Out of time

I probably shouldn’t dwell on it, but I can’t help pondering how different things might have been if we’d had a new independence referendum on Thursday 20 September 2018. Looking back may be futile. But looking to the future has rarely been more disturbing and depressing. So indulge me! Allow me this brief reverie. Who knows? It may even prove illuminating.

Suppose we’d had that referendum in 2018. Suppose we’d won. Four months on we’d be well into the process of getting Scotland out of the Union – instead of being in the position of desperately struggling to keep Scotland in the EU – in keeping with the wishes of 62% of the Scottish voters who expressed a preference in the 2016 EU referendum.

If the Brexit process hadn’t ground to a total halt as everybody tried to figure out the implications of the decision to normalise Scotland’s constitutional status then at least we wouldn’t be part of the mess. By now, we might well have agreement from the EU that Scotland would effectively be treated as the continuing state after 29 March 2019.

There is no reason to suppose that the British government’s handling of the Brexit process would have been any less catastrophically inept. Scotland’s elected representatives – along with those of the other ‘peripheral’ parts of the UK – had been denied any meaningful role in the process. So taking them out of the equation with a Yes vote couldn’t really make much difference. Of course, the (r)UK position would be considerably weaker given that they could not claim to speak for Scotland. And given that they would no longer have any claim on Scotland’s resources. But it’s hard to imagine how this could make things any worse than May and her fractious rabble managed even while the UK was relatively intact.

Obviously, there would still be ‘issues’. Many of these would impinge on Scotland. But, as a de facto independent nation, we would have effective input. We would have a say in how these issues were resolved. Scotland’s interests would be represented in a way they never could be as a mere adjunct of England. Which is not to say that we would get everything we wanted from either the EU or the rump UK. But whatever compromises were made would be our compromises. They wouldn’t be compromises made on our behalf without consultation or consideration.

We might well suppose that the departure from the EU of those who actually voted for this – England and Wales – would be made easier in our imagined scenario. It is at least probable that a Yes vote in Scotland’s referendum would prompt a reunification vote in Ireland. Thus resolving cleanly, democratically, peacefully and in a most rational manner, the Irish border/ Good Friday Agreement problem which has been the greatest obstacle to a Withdrawal Agreement not wholly reliant on Santa Claus pulling some ‘alternative arrangements’ out of his sack. (You’ll understand that I didn’t really want to write ‘sack’.)

Had Scotland voted Yes on Thursday 20 September 2018, the increasingly ludicrous Brexit farce played out in Westminster and in the media over the last few months would have been largely avoided. Although this may be to underestimate the capacity of the British political elite to render farcical pretty much anything it is associated with. But this is my reverie. So I get to give them the benefit of whatever doubt I can scrape up. I elect to suppose that, as January 2019 passes, the Brexit thing would be going swimmingly. Even if some way from Olympic-standard synchronised swimming.

Then there’s the parallel negotiations between Scotland and rUK and between Scotland and the EU. The latter would be at an advanced stage by now. With Scotland taking on the UK’s membership of the EU there really wouldn’t be that much to negotiate. Think of it as Scotland inheriting the UK’s EU member’s uniform and having it adjusted to fit. Given that whatever negotiations were required would be conducted in a spirit of trust and constructive good will, there would surely be no impediment to reaching agreement amicably and rapidly. Instead of regarding 29 March with dread, we would be looking forward to Scotland taking its place as an independent nation in the European Union.

As such, Scotland would require a written constitution. An interim constitution to take effect on Independence Day is little more than a formality. It need only establish the basics – which are uncontroversial. We know they are uncontroversial because, if they were at all controversial they wouldn’t belong in an interim constitution. Work on a full draft constitution is ongoing and we can anticipate this this would have accelerated following the Yes vote last September.

It’s more difficult to say what would be happening on the rUK front. British Nationalists have vowed all manner of retribution should Scotland’s people presume to assert their sovereignty. But I seriously doubt that there will be UK Border Agency machine gun towers along the border and RAF bombs raining down on Glasgow Airport. It’s possible that aliens might take advantage of the situation to launch the invasion of Scotland they’ve been planning since Grmthul descended from Blntrmed with the Cclt of Dryf. We’ll take our chances with a bit of intergalactic conflict. We’ll have more immediate, and proximate, ‘foes’ to deal with. Although some of them do have the appearance of alien creatures struggling to maintain human form. Aye! That’s you, Michael Gove!

In reality, or as close to it as we might get in a purely hypothetical exercise, the British establishment is likely to opt for a rather more pragmatic approach than is to be found in the spittle-flecked rhetoric of British Nationalist fanatics. There’s every chance the British political elite will claim independence was being gifted to Scotland by an endlessly beneficent British state which had, of course, always respected the democratic right of Scotland’s people to choose their nation’s status and the form of government that best suits their needs. In much the same way as the 2014 referendum was graciously presented to Scotland by a kindly British Prime Minister, and Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

There is no rational reason why dissolving the Union should not be a fairly straightforward matter. It’s not like there isn’t a lot of precedent to draw on. It’s basically a question of attitude. The Brexit mess may give cause to doubt that British politicians are capable of the spirit of trust and constructive good will I mentioned earlier. But we can help them find that spirit by presenting them with as conclusive a Yes vote as we can muster. Assuming an effective registration drive, 60% of an 85% turnout would suffice. That’s 51% of the electorate. 65%, or just over 55% of the electorate would be better. 70% (59.5%) would silence all but the most fanatical British Nationalists and force the British political elite to behave like grown-ups. Or, perhaps, delegate that task to professional civil servants.

Had we voted Yes in a referendum on Thursday 20 September 2018, we could now be be in a place indistinguishable from that where we find ourselves at the start of February 2019. We could be assured of our EU membership, with all the positives that this implies for our economy and society. Our EU citizenship would be secure. Our freedom of movement would be secure. Our access to the single market would be secure. More importantly, these things would be secured on terms freely negotiated by the people elected or appointed to represent Scotland. Politicians and civil servants whose imperatives are informed by the needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s people.

And what if we’d voted No in September 2014? Well, we’d surely be pretty much where we are now. We really had nothing to lose.

Of course, British Nationalists would be bawling about how this had killed the independence movement ‘stone dead’. Rhetoric which would, if history is any guide, be parroted by many in the Yes movement. But these protestations would be no more valid after two referendums than at any other time. However often the people of Scotland inexplicably vote to remain shackled to the British state, they cannot vote away the right of self-determination that is vested wholly in the people to be exercised entirely at their discretion. In terms of the cause of independence, a No vote in a referendum is merely a setback. It does nothing more than delay the inevitable. And the authority to determine the duration of that delay lies entirely with the Scottish people.

Had we voted No in September 2018 we’d be facing precisely the same threat to Scotland’s democracy that confronts us now. We’d be getting dragged out of the EU. Just as we are now. We’d be listening to warnings about shortages of food and medicine. Just as we are now. We’d be looking at the prospect of economic chaos and civil disturbance and martial law. Just as we are now. We’d be seeing powers stripped from the Scottish Parliament and anticipating further assaults on our democratic institutions. Just as we are now. We’d be f***ed! Just as we are now.

But at least we’d have tried to avoid all this. At least we’d have made the effort. At least we’d have shown some resolve to save Scotland from the depredations that come with the Union.

Now, it may be too late. Awakening from my reverie, I must face the reality that we are, if not already too late, then fast approaching a point when that will be the case. It is unlikely that anything other than the most bold and assertive action by the First Minister can possibly prevent us being dragged out of the EU – with all that this implies. None of it good.

Nicola Sturgeon seems no more disposed to take such action than she did in September 2018. Despite everything that has happened since that regrettable outcome in 2014, and despite the real and imminent threat to Scotland’s democracy and identity, the SNP administration’s attitude to taking the cause of independence forward appears unchanged. Their strategy is still a mystery. Their intentions unclear.

Right now, we have even less to lose by bold, decisive action than we did last September. Right now, the threat is greater than it has ever been. Right now, the need for urgency should be absolutely compelling. But I see little sign that any of this has touched our political leaders.

We are almost out of time. And I don’t know if I can face the prospect of sitting here in four months time contemplating what might have been.


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Kick the box!

Michael Fry correctly points out that “there is a crucial margin of sceptical voters, 5 or 10% of the whole electorate, needing to be converted to the cause of independence”. While he doesn’t say as much, the clear implication is that this “crucial margin” is “sceptical” about independence. That may be true of some. But at least as many are, for the very reasons so eloquently set out in the article, likely to be sceptical about the Union. After all, it is the Union which is allowing a disastrous Brexit to be imposed on an unwilling Scotland.

It is, therefore, the Union which is threatening the “personal interest” which Mr Fry seems to suppose is the overriding – if not the only – consideration for voters. So it stands to reason that many who voted No in 2014 because they calculated this would make them richer – or, at least, safeguard their personal wealth – are now busy at their abacuses rerunning those calculations in the light of Brexit.

Of course, in the real world, not everybody is primarily motivated by greed. And vanishingly few are motivated solely by greed. For most people, “personal interest” will be one consideration among many. Michael Fry might be startled to discover that there are even those who will gladly sacrifice some part of their personal interest for what they regard as a more vital cause and/or a more worthy principle.

Not everybody sees politics as merely a matter of economic management. Not everybody is concerned only with having the economy managed for their personal benefit. Those who are not sociopaths are, by definition, burdened with a social conscience. How heavily this weighs is a matter of individual character. As is willingness to bear the discomfort of what can often be an awkward load. But, in general, people will assess public policy and government action on criteria other than the impact on their own bank account.

Such people will see Brexit as more than just the act of economic self-harm it undoubtedly is. They will see it also as an act of social and cultural vandalism. They will see it as an insult to rationality. They will see it as an affront to democracy. And they will tend to address it as such, even at some personal cost.

In terms of the conduct of the independence campaign, however, all of those beginning to be sceptical of the Union can be counted pretty much the same. Whether they are concerned for the welfare of their own bank balance or for the welfare of society as a whole, they are starting to wonder if it is the Union, rather than independence, which represents the greatest threat.

The part of that “5 or 10% of the whole electorate” which is ripe for plucking by the independence campaign is the part which is increasingly dubious about or disgruntled with the Union. It is people who won’t be “converted to the cause of independence” by promises of personal gain, national prosperity and social progress. They won’t be converted by even the most perfectly formed independence ‘message’ for the simple reason that they are not listening to that message. They won’t start to listen until there is a loosening of the Union’s grip on them, and their grip on the Union.

The reason Michael Fry sees “no surge in public opinion likely to carry us past 50% in indyref2” can be summed up in one word – inertia. The “crucial margin” needs a jolt of political action to break that inertia. It needs to be induced to review it’s assumptions about and attachment to the Union. Only when that crucial margin starts to question the efficacy and basis of the Union will it become open to the independence message.

It’s a double, or even a treble win for the independence campaign. Because the jolt of political action may also stir the apathetic, and it will certainly energise the already enthusiastic.

Scotland desperately, urgently requires bold, decisive, assertive action from the First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t just need to think outside the box, she needs to step outside it and give it a hefty kick.


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The Union is not an option!

Imagine I had the power to decree that your vote only counts if I agree with it. Imagine I had the power to stipulate all that your democratic choices are always conditional on my approval. Imagine I told you this stipulation would be enshrined in the constitution. Would you,

  1. Laugh in my face
  2. Spit in my face
  3. Punch me in the face

While the last of these would surely be considered excessive, and the second socially unacceptable, none of these adverse reactions would be deemed irrational. Generally speaking, it would be considered quite natural that you should forcefully reject such an anti-democratic proposal.

And yet this is precisely the situation that British Nationalists insist we accept. As a voter in Scotland, you are expected to meekly accept that your vote only counts on those occasions when it coincides with the vote of your counterpart in England. We are told we must accept, without demur, a constitutional arrangement whereby one voter in England can effectively cancel every vote cast by a citizen of Scotland.

Let’s say there are 4,000,000 voters in Scotland. Suppose all of them vote in a binary poll for ‘White’. In England, the corresponding 4,000,000 voters also vote ‘White’. So far, so good. But the 4,000,001st voter in England votes ‘Black’. Instantly, the votes of every single one of Scotland’s citizens are totally discounted. They are rendered meaningless.

Some will respond that this is just the way democracy works. The majority wins. But it is not democracy when the voters in one country can be outvoted by the voters in another.

The 2016 EU referendum was a particularly egregious example of this happening in the real world rather than in the realm of the hypothetical. It was far from the first instance. As far as UK Governments are concerned, Scotland only rarely gets what it votes for. But, because it was as binary as our hypothetical illustration, the EU referendum brought this grotesque constitutional anomaly into stark relief.

This anomaly is very much enshrined in the British constitution. It is often pointed out that the UK doesn’t have a written constitution. It would be more correct to say that the UK lacks a formal, coherent constitution. The constitution, such as it is, will be found scattered throughout a huge body of statutes, treaties, conventions and precedents. The Acts of Union are an important – I would contend crucial – component of that dispersed, vague, ambiguous and highly ‘elastic’ constitution.

It is the Union which gives effect to the situation described at the start of this article. It is the Union which creates the circumstances in which Scottish votes only count to the extent that they concur with at least the same number of English votes.

Unionists and British Nationalists will argue that this is no more than democracy in action. The majority wins. The minority is left to suck it up. In the British political system, it’s winner-take-all. If you’re not first past the post, you’re nowhere. But this argument absolutely requires that those making it are able and willing to completely deny Scotland’s status as a nation, as well as the observable reality of Scotland’s distinctive political culture. The grotesque constitutional anomaly embedded in the Union can only be rationalised by regarding Scotland as but a ‘region’ of a ‘One Nation’ British state. Or ‘Greater England’, as it is often called.

By accepting the Union one accepts that Scotland is no more distinct from England than any one of that nation’s counties. One is also accepting that there are (at least) two classes of voter; and that the lesser of these is the Scottish voter. The Union truly is a constitutional device by which the people of Scotland are denied the full and effective exercise of their sovereignty. The Union is a denial of that sovereignty in favour of the sovereignty of a divinely-ordained monarch whose powers are administered by an executive which, to the limited extent that it can be described as having been elected, is the choice of England’s electorate only. Said executive operating under the auspices of a parliament which is massively dominated by England’s elected representatives.

Needless to say, I do not accept any of this. I do not accept the denial of popular sovereignty. I do not accept the sovereignty of ‘the crown in parliament’. I do not accept the democratic legitimacy of a parliament which is neither elected by nor accountable to the people of Scotland. I utterly reject the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.

One would expect that, while she would doubtless wish to express the foregoing in her own way, the leader of the Scottish National Party would be in pretty much full accord with these sentiments. But I’m not so sure.

Nicola Sturgeon describes a so-called ‘people’s vote’ as “the only option, within the UK, that would allow Scotland’s democratic wish to remain in Europe to be respected.” She might well have added, “So long as England’s voters agree!”

Why would we want a second EU referendum? Scotland voted Remain. Decisively! Who in Scotland is clamouring for a chance to change their mind? A second EU membership referendum has only one purpose – to afford the people of England a chance to change their collective mind. Why does our vote only count if voters in England ‘ratify’ it?

Why aren’t Scotland’s voters worthy of respect in their own right?

I would be delighted if our First Minister were to explicitly acknowledge the subordinate status of Scotland and its people withing this benighted Union. But I am perplexed and concerned that, by actively supporting the idea of a new EU referendum, she appears to be accepting all the things that I, as a lifelong advocate of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status, categorically reject.

Seeking England’s endorsement of our democratic choice to remain in the EU should not be an option at all for those who wish Scotland to be a normal independent nation once again. If that is the only option “within the UK”, then remaining within the UK cannot be an option. It is time to #DissolveTheUnion.


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The snarling of the beast

It was always going to happen. British Nationalists were always going to find something to latch onto. They were always going to find some vulnerability that they could exploit. Simply be virtue of the fact that they were constantly attacking Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP on any grounds however spurious, it was pretty much inevitable that one of those attacks would find some wee tear that they could pick at. When you blast away in all directions with a scatter-gun then you’re almost bound to eventually at least graze one of your chosen targets.

Although, for obvious reasons, not much was said about it at the time, this was part of the reasoning behind the drive to hold a new referendum last September. It seemed obvious that, given the British establishment’s frenzied determination to find – or fashion – some dirt on a senior SNP figure, the longer this effort was allowed to continue the greater the chances that it would have some measure of success.

Forget the ‘conspiracy theories’ about highly placed British civil service ‘moles’ in the SNP administration with orders to sabotage one or more SNP politicians at the first opportunity. I’m not saying the British establishment is not capable of such conduct. Only that they are probably not competent. Appalling as the British political elite may be, civil servants are generally decent people with a strong sense of duty and very much focused on their careers. They are not easily corrupted.

And it isn’t necessary anyway. Civil servants are just people and subject as all of us are to human folly and frailty. One of them was going to screw up in some way at some point. And it is becoming clearer by the day that there were one or two senior civil servants in the vicinity of the First Minister who are perhaps more prone to human weaknesses and defects of character than most. And certainly more so than is desirable in a senior civil servant.

It was only a matter of time. The more time they were allowed, the greater the chance that British Nationalists would strike lucky.

Why a civil servant and not one of the senior SNP politicians themselves? Why was it more likely that a crack would eventually appear in the machinery of the Scottish Government rather than in any of its leading personalities? Simply because those leading personalities are the first generation of front-line figures in a new party of government. They haven’t risen to power through established structures which could help them over humps and cover their arses where necessary. In order to get there, they’ve had to keep their noses, not merely clean as in free of dangling snot, but clean as in pristine. Antiseptically clean.

What makes the allegations against Alex Salmond less than credible is the fact that his reputation is of such immense value to him, together with his awareness that the British establishment and its media hyenas were constantly raking through his bins looking for any titbit they could exploit. In all of history, few politicians have come under such intense and prolonged scrutiny. British Nationalist frustration at being unable to find anything is palpable. Those less prejudiced might consider the failure of such a massive effort to find evidence of wrongdoing to strongly suggest that no such evidence exists.

Similar considerations apply regarding the insinuations against Nicola Sturgeon. Together with the confused and contradictory nature of those insinuations. Almost as if her attackers are trying to cover all possible permutations of wrongdoing regardless of whether they make any sense. Which leads us to consider the reputations of those attackers compared with that of Nicola Sturgeon.

That there is a smear campaign against both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon is certain. Since at least 2007, there has not been a moment when there wasn’t some kind of smear campaign against one or both of them either in progress or in preparation. The current exercise in negative propaganda appears to be gaining more traction than any that have gone before. But this may be a function of the resources that are being applied to the effort rather than an indication of any substance behind the allegations and insinuations.

Of one thing we can be fairly sure; this smear campaign is opportunistic rather than conspiratorial. A senior civil servant has behaved in a manner that is dubious, at best. The British Nationalist beast’s primitive instincts have been triggered as it senses potential weakness. It is responding with all the petty, mindless viciousness we’ve come to expect from politicians bred in the British political system.


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The deadly Section 30!

There appears to be a general assumption that (a) Nicola Sturgeon will renew the request for a Section 30 order with a view to holding a new independence referendum; and (b) that Theresa May will refuse. If I have learned anything in more than half a century observing politics – and people – it is that one should beware of easy assumptions.

I have made my views on asking for a Section 30 order plain on many occasions. It would be a mistake. I take the view that the British Prime Minister cannot have a veto over the right of self-determination that is vested wholly in the people of Scotland and guaranteed by the Charter of the United Nations. To ask Westminster’s permission for a referendum is to acknowledge and affirm their authority to refuse that permission and, thereby, effectively veto the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination.

One response to this is that the precedent has been set by Alex Salmond going down the Section 30 route for the 2014 referendum. I reject this argument. I maintain that Salmond had options and chose the Section 30 route only because that was judged to be the best option in the circumstances which prevailed at the time. I see no reason why this should have the effect of precluding all other options for all time.

Those circumstances no longer prevail. The entire political environment has altered dramatically since 2014. To choose the Section 30 route even in such drastically different circumstances could be argued to imply that it is the appropriate or sole option in any circumstances. Asking for a Section 30 order again really would set a precedent. Granting the British political elite a veto over Scotland’s right of self-determination once can be seen as politically astute. Doing so twice would surely be political folly.

The argument goes that Theresa May will refuse the Section 30 order and Nicola Sturgeon can then claim that she tried that route and has now been forced by British intransigence to go another way. That’s really not a good look. Doing something only because you’ve been forced into it doesn’t give the impression of being in control. Going that other route should be a matter of choice. It should be seen as decisive action, rather than compelled reaction.

But what if Theresa May doesn’t refuse that Section 30 order? Suggesting this possibility usually elicits a response querying why she would allow it. What possible reason could Theresa May have for granting a Section 30 order? I can think of one. It’s all about control of the process.

If Theresa May grants a Section 30 order this means that there must be a new agreement between the two governments establishing the ground rules for the referendum. By asking for the Section 30 order, Nicola Sturgeon would be accepting the need for such a negotiated agreement. Theresa May would then make demands that Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t possibly agree to – such as a qualified majority requirement or the exclusion from the franchise of 16/17-year olds. No agreement! No referendum!

Requesting a Section 30 order is a lose/lose scenario for Nicola Sturgeon. Either way, she ends up having to find another way forward having been made to look weak and having afforded the British political elite an authority to which they are not entitled. The First Minister must seize control of the process from the outset.


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Monday morning

As I listen to the First Minister announce the latest deferment of action to resolve the constitutional issue I feel like I’m travelling towards a tiny but piercingly bright pinpoint of light at the end of a long dark tunnel. It is impossible to tell how long the tunnel is or how fast I’m travelling as there are no points of reference. Sometimes, the light seems to be getting closer. But either it recedes again or this was merely an illusion. Recently, I’d swear the light was growing dimmer. But that too may be just my imagination.

The times when the light appears closer are such as when I read that a substantial majority of people now regard it as inevitable that Scotland’s independence will be restored. Most, it seems, believe we will reach the end of this tunnel eventually. Only a few think the journey will be so long that it’s not worth giving any thought to getting there.

Then I read that even the optimistic people are thinking in terms of journey times stretching from 5 to 15 years, and the light retreats again.

It occurs to me that, on those occasions when I suppose the light to be brightening, I am deceived by the fact that the claustrophobic blackness of the tunnel is becoming more ominously intense.

In my gloomy imagining, this darkness has substance. It is thick and viscous and travelling through it is like struggling through an increasingly glutinous. cloying mess. A mess that threatens to defeat and engulf me before I get to the end of the tunnel.

I know with absolute certainty that the destination is attainable. But the tunnel is an ever more hostile environment. The walls are closing in. The darkness is suffocating. The urgency of the need to escape grows even as the possibility of doing so is pushed frustratingly further from me.


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The big ‘what if?’

When waiting becomes established as the political strategy of choice, all you do is wait. Waiting is what you plan for. If you are a political leader who has let it be known that waiting is your preferred strategy, your most loyal and trusted advisers will constantly assure you that it is best to wait. Eager to tell you what they believe you want to hear, they will have an endless supply of justifications for waiting at the ready.

One such justification that is being bandied around at the moment is the supposed need to wait and see whether Brexit actually happens. Brexit might yet be called off, goes the argument. And that would change everything, wouldn’t it?

Would it?

Nicola Sturgeon took a gamble when she associated action to resolve the constitutional issue so closely with Brexit. She was betting that people would be smart enough to realise that we are not seeking to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status because of Brexit, but because the Union gives the British political elite the power to impose Brexit on us regardless of our democratic wishes.

In the unlikely event that Brexit is stopped, will that be because the British state has suddenly decided to respect Scotland and its people? Of course not! So why should it make any difference whatever to the independence cause?

It doesn’t matter whether Brexit actually goes ahead or not. Because Brexit is not the problem. The problem is an archaic, anachronistic, asymmetric political union which functions as a constitutional device by which the people of Scotland are denied the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty which is theirs by absolute right.

If past experience is a true guide, those peddling this particular justification for further delay will protest that they understand this perfectly. But ‘other people’ don’t. Which, unless they are arrogantly claiming some extraordinary perspicacity, is profoundly insulting to those ‘other people’.

Nicola Sturgeon gambled on people understanding that Brexit is merely a particularly egregious illustration of how badly Scotland fares within the Union. She bet on them realising that Brexit is just the current context for a political struggle that was born with the Union. A struggle which has not changed in its fundamental motivations since the Union was imposed on us. A struggle in which Brexit is just a fleeting episode.

When I hear people wonder what if Brexit doesn’t happen, I fear Nicola Sturgeon may have lost that bet.


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