Against the Union

Left Unionists are fond of saying that working people in Scotland have more in common with working people in England than they do with Scotland’s landowners and millionaires. Indeed they do. And the biggest thing they have in common is that the Union keeps both of them in their place.

Tommy Sheppard clearly gets it. How gratifying it is to at last see an SNP politician explicitly acknowledging that the Union is the problem and at least hinting that Scotland’s cause is not gaining independence but escaping a political union which serves none of the people of these islands well, but serves Scotland particularly ill. A political union formed in a different age entirely for the purposes of a ruling elite whose successors continue to be the sole beneficiaries.

The effect is rather spoiled when he says things like,

Will this next election be about independence? You betcha!

Maybe he hasn’t quite completely got it. Or maybe it’s just that old habits of thinking die hard. Let’s be glad of whatever we get. Even if Tommy is no more than half way to the realisation that we need to be campaigning against the Union rather than for independence, he’ll still be some distance ahead of the SNP leadership.

We must campaign against the Union because the Union denies the people of Scotland the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty which is ours by absolute right. It really is as simple as that. It is from this denial of a fundamental democratic right that all of Scotland’s constitutional issues derive; along with most of our political, social and economic issues. Independence doesn’t resolve those issues. But even if you don’t accept that the Union is a major cause of Scotland’s problems, it is impossible to sensibly deny that it prevents us from addressing them as deemed appropriate by the people who actually live in Scotland.

It’s not even as if the Union is required. As I wrote during the 2014 referendum campaign,

Alex Salmond addressed this issue back in July 2013 when he spoke of the six unions that “govern our lives today in Scotland”. The political union of the UK; union with Europe through the EU; the currency union, the Union of the Crowns; a defence union based on Nato and a social union among the people of the UK.

The First Minister talked of these six unions in terms of their importance to Scotland, making the point that only the first of these – political union with the UK – works against Scotland’s interests. The others serve us reasonably well and are generally valued by the people of Scotland.

The political union between Scotland and England is not necessary to the maintenance of all those other unions. All that is needed is the consent of the people. So long as we consent to a currency union, we can have a currency union. It is the political union which forces on us a currency union which is not freely negotiated.

We can have a defence union. But, if democracy prevails, it must be a choice made on the basis of what the people of both Scotland and England consider best serves our mutual interests; not what serves the narrow interests of those who have inherited the status and power of the cliques the Union was designed to benefit.

Nowhere is the deleterious, anti-democratic impact of the Union more evident than in the matter of the “union with Europe through the EU”. Do I really have to elaborate? We are all painfully familiar with the fact that Scotland is being wrenched out of that union against the will of the Scottish people. The point I want to make here is that it would be perfectly possible for Scotland and England to share that union with Europe in the absence of a political union between our two nations. It is the grotesque asymmetry of the Union that destroys the possibility of a symmetrical arrangement whereby each nation makes its own choices.

The Union is the massive bluebottle in the ointment of harmonious coexistence and cooperation. It is the Union that prevents us developing a form of association between Scotland and England – and among all parts of these islands – which is fit for 21st century democracy rather than the conditions that existed over three centuries ago.

Kindly bear with me as I quote again, and at length, from that article published in November 2013 under the counter-intuitive title ‘Vote Yes to save the Union‘.

…if we get past the self-serving politicians of the British parties whose sole priority is the preservation of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which benefit them and their clients; if we address those who have been lured by the simplistic slogans of the anti-independence campaign and induce them to really think about what it is that they value about the Union, it is highly probable that they will come up with much the same answers that Alex Salmond did. They would surely place the highest value on the social union. And, while they might vary in the way they prioritise the others, there would still be general agreement with pro-independence campaigners on the list as a whole.

We all, nationalist and unionist alike, tend to value the same things about the Union, differing only in the emphasis that we put on each. Where we part company is principally, if not solely, on the matter of the political union of the UK. I would urge unionists to think long and hard about whether we do not have a common interest in that regard also.

I fervently hope Tommy Sheppard’s article signals a shift in emphasis away from campaigning for independence and towards campaigning against the Union. Because that is where we find common ground across the independence movement, and very possibly beyond.

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No change

Tommy Sheppard tells us that British Labour’s still highly dubious acceptance of Scotland’s right of self-determination is a “long-standing position”. Which is odd given the following from British Labour’s 2017 UK general election manifesto.

Labour opposes a second Scottish independence referendum. It is unwanted and unnecessary, and we will campaign tirelessly to ensure Scotland remains part of the UK.

British Labour Manifesto 2017

That statement is still on British Labour’s website.

In September 2018, Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC,

We don’t want another referendum, we don’t think another referendum is a good idea, and we’ll be very clear on why we don’t think it’s a good idea.

Labour to block new Scottish independence vote

And, of course, British Labour in Scotland has always been fanatically committed to denying the fundamental democratic rights of Scotland’s people.

How’s that “long-standing position” looking now, Tommy?

It never ceases to amaze me how easily those who profess themselves on the independence-supporting left of Scotland’s politics succumb to the inexplicable allure of British Labour. It often seems that they spend their lives on tenterhooks just waiting for some soundbite that they can seize upon as an excuse to discount the gross betrayal of British Labour making common cause with the Tories in the appalling campaign to deny the sovereignty of Scotland’s people. The party’s participation in Better Together / Project Fear is, with ample justification, regarded as totally unforgivable by many (most?) in the Yes movement. But there are some for whom British Labour has the same irresistibly magnetic appeal as the mother ship has for alien visitors.

There is a more general feature of British politics at play here. The notion, powerfully encouraged by the media, that only the latest thing matters. History is treated as a series of discrete events linked only in those ways which happen to fit the current narrative. Everything is a one-off, unless it’s convenient that a pattern should be identified. Every wrong-doer is a ‘lone wolf’ or a ‘bad apple’ unless it’s useful for them to be associated with some out-group. The public are evidently reckoned to be incapable of dealing with anything more complex than a single soap-opera plot-line, and assumed to have an attention span no greater than the length of this sentence.

I’m not suggesting Tommy Sheppard has fallen foul of this ‘syndrome’. And there is much merit in his argument that “while we remain part of the UK, it is better for Scotland that it is governed from the left”. But the idea that British Labour offers any hope for Scotland just seems utterly naive. The idea that “there’s a deal to be done” with Jeremy Corbyn is politically misguided. The idea that any British party can be trusted relies on a ‘blanking’ of recent history that borders on the pathological.

British Labour is a party of the British establishment. It is a British Nationalist party. It will renege on any deal without hesitation or guilt because anything is justified in the name of preserving the Union. To imagine that Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour is any different from the British Labour of Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Alistair Darling or Richard Leonard is to embrace a dangerous delusion.

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Playing their game

Tommy Sheppard is right. The British government’s refusal to release the results of its polling on attitudes to the Union and Scottish independence certainly does beg the question, what is it they’re trying to hide? But we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to the most obvious questions, or the first query that occurs to us. We might well ask why they are trying to hide it.

The reasons for hiding something are not necessarily connected to the nature of the thing being hidden in any direct or obvious way. The act of hiding may be more significant than what is being hidden. It is certainly worth exploring what the motives may be.

The obvious conclusion is that the thing being concealed is potentially embarrassing. In this particular instance, it is only natural to assume that the polling must undermine the British government’s position on the Union. It would seem likely that the results show less support for the Union than British Nationalists would like and/or more support for independence than they are prepared to acknowledge.

But less support for the Union doesn’t have to mean a dramatic collapse. And more support for independence needn’t mean a dramatic surge. In fact, polling already in the public domain suggests the split is still hovering around 50%. I always thought the fuss which greeted a recent poll show 52% for independence was rather overdone, given that the margin of error is commonly +/-3%. Of course, any majority for independence is welcome news for some of us – even if it is conditional and with the ‘don’t knows’ stripped out. And such numbers would are certainly problematic for British Nationalists who are still trying to convince the public that independence is a ‘fringe’ issue in Scotland.

There being no reason to suppose the British government’s secret polling might be an outlier, I am prompted to wonder why they are so desperate to keep it hidden. It could be that they are simply defending the convention that advice sought or provided to the government is confidential. But even taking this very sensible principle into account, the case for a FoI exemption seems weak. Which makes their apparent determination to take it all the way even more curious. What might explain this apparently pointless obduracy?

Here’s a thought! Suppose the polling results are actually quite dull. Suppose they show, not a big swing to Yes, but just a run-of-the-mill 52/48 split in favour of the Union. Suppose the information is being hidden solely because the British government knows that the SNP will make a big deal of it only to be left looking a bit foolish when the information is finally released.

Devious? Indeed it is. Far-fetched? Well, I started out thinking so. The original idea was to use this to illustrate the need to always ask the awkward questions and never settle for the obvious answers. The ending I had planned dismissed the notion of such Machiavellian shenanigans. But, now that I’m here, I’m not so sure. The way British politics is at the moment it doesn’t seem safe to discount any silliness.

The real lesson here may be for Tommy Sheppard and other SNP politicians. Perhaps they need to be wary of reacting in predictable ways to the antics of the British political elite. With all due respect to Tommy, he could be following a script written by his opponents. He is playing their game. Following their rules. It might be worth considering more nuanced tactics.

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Your daily disappointment

Pete Wishart demands that the British state play nice. Tommy Sheppard pleads for more powers. Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny plan for the failure of whatever ‘Plan A’ is. The common thread running through all of these is reliance on the goodwill of the British political elite.

When will the SNP wake up to the fact that there is no goodwill? What does it take for Pete Wishart to realise that the British state is never going to play nice? Has Tommy Sheppard really not figured out yet that devolution is dead? Do Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny seriously imagine that the British establishment is going to stand idly by while the SNP runs through an entire alphabet of plans?

There are few enough certainties in politics that we would be wise to anchor our thinking in the ones that we have. One such certainty is that Scotland’s independence cannot be restored whilst adhering to the laws, rules and procedures which have been put in place to protect and preserve the Union. Another is that there is no route to independence which does not pass though a point where there is direct and acrimonious confrontation with the British state.

These truths are self-evident. As self-evident as the fact that real power is never given, only taken, Or the fact that the people of Scotland are sovereign. Or the fact that the Union serves to deny the people of Scotland full and effective exercise of the sovereignty that is ours by absolute right.

The British political elite will never admit these truths. And it’s beginning to look like SNP politicians will never recognise these certainties.

Pete Wishart seems intent on making the existing bureaucratic set-up work more efficiently. Tommy Sheppard seems eager to improve devolution. Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny have a plan.

The other common thread here is the total lack of any sense of urgency and, as far as one can tell, no awareness at all of the things that are troubling Yes campaigners. I will not presume to say most, but certainly many in the Yes movement are concerned, not that the present arrangements aren’t working as well as they might, but that those arrangements are about to be swept away completely by a system which sidelines Scotland’s elected representatives altogether.

Many of us are concerned, not about the difficulty of getting more devolved powers, but about the ease with which powers can be stripped away.

Many of us are worried, not about whether we can win a pro-independence majority in the next Holyrood election in 2021, but whether there will even be a Scottish Parliament six months from now.

While SNP politicians seem to be settling in for the long haul, many of us in the Yes movement see a real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democratic institutions and the essential public services that depend on our our ability to maintain and develop a distinctive political culture We genuinely and justifiably fear for our nation.

We look to the SNP for bold, decisive action to save Scotland from the menace of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism. We look to the SNP for political leadership. And we are constantly disappointed.

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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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