you also need to know where you are. Only when you know the starting point and the end point can you begin to plot a course from one to the other. I say “begin” because identifying the start and end points is only part of the task. Arguably, the easiest part. Because plotting a course between the two requires that you take account of all the points that lie on your proposed course. You need to know where all the obstacles and potential bottlenecks are. You need to know as much as possible about everything that you may encounter on your journey.

Of course, if there is a long, straight road in good condition with no tolls and guaranteed ideal weather, your task is easy. But even then there may be unforeseen impediments such as breakdowns and pile-ups. You have to be prepared to deal with these.

Most of you will have realised by now that I’m not talking about an excursion from Perth to the beach at Aberdour. I’m talking about the journey from Scotland’s present situation to the restoration of our nation’s independence.

We have a pretty good idea of the destination. In fact, we have a plethora of such ideas. Everybody in Scotland’s independence movement may be broadly in agreement about where we want to be when we arrive, but there is considerable difference of opinion about what this place looks like. Not that it is necessary to know what it looks like in order to travel there. But if descriptions differ too much then people will come to think they are headed for a different place altogether. This is what I mean when I say that ‘independence’ is a disputed concept.

It is not possible to build an effective single-issue political campaign around a disputed concept. Such a campaign requires unity, focus and discipline. It can have none of these while there is disagreement about the campaign’s objective. Even a relatively small disagreement will impair focus and fracture unity and lead to indiscipline. Where the disagreement is significant, the campaign will effectively become two or more campaigns competing amongst themselves and failing to adequately engage with the opposition.

That’s what happened in the 2014 referendum campaign. The diversity of the Yes movement became division within the campaign. There was a failure to properly identify and clearly define the common aim. The campaign had nothing around which to coalesce – other than the disputed concept of ‘independence’. As a consequence, the Yes campaign tended to be diffuse, diluted and depleted. It may be argued that the effect was slight. But when an issue is as finely balanced as the constitutional question, small errors can have an impact disproportionate to their size.

The common factor in all visions of independence is the dissolution of the Union. No matter how you envisage independence dissolving the Union is a prerequisite.

Since the first Scottish independence referendum I have been mostly concerned with process – the route by which we reach our destination. I very quickly came to some conclusions. I came to realise that there is no route to independence which abides by the rules set down by the British government. And that there is no route to independence that doesn’t involve confrontation with the British establishment.

Annexation, a formal act whereby a state proclaims its sovereignty over territory hitherto outside its domain. Unlike cession, whereby territory is given or sold through treaty, annexation is a unilateral act made effective by actual possession and legitimized by general recognition.

Annexation is frequently preceded by conquest and military occupation of the conquered territory.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

We were told, and most believed, that Scotland had a democratic route to independence by way of a referendum sanctioned by the UK Government. This is the Section 30 process which was followed for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. But there is a major problem with this in that the Section 30 process can only work with the full and willing and honest cooperation of the British state. And there is less than no reason to believe that such cooperation might ever be forthcoming.

England-as-Britain not only won’t allow Scotland to restore its independence, it can’t. It is politically impossible for England-as-Britain to permit the dissolution of the Union because, without Scotland, England-as-Britain becomes just England. Without Scotland, the Britain which is the conceit of the ruling elites ceases to exist. Without the Union, the structures of power, privilege and patronage which maintain established power will be weakened to the point of disintegration. The Union is the keystone of those structures. Scotland is a supporting pillar.

So long as there was a democratic route to independence, however questionable, the pretence of a “Union of equals” could be maintained. Many – and one suspects Nicola Sturgeon to be among them – believed, and continue to believe as Michael Fry does. This from his column in The National.

Outrageous as it may be for Boris to deny that the result of the UK General Election makes any difference, there is, legally and constitutionally, no alternative to waiting till he changes his mind. So we will get no new referendum in 2020. We’ll just have to wait and see if outright SNP victory in the Holyrood election of 2021 causes a political rethink in Downing Street. Not only the Scottish government but also various respected independent commentators have been saying it would surely need to.

This is why ‘DIY’ indyref2 won’t be able to deliver independence

Depressing as this description of the situation may be, it accurately reflects Scotland’s true predicament in all respects other than the implied hope that something might make Boris Johnson change his mind and grant a Section 30 order. Or the variation on this hope which supposes that a change of attitude may come with a change of government at Westminster. Both are forlorn hopes. There will be no change of heart; no change of mind; no rethink. No British Prime Minister will ever sanction any process which places the Union in jeopardy. Even if they were minded to do so, they would be prevented.

The Section 30 process is, as I have long maintained, nothing more than a device by which the pretence of democracy could be maintained. A way of keeping alive the hope and belief that Scotland has a democratic route out of the Union. The Section 30 process is a lie.

Why then, you may ask, do we have the likes of Gordon “Intervention Man” Brown striding out of the shadows and onto the stage to warn in doom-lade tones that London rule may ‘soon be over’? There are a number of reasons. Rallying the forces of British Nationalism would be one. Ensuring that the Tories get the blame for putting the Union at risk another. Brown being a pompous, self-regarding, attention-seeking prick who craves the status of a senior statesman that he cannot earn might have something to do with it. But the most important reason, and the one most people may not recognise, is the need to maintain the illusion of the Union being under threat. The illusion that Scotland has a way of dissolving the Union.

Without this pretence, only one conclusion is possible. That there is no democratic route to independence. Or, at least, that there is no democratic route which is both guaranteed and accessible. That is to say, a process which exists and cannot be unilaterally altered. A process which is entirely internal to Scotland. A process which can be initiated and followed by the democratically elected representatives of Scotland’s people without interference or hindrance from any external power.

That is the reality of Scotland’s predicament. It has been the clearly recognisable reality for several years. It is the reality behind the concerns I have expressed about the Section 30 process. It is the reality which I preferred not to explicitly acknowledge whilst it was still possible to pretend that the Section 30 process is what it purports to be.

Without a process such as I have described by which Scotland’s constitutional status can be normalised according to the will of Scotland’s people our present constitutional status cannot be what we have long believed it to be. The starting point on our journey to independence is not what we thought it was. We are not in the place we imagined we were. And this has massive implications for the independence movement and for the Scottish Government.

Without a process by which Scotland can get out of the Union it can no longer be maintained that Scotland remains in the Union by consent. Consent that cannot be withdrawn as readily as it is given isn’t consent at all.

Without a process by which consent can be freely withdrawn Scotland’s status cannot be that of a party to a political union freely entered into and continued. Rather, Scotland must be regarded as annexed territory. Scotland must be regarded as having been annexed by England by stealth over the period since the Union was first imposed on us. Either the Treaty of Union was, in reality, a Declaration of Annexation, or the terms of that treaty have been unilaterally altered by or on behalf of England over the last 313 years.

The question facing Scotland, therefore, is not whether we wish to become independent – that choice is not available to us – but whether we are prepared to tolerate the annexation of our country. And if not, what are we to do about it. Particularly as such a large proportion of Scotland’s people appear eager or content to accept Scotland’s status as a shackled nation.

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It is time!

“It’s time to give Scotland the chance to choose our own future.” – Nicola Sturgeon

Give? Really, First Minister? Not to be pernickety, but how can the British government possibly “give” the people of Scotland something which is inalienably ours? How might they gift us something which isn’t in their gift?

And even supposing it was theirs to give, why would we want it? Why would we want anything the British state might be prepared to give to us? If they are prepared to give it, they must consider it worthless. And if it turns out not to be worthless in our hands, they reserve the right to take it back.

Language matters, First Minister. It both expresses and shapes our mindset. If you habitually speak as if you are a supplicant carving a boon from their superior, then that is how you will tend to think of yourself. It is certainly how others will be led to think of you. Especially if you are, by your words, merely confirming their prejudices.

In refusing a Section 30 order Boris Johnson is not clinging jealously to something that is his. He is trying to impede our taking something that is ours. He is attempting to deny us the full and effective exercise of our sovereign right to determine the constitutional status of our nation and choose the form of government which best addresses our needs, priorities and aspirations.

To speak of Scotland being ‘given’ the chance to choose our own future implies that there is some doubt about the fact that the choice must be ours because the future is. It implies a mindset which regards independence as something that would be nice to have if only we could persuade the British state to grant it to us. Better for that you, as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, should think of independence as an essential thing that is rightfully ours but which is being wrongfully withheld from us by the British state.

Asking for “the chance to choose our own future” also implies a persistent hope that the British political elite will eventually relent. That they can be won over by incessant appeals to reason or principle or conscience. I ask you, First Minister, what cause is there to suppose this to be anything other than a forlorn hope? Does not all evidence and experience indicate that the British political elite is determined to preserve the Union at any cost? Do the words and deeds of British politicians not tell of an abiding disrespect for Scotland and for democracy? Has it not yet become clear to Scotland’s political leaders, as it has to increasing numbers of Scotland’s people, that locking Scotland into the Union is an overarching imperative for England-as-Britain?

And even supposing the right of self-determination was theirs to give and they could be persuaded to give it, do you not recognise that this ‘gift’ would come wrapped in caveats and conditions and conceals traps such as to make it useless for our purposes?

Please, First Minister, stop saying, “It’s time to give Scotland the chance to choose our own future.” Start saying that it is time for Scotland to take what is rightfully ours. Time to defy Boris Johnson and the British government. It is time to stop trying to avoid a confrontation that can only be avoided by abandoning Scotland’s cause. It is time to accept that the route to independence does not and never can lie through Westminster but must be by way of the only Parliament which can claim democratic legitimacy in Scotland. It is time!

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Beyond madness?

Given that Boris Johnson’s rejection of her Section 30 order ‘demand’ was anticipated Nicola Sturgeon’s response looks decidedly weak. The observation that the British political elite cares nothing for democracy and holds Scotland in total contempt is just stating the obvious. The claim that the British state’s position is “unsustainable” in the face of it quite evidently being sustained just looks silly. And the stuff about how the awfulness of the Brits will bring about a surge of support for independence might be credible but for the fact that the awfulness of the Brits is the stuff of ancient lore, and the tale of an imminent pro-independence surge seems almost as old.

In terms of action, we get nothing. Apparently, despite having been able to see the rejection letter coming, Nicola wasn’t prepared for it. She needs maybe another week. The nearest we get to anything of substance is the announcement that she will be seeking another parliamentary referendum. Presumably, because there’s a free M&S voucher if you collect enough of the things.

The concern for those of us not inclined to greet the First Minister’s every word with a standing ovation is that the approval she seeks from MSPs will be a straight copy of what was asked for in March 2017. Namely, permission to as permission. Because that’s what all strong leaders do. Isn’t it?

If Nicola Sturgeon goes back to the Scottish Parliament with a motion that mentions “discussions with the UK Government on the details of an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998” then SNP MSPs should tell her to think again. Perhaps reminding her of the definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome then endlessly repeating a course of action which never had a real possibility of the outcome you’re seeking surely goes well beyond mere madness.

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Don't ask for dumb loyalty

Yet another senior SNP figure pops up to tell us we must have faith in the party leadership and desist from “niggling within our own team”. Presumably, this is aimed at, possibly among others, the people who are expressing grave concerns about the party’s approach to the constitutional issue. I hesitate to call it hypocrisy, but there’s certainly a double standard in Andrew Wilson insisting we treat opponents and No voters with respect while he shows such scant regard for those of us “in our own team” who harbour serious doubts about whether the Section 30 process can work. Doubts which he, of course, makes no attempt to address.

I don’t do faith. I certainly don’t do blind faith. I do confidence when I am persuaded confidence is warranted. I do trust where trust is earned. But I don’t do faith. Faith is belief against evidence. Faith requires that we set aside even the most rational doubts and reasoned concerns. Faith, even outside the context of religion, involves at least partial denial of one’s own intellect. I don’t do faith.

If Andrew Wilson and the SNP leadership are so intent on stopping the “niggling within our own team” then they have, in their own hands, the means to do so. They need only treat those who have concerns about the Section 30 process with some of the respect they tell us we must afford to everyone else. The concerns to which I refer are real and justified. The doubts have cause and can only grow if left unaddressed. Telling us to abandon intellect for faith and be silent demonstrates a lack of respect. Dismissing them as “niggling” suggests a failure to comprehend the reasons people are worried.

I trust Nicola Sturgeon to put Scotland’s interests first. I have confidence in the dedication and ability of our First Minister and her colleagues. But even the most trustworthy of leaders is capable of misidentifying what best serves Scotland’s interests. The efforts of even the most committed and competent team may turn out to be misguided. If others are questioning the wisdom of a particular course of action it will tend to be because those responsible have neglected to ask the pertinent questions. Or they are perceived as having failed to do so.

Asking questions, expressing concerns and airing doubts about strategy does not harm Scotland’s cause. Like all the marches and rallies and inspirational rhetoric and strictly on-message newspaper columns, the debate about strategy becomes part of the clamour for independence. Part of the demonstrable public demand for a new referendum that the First Minister requires.

I do not presume to speak for anyone else, although I’ll wager I speak for most of those expressing concerns and airing doubts about the Section 30 process when I assure Andrew Wilson and others who demand dumb loyalty that questioning the Scottish Government’s strategy on the constitutional issue does not betoken any lack of commitment to the cause of restoring Scotland’s independence. Rather, it is lifelong dedication to that cause which compels me to speak out.

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No reply

We are told that Boris Johnson will respond to Nicola Sturgeon’s Section 30 order demand/request “in due course”. What does that mean?

Nicola Sturgeon last made a Section 30 order request at the end of March 2017, when she sent a letter to then British Prime Minister Theresa May. On 7 June 2019 May resigned without ever having made a formal response to Sturgeon’s letter. As far as Theresa May was concerned “due course meant never.

It is now approaching three years since the First Minister sent that letter. It still has not been answered. It was sent to Theresa May in her capacity as British Prime Minister. Boris Johnson took over that role, and responsibility for answering the letter, in late July 2019. He simply continued to disregard it as his predecessor had done.

If a formal request to the British Prime Minister for a Section 30 order from the First Minister of Scotland can be ignored for three years, it can be ignored for four. Or eight. Or indefinitely.

What did Nicola Sturgeon do about her letter being contemptuously ignored? Nothing! Because there was nothing she could do. She must have been aware that she had neither the power nor the political leverage to force a response. That is the nature of the Section 30 process to which she has committed. That is the nature of the relationship between Scotland and England-as-Britain. That is the nature of the Union.

On 19 December 2019, having been given yet another mandate by the people of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon finally gave up hope of receiving a response to her first letter and sent a new one to Boris Johnson. She did so knowing that nothing had changed in the 30 months since the first letter was sent. She knew that this new letter could be ignored just as its predecessor was. But she sent it anyway.

Along with this second letter the First Minister sent a 38-page document outlining her arguments for the granting of powers which rightfully belong with the Scottish Parliament. Boris Johnson was not unaware of these arguments. Or, at least, the people who advise him were fully acquainted and able to inform him. Theresa May was also aware of these arguments. The arguments carried no weight with her. They carry no weight with Johnson. Nicola Sturgeon is aware of this also.

The curious thing about the case for a Section 30 order being granted is that, if the arguments are sound, there should be no need for the Section 30 order. If Scotland is incontestably entitled to a Section 30 order, as Nicola Sturgeon asserts, then Scotland is unarguably entitled to hold a constitutional referendum.

Once it is accepted that consent is required, it follows that it is accepted that consent may be refused. The argument that something which absolutely cannot be refused absolutely must be requested sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

By committing to the Section 30 process the First Minister has accepted that she can simply be ignored. Something she didn’t mention even when acknowledging that she expected her demand/request to be refused. She stressed that refusal would not be the end of the matter. But she gave no clue as to what that meant.

We only have clues to what “in due course” means and how Nicola Sturgeon deals with being ignored. Those clues suggest “in due course” means whatever the British Prime Minister wants it to mean up to and including never. We also know what action Nicola Sturgeon takes in response to being ignored – none! Because there is no action she can take.

The ‘gold standard’ Section 30 process gives all the power to the British political elite. Boris Johnson can ignore a Section 30 request for as long as he wishes because there is nothing in law that says he must respond at all, never mind within a specified period. Neither does the ‘gold standard’ Section 30 process offer the First Minister any redress. Having embraced this process as necessary and ideal, she has no alternative but to accept the fact that this means giving all the power to the British Prime Minister.

The Section 30 process only works to the extent that the British Prime Minister is prepared to play along. The Section 30 process can only lead to a free and fair referendum if the British state cooperates. There are countless ways in which the Section 30 process can fail to or be prevented from bringing about a properly democratic referendum. There is only one way that it can succeed in doing so. And that way is entirely conditional on the goodwill, good grace and good faith of the British political elite.

And the British Nationalists are loving it! Expect to see more gleeful headlines like this from The Daily Express Monday 6 January.

Boris Johnson ignores Nicola Sturgeon’s second independence referendum demands

As you read such headlines bear in mind that they are not just gloating over Nicola Sturgeon’s powerlessness and Scotland’s humiliation, they are applauding Boris Johnson. Those who imagine that he might somehow be forced by public option to grant a Section 30 order are as deluded as any who thought he might feel obliged to do so due democratic principles weighing on his mind.

Johnson needn’t even feel obliged to offer the courtesy of a response. And the more he treats Scotland with high-handed contempt the more the voters he cares about will cheer him on.

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Craving substance

When even a significant minority of SNP members and/or supporters are even partly in agreement with Jim Sillars then there is a problem which must be addressed by Nicola Sturgeon, not some anonymous party spokesperson. When one of the party’s own MPs is echoing the concerns felt by increasing numbers of independence activists, Nicola Sturgeon herself must address those concerns.

The issue is simple. If there is to be a referendum in the “second half of 2020” or “before the end of 2020” then there must be a process by which that can happen. This process cannot be secret. It cannot be known only to Nicola Sturgeon and a few trusted colleagues. Options are not unlimited. If Nicola Sturgeon can work out what this process is, so can Boris Johnson’s advisers.

So, in theory, can everyone else. Jim Sillars was never going to do so because he long since ceased to be interested in thinking beyond the first excuse for attacking the SNP leadership. Kenny MacAskill might be expected to figure out what the process is. But, by his own admission, he is more than content with not doing so because he has his own agenda. But there are thousands of politically aware and astute people who are both perfectly capable of discerning a process by which there might be a referendum in 2020 – while adhering to the Section 30 process – and none have been able to do so. Or, at least, so we must assume, as no such discovery has been made public.

For many in the independence movement, not least myself, the days are past when we would accept Nicola Sturgeon’s assurances on the matter of a new independence referendum. The change from “second half of 2020” to “before the end of 2020” may be subtle enough for some to dismiss. But to regard it as inconsequential requires that we dismiss the previous slippage that now adds up to at least a year. And that is on top of what some consider an unconscionably long period of all but total inertia in the wake of the 2014 referendum.

The hard truth behind all the talk of independence being closer than ever is that it is if anything and by any meaningful measure, more remote now than at any time in the last decade. Just like talk of a referendum in 2020, the rhetoric about independence being imminent is empty. Ask anybody who makes either claim to add some substance to their fine words and you will get nothing but evasion. Or denunciation as an unbeliever.

I don’t do faith. If there is any substance to the claim that independence is closer than ever then I want to hear it. And I want to hear it from Nicola Sturgeon. If there is a way that Nicola Sturgeon can both remain committed to the Section 30 process and deliver a new independence referendum in 2020, then I want to hear from her at least an outline of the process involved. Less of the glittering generalities and more on the mundane practicalities.

Neither do I want from others any more of those clumsily contrived and woefully convoluted metaphors involving chess or poker. And give the Sun Tzu quotes a rest as well. Give me something tangible. Or give me relief from the vacuous waffle.

I’m anticipating being told that we have to wait and see what the situation is at the end of the Brexit transition period. That will surely be more than even the most trusting of Nicola Sturgeon’s admirers can thole. At that point, the murmurs of discontent and calmly voiced concerns may rapidly grow to an angry roar. Nicola Sturgeon must act now to turn around a situation which can only deteriorate.

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A matter of dignity

Once again I find myself wondering why “the democratic right of the people of Scotland to have a say on their future” must be conditional on the dubious gift of Boris Johnson’s respect. And why evidently intelligent and thoughtful people like Kirsty Strickland so readily accept this caveat.

Intelligent and thoughtful people will loudly protest the imposition of Brexit or austerity or any of countless policies and choices which are both anathema to us and a necessary condition of the Union. But when it comes to a condition which directly and destructively impinges on our fundamental democratic rights, they have nothing to say.

I don’t get it.

More to the point, I don’t want to get it. I have no intention of trying to get it. Not if getting it means being blase about an iniquity which should provoke howls of indignant outrage that don’t subside until the wrong has been entirely righted.

I would never write a sentence such as the one Kirsty closes with. I am not inclined to offer my dignity for Boris Johnson to wipe his arse on. Unfortunately, I can’t prevent our First Minister doing that on my behalf.

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