SNP Conference: Something missing

nicola_speechConference is over. I have that strange mix of feelings which tend to come in the wake of being part of an important event – part sad it’s over; part glad it’s over. Sad because an SNP Conference is an enjoyable and uplifting experience. This is real democracy at work. Especially as much of the last couple of days was taken up with protracted, complex and  – let’s face it – dry as dust internal matters.

Which is not to say these matters aren’t important. They most certainly are. The party is currently engaged in a process of internal reorganisation largely aimed at allowing more full and effective participation by all 100,000+ members. Obviously, I can’t go into detail on this. Not only because it is internal party business, but because it would make for the dullest blog in the entire history of blogging. Suffice it to say that, dreadfully dull and confusingly complex as these debates may be, their purpose is worthy and honourable.

There is, I suspect – although to the best of my knowledge this has never been formally studied – a strong correlation between the functional democracy within a political party and that party’s ability to properly serve democracy either in government or opposition. The very fact that the SNP is striving so hard for inclusiveness and engagement within its own structures and processes almost automatically makes it more fit to govern.

The mills of the SNP’s internal reorganisation may grind slowly. But the product will be worth the effort. Of that, I am supremely confident.

Then there’s the social side of things. After the business of the day is done, it’s time to turn to unwind. The evenings spent meeting with friends – old and new – from different parts of the country are as important in their way as anything which goes one at the conference venue.

While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed endless chats with countless folk over beer or a meal, I have to say that the highlight of this weekend’s entertainment was an evening spent in the company of one of Scotland’s brightest talents Alan Bissett. The author, playwright, poet and raconteur put on a specially prepared show in which he performed a selection of his work, including scenes from his plays and readings from his books. And it was wonderful.

Back to the serious business of conference. As well as the discussions on internal reorganisation mentioned above there were the resolutions to be debated – along with all the attendant amendments. This is where the party activists shine as they take to the platform to speak – often with great eloquence and passion – on a range of issues. It is these debates which shape party policy. This is the party talking to the leadership.

Then there’s the set-piece speeches. This is the leadership talking to the party and the public. There were some excellent speeches. There always are. John Swinney spoke with very obvious passion about his aspirations for Scotland’s education system; and just a little pride in the progress which has already been made. Nobody listening could possibly doubt that this is a man who genuinely cares about Scotland’s children and young people. Coming from anyone else, the words “Equal from birth! Equal in life!” might sound like an empty slogan. When John Swinney utters those words there is no mistaking the power of his commitment.

Mike Russell confirmed his role as Scotland’s champion in the battle to save Scotland’s Parliament from the rapacious depredations of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism. He didn’t quite put it like that. But one gets a distinct sense that he’d like to. His anger at what the UK Government is attempting is every bit as genuine as John Swinney’s commitment to give Scotland a world-class education system. Both make it very clear that they see the Union as both a threat to what we have, and an obstacle to achieving more. Both are quite explicit about their determination to remove that obstacle.

And so to the grand finale. The big one. The Party Leader’s address to Conference. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech. Before commenting on this, it is important to note yet again the fact that the SNP two quite distinct roles. It is both the party of government – the administration, and the political arm of the independence movement. When Nicola Sturgeon speaks, she may do so in her role as First Minister, or as the de facto figurehead of the independence movement. Occasionally, as in her Conference address, she will speak in both roles.

The speech follows a fairly well established format. There are regular components, such as the tribute to the host city and the jokes at the expense of one or more British establishment figures. Generally, however, the speech can be divided into two parts – a listing of the Scottish Government’s achievements and announcement of significant new policy initiatives, and something on the constitutional issue. This reflects the party’s dual role.

In regard to the first, Nicola Sturgeon was superb. It would be surprising if she wasn’t given that she has such strong material to work with. Her administration’s achievements have been little short of miraculous when considered in the context of Westminster austerity and the debilitating constraints of devolution. The announcement too were impressive. The immediate pay rise for NHS Scotland staff being probably the standout example. I would urge you to read the speech in full so as to better appreciate what an excellent job the SNP administration is doing – whatever the media may say to the contrary.

It was when Nicola Sturgeon turned to the matter of independence and a new referendum that things went badly wrong.

Let me make this clear – although my remarks will inevitably be misrepresented regardless of any clarification. Nobody with an ounce of sense anticipated that Nicola Sturgeon would use her conference address to announce the date of a new referendum. That was never going to happen. She is far to astute to squander her options at this stage.

What may of us did hope for was some sense of awareness of the precariousness of Scotland’s situation and the need for urgency in addressing the threat to our Parliament and our democracy. At the very minimum we expected an acknowledgement of the rising power and presence of the Yes movement. We were given neither.

When Nicola Sturgeon said that we should not “focus on the ‘when’ of independence”, that felt like a rebuke to a Yes movement which is increasingly concerned that the the consequences of delaying the referendum are not being recognised or appreciated by the SNP leadership. Those concerns most certainly aren’t being addressed by senior SNP politicians. And those who hoped for better from Nicola Sturgeon must now be feeling extremely disappointed.

Perhaps worse, however, was the disregard – dare I say, disdain – for the Yes movement. In recent weeks there have been massively significant events which have shown how the Yes movement is growing, maturing and becoming more active. The marches in Glasgow and Dumfries, as well as The Gathering in Stirling, are rightly regarded by the wider independence movement as landmark events with great import for the independence cause. People are bound to be perplexed and offended that Nicola Sturgeon chose to ignore them.

It grieves me to say it, but Nicola has made a grave error of judgement. Doubtless, some will say that that she was ill-served by her advisers and speech writer. There is some merit in this argument. I can’t be the only one who cringed at references to “the NHS” rather than ‘NHS Scotland’. But, as Party Leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon is ultimately responsible. The Scottish buck stops with her.

Listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks about the referendum I got a sense of something bordering on complacency. In her failure to give to much as a hat-tip to the Yes movement, for the first time ever I got a disturbingly distinct impression of a political leader detached from the base of that movement.

PS – If you’d like to chat about events at the SNP Conference, I’ll be talking about my impressions and listening to yours at The Bridge Street Social Club on Sunday 10 June from 14:00.

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SNP Conference: Fuel efficiency


As the first day of the SNP Conference dawns in Aberdeen, an atmosphere of anticipation is building. This weekend presents Nicola Sturgeon with a serious challenge. After the marches in Glasgow and Dumfries, it is evident that momentum is building within the Yes movement. The Gathering in Stirling, meanwhile, demonstrates the extent to which the Yes movement has matured. Four years ago, it was a bairn; full of youthful enthusiasm and endowed with the impertinence to do stuff just because nobody told them they couldn’t.

Now, the Yes movement has grown into formidable political and social force. Now, it knows exactly what it can do. The Yes movement has the power to shake and shape nations. Nicola Sturgeon will be well aware of this. And she will know that she has to treat this power with respect.

The Yes movement is hungry for action. Being older and wiser it is not reckless enough to demand action for its own sake. It is well aware of the political realities and the demands on the SNP leader’s political judgement. But the Yes movement needs to be fed. Nicola Sturgeon has to give them something this weekend.

Some in the Yes movement will not be satisfied with anything less than a firm date for the new referendum. They will almost certainly have to go unsatisfied. But there must, at the very least, be some acknowledgement of the fact that the Yes movement is a factor in Nicola Sturgeon’s deliberations.

Too often and too much, perhaps, we hear about the significance of Brexit; and economics; and the antics of the British government; and the polls. There is a danger that the Yes movement may feel sidelined in all of this. There is a real risk that, if its significance is not adequately recognised, the enthusiasm may turn to resentment.

It is difficult to know quite what form of words will allow Nicola Sturgeon to keep the Yes movement on board and positively engaged without closing off valuable options in her dealings with the British government. But she will have to find those words. The energy of the Yes movement is what fuels the independence cause. Nicola Sturgeon has the unenviable task of ensuring that fuel does not burn to fast too soon.

It all makes for great political drama. And I’ll be there watching.

PS – If you’d like to chat about events at the SNP Conference, I’ll be talking about my impressions and listening to yours at The Bridge Street Social Club on Sunday 10 June from 14:00.

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New referendum! New mindset!

If an independence referendum were to be called today and the SNP go it alone and be the official ‘Yes’ campaign and it’s SNP versus everyone else, we will lose based solely on voting history. – Chris McEleny

referendum_2018_petitionIf the Yes campaign is to succeed in the coming independence referendum we urgently need a fresh mindset. Sorry, Chris! But this is not it.

Let me say first of all that, having seen him perform in two Depute Leader contests, I have considerable respect for Chris McEleny. I have not the slightest doubt that he is destined to play a major role in Scotland’s politics. But I would suggest that he might benefit from shaking off some of the more conventional thinking that is evident from his views on the new independence referendum.

In some respects, Chris has already done this. He has been prepared to break from the herd and at least put a time-frame around the new referendum. He has said that the vote should be held within eighteen months. Which is a considerable improvement on the indefinite postponement being advocated by some in the SNP. But eighteen months is plenty of time for the British state to do massive damage to Scotland’s democratic institutions and public services. As with the more tremulous Postponers, I’ve yet to hear him explain how he’d go about preventing ‘One Nation’ British Nationalists wreaking the havoc that they promise.

A curious thing about Chris’s approach – which seems to be fairly typical of what is becoming the conventional thinking on the matter – is the insistence that “we need to think differently”, quickly followed by a ‘plan’ for the new Yes campaigned so closely modelled on the first one as to be barely distinguishable. Meet the “new Yes Scotland team”! Just like the old Yes Scotland team!

The other thing that puts Chris with the conventional thinkers is the idea that a constitutional referendum can be reduced to a mathematical formula. If our ambitions are limited by “voting history” then we will never even aim for anything, far less achieve it. The nature and form of our activism cannot be dictated by history if we are to have any hope of shaping the future. We will not do what needs to be done by succumbing to the notion that we can only ever do what has been done.

The whole point of campaigning is to make future outcomes different from past outcomes.

I have never heard anybody suggest that the SNP “go it alone”. Never! I constantly hear people insisting that the SNP is not the whole of the independence movement. But I have yet to hear anybody make the claim that it is. I really don’t know what purpose is served by incessantly denying something which, not only isn’t asserted, but is actually impossible.

What needs to be recognised is that the SNP is the political arm of the Yes movement. The independence campaign desperately needs an injection of hard-headed political realism. We have to stop pandering to the various factions which, for whatever reason, resent the SNP’s crucial role. We have to face up to them and tell them straight that the sniping has to stop. We have to get across to every Yes supporters the reality of our situation. Which is that the sure way to lose is to fight the same campaign we fought for the 2014 referendum.

We have to drive home the hard political reality that we will only win by putting the full weight of the Yes movement behind Nicola Sturgeon.

It’s not that complicated! The effective political power provided by the SNP is essential to the independence project. As a political party constrained by its constitution as well as the policies and positions approved by its members, the SNP cannot change to accommodate the diversity of the Yes movement. Therefore, the Yes movement must accommodate the SNP.

It’s not that difficult! The Yes movement doesn’t actually have to change. It doesn’t have to ‘become’ the SNP. It only has to recognise that the movement is not the campaign. The Yes movement and the SNP remain distinct. But both serve a campaign. And that campaign has to be fronted by the SNP for the glaringly obvious reason that the SNP is at the front of the campaign. It is at the point where the independence movement comes up against the British state.

What is the point of the Yes movement putting its weight behind some “new Yes Scotland team” when, almost by definition, that “team” can have no effective political power? A team which is formed for the very purpose of pandering to the factions whose aversion to effective political power outweighs their commitment to the cause of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

The Yes movement doesn’t need to be told to “embrace moderate views, socialist philosophies, environmental, radical and democratic thinking”. The Yes movement already does that. The Yes movement is diverse, open and unconstrained. It doesn’t need this to be mediated by a “new Yes team” which will no more represent all of that immensely broad character than the SNP does.

The Yes movement must feed its power directly into a Yes campaign which, in contrast to its own character, is united, focused and disciplined. Like a real, professional political campaign has to be.

This united, focused and disciplined campaign must go on the attack in a way that simply didn’t happen in the 2014 effort. The Union has never been so fragile. It has never been so vulnerable. The Yes campaign must exploit the British state’s weaknesses as ruthlessly and relentlessly as may be consistent with fighting a principled campaign.

The solidarity, focus, discipline and aggression of that campaign then needs to be put at the service of the SNP and, ultimately, Nicola Sturgeon.

The power of the Yes movement must not be diffused by being filtered through some compromise ‘team’. It must not be diverted to some substitute ‘leader’. The power must be directed where it will be most effective.

That is realpolitik. That is how we win.

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Threat and response

Should Nicola Sturgeon call for a second referendum on Scottish independence to happen before the United Kingdom exits the EU?

filthy_handsThis question, posted on Quora, isn’t really sensible. There can be no doubt that Scotland must have a new independence referendum before the UK exits the EU. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Circumstances dictate the absolute necessity of a referendum no later than September 2018. The only issue exercising the First Minister’s political judgement is the timing of the announcement.

It is important to understand that Brexit is not the principal causal factor in this. There was always going to be another referendum. While accepting the result of the 2014 vote, we also have to recognise that it did not settle the matter. The No vote was won on an entirely false prospectus and by methods which were dubious in the extreme.

Restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status remains the determined aspiration of something close to half of Scotland’s population. Much as British Nationalists might wish it, the Yes movement isn’t going anywhere. Democracy is a process, not an event. There was always going to be another independence referendum because the democratic process demands it.

Having said this, it cannot be denied that Brexit is a major aspect of the context within which that democratic process is taking Scotland inevitably and inexorably towards a new referendum and dissolution of the Union. The fact that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU despite a decisive Remain vote (62%) stands as a glaring illustration of the fact that Scotland’s interests cannot ever be adequately represented within the UK. Brexit exemplifies the fatal flaws in the current constitutional settlement in a particularly forceful manner.

There must be a new independence referendum because the alternative is to accept that the democratic will of Scotland’s people counts for nothing. This conflicts with the First Minister’s solemn duty to the nation. That conflict can only be resolved by a plebiscite which affords the people an opportunity to assert their primacy and reject a political union in which the principles of democracy are always subordinate to the whims of a British political elite.

Just as Nicola Sturgeon has no choice but to honour the democratic will of Scotland’s people, so she is duty-bound to defend Scotland’s interests in all things and at all times. The office of First Minister requires her to stand against any threat to Scotland’s economic, democratic and social well-being. The role demands that Nicola Sturgeon do all in her power to protect Scotland’s economy, democratic institutions and essential public services. All of these are menaced by the imperatives of the British state.

Driven by those imperatives, the British government will seek to exploit the circumstances of Brexit in order to ‘deal with’ what is perceived by the British political elite – with perfect justification – as a challenge to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. Leaving the European Union necessitates the constitutional redefining of the UK. The British government will seize this opportunity to unilaterally redefine Scotland’s status within the UK – effectively locking Scotland into a political union without reference to Scotland’s people or our elected representatives.

As part of this effort to neutralise the wave of democratic dissent risen in Scotland, the British government will systematically strip Holyrood of its powers, transferring control from the democratically elected Scottish Parliament to an unelected and unaccountable shadow administration at the Scotland Office.

The so-called ‘Brexit power grab’ is the thin end of a very nasty wedge. Anybody who imagines that it will stop at powers relating to animal welfare and food standards is dangerously naive. There is every reason to expect that the ‘UK-wide common frameworks’ being touted will rapidly extend and expand until even Scotland’s precious public health service is in the hands of those who regard it as an asset to be stripped.
We know that these things will happen because British politicians such as David Mundell have made no secret of their intentions. We know that these things will happen because they are already happening.

We can be sure, also, that while emasculating the Scottish Parliament the British government will also introduce measures for the purpose of making an independence referendum ‘unlawful’ and/or unwinnable. If the democratic route to independence is likely to be used, it must be closed off. If the people of Scotland might presume to exercise their democratic right of self-determination, that right must be denied.

Nicola Sturgeon must be aware of the threat. As First Minister, she cannot ignore that threat. She must also know that the threat is not from Brexit, but from the political union which allows a British political elite to dispose of Scotland as may be expedient and with total contempt for the democratic will of Scotland’s people. The obvious and only solution is to dissolve that political union. A measure which must be ratified by Scotland’s electorate in a referendum.

Finally, we cannot disregard the matter of electoral politics. As well as be First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon is Leader of the Scottish National Party. A party which is unequivocally and unconditionally committed by its constitution to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. A party which has also become Scotland’s main party of government. She has a responsibility to the SNP’s 120,000+ members and all the voters who have given the party a mandate to govern Scotland. This mandate, and her duty as party leader, oblige Nicola Sturgeon to call a new referendum.

To squander that mandate and disrespect the principal aims and objectives of the SNP would be unthinkable. Almost certainly, it would also be electorally disastrous. Sturgeon must have at least half an eye on the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2021. She is certainly cognisant of the precarity of the pro-independence majority at Holyrood and, therefore, of the SNP administration.

As an astute political operator, Nicola Sturgeon will have realised that one of the aims of the British establishment is to get the Scottish Parliament back under the control of the British parties, as was always intended. Only a relatively tiny decline in the SNP vote in 2021 would allow the British parties to take power – even if they had to form a ‘Grand Coalition’ in order to do so.

Failure to hold a new independence referendum would be catastrophic, not only for the electoral fortunes of the SNP, but for the status and authority of the Scottish Parliament.
Taking all of the foregoing into account, it is clear that Nicola Sturgeon must act. This leaves only the question of the form which this action takes and the timing of a public declaration.

There is no question that there will be a new independence referendum. Currently, there is a heated debate within the SNP and the Yes movement concerning the matter of when this referendum should be held. There is no debate about whether it should happen. On one side of this debate there are those who are concerned about the consequences of failing to secure a Yes vote in the referendum. They want to postpone the referendum indefinitely. Or, to be as fair to them as is possible, they want to defer the referendum until some some ‘optimum time’ which remains undefined, probably undefinable and certainly impossible to predict as would be required.

On the other side of the debate are those who recognise the threats described above. They are aware of the serious and imminent jeopardy facing Scotland. and they know that the consequences of the Yes side losing in the referendum are functionally identical to the consequences of not holding the referendum at all. In either scenario, the same fate awaits us. The only difference is that not holding the referendum makes that fate a certainty.

The imposition of a repugnant, anti-democratic ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist agenda can only be avoided by dissolving the Union. Nicola Sturgeon must begin this process with a view to having the dissolution affirmed by the people of Scotland in a referendum to be held no later than September 2018.

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Queen to…

white_queenFor some months now I have been attempting to placate those who have expressed impatience with Nicola Sturgeon by assuring them that she has a plan. A plan which involves letting the British government make the case for the moves she intends to make. Moves such as the introduction of the Continuity Bill. It has been a matter of gradually ramping up the response level as the actions of British Ministers grow more explicitly confrontational.

It’s all about proportionality. For many of us, it was plain enough to see that the British government intended to use the Brexit process as an opportunity to weaken the Scottish Parliament – which British Nationalists regard as a potential obstacle to their ‘One nation’ state; not to mention it being a deterrent to the kind of predatory corporate interests with which the British state will be obliged to do business after Brexit. But this was not necessarily evident to the general public. The First Minister has to be able to explain her actions with reference to things actually said and done by British Ministers.

Not that it will make any difference to the media. They will portray Nicola Sturgeon as the intransigent aggressor regardless. According to the British media, David Lidington didn’t threaten to strip powers from the Scottish Parliament and declare the intention to impose ‘UK-wide common frameworks’ that would eliminate “discrepancies” among the nations of the UK. He didn’t declare, in effect, that it is unacceptable for Scotland to have policies developed for Scotland’s needs and priorities; implemented by a government with a mandate from the Scottish people; scrutinised, amended and approved by a parliament with genuine democratic legitimacy. Instead, we are to have forced on us policies and ‘solutions’ devised by people who are not accountable to the Scottish electorate and whose priorities are those of their masters in London.

And the British media’s spin on this? Nicola Sturgeon ‘rejects’ an ‘offer’ from the UK Government. The FM is perfectly aware that this kind of distortion of the facts cannot be prevented. All she can do is wait long enough for the media’s dishonesty to be apparent to as many people as possible.

The First Minister’s actions may seem to be one step behind the British government. But you can be sure her thinking is several moves ahead. Things are moving inexorably towards a new independence referendum in September 2018. The Yes movement need only stand firm with Nicola Sturgeon and her Ministers. The British political elite will do the rest.

PS – Apart from the stated purpose of the Continuity Bill, who has figured out what else it does?

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