A warning sign?

As they read Martin Hannan’s forensic dismantling of the British establishment’s duplicity and mendacity, younger readers may need to be reminded that there was a time when this sort of revelation cause shock and consternation. As British Nationalist efforts to preserve their precious Union have grown ever more shrill and desperate, we’ve become rather blasé about their perfidy. Another day! Another British Nationalist lie.

But one part of Martin Hannan’s analysis grabbed the attention of even a weary veteran of the constitutional struggle such as myself.

The key point they [Knight Frank] made was that UK funds increased their investment by 58% in 2018, rising from £487 million to £771m – a huge increase of 255% on the 2016 figure of £217m.

This is, indeed, a huge increase. Massive enough, one would have thought, to tickle journalistic curiosity. What prompted such a significant change? What happened to change investors’ attitude to Scotland? What did they find out that suddenly made property in Scotland seem like a much better investment than previously? What factor could be significant enough to explain such a dramatic shift?

Two possible explanations immediately come to mind. Perhaps, in the wake of the EU referendum and the British government’s contemptuous disregard for Scotland’s Remain vote, institutional investors decided that it was now inevitable that Scotland would restore its independence. Maybe they figured that property – particularly commercial property – in a small, EU member state with a prime location and excellent resources, was too good a bet to miss whatever their former prejudices.

Or perhaps these investors were given some kind of assurance that the constitutional issue would be finally resolved in a very different way. Perhaps they were given cause to believe that Scotland was about to be put firmly back in its box. Perhaps their analysis led them to the same conclusion being reached by increasing numbers in the Yes movement – that he British state was planning to ‘deal with’ the Scottish problem in a very British way.

Maybe these investors also saw the signs that the British political elite intended to use the opportunity provided by Brexit to lock Scotland into the Union; re-impose direct rule from London; and disable democratic dissent by ‘suspending’ the Scottish Parliament.

The first of these seems unlikely; not least because of the way acceptance of Scotland’s independence conflicts with the evidently very strong market prejudice which had deterred investment in Scotland. It would require a change of attitude such is not commonly associated with persons or institutions governed by prejudice.

The second of our candidate explanation, by contrast, requires only a change in information such as aligns perfectly with the old prejudices. If investment was deterred by the threat of Scotland’s people exercising their democratic right of self-determination, investors would be greatly reassured to know that the democratic institutions required for this were about to be dismantled.

All speculation, of course. But surely the dictates of precaution demand that we we see in this exceptionally rapid 255% increase in property investment yet another warning of the British state’s malign intentions towards Scotland. And, recognising the threat to our democracy, surely we should take immediate steps to #DissolveTheUnion.

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Imitating the past

I tend to be very wary of using history as a guide to anything. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from history. But the more distant things are in time the less likely they are to be directly relevant to the present. Patterns of events may seem to be repeating. But this may be no more than an artefact of our propensity for finding patterns in randomness. Our aversion to chaos is so strong that we frequently impose patterns where none actually exists. Explanations and extrapolations based on these perceived patterns can lead us far astray.

History does not repeat itself so much as imitate itself. Events happening today may seem to precisely echo something in the past; but however similar the events themselves may be, the context in which they’re happening is necessarily different. And increasingly different the more the events are separated in time. When we look at the historical record we must be aware that what we are seeing is not a photograph, but a photo-fit. An account pieced together from pieces whose reliability is varied.

Here’s a thought! Suppose you could be transported back in time as little as 100 years, what would be the difference that struck you most and most immediately? You’d think the world was not so very different then. You’d think most of it would be fairly familiar. Stuff then would just be older versions of stuff we have now. It wouldn’t be an entirely alien environment. But for one thing – the smell! The stench would hit you like a steam train. And, indeed, steam trains would be the cause of much of the foul odour. Along with coal-burning domestic fires, coal-burning industries and coal-burning power stations.

Added to the choking fumes from all those millions of tons of burning coal you’d have the stink of uncollected or inefficiently collected garbage. And the smell of horses. And the smell of people. However recognisable the rest might be, the very air around you would be an entirely new and profoundly unpleasant experience.

This is merely to illustrate how different the context is even if events are apparently identical. A man being stabbed outside a pub today is, superficially, exactly the same as a man being stabbed outside a pub in 1919. You can imagine the stabbing. But you almost certainly can’t imagine the context of the 1919 stabbing. You can’t imagine the smell. You imagine the past event in the context of the present that you know. So you have a false impression. Because if you’re not taking account of something as obvious as the smell, how many more subtle contextual difference might you be missing?

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

For all that, there are things which remain remarkably constant over time. For example, England has always regarded Scotland as a problem. And not only Scotland. England thinks of itself as an island nation. The lands peripheral to England are, therefore, viewed as a source of threat and something to be dominated every bit as much as the seas. That was England’s attitude towards Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the distant past. It is England’s attitude now.

The declassified documents from the time when John Major was British Prime Minister illustrate the point. They show that Scotland was seen as a problem by the ruling elites of England-as-Britain in the 1990s just as it was seen as a problem by the ruling elites of England in the 1690s. Much changed in the intervening three centuries. But England’s attitude towards its nearest neighbours altered not at all. An attitude of distrust and contempt.

Mindful of the need to take account of changes in the context, we can also see parallels between the then of history and the now of the present in the way England sought to deal with the problem of Scotland. Then, they sent armies bristling with swords and spears rebellious Scots to crush. They invaded our land; crushed our people under the heel of a brutal military occupation; destroyed our towns and villages; and built castles from which to rule over us. Now, they send politicians and civil servants armed with constitutional powers afforded them by the Union. They invade our land; crush our people under a leaden blanket of propaganda; destroy our democratic institutions; and build office blocks from which to rule over us.

History isn’t repeating itself. But the present is doing a damned good imitation of the past.

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Plea!? Are we not yet above grovelling to Westminster? Are we inferiors petitioning a superior authority for some gracious boon? Why are we politely asking for limited and conditional powers to be grudgingly granted when we should be demanding an end to the withholding of all the powers that rightfully belong with the only parliament that has democratic legitimacy in Scotland?

Talks!? Are we not past the stage of talking? Isn’t it time for some bold and decisive action from the politicians we elected precisely because we thought them capable of bold, decisive action and willing to confront the British state?

There is no path to independence which does not pass through a point at which there is direct and acrimonious confrontation with the British state.

If now is not the time to confront the British political elite, then when? If this is not a worthwhile issue on which to confront them, what is? Listen to George Kerevan.

Why doesn’t ScotGov just ignore Home Office ban, replace Lord Advocate (who has jurisdiction) with someone with a backbone, & open drug rooms in Scotland. How many have to die before we exercise Scottish sovereignty? https://t.co/f8i9s1fPvQ— George Kerevan (@GeorgeKerevan) July 16, 2019

Let there be an end to the pleading! The Scottish Government needs to get off its knees and start aggressively asserting the sovereignty of Scotland’s people and the authority of the Scottish Parliament.

Let there be an end to the talking! At least until the British political elite are prepared to talk to Scotland’s democratically elected representatives as equals and with respect.

Let there be an end to pandering to British imperialist pretensions! The Scottish Government is there to prioritise Scotland’s aspirations. They would be well advised to make a start on that.

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Waiting for Brexit?

Anybody who imagines the outcome of Brexit will ever be clear is living in a world of woefully naive fantasy. That outcome is as clear now as at ever will be. It is certainly clear enough for the purposes of Scotland’s cause. It became clear enough for the cause of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status the moment our 62% Remain vote was contemptuously dismissed by the British political elite. And further clarified when our democratically elected representatives were excluded from was laughably called the Brexit negotiations.

The outcome of Brexit is that the UK’s relationship with the EU, and the rest of the world, will be in chaotic flux for decades. And we will know no more of the true situation at any given time than the British state wants us to know. There will be no clarity. And if you are ever given to understand that there is clarity, beware! You are being lied to!

Those of us who do grown-up politics long ago realised that what matters about Brexit – as with so many things – is, not the reality, but the perception. And who controls the tools by which perception is manipulated? The British state!

Regardless of what happens, Brexit will be portrayed as a success. Even as the Civil Contingencies Act is invoked and the devolved administrations are ‘suspended’ and people are rioting in the streets, we will be told that extraordinary measures are necessary to defend the success of Brexit against the efforts of a few ‘malcontents’ to undermine it.

Untold millions of pounds will be thrown at particular problems, not in the hope of solving them, but to make them appear less like problems. The beneficiaries of this state beneficence will not, of course, be the people most affected by thing like shortages of medicines, but the corporations hired to impose strict rationing and weed out those who are deemed to be causing the shortages by demanding medicines that they don’t really need – according to that stern-looking lady in what looks like a supermarket checkout operator’s tabard.

But let’s suppose for a moment that there was the possibility of a Brexit outcome that is clear. Let’s imagine the idea of clarity about the Brexit outcome is more than just an infantile notion and a desperate rationalisation of inaction. What is the outcome that obviates the need to dissolve the Union? What Brexit outcome changes the independence cause in any way?

Why wait for clarity that you’re never going to get about an outcome that is of no significance?

If, as some claim, Nicola Sturgeon is waiting until the Brexit outcome is clear, then she is a fool. And I am absolutely certain that Nicola Sturgeon is no fool. She is certainly not stupid enough to make a new referendum entire contingent on something that she is trying to prevent. Whatever the explanation is for the lack of action to resolve the constitutional situation, waiting for Brexit surely can’t be any part of it. It remains a mystery.

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Step back to step up!

I like Angus MacNeil. I regard him and Chris McEleney as two of the most potent allies of those in the Yes movement who are trying to inject a desperately needed sense of urgency into the SNP leadership’s lackadaisical approach to the constitutional issue.

I don’t like Angus MacLeod very much at all. I hold him largely responsible for the appalling treatment meted out to the individual known to most of us as Grousebeater. But I’d taken against the man long before that. Admittedly, my instincts could be wrong. Undoubtedly, Angus “Mumbler” MacLeod has fared badly on the conference platform in comparison with the likes of Derek Mackay, and that may have unduly influenced my attitude. But I just don’t like him.

So it pains me that I am obliged to agree with Angus MacLeod. It pains me even more to say that Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny haven’t handled this matter at all well. It’s going too far to describe their resolution as “whimsical” and Angus MacLeod’s use of such language serves only to reinforce the impression of an unfortunate lack of respect for party members. Nobody should doubt that Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny acted with the best of intentions and the worthiest of motives. But if party members deserve to be respected so too do the procedures adopted and approved by the membership. Angus MacLeod is surely correct to say that proper procedures were not followed. And it is certainly true that the MacNeil-McEleny resolution, while definitely not “whimsical”, was woefully ill-thought.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have repeatedly pointed out the problems with this ‘Plan B’ (https://peterabell.blog/2019/07/15/lets-get-confrontational/). To the best of my knowledge, none of the issues identified has been addressed by either Angus MacNeil or Chris McEleny. That is deeply unfortunate and suggests that the resolution might not have survived the heat of debate at conference. One should never make a proposal or express a view that one is not prepared to defend against all criticism.

This situation cannot be allowed to fester. My advice to Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny would be to avoid getting carried along on the wave of knee-jerk support that the pair are enjoying at the moment. It won’t last. And the conference agenda committee is not going to back down. Getting embroiled in a fight with Angus MacLeod and the rest is not a productive use of your talents and public profile. I’m not going to give you any of that s**t about ‘damaging the party’. The SNP is not harmed by internal debate, it is strengthened. But conference time is a scarce resource. It has to be allocated wisely and used efficiently. Debating ‘Plan B’ was never a good use of conference time.

The best thing would be to step away from this discarded resolution altogether. Normally, when a resolution is rejected, those responsible for drafting it will have the option to rework it and try again. The MacNeil-McEleny proposal is not worth the effort. It is a non-runner. Tacking new legs on it isn’t going to help. The second option when a resolution is rejected is to start afresh. And that is what Angus and Chris should do. I, for one, would be totally supportive of an appropriately worded and properly constructed resolution impressing on the Scottish Government the need for a sense of urgency. Such a resolution would have the added advantage of providing an opportunity to rehearse, in a very public forum, all the reasons why a sense of urgency is required.

I sincerely hope Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny have a bit of a rethink while they can abandon their ‘Plan B’ proposal with honour and pride and credibility intact. While I’m at the wishing tree, it would also be nice if Angus MacLeod could try to be a bit less of a tosser.

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Bad advice

Is any of this so surprising? The Hope Not Hate survey merely highlights a trend which has been apparent for some time. It’s helpful to have that trend confirmed. But how helpful depends on how the information is used. How it feeds into the political thinking and strategies of the main players.

The bold thing to do is to try and catch the trend early and ride it to a preferred outcome. The cautious choice is to wait and see how the trend goes before doing anything.

No prizes for guessing which approach is favoured by the SNP. If caution doesn’t win the day in Scotland’s party of government and the de facto political arm of the Yes movement, it’s because hyper-caution has already done so. Rarely has any political party enjoyed so much reason to be confident. Never, I suspect, has cause for confidence had so little visible effect. The SNP behaves as if it is the one facing electoral obliteration and not the British parties.

The trend highlighted by the Hope Not Hate survey is exceptionally strong. Strong enough to be showing dramatic shifts in voter attitudes. This suggests it is unlikely to be a long-term trend. Dramatic swings tend to trigger powerful corrections. Catch the trend too late and you may get caught in the backwash. Wait too long and you miss it altogether.

The SNP seems unwilling to take any risks at all. Not even where there is the possibility of a massive pay-off and little downside. The party is tentatively edging along that fine line between risk aversion and total paralysis. Which is difficult to explain under the circumstances. This is a party which enjoys unprecedented levels of support. And support which has remained remarkably solid for an exceptional length of time. No party in history, I suspect, has seen its opponents in such a state of self-destructive disarray. The power differential between the SNP and the British parties in Scotland is massive.

But you’d never guess any of this from the way the party behaves.

All I’m looking for is a sense of urgency. Scotland’s predicament warrants it. Right now, watching the Scottish Government is like watching firefighters polishing their appliances while your house is ablaze. It’s no wonder that, within the Yes movement, enthusiasm is turning to impatience; impatience to frustration; and frustration to anger. All aggravated by the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, the SNP leadership acts as if the Yes movement doesn’t exist or isn’t worth bothering about.

As I do what little I can to promote the sense of urgency I feel the situation requires, I get a great many clichés thrown at me by people who find them a convenient substitute for thinking. Typical of these is the one about how you should never interrupt your enemy when they are making mistakes. Really?

What happens if you don’t interrupt your enemy while they’re making mistakes? They keep on making mistakes! And if those mistakes are hurting people, people keep on getting hurt. Meanwhile, you’re not taking advantage of those mistakes. Because the cliché says you mustn’t. So, just by thinking about it for a moment, we discover that this is just about the worst advice that could be given to any political campaign.

But it looks very much as if the SNP is heeding just such dreadful advice. The Hope Not Hate survey suggests the party’s opponents are making some whopping great mistakes. And the SNP is declining to take advantage.

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Let’s get confrontational!

This whole ‘Plan B’ episode is painfully reminiscent of the time when Pete Wishart came out with that nonsense about postponing a new referendum indefinitely in the hope that the independence fairy would deliver something called the ‘optimal time’. Along with many others, I had a number of questions about this approach to addressing the constitutional issue. Or might one more pointedly say, this determined effort to avoid addressing the constitutional issue. Now, as then, nobody wants to answer the questions. Now, as then, the ‘plan’ really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But relatively few are subjecting it to any scrutiny. And nobody is responding to enquiries. Pete Wishart went as far as blocking me on Twitter so as to avoid questions about his outlandish notions.

Great as it is to have two such well-respected individuals putting some pressure on an SNP leadership which seems uncommonly relaxed about Scotland’s predicament, the ‘Plan B’ put forward by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny simply doesn’t measure up. And debating it at conference would be a pointless waste of time. Let me explain.

There are, as I see it, three serious problems with the idea of using an election as a substitute for a referendum. For a start, there is the matter of the fundamental difference between a parliamentary election and a referendum. The latter is, or is meant to be, a binary choice between two clearly stated, deliverable options. It is difficult enough to set up a referendum in such a way as to get, not just a result, but an incontestable decision. What is difficult in the case of a referendum is as close to impossible as makes no odds using a necessarily multi-issue election as a substitute.

It might be possible to have a single-issue parliamentary election. In theory, it is possible – if all parties contesting the election cooperate. If they all agree that the election is to be fought on one issue only, and if they all campaign exclusively on that issue, then it effectively ceases to be an election and becomes a referendum.

What are the chances of the British parties cooperating in this way? And, if you’re contorting an election so as to make it something close to a referendum, why not just have the referendum? Because the British state won’t ‘allow’ a referendum! So why would they ‘allow’ a referendum thinly disguised as an election?

It is weirdly naive to suppose that a British state which would go so far as to deny Scotland’s democratic right of self-determination wouldn’t sabotage an attempt to use an election as a substitute.

And it would be so easy for them to do so. They need only contest the election on any and every issue except independence in order to be able to claim that not everybody was voting on the issue of independence. The one thing pretty much everybody in the independence movement is agreed upon is that the process of restoring Scotland’s independence must sport impeccable democratic credentials. An election used as a proxy referendum would be wide open to challenge.

Then there’s the matter of time. The next scheduled appropriate election – and surely a ‘Plan B’ worthy of the name cannot gamble on an unscheduled election – isn’t until the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021. There is considerable doubt as to whether there will even be a Scottish Parliament by then. What is absolutely certain is that the British political elite will not be idle. An overarching imperative for them is locking Scotland into a political union unilaterally redefined for the purposes of the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project. Any ‘plan’ for taking forward the cause of independence that involves delay beyond Brexit has to address the near certainty of the Scottish Parliament being ‘suspended’ and the likelihood of the British government unilaterally declaring Scotland part of an ‘indivisible and indissoluble’ British state.

Then there’s the fact that there is already a mandate for a new constitutional referendum. A very clear mandate with all the democratic legitimacy anybody could wish for. That mandate is being flatly denied by the British state. Why would it be any different for this new mandate? Why wouldn’t the British simply ignore that as well? Especially as we’d be implicitly admitting that the existing mandate was such as could be ignored. By saying we need another one, we’d not only undermine the democratic legitimacy of the mandate we already have, but of any and all mandates.

Any ‘plan’ that seeks to avoid confrontation with the British state’s anti-democratic denial of Scotland’s right of self-determination woefully misses the point that this bullying behaviour must be challenged, not side-stepped. It does Scotland no good whatsoever to work around the injustices of the Union, leaving them intact. The Union is a constitutional device by which the people of Scotland are denied the effective exercise of their sovereignty. It must be confronted. It must be challenged. It must be broken.

Finally, addressing the fuss being made about the ‘Plan B’ resolution not being selected for debate at conference; what would be the point? No debate is required. It’s not necessary to debate using an election in the way suggested by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny. The SNP can simply put it in their manifesto for any UK or Scottish general election. The SNP has a standing mandate to pursue independence by any democratic means. Using a majority in an election as a device is perfectly legitimate and requires no prior approval from members. Are members going to object? Is anybody in the Yes movement going to protest?

British Nationalists will be outraged, of course. When are they ever anything else? Ruth Davidson will put on her best scowl and denounce the ploy using the voice that she imagines to be Churchillian but actually makes her sound severely constipated. The British media… well… they’re the British media….

People are saying we need a ‘Plan B’. We really don’t. We need a ‘Plan A’ that works. We can’t afford to fail. We can’t even afford to contemplate failure.

Angus and Chris are to be commended for at least trying to press the issue. But their mistake is to suppose that there might be a path to independence delineated by the rules and procedures of the British political system. There is no such path. There is no route to independence which does not require the breaking of those rules and departure from those procedures. There is no way to walk out of the Union. We have to break out.

The Union’s grip on Scotland will not be broken by some cunning plan or devious ploy or artful political manoeuvre. It will be broken when Scotland’s First Minister stands up in Scotland’s Parliament and declares the Scottish Government’s intention to #DissolveTheUnion.

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