Three of the best

depute_leader_candidatesOnce again, SNP members have been faced with the difficult task of choosing among candidates of the highest calibre. Whoever wins, the contest has proved yet again that the SNP has a wealth of talent at its disposal. It has also demonstrated the strength of the party’s internal democracy. The manner in which these contests are conducted is a credit to the party and to the distinctive political culture which the British state is determined to eradicate.

My approach to differentiating the three candidates involved focusing, not only on the personal qualities and abilities of the individuals, but also on the fit between those attributes and the role of Depute Leader as I understand it. I was also mindful of the role(s) currently being filled by the candidates and how this might be affected by being elected.

My conclusion was that Julie Hepburn is the candidate best suited to the role of Depute Leader.

To some extent, this choice was influenced by the fact that I am persuaded that both Chris McEleny and Keith Brown have much to offer in other ways. And that being Depute Leader might actually limit them unduly. I see Keith as a projects man. His talents are best deployed if he has a sort of ‘roving commission’ to step into situation where strong leadership and effective management skills are required.

Chris, I’d like to see leading moves to secure (or restore?) strong representation for local government within the party as part of the wider reorganisation that is ongoing – even if only slowly.

Most importantly, however, I am firmly convinced that Julie is best qualified and most capable in relation to what I consider the three most important aspects of the Depute Leader role at this critical time for the SNP and the independence project. Without going into detail, these relate to –

  • Connecting (networking) the branches and groups within the party.
  • Connecting the membership with the party leadership.
  • Connecting the party with the wider independence movement.

Whoever wins, these must be their priorities. I’m sure each of the candidates would bring something to the role of Depute Leader. I am certain that Julie would bring something extra.

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How to choose

perth-concert-hallAs I prepare to go to the SNP Depute Leader Hustings in Perth Concert Hall later today (Saturday 28 April) a thought occurs. Pete Wishart has remarked that it is a “good thing” that the issue of the new referendum should “dominate” this contest. I strongly disagree. While the matter of the timing of the referendum is a matter of critical importance, it is not – or should not be – a major consideration in choosing the Depute Leader.

There is a very simple reason for this. As the person elected to stand in for the party Leader in their absence, the Depute Leaders opinions are the Leader’s opinions. At least in public, there can be no disagreement. And even behind the scenes, significant disagreement on any issue of importance would hardly be conducive to a good working relationship.

Of course, it is reasonable to suppose that the Depute Leader might be among those with whom Nicola Sturgeon will surely consult as she makes the decision as to the date of the new referendum. But, ultimately, it is a decision she takes alone – because she alone will be held accountable for that decision. The extent to which the Depute Leader might influence the Leader in this matter is likely to be relatively small. So it would be unfortunate if their views on the timing of the referendum were to become the dominant criterion on which members assess the candidates.

It will not be a major consideration for me as I weigh up the candidates at today’s hustings. What I shall be looking for is someone who can most effectively represent the party in the Leader’s absence. I will not be looking for someone who might represent my personal views on any particular matter. That would be pointless. Because the Depute Leader can only ever represent the vies of the Leader. They aren’t there to challenge the Leader or act as some kind of counterweight, or whatever. That is not the role of the Depute Leader.

What I will be looking for is the candidate with the best presentation and communication skills. Someone who can be the voice of the party Leader in public, and the voice of the party membership in private.

Another important consideration will be the role that the individual currently performs. The role from which they will be removed by becoming Depute Leader. A role which, even if it doesn’t come with a formal title, may well be considered more important.

If the candidates’ views on the timing of the referendum influence my vote at all, it will be only in a minor way. It most certainly will not “dominate” my thinking. I know that every one of those candidates is every bit as committed as myself to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. I know that, whatever date Nicola Sturgeon decides on, they will back that decision as fully and unreservedly as will I.

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This time it’s urgent!

Julie Hepburn
Julie Hepburn

I’m not about to get into discussing the merits of candidates for the SNP Depute Leader job. It’s far too early for that. Although the fact that nominations aren’t even open yet hasn’t prevented some people making up their minds and the media declaring at least two ‘favourites’ – neither of whom has declared their candidacy and one of whom has actually ruled himself out. It’s all in danger of becoming rather ridiculous. So I’ll just bide my time.

The issue of a new referendum is another matter, however. It seems to have become bound up with the Depute Leader contest in a manner and to an extent that may not be helpful. Some things can’t be helped, I suppose. On this, at least, Julie Hepburn talks some sense. Up to a point.

““It’s important to note that whoever becomes depute leader will not be deciding unilaterally what the strategy is and when the decision will be.”

This is important. I see a lot of ill-informed comment along the lines of suggesting that the SNP needs a Depute Leader who will ‘challenge’ Nicola Sturgeon on various issues. That is NOT what the job entails. The Depute Leader is, as the name suggests, a stand-in for the party Leader. They have to be the Leader’s shadow. They have to be able to step in and speak for the party precisely as the Leader would. There cannot be any significant disagreement or conflict. Certainly not in public.

It is this consideration which may rule out certain candidates. Those who are aware that the Depute Leader role imposes significant constraints on the incumbent’s freedom to speak and act according to their personal beliefs may be disinclined to elect to the position someone whose value to the party and the country lies in their ability to be something of a thorn in the side of the SNP leadership.

It is good that Julie Hepburn reminds us of this. Although I fear her words may too readily and too soon be forgotten.

Having got off to such a good start, it is all the more disappointing to find Julie’s comments on the subject of a new referendum reflecting the same woeful lack of urgency found in a recent article in The National by her old boss, Pete Wishart.

Whatever Louis Armstrong may say, we do not have all the time in the world. While it would be great to be able to wait for the optimum moment (although how you’d know it was the optimum moment is a mystery), we can’t. While it would doubtless be a fine thing to have absolute certainty about the outcome before we even launch the campaign, that’s not how it works in the real world.

And now, more perhaps than ever before, we desperately need some hard-headed realism in the Yes movement. If we have not settled the constitutional question within a year, then the entire terrain upon which the independence battle is being fought will have altered. And not in ways that favour the Yes side.

It isn’t only about what we do. We have to be aware of moves being made on the other side. When, for example, David Mundell talks of ‘UK-wide common frameworks’, we cannot afford to dismiss this as mere political jargon. We have to consider what it means. We have to work out what it implies for Scotland. We have to assume the worst. We have to proceed on the basis that he is talking about an entirely new structure; set up initially to take on powers repatriated from the EU, but capable also of taking powers removed from the Scottish Parliament. And if they can weaken the Scottish Parliament then we have to assume that they will. We cannot afford to be complacent.

It’ll start with things like agriculture and fisheries. The argument will be that this needs to be dealt with on a UK-wide basis. The Scottish part of it will be handed to the Scotland Office on the grounds that this will better facilitate coordination of policy with the UK Government. They will claim that it’s not really taking powers away from Scotland because the powers are going to the Scotland Office. And it has the word ‘Scotland’ in it. So stop being such a ‘grievance-monkey’ and get on with the day job using the powers you have. You can just hear it, can’t you?

Then it will be argued that, in order to make the ‘UK-wide common framework’ more efficient, the Scotland Office needs to have further powers. It will be argued that it makes no sense to have agriculture and fisheries responsibilities split between the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office. So they all have to go to the latter. Because that’s where the ‘common framework’ is. Right? Duh!

Thus begins a process of attrition. With the help of the media, and regardless of the reality, these ‘common frameworks’ will be hailed a stupendous success – at the same time as the Scottish Government is being loudly and repetitively accused of failing at everything it is responsible for. There will be a clamour for more powers to be transferred to the pure dead brilliant team at the Scotland Office. Resistance to this process will be portrayed as putting ‘narrow nationalism’ before the needs of the economy.

At the same time, it will be maintained that the new arrangements need to be secured. There needs to be ‘certainty’. So the ‘threat’ of independence must be eliminated. Legislation will be passed at Westminster prohibiting constitutional referendums. Or introducing a requirement for the approval of both the Commons and the House of Lords. Or stipulating a qualified majority. Or some combination of these and, perhaps, other measures. The ground will have shifted. The possibility of a referendum will have receded almost out of sight. The chances of winning will have diminished to near-zero.

This is not a story about some hypothetical scenario for a remote future. This is actually happening. And it’s happening now. By the end of 2018 the British government will have everything in place to make a new referendum, and/or a Yes win, as close to impossible as makes no practical difference. By October or November the post-Brexit shape of the UK will be settled. It will be a fait accompli.

Of course, given the present UK Government’s record, it’s all but certain that they’ll screw this up in some way. But do we really want to pin all our hopes on their incompetence?

#Referendum2018! This time it’s urgent!

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Sword at the throat

The SNP Depute Leader election is showing signs of being sucked into the unseemly sink of media hype, ill-informed speculation and malicious rumour-mongering that commonly characterises such contests in the cesspit of British party politics. Which would be a great pity.

One of the strategies adopted by the British state’s propaganda machine is to portray the SNP as no better than the rest. This is perfectly understandable. When it is all but impossible to find anything positive to say about any of the British parties, it becomes necessary to blur the distinction between them and the SNP. It fits perfectly with the ‘no other way’ narrative which discourages the idea that there’s an alternative to the status quo. And, of course, it is a fundamental tenet of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist ideology that difference must be strenuously denied.

It would be surprising if the Depute Leader election wasn’t subjected to this homogenising process. Mainstream political journalists in the UK have never been comfortable with thinking outside the box of traditional British politics. They long for the simple, well-defined rivalries of the British two-party system. Either they try to shoe-horn the SNP into their existing frame of reference – substituting it for British Labour or Tories as expedient – or they treat the party as a passing aberration which needn’t be accommodated at all because people will soon see sense and get back to voting the way they’re supposed to.

It’s getting a bit difficult to maintain the notion that the SNP is just a blip on the British political radar. Somewhat inconveniently for those who desperately want to get back to business as usual, the people of Scotland persist in voting for the upstart Nats. All but the most obdurate commentators must now accept that the SNP is here to stay. But that risks admitting that Scotland has a distinctive political culture. Which, in turn, could lead to heretical suggestions that the old Westminster-centric perspective may no longer be appropriate. Journalists who have spent their entire careers immersed in the soap opera of British politics might be required to think about things in a new way. And that would never do!

The British establishment has two main ways of dealing with the challenges of political interlopers and democratic dissent. If the challengers cannot be crushed, they are absorbed. If the agency threatening to disrupt the system cannot be eliminated, then it is made part of the system.

According to the rules of British politics, the SNP should have been destroyed in 2014. Losing the first independence referendum was supposed to be a fatal blow. But the party defied all expectations. Unionists still haven’t got over the fact that, having enjoyed a glorious victory on behalf of the divinely ordained British state, they then had to watch as the SNP walked away with all the prizes.

The British establishment got the result it wanted in September. But it didn’t get the outcome it was depending on. There was no closure for Unionists. Which explains why they’re still fighting that first referendum campaign. For them, it never ended. Project Fear wasn’t shut down. It merely transferred it’s toxic attentions to the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and any institutions that are distinctly Scottish. The unprincipled methods of the anti-independence campaign are now directed towards the delegitimisation of Scotland’s democratic institutions and denigration of our public services. All in the name of bringing Scotland back into line. All for the purpose of eliminating difference. All for the sake of a project to impose a ‘One Nation’ British state.

Everything the British establishment does must be appreciated in the context of this ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project. Such a critique is not ‘one dimensional’, as some have suggested. It is merely realistic. We have to recognise that, for some, the Union is an all-consuming obsession. We must be cognisant of the fact that the British ruling elites regard Scotland’s distinctive post-devolution political culture as nothing short of an existential threat to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.

It is no exaggeration whatever to say that the SNP is seen as the tip of a sword at the British state’s throat. In those circumstances, being complacent about anything the British state does would be the utmost folly. And that means being highly suspicious of the way the British media frames the narrative around events and processes such as the election of a new SNP Depute Leader. That narrative cannot be immune to the influence of the British Nationalist imperative. Whether intentionally or incidentally, reporting will coloured by the overarching ‘One Nation’ project.

It would be good if people were aware of this. The Depute Leadership contest will run for weeks. It will involve personalities and their supporters and much internal debate on some very hot topics. It is a near-perfect opportunity for propaganda. The more people are aware of it, the more the power of that malicious propaganda is diminished.

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The media filter

What a killjoy Ian Blackford is! The British media went to all the trouble of concocting a controversy around his ‘coronation’ as SNP Depute Leader, and he goes and spoils it all by announcing that he won’t be attending the ceremony. Almost from the moment Angus Robertson resigned, the story was of a party in turmoil with anonymous ‘sources’ telling tales of intrigue at the top and revolt everywhere else. Plots were supposedly afoot to usher Blackford into the post without the tedious formality of a democratic process as set out in the party’s rules.

Quite how this was to be contrived was, like the identity of those allegedly ‘voicing concerns’, never revealed. It always seemed odd to me that these ‘sources’ could be both close enough to the inner circles of the SNP to be regarded as reliable informants yet be totally unaware of the party’s constitution and the rules governing the nomination and election of the Depute Leader. But, of course, the story didn’t have to be credible. It only had to be titillating. What does it matter if a story is questionable when nobody is going to question it?

The spin now will be that the devious schemes of the party leadership have been thwarted. The glare of the media spotlight has forced them to back off. Blackford has been ordered to abdicate before he even got to wear the crown. It won’t matter that there was never any substance to the story of his ‘coronation’ in the first place. A new truth has been manufactured. It is now part of the cosy consensus informing the media narrative. George Orwell imagined an army of Winston Smiths beavering away in the Ministry of Truth physically rewriting old newspaper articles so that they didn’t contradict whatever was decreed to be the new Truth. The intrusive ubiquity of broadcast mass media and the infinite palimpsest of rolling news have made Winston and his colleagues redundant. why bother rewriting the past on paper when it can be revised in the public consciousness.

If the practical impossibility of a proposition is inconvenient to the desired narrative, then simply ignore it. The public only know what they are told. If nobody tells them this ‘coronation’ of Ian Blackford couldn’t actually happen, there’s no problem. In their minds, it is true. Manipulation by the media is not only a matter of what is reported and the way a story is framed. Things that aren’t reported and questions that aren’t asked also play a part in the deception. Manufactured truth thrives best in an environment where all potential competing information has been filtered out.

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It’s just a game

It is a regrettable fact of life that before commenting on anything in the British media one must first check for accuracy. Standards of journalism are so abysmally low that factual errors are common. This article in the Sunday Herald, for example, refers to Kirsty Blackman MP as “the SNP’s deputy leader”. She is, in fact the SNP Deputy Westminster Leader. That is to say, the Deputy Leader of the SNP Group at Westminster. Considering the article is about the contest for the post of SNP Depute (not ‘deputy’) Leader, this seems like a particularly clumsy mistake.

Having put the record straight on that, what else might be said about an article trumpeting Tommy Sheppard as the favourite in a race which hasn’t yet started? Nominations haven’t even opened. It seems a little premature to be speculating about who might win a race when we don’t even know who the runners are. Tommy Sheppard hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet. He is being pronounced the leader on the basis of absolutely nothing more than the need for a sensational headline.

That’s if Tommy Sheppard really is the favourite. The headline says so. But by the second paragraph we’re being told that “Ian Blackford had been tipped as the favourite”. Confused? The Sunday Herald doesn’t care.

I have to say that I rather resent the media trivialising the issue in this way. But I don’t suppose there’s any more point in complaining about that than there is in objecting to the errors. That’s just the way it is. Everything is reduced to the level of some tacky TV talent contest. For those of us who aspire to a better politics, it’s all a bit depressing.

It’s not only the disregard for accuracy and cheapening of politics that grate on the sensibilities of anybody who takes their politics seriously. I’ve written elsewhere about how the media manufactures truth. The way they generate ‘fakts’ that have no necessary connection to reality, but which fit nicely into the common narrative – the cosy consensus. Such a fakt is the myth of concern within the SNP that there may be a ‘coronation’ of Westminster Group Leader Ian Blackford MP. This myth is now firmly established in the mainstream media regardless of the fact that the party’s procedures make such a ‘coronation’ quite impossible.

I don’t suppose many people will find this sort of thing annoying. And that is part of the problem. As a society, we’ve become inured to the poverty of political journalism. We’ve grown accustomed to the mistakes and the distortions and the dishonesty. For the most part, people just don’t expect any better. They make no great demands of the media. So they get the media they deserve.

I’m one of the oddballs who does take it seriously. I happen to think it matters. It matters because, for the majority of people the mainstream media is their window onto the world of politics. They see the democratic process through the lens of newspapers and radio and TV. I’m going to be hard to convince that there is no correlation between the way politics is portrayed in the print and broadcast media and levels of disengagement from the democratic process.

But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the way to restore the connection between people and politics is, not to have the media take it all more seriously, but to go even further down the road of mass appeal. How about we dispense with all that tedious stuff about policies and party organisation and have the SNP Depute Leader contest decided in the style of ‘It’s a Knockout’? Mind you, Tommy would probably still be the favourite.

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