Being positive is not enough

pw_holdThere are two strands of opinion within the Yes movement which I have been particularly critical of over the past few months. I call them ‘The Postponers’ and ‘The Persuaders’.

(I interrupt myself at this point to deal with those who, having read that opening sentence, are already poised over their keyboards ready to pound out some pompous diatribe denouncing the appalling practice of ‘labelling’. My advice to these people is that, instead of pestering me with their inane drivel, they bugger off over to Twitter and start a campaign to have all the nouns removed from dictionaries. #DownWithNouns)

Where was I? Oh yes! I have dealt with ‘The Postponers’ often and at length. Although I have touched on the need for a new mindset and a different attitude as we approach the new referendum, there still needs to be some discussion about the way we conduct the Yes campaign this time. The story of a former Tory councillor having declared her support for independence is an ideal hook on which to hang some remarks about ‘The Persuaders’ and their thinking on the matter.

‘The Persuaders’ is a shorthand term for those who insist that the way to win the new referendum is to gently and delicately woo ‘soft No voters’ with the ‘positive case for independence’. According to this theory, we shall lure these wavering No voters by presenting them with a sufficiently appealing, but always realistic, vision of an independent Scotland. We will win them over by telling them believable tales of economic prosperity illustrated with colourful graphs and charts and peppered with impressive statistics.

If ‘The Persuaders’ have it right, we will start the necessary thousands on that journey from No to Yes by painting a picture of independent Scotland as an enlightened and socially progressive place where inequality and injustice are at least addressed and alleviated by public policy rather than being engendered and exacerbated by it.

Crucially, ‘The Persuaders’ insist that we must never so much as hint at the idea of No voters having got it wrong in 2014. We must assiduously eschew the slightest suggestion that they are in any way responsible for the consequences of their choice. We must never, by word or gesture, hint at the notion that voting No was a mistake. Whatever repercussions it entailed, voting No was a perfectly valid choice. Mentioning the ready availability of information which would have prompted a different choice is taboo. As is any reference to how obviously false the No prospectus was.

No voters effectively gave the British political elite a blank mandate and invited them to fill it in with whatever suited their British Nationalist agenda. They gave the British state licence to do what they pleased with Scotland. And that licence has been used with great relish to our severe detriment. But we are prevailed upon by ‘The Persuaders’ to studiously avoid  making any connection between that No vote and everything that has ensued – from EVEL to Brexit to the ‘power-grab’ and the accelerating erosion of Scotland’s democracy.

‘The Persuaders’ have this unshakeable conviction that all the independence campaign needs in order to win is a better message. A more positive message. A brighter, shinier, glossier message. They are driven by the belief that there exists somewhere a form of words which will change minds in the way that a magic spell might transform a frog into a prince.

There is a problem with this theory. We’ve already done all that. We’ve done every conceivable Yes message – and a few barely conceivable ones. We’ve done the relentlessly positive campaign. Independence is not a complex idea. There are only so many ways that such a fundamentally simple concept can be described or explained. Eventually, the plethora of different descriptions and explanations becomes confusing and meaningless. The effort to find the sharpest and most effective message leads only to a message which is diffuse and vague and devoid of any impact.

The 50% of voters who are already Yes represents pretty much everybody who either doesn’t need any persuasion or has already been persuaded by the tactics of the 2014 Yes campaign. The other 50% is pretty much entirely made up of people who either can’t or won’t be persuaded by any positive message no matter how slick it is. If they were going to be persuaded by that positive vision of independence it would have happened by now. The Yes movement has been offering them that message for more than six years. ‘The Persuaders’ have convinced themselves that it is only a matter of time – and constant repetition – before the message takes effect. How much time will it take? How much time do we have? ‘The Persuaders’ are adamant that the positive independence message needs to be refined just a little bit more and it will become the alchemical formula by which the base metal of No will be transmuted into the gold of Yes.

It is not going to happen.

Ashley Graczyk’s account of how she came to support the independence offers a clue to a more promising strategy. If Ms Graczyk is to be believed – and I find no reason to doubt her – she was prompted to reconsider her position on the constitutional issue, not by the persuasive power of a positive vision, but by a dawning awareness of the negative impact that the Union has on Scotland. Listen to what she says,

I came to the realisation that to preserve and protect the values we have in Scotland we cannot have policies imposed on us from Westminster that jar with the kind of Scotland we are trying to build. So simply, we need independence.

It wasn’t the prospect of a future independent Scotland that persuaded her. It was the reality of the present-day UK.

This tells us how we should approach the new referendum campaign. Of the 50% that polls indicate (probably wrongly) are still No around 20 points can be written off as hard-line Unionists and ideological British Nationalists who would rather burn on the bonfire of the British state than bask in the warm glow of an independent Scotland. Another 20 points can be disregarded, but not discounted. These are the ranks of the disengaged and the resolutely apathetic. We shall return to them.

The final ten points represents the prime target of the Yes campaign. These are the people who are mistakenly identified by ‘The Persuaders’ as ‘soft Nos’ who can be won over by addressing their doubts about independence. But, as pointed out earlier, all the evidence indicates that these doubts have long been impervious to the unrelenting blandishments of determinedly positive Yes campaigners. There simply is no reason to suppose that this is going to change. In place of reason, ‘The Persuaders’ have amassed huge stocks of hope – almost all of it forlorn.

Those ‘soft Nos’ would be more usefully regarded as people who are entertaining doubts about the Union. People like Ashley Graczyk. People whose inertia will be overcome, not by a promise, but by a protest. The way to win these people over is to feed their doubts about the Union. To play upon their uncertainty by making a powerful but honest case against the Union. We have ample ammunition. We simply have to overcome our reluctance to use it. We have to rid ourselves of our addiction to the sense of superiority which comes with being positive.

There is no disgrace or dishonour in fighting against something if it is wrong. The Union is wrong. It is wrong for Scotland. It is arguably wrong for all of the people of these islands. So let’s put an end to it. Then we can devise something better.

Finally, I said we’d get back to the alienated and apathetic who, in my admittedly oversimplified map of Scotland’s electorate, make up that 20% between the wavering Unionists – defined as people who have not yet learned to question the Union – and the entrenched British Nationalists – defined as people who insist that the Union must never be questioned. While the waverers make up the 10 points that would be sufficient to give Yes a conclusive victory, it is worth noting that the strategy of mounting a hard anti-Union campaign is more likely to reach the alienated and apathetic than any amount of positive campaigning for independence.

Anger is a more effective antidote to apathy than aspiration. You won’t sell independence to people who are so disengaged as to be deaf to any entreaties. But you just might rouse a few of these people from their apathetic somnolence if you can make them angry. If they cannot be roused to anger at all it just might be by a campaign pointing out the iniquities of the British state. By targeting those wavering Unionists with an anti-Union campaign, we might actually engage with some of those who suppose they can opt out of politics.

Making a positive case for independence is essential. But it is clearly not enough. We need something extra. There really is no way to further enhance the Yes message. We need to augment the campaign for independence with a campaign against the Union. A campaign to dissolve the Union.


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Confronting phantoms

henry_mcleishThe key phrase in what Henry McLeish says is “the Westminster government has paraded its constitutional authority”. This is precisely what has happened, and is happening. The British political elite is asserting ultimate constitutional authority in the hope and expectation that it will not be challenged. The constitutional rights of the devolved parliaments are being steam-rollered by the loudly and constantly proclaimed supremacy of the British state, along with the democratic and, quite possibly, the human rights of the people of these islands.

Henry McLeish is to be applauded for what is without doubt his most insightful and valuable intervention to date. We might wish only that he had been more forthright and forceful in his calls for a challenge to this asserted constitutional authority.

It is a call which echoes what is being urged by increasing numbers of people in the Yes movement. Especially by those who have always been wary of the unfortunate tendency to hitch the independence cause to the Brexit process rather than dealing with it as a matter of fundamental constitutional justice.

While Henry McLeish takes a studiously legalistic approach, others – myself included – see the issue more in terms of a generalised mindset. I contend that we must rid ourselves of the mindset which has us acting only within the frame of established power. We must reframe our actions in terms of our own power. We must do, rather than be done to. We must act, rather than be acted upon.

The people of Scotland are sovereign. The Scottish Parliament represents the will of Scotland’s people. The Scottish Government acts in accordance with the will of the Scottish Parliament. That, and that alone, is the foundation and core structure of Scotland’s democracy.

The right of self-determination, as guaranteed by the Charter of the United Nations, is vested wholly in the sovereign people of Scotland, to be exercised entirely at our discretion. The Scottish Government, acting under the auspices of the Scottish Parliament, is the agency by which we exercise our sovereignty. Only the Scottish Parliament has democratic legitimacy in Scotland. Only the Scottish Government acts with the democratic consent of Scotland’s people.

The people of Scotland have the absolute and inalienable right to choose the form of government which best serves their needs, priorities and aspirations.

Only the people of Scotland have the rightful authority to determine and constrain the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

When a sufficient number of us say we want to exercise our right of self=determination, no power on the planet has the authority to deny us. Only the Parliament and Government that we elect is authorised to be the arbiter of what constitutes a sufficient number. There can be no veto over our right of self-determination.

The Scottish Parliament speaks for the people of Scotland. When that Parliament decides that the existing political union with England must end, the Scottish Government must act on that decision. It must act to dissolve the Union, subject only to this being ratified by plebiscite.

That’s it! No mention of Westminster or courts. Why would there be. What is described above is, in outline at least, the necessary and sufficient process by which constitutional reform is effected in Scotland. Anything else is external interference. Which is explicitly prohibited by the Charter of the United Nations.

It is all and entirely about us. We decide! We, the people, decide! That is the beginning and the end of all democratic politics. The people are the sole source of legitimate political authority. The constitutional authority paraded by Westminster is without substance. It is a spectre conjured by the apparatus of established power. It is a phantom which evaporates upon being confronted.

Henry McLeish would have us confront the constitutional authority claimed by the British state with the power of the European Court of Human Rights and the Convention on Human Rights. Fine! Nothing wrong with that! But, our circumstances being dire and demanding urgency, I suggest we immediately confront the phantom constitutional authority of the British state with the power of the sovereign people of Scotland.


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The habit of malice

jenny_marraUnless Jenny Marra had good reason to believe her claim of a £300,000 “golden goodbye package” then the claim was a malicious untruth. If she cannot demonstrate that she had reasonable grounds to suppose the figure she quoted was accurate then she must, perforce, be branded a liar.

Of course, we know from the Alistair Carmichael affair that, among British politicians, lying to smear political opponents is, not on acceptable, but expected. Should Ms Marra be unable to offer a sufficient explanation for her behaviour we must not expect that she might be condemned by other British politicians. Or that she would be disciplined by British Labour. That’s just not the British way.

At the time of writing, Jenny Marra has not offered any sensible explanation for asserting that Ms Lesley McLay was being given £300,000 by Tayside Health Board. An assertion which we know to have been totally false. Her ‘defence’ appears to be that she was obliged to make up a figure because Tayside Health Board had not told her what the actual figure was. Although it also seems that she neglected to ask them what the actual figure was. So that ‘defence’ looks about as substantial as Danny Alexander’s chin.

More extraordinary than this inane rationalisation is Ms Marra’s insistence that Tayside Health Board should flout its legal and contractual obligations to a former employee. A demand which would be outlandish coming from any politician, but which is truly outrageous when it comes from the convener of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee – which is charged with scrutinising the financial performance and general governance of public bodies such as Tayside Health Board.

Jenny Marra might have survived her original offence, whether that offence was wilful dishonesty or just an embarrassing misjudgement born of mindless malice towards the SNP of the sort that has been so long actively encouraged by the British parties that it is now habitual. But it is difficult to see how she can possibly continue as convener of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee having evinced such a cavalier attitude to legal and contractual compliance.


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It depends

snp_conferenceLike most people, I suspect, I have totally given up on the entire Brexit shambles. And I’m increasingly perplexed as to why, in public at least, the First Minister persists in behaving as if there was some Brexit outcome that might have a significant bearing on the constitutional issue. Does she genuinely suppose that there might be a ‘deal’ which makes independence less necessary? Does she imagine there to be the remotest possibility of an outcome which makes it less urgent that we put an end to the Union?

What “detail” could the UK Government offer about “post-Brexit Britain” which might make it a less dire and depressing prospect? What reason is there to believe that October will bring any more clarity than has been provided to date? Has that been the trend so far? Has the Brexit process been characterised by increasing lucidity?

What might Theresa May say in October which could alter the fact that Scotland voted Remain by a substantial majority? What might she offer that could compensate for the lies, smears, insults, intimidation and empty promises by which a No vote was secured in 2014? How might she undo all the ways in which the British establishment has demonstrated its contempt for Scotland, its Parliament and its people?

What might happen between now and October which could rectify the asymmetry of power which means that Scotland’s interests can never be adequately represented within the UK? For more than three hundred years the Union has served as a device by which the people of Scotland are prevented from exercising the sovereignty which is theirs by right. Does Theresa May give the impression of being the individual who is going to change that situation in the course of a few weeks?

It now seems certain that Nicola Sturgeon has chosen not to seize the opportunity to hold a new referendum in September. It looks increasingly unlikely that it will even be this year. It appears that she has opted not to seize the initiative, but to listen instead to the siren voices around her urging that we constantly wait to see what the British government does next. Then wait some more to see what they do after that. Then put off doing anything until we see how that pans out. Then postpone a decision until…. And so it goes on.

It is a policy of self-perpetuating prevarication. Once an excuse has been found for inaction, that excuse then forms the basis for the next excuse. Before long, the burden shifts from those insisting on delay to those demanding action. When we stop asking how long we must wait for the new referendum and start asking why we shouldn’t wait even longer then the cause of independence is becalmed, if not sunk.

Nicola Sturgeon has spoken the words I dreaded to hear. When asked about plans for a second referendum she says only that ‘it depends’. What is troubling is that it appears to depend on all the wrong things. It depends on what the British government does, rather than what Scotland needs. The First Minister seems to be relying on the Brexit process creating the circumstances for a new referendum. She seems to have lost sight of the fact that those circumstances already exist. They have existed for a very long time. They are the reason her party was formed. They are the reason she’s where she is.


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Past shame and present pride

chris_mcelenyRoughly enough years ago to be called half a century without fearing accusations of glib exaggeration, there occurred one of the more shameful episodes of a youth not notably lacking in moments that seem cruelly immune to the blessed relief of deteriorating memory. It was late summer and I’d been tipped-off about the possibility of a job with an outside contractor at Rosyth Dockyard. It was construction work – general labouring – and paid reasonably well. I was young and fit, well-accustomed to hard work, with wits and experience enough to be confident that I could dodge the more onerous and arduous aspects of such employment.

Most importantly, it was short-term. The last thing I was looking for was a career and a pension. I just wanted to make enough cash to survive on for a month or two. And by ‘survive’ I mean drink, dance and treat young women in a manner that the older me recalls with shudder. It was the 1960s. I was a teenager. The future was the weekend. Anything much beyond that was a mystery and a matter of almost total indifference.

So, I duly roll up at the gates of HM Dockyard in Rosyth ready for a job interview which, if things went true to form, would amount to little more than providing evidence of life and a National Insurance number. It was an era of full employment and jobs of this menial nature were fairly easy to come by. Which meant that employers tended to treat workers with something which, to the inexperienced eye, might have been mistaken for respect, but which was in reality no more than moderate caution born of a desire to put off as long as possible the trouble and inconvenience of having to find a replacement minion.

Arriving at the timber and glass cubicle of the security checkpoint, I was confronted by an MoD polis with a hat, a badge and a degree in supercilious officiousness who informed me I’d need a pass then slapped a sheet of paper and a pen on the counter in front of me in a manner which managed to imply that he doubted my ability to deal with a task that involved reading and writing. As I set about proving him wrong, he rattled off a stentorian monologue which I seem to recall made repeated mention of the Official Secrets Act, as well as something about penalties – which may have included transportation to Van Diemen’s Land and/or being hanged by the neck until dead. Or it may just have been the way he said it. I really didn’t care. It was Monday morning. My greatest fear was, not antipodean banishment or the gibbet, but that the gaffer might ask me to start right away and thus deny me the opportunity to spend the day in the pub getting used to the idea of not being able to spend my days in the pub for a while.

I duly filled in the form and handed it to this staunch guardian of all that Her Britannic Majesty might take a fancy to. He glanced at it only briefly before tearing it in two and discarding the pieces with a choreographed precision which suggested a practised performance akin to a military salute. In what seemed part of the same manoeuvre, he placed a fresh copy of the form before me declaring, “Ye cannae pit Scoattish!”

“Eh?”, I enquired with all the respectful courtesy I was able to muster in what were rapidly degenerating into trying circumstances.

“Ye cannae pit Scoattish!”, he responded, rather unhelpfully reiterating the point that I was not permitted to enter my nationality as ‘Scottish’ – such as had always been my habit. No more helpfully, the officer went on to state that it was also forbidden to enter ‘Welsh’ or ‘Irish’ in the space reserved for indicating ones nationality. Before I could finish wondering why on Earth I might wish to claim either of these nationalities, my interlocutor (for I did not yet regard him as my tormentor) finally got to the nub of the matter.

“Ye cannae pit Scoattish, Welsh or Irish,” he intoned with the demeanour of a man weary of explaining something which he considered too much part of the natural order to warrant any explanation at all. “Ye huv tae pit British or English.”

I baulked at this. “But I’m Scottish!”, I protested in a voice which may have been less proud than I’d like to think and more plaintive than than I’d like to admit. Let’s blame the hangover.

“No if ye want a pass, yer no!”, responded the man who had by now graduated to the full status of tormentor. “If ye want a pass, ye huv tae pit British or English!”, he insisted.

I was in a quandary. I needed the job. But, as a lifelong Scottish nationalist, how could I deny my true Scottish identity? How could I betray my deeply held political convictions? How could I subordinate my principles to the imperious demands of the British state?

Quite readily, as it turned out. Under pressure, I caved in. I folded like the proverbial cheap suit. I made a choice that I have been deeply ashamed of ever since. I wrote ‘British’.

This episode has haunted me for decades. But it was brought vividly to mind as I read about recent developments in Chris McEleny’s discrimination case against the MoD. The manner in which he has been treated by his employers is ample evidence that attitudes have changed little in the 50 years since I was told I had to renounce my Scottish identity if I wanted to work in a British state facility.

David Mundell almost said something truthful when he controversially claimed that Scotland is not a partner in the UK, but is merely a part of the UK. In reality, Scotland is neither. We are not regarded by the British political elite as partners in a political union. Neither are we seen as part of a British state which this elite holds to be its exclusive province. We are perceived to be, and treated as, part of an owned periphery.

Britain is not a country. It is the structures of power, privilege and patronage which serve the ruling elites at the expense of the rest. It is not a place, but a system. It is not geographically defined. It is primarily defined by what is excluded. Faithful servants of the British state who belong to this excluded periphery, such as David Mundell, exist in a grey area of more or less grudging tolerance. The centre is England. But only in a very vague way. Less uncertain is the periphery’s status as ‘Greater England’.

To be Scottish (or Welsh, or Irish, or Cornish etc.) within the British state is to be a second-class citizen – at best. For a long time, this has not been explicit. It has become more overt particularly as Scotland has developed a distinctive political culture, an increasingly assertiveness and a form of democratic dissent which challenges the structures of the British state.

The response of the British establishment is a crude effort to re-impose control and a fearful defensiveness which has engendered and empowered a truly nasty ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist ideology.

Half a century ago, I was confronted by the precursor of this ideology. I failed to take a stand then. For that reason, if no other, I heartily applaud the stand being taken by Chris McEleny. Never again should anyone who calls themselves Scottish be forced by the apparatus of the British state to chose between their identity and their livelihood. Never again should anyone in Scotland have to suffer dislocation and intimidation at the hands of the British state on account of their pursuit by democratic means of political and constitutional reform.

It is time to put a stop to this. It is time to dissolve the Union.


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Conspiracy as an emergent property of organisations

The following is adapted from an article titled Unconscious bias
which was originally published by Indyref2 on 15 August 2016.

bbc_north_britainWhen assessing the BBC’s coverage of Scottish politics and the now undeniable bias in favour of the British establishment it would be a mistake to think in terms of a formal conspiracy. If you’re imagining a cabal of managers, producers, directors, journalists and presenters secretly conniving together to do down the SNP and the independence movement, you are entertaining a fantasy. There is no organised plot. Nor is there any need for such a thing. What, with hindsight, has all the appearance of having been carefully contrived is, in fact, no more than the incidental outcome of an ‘organic’ process with no purpose or direction.

Just as ‘misreporting’ may be indistinguishable from deliberate dishonesty, so what looks like a conspiracy may be only a mirage. It may be no more than the impression left on history by lots of unconnected, or only loosely connected, events. It may be a pattern without a plan. It may be conspiracy as an emergent property of an organisation which, not being effectively managed towards its true purpose, tends towards the dominant agenda within its own structures.

All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.

This is what has happened in the BBC. And most particularly in BBC Scotland. It is not wholly accurate to say that either is institutionally biased; although the BBC is undoubtedly the broadcasting arm of the British establishment and can be expected to behave accordingly. It would be more apt to describe BBC Scotland as organisationally, or structurally, biased. Over time, a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing process has led to the organisation being populated with people drawn from, or with intimate connections to, a Scottish political establishment that was, for a formative period of decades, the almost exclusive province of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). BBC Scotland is stuffed with people who still regard what they like to call “Scottish Labour” as rightfully the dominant force in Scottish politics. Many are inclined to treat it as if it still is. They genuinely see nothing wrong in packing every studio panel with BLiS worthies because they cannot accept how irrelevant the pretendy wee party has become.

The inevitable corollary to this collective and largely unconscious (or unthinking?) pro-British/pro-union/pro-BLiS bias is antipathy to the SNP. After all, the SNP has not only supplanted BLiS as the primary force in Scottish party politics, but also represents a threat to the British state, which the BBC is institutionally inclined to regard as the ‘natural order’.

Obviously, this is a problem. For the public service broadcaster to have succumbed to organisational bias is a very serious issue for the functioning of democracy in Scotland. But in order to properly address a problem it is first necessary to understand it. To think in terms of conspiratorial plotting is to miss the point. This is a management problem. Or, more precisely, a problem of management failure.

I have no background in broadcasting. But the basics of good management are pretty much universal. They apply to every organisation. And it is glaringly obvious to me that BBC management has failed abysmally. I firmly believe that the BBC is institutionally sound. Moreover, I regard it as a crucial bastion of public service broadcasting. I have to recognise, however, that the BBC is in danger of being delivered into the hands of those who, for political or commercial motives or both, would see it destroyed. It is being betrayed by a generalised failure of management.

It’s unlikely that there are any high-level meetings of BBC executives at which a propaganda strategy against Scotland’s independence movement is discussed and formulated. It is improbable that instructions go out from senior managers to be acted upon by the lower echelons. It’s actually worse than that. BBC management have, by their incompetence, permitted the development of an environment – an ethos – in which these things, quite literally, just happen.


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