To bleat, or to snarl?

nicolaWe have to be cautious about the language of politicians. A literal interpretation of what is said may not always be a reliable indicator of intent. When listening to what politicians say, it is always best to be mindful of the wider political context as well as being attentive to the precise form of words used.  Politicians will, for example, make demands of their opponents, not in any hope or expectation that these demands will be met, but in order to highlight their unwillingness or inability to deliver. So, when it is reported that Nicola Sturgeon has “repeated her call for an extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period”, we should not automatically assume that an extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period is what she wants, anticipates, or even considers possible.

Throughout the Brexit fiasco, the largest part of the First Minister’s strategy has been to look reasonable and accommodating relative to the clown troupe actually conducting the process. A strategy which, it must be said, has not severely tested Nicola Sturgeon’s abilities as a politician. Theresa May being to the craft of diplomacy as an inebriated hippopotamus is to the art of the unicycle, looking deft by comparison is hardly difficult. If the aim is to appear ready and willing to explore all options, it makes perfect sense that the possibility of extending the Article 50 negotiating period should be mentioned – even if there is no realistic prospect of such an extension being requested by the British government or much chance of it being granted by the EU.

Talk of further dragging out the agony of Brexit negotiations may be no more than a bit of politicking. The aim may simply be to pile further embarrassment on the British political elite. It’s an easy win for Nicola Sturgeon. If Theresa May rejects the idea of asking for an extension, she looks unreasonable. If she does request an extension, she looks weak. And if/when the request is refused, she suffers yet more humiliation.

But, if we are taking due account of the whole political context, then we are obliged to consider the possibility that this is not mere gamesmanship. We have to ask ourselves whether, in this instance, a superficial reading of Nicola Sturgeon’s words may be all there is to it. We must wonder whether her suggestion that the Article 50 negotiations might be extended beyond two years is, in fact, a clue to her thinking on the independence project. If the First Minister is serious about wanting to give the British government more time to work out some kind of Brexit ‘deal’, what might this tell us about her attitude to the how and the when of action to resolve the constitutional issue?

We cannot be oblivious to the fact that those I refer to as The Postponers are part of the the context in which Nicola Sturgeon made her remarks. She will be listening to all manner of voices as she explores the options available to her. All sorts of people will be seeking to influence her thinking – including those who advocate delaying any action until some undefined – and undefinable – ‘optimal time’. There are people, some of whom may be close to Nicola Sturgeon, who favour allowing ruinous Brexit to proceed. Their thinking is that if enough people are subjected to enough pain then enough of them will turn to independence.

If this strategy seems crude and cruel and callous, that’s because it is. It is also a massively flawed strategy, as I have sought to explain elsewhere. But we cannot know to what extent The Postponers have ‘got to’ the First Minister. We have to at least consider the possibility that they have managed to convince her. We would be remiss if our analysis did not take due account of the possibility that Nicola Sturgeon has been persuaded to further postpone confrontation with the British state.

That confrontation is inevitable. It is an unavoidable part of the process by which Scotland’s rightful constitutional status will be restored. There is nothing to be gained by putting off that confrontation. The British establishment’s determination to lock Scotland into a ‘One Nation’ British state is not going to diminish. We are not going to discover some magical new independence message. However disastrous Brexit is, the British media will manipulate the perception of it just enough to prevent the backlash hoped for by those who insist that ‘Brexit is the key’. The dynamic of relative power is not going to be shifted in Scotland’s favour by anything that the British state does. That shift can only happen when we make it happen.

I listen to people in the Yes movement who suppose they can game the British political system and what I hear is a flock of sheep earnestly discussing the best strategy for hunting wolves, while the wolves get on with doing what comes naturally to them. With the SNP Conference looming, let’s hope that Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an extension to the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period doesn’t turn out to be the bleating of someone who has joined that flock.


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The Predictables

scotland_euBy way of comment on the latest developments in the Brexit farce, I refer to something I wrote nearly two years ago. If nothing else, this demonstrates just how predictable it all was.

“I continue to be perplexed by British politicians and political commentators talking as if the manner of the UK’s departure from the EU was a matter of choice. Many of these people seem to genuinely believe that the UK Government can, on behalf of the various vested interests that it represents, tailor Brexit in such a way as to avoid much of the deleterious impact. They really seem to imagine that the institutions and remaining member nations of the EU are just sitting there waiting for Theresa May to tell them what it is that she wants so that they can helpfully accommodate her.

First there was “soft Brexit”, and the notion that the UK could simply choose to retain privileged access to the single market having torn up the membership of the EU which is the essential prerequisite for such access. Then there was talk of the “Norway option”, as if Norway’s views on the matter counted for nothing. Now we have solemn pronouncements about a “transitional deal”.

What all of these have in common is the fact that they are totally delusional. The impression given is of a British political establishment desperately trying to convince itself that Brexit can be achieved without consequences. Or, at least, that the process can be made relatively pain-free.

In all of this one finds the acrid stench of British exceptionalism – an innate conviction that the British state is special which has as its counterpart a sense of righteous victimhood born of the equally strong belief that this status is bitterly resented by the rest of the world.

There are a couple of things we can be reasonably sure of amid all the uncertainty of Brexit. All the talk of “soft Brexit” and “transitional deals” will ultimately be exposed as whimsically euphemistic fantasy as the reality of the imposed punitive settlement bites. And blame for the inevitable impact of Brexit will be placed firmly on the shoulders of Johnny Foreigner.

When this happens, British nationalists will be incandescent with indignation that the UK is being penalised for its actions. The anger which should be directed at the British politicians who created the situation will instead be directed outwards against our neighbours. All of which will be disturbingly familiar to those who know a little of Europe’s history.”A very British delusion


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Alpacas might fly

rennie_ram_llamaIt seems somebody called Willie Rennie is ‘challenging’ the SNP to support something called a ‘people’s vote’. Having done a bit of research, I can offer some clarification on the ‘somebody’. It seems that Willie Rennie is the Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for North East Fife and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats – which is one of the British political parties squatting in Holyrood where a proper opposition should be. When he’s not ‘challenging’ the SNP to do something they’ve already done or never will do, Willie’s hobbies include ram wrestling and teaching alpacas to fly (see above).

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the ‘People’s Vote’ – other than that, apparently, it must be capitalised. The term refers to a campaign, run by an organisation called Open Britain, which hopes to persuade the British government to hold a referendum on something called ‘the final Brexit deal’. To this end, they have a petition signed by lots of people. Presumably the people who are convinced they should have a vote on this ‘final Brexit deal’.

The real problem comes with trying to identify what it is that the capitalised ‘People’ would be doing with their capitalised ‘Vote’ supposing the capitalised ‘People’s Vote’ campaign were to succeed.

Referendums (I only call them ‘referenda’ when wearing a toga.) can be useful tools. Used well, they can enhance the democratic process. But, done badly, they are worse than useless. To be effective, a referendum must offer clear options – preferably no more than two. Ideally, the choice should be binary – yes or no – with the meaning of each being totally explicit. If the proposition can’t be put, without ambiguity, in twenty words or less, then it is probably too complicated for a referendum. If explanatory notes are required, then it is almost certainly too complicated for a referendum. If those explanatory notes run to more than a single side of A4, then trying to decide the matter by means of a referendum is just plain daft.

If a referendum is to be decisive it is essential that both options are spelled out in a manner which leaves no room for dispute. If one or more of the options is undefined then the referendum can produce a result, but never a decision. And, for the purposes of referendums, ‘poorly defined’ is defined as ‘undefined’.

Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum is illustrative. While it was perfectly clear that a Yes vote meant independence by way of a reasonably well described process, there was no indication whatever of what a No vote meant. Initially, it was said to be a vote for the status quo. As the referendum campaign progressed, however, all manner of stuff was hooked onto the No vote – up to and including ‘The Vow’.

In practice, a No vote meant whatever the British establishment wanted it to mean. This turned out to be pretty much the opposite of everything that had been promised. And something very, very far from the status quo that was originally offered. Thus, the referendum produced an indisputable result, but no decision. Because the No option was effectively undefined, a No vote in the referendum could not settle the issue. There was nothing to settle on.

A similar problem beset the EU referendum in 2016. While it was clear that a Remain vote meant ‘no change’, nobody had a clue what was implied by a Leave vote. Those running the Leave campaign least of all. Even leaving aside the added complication that Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted Remain, the UK-wide vote produced a result, but not a decision. In the aftermath, every faction has sought to define the Leave vote to suit its own agenda. How often have you heard someone assert that they voted Leave, but they didn’t vote for one or more things from a seemingly endless list. By way of an example, the following is from the ‘People’s Vote’ website.

No one voted to be poorer, for our public services to suffer, or to pay a £40 billion divorce fee.

So, will another referendum sort out the problem? Can a ‘People’s Vote’ produce, not merely a result, but a decision? It seems extremely unlikely. For some, it may be a bit late to start – but let’s think about it.

The one thing we can say for certain about the ‘final Brexit deal’ that is supposed to be the subject of the ‘People’s Vote’ is that it will not be clear or concise or unambiguous or unequivocal. Given the impenetrable complexity of the issues, we may assume, with an exceptionally high degree of confidence, that it will be the very opposite of all these things. It won’t even be ‘final’. It can’t be. UK/EU relations will be in flux for years. Probably decades. Just as there has been endless wrangling about what Brexit means, so the precise meaning of the ‘final Brexit deal’ will be the subject of unending argument.

Even if it was possible for those voting in favour of the ‘final Brexit deal’ to know exactly what they were voting for, what they voted for would be likely to change even before their votes were counted. Even if the result favoured the ‘final Brexit deal’, there would be no decision. Because it would always be possible for people to claim that they hadn’t voted for some aspect or interpretation of an over-complicated and fluid proposition.

And it gets worse! Because those voting against the ‘final Brexit deal’ would hardly be any clearer about what their vote meant. Obviously, they’d have no more idea of what they were voting against than those who were voting for the ‘final Brexit deal’. But neither would they know what would happen if the ‘final Brexit deal’ was rejected. Would the status quo ante be restored? (Had to slip into my toga for that one.) Could Article 50 be revoked? Would the EU accept this? Or would they choose to poke the Europhobe rats’ nest with the jaggy stick of conditions for the prodigal’s return?

Much as everyone might like to erase the entire Brexit episode from their memories and from history, that’s not an option. Even if the UK were now to remain in the EU as a result of a ‘People’s Vote’, the relationship must inevitably be changed. And it’s just not possible for those participating in the ‘People’s Vote’ to know the nature of that change. Whatever way they voted, they wouldn’t know what they were voting for any more than they’d know what they were voting against.

A ‘People’s Vote’ cannot possibly resolve anything. It can only be the cause of further confusion and conflict. The ‘People’s Vote’ idea is as inane as everything else associated with Brexit. It says nothing flattering about Willie Rennie that he has embraced the inanity with such alacrity. If Nicola Sturgeon has even noticed his ‘challenge’, she will surely ignore it. For obvious reasons she cannot allow herself to be portrayed as opposing a ‘second referendum’. But there is no possibility that Rennie will bait her into supporting a ‘People’s Vote’. He has more chance of getting that alpaca airborne.


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All our eggs in one Brexit

scotland_euIn a recent article I had some strong words to say about the notion that ‘Brexit is the key’ to Scotland’s independence. I continue to be alarmed at the number of potentially influential voices within the Yes movement who are prepared to stake everything on Brexit. An already substantial, and arguably increasing, part of the discourse around the constitutional question has moved away from the core issue of the Union to focus on the impact of Brexit. Many seem to have abandoned, to some degree at least, the effort to make the case for independence on its inherent merits – or against the Union on its fatal defects – choosing to rely instead on a perverse, and almost certainly forlorn, hope that Brexit will affect people’s lives so dramatically and so detrimentally that they will immediately demand the ‘solution’ of independence.

That Brexit will be detrimental to most people is hardly in doubt. What is, at the very least, questionable is whether the impact will be dramatic enough to have the effect hoped for by those who would have us pin all our hopes on it.

As I pointed out in that earlier article, it is not the reality of Brexit which matters, but the perception.

And who controls the apparatus by which public perception is manipulated? The British state, of course! Even if it were true that “Brexit is the key!”, that key is entirely in the hands of a British state with a massive propaganda machine at its disposal.

I was prompted to revisit this thought on reading that, in a survey conducted by Deltapoll for the Guardian, no less than 60% of respondents agreed with the statement.

I no longer care how or when we leave the EU,
I just want it all over and done with.

The opinion piece by Rafael Behr in which this poll is mentioned argues that voters have already switched off. Behr concludes,

It is possible that all of the ideological and technical squabbling, the factional bickering that has consumed politics since the referendum, will turn out to have been only the preamble. And what it will all come down to in the end is a contest between two gut propositions that have very little to do with the EU. For leave: just get on with it. For remain: please just make it stop.

Now! I know that this was a UK-wide survey and that it may not accurately reflect the mood in Scotland. But it serves to illustrate and reinforce the point that popular attitudes to Brexit have more to do with how it is perceived than with any actual effect. How it is perceived by the general public may be very different from the way it is appreciated by the likes of Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp. And this is especially true if, as we may reasonably assume will be the case, those popular perceptions are manipulated by British media in such a way as to suit the purposes of the British establishment.

Let us not forget that Brexit itself is largely – some would claim entirely – the product of a decades-long campaign of disinformation, distortion and dishonesty conducted by large sections of the British press determined to destroy the entire European project.

It is reasonable, therefore, to expect that the British media will do what it can to encourage the attitude of apathy and ennui identified by the Deltapoll survey and summarised so succinctly by Rafael Behr. And it is not unreasonable to anticipate that this effort by the British media to encourage disengagement will have some effect in Scotland. Especially as it also serves the British Nationalist cause and so is bound to be promoted by the BBC.

That effect need not be large to be catastrophic for the independence campaign. The British state need only defer some of the impact of Brexit for a few months; and/or disguise the reality with help from the media, and the moment is gone. The impetus is lost. The opportunity is squandered.

Putting all our independence campaign eggs in one Brexit basket is an enormously risky strategy. Gonnae no dae that!


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It’s the constitution, stupid!

nicola_speechThe hope of “clarity on the shape of Brexit” is as forlorn as the hope that the Scotland’s constitutional issue might be fairly dealt with by the British media. As the likelihood recedes of the final ‘deal’being anything more than an almighty fudge, awaiting something definitive looks less and less like a rational reason for delay and increasingly like an excuse.

We have known all we need to know about Brexit since 23 June 2016, when Scotland voted 62% Remain only to be told that the democratic will of Scotland’s people counts for nothing in the UK. By that date, it was already perfectly clear that Brexit was going to be an economic, diplomatic and constitutional mess. The campaign, which Mad Brexiteers treated like a TV game show, was evidence enough that nobody within the British political elite had a clue what the EU is and the way it works, far less how to take the UK out in anything remotely resembling an orderly fashion

If Brexit is a trigger for a new independence referendum then that trigger was pulled more than two years ago. We’ve waited for the flash. We’ve waited for the bang. We’ve waited for the recoil. Are we now being asked to wait until the bullet rips through Scotland shredding our democracy and pulping our public services?

The idea that the alternative to prevarication is to act “just because of a date on a calendar” doesn’t make any more sense than hitching the new referendum to a Brexit process over which the Scottish Government has no control and vanishingly little influence. Dismissing dates on calendars is, frankly, daft. Dates are meaningful. If they aren’t, why do people keep banging on about 29 March 2019 – so-called Brexit Day?

Dates are important because time is important. In regard to the new referendum, time is crucial. Because the British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project is not on hold while we dither. It is gathering pace.

But we don’t hear much about that. There is endless talk about Brexit. But we barely hear a mention of the real and abiding reason for wanting independence. The reason that has existed as long as the Union. The reason that has now become an urgent imperative. We need to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status, not because of Brexit, but because the Union is, and always has been, a device by which the people of Scotland are denied the exercise of their sovereignty.

The date on the calendar is significant because each passing day brings us closer to the point where Scotland is effectively locked into a political union on terms unilaterally determined by the British political elite.

The clock is ticking. Time is running out. If Scotland is to be rescued from the onslaught of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism, Nicola Sturgeon must act boldly, decisively and promptly.


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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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Empty choices

saltire_euThis ‘People’s Vote’ campaign is almost as nonsensical as Brexit. A referendum is the crudest of democratic instruments. It’s an axe, not a scalpel. It is only useful for binary choices where the two options are distinct, discrete and deliverable.

The 2014 independence referendum was disastrous for Scotland, not only because of the failure to secure a Yes vote, but because the implications of a No vote were all but totally unspecified. Nobody knew what a No vote meant. It was defined only as ‘Not Yes’. The No campaign was never properly scrutinised. In fact, it was barely examined. The media failed to ask any meaningful questions of Better Together or the British parties or the UK Government. They declined to challenge any of the lies, smears, threats or empty promises.

Initially, a No vote was supposed to be a vote for the status quo. But this quickly changed when the dullards running Better Together realised that this was by far the least popular option. The meaning of a No vote then became fluid. Pretty much anybody on the anti-independence side could make any claim about what would follow from a No vote. This culminated in ‘The Vow’. Within the space of less than 18 months a No vote had gone from meaning ‘no change’ to promising massive constitutional reform.

It has since become clear that the No vote was sold on a totally false prospectus. How could it be otherwise? An option which can mean anything inevitably means nothing. A No vote was effectively a vote to let the British political elite decide what you’d just voted for. It gave the British state a licence to do as it pleased with Scotland. They’d been handed a ballot that was marked with a cross but otherwise blank. They were left to fill in the details in whatever way suited them. So they’ve decided that a No vote was a vote to roll back devolution and tack forward the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project.

Much the same thing happened with the EU referendum. The implications of a Leave vote were never properly explored. The Brexiteers were never seriously interrogated. Not only were their plans afforded no scrutiny, for the most part they weren’t even asked if they had any plans. Once again, the mainstream media failed shamefully in its duty to inform and explain.

A Leave vote in the EU referendum ended up being an unspecified choice in much the same way as a No vote in Scotland’s first independence referendum. What ensued is a farce inside a fiasco wrapped in a bourach as the British political elite squabbles over what should fill the empty vessel of Leave and fails abysmally to find anything that will actually fit.

Now, we have this campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’. Which sounds very worthy. But which actually means only that they want to use the UK electorate as a big fist to force something into that empty vessel regardless of whether it fits or not. The very fact that it proposes three options is evidence enough of the idiocy of this campaign. Idiocy which only grows more profound as one realises that none of the three options can be anything like as tightly defined as the blunt instrument of a referendum absolutely requires.

Quite apart from the rather obvious inanity of having two Leave options and one Remain option, nobody can possibly say with any certainty what any of these options would mean in practice. Because it won’t be the voters who ultimately decide the outcome. It will be the EU. At best, people can only be voting for what they imagine is the option which comes closest to what they hope for.

A vote for the UK Government’s Leave ‘deal’ – supposing one is ever agreed – isn’t a vote for an outcome. At best, it is a vote for a negotiating position which is liable to change depending on which faction of the British political elite has the upper hand at any given time. A negotiating position which, furthermore, has already been largely rejected by the EU or is subject to severe reservations.

A vote for Leave with no ‘deal’ is even more of a mystery bundle. Although the revolting stench coming off it strongly hints at the unpleasant nature of what lies beneath the layers of packaging.

Even a Remain vote cannot be defined. Supposing it is possible to revoke Article 50 and abandon the entire Brexit mess, would this restore the status quo ante? Or might the EU impose terms? Is there the political will among the British political elite to implement such a decision? And what if Remain ‘wins’ but without an absolute majority? Pick your permutation of problematic poll results. How about 35% Remain; 35% Leave with ‘deal’; 30% Leave without ‘deal’. What is the will of the electorate?

And even in the highly improbably event that the ‘People’s Vote’ did give a clear result, what if that result serves only to confirm and emphasise the democratic inherent in the Union? What if, once again, it’s a Leave vote in England and Wales outweighing a decisive Remain vote in Scotland? Nothing is resolved. We’re back where we started.

Brexit can’t be fixed. That’s the bottom line. It simply cannot be sorted. There is no way to make it OK. The only way that Scotland can avoid being dragged down by Brexit is to cease being part of the UK. The Scottish Government must initiate the process of dissolving the Union as a matter of extreme urgency.


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