Scotland’s cause needs a leader

If you’re going to jump on a bandwagon then do it with style. Kevin McKenna shows how with his column in The National. I am not being derogatory at all when I say this. The ‘bandwagon’ idiom suggests only that someone has come late to an issue or cause. It need say nothing condemnatory about their motives for doing so. I don’t keep track of Mr McKenna’s mood swings. His evident anger at the SNP may not be new. What matters is that it is evidently real. What matters is that it is fully justified.

Kevin McKenna is jumping on a bandwagon at least in the sense that he is adding his voice to a growing clamour of protest directed not at the ‘auld enemy’ of the British establishment but at the de facto political arm of Scotland’s independence movement. Nothing that he says in his column has not been said by others, including myself. But he says it well enough that it sounds fresh. I congratulate and commend him for this.

Some would contend that there is already a Cummings-like figure in the SNP. Or at least a Cummings-like force. Our lizard brains respond most predictably and vehemently to an identifiable ‘enemy’. The demonisation of and individual is a direct appeal to our basest instincts. Which helps to explain the personality politics that we have grown inured to. The reality is, as Kevin McKenna suggests, that true personalities in politics are uncommon whereas forces are ubiquitous. Those forces can be likened to the eddies in the flow of a river. Little eddies want to become the currents which direct the flow. Minor personalities seek the eddies which have potential to become currents. A few have the skill to make it appear that they are the force pushing the current rather than the flotsam riding on it. Fewer still can actually manage and manipulate the tides of public affairs; and then on in ways that are small and short-lived on the grand scale of history.

I have previously pointed out that it is a mistake to regard Boris Johnson as an aberration. Rather, we should think of him as the inevitable product of a political system lost to corruption. Johnson would not be where he is had there not been a tide flowing within the British ruling elites such as to carry him there. Similarly, Dominic Cummings would not have gained the influence he evidently wields had he not been astute enough to see the way the wind was blowing, to mix my fluid mechanics metaphors slightly.

Is such a wind blowing through the SNP? Perhaps! Is there someone who can both take advantage of the current and aid its flow by removing obstacles? Maybe! The Yes movement will decide. Only party members can sort out the cliques and cabals within the SNP. Like it or not, they will require a leader in order to do so. That’s just the way politics works. You won’t change that by snootily opting out, But it is the Yes movement which will decide. The relationship between the two – party and movement – is symbiotic. As is common with such relationships, either can seem like parasite or host depending on how you look at it. In reality, it doesn’t matter which is which. They need each other. Neither is likely to cease to exist without the other. But neither can flourish and prosper unless they work together.

Kevin McKenna’s column will resonate with many people across Scotland this morning. It will resonate with more people this evening. and more still tomorrow. A tide is running through both the SNP and the wider independence movement. The feeling is becoming ever more general that something has to change. Something is needed that will take both movement and party and from them mould a campaign. A campaign which does not pause any more than does the flow of politics or the tides of history. A campaign dedicated to a cause.

A passage from Kevin McKenna’s article struck a chord with me.

Cummings is a formidable political operator who is doing for Boris Johnson what Alastair Campbell did for Tony Blair: protect him; knife his enemies; put the civil service back in its box, and maintain the integrity of the project.

The project! That is the thing. Boris Johnson’s project is Boris Johnson’s advancement. There are signs that he considers that project complete and has grown bored with it. (There are indication that he may want to play at being a father for a while. One can only pity the child if Boris Johnson brings to parenting the same ‘attributes’ as have been his gift to politics.) If there is a next stage in that advancement it is his further elevation – whether this be the award of a Dead Stoat Clock or the rewards accruing to an ‘elder statesman’ (see Tony Blair) – he can be confident that the corrupt British political system will take care of that for him. That’s both cause and symptom of the corruption.

Dominic Cummings has prospered by pairing his project with Johnson’s. He may have a project of his own but if he has it is one which is served by being subsumed into the one that occupies his master.

Neither has a cause. Neither is working towards a greater goal. Both Johnson and Cummings think only of the next phase of the project. The next obstacle to be removed from Boris Johnson’s path. The next political foe to be brought down. The next bit of power to be added to the fortifications of power protecting the power they already have. The difference between them is that Cumnmings approaches the project with a full set of very sharp intellectual tools while Johnson relies on some quality or capacity which I must confess remains a complete mystery to me. They have no cause. The reality they seek to create is whatever reality happen to be once the current stage of the project is finished. There is no master plan. There is nothing at the end of their rainbow. They have no rainbow.

Is this, as Kevin McKenna suggests, the kind of person (or force) that the SNP needs? My finer feelings say no! But my political instincts say yes! In this instance, head wins out over heart. Both the SNP and the Yes movement need an injection of cold, calculating political pragmatism. They both need the Cummings-like figure or force that McKenna describes. With one very important difference. This force must be deployed in the service, not of the party or the movement but the cause. Scotland’s cause! We have a cause where they have only a project. To the extent that we have a project that project has a plan and an objective. A greater goal.

What Scotland needs is someone who knows the difference between a movement and a party and a project and a campaign. Someone who understands the relationships between and among all these. Someone who possesses the technical skills, political acumen and personal qualities needed to draw all these strands together and make them work for Scotland’s cause. The cause of restoring Scotland’s independence.

Scotland’s cause needs a leader.

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Our sword!

The words “Jim Sillars says” have come to resonate with me in much the same way as I imagine the words “inoperable tumour” might. Never more so than when he is right. One need not be particularly politically astute to foresee that the coming revelations from Alex Salmond will almost certainly cause the SNP leadership difficulties on a spectrum from considerable to catastrophic. One would have to be pathologically bitter and resentful to contemplate this prospect with anything like the drooling relish that Sillars exhibits.

I wonder only if those revelations “will gladden Unionist hearts” half as much as the publication – in the Unionist media – of another outpouring of bile from Jim Sillars.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that the repercussion of the ‘Salmond Affair’ are set to go on for years and impact the SNP and the Scottish Government at the highest levels. Rather than chortling gleefully in anticipation, however, I prefer to reflect on how best the independence movement might address an issue which has potential to do great harm to Scotland’s cause.

Of one thing I am certain; revelling in the misfortunes of the ‘high heid yins’ is about as counter-productive as it can get. We would do well to remember that, just as the SNP isn’t the whole independence movement, so the leadership is not the entire party. More than anything, the party is its members. For me, that is what has until relatively recently distinguished the SNP from the British parties.

How the coming storm – or volcanic eruption – affects the SNP in the medium to long term very much depends on how the membership deal with the situation. It also depends to a great extent on how the Yes movement responds. I fear the knee-jerk reaction will be to discard the sword. That, in my view, would be a massive mistake.

Babies and bathwater, folks! Let’s scrape the rust off the sword and discard only that. Let’s go further! Rather than discard the sword let us publicly declare and demonstrate our determination to restore and preserve the sword which we, the people of Scotland have crafted for our purpose – the honourable and essential purpose of restoring Scotland’s independence.

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Three crises

There is no law of nature or humanity which provides that there can only ever be one crisis facing a nation or the world at any given time. And yet this is what apologists for the SNP’s failure ask us to accept. They effectively insist that because there is a public health crisis, nothing else may concern us or occupy a moment of our attention lest we be condemned as cold and uncaring – heedless of the human cost, if not actually responsible for some part of it. It would be interesting to examine this curious mindset. It could be informative to reflect on the causes of this extreme tunnel-vision. In particular, it might be illuminating to consider the role of the mass media in creating a population whose attention can so readily be manipulated by or on behalf of powerful forces in society.

But that is not my purpose here. Perhaps another time. For now, I think it important to consider the reality which is being excluded by the contrived and quite unnatural obsession with a public health threat which, while undoubtedly serious, is now being exaggerated to rationalise the irrational exclusion of all political and social issues from public attention.

As is very often the case, Scotland is the exception. It is strange that the thing that is most insistently excluded from public attention, the thing that is most immediately and comprehensively set aside, so consistently tends to be something that is of particular relevance to Scotland. Part of this irrationally obsessive mindset involves the well recognised phenomenon of abstraction from any historical context. Events are regarded as one-off. Singular. Unique. Failures of the capitalist economic system, for example, are reliably portrayed as unprecedented when, in reality, they are frequent enough to be commonplace. Economic crises are presented as isolated instances when, in fact, our economic system is in a constant state of crisis. It simply suits some purpose of the powerful to have us concentrate all our attention on one small section of the timeline. Like blanking out all but a few selected frames in a movie or ripping out all but a small number of pages from a book and convincing everybody – or enough people – that this is the whole story.

Lest you think this phenomenon manifests only in the realm of global economics I’ll mention one further instance which always comes to mind when this abstraction is discussed – the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. One aspect of this magnificently horrific incident evident to those inclined to consider its wider implications was that it was not considered fitting to consider wider implications. The incident was lifted entirely and completely out of the great play of history and placed centre stage and alone with every light in the house thrown on it and everything around it cast into darkness. Any attempt to restore the incident to, for example, the context of US foreign policy was, shall we say, vigorously opposed. In fact, even to attempt such a thing risked being metaphorically burned at the stake for heresy. If the attempt was made in America the immolation might be less metaphorical.

As with bank collapses and terrorist atrocities, so with the current public health emergency. It’s the only thing there is. One crisis only allowed. Nothing else matters. To suggest that something else matters is to invite accusations of attempting to diminish or dismiss the seriousness of the ‘real issue’.

But the world is not so monochromatic. There’s every shade of grey and every other hue besides. This is not a controversial observation. All but the most devoted coronavirus obsessives might agree were the question put to them directly. There is no law of nature or humanity which provides that there can only ever be one crisis facing a nation or the world at any given time. The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious public health issue. But it is not and cannot be the only issue. Life goes on quite literally regardless of the things that inevitably loom large in our personal sphere – such as bereavement – and the things that are made to loom large by those who stand to benefit from having them loom large enough to push everything else out of our sight.

In Scotland, what always and immediately gets unceremoniously pushed below the bottom of our list of priorities is the constitutional question. Is that not something worth pondering? The constitutional issue is one day the single overarching matter in Scotland’s politics, and next day nowhere to be found. How does that happen? Why this issue? To stay firmly within living memory, the tipping of the global capitalist system from constant to particular crisis in 2007/2008 instantly prompted shrill demands that Scotland’s constitutional issue be completely removed from the agenda. Note that it had to be purposefully, forcefully removed. Other issues could be relied upon to find their place in the calls upon the public’s attention and concern. Actual effort was demanded to ensure that the constitutional issue was consigned to the sub-basement of priorities. Have you never wondered why?

Likewise with the Brexit fiasco. Ever since the Leave vote in England and Wales meant that Brexit would be imposed on an unwilling Scotland, the shrill voices of those who presume to decided such things on our behalf have asserted as fact that it is not possible to both deal with Brexit and be in any measure preoccupied with Scotland’s constitutional issue. Only and always and most insistently Scotland’s constitutional issue. Have you never wondered why?

Now it’s COVID-19. Almost the moment the existence of the virus became known it was seized upon as yet another justification for taking the constitutional issue ‘off the table’ completely. Do you not wonder why? Are you not yet beginning to see a pattern emerging?

And it is particularly the constitutional issue that is the matter we are supposed to put entirely from our minds. Nobody suggests that the coronavirus crisis obviates the climate crisis. Nobody has suggested that the conflict in Syria has ceased to be of any importance because only the coronavirus crisis can be important. The public health crisis certainly hasn’t put a stop to the British political elite’s constitutional machinations. If anything, the malignant child-clown in Downing Street is accelerating its plans and intensifying its efforts to forcibly mould these islands into a new state made in the image of the imagined ‘Great Britain’ of a grotesquely mythologised past. Only in Scotland are we expected – required – to abandon our aspirations for something better than Boris Johnson’s tawdry blend of Little England and Greater England where every day is a crossover between Dad’s Army and Terry & June. Don’t you ever ask yourself why?

There is no law of nature or humanity which provides that there can only ever be one crisis facing a nation or the world at any given time. At this moment, there is a public health crisis. But there is also a constitutional crisis. The public health crisis needs to be addressed and can be handled without any difficulties which aren’t the product of human folly. But what of the 99% who survive? What of their future and the future of the generations to follow? When the COVID-19 pandemic ceases to hog the attention of the mass media and hence the general public, Scotland’s constitutional crisis will still be there. It will still need to be resolved. It will inevitably be even more urgent given that British Nationalists are not being in the slightest bit hindered in their campaign by the coronavirus pandemic. Does that not lead you to wonder whether it is a good idea to drop the independence campaign completely? Has it suddenly ceased to be important that we set up some resistance to the escalating onslaught on our democratic institutions, our distinctive political culture, our essential public services, our civil and human rights as citizens of Scotland and our very identity as a nation?

Which brings me to the third crisis I want to bring out of the deep, ominous shadow cast by COVID-19 (and whatever is to be the next mono-crisis) and into the light of public attention. There is a constitutional crisis in Scotland. But our means and effort to address this are also in crisis. The Yes movement is in crisis. The independence campaign is in crisis. And it has bugger all to do with coronavirus. Responsibility for this crisis lies squarely on the shrugging shoulders of the SNP. With their apologists perhaps due some small share of blame. It’s bad enough when the British political elite tries to demote our constitutional crisis to insignificance and with it our aspirations for a better nation and a better society. It is an entirely different and vastly more serious matter when our own government and the party on which the independence movement has hitherto relied collude with the British state in this demotion. That, I submit, is a whole new crisis. And one from which we should not be distracted if we are to have any hope of saving Scotland from the fate that is being decided for us by forces unaccountable to the people of our endangered nation.

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Just the ticket

It goes without saying that the current public health crisis must be the Scottish Government’s first priority at the moment. But Chris McEleny is correct to point out that “there are still other major issues facing the SNP and Scotland”. Perhaps more importantly, he reminds us – all of us – that however much some might wish it, these issues are not going to simply evaporate while the government and the media are distracted by more immediately newsworthy matters. The coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly a genuine problem. But don’t imagine for one minute that politicians around the world weren’t thinking of ways to exploit it before they started thinking of ways to deal with it. Scotland NOT excluded.

As obvious as the fact that the coronavirus outbreak must preoccupy the Scottish Government for the next several months is the fact that the British parties squatting in our Parliament together with their political masters in London will be eagerly looking for ways of turning the situation into a cudgel with which to pummel the SNP administration and the independence movement. The British state’s propaganda machine doesn’t stop just because people are falling ill and dying. It has no heart. It has no conscience. Expect no let-up in the relentless campaign of smear and calumny targeting NHS Scotland. To the slobbering hyenas of the British media, the additional burden on our health services means only new openings for attack. An overburdened system is a vulnerable system. The pack has scented prey.

Boris Johnson’s regime will be glad of attention being diverted from the Brexit shambles and the trade deal negotiations which have been rapidly descending to the same level of grim farce as has characterised the rest of the Mad Brexiteers’ asinine adventure. It is entirely possible, too, that the coronavirus will provide Johnson with a fine excuse for going back on his word not to seek another extension. Who could condemn him if he pleads inability to cope with concurrent cock-ups? He’s barely human, after all.

It is not only in Downing Street where the worry of dealing with a major public health threat will be laced with a vein of relief. I don’t for a moment suppose that Nicola Sturgeon will dwell on the fact, but fact it remains that the coronavirus outbreak is politically very convenient. It is perfectly possible for something to be both a tragedy and blessing, of sorts. It’s an ill wind that can’t be turned to some political advantage. Were unfolding events not all too regrettably real but following the script of some Netflix drama, one would be forgiven for thinking the pandemic too timely to be true. Fate can be cruel and/or kind. But very rarely both in such accommodating conjunction.

The health crisis comes at a time when the SNP, both as a party and as the administration, was facing increasing disquiet about its approach to the constitutional issue. None will admit it, but many in the party’s upper echelons will be discreetly heaving a sigh of relief that they will not now be required to face delegates any time in the near future. A chicken-wire screen in front of the stage is one movie cliche that conference managers will gladly eschew.

There will be some relief also that public health precautions now preclude other large gatherings at which criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ may have been voiced along with ever more insistent calls for a rethink. Or a ‘Plan B’, as Chris McEleny might say. But the disquiet and discontent don’t go away just because there’s a public health crisis. The constitutional is all-pervasive and all-encompassing. It is overarching and underlying. It is more than three centuries old and only becomes more urgent as time passes. Injustice does not diminish with time. The longer it persists, the more corrosive it becomes. Nor is it diminished by intervening events – no matter how serious these may be. The coronavirus tragedy will not be the first to be outlasted by the imperative of restoring constitutional normality to Scotland.

There is absolutely no reason why the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence might not or should continue by whatever means are left to us and by whoever is not otherwise occupied dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. We can expect a screeching chorus of “Now is not the time!” from the BritNat harpies. We should be thoroughly inured to their self-serving faux outrage by now. There is never a time when it is not appropriate to act in defence of democracy and for the ends of justice.

The Yes movement may not be able to march. Yes groups may be obliged to cancel planned events. SNP branch and constituency meetings will fall victim to essential restrictions on gathering of any size. But this means only that we are freed to apply our energies elsewhere. There is much that can still be done online, for example. It may be a good time to start your own blog. Or to devote more time to reading and sharing existing material in support of Scotland’s cause. The web provides us with unparalleled facilities for communicating and collaborating on all manner of projects. Writing letters to newspapers may be something you’ve always intended to do but never found time.

Email still works fine. Why not let SNP MSPs and MPs know how you feel about the fact that the independence project has stalled – and not because of the pandemic! Tell them of your concerns. Ask them questions. And when answers aren’t forthcoming, ask again!

It would be all too easy for this latest setback to become a cause for despondency and despair, coming as it does on top of the disappointments and frustrations of the past five years. We must avoid this. We must use this time. If politicians can exploit such situations, so can we. We just need to use our imaginations, our skills and the networks built by the Yes movement.

As some of you may have suspected, all of this has been leading up to my own suggestion as to what the Yes movement and SNP members could be doing over the coming weeks. Regular readers will be aware that I had previously envisaged Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP providing the leadership that the Yes movement requires in order to become an effective machine for fighting our political campaign. This has not happened. Let’s say no more at this juncture than that the necessary leadership has not been forthcoming. My own ‘Plan B’ is that the leadership should come from within the Yes movement. The question which remained to be answered concerned the practicalities. How would it be done? I believe I may have the answer to that question.

I had been thinking that building a campaign with the necessary unity, focus and discipline would require a new organisation born out of or hived off from the Yes movement. The aims of the organisation would be threefold –

  • to compel the Scottish Government to take a more assertive approach to the constitutional issue
  • to facilitate by any means necessary the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination
  • to devise a strategy to force constitutional reform built on the twin aspirations to build a better nation and end the injustice of the Union.

It has been brought to my attention, however, that a suitable organisation may already exist in the form of the SNP Common Weal Group. The stated aims of this group are, I am persuaded, sufficiently in accord with the aims set out above as to make it a suitable candidate for transformation into the kind of pressure group and campaigning organisation that is required if Scotland’s cause is to progress. I would urge everyone in the SNP and the Yes movement to at least consider how they might contribute to this transformation.

In the short-term, my hope is that this article might spark a more focused debate about taking the independence campaign out of the doldrums. In the longer-term… well… there is no longer-term. I am convinced that if the grassroots does not seize the initiative – seize it hard and seize it quickly – then the project to restore Scotland’s independence may suffer setbacks from which it will not easily or soon recover.

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This past week or two I’ve been reminding myself why I stopped using Facebook. It’s not the idiots. You can’t avoid them without abandoning social media altogether. It’s not even the fact that Facebook allows the idiots to spout their idiocy at greater length than Twitter. Just as you develop an algorithm in your brain which edits out the advertising from your conscious attention, so a similar ‘brain-switch’ is triggered by the first few words of a comment that the algorithm predicts will be unworthy of your attention. What I’m saying is that, as with all mass media, there’s a knack to being an active consumer. Being an active consumer means being selective as well as being critical. Question everything. But learn to spot the stuff that’s going to have only gibberish for answers.

I dislike Facebook because it has become this huge, clunky, clumsy, creaking machine. It’s like somebody asked Terry Gilliam and Maurits Cornelis Escher to collaborate on designing a social media platform. My laptop hates it! It’s a brand new machine and definitely not low-spec. But after ten minutes or so on Facebook it starts wheezing like it’s using Capstan Full Strength to treat a bad case of emphysema. Facebook turns site navigation into a mystery tour. At any given time, a haphazard selection of buttons function like the ‘Random article’ link on Wikipedia. The difference being that on Wikipedia you’ve a fairly good chance of landing on something interesting. On Facebook it’s vastly more likely you’ll encounter material with what we might euphemistically refer to as ‘niche appeal’. A detailed account of somebody’s gran’s verruca treatment complete with pictures may be gripping stuff for the odd deviant imagination but it’s quite jarring when you think you’ve clicked a link to a post about the Dutch tulip industry.

Facebook torments me. But it has its compensations. One thing I like is the way some comment can trigger a train of thought or the memory of something I’ve been meaning to write about. That happened recently when I read a remark about the SNP trying to appeal to ‘new moderates’ in an effort to increase support for independence. This immediately brought to mind some thoughts i’d had on this very matter but had not, as far as I could recall, turned into to pixel-dust and committed to the care of the cloud fairies. I’ve copied and pasted my response, expanded it a bit and tidied up some stuff.

The trouble is, the SNP is not appealing to any new moderates. Because there are no new moderates. All the moderates are already included in the 50% Yes share polls are showing. The appeal needs to be to another category or categories of voters altogether. A more emotional appeal. A more aggressive appeal. Voters have hearts as well as heads. And there is no law or rule that says voters cannot be guided by their hearts as much as their heads.

We need a campaign that addresses people’s sense of injustice. We need a message that sparks anger. Not rage! Anger! Righteous anger.

We need the other bit of the campaign. The bit that was missing from the 2014 campaign because it was effectively prohibited. The negative to go with the positive. Simply campaigning for independence will not work. Or, to put it another way, campaigning for independence has done its work. It has won as many votes as it can. We need to unleash the other side of the campaign. The artillery barrage. The anti-Union campaign.

I can explain – have explained – why a campaign restricted to campaigning for independence can only do so much. Nobody listened. The SNP leadership still won’t listen. Independence cannot be the sole focus of an effective political campaign because it is a disputed concept. A binary political campaign – as in a referendum – must have a tangible, deliverable offering. The thing that everybody in the campaign agrees on as the end to be achieved. The thing that people actually vote for. Independence cannot serve that function because there is no possibility of general agreement among campaigners or voters about what independence means.

Independence always and for everybody means ending the Union. Dissolving it. Breaking it. However you want to put it. The Union is the target.

There’s an analogy which might help explain why a continuing campaign of “gentle persuasion” is a wasted effort. And it is, self-evidently, futile. The polls have barely moved in circumstances that should be ideal. Topping 50% is great for headlines in The National. But it’s less of a cause for celebration when you recognise that Yes should be at 60% and rising. In the context of Scotland’s independence campaign, 50% and barely twitching is evidence of failure.

It’s the law of diminishing returns. I used to do stock and production control in a big manufacturing plant producing perishable goods. There was a lot of what we called ‘variance’. That is to say, the stock we had was at variance to the stock we should have. Around 10% of production was being lost. All production all of the time. I introduced measures which brought that down to just over 1%. I continued to make improvements designed to prevent the variance rising. But I didn’t go chasing the 1%. Because it would have been too costly. Finding that 1% would have involved compromising production and labour relations. It just wasn’t worth it.

Some think that because their strategy of selling independence using “gentle persuasion” worked in the 2014 referendum – although not well enough – that all they need to do is persist with the same method. That assumes that votes over and above the ones already won are as easy to get as the ones already won. They are not! They are much more difficult to get. And they are not susceptible to “gentle persuasion”. We know that because that’s what the polls tell us. What little swing there has been to Yes can more than be accounted for by demographic changes and other factors. The “gentle persuasion” strategy has done nothing since 2014!

Let me put it another way. The “gentle persuasion” devotees imagine the campaign in a linear way. They think of it like a walk between to places marked on a map. If you’re at 10% you just have to keep walking in your sensible shoes and you’ll get to 20%. Walk a bit further and you’ll reach 30%. And so on. But a map is two-dimensional and deceptive. In reality, the journey begins as a stroll along a level, even path but at some point the path becomes broken and rocky and you find you should be wearing proper walking shoes. The path gets rougher and steeper until you can make no progress without full mountaineering kit and the skill to use it.

Now imagine you have a bungee cord tied round your waist and tied off way back at 0%. That is the reality of a political campaign. At every stage, you need the right tools and techniques. As you progress the difficulty of gaining ground increases on an exponential curve – until you can go no further.

What we will see – what we are seeing already – is a stubborn determination to hold to the “gentle persuasion” strategy which, as it struggles to have some impact, starts to make increasingly expensive compromises. If “gentle persuasion” isn’t selling this brand of independence and “gentle persuasion” is the only technique we’re allowed to use, then we are forced to adapt the ‘product’ we’re trying to sell until it appeals to a new market. Until it is saleable using our sole technique. And it’s not only the form of independence that will be ‘modified’ downward to find this new market. It will be everything associated with the project to restore Scotland’s independence. If it is thought that the process is what puts people off, then the least scary process must be selected.

But what happens when there is no process that is both reassuring to the apprehensive and viable? What happens if the only process that will work sounds a bit scary even if the fears are groundless?

That’s where we are at the moment. A strategy has been adopted which can’t make progress because those in charge refuse to use the tools and techniques which are required. They keep telling us the strategy is working fine. They keep telling us we’re getting closer. They keep telling us that bungee cord holding us back is about to break. And some believe it. Some have their eyes so firmly fixed on the destination that they can’t see the ground beneath them. They can’t tell that they’re not moving. Yet!

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Get the monster!

Mhairi Black seems to be under the impression that Boris Johnson is the problem. What chance does the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence have when the people we have elected to progress that campaign are so woefully misguided? Boris Johnson is a symptom. The Union is the disease.

Boris Johnson isn’t even a symptom of the pestilent Union. Boris Johnson is a symptom of the malady which has afflicted England’s politics. Being infected with the Union merely means that Scotland must suffer the symptoms of whatever ailment befalls England-as-Britain.

Mhairi Black is not a fool. So we are entitled to wonder why someone so astute might make the basic error of misidentifying the problem. And if we assume that she is not so foolish as to suppose Boris Johnson so be the problem, we are entitled to wonder what was here motive and purpose in penning an article that is entirely about him. Why the prolonged ant-Boris rant?

It could be because he’s an easy target. In fact, I’m certain that is part of the answer. He’s an easy individual to despise. As Mhairi Black demonstrates, it is no great task to assemble a catalogue of the ways in which Boris Johnson makes himself a fitting object of detestation among Scots not infatuated with the facile, vacuous, jingoistic clown-face he puts on the sulphurous British Nationalism that grips England-as-Britain. A catalogue which, while far from comprehensive, is sufficient to make the wordage required by The National.

Not that I’m suggesting Mhairi Black’s sole or primary reason for focusing so intently on the wrong target was as an effortless way to pad out a column doubtless written in haste as the deadline loomed and almost certainly while she was preoccupied with whatever matters so engage our SNP MPs as to distract them from the task for which we elected them.

As I mention distraction, it occurs to me that this might be the answer to those wondering what Mhairi Black was aiming for with this article. An explanation supported if not confirmed by the last few paragraphs. She doesn’t quite use that irksomely inane phrase which insists that “we’ve never been closer to independence”. But she barely avoids this idiocy. And only by coining another which is only less imbecilic than the imbecility of the “never closer” pish because the imbecility of the “never closer” pish is unbeatable. Mhairi Black’s variation on the “never closer” theme being “the Union is doomed”. There probably should be an exclamation mark appended to this portentous declamation. But not even Mhairi can get that excited about it.

It’s another empty assertion. Unless “the Union is doomed” because Boris Johnson is an arse – which seems unlikely – then Mhairi Black offers no explanation as to what exactly is going to bring about the doom which she so confidently predicts for the Union. If the Union was going to be brought down by having arses in the high offices of the British state then it wouldn’t have survived three weeks, never mind three centuries.

It seems Boris Johnson is a useful idiot extraordinaire indeed. He manages to be both a tool for forces the nature of which may be better hinted at by Dominic Cummings and a handy device by which the SNP can distract attention from the abject failure of Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘strategy’ for progressing Scotland’s cause.

When the Angry Villagers are heading your way, it’s good to have a monster to which you can direct the pitchforks of their anger. Even if only temporarily.

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His and hers – Part 2

In the first part of this essay I attempted to justify binary sexual designation on the grounds of practicality. If we imagine society as an evolving organism, we would say that binary sexual designation is an adaptive compromise. In social evolution as in biological evolution, nothing totally novel is ever created. Everything is adapted from or build upon what already exists. Because the evolutionary process cannot invent it cannot produce ideal solutions. Evolution always settles for what works no matter how clumsy the solution may be from an engineering design perspective or, in some cases, from an aesthetic point of view. The binary male/female distinction was there, so societies used it as a basis for much of their structures.

Men and women are different. Difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as discrimination isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Where there are differences, the capacity for discrimination is essential. Every instant is the product of a process of discrimination in all the preceding instants. Discrimination produces the constraints which shape reality. Diversity, discrimination and constraints are the tools of creation. Bear with me, please. There is a point to all of this. I’m pretty sure it relates to my promise that I would attempt to understand how we lost the working consensus on binary sexual designation – among other things. I hope you’re as interested as I am in discovering what the point is.

Let’s go back a bit. Let’s go back to the very beginning. In fact, let’s go back to before the beginning. Before the so-called Big Bang that gets all the credit for being the beginning, partly because it’s big and bangy and big bangy things tend to hog the limelight. But also because it is a very satisfying theory. It appeals to imagination and reason and superstition and science. It satisfies the mind. It seems right. It’s a good fit with most of what we know; most of what we pretend to know; and most of what we use to fill the gaps in what we know. And it’s big and bangy. It’s an explosion. It’s ultimately us making a grand entrance in a sudden burst of brilliant light, searing heat and awesome energy. A bit like the opening of an old Elton John concert but scaled up and less camp. No wonder we find it satisfying.

Then along comes some killjoy and asks what came before the Big Bang, like they’re trying to spoil it for everyone. But the spoilsport asks a good question. If the Big Bang was an explosion and everything was created in that moment then where did the explosive material come from? Where did the detonator come from? What set it off? Or should that be WHO? (Cue portentous music.) Maybe the Big Bang theory isn’t totally satisfactory, no matter how satisfying. Maybe we need to think of it in another way.

Nothing! A nothing such as you can’t imagine, because imagining it would ruin the nothingness. A nothing devoid even of the concept of nothing. A nothing which utterly defeats the powers of imagination and language. A nothing that can’t exist because by existing it would not be nothing. That nothing is the start of everything. It is a nothing so complete as to contain within itself the potential for everything, whilst still being a perfect void.

A nothing that is devoid of anything must be devoid of constraints. Being devoid of the constraints that stop things happening, everything must happen. And happen simultaneously. Because the nothing that is devoid of constraints must also be without time. But if everything is created in that instant then constraints must be created. And among the first of these constraints must be time. Although it would only be first with hindsight. Which would be useless because there’s nothing to be seen with hindsight. Such is the nature of this instant. By it’s very nature, and it’s lack of any nature, it defies imagination and language. We have to playback in slow motion to make sense of it.

Time had to be created – or to emerge from the Great Nothing in the moment it became the Great Everything – otherwise everything would have happened at once. Which would be the same as nothing happening. Time had to come into existence because everything did. Time then acted as a constraint – preventing everything happening at once. Also gravity, to constrain everything from happening everywhere. Time imposes sequential order. Gravity imposes spatial location. Right away, we have something we can recognise as the reality we experience.

As everything comes into existence then this must include all possible constraints. Everything came to be what it is, not because it is what it is but because the constraints prevent it being anything else. But not everything can be the same. Their cannot be uniformity or homogeneity because these would preclude the diversity which must be part of everything because without it everything would be one thing short. We know that there isn’t uniformity and homogeneity because things change. Things aren’t static. There is no stasis because constraints are as diverse as everything else. So there are weak constraints and strong constraints and everything between and beyond. Everything is trying to be everywhere and everywhen but constraints limit the where and the when. They discriminate. Constraints of varying power prevent things being at random. The variability of constraints is what we experience as discrimination. Those constraints are both too powerful and not powerful enough to preclude change. The change we experience as time.

Fast forward a quantity of this time and you have us. People. And if your recall my distinctly unremarkable insight from the first part of this essay you will be aware that people are complicated. It’s the same complexity as exists in the universe around us. The complexity of chaos arising from and managed by diversity, discrimination and constraints.

Discrimination tends to be talked about as being ‘against’ something. It is widely understood as a negative thing. Discrimination against black people. Discrimination against Catholics / Muslims / Jews etc. Discrimination against old people. Discrimination against young people. Discrimination against women. What about discrimination in what we eat? If your ancestors hadn’t learned to discriminate between the nutritious and toxic but equally appealing berries then there would be no you. Or, to pander to the pedants for a moment, there would be statistically less likelihood of you. Discrimination is essential to creating order. And societies can only work if there is order. The larger and more complex (diverse) societies get, the more need there is for order, and the more difficult it is to maintain order. Throw free will into this mix and it’d make you throw your hands up in despair.

But, for the most part, we manage. For the most part, human society functions like a rather inefficient ant slightly erratic homeostatic system. All the parts and forces work together in ways which allow us to survive. Largely, if not entirely, because of the compromises we make. Free will is our is our capacity for regulating constraints by means of discrimination. To an almost infinitely variable extent, we can choose which and how constraints will act on us and which and how we will impose, or allow to be imposed, constraints on others. Depending on our capacities and circumstances, we each of us have a certain power to shape reality. We will join with others in order to enhance our power relative to others. Or pool our power for the accomplishment of some shared objective. All human interactions are transactions in the currency of power. And I do mean all. Everybody, in every situation, at every moment and in every way, is seeking to optimise their social power. That is determined by our genetic inheritance as human beings. It is what we are.

We are all the products of evolution under the influence of environmental pressure (Those constraints again.) That includes men and women. The science is well enough understood that we know why evolution resulted in the males/female difference. Suffice it to say that it is a necessary difference. Basically, it allows the mistakes that fuel evolution while not allowing too much randomness (mostly). As I pointed out previously, evolution, whether biological or social, never creates anything new. Everything that evolves, evolves by way of changes to something that already has evolved. And, obviously, there is cross-over between the biological and social realms. The nature that shapes a person for the procreative function (including survival) which is the only thing that nature ‘cares’ about, inevitably if incidentally shapes that person for certain social functions and roles.

Any account of this shaping process is necessarily reductive simply because the complexity is just too great to describe without using up all the pixels in the world. Probably not even then. Bearing this in mind and with all the usual caveats and provisos about generalisation that some will ignore on account of their personal tendency to arse – women were designed to bear children and this made them physically better suited to berry-picking and root-grubbing than monkey-hunting and boasting about it. There was no normative judgement involved. The differences didn’t imply better or worse in any overarching way. Men and women were different but equal – at least as far as nature and logic are concerned. Men and women were just to parts of the same social and biological machine. They worked in conjunction with each other and were equally essential to both procreation and survival.

At some point, that changed. At some point, those transactions of power left women the losers. Or so it seems. When ‘soft power’ is taken into account, the power differential between men and women may not be as great as is assumed when power is conceived of from what I’m obliged to call a ‘male’ perspective. But this is another generalisation. It may be true of the population of female humans as whole. But that is little comfort to the pockets – large and larger – of that population where the power differential between males and females has become excessive and self-perpetuation and in all to many cases seriously deleterious to women.

I want to stress here that this social imbalance is an unsustainable and unjustifiable aberration. As are all such social imbalances. If there can be said to be a way things were meant to be, this isn’t it. Exaggerated asymmetry of power is socially maladaptive, if I may borrow a term from evolutionary science. This means it is contrary to the interests of society. It is actively bad for society. Ultimately, excessive social imbalance will destroy a society as surely as a malignant cancer will kill an organism. We should be at least as conscientious in addressing the social imbalances which afflict society as we must be in dealing with the imbalances which threaten the habitability of our planet. Indeed, these imbalances are not unrelated or unconnected.

Virtue duly signalled, I shall move on.

We have travelled a long social evolutionary road from the point at which biologically determined roles and social roles coincided neatly. We’ve taken many wrong turnings along the way. We’ve created far too many imbalances and worsened them to a dangerous extent. But we have survived. We are surviving. Because we are still adapting our genetic inheritance to serve in a changed and rapidly changing environment. We have experimented with different form of social organisation. Sometimes disastrously. We are constantly tinkering. And therein may lie an explanation for the Pronoun Wars.

Our capacity for social tinkering has grown exponentially in recent years. Developments in science and technology mean, among much else, that we can identify more things. We can examine things, including ourselves in ever more detail. We have the tools and concepts to create untold numbers of categories because we are able to differentiate at an increasingly granular level. And we tinker. We discriminate between and among these myriad categories. Because we can. Indeed, we must. The human mind is little else but a massively powerful pattern recognition machine. We use this machine to map our social world. These maps guide choices and improve our ability to both foresee and deal with the stuff of life. So we are bound to try and place things in some kind of order. We are bound to prioritise. And when there are a plethora of things to prioritise, we can make mistakes.

We used to identify only two sexes – male and female. And we didn’t make a notably good job of prioritising them. We did some really dreadful discriminating. What chance do we have of getting it right when we’ve developed the ability to identify 17 sexes? Or 28? Or whatever the number may be? Or may become? The odds are seriously stacked against us getting it right. And we have beaten those odds. That much is clear from the rancour surrounding the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA).

In these errors of categorisation and/or prioritisation – errors of discrimination in the truest sense of the term – we may hope to find and explanation for the loss of the social consensus about the sexes which, while far from perfect, was at least functioning. The meaningful error, I suggest, is on the part of those who suppose that because a number of different sexes can be identified, that number must be accommodated. And afforded the same accommodation as the smaller number of categories (2) that were previously identified. They see this accommodation as the only acceptable ‘solution’. Anything else is unjust and undemocratic. So focused are they on doing what they consider – with some justification – to be right, they omit consideration of practicality.

If these additional categories are to be considered the equals of all others in society with appropriate entitlements, then they must be just as liable for making compromises of the sort that make society work. The simple fact is that we do not (yet?) have a form of social organisation which can operate under the weight of a huge and increasing number of categories of person each requiring accommodations which are frequently incompatible or mutually exclusive.

By all means, recognise as many sexes as you wish. But also recognise that society presently has a limited capacity to fully accommodate all of those sexes, and make the necessary compromises.

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