The dilemma of conflicting imperatives

The trouble with saying that this isn’t what it looks like is that it induces people to think about what it looks like rather than what it’s being presented as. A bit like telling someone not to think about a pink elephant. Deferring the spring conference looks very like a pink elephant.

The problem wouldn’t arise, of course, if there weren’t reasons for supposing the SNP might wish to postpone the conference that have nothing to do with whatever it is that isn’t a pink elephant. If there weren’t widespread concern within the party and beyond about Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional question then people would not be able to ascribe ulterior motives to those responsible for putting conference off for three months.

People tend to think the worst of politicians and party managers. I wonder why.

Let’s deny them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Let’s suppose the worst. Let’s assume the conference has been delayed to save the platform-sitters from having to face awkward questions from delegates who are less than enamoured with elements of their leadership’s performance. Will a two or three month delay solve the problem? Let’s think!

If the party hierarchy thinks a conference in March or April would be marked (marred?) by scenes of discontent and even dissent then they must reckon there to be cause for that discontent/dissent. And if they think it’s safe to have the conference in June, they must be calculating that the aforementioned cause of discontent and/or dissent will be eliminated before then. Which in turn suggests that something significant is going to happen in the interim.

What might that be?

Speculation is rife. Well, it is in my head. Thing is, there’s not that much to speculate about. It’s that old thing about imperatives and options again. The key to some kind of understanding of the ebb, flow and swirl of the political tides. Or at least, the key to turning idle speculation into informed analysis.

In terms of the constitutional issue, the British state’s overarching imperative – what drives its behaviour – is the need to preserve the Union at quite literally any cost. Their options all derive from the Union and the power relationship that it creates and perpetuates whereby the British state – or England-as-Britain or Borissia – is in all respects and at all times around eight times more powerful than Scotland. As if every voter in England-as-Britain had eight votes to every one vote for individuals in Scotland. (This, incidentally, is a major factor in the increasing number of English people in Scotland supporting independence. They are better placed to see the imbalance than ‘native’ Scots who have only ever lived in Scotland.)

What this means is that the British state has, if not unlimited options, certainly uncountable options. Effectively, the British political elite can do as it pleases with and to Scotland. The Union was intended to solve the ‘Scottish problem’. It was meant to remove Scotland as a threat to England. To achieve this, a grotesquely asymmetric political union was devised and imposed on Scotland. Even three hundred years ago the people detested the Union. But Scotland’s ruling elites were assured that they would be protected from the effects of this imbalance of power.

That constitutional arrangement; that grotesque imbalance of power, remains fundamentally unchanged to this day. Society has changed beyond recognition since 1707. But the Union has not changed accordingly. Such changes as there have been – notably devolution – were intended to reinforce and preserve the imbalance rather than to reform and rectify it.

In the UK, people in Scotland are second-class citizens at best. The Union makes it so. We have a second-class parliament. The Union so stipulates. We have a second-class government. The Union allows no more. Not second-class in the sense of qualitatively inferior. Certainly second-class in terms of political power. Our Scottish Parliament may have immeasurably greater democratic legitimacy than Westminster. But it must always be subordinate. Our Scottish Government may be considerably more effective in addressing the needs, priorities and aspirations of the nation’s people. But it must always be subordinate to even the worst of administrations in London. Our people may be little different from the resident of Borissia. But we do not have the same right to choose the government that best suits our needs. The Union underpins this inequity.

This is the reality of the Union. A reality that is abhorred by many who appreciate the true nature of Scotland’s predicament; tolerated by those whose fear or apathy outweighs their self-respect and sense of justice; embraced by those whose conceit of themselves is that they are, or can hope to become, part of the cossetted elite.

But to our speculation. The foregoing has, I hope, served to explain why the British state has so many options. Or, to put it another way, so few constraints on how it acts towards Scotland. This is why restoring Scotland’s independence will require an exceptional effort on the part of boldly imaginative and utterly determined people.

Which brings me to the Scottish Government. No! really! Settle down!

What is the Scottish Government’s imperative? What drives the SNP administration? There can be no doubt that in relation to the day-to-day governance of the nation, the SNP administration seeks to serve the interests of Scotland’s people. And does so with quiet competence. Perhaps too quiet. Everybody will have their pet gripes, of course. But overall, the SNP administration has done a truly remarkable job considering the daunting constraints of devolution and an increasingly hostile British state.

All of which may well be part of the problem. The SNP is not only supposed to provide good government. It is also the de facto political arm of the independence movement. A role which bestows upon the party duties and responsibilities quite distinct from the duties and responsibilities of government. In relation to its role as a party of government the SNP’s imperative must be to stay in office. To win elections. To conduct itself in such a way as will enable it to win elections.

In relation to its role as the political arm of the independence movement, however, the driving imperative must be the restoration of Scotland’s independence. But to the considerable extent that options for action are related to power, the SNP is relatively powerless against the British state and its uncountable options. This we know. This we understand. What may be less well recognised or appreciated is the conflict between the two imperatives driving the SNP. On the one hand, its role as the governing party means it must conform to and comply with the unjust conditions imposed by the Union. On the other, its imperative in relation to its role as the party of independence obliges it to behave contrary to those conditions.

Basically, the SNP can’t do its job as a government if it fulfils its role as the party of independence.

Which imperative wins? Ultimately, the party must choose. It may well be that this choice was on the cards for the SNP’s spring conference. Whispers are growing daily about grassroots pressure on the party leadership for a change of approach to the constitutional question. It would, from a pragmatic point of view, be understandable if the leadership preferred to postpone this confrontation. Much as they’ve avoided the confrontation with the British state which will come at some point if the shackles of the Union are to be broken.

If the postponement is to allow the party bosses time to prepare for the coming contest of priorities – or imperatives – I’m fine with that. It’s a crucial issue. It deserves and requires preparation. If the postponement is for the purpose of preempting the confrontation by taking some kind of extraordinary action, I’ll be even better pleased. But if the postponement turns out to be nothing more than kicking the can down the road from reluctance to face up to the issue, I will not be well pleased.



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Intellectual rigour

There’s not much “intellectual rigour” evident in Jim Sillars’s pettily dismissive attitude to the AUOB marches. Marches and rallies have been a feature of reform campaigns for as long as there have been such things. If they served no useful purpose or were detrimental to the cause I reckon somebody would have noticed before now. His sneering and carping are hardly contributing to Scotlands’s independence campaign. But nobody is questioning his democratic right to sneer and carp.

I suppose the opposite of intellectual rigour might be said to be shallow-mindedness. The kind of shallow-mindedness which is evident in imagining that because there are people marching that is all people are doing. A bit of intellectual rigour would have eliminated the remark about “the 45%” marching every weekend. Intellectual rigour would involve actually checking to find out how frequently marches are held. And when they are held, how shallow-minded must an individual be to think that every single activist is involved taking them away from other forms of campaigning? How little intellectual rigour would it take to realise that many, if not most of the people on those marches spend a far greater proportion of their time leafletting and canvassing and manning street stalls or Yes hubs or organising public meetings or any of the myriad other things that Yes campaigners do?

I get the distinct impression that Mr Sillars knows little if anything about what goes on in the Yes movement. Were his commitment to intellectual rigour as strong as he implies, this would surely deter him from commenting on how Yes activists use their time.

On the other hand, he is almost certainly correct about there being vanishingly little chance of a new referendum in 2020. No intellectual rigour at all is required to work that out. whether or not the SNP’s rhetoric on this matter is a pretence, we have yet to find out. One of the things I learned in my “political apprentice years” is that you should never rule anything out. It is wise to eschew unqualified absolutes such as ‘never’ or ‘impossible’. Even if the likelihood of Nicola Sturgeon surprising we cynics on Friday is no greater than my chances of fitting into my first wedding suit, it’s still there, and should not be discounted.

I need to go and have a wee lie down now. All this intellectual rigour has fair worn me out.



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Know thine enemy!

It’s not deluded Unionists we need to be concerned about. Rather, it is those individuals in influential positions within the independence movement who imagine that Boris Johnson’s denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination is “utterly unsustainable”. Or that “the Tory position will not hold”.

For a start, it is not a “Tory position”. It is the position of the British state. It is the position of all the British parties, no matter how they dress it up in the hope of deceiving voters in Scotland. This is not a party political issue. Scotland’s predicament would be the same no matter who was occupying Downing Street.

For some time now I have been expressing concerns about the Scottish Government’s approach to the constitutional issue. In doing so, I have stated that Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998) is not there to facilitate the granting of new powers to Holyrood. It is there to allow the British Prime Minister to alter the competencies of the Scottish Parliament in whatever way he chooses. In an attempt to refute this point, an apologist for the Union claimed that the British Prime Minister could not fiddle with the list of reserved powers without first getting the nod from the British parliament.

According to this Unionist, the assertion that the British Prime Minister could ‘revise’ the powers of the Scottish Parliament at will was false because the Tories won’t always have a majority at Westminster. But, as I then pointed out, the British parties WOULD always have a majority at Westminster. Approval for stripping powers from the Scottish Parliament will always be a mere formality in the parliament of England-as-Britain.

Alyn Smyth is guilty of the same erroneous thinking as those who go on Yes marches with banners and chants demanding “Tories out!”. Ours is not an anti-Tory campaign. It is an anti-Union campaign. To lose sight of this is to forget the whole point and purpose of the Yes movement. Of course, it would be great to ‘get rid of the Tories’. Just as it would be wonderful to get rid of Trident. But these are secondary aims. They are contingent on the restoration of Scotland’s independence. It is this that must be the focus of our campaign. And of the efforts of our elected representatives.

Every bit as misguided as the idea that the Tories are the problem rather than the Union – and probably more dangerous – is the notion that the British establishment’s position is “unsustainable”. It is deluded to suppose that this position “will not hold”. The reality is that the British political establishment can not only maintain its anti-democratic denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination, it can also implement whatever measures are deemed necessary to ensure that the people of Scotland are never allowed to chose the form of government that best suits our needs.

This is not to say we should just give up. We must not succumb to pessimism or be daunted by the armour which protects established power. But we must properly appreciate the nature of the forces defending the British state’s structures of power, privilege and patronage. Those defences are not going to crumble under a barrage of righteous outrage however rousing the rhetoric of SNP MPs.

Scotland’s cause cannot rely on the British establishment having a change of heart. If Scotland’s independence is to be restored then it must be restored DESPITE the fervent opposition of the British political elite. Not because we’ve shamed them or won them over. The British state has no shame. And no heart.



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Leave it to the experts

Amidst the eight hundred or so articles I’ve written since I started blogging in February 2012 you will find several which take as their subject warnings about what the future may hold if events play out in particular ways. Warnings, for example, published in the period before the 2014 referendum warning about the consequences of voting No. Or, subsequent to the first referendum, warnings about the implications of too long delaying a new referendum. Here are a few examples, with passages emphasised.

This is from 5 April 2018.

I had hoped to find in his [Pete Wishart] latest writing on the subject answers to such questions as what criteria are to be used in assessing the “optimum time” and how, having delayed the vote, he proposed to deal with the British government’s moves to make a new referendum impossible and/or unwinnable. I’m none the wiser on any of these points.

Referendum 2018

From 7 April 2018.

We can be sure, also, that while emasculating the Scottish Parliament the British government will also introduce measures for the purpose of making an independence referendum ‘unlawful’ and/or unwinnable. If the democratic route to independence is likely to be used, it must be closed off. If the people of Scotland might presume to exercise their democratic right of self-determination, that right must be denied.

Threat and response

From 23 April 208.

The difference – and pretty much the only difference – between the anti-democratic British Nationalists and Pete Wishart is that, while he still supposes there might be a new referendum at some undefined time in the future, Ruth Davidson, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie) are determined that the referendum be postponed until such time as the British government, to which they give total allegiance, has implemented measures to ensure that a new referendum is impossible and/or unwinnable.

Sage advices

From 19 July 2018.

Scour that timeline as you may, you will find no mention of the steps the British government will be taking in order to make a new independence referendum impossible or unwinnable or both. Which is odd given that Gordon [MacIntyre-Kemp] otherwise seems to suppose the British government to be the only effective actor in all of politics. His timeline is almost entirely a tale of what the British elite does, and how the Scottish Government might react.

It’s what we make it

Finally, from 21 July 2018.

In all this talk of postponing the new referendum, whether it be until 2019 or 2021 or 2022, I see no explanation of how those commending delay propose to deal with the measures that the UK Government will surely implement in order to make a referendum impossible or unwinnable or both. It’s as if they think the British state is a benign entity which is just going to sit back and wait until we get our act together. It’s as if they are dumbly unaware that locking Scotland into a unilaterally redefined political union is one of the principal imperatives driving British policy.

I despair!

Now look at the image below showing the relevant detail of a Bill (Referendums Criteria Bill 2020) currently being considered in the British parliament.

As I express concerns about Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process and the SNP’s whole approach to the constitutional issue one of the most common responses I get is to tell me to shut up because ‘the powers that be’ know better than I do.

Do they?

I have been told that, for various procedural reasons, this Bill might make no further progress in the British parliament. To focus on this, however, is to miss the point. The point being that the Bill existed in the first place. It serves to illustrate the ways in which the British establishment will seek to close down all democratic routes to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. Something which could easily be foreseen.

It has been further stated proposal of the Referendums Criteria Bill 2020 was prompted by the 2016 EU referendum and the ensuing chaos. So what? Does this mean it wouldn’t have applied to Scotland? No! Does it mean it wouldn’t have serious implications for the independence campaign? No!

Does it mean there is no possibility of further efforts to make a new referendum impossible and/or unwinnable? No!

Is the Scottish Government ready to deal with those efforts? You’d like to think so. But….



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Power and effect

Neil Mackay

It’s not often one gets to say this, but Gerry Hassan’s column in the Sunday National (Scottish independence: the rise of people power in Scotland) is an enjoyable as well as an interesting read. Enjoyable – perhaps even inspiring – because it is about something which is inevitably close to the heart of everyone associated with the Yes movement – people power. What is the Yes movement but a wonderful example of people coming together to use their collective democratic power for a worthy purpose?

Like all the best popular movements, the origins of Yes are a bit vague. Inevitably so since such movements are not created but, rather, emerge from the populace – the demos. Popular movements are not launched, they arise. There may be a single spark, but it ignites many fires. In the case of the Yes movement, the spark was the 2014 referendum and the separate fires were the various Yes groups which sprang up all over Scotland. Initially, these groups were initiated by Yes Scotland, the official pro-independence campaign organisation. With a speed which I think it’s safe to say startled everyone, these groups began forming spontaneously, facilitated and fanned by social media. At some indefinable point, due largely to the networking capacity offered by the web, that scattering of individual groups became a movement. An amorphous, organic and rather chaotic phenomenon gradually realising the potential of its power.

Power itself is useless. In order to do anything it must be fed into some kind of machine. It is the machinery which does the actual work. As Gerry Hassan makes clear, All Under One Banner (AUOB) is an illuminating example of a mechanism by which raw people power is transformed into operational effect. It is organisations such as AUOB which draw together the different strands of disparate and diffuse people power, amplifying it and applying it to specific tasks or functions.

Which brings us to what I have previously referred to as the ‘organisation problem‘.

Yes is a diverse, open, inclusive, unstructured popular movement. It is NOT an organisation. That is as it should be. That is its strength. It is not hierarchical. It is an amorphous, informal, organic network. That is the essence of its power.
There are no leaders of the Yes movement. But there are leaders IN the Yes movement. Leadership arises as leadership is required. When that leadership ceases to be necessary, it merges back into the movement ready to be called upon if needed. The Yes movement has no need of leaders so long as it has this potential for emergent leadership.

Some of the Yes movement’s activities demand organisation. People put effort into creating the appropriate organisation within the movement. This is NOT a simple task. Creating an organisation within an organisation is relatively easy. Creating an organisation within a movement which eschews and is averse to formal structures is a hugely demanding task.

In that article I went on to observe that,

It takes a special kind of character to even attempt such a task. It takes extraordinary commitment, dedication and sheer hard work to see it through.

Neil Mackay is representative of that kind of character. Although anything but a ‘one-man band’, Neil’s name serves as a metonym for AUOB and, to some extent, for all the organisations which have been formed within the Yes movement.

The lesson here is that, however much the idea of people power may appeal to us, it doesn’t actually do anything absent the individuals and organisations which give it operational effect. The idea of Scotland’s independence being won by people power is at best misleading fallacy and at worst counter-productive delusion. There is a purist notion of people power which rejects, or only reluctantly accepts, the need for any machinery. This is simplistic nonsense. Ultimately, power of any kind has to use, or be used, by some form of organisation in order to have any effect. And organisations rely on individuals with particular abilities and attributes. Organisations like AUOB. Individuals like Neil Mackay.

Political parties are also part of the machinery which gives effect to popular power. All too many people won’t accept this. How often do you hear people say that they ‘hate political parties’, or ‘detest party politics’? I could discuss at length how this is a prejudice which established power is happy to encourage. And why wouldn’t they? What could suit prevailing power better than that countervailing power should spurn the means to challenge the status quo?

People power requires the machinery of organisations in order to build a campaign. That campaign requires a political party in order to be translated into effective action through the institutions and processes of democracy. There is, and can be, no direct connection between people power and social or political reform. It is critically important to recognise that movement, campaign and party are separate and distinct. They interact. But each has its function and all are crucial to success in effecting change.

The analogy which best represents this relationship portrays the SNP as the lever by which Scotland will be prised out of the Union; the Scottish Government is the fulcrum on which the lever turns; the Scottish Parliament is the base on which the fulcrum rests, and the Yes movement is the force which must be applied to the lever. No component works without the others. Each component must perform as required and work well with the rest of the system.

Which brings me (at last!) to my main point. From all of the foregoing it can be seen that it matters a great deal that people power is correctly directed. No useful purpose is served if that power is organised into a campaign only for that campaign to be spent on a political agent which cannot translate that power into the desired political effect. Which is why I was delighted to see the following quote from Neil Mackay.

AUOB’s aim is to push the Scottish Government and to emphasise the power underneath them. We are here to hold them to account and to hold their feet to the fire as much as we do to Westminster.

Look back at that lever analogy. Do you see any mention of Westminster? It is not there because it has no place. It contributes nothing to the process of restoring Scotland’s independence. If Westminster was to be shoe-horned into our analogy it could only be as the resistance to the lever’s movement. Scotland’s independence will not be restored by, or by way of, Westminster. People power applied to the British establishment is, in terms of the objective, all but entirely squandered. The British state has a capacity for disintegrating and/or deflecting and/or absorbing popular pressure that has been acquired and perfected over several centuries. There is no possibility of help for the Yes movement from that direction.

Neil Mackay is right. The power of the Yes movement must now be turned on the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon, both in her role as our First Minister and in her role as leader of the SNP. Their purpose is to provide the Yes movement with effective political power. The Yes movement must put pressure on them to use that power effectively.



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Here we go again!

Assuming he is offering even the vaguest insight into current thinking at the top of the SNP then Toni Giugliano’s article in The National will make depressing reading for all but the most mindlessly complacent independence campaigners. The message I’m getting is that we should expect the First Minister’s ‘demand’ for a Section 30 order will be treated with the same contempt as the previous request to Theresa May and that the First Minister’s only response will be to try and whip up some outrage at the contempt with which Scotland is treated by the British political elite. Outrage which, when combined with anger at the impact of Brexit – not the fact of Brexit but the consequences – will generate a massive groundswell of support for independence propelling the SNP to an equally massive victory in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections that will “make a Section 30 irrefutable”.

Haven’t we been here before? It’s like déjà vu on an endless loop. It’s like somebody lost the last two reels of Groundhog Day. It’s like the entire independence movement has come under the leadership of the Grand Old Duke of York. We’re repeatedly marched up the hill only to have John Bull send us scurrying back down the slope where we stand around telling each other how close we were and how we’ll make it to the summit next time. But the hill never gets any lower. And John Bull is tireless as he blocks our path.

The cycle is endless. The Grand Old Duke of York is set in his ways and won’t even listen to suggestions of another route to the top which bypasses John Bull. Talk of confronting John Bull is considered mutinous. The Duke is an officer and a gentleman and insists that John Bull be respected and obeyed
It would, he insists, be pointless reaching our fortress atop the hill without John Bull’s permission because even with an entire army we would not be able to defend it.

Mostly, the troops dutifully follow the leader. A few wonder aloud why we are unable to get back to Independence Castle when we own it and all the roads that lead to it. But their voices are drowned out by the bugles and the bands and the battle-cries as the Yes army sets off on another futile expedition.

I’ve probably strained the metaphor beyond breaking point. But I try to find different ways of saying the same thing even if Toni Giugliano doesn’t.



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Whatever happened to wotsitcalled?

And so it begins. Or doesn’t. 2020 has barely started and the #indyref2020 hype is already faltering. Actually, the signs were there even before 2019 was consigned to the bin marked ‘annus horribilis’. Which, disappointingly doesn’t mean ugly arsehole. Or maybe I was reading too much into all the talk of decades rather than years.

Kenny MacAskill certainly doesn’t seem uncomfortable with a year turning into a decade. I agree with him that the chances of a new referendum in 2020 are probably nil. I have been saying as much for a while now. Much to the annoyance of those who prefer their politics with a sprinkle of faerie dust. It’s really just a matter of counting up the ways that Nicola Sturgeon has of making it happen, supposing she wanted to, then compare with the ways Boris Johnson has of stopping it, as well as his all too evident eagerness to do so. It’s no contest. The referendum loses. No credible scenario leads to referendum in the second half of 2020. No amount of wishful thinking will change that. Unless you have another use for those unicorn tears, you might as well stop telling it My Little Pony is prettier.

Where Mr MacAskill and I part company is in our very different attitudes to this non-magical reality. I cannot possibly agree with his conclusion that further delay is “no bad thing”. And let’s be clear about what further delay means. If the new referendum doesn’t appear out of a multi-coloured cloud of sweet-scented smoke by late this year, it will be at least another year before it is even possible. on account of the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021. It could be much longer. Because the Brexit farce goes into act three at the end of January and by year’s end everybody will have lost their trousers and had an embarrassing encounter with Aunt Harriet’s aspidistra before the curtain comes down on the transition period.

It could be never. Because the foregoing account looks positively rose-tinted compared to one which takes account of what the British political elite will be getting up to while Pete Wishart & The Postponers are on their ‘Optimum Time’ tour performing their hit single ‘Gentle Persuasion’ on doorsteps the length and breadth of Scotland and Kenny MacAskill makes a start on restoring the Volkswagen camper van – which has been rusting in Blair Jenkins’ garage for over five years – as part of the preparations for getting ready to start the lead-up to the campaign that the SNP somehow hasn’t found time to work on because they were too busy prancing about with their gold underpants on over their black tights pretending to be the super-hero who was going to stop Brexit.

I read the extracts from Kenny MacAskill’s article for the Scottish Left Review and I discover that what used to be the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence before it became the campaign to restrain England’s insanity may now be about to undergo a startling transformation into the campaign for turning Holyrood into the Wolfie Smith Memorial Commune for Happy Clappies, Righteous Radicals and the Kaleidoscope Collective for Random Reform (dress code keffiyehs and Guy Fawkes masks).

Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it when it was the Scottish independence campaign and the closest anybody got to wearing a keffiyeh was when somebody’s giant Saltire got wrapped around their neck on the breezy approaches to Nelson Mandela Place, blessedly stifling their irksomely irrelevant chants of “Tories out!” on one of those AUOB marches for, among other things, independence etcetera etcetera etcetera.

What the hell happened to that campaign?



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