A question of courage

A remark by Dr Craig Dalzell on his Common Green blog caught my attention. In an article discussing the post-independence fate of the British state’s nuclear arsenal on Scottish soil, he writes,

… it may be that the Scottish Government simply isn’t brave enough to demand the removal of the weapons…

Controversial as this statement may be, it was not what was suggested that struck me, but my reaction to it. Six months ago – maybe even three months ago – I would have responded angrily that it is totally ridiculous to imagine the SNP would renege on its commitment to remove this abomination from our land. I would have objected strongly to the suggestion that an SNP administration might go into talks with the British government unprepared and timid.

I would have pointed out what a strong hand the Scottish side in talks on the independence settlement would have. I would have mercilessly mocked the notion that SNP politicians could be unaware of that strength, or unwilling to use it.

Don’t get me wrong! I continue to be absolutely persuaded that arrangements for the removal of Trident will be a very important part of the settlement. The British state’s weapons of mass destruction must go. That is a political imperative. The precise nature of the arrangements will depend on a number of factors. But the bottom line is a red line. Trident must go!

No sane, sober and sensible person supposes that the whole shebang will be shut down and shipped out on day one. The single strong card that the Brits will have is safety. And that card trumps pretty much everything. The Scottish Government cannot set an unrealistic deadline for removal of the British state’s nuclear paraphernalia. It may be that the Scottish Government cannot set any kind of deadline at all without risking accusations of compromising safety for the sake of politics. But, whatever the arrangements are, it must be clear that the end-point is the total removal of Trident.

Personally, I favour the ramping rent solution. Craig Dalzell nicely sets out the problems – and potential problems – with a leasing arrangement. The danger that the Scottish exchequer grows over fond of – or reliant on – the revenue. The risk that a short-term lease becomes a long-term lease and then a rolling lease. I believe these issues can be overcome by making the lease increasingly expensive for the British state – rent rising annually by a percentage that also increases – so that there is a financial imperative to move out but no political pressure which might be portrayed as the Scottish Government lacking due concern for safety.

Also, revenue from the lease should be ring-fenced for one-off capital projects that otherwise would be unlikely to be funded. That way, Scotland’s budget doesn’t become dependent on income from the lease.

All of which is by way of an aside. The discussion of options relating to removal of Trident is interesting. But what troubled me about Craig Dalzell’s comment was the suggestion that ” the Scottish Government simply isn’t brave enough”. And the fact that, unlike a few months ago, I now felt disinclined to reject this out of hand.

I now find my self obliged to consider the possibility that the Scottish Government just isn’t brave enough. The long months, stretching into years, of hesitancy and prevarication and general reluctance to confront the constitutional issue has drained the confidence that I once had in the SNP and in Nicola Sturgeon.

The other day, as I was writing about the implications for Scotland of Boris Johnson being anointed British Prime Minister, I paused to reflect on how the Scottish people would react to something like the Scottish Parliament being ‘suspended’. Obviously, there would be anger. But I was surprised to find that, in my imagining, the anger was directed, not at Boris Johnson, the British state or the Union, but at the First Minister and the Scottish Government and the SNP. Being able to imagine something doesn’t make it true or likely. But continuing to envisage it, not in a reverie, but in the light of cold political analysis, causes alarm bells to ring.

The great American aviation pioneer and author, Amelia Earhart, once said,

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.

For far too long the de facto political arm of Scotland’s independence movement has been characterised by indecision and inaction. Whatever good the SNP administration has been doing – and it is undeniable that it has done a great deal of good – in terms of providing leadership for the independence movement and taking forward Scotland’s cause, the SNP’s performance has fallen far short of the hopes and expectations of many in the Yes movement. Opportunities have been missed. Initiative has been lost. Momentum has been squandered.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe the Scottish Government just isn’t brave enough.

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The threat is great! The time is short!

If Boris Johnson is to visit Scotland shortly after his expected coronation as British Prime Minister, we may anticipate that the “keynote speech” he intends to deliver will contain little in the way of charm and much that is offensive. He might be in Scotland; but he will be addressing an audience mainly in England. An audience of British Nationalists drooling at the prospect of their champion putting those uppity Jocks firmly in their lowly place.

It would be a mistake to think of Johnson as stupid. The man’s intellect may comprise little more than low cunning and an instinctive grasp of base populism, but what more does one need in order to succeed in British politics? Nobody can sensibly claim that these ‘attributes’ have not served him well. Together with the bumbling eccentricity that is all practised affectation, these apparently meagre capacities have helped Johnson rise to the upper strata of the British political elite and allowed him to survive a catalogue of gaffes, catastrophes and misdeeds any one of which would have been sufficient to end most political careers.

Johnson may be more sport of nature than force of nature, but he is not acting alone. Behind the malignant clown-child, deep in the shadows, stand unseen forces content to access power using ‘characters’ such as Johnson as proxies – or tools.

Even as he stumbles into the role of British Prime Minister by way of a series of blunders and pratfalls, Johnson will be aware – or will have been made aware – that his tenure may be short. He knows that he may face an early challenge. He will think of his visit to Scotland as an outing in a coming election campaign. It will be vital that he impress the voters who are crucial to his success in that election – whenever it comes. And Johnson knows that this demands a highly emotional appeal to hard-core ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism calling on every ounce of his instinct for base populism.

We may reasonably expect that Johnson’s ‘Scottish speech’ will signal a start to demolishing devolution and the dismantling of Scotland’s democratic institutions. It is a matter of speculation how far he will go in the early days of his reign. But we must assume he will go all the way. Because what he doesn’t do in the first few days and weeks he will certainly do in the following days and weeks.

It will all be made to sound very reasonable.There will be much talk of ‘unity’ and ‘economic necessity’. What is being done TO Scotland will be portrayed as being done FOR Scotland. The things being removed are, not the essential infrastructure of a functioning democracy, but ‘obstacles’ which cannot be allowed to ‘stand in the way of progress’. This will not be a return to less enlightened times, but the ‘opening of a new chapter’ in Scotland’s ‘proud history’ as part of a Britain about to be made great again be destroying anything that cannot be made purely British.

Much of what is said will be shrouded in obscurantist language. Only later will it be realised that the bit about ‘exploring new economic opportunities’ meant an immediate lifting of the moratorium on fracking. Only afterwards will it become evident that the stuff about ‘making the NHS more efficient’ is a euphemism for absorbing all the UK’s health services into a ‘UK-wide common framework’ the better to offer it up to the hyenas of corporate America.

There will be few references to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. All the talk will be of the UK Government in Scotland and all the great things that it will be doing for Scotland. There will be no mention of the fact that this unelected and unaccountable shadow administration is to be funded entirely by money that is rightfully Scotland’s.

If Johnson’s speech is not the coup itself, it will be the start of the coup. It will be the start of a process of restoring direct rule from London on a scale and to an extent that Scotland has never before experienced. It will be the birth of a ‘New Union’, strengthened at the cost of democracy. A ‘New Union’ unilaterally defined by and for the ruling elites of the British state. A ‘New Union’ in which Scotland truly is extinguished; our nation’s identity snuffed as it is smothered in a new ‘indivisible and indissoluble’ state.

In his speech, Jonson may well acknowledge the possibility that ‘troublemakers’ might try to derail or hinder his ‘Great Britain Project’. Measures to ‘deal with’ political dissent may be announced, or merely hinted at. Threatened.

We know that all of this will come to pass because we know how imperative it is that the British state keep hold of Scotland. And we know that it cannot be assured of maintaining that hold unless ‘radical’ steps are taken to neutralise the threat from Scotland’s independence movement. Incapable of learning the lessons of history, the British political elite continues to believe it has the power to face down democratic dissent, or suppress it.

One of the dangers in this time of great jeopardy for Scotland is that a timid Scottish Government might seek some compromise in the hope of fending off the worst of what has been described here. Experience and political pragmatism tell us that any such approach will actually be taken by the British as consent for and acceptance of the worst of what has been described here.

As great a threat is the complacency which dismisses all of these threats even as each becomes the reality. Or the idiotic politicking which constantly promises that it will be the next abuse that provokes an appropriate response.

Scotland can afford neither complacency nor compromise. As hard as Johnson and the forces behind him come at us, we must be prepared to go at them even harder. The threat is great. The time is short. The Scottish Government must act boldly, decisively and quickly to protect Scotland.

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Of communities and belonging

I made an all too brief but nonetheless memorable first visit to Orkney and Shetland last year. Although I was only there for a few days, thanks to the generosity of local Yes groups I got to see a lot of the the islands. And, thanks to the wonderful hospitality, I got to meet a great many people. The Northern Isles are a wonderful part of Scotland. And that’s an important phrase – part of Scotland.

My visit to Orkney and Shetland was one leg of a tour which took me all over the Highlands and Islands. Well, not quite all over. That would take a very long time. Because Scotland isn’t such a small country. It certainly doesn’t feel small when you’re travelling the length and breadth by bus. Looking out the windows of that bus I saw a land that is vast and varied. From rich farmlands to raw moors; from rugged shores to majestic mountains; from silent forests to thrumming cities; from watchful hills to moody lochs – Scotland is a bit special.

What struck me most forcefully, however, was that for all the diversity I always knew I was in Scotland. No matter how distinctive the places – and probably none is more distinctive than Shetland – there was always the sense that this was part of a nation. Always the feeling that the local communities I was privileged to briefly mingle with are part of a community of communities.

For what else is a nation but a community of communities. A collection of localities, each with its own character, but all sharing a common identity.

As is so often the case, politicians prove to be the fly in the ointment. The connectedness of communities can be disrupted by those who seek power through division. Those whose concern is, not the welfare of any community, but personal aggrandisement, partisan advantage and the preservation of a political system which rewards them with status and influence.

People are better served by elected representative who value both the community that they serve and the community of communities that is Scotland. There are politicians who know the worth of the connectedness that makes a nation. A connectedness built from and grown out of mutual interest and common respect and shared commitment. A natural, easy connectedness that requires no compulsion or coercion. A connectedness that stands in stark contrast to the imposed and enforced homogeneity of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist ideology.

The feeling I got when I visited Shetland and other far flung parts of Scotland was, not that they were remote from the centre, but that the centre was in danger of becoming remote from them. The connectedness is still there, but it needs to be reinforced. Distance need not imply detachment so long as those charged with speaking for Shetland’s communities have due regard for their connection with the community of communities that is Scotland.

I know that the Scottish National Party genuinely embraces the ideas of community and connectedness which make diversity and distance no impediment to a sense of community – a sense of belonging.

I am not acquainted with Tom Wills, the SNP’s candidate in the forthcoming by-election for the Scottish Parliament’s Shetland constituency. But I’m certain he will understand what I mean when I say that Scotland is a community of communities. I’m pretty sure he’ll be aware of just how important it is to maintain and strengthen the connectedness among Scotland’s communities. And I reckon he’d agree that, at least as important to Shetland as its sense of itself, is its sense belonging.

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Limp gestures

I am not at all averse to gesture politics. Political gestures can be very effective. Given that they are intended only to attract attention or create an impression, it is difficult for them to fail. And it is perfectly possible for the political gesture to have an impact far greater than the minimum intended. If you doubt me, consider that we are right now celebrating the outcome of arguably the biggest political gesture ever. Neil Armstrong’s small step onto the surface of the moon was the culmination of a political gesture of almost unimaginable magnitude.

On 25 May 1961 when President John F Kennedy made that historic speech in which he committed the USA to a manned moon landing within the decade he was responding to the Soviet Union’s successes in the area of space exploration with a bit of willy-waving on a grand scale. Look at the numbers. By 1967 the Apollo employed more than 400,000 people who spent $200bn in today’s money – 4% of the entire federal budget.

The willy they built – better known as the Saturn V – stood 111 metres tall and weighed over 3,000 tonnes. Waving this particular willy required 6.35 million kilograms of thrust.

As a political gestures go, the Apollo programme is unlikely to ever be surpassed. Fifty years on, the world is still in awe of the Apollo 11 mission’s achievement. So, let’s not dismiss gesture politics.

The SNP Westminster group’s commitment to sit with their arms folded when Theresa May makes her final Prime Ministerial appearance in the House of Commons isn’t quite on the same scale. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t important. But it isn’t. The gesture pales into insignificance, not next to the Apollo space programme, but in comparison to those same MPs’ walkout during Prime Minister’s Questions a little over a year ago.

That’s the problem with political gestures. You’ve always got to top the last one. Unless, like Apollo, it’s one that cannot ever be topped. When a political gesture falls flat its like you wave your willy only to have it drop off and roll down a drain. At which point the willy-waving metaphor just got distinctly uncomfortable.

But a political gesture doesn’t only have to be impressive in relative terms. In absolute terms, it must also meet the expectations of whichever constituency you are seeking to impress. Or satisfy their hopes. Given what Scotland’s independence movement expects from the SNP, declining to applaud Theresa May cannot but look utterly pathetic. If your audience is hoping for the moon, don’t expect them to get exited by being presented with some tawdry bauble.

Right now, a large and growing part of the Yes movement is expecting the SNP to stand up to the bullying British political elite. They hope to see the SNP defying the asserted authority of the British state. They want the SNP to do something bold and decisive.

We’re not asking the SNP to send a man to the Moon. But we are looking for a lot more than them thumbing their nose at some silly convention.

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Bold words

Bold words from Ian Blackford. We get a lot of bold words. What we don’t get is much in the way of effective action. The SNP’s Westminster leader assures us that he and his colleagues “will not sit idly by” while a British government led by Boris Johnson imposes a no-deal Brexit on Remain-voting Scotland. But what can they actually do?

It looks very much as if the SNP’s obsession with Brexit has blinded them to the fact that it stands as but one particularly egregious example of how the Union impacts Scotland. They seem to have forgotten that their purpose is, not merely to stop Brexit, but to stop Scotland’s democratic will being rendered null and void by a political union which acts to deny the people of Scotland the full and effective exercise of their sovereignty.

It appears that the SNP will do anything to stop Brexit except pursue, as a matter of urgency, the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

What is this talk of a no-confidence motion but yet another instance of the SNP dutifully abiding by the rules and procedures of the British political system? A system designed to protect and preserve the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state. A system which, not at all incidentally, treats Scotland’s elected representatives with cold contempt. If there was any possibility of a no-confidence motion threatening established power, the SNP would be prevented from following that procedure.

And make no mistake, once Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, as is generally expected, he immediately embodies established power. No matter how much of an idiot he may be, or what kind of jeopardy he promises, he is the British Prime Minister. The status of that high office must be maintained whoever the incumbent may be. Because, as with the absolute monarchy from which it derives, all power flows from that office and depends on its status.

When the SNP is not targeting Brexit, they’re targeting the Tories. And when they’re not targeting the Tories, they’re targeting whoever happens to be the British Prime Minister. The one thing they never seem to target is the Union. Which is more than a little disappointing given that the Union is the issue. Whatever party is in power at Westminster; whoever happens to be Prime Minister, and whatever policy is being imposed of Scotland against the will of the people, it is the Union which empowers that party, enables that Prime Minister and facilitates the imposition of policies which are anathema to Scotland.

Put a different party in government! Nothing changes for Scotland! Install a different Prime Minister! Nothing changes for Scotland! Succeed in stopping a particular policy being imposed! Nothing changes for Scotland! Nothing changes for Scotland so long as the Union maintains its baleful influence over our land.

Nothing changes for Scotland until we #BreakTheUnion. The only way to break the Union is to #BreakTheRules. The SNP isn’t even trying to break the Union because the SNP isn’t prepared to break the rules of the British political system.

We have a problem. The problem is that the SNP is the problem. The further problem is that only the SNP can resolve this problem. And the problem with that is that to resolve the problem the SNP would have to do the very thing which is the cause of the problem because they refuse to do it.

Until the SNP is prepared to confront the British political elite with more than bold words from Ian Blackford, Scotland’s cause is stalled. Becalmed at the very moment when it should be driving forward with every ounce of energy the Yes movement can put behind it.

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Against Scotland

It is difficult to react with shock or outrage when a British Nationalist politician misrepresents the facts as Liz Truss did. These people lie so incessantly we are all, I’m sure, quite inured to their audacious mendacity. Which is unfortunate. We should never lose the capacity to be angered by such brazen dishonesty. We should never cease to be indignant that British politicians treat us as fools. We should always speak out against those who abuse the power of high office.

But there is one advantage of being unconcerned about the malicious lies. Not being distracted, we may notice things that would surely pass us by were we preoccupied with fuming about the latest gobbet of British Nationalist propaganda to dribble down the chin of some Westminster politician. See, for example, this remark from Derek Mackay.

I wonder why the UK Tory Treasury Minister would be choosing now as her timing to make such a ridiculously false case against Scotland.

The last two words are striking. It is, at the very least, decidedly uncommon for a senior member of the Scottish Government to so explicitly acknowledge the anti-Scottish nature of British propaganda. It is surely time this became part of the narrative of the independence campaign.

Heretofore, there has been an unwritten rule in the Yes movement that we should ‘play nice’. That we should eschew emotive terminology. That we should avoid calling out the treachery of the British parties in Scotland, lately culminating in a ‘pledge of loyalty’ to Boris Johnson. Even when the British establishment was actively trying to discourage inward investment in Scotland, the obsession with being ‘positive’ meant SNP politicians only spoke of this in terms best described as ‘mealy-mouthed’.

This has to change. British politicians lie to us all the time. It is incumbent on the Scottish Government and the Yes movement to be, not just honest with the people of Scotland, but forthright enough to state unequivocally that those British politicians are “against Scotland”. We must drive home the message that British Nationalism is an anti-Scottish ideology.

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Evading the issue

There may be very good reasons for a resolution failing to make it onto the final agenda for the SNP conference. It is inevitable that people will feel aggrieved when a resolution is rejected that concerns a matter of particular interest to them. It is pretty much part of the pre-conference routine for there to be complaints that the agenda is being ‘rigged’ to avoid topics that some of those on the platform might consider potentially embarrassing. Folk have their ‘pet subjects’. Their personal estimation of the importance of that subject is likely to far exceed that of a dispassionate committee. It will be difficult for them to understand how a resolution on what they hold to be a topic of central importance can fail to be included in the agenda.

It may be that a topic has already been thoroughly debated at a recent conference. It may be that party policy on the matter is so firmly settled that further debate is seen as pointless. It may be that the resolution itself is not well drafted, or that the procedures and guidelines for submitting a resolution have not been adhered to.

I found it very easy to understand why the ‘Plan B’ resolution submitted by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny was not accepted. Many others, perhaps being less objective, are incensed that it has been rejected. It would be an extraordinary agenda setting process that didn’t offend someone.

What, for me, was most disappointing about the MacNeil-McEleny resolution was the fact that it didn’t address the issue of urgency. If the party managers are keen to avoid discussion of independence it is not because the matter of a ‘Plan B’ might cause the leadership some discomfort. It is because any debate around the topic of independence has the potential to lead to awkward questions about ‘Plan A’. More specifically, about the timetable for ‘Plan A’. That’s what the SNP leadership desperately want to avoid.

Perhaps a more effective tactic would have been to submit a resolution directly – if, perhaps, subtly – addressing the evident lack of any sense of urgency in the Scottish Government’s approach to resolving the constitutional issue.

Alternatively, an appropriately worded amendment to the resolution in the names of John Swinney and Maree Todd might have served to get the issue of urgency before delegates. One advantage of such an amendment is that rejection would be tantamount to an explicit admission that the party leadership doesn’t want the issue debated.

There may be very good reasons for that too.

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