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’ ( 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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No alternative

I am disappointed for Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleney. However misguided their ‘Plan B’ was, I know their intentions were good and their enthusiasm genuine. Nobody should be in any doubt that these are two of the ‘good guys’. Among our elected representatives, they are all but alone in expressing the sense of urgency felt by so many in the Yes movement. Not to mention the sense of disappointment and frustration.

The fact is that their ‘alternative route to independence’ really isn’t. It was never going to fly, even if it could get off the ground. It was never going to fly for reasons I have set out in detail. It was never going to get off the ground for the reasons given by an anonymous “SNP insider”.

Unfortunately, Angus and Chris were addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. We do no need an alternative route to independence. We do not need a ‘Plan B’. The hard truth is that if we don’t find the right route to independence now then we’re unlikely to have the opportunity to implement any backup plan. And increasing numbers of Yes activists are entertaining serious doubts about the SNP’s ‘Plan A’. Some members will certainly be “disappointed” that SNP conference will not debate the party’s approach to resolving the constitutional issue. More than a few, both in the SNP and in the wider independence movement, will be frustrated and angry that the leadership is unwilling to rethink an approach which they see as seriously – perhaps fatally – flawed.

If the British political elite is willing to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination then why would anybody suppose that they’d stop short of ‘suspending’ the Scottish Parliament? And if they do that, why wouldn’t they take steps to thwart any possible alternative route to independence? Once established power resorts to undemocratic and anti-democratic means to suppress a challenge to its status, it has no choice but to continue on that course – wherever it might lead. Any climb-down would be too humiliating to contemplate. And it would involve admitting seriously questionable behaviour.

And it’s not as if we are merely facing the prospect of the British state resorting to methods associated with oppressive regimes. They are already embarked on such a course. It started with opposition to the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination. That opposition has now become prohibition. There’s only one way it can go from there.

The British state could, even now, pull back from the brink. But that is not going to happen. In all of British politics not a single voice is to be heard issuing a word of caution about the way the British government is behaving towards Scotland; far less denouncing this anti-democratic conduct. Instead, we have candidates for the post of Tory leader/British Prime Minister indulging in macho Jock-bashing to amuse and enthuse their British Nationalist constituency.

It truly beggars belief that, against this background, the SNP leadership can imagine it appropriate or politically realistic to contemplate taking the Section 30 route used in the first referendum and rerunning the 2014 campaign.

We would not be so desperate for a ‘Plan B’ if we were at all convinced that there was a workable ‘Plan A’. The SNP is doing absolutely nothing to persuade us that they are even aware of the threat posed to Scotland by a rampant ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism intent on preserving the Union at any cost. That threat is real and imminent. It is looming over us now. We are desperately awaiting some sign that our political leaders are preparing to deal with it.

Angus and Chris may not have come up with an answer. But at least they are asking the questions. More power to them!

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The cuckoos

Those of you who are not hampered by British Nationalist blinkers cannot have failed to notice the ease with which Nicola Sturgeon bats away the opposition’s attacks at the weekly First Minister’s Questions (FMQ) sessions. In part, this is because she is well-briefed, intelligent and quick-thinking. But it is also because her adversaries are none of these things.

It is said that, in court, counsel should never ask a question unless they know the answer. Heeding the sense of this, I long since adopted the habit – now second nature – of ‘testing’ statements prior to publishing them. I always ask myself how I would respond if I were on the other side. There have been many occasions when I’ve had something ready to post on Twitter but, pausing with the cursor on the button, I have opted to delete instead because I’ve thought of a great comeback which just might also occur to my interlocutor.

Richard Leonard, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie all regularly make utter fools of themselves at FMQ due to their evident inability to reflect on what they are saying and consider how the First Minister might respond. Mainly, this is because their ‘questions’ are not constructed as genuine enquiries made for the purpose of eliciting information or clarification, but as partisan thrusts essayed for the purpose of scoring points – and providing the British media with sound-bites. But the fact that they continue to play the clown-troupe week in and week out bids us suppose that there must also be an element of stupidity involved in their obvious inability to learn any lessons from their regular humiliation.

As it is for the leaders of the British parties at Holyrood, so it is for all of the British politicians squatting like fat cuckoos in the Scottish Parliament. Just as Rennie, Davidson and Leonard are too arrogant to suppose their utterances require some consideration, and too deluded to feel humiliation when they are slapped down by Nicola Sturgeon, so their underlings emulate this total lack of self-awareness.

The Tweet shown in the image at the top of this page appeared on my time-line this morning. It was posted by British Conservative & Unionist Party (BCUPS) cuckoo, Rachel Hamilton MSP. One of those people you sort of think you might have heard of but can’t quite place. When they’re doing really daft stuff there’s a tendency to get them mixed up with Kirstene Hair. Anyway! Whoever she may be, she posted that Tweet doubtless thinking herself quite the political operator. I posted the following response.

If you genuinely cared about protected status for Scottish foods you wouldn’t be dragging Scotland out of the EU on the ragged coattails of your Beloved British state. You have shown where your loyalty lies. And it’s not with your constituency or Scotland. #DissolveTheUnion— Peter A Bell #DissolveTheUnion (@BerthanPete) July 12, 2019

It occurred to me later that, so obvious was this rejoinder, the great wonder was that Kirstene Rachel hadn’t foreseen it. Surely even a BCUP politician would have seen where this was going had they taken the trouble to think about it for a moment. But she didn’t see. Because she didn’t think. Because she doesn’t care. And that is the lesson which we take from all of this.

British politicians in Scotland just don’t care. They don’t have enough respect for the Scottish Parliament to care if what they come out with at FMQ is so abysmally dumb as to warrant a virtual skelp from the First Minister. They don’t have enough respect for Scotland’s people to care if the hypocrisy in their Tweets is so sickeningly obvious as to elicit an entirely predictable response. They exhibit the casual arrogance born of knowing that their utterances will never be subjected to scrutiny by the mainstream British media. They are so lacking in self-awareness as to be blithely unaware of how ludicrous they appear.

Surely Scotland deserves better than these British cuckoos!

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Your daily disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The pivotal issue

I may be one of the people Lesley Riddoch is referring to when she says,

Yessers worry (more privately) that side-stepping the pivotal issue of independence, means citizens’ assemblies (CAs) will be pointless talking shops.

I am definitely a “Yesser”. Although I’m not known for keeping my concerns private; and my concern isn’t that Citizens’ Assemblies (CA) will be “pointless talking shops” – not in any general sense. It is merely that my enthusiasm for CAs is tempered by the fact that they bring nothing meaningful to the “pivotal issue” of Scotland’s constitutional status. In that regard, it is inevitable that they will be seen as a bit of a distraction – particularly by those Yes activists who have a sense of urgency about the constitutional issue perhaps not shared by Lesley.

Let me be clear; I am very much in favour of Citizens’ Assemblies. I think it is a superb idea. As is anything which promotes or facilitates popular engagement with and participation in the democratic process. The CA concept has much in common with the kind of second parliamentary chamber that I have long favoured. A Delegates Assembly, rather than being directly elected and thereby embroiled in party politics, would co-opt members from qualifying organisations such as trade unions, professional associations and single-issue campaign groups. CAs are similar enough that it would be odd indeed were I to support one and not the other.

But the constitutional issue is, as Lesley allows, pivotal. Everything turns on it. Literally, everything. There is no issue of Scottish public policy, no facet of life in Scotland, which can be divorced from the constitutional question. It is inevitably so given the fundamental nature of constitutional politics. Underlying everything is the matter of who decides. The question of where ultimate power lies and whence legitimate political authority is derived. Every policy debate eventually comes down to the question of who decides.

Which is why ‘Yessers’ such as myself worry when we read reports of ‘big names’ gathering to discuss the principles and practicalities of CAs. We worry that, among those ‘big names’ there may be more than a few of that ilk which insists we can have any kind of independence campaign we want so long as it is positive and good-humoured and receptive and constantly explaining itself and happy and clappy and BritNat-hugging and so on. We worry that, as so often happens, a good idea will suffocate under an accumulation of well-intended ‘guidelines’.

We worry when we see headlines such as that in The Herald on Monday (8 July) proclaiming ‘Citizens’ Assembly ‘is not about whether Scotland should be independent’. We are only slightly reassured when the co-chair of the CA explains that this is due to the fact that all of the things relating to independence that the CA might discuss, such as whether Scotland should have a second referendum, have already been decided. We still worry because, sensible as the limitation David Martin imposes on the CA’s remit may be, we are all too aware that other limitations and ‘guidelines’ can be made to appear just as sensible.

We worry that David Martin’s remarks appear to have have been prompted by a perceived need to reassure the CA’s Unionist critics. We worry because we know where this kind of pandering to British Nationalist whining leads.

We worry not least because David Martin couldn’t resist having a pop at the First Minister as he spoke to the Unionist press. We worry that he may have opened the door to Unionist ‘criticism’ of CAs solely intended to derail or sabotage the project.

We worry, not about Citizens’ Assemblies, but about what will be left when the ‘big names’ are done fiddling with them.

And, of course, those of us not stubbornly blind to the looming threat that ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism poses to Scotland’s democracy are concerned about distractions and time-wasting.

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation!”

So said Alasdair Gray, paraphrasing Canadian poet Dennis Lee. Words that are etched on the minds and hearts of independence campaigners as indelibly as they are inscribed on the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall. But there is a concern that some may have lost sight of the fact this better nation has yet to be created. They behave almost as if the job were already done; as if we were actually now living in those early days rather than yet aspiring to that better nation.

As people get excited about Citizens’ Assemblies and other progressive developments which mark the distinctiveness of Scotland’s politics, a word of caution is advisable. Being independent is our children’s responsibility. Becoming independent is ours. Obviously, it’s great if we can give our children a bit of a head start. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the things we build today are lacking a solid foundation.

Never forget! So long as the Union maintains its grip on Scotland, everything we have and everything we hope to leave as our legacy to future generations can be swept away with a wave of jealous Britannia’s hand. Our first and most pressing priority must be to #DissolveTheUnion.

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