With friends like this…

John Bercow talks a great deal more sense than Pete Wishart. But this will come as little surprise to regular readers of the latter’s ghastly blog, with its ill-thought statements and industriously censored comments. In the latest edition of his mindless musings and extemporaneous mutterings from Perthshire Pete Wishart didn’t only argue for conceding the British Prime Minister’s authority to veto Scotland’s right of self-determination. He also referred to the UK as the “parent state”. Effectively arguing that Scotland is somehow derived from and necessarily subsidiary to the UK. Such revisionist history might be expected from the likes of Neil Oliver. It is not a million miles away from the drivel peddled by Rory Stewart as his contribution to Better Together’s denigration of Scotland. But coming from the SNP’s longest-serving MP it is nothing less than shocking.

While disingenuously claiming that an ‘advisory referendum’ is “being presented as a cost-free strategy to break the deadlock” Wishart himself presents his own strategy of indefinite delay and total compliance with the British state’s rules as a consequence-free strategy. At least, he doesn’t address any of the potential or inevitable consequences. If anybody presumes to question his strategy of fearful inaction and meek compliance they will find themselves blocked on Twitter and their comments deleted from his blog.

Apparently, Pete Wishart wants us all to forget about a referendum this year – thus contradicting Nicola Sturgeon in a way that might well constitute a breach of the Westminster group’s code of conduct – and focus instead on winning yet another mandate for the SNP in the 2021 Holyrood elections. He fails entirely to explain why this mandate should be any different from all those that went before and were ignored by both the British and the Scottish Governments. He says that if the SNP this shiny new mandate “there will be no available grounds on which the UK Government can legitimately continue to oppose”. Is he acknowledging that the UK Government had legitimate grounds for refusing to recognise those previous mandates? What are these ‘legitimate grounds? He doesn’t tell us. How could there possibly be ‘legitimate grounds’ for denying Scotland’s right of self-determination? He neither explains nor entertains enquiries on any of these points.

To be fair, Pete Wishart does touch on the possibility that the British state will continue to deny any mandate that Scotland’s voters give the SNP. He allows that if they do then he might be prepared to admit that “the ‘section 30’ road may indeed be running out”. Let’s gloss over the fact that anticipating the willing and honest cooperation of the British establishment in a project to dissolve the Union was always a self-evidently forlorn and foolish hope. Let’s see what Mr Wishart’s proposed course of action would be in the event of there being no change for the better in the British establishment’s contempt for Scotland and democracy. He says, “It is at this stage we consider all options to progress our cause.” Wow! That’s impressive!

What these options might be remains a total mystery given that Pete Wishart’s principal purpose in penning this dire diatribe was to reject all other options as ‘illegal and unconstitutional’. What is left after he’s ruled out everything other than the Section 30 process and that has failed as anticipated by more thoughtful persons? He doesn’t say. And he won’t accept any questions on the matter.

I have news for Pete Wishart. Some of us have been considering all options for years. Some of us didn’t close our minds to those options. Some of us have known for years that neither the Section 30 process nor mere ‘gentle persuasion’ was going to “progress our cause”. Some of us have tried very hard, against fervent opposition from such as yourself, to persuade the SNP to at least open up discussion about our options. All to no avail.

Determined that the culinary catastrophe of his cake shouldn’t lack a cherry on top, Pete Wishart regurgitates the idiocy that “independence has never been closer”. Had he been less determined to shut out all dissenting, questioning or critical voices he might have been aware of how plainly, unavoidably idiotic it is to claim that we are closer to independence now than we were when the polls opened on Thursday 18 September 2014. He didn’t listen. He didn’t think. It’s a fine-sounding phrase and possibly an effective platitude, so long as nobody gives the assertion any more thought than he did. He remains blissfully unaware of the impression he gives when he spouts such patent drivel. We might be forgiven for wondering how many potential converts to Yes he deters by bringing his party and the independence movement into disrepute.

Nicola Sturgeon needs to disown this distasteful and daft dribble and drool. I’m not suggesting she should censor Pete Wishart in the way he does any who criticise or question him. But she really should dissociate the party from such objectionable views and senseless blabber.



After Aileen McHarg basically told us all to wheesht and stop making a fuss about Pete Wishart referring to the UK as the “parent state” I thought I should try and hunt down the definition of what she claims is a technical term. I was unable to find one. Maybe it’s very, very specialised technical language.

What I did find was an article in which Dr Rebecca Richards (http://t.ly/0EXEO) a Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University, is quoted at some length. If her take on the meaning of ‘parent state’ is authoritative then maybe people shouldn’t be quite as complacent as Aileen McHarg would have us be.

From my reading of Dr Richards’s views on the matter it would seem that if Scotland’s status within the UK is as Pete Wishart asserts then it is all but impossible that Scotland’s independence can ever be restored. Even if that can possibly be the case it is exceedingly strange to find the case being argued by an SNP MP. Which begs a number of very awkward questions which,were they to be put to him, Mr Wishart would doubtless deal with in his customary contemptuous manner.

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Unblocking the road

Joanna Cherry is probably mostly right. Peter Wishart is dependably Pete Wishart.

My support for Joanna Cherry’s position is qualified for two principal reasons. The first is that it needs to be made clear that, while the Scottish Government should certainly prepare for a court battle, it must not be the Scottish Government which initiates court action. To support the claim that it is proceeding as it is entitled to, the Scottish Government must proceed as if it was so entitled. Why should the Scottish Government initiate court action to establish the Scottish Parliament’s authority to facilitate the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination if it is claimed that the Scottish Parliament already possesses this authority?

The purpose is not to establish either the right of self-determination or the Scottish Parliament’s competence but to assert these.

Consider the ‘optics’. Rather than seem to be trying to extract from the British government something they have the power to withhold how much better, and more honest, is it if the situation is presented as the British government trying to deny our democratic rights.

Also, I see no point whatever in asserting the right to have a pretend referendum. Suppose the court confirms that the Scottish Parliament has competence to facilitate a “consultative” referendum. That still leaves open the question of competence to facilitate the full and effective exercise of our sovereignty in deciding the constitutional status of our nation and choosing the form of government which best suits our needs. And isn’t that what we’re fighting for?

The Scottish Parliament has exclusive democratic legitimacy in Scotland. We cannot and must not settle for it having less than the powers which this entails.

Pete Wishart’s refrain is, as is customary, “Not yet!”. And his insistence on procrastination is as devoid of explanation or supporting argument as ever it was. He boldly asserts that losing a legal challenge would ” set the case for Indy back significantly”. But he doesn’t elaborate. Presumably, we are supposed to just take his word for it. We are not supposed to question his wisdom. Sorry, Pete! I question everything!

I ask the obvious and necessary questions. Where are we now? Where would we be should a court case be lost?

Where we are now is at a road-block in limbo. We are wholly committed to a process which crucially relies on the goodwill and good faith of the British political elite. So, a process which can never lead to a referendum and/or the restoration of Scotland’s independence. We are going nowhere. We have no possibility of going anywhere whilst committed to the Section 30 process. And there seems no way that this commitment can or will be abandoned.

Where will we be if the court doesn’t find in our favour? That very much depends on the precise nature of the action and of the court’s finding. But the worst-case scenario must be that the court upholds the British governments claim that the Scottish Parliament does not have competence to hold a constitutional referendum. (Note that it makes no difference whether this is in relation to a “consultative” or a full referendum. If one is ruled out, they both are. So why aim low?)

It might be argued that this makes us worse off because the British government now has court backing for its anti-democratic position. But all it really means is that the case goes to a higher court. Which is, at least, some kind of movement. And it is movement towards the highest court of all – the one presided over by the people of Scotland.

It is difficult to see how asserting the thing we are fighting for puts us in a worse position than not asserting it. The idea that independence will come if we just continue to accept the Union for long enough makes no sense whatever. There can be no momentum without movement. Right now, because of some bad choices, we are in a place where we have precious little room for movement. Either we remain stationary at the road-block in limbo, or we go drive on and defy the British government to try and stop us.

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The Cherry approach

Keith Brown says “the reality is that people want [a referendum] and they want it to be made in Scotland, not in Westminster”. Which begs the question, why then is the Scottish Government so obsessed with the Section 30 process which, by definition, affords Westminster a role in the making of Scotland’s referendum?

He goes on to say “the longer the Tories try to block a referendum the higher support for independence will rise”. Which sounds to me like an attempt to rationalise prevarication on the part of the Scottish Government. It sounds as if the ‘plan’ is to invite the British government to spit in Scotland’s face repeatedly in the hope that repetitious disrespect will move the polls without the need for the Scottish Government to actually do anything – other than take the credit if the polls eventually twitch into favourable territory.

Could there be a more undignified way to go about the business of restoring Scotland’s independence?

Apart from which, the obvious problem with this ‘plan’ is that disrespect from the British state is the norm that people in Scotland have learned to live with. We are inured to the contempt. What indignation there is gets vented on trivial matters such as Scottish banknotes being refused by some ill-trained checkout assistant in an English supermarket.

And so to Joanna Cherry. The Sunday National reports her as suggesting “as a way forward against the “current impasse” could be for Holyrood to pass a bill to hold an advisory referendum”. Although when we look at the actual quote we find that the word “advisory” doesn’t appear. The Sunday National may have reason to suppose Ms Cherry meant to say “advisory”. But given that she is both a proficient politician and a highly experienced QC, my assumption would be that she tends to say what she means, and mean what she says. And what she says is,

Having Holyrood pass a bill to hold a referendum could be part of a multi-faceted strategy to move us away from the current impasse and stop the constant and unproductive talk about Section 30 orders and seeking ‘permission’ to act from Westminster.

Until the Sunday National spoiled it by inserting the word “advisory” this was looking like it might at least hint at an eminently sensible approach. The only sensible approach. We know that the Section 30 process cannot provide a path to a new referendum and the restoration of independence, regardless of whether a Section 30 order is granted or refused. We know that there is no effective process that the British state will not deem ‘illegal’. We know that the referendum must be made and managed entirely in Scotland.

We know that the primacy of the Scottish Parliament on the basis of its democratic legitimacy must be asserted. We know that assuming competence to conduct the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination would be a practical and viable way of both rejecting the sovereignty of the British parliament and asserting the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. We know that this is the necessary next step on the road to independence.

Taking Joanna Cherry at her word, I am fully behind her on this. Which means nothing, of course. But if enough of the Yes movement gets behind her – including SNP members – then Nicola Sturgeon will surely be compelled to rethink her approach to the constitutional issue.

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DIY mind laundering

I’ve seen a lot of this. People saying that at first they were disappointed by Nicola Sturgeons ‘Next Steps or Should That Be Running On The Spot speech’, but then they “got over it”. In most cases, I strongly suspect, they didn’t so much get over their disappointment as find a way to rationalise the let-down and get back to a comfortable position behind the boss.

The thing about such rationalisations is that they tend not to stand up to much scrutiny. And the very first thing that such scrutiny uncovers is the fact that none of the rationalisations deals with the fatal flaws in the First Minister’s whole approach to the constitutional issue. If you felt disappointment after listening to the speech that was your intuition telling you there’s something not quite right about all of this. You should heed your intuition.

In order to drown out the screech of his bullshit detector, Paul Kavanagh has had to convince himself that Boris Johnson can be forced into providing Nicola Sturgeon with the British government cooperation on which her ‘plan’ critically depends. He has had to persuade himself that this coerced cooperation will be no less genuine and complete for being grudged. And he’s had to embrace the notion that what will oblige Boris Johnson to facilitate a process whose likely outcome is anathema to him is to make it seem more likely that this outcome will be realised.

That a lot of DIY brainwashing.

But Paul is right about one thing. Boris Johnson’s political freedom of movement is “very limited”. The constraints, however, are not on his capacity to refuse the cooperation the First Minister hopes for, relies on and inexplicably expects, but on his freedom to provide that cooperation. There are powers behind the British Prime Minister’s throne. And those powers are ruthlessly determined that the Union shall be preserved and, moreover, that threats to the Union shall be eliminated.

The hard truth of the matter is that granting a Section 30 order free of caveats and conditions that would allow the process to be scuppered at a later stage will ALWAYS be politically more costly than continuing to say no. Partly because that cost will be the Prime Minister’s job but mostly because saying no carries no cost at all.

I wonder if Paul Kavanagh suffered a moment of discomfort when/if he noticed the glaring contradiction which, together with dizzying inconsistency, is an identifying characteristic of the desperate rationalisation. In his final paragraph, he states that “the only way [Boris Johnson] can make Scotland surrender to his bullying is by offering Scotland concessions that his own party won’t allow”. In order to justify agreeing with Nicola Sturgeon’s counsel of inaction and procrastination, he has simultaneously to believe that Boris Johnson won’t be allowed to offer relatively minor concessions and that he will be allowed to offer the biggest and most objectionable concession of all.

Such doublethink betokens a brain not merely washed but thoroughly laundered after steeping overnight.

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On Friday, just after listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s much-hyped ‘next steps’ announcement, I had to travel to Edinburgh to attend events marking Brexit on Friday and Saturday. I also met up with my wife who was traveling back from a work-related trip to Denmark, for a rare evening out together. All of this by way of excuse for not responding earlier to that speech. Although the delay may have been a good thing. I have seen some of the responses made in immediate disappointment and/or frustration and/or anger and I’m rather glad I didn’t take a computer with me. Instead, I vented my initial reaction on Twitter where such things belong.

I have, for example, seen Stu Campbell’s article prompted by the First Minister’s speech and, while he is essentially correct in his analysis, he tends towards the intemperate in some of his comments and brings in matters which would be better discussed separately. The desire to lash out may be easy to apprehend, but in Stu’s case it turns what was a perceptive account of the inadequacy of Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue into a vitriolic attack on her and the SNP. I think that unfortunate. I have always respected Stu’s ability to get to the nub of the matter and appreciated his ability to communicate his thoughts on matters of importance to us all. The forceful and forthright manner in which he habitually expresses himself only adds to the power of his message. I’m hardly in a position criticise anybody for adopting a robust tone.

I should not have been disappointed by what Nicola Sturgeon said as I never had any expectation that she would say anything of significance. I had actually made an effort to damp-down expectations because I knew there was nothing significant she could say from the position in which she has placed herself. Short of renouncing her ill-advised commitment to the Section 30 process, all she could possibly have to offer was another reading of the charges against the British state peppered with platitudes and bromides and leading to the now standard rationalisations for inaction.

Even the one thing she spoke of that might have seemed superficially significant – the new independence convention – was stripped of any sparkle it might have had by being at least two years too late and by the fact that it joins an already overlong list of similar initiatives which failed to strike a match far less set the heather afire.

The truth is understandably painful for people to hear, but hear it they must. The de facto leader of the independence movement in whom we invested so much trust has driven that campaign into a narrow cul-de-sac where she can neither turn around nor proceed. And her speech of Friday made it clear that she is disinclined to reverse out of that dead-end road. This is not to say that she was not and is not worthy of our respect. As a First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has done Scotland proud. Nor is it a call for her to be replaced, as has been the knee-jerk reaction from all too many people. There is no appetite in the party for removing her. And we can well do without the distraction of a leadership contest. Especially as that contest might not be as ‘civilised’ as previous contests for elevated positions in the SNP. And because there is no guarantee that a distracting and quite possibly damaging leadership battle would result in a change to the Scottish Government’s current fatally flawed approach. There is no sign of any high-profile questioning of the position taken by Nicola Sturgeon. Although I may be due Angus MacNeil an apology for saying this.

That the First Minister has made an error of judgement is now beyond dispute, although this will not stop some disputing it even though doing so requires that they turn a blind eye to the fatal flaws in the approach she has adopted – and clings to. I have previously set out my concerns about Nicola Sturgeon’s total and stubborn commitment to the Section 30 process. Concerns which have come to be shared by a number of people but which have never, to my knowledge, been addressed. The fatal flaws in Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ derive almost entirely from this commitment and the refusal to consider any other perspective or course of action.

As an aside before I list the three fatal flaws which I maintain characterise the First Minister’s current approach to the constitutional issue, I want to say that one of the most disappointing and distressing aspects of her ‘next steps’ speech was the fact that she seemed to be totally oblivious to how that speech might be received by many people across the Yes movement. She just didn’t appear to appreciate that what she was saying – and not saying – would provoke a strong reaction. There was a distinct impression of taking support for granted. It would be gratifying to think that a salutary lesson might be learned. But experience tells us that those most in need of a lesson in self-awareness tend to be those least amenable to learning such a lesson. Look at Richard Leonard.

This is doubly distressing given that one of the things I have always admired most about the SNP is (was?) their connectedness to the people. If the party has lost that, then it is seriously diminished.

And so to the reasons Nicola Sturgeon’s approach is doomed to fail.

Firstly, there is the matter of time. Aside from anything else, Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘next steps’ speech was remarkable for its lack of urgency. At most, the threat to Scotland’s democracy was vaguely and tangentially hinted at. And there was nothing said about how this threat might be countered. The consequences of delaying meaningful action to restore Scotland’s independence were, from the evidence of that speech, not worthy of consideration.

This lack of urgency is extremely worrying. We have to assume that the British government’s aim and intention is to lock Scotland into the Union. Brexit provides an ideal opportunity to do this. And Brexit is upon us. Action to rescue Scotland from the rolling juggernaut of British Nationalism has already been delayed far too long. The message from Nicola Sturgeon and other leading figures in the SNP is that they are prepared to delay action indefinitely. The talk of a referendum this year is little more than a flimsy veil thrown over this desire to put off doing anything effective as long as possible.

I’m starting to get angry all over again as I write this. So I’ll move on to the next fatal flaw in Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue.

One of the central features of this approach is the notion that increasing support for a new referendum and/or for independence will put irresistible pressure on Boris Johnson to relent and grant a Section 30 order. Why is the fallacy of this not face-slappingly obvious? Given that preservation of the Union is an overarching imperative for the British state – one might readily argue that it is an existential imperative – then surely the greater the probability of a referendum leading to the dissolution of the Union the greater the incentive to ensure that no referendum ever takes place. And we know that the British political elite will be totally ruthless and completely unscrupulous in defending the structures of power, privilege and patronage which operate to their benefit.

The only thing that is going to win the kind of support Nicola Sturgeon demands before she acts is the action she refuses to take before she has that level of support. The idea that the British Prime Minister can be moved to grant a Section 30 order by an appeal to conscience or democratic principles isn’t far short of risible. Although I sure as hell am not laughing when I hear such drivel being spouted by our political leaders.

That’s the anger rising again. Time to move on to what is almost certainly the most telling of the fatal flaws in Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’.

The First Minister’s entire ‘strategy’ is critically dependent on gaining the willing and honest cooperation of the British government in a process which almost certainly would lead to an outcome to which the British government is fervently and implacably opposed.

Need I say more? Can I resist the urge to do so?

When the reality of the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue is stated as baldly as this it difficult – nay impossible! – to comprehend how any person of normal intelligence could consider an approach with such a ludicrous dependency viable. The question is not whether this fatal flaw is a reality – it is actually central to Nicola Sturgeon’s argument – but why she would embrace such self-evident nonsense and adopt such an obviously doomed approach.

But let’s leave such inquiries for another time. My purpose here is to consider what Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on Friday, and her commitment to a fatally flawed ‘strategy’ implies for Scotland’s cause. Where do we go from here?

What is obvious is that, wherever the Yes movement goes from here, it does so separately from the SNP/Scottish Government. We would be insane to follow Nicola Sturgeon into that dead-end street. This is in total contradiction to what I had hoped for and what I was urging a few months ago. Then, I envisaged Nicola Sturgeon providing the leadership that the Yes movement needs if it is to become a campaign – or give birth to a tightly focused and strongly disciplined campaigning organisation rather than a loose association of diverse groups all doing their own thing. I hoped to have the SNP providing the finely-crafted messages that would then be amplified and taken to the people by an army of Yes activists totally on board with the party’s campaign strategy. That’s not going to happen.

Nicola Sturgeon has effectively cut the SNP and the Scottish Government adrift from the grassroots Yes movement. It is my contention that we should simply accept this as it seems futile to kick against it and doing so will only result in acrimony between the party and the movement. What the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence needs is unity of purpose, not uniformity of thinking. So long a the party and the movement share the same goal, we should be able to approach the campaign in different ways without undermining that campaign. If the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue is as deeply, fatally flawed as is now undeniably the case, then it would be disastrous to our cause if the entire Yes movement were to follow where Nicola Sturgeon leads.

There need be no bitterness or recrimination. A two-pronged campaign may be less than ideal. But as we clearly have no choice in the matter we must focus on making the best we can of the situation. We know the flaws in the SNP’s approach, and this is fortunate because it means we know what we must compensate for.

The precise form of this second prong of the independence campaign has yet to be decided. (Needless to say, I have my own ideas.) And the problem of leadership remains to be resolved. But the Yes movement is nothing if not resourceful. I see no insurmountable issues.

What we must constantly bear in mind, however, is that the SNP is crucial to the realisation of our goal. Without the effective political power of a pro-independence government and Parliament, there is not the remotest possibility of success. People power alone is not enough. That power has to be concentrated behind a government with the power to act for the people. As things stand, that means the SNP. And that situation is not going to change any time soon. So get to grips with it!

The second wing of the independence campaign must always be looking to and working towards the moment when the SNP is obliged to accept the folly and futility of its current approach to the constitutional issue and join with the grassroots movement in the final effort to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

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The speech that never was

I was due to address the hundreds of Yes activists who attended the rally outside the Scottish Parliament on Saturday afternoon (1 February). Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties I was unable to make that speech. The following is what I had intended to say.

I don’t want to be making this speech. Or, to be more precise, this is not the speech I want to make. I would prefer to make a different speech.

It would be much easier to make one of those speeches in which I say something rude about Boris Johnson and everybody laughs.

Or perhaps a speech in which I say wise-sounding things about Boris’s position being “unsustainable.

Maybe a speech in which I go for resounding rhetoric about how we’ve “never been closer to independence.

But I can’t make those kind of speeches. I can’t dismiss Boris Johnson as a buffoon because he’s a buffoon who wins. Stop laughing at him – or raging at him – for a moment and think about it. He’s got everything he wanted.

People will point to him losing the court case on proroguing of parliament. But even then he got the delay and distraction he wanted.

Boris Johnson is now the British Prime Minister leading a Tory government with a substantial majority that has been purged of his opponents. And he’s ‘got Brexit done’. If that’s buffoonery, we could do with some in the Scottish Government.

Nonetheless, Boris is irrelevant. He will not be delivering independence for Scotland. Our independence will not be restored via Westminster. Why would I waste my energies trying to undermine his credibility. He has none. Why would I talk to him or about him when he has no business interfering in Scotland’s constitutional debate?

Boris Johnson doesn’t have a vote in a Scottish independence referendum. Other, that is, than the effective veto afforded him by the Section 30 process. And he’s already used that vote. By his own rules, he shouldn’t get to vote again until everybody who was alive for the first referendum has died.

I can’t talk about Boris Johnson’s position as being unsustainable. Because he is sustaining it. The reality is that it costs him absolutely nothing to keep on refusing a Section 30 order. If anything, it wins him favour among the constituency from which he draws the bilk of his support – the proudly ill-informed British Nationalists.

I can’t talk about how we’ve ‘never been closer to independence’ because not only is it not true, it’s a stunningly stupid claim to make. I could make a very strong argument that we were closer to independence in 2015 – when the SNP enjoyed an unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable landslide in the UK general election and we should have had our eyes firmly fixed on a referendum in September 2018.

And we certainly aren’t closer to independence than we were at 7am on the morning of Thursday 18 September 2014 when, for the next 15 hours the people of Scotland held in our hands total political power.

Regardless of the fact that the people of Scotland ultimately decided to hand that power back to the British political elite does not alter the fact that, as the polls opened on that day we were only 15 hours away from independence. Nobody can sensibly make the claim that we are closer now than we were them. Those who do are treating us as fools of the kind that will be influenced by a bit of witless, vacuous political rhetoric.

The best that can be said of the time since the first referendum is that the independence campaign has stood still. Which is not to say that Yes activists have been idle. Far from it! The Yes movement has been working as hard as ever. We’ve had a series of marches and rallies which attracted huge support. And scores of Yes groups the length and breadth of Scotland have been busy organising and keeping the momentum going for a new referendum

The trouble is that all this effort was to no avail so long as the Scottish Government was more concerned with stopping Brexit than with working to ensure Brexit couldn’t be imposed on Scotland.

The cause of restoring Scotland’s independence has made not one millimetre of progress in the five years since the first referendum. Despite the fact that circumstances were almost ideal and the British government was almost daily providing opportunities, no progress was made. All those opportunities were squandered. The ideal circumstance were not exploited.

Which brings me to the First Minister’s speech yesterday morning [Friday 31 January] in which she had promised to set out the “next steps” for the independence campaign.

As it turned out, she announced no steps at all. Just more running on the spot. To say the speech was disappointing would be an understatement. It may well have been the most important speech of Nicola Sturgeon’s political career. Although she gave no indication she was aware of this.

I shouldn’t have been disappointed. Having spent the period leading up to the speech trying to damp-down expectations because I knew there was nothing significant that the First Minister could say, the reality should not have been an anti-climax. But it was.

I expected little. I got nothing. I should have expected less when the speech was moved from the Wednesday to Friday, when the various events marking Brexit would provide a distraction. But, cynical as I was – and remain – I still held a glimmer of hope that Nicola Sturgeon would give the Yes movement something. Even that small hope was dashed.

The fact is that the approach to the constitutional issue adopted by the First Minster has failed.

A few days ago I watched as people celebrated a poll showing Yes at 51% and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when the polls should have been at least ten points higher.

The approach taken by the Scottish Government has failed to gain a significant lead in the polls despite the most propitious circumstances. If you don’t exploit opportunities offered by Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister and Brexit being imposed on Scotland, your ‘strategy’ has failed by definition!

The approach is still failing. Despite all the fine rhetoric about a referendum in 2020, those who look at the situation absent the rose-tinted spectacles recognise that the chances of such a referendum are vanishingly small.

Even the superficially appealing idea of a new independence convention loses its sheen when one realises that it is at least two years late. It loses even more of its polish when one views the announcement in the context of all the other initiatives that have been announced over the past five years only to fizzle out like a damp squib.

The approach taken by the Scottish Government was always bound to fail. Serious concerns about Nicola Sturgeon’s unswerving commitment to the Section 30 process have never been addressed. The fatal flaws in this approach have been identified. But, if the First Minister heard those concerns there is no evidence that she heeded them.

My time is short today. So I will mention only one of these fatal flaws. Nicola Sturgeon’s entire approach to the issue, as typified by her commitment to the Section 30 process, is critically dependent on gaining the full, willing and honest cooperation of the British government. That is never going to happen.

No British Prime Minister will ever facilitate or cooperate with a process which might result in the dissolution of the Union. Should they choose to grant a Section order – and there is no way they can be compelled to do so – it will only be because they know that the process can be sabotaged at a later stage.

The independence campaign has been driven into a cul-de-sac. The engine may still be running. But the vehicle is going nowhere. Nicola Sturgeon insists that this is the only route to a new referendum and independence. But it is not a route at all. It could only become a route if the British political elite could be persuaded to demolish their own house and build a road. But even if they could be persuaded to do this, they would insist on putting a series of barriers across the road

It’s not clear where the Yes movement goes from here. But the one thing that we can take from Nicola Sturgeon’s speech is that, if we are to make progress, it must be despite the Scottish Government rather than in company with it.

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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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