Unnecessary words and rightful anger

The decision by the Voices for Scotland board to “pause” their campaign during the Covid-19 crisis has served only to reignite my anger at Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist order to the SNP membership and the Yes movement. It is a decision which is disappointing if not deplorable. It is a choice which would almost certainly been very different had our First Minister not been so inadequate and inept in her role as de facto leader of the independence campaign. She has an army of apologists, of course. None of whom seem to understand how badly she has betrayed Scotland’s cause. Precious few who are prepared to listen to any criticism of someone who, I regret to say, is at the centre of what looks more and more like a cult of personality. I am not a member of that cult. I’m just angry.

Voices for Scotland (VfS) is, as you may know, one of the brands used by the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) in its ongoing fund-raising campaign to finance various initiatives such as the launch of VfS. Initiatives which in one of those strange quirks of fate that make life such a wild ride have tended to coincide with the SNP administration’s need for the launch of some new initiative to divert attention from its own lack of any initiative in taking forward the independence project. That they have “paused” their campaigning – although not, apparently, their fundraising – probably isn’t the most massive misfortune to befall the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. Nor is their unquestioning compliance with Nicola Sturgeon’s order to stop all campaigning the most shocking thing to happen in Scottish politics of late. Although the order itself might well qualify for that title.

SIC has always been one of those organisations or groups by which the SNP and the Scottish Government have kept the Yes movement at arms length. That is its main purpose. The SIC sits between the SNP and the Yes movement to provide the appearance of connection while actually serving as a barrier/buffer. That it has stopped doing what it was that it had been doing won’t affect the independence campaign at all. The fact that it has been encouraged to abandon whatever part it was playing in that campaign by Nicola Sturgeon is the real scandal here. That is what people should be angry about.

To understand the politics of this and why it should make you angry you have to forget about Covid-19. The pandemic has nothing to do with it. It is marginally and tangentially relevant at best. The political situation was in train long before the virus came on the scene. It has played a role. But it was never essential to the way things were playing out. If it hadn’t been Covid-19 it would have been something else. The virus was written into the script while shooting was in progress because the plot required a plausible enabler for one of the main characters. It may seem strange to think of it in this way but, as far as this episode of the Scottish politics show is concerned, Covid-19 just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

When Covid-19 arrived on set the independence project was already at a standstill. At least, I like to think it was at a standstill. Being stalled would have been a great improvement given that the project had mostly been going backwards since 2014. The moment Nicola Sturgeon committed wholly and irrevocably to the Section 30 process, the project was doomed. Committing to the Section 30 process was probably the surest way of killing the independence project stone dead. It could not possibly lead to a new referendum. It was never going to work. It was always obvious that it was never going to work. Not even the people who supported it could explain how it might work. The people responsible for committing to it, including Nicola Sturgeon, steadfastly refused to answer any questions about the Section 30 process. They totally ignored those who expressed concerns about it other than to berate and belittle them. At no time did any of them ever address any of those concerns. Every effort was made to close down any discussion of the matter.

Why did Nicola Sturgeon commit to the Section 30 process? Was she unaware of the fact that it was both a dead end and a trap? That seems unlikely. She is not stupid. And there was nothing unclear or uncertain about the nature of the Section 30 process. The huge dead-end signs and the flashing neon arrows with the word TRAP were there as clues. And if that wasn’t enough to mark it as a very bad choice indeed then there was the fact that the British political elite had dubbed it the ‘gold standard’. Nicola Sturgeon must have known what she was getting into. What she was getting us into. What she was getting Scotland into. So, why?

These things are rarely amenable to simple explanation. When it comes to human behaviour and motivation, any explanation that is simple enough to be described in words probably doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the matter. We cannot know what was going on in Nicola Sturgeon’s mind. But we can deduce some of what must have had an influence on her thinking. We must assume, for example, that independence was a consideration. But it wouldn’t be the only one. Two other considerations come immediately to my mind. Which suggests they may very well have occurred to Nicola Sturgeon as well.

She would surely have to take account of the SNP’s electoral fortunes. She’s leader of the party. The party must always be a consideration. And it would be extraordinary to the point of freakishness had she not given some thought to her own reputation and political career. These and doubtless numerous other factors would all be fed into the calculation which resulted in the decision to commit to the Section 30 process. My own sense of the thing is that there was a powerful conflict between what was best for the independence project and what best served Sturgeon’s personal ambitions. The interests of the party weren’t decisive. The SNP’s electoral position was unusually secure. Pretty much any choice she made could be argued to be either good or bad in terms of the party’s electoral chances.

My suspicion is that the dilemma was resolved by Nicola Sturgeon persuading herself and/or allowing herself to be persuaded that the Section 30 process might work. All the talk of Boris Johnson’s position be “unsustainable” sounded ludicrous to those of us who were watching him sustain it with consummate ease and nary a hint of being affected by the “pressure” which was supposed to force him to relent. The constant repetition of the “untenable” and “unsustainable” mantra by a battery of SNP big guns never sounded convincing. But it did sound utterly convinced. They believed it because the alternative was to go against Nicola Sturgeon. And that was unthinkable. Almost literally unthinkable.

Of course, it was going to be increasingly difficult to maintain the conviction in the face of unfolding non-events. As the promised collapse of the British state’s resistance to democracy neither happened nor looked remotely likely so it became increasingly problematic to maintain the insistence that it would – eventually. Although nobody could ever say why it might. Nobody could ever explain what it was costing Boris Johnson to say no as often and as long as was required. More and more voices were raised expressing concerns. More and more people were asking awkward questions. Nicola Sturgeon had no answers. She had no plan. She had no route mapped because there were no more options. No way out. She needed something that would eclipse the constitutional issue. She needed somewhere to put the blame for the project having totally stalled rather than have it all lying on her own shoulders.

Along came Covid-19!

Whatever else it is -and we all know what else it is well enough that we don’t need pompous, self-righteous reminders – the pandemic was just what Nicola Sturgeon needed. Politicians exploit situations. Whether you approve or not, it’s what happens. Deal with it!

Nicola Sturgeon had her justification for setting aside the independence project. And it was a good one. Nobody could possibly blame her for making the pandemic the Scottish Government’s main priority. Nobody does blame her for making the pandemic her first priority. I certainly don’t. I’m not stupid. I know full well that she had no choice in the matter. That the pandemic also happened to be politically convenient is entirely incidental. But for Covid-19 she would have had to find another excuse. I don’t doubt that she would. I can’t imagine that it would be better than the one fate dropped in her lap.

Let me repeat this because it is something Nicola Sturgeon’s apologists have great difficulty comprehending. A difficulty which, it must be said, is almost as convenient for their argument as Covid-19 is for Nicola Sturgeon’s political credibility. It is not the fact that in her role as First Minister she put the constitutional issue aside which I find objectionable. It was the right thing to do. What angers me is that she compounded her catastrophic handling of the constitutional issue by issuing that cease and desist order in her role as leader of the SNP.

In part, I was angered by the presumptuousness of her assuming command of the Yes movement. Having utterly failed/refused to provide the leadership the Yes movement craved and required to progress the independence campaign, she had the impertinence to appoint herself leader for the purpose of ordering a halt to the campaign. That rankles!

But what really angers me is that it was totally unnecessary. She didn’t have to say anything at all about the independence campaign. It would have been very much better if she had simply shut up about it. After all, she had ‘more important’ things to occupy her mind. Why was she talking about the independence campaign? Let Jackson Carlaw raise the subject. Let him provide the First Minister with another opportunity to slap him down for obsessing about independence at a time like this. But no! She had to issue a statement which included the following.

Obviously for our movement, that means suspending all campaigning – cancelling any planned social events and meetings must only be held if using remote technologies. [emphasis added]

This was contained in an email sent to SNP members but which was also made public. It is important to not that the email bore not only the SNP logo but the YES logo as well. The clear implication is that she is addressing the entire independence movement. That she is telling us all to stop any and all campaign activity. Why?

My suspicion is that she just got carried away with the role she was playing – that of ‘leader in time of crisis’. A role which was, of course, forced on her by circumstances. But a role that she could play as she sees fit. At least as much as she was concerned to look competent to the electorate in Scotland, she wanted to look good far a much wider audience. She was behaving as she thought was expected of her according to a model which owed at least as much to West Wing as to the realities of Scottish politics. When this political posing combined with her relief at having escaped the bind she had got herself into with the constitutional issue she overplayed her role. Had she been wise, or well-advised, she would have said nothing whatever about the independence campaign. But she just couldn’t help herself.

The political inadvisability of Nicola Sturgeon’s cease and desist letter to activists should be obvious to anyone who understands political communication. By issuing that instruction; by effectively declaring herself to be in charge of the entire independence movement, she has taken responsibility for the entire independence movement. She has made herself answerable for everything done by anyone in the movement. The very situation she had been so assiduously avoiding for years. That order to suspend all campaigning will come back to bite her in lots of different ways. It was a stupid thing to do. And that is what makes me angry.

It was also another entry in the catalogue of missed opportunities that Nicola Sturgeon has built up since 2014. Anyone who gives it even a passing thought must recognise that the lockdown presents the ideal conditions for online campaigning. Which happens to be one of the great strengths of the Yes movement. Instead of taking advantage of the fact that more people are accessing material online for longer, Nicola Sturgeon would have thousands of very capable activists sitting idle. We’re not all occupied dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, very few of us are. As few as possible. That’s what lockdown means. Thousands of Yes activists suddenly have more time on their hands than they know what to do with.

Groups like Voices for Scotland should be taking advantage of this situation. The entire Yes movement should be adapting to the new reality. We don’t have to be thinking about Covid-19 every minute of every day. Every one of us with a device and a connection could be contributing to the most massive organically coordinated online campaign ever known. If Nicola Sturgeon had just said nothing about the independence campaign this would almost certainly have happened. I have every right to be angry.

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Tragedy and godsend

For years we have been pleading with Nicola Sturgeon to show the Yes movement some leadership. The first time she actually steps up, it’s to order a halt to the independence campaign. Apparently, there is only one thing happening in the world at the moment and if we don’t all focus our entire attention on that thing every waking moment and in fitful dreams when sleep overtakes us then we are really terrible people. All is coronavirus! Coronavirus is all! You shall have neither consideration nor concern for anything other than coronavirus and matter directly relating thereto, on pain of being denounced as a callous, uncaring sub-human aberration.

It’s not only the entire independence campaign that has been on hold. All disbelief has also been suspended. You can tell the mindless mob absolutely anything and if you attach the word “coronavirus” to it and speak in sufficiently portentous tones you will be believed and your instructions will be meticulously followed. The crisis must be served. Whatever the crisis demands it must be given. The crisis is the deity and politicians are the priesthood interceding selflessly on behalf of their flock and passing on those demands. Demands which by strange coincidence happen to be precisely what serves the interests of the priesthood.

That there is a genuine public health crisis is not in doubt. But potentially far more damaging in the longer term than coronavirus is the pandemic of hysterical credulousness that has transformed people into Play-Doh for politicians. There’s a contagious viral disease spreading through populations. But there’s never a day when that isn’t true. The preventative precautions amount to no more than what sensible people do as a matter of habit. And the actual seriousness of the disease is massively exaggerated by the standard methods employed by mass media to sensationalise, scandalise and titillate.

Truth is said to be the first victim of war. The first victim of any crisis appears to be context. Every news source is trumpeting constantly updated count of victims and fatalities. Milestone numbers are ‘breaking news’ pushing everything else off pages and screens. 1,000 DEAD!!! It’s a scary number. Scary in the same way as the random but jaw-dropping figure attached to Scotland’s mythical deficit is scary. It’s the scariest figure they can get away with. They use scary numbers for a reason. To scare you! Why? Because frightened people are more easily manipulated.

Experts are, of course, boring. They are boring because they insist on providing boring context when all the interviewer or reporter wants to hear – and wants the audience to hear – are scary stories and scary numbers. That’s why non-passive consumers of mass media messages always question everything. Just as simple hand-washing and the kind of social distancing urban-dwellers profess to crave are effective defences against disease, so scepticism and awareness of how propaganda works offer good protection against the all too often malign manipulative purposes of the media.

If you are reading this article, and have read this far, I’m assuming you are not one of those passive consumers of media messages. They, in any case, are all out scouring the land for the hand sanitising gel that they’ve never used in their lives before but now might well kill to possess. So long as they don’t have to get within sneezing distance of their victim. Being actively critical consumers of media messages, you will be interested in a bit of that ‘common-sense’ context that succumbed to virulent news values in the early days of the current emergency. Nae bother!

I decided to do a little experiment just to see how easy it is for the general public to find the kind of information which serves as an antidote to the scaremongering of media and politicians. I settled on a very obvious search term – “coronavirus survival rate” – and made it the rule that I had to take the first article returned as my source. This happened to be Health.com and an article by Leah Groth dated 16 March 2020 and titled What to Know About the Survival Rate of Coronavirus—And How Many People Have Died From the Illness. After quoting ‘boring expert’ Jeremy Brown, MD, director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health (US) pointing out that “there’s not enough information that’s readily available yet to determine the true survival rate of COVID-19”, the article provides the following.

As for the data we do have, that information also shows a low fatality rate and high survival rate for COVID-19. In a viewpoint article published February 24 in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), the authors looked at the case records of 72,314 patients, 44,672 of which were confirmed as having COVID-19. Of those confirmed cases, 36,160 cases, or 81%, showed only mild symptoms, while 14% were severe and 5% critical. The overall case-fatality rate, or coronavirus cases that ended in death, was only 2.3%, or 1,023 deaths, out of the total number of confirmed cases.

Also worth noting, according Dr. Juthani: “[Coronavirus] appears to be more deadly for adults, especially those with other medical conditions”—no deaths have been reported in children, nor were any reported in those who had a mild or severe case of the illness. Dr. Brown also points out that those with chronic heart or lung problems and those who are immunocompromised are also at a higher risk of death.

What a difference context makes. For a bit more context here are some scary numbers about influenza deaths through the ages.

  • 1889 Russian flu pandemic: About 1 million flu deaths
  • 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: Over 40 to 50 million flu deaths, including about 675,000 in the United States. The flu infected over half of the world’s population by the end of this pandemic.
  • 1957 Asian flu pandemic: Over 1 million flu deaths, including about 69,800 in the United States
  • 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic: About 1 to 3 million flu deaths
  • 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic: Between 8,870 and 18,300 deaths in the United States and up to 203,000 deaths worldwide specifically from H1N1

The current COVID-19 pandemic is serious. But other stuff is still happening despite it. Life, as they say, goes on. It went on during and after the epidemics listed above. It is going on here and now. We’re just being discouraged from looking too closely at the other stuff that’s going on. A lot of effort is being put into making the coronavirus crisis into a monumental diversion. Mostly, to divert us from what is still going on in the realm of politics. Do not imagine for one moment that politicians all around the world – along with the Mini-me Machiavellis who advise them – were not thinking of ways to exploit the pandemic long before they started considering ways of dealing with it.

This is not to say that politicians contrived the crisis. Merely that they take opportunistic advantage of it. Which will not prevent the conspiracy theories proliferating like bugs. It’s always the same. The terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers provide a telling – and appalling – example of the way in which politicians exploit such tragedies. There is absolutely no doubt that the murderous hawks in the Bush regime used the ‘9/11’ attacks as a vehicle for their own warmongering purposes. The fact that it suited them doesn’t mean that they had anything to do with the planning and execution of the attacks. Only with hindsight does the human mind find the connections that create the patterns it craves.

The good news is that, as yet, nobody is using the coronavirus outbreak as a pretext for launching a war. Although I have to qualify that by stating that I haven’t been following Donald Trump’s Twitter feed today. Or ever, for that matter. We can be certain, however, that politicians are exploiting the crisis in more low-level ways. Many in ways that they consider harmless. The crisis is happening anyway. So why not use it. So long as using it doesn’t make it worse or interfere with relief efforts, where’s the harm? If anybody mentions morality we can always point at ‘9/11’ and urge them to consider the context that makes what they’re doing relatively moral by comparison.

We don’t have to look far for an example of this low-level political exploitation of a crisis for political ends. Only as far as Edinburgh. Only as far as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP.

It is a fact that, while initially denied by most and only lately acknowledged by increasing numbers of people, Ms Sturgeon was guilty of a serious error of judgement in committing to the British state’s Section 30 process as the means of securing a new constitutional referendum. It was an approach which was critically dependent on obtaining the willing, honest and comprehensive cooperation of the British government. It was never going to work. It failed immediately, disastrously and very evidently – despite there being surviving pockets of ‘True Believers’ who put faith before reason and genuinely suppose that the cooperation described will yet be forthcoming. We just have to wait. We should be good at that by now. Many of us will never be good at waiting when delay means missed opportunities and increased risk to Scotland’s democracy.

Ever since Boris Johnson contemptuously dismissed Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘demand’ for a Section 30 order she has been at a total loss as to what to do next. Not that the curt and discourteous refusal came as a surprise to many folk. But the Scottish Government simply hadn’t planned for it. I know that defies belief. But that’s not because it’s untrue. It’s only because it defies reason. The failure to plan for refusal of the Section 30 request is just one of those things we have to accept as defying explanation. Although explanation of a sort is possible. Nicola Sturgeon did not plan for rejection of her request, despite this being anticipated, because there was nothing she could plan. The only options left were ones which she is not politically able to pursue. Having committed completely, inextricably and irreversibly to the Section 30 process she had to just plough ahead and hope for the best. As so often happens when people resort to hoping for the best, she got the worst. Or, at least, something rather unpleasant. Coronavirus came to her rescue – all the ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ apparently being otherwise occupied delivering pizza on their ‘White Steeds’.

Whatever else it is, the COVID-19 outbreak is undoubtedly the the perfect cover for Nicola Sturgeon. And that is the point that so many are missing as they screech at spit at me for pointing out the simple truth that the world is more complicated than a newspaper headline and it is almost never the case that a thing is just the one thing. Most things can be two or more different things depending on perspective and our late lamented friend, context. It is perfectly possible for something to be simultaneously a human tragedy and a political godsend. Not all the high-minded posturing and frantic virtue-signalling to be found on Facebook will make the world any less complicated than it is.

Just as things can be two things at once, so people can do more than one thing at a time. They can engage with more than a single all-encompassing preoccupation. So normal is it for people to deal with a number of activities in their lives that we regard the opposite as an illness. We call such people ‘obsessive’. We send them for counselling. We practice our social distancing on them.

So it was that when I received an email from Nicola Sturgeon ‘instructing’ me – a campaigner for independence of almost 60 years standing – to cease and desist, I was displeased. I was very displeased. I know a wee bit about communication, particularly in relation to political campaigns. And this was the wrong message.

I will gloss over the unseemly presumption of Nicola Sturgeon suddenly deciding she does want to lead the Yes movement after all. And my personal bemusement at being ordered from the field by someone who has, by her own choice, no authority over the movement of which I am proud to be part. Let’s just deal with the offending line highlighted. That it is the wrong message from the viewpoint of a political campaign hardly needs to be stated. At a time when the Yes campaign is going to be seriously hampered by restrictions occasioned by the public health crisis, what was required – what was appropriate – was a message of encouragement. Not a declaration of surrender. What would have struck the right note was a message acknowledging the difficulties but appealing for an effort to overcome those difficulties. Something about keeping the campaign going because what we are campaigning for will still be crucially important to our nation and future generations long after coronavirus has done its worst.

So, how do we explain this totally defeatist line? My suspicion is that it is the work, not of Nicola Sturgeon – although she signed it and is therefore responsible – but of one of those Mini-me Machiavellis I mentioned earlier. Told that the pandemic was to be used to avoid The Boss having to admit she’d driven the independence project into a brick wall, the overenthusiastic underling went a bit too far and order a complete halt to “all campaigning”.

It rather goes without saying that, whatever the explanation for this message being sent out, it is unacceptable. And yet the impression I get is that most people in the Yes movement have meekly accepted it. The naivety is dumbfounding. These people seem to suppose that British Nationalists won’t exploit the situation for their own ends. They appear to imagine we can just park the Yes campaign while we go off to do something else, however worthy, and come back to find it still there and ready to pick up where we left off. Which, you may recall, is not a good place. It’s not going to get better with time.

The independence campaign was in a parlous state on account of the horrible blunder of Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process. Recovering from that dreadful misjudgement was going to require urgent action by a united Yes movement. Nicola Sturgeon has now driven in another wedge to widen the fissure caused by the Section 30 debacle. The Yes movement is weakened and partially paralysed by her cease and desist interdict. I saw only a slim hope of recovery from the situation we were in before COVID-19 struck. That hope is now invisibly slender. And coronavirus is only partly to blame.

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Words like “unstoppable” suggest denial of the stark reality that the momentum of the campaign for a new independence referendum is all too easily stopped. Boris Johnson simply has to say no. And keep on saying no. As Nicola Sturgeon has amply demonstrated, there is nothing she can do about it. Or nothing she is prepared to do about it. In the unforgiving realm of realpolitik, she has calculated that progressing Scotland’s cause costs her more than stopping it costs the British Prime Minister. Which isn’t a difficult calculation given that, as I’ve pointed out many times before, saying no costs Boris Johnson absolutely nothing, and may even garner kudos from the far from small number of British Nationalists – north and south of the border – who relish few things more than a bit of Jock-bashing.

But even if Keith Brown was right; even if his claim of the campaign to have Johnson agree to a new referendum having an “unstoppable momentum” made sense, it misses the essential point that such a campaign shouldn’t even be necessary. The fact that it is proves the anti-democratic nature of the Union. It illuminates the reality that Scotland is not and never has been an equal partner in a voluntary political union. Scotland is the annexed territory of England-as-Britain. It shows, at least as clearly as does the Brexit iniquity, that the Union denies the people of Scotland the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty which is theirs by absolute right.

Comments such as Keith Brown’s and the kind of headline The National makes of it, serve only to encourage dangerous complacency and promote the ludicrous notion that we need only wait and independence will come to us. Would that Keith or at least one of his colleagues among our elected representatives had the intestinal fortitude to tell the people of Scotland the truth that if Scotland’s independence is to be restored then it will involve a major political confrontation with the British state.

The British establishment will deploy every weapon at its disposal in defence of the Union. Its armoury is formidable. The British state’s propaganda machinery alone is more effective in suppressing democratic dissent than every club-wielding police officer on the Spanish government’s payroll. The British political elite will determine the nature of the fight; indeed, has already decided how it shall be, and it will not be pleasant. It will be vicious. It will be as vicious as it needs to be.

If our political leaders do not appreciate this reality and prepare for intense political confrontation then they will fail – and we will lose. To talk of “unstoppable momentum” is to talk as if the fight was already won. It hasn’t even begun in earnest. At present, Boris Johnson is taking full advantage of the power afforded him by the First Minister’s commitment to the Section 30 process. As noted, it costs him nothing to persist in refusing the permission the First Minister seeks and is politically paralysed without. But we should not assume from this that the British government is not prepared to pay dearly for the preservation of the Union. It would be naive to assume they will hesitate to incur a heavy cost in terms of international relationships and reputation to maintain their grip on Scotland. If we are not prepared to match them blow for blow at similar cost then we will lose.

The Yes movement is powerful. It has yet to realise its potential as a political force. Only when it does will Scotland’s cause become truly unstoppable.

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The leadership problem II

As a member of the party, I am perfectly content with Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP. As a citizen of Scotland, I am more than satisfied with her performance as First Minister and our nation’s political leader. As a lifelong advocate of restoring Scotland’s independence, however, I cannot in good conscience claim to have much confidence in her ability or, indeed, her readiness to provide the leadership that Scotland’s cause requires.

I’m sure Nicola Sturgeon would be the first to acknowledge that these are three quite distinct roles, each requiring a particular set of skills which, while they may often be interchangeable, are deployed differently according to the role being fulfilled. Until recently, it was my hope and expectation that the three roles could come together and be satisfactorily handled by Nicola Sturgeon. I now come to the realisation that this appears not to be the case.

Need I point out that Jackson Carlaw is slavering a load of pish? While SNP politicians will surely be found jostling for position as the ‘game’ requires, to suggest that they’re “fighting like ferrets in a sack” is plainly ridiculous. It’s the sort of risible hyperbole one would expect from a politician devoid of ideas and lacking anything meaningful to say. It’s words to fill the space between quote marks. There are primary school children in Scotland able to write a computer program that would do Carlaw’s job and cover for the other British party office managers at the same time.

There is no vacancy. Nicola Sturgeon is not likely to step down any time soon and my reading of the mood in the SNP is that there is no appetite for a leadership contest and likely little tolerance for anyone who seeks to incite one. None of which will prevent the British parties squatting in Scotland’s Parliament and the British media infesting Scotland’s culture from portraying the gentle jostling as the Mother Of All Ferret-in-sack Battles – 72-point bold three exclamation marks. Which is fine, I suppose. It’s just British Nationalists preaching to the afflicted.

There is a real issue here. But it’s not the one that the British establishment’s lackeys in politics or the press will obsess about. They will appreciate and analyse the situation in terms of the British politics that is familiar to them. The politics of two-party hegemony and competing personalities and interminable scandal. They will only be able to understand what is happening in terms of the kind of party leadership contests to which they have become accustomed. That is to say, something that combines the worst elements of The Apprentice and The Weakest Link with Paxman at his most surly, Marr at his most shallow and elements of the beauty pageant catwalk when the girlies get involved – “Prime Minister? In those shoes?”

The notion of an office which might involve several different roles is rather too complex for those accustomed to the simplicities, sound-bites and faux rivalries of British politics. The concept of politics as a contest of ideas is only dimly remembered by the oldest among British political commentators. Their juniors having never seen politics more sophisticated than a Hogarth cartoon.

There is no leadership battle in the SNP. Nor is there likely to be in the near future. Although this comes with all the usual caveats about a week being a long time in politics etc. What is developing, however, is a contest for leadership of the independence movement. Or, more precisely, an increasing acknowledgement of how urgently the independence movement needs leadership combined with a growing realisation that it’s not coming from Nicola Sturgeon.

We don’t have time to interview candidates. We will not be appointing a leader. The necessary leadership will emerge. Hopefully, we will recognise it when it does.

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The leadership problem

I would ask Nicola Sturgeon what the point is of winning the “political case” for independence but failing to secure a process by which that victory can be turned into actual change. But I long since learned the futility of asking questions which cannot be answered without acknowledging that the Section 30 process has been chosen despite the impossibility of it leading to actual change.

The very fact that the de facto leader of Scotland’s independence movement is talking about winning the “political case” for independence is evidence that they are not fitted to that role. A suitable leader of the independence movement would not entertain the notion that there could possibly be a “political case” against independence. The person best fitted to lead the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence has to be someone who has Scotland’s nationhood written in their DNA. Someone who has the sovereignty of Scotland’s people engraved on their heart and our right of self-determination indelibly stamped on their mind.

It has to be someone who detests the Union as an abomination. An insult to democracy and a grossly offensive imposition on Scotland.

At the minimum, it has to be someone who regards independence as rather more than an administrative reform that has to be justified. They should see the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence as a fight for justice. An effort to rectify a historical wrong which has a worsening impact on Scotland and Scotland’s people.

Scotland’s cause needs the leadership of someone who thinks of independence, not as something that would be good to have if only a benign British political elite would deign to grant it to us, but as something that is both essential and our inalienable right being withheld from us by a malign British state.

The Yes movement craves leadership from an individual who takes as their starting point the right of Scotland’s people to determine the nation’s constitutional status and choose the form of government which best serves their needs, priorities and hopes. The independence movement cannot be led by someone who sees these things, not as our absolute entitlement but as a glittering prize for which we must strive.

I cannot help but see in Nicola Sturgeon someone who is more concerned with pandering to the infinitely variable demands, requirements and conditions thrown up by the British political elite as they seek to preserve the Union and the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state than with defending the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and asserting the democratic legitimacy of the Parliament that we actually elect.

Nicola Sturgeon is a superb leader of Scotland as it is. But that role appears to be incompatible with leading the campaign to make Scotland what it ought to be.

Making a start

Only a few weeks ago I would have respectfully disagreed with George Kerevan. I would have insisted that the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon had to take a leadership role in the independence campaign in order that the latent power of the Yes movement could be harnessed. I envisaged the SNP setting out a clear, concise strategy and Yes groups taking their lead from this. I thought it necessary that the SNP should be in the vanguard because, as George notes, it all ultimately comes down to the party which is in government. The entire campaign is about enabling the Scottish Government to act through the Scottish Parliament to initiate the restoration of Scotland’s independence.

My concern was that without the SNP providing leadership the Yes movement would lack the solidarity, focus and discipline that a political campaign requires. I feared that we would once again take a pillow to a sword fight. Or, more likely, a gunfight. And I was concerned that, were the Yes movement’s energies invested in some other leadership there might be a problem transferring those energies and the momentum they’d generated to the SNP/Scottish Government when this became necessary.

Events and development over the last few weeks have forced me to rethink my position. Although I still think the ideal would be to have the party of government taking the lead role in the campaign, this unavoidably depends on said party being capable of fulfilling that role. I have reluctantly come to recognise that, despite the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon having the potential to do so, neither she nor her party looks at all like realising that potential.

Which is why I now find myself agreeing with George… mostly! We obviously need a body that will fulfil the leadership role vacated – or never taken up – by the SNP. That body must derive from the Yes movement. It must have the broad support of the movement in a way that SIC has never achieved. And it must recognise the need to defer, fully and without rancour, to the SNP administration when this becomes necessary.

The Yes movement needs to become, or give birth to, a campaigning organisation. Preferably and all but certainly the latter. I am certain nobody wants the Yes movement to change. Nobody wants it to stop being a movement – loose, organic, diverse and ungoverned. But developing and managing a political campaign demands an organisation rather than a movement. In stark contrast to the Yes movement, the Yes campaign organisation must be unified, focused and disciplined.

Such an organisation cannot be imposed on the Yes movement. Rather, it must arise from it. The Yes movement has proven itself adept at ‘hiving off’ chunks of itself to provide the more hierarchical organisational structures needed to accomplish particular tasks. All Under One Banner is perhaps the most notable example. We must harness this capacity for emergent leadership to create an organisation which will run the independence campaign at least as well as AUOB runs marches and rallies.

Where I part company with George Kerevan slightly is when he talks of an organisation which “works from the bottom up”. It is an unavoidable fact that running a large and complex campaign calls for a certain amount of top-down direction. Without this, it would almost certainly be impossible to achieve the kind of coordination and responsiveness that a political campaign requires.

George suggests the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) as a model. I’m sure we could do very much worse. But I am wary of such models. Too readily, we tend towards designing the organisation to conform to the model rather than fit the task and the context. What suits the Catalans may not suit the Scots. What works for them may not work for us. So long as we are mindful of this and strive to create our own distinctive organisation rather than simply emulate somebody else’s, we should be OK.

And George leaves one important question unanswered. How do we start?

One of life’s many ironies is that sometimes it takes a ‘dictator’ to kick-start even the most non-hierarchically democratic organisation. If somebody doesn’t seize hold of the thing and batter it into some kind of functional shape, nothing gets done. So, George! Suppose you are that ‘dictator’. What’s your first move?

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Of faith and doubt

Keith Brown took the words right out of my mouth. The Scottish Government’s mandate for a new constitutional referendum exists as a matter of observable, palpable, indisputable fact. It is not a question of belief. It is a reality.

Except if you are a British Nationalist of the breed that has recently evolved in the foetid swamp of Borissian politics. (Thereby is coined a new name for what some have been referring to as ‘England-as-Britain’. Welcome to Borissia! Not to be confused with Borussia, which is the old Roman name for Prussia. Pick-a-Deity forfend that any parallels be drawn there!)

British Nationalists see a different reality. A reality defined, not by anything substantial or measurable, but by faith-based ideology. A better headline might have been ‘Majority of crypto-theocrats deny existence anything that conflicts with their beliefs!’. Although I can well understand why The National went with its own version.

Faith is belief stripped of any rationality. Believing something requires something akin to evidence. Faith demands not only an absence of evidence but an element of contrary evidence. The more contrary evidence there is, the stronger the faith must be. So the faithful actually relish conclusive proof refuting the object/subject of their faith. If they can maintain belief in the face of incontrovertible proof then they get a prize. Generally, the actual presentation of this prize is deferred until after they’re dead. But this small print on the faith agreement seems to bother the faithful at all.

So it is that James Kelly can write the following without embarrassment.

But the poll shows that 95% of them take the opposite view. It’s hard not to conclude that they’ve been inculcated with a near-Trumpian mindset that will always regard the Tory mandate as stronger and more valid than the SNP mandate, regardless of how many more seats or votes the SNP actually win.

Change ‘Tory’ to ‘British’ and, bearing in mind what has been said of faith, and you have a telling comment on British Nationalist faith. Kelly might better have referred to the British mindset that will alwayst regard the thing that is British as superior in every way to the thing that is not British. Another useful term is ‘exceptionalism’ – which can mean either or both that the British are exceptional or/and that everything which is not British may/must be excepted.

One of the reasons the No side of polls on independence has been so stubbornly resistant to the ‘positive case for independence’ is that it conflicts with their faith-position. The British Nationalist views Scotland’s independence campaign as heretical and illogical. If British is always superior, why doesn’t everybody want to be British? Or everybody wants to be British so there must be something wrong with those presumptuous Scots who say they don’t want to be British but would prefer to just be Scottish.

Another and possibly more significant reason the No side isn’t eroding as might reasonably be expected is that it is futile to use reason to argue a person from a position arrived at other than by reason. The rational, evidence-based case for restoring Scotland’s independence cannot impinge on faith-based devotion to the Union any more than the comprehensively verified nature of the mandate can make any impression on the faith-addled mind of the British Nationalist. The strapline for Better Together / Project Fear should have been ‘Bring me your proof, and I will deny it!’.

This has profound implications for the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. To whatever extent my analysis holds, the current form of that campaign is titlting at Union flag-draped windmills. You can’t chop wood with a scalpel. You’re asking for a doing if you take a pillow to a swordfight. In a political contest between reason and faith, the former may always win, but the latter can never lose. Assuming they are equally determined – and equally convinced of the other’s weakness – the forces of reason will become increasingly frustrated and fractious, while the armies of the faithful will grow more resentful and vicious.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, if the matter is to be resolved and the warring cease, then one side is going to have to do something differently. That are going to be obliged to change their tactics. This is a reasoned and reasonable conclusion. So we can immediately rule out the British Nationalists. Remember, they are not amenable to “gentle persuasion”. That’s what got us into this position in the first place. So it has to be the forces of reason which make the adjustment.

Reason wins merely by changing the object/subject of faith. Faith can only win by changing reality. Or by persuading enough others to abandon reason in favour of faith. Which may well amount to the same thing. If absolutely everybody in the world maintained as a matter of faith that it was flat, how would you prove otherwise? Scientific evidence would be worthless in the truest sense of the word; nobody would value it. Newton’s insights concerning celestial mechanics would be the ravings of a madman. If Newton could even exist in a world without science; without reason.

Here we have a clue to how reason might prevail by means of a change of strategy. We know that reason is useless against faith. So don’t use reason in a direct assault on faith. Instead, use emotion to attack the object/subject of that faith. Reason cannot be transferred. It cannot simply be planted in a mind that has been given over to faith, because that mind is fundamentally changed in the process in ways that mean it can no longer accommodate reason – at least, not comfortably.

Faith, on the other hand, can quite readily be transferred. It can be move from one subject/object to another. The person who believes in a flat world can just as easily apply that same faith to the slightly misshapen globe we all know, live and shit all over. Faith may be impervious to reason, but it is vulnerable to doubt, misgiving, mistrust, suspicion and apprehension. But the greatest of these is doubt.

I am, of course, talking in generalities, abstractions and simplifications here. Few people are wholly given over to faith. And fewer still are capable of pure reason. At some point, we must check and see if our model fits in the real world.

In the real world, doubt was what defeated the Yes campaign. Certainly not reason or reasoned argument. The massed forces of the British state disdained to provide reasons for Scotland to remain in the Union. The ‘evidence’ they offered was intended, not to change minds, but to provide those among the faithful who need such things with the means to rationalise their faith position. Minds were not changed by Better Together / Project Fear, they were infected with doubt. That’s what all the questions were about. They weren’t looking for information. They were relying on the human instinctive calculation that says questions imply doubt. And a lot of questions implies a lot of doubt.

If it worked for them, it can work for us. When I say that there was a failure by the Yes side to learn lessons from the 2014 campaign, I mean there was a failure to learn the lessons of the campaign as a whole. There was a great deal of fretting about the Yes campaign and its ‘message’ – little or none of which came to any conclusion untainted by prejudice, preconception and prejudgement. But there was little effort to look at the No campaign to see what might usefully be gleaned from its tactics and methods. Which is surprising given that they won. It was always my position that, if we can learn from our own mistakes then we can surely learn from others’ successes.

Keith Brown is right on the money when he observes that denial of the mandate is an act of faith. I wonder if he took that thought further, as I have attempted to do here.

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