No British veto on Scotland’s democracy!

back_in_boxIt is always gratifying to see British Nationalists squabbling amongst themselves. But the main thing we should take from all of this is the British parties’ shared conviction that the British political elite holds the power of veto over Scotland’s right of self-determination.

The right of self-determination is vested wholly in the people of Scotland, to be exercised entirely at our discretion. That is how democracy works. By their arrogant, presumptuous insistence that they have authority to deny or constrain the right of self-determination the British parties reveal their contempt for democracy.

Nicola Sturgeon could give the Yes movement great encouragement by taking the opportunity at the SNP Conference in October to disabuse the British ruling elite of this notion. Nobody realistically expects her to use the occasion of her Conference address to announce a timetable for action to resolve the constitutional issue. But she has to give the Yes movement something. And declaring that, whatever form this action might take and whenever it might happen, there will be no Section 30 request would send precisely the right message to both Yes activists and British Nationalists.

To petition the British government for a Section 30 order is to acknowledge the veto they assert. Nicola Sturgeon must reject this assertion. As Scotland’s First Minister, it is her solemn duty to defend the democratic rights of Scotland’s people. No democratic right is more fundamental than the right to choose the form of government that best suits our needs. The British political elite must not be allowed to limit or deny this right.


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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 the 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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‘Twixt desert and mountain

pfgPublication of the SNP administration’s Programme for Government (PfG) is welcome, if for no other reason than that it provides some real politics for us to chew on rather than the meagre fare of what has been a particularly vacuous ‘silly season’. Pretty much anything would be a treat after a diet of smears, sensationalised trivia and the festival of stupidity that is Brexit.

Impressive as the PfG is – and there’s some fairly bold stuff in there – it will be subjected to the customary mindless pillorying by the British politicians squatting in the Scottish Parliament on seats that should be occupied by a functioning opposition. They will castigate it for reasons that are inconsistent and contradictory and, not infrequently, inane. They will criticise it in ways that raise doubts about whether they’ve actually read it. They’ll excoriate policies that they’d previously embraced and bemoan the absence of policies they’d previously condemned.

In short, the British parties will continue to behave like ill-bred bairns. They will continue to disgrace Scotland’s Parliament, besmirch Scotland’s politics and embarrass Scotland’s people.

The public will doubtless continue to ignore these British politicians; as they have done for the eleven years that they’ve been electing SNP governments on the grounds of general competence and satisfactory performance. The whining and carping of the British parties has become no more than the background noise to a political culture in which they are increasingly struggling to find any relevance. The crashing disconnect between the crisis, calamity and catastrophe stricken Scotland they proclaim and the Scotland of everyday lived experience reflects, and is reflected in, the disconnect between the British parties and Scotland’s people.

Intellectually crippled by bitter, resentful hatred of the SNP and fanatically obsessed with preservation of the British state at any cost, the British parties have almost totally lost touch with the realities of Scottish politics, and seem daily more out of place in Scotland’s distinctive political culture.

The British media echo and amplify this weird and woeful perspective on Scotland and, accordingly, the people of Scotland tend more and more to dismiss and disregard them. The traditional media is losing something more than its audience. It is losing its authority. Respect has been squandered as trust has been betrayed. A media sector which is 80%-90% supportive of British Nationalist ideology cannot speak meaningfully to an audience which is at least 50% opposed to that that ideology. People just stop listening.

What the representatives and agents of the British establishment say about Scotland’s politics can safely be ignored. For the most part, they are not talking to us or even about us. They are blaring propaganda at us from a place outside the Scotland we know.

If Nicola Sturgeon has a problem it is not with these representatives and agents of an increasingly alien British state. The downside of quiet competence is that it doesn’t ignite any fires. The disadvantage of a moderately good record in government over a long period of time is that it becomes the norm. It comes to be taken for granted. There is a danger that voters – especially those who have forgotten the past or never known anything different – will suppose that this quiet competence is just the way things are. There is a risk that the satisfactory record may cease to be associated with an SNP administration. Voters might suppose that the gains of the last decade are secure. Or that further progress might be won regardless of who they vote for.

The SNP could well be a victim of its success. It may have so firmly established principled pragmatism as the ethos of the Scottish Government that voters will think it a fixed attribute – a constant on which they can rely even as administrations change.

Nicola Sturgeon has to tread a cautious path between the desert of dull managerialism and the mountain of raised expectations. Whether the SNP administration’s Programme for Government achieves this remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. It is not the verdict of the British parties and the British media which matters. The people of Scotland will decide.


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Now is the time

The point about independence being the subject of the first clause in the SNP’s constitution is a fair one. The aspiration to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status really does infuse everything that the party does. Although, of course, it must these days concern itself also with matters relating to its role as the party of government.

The decisions have already been made. The electorate has granted the current SNP administration a mandate to hold a new independence referendum and this has been approved by the Scottish Parliament. All that is left is to declare the date. And that is a matter for Nicola Sturgeon. she was elected leader because the membership trusts her judgement. We gave her the job. Now we must let her do it.

Which is not to say that SNP members and the wider Yes movement shouldn’t be offering Nicola Sturgeon every ‘encouragement’ to act as a matter of some urgency. Indeed, a public clamour for a new referendum is just what the First Minister wants and needs. But a conference resolution specifying a date for the vote – which is what some people seem to want – would diminish the authority of the elected party leader. Even if carried such a motion could not possibly be binding on Ms Sturgeon. She cannot be forced by conference to act against her own judgement. If she was unable to accept the date set by conference, she would placed in the situation of having to defy the conference or resign.

The place for word on the new referendum is in Nicola Sturgeon’s address. And there really has to be something meaningful and substantial about the referendum in her speech. Back in June, I was rather critical of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the Spring Conference in Aberdeen. I pointed out that there was something missing.

What many 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.

I fully recognise that this is a difficult decision. Whatever date Nicola Sturgeon chooses for the new referendum she will have to face, not only the virulent condemnation of the British establishment, but also an onslaught from those within the Yes movement who can’t resist the urge to tell the world that they think she’s got it wrong.

Nonetheless, this is a time to be bold, decisive and assertive. Among all the factors Nicola Sturgeon is required to consider, she must take account of the fact that the independence cause desperately needs some strong and positive leadership right now. And I mean, right now! Whatever Iain Macwhirter may say (The SNPs legendary party unity could be finally about to crack), the patience exhibited by members suggests that party solidarity is holding up very well. That the party and the Yes movement are prepared to wait until October – despite being poised for action – demonstrates just how much Nicola Sturgeon is trusted.

But there is a limit. The power of the Yes movement cannot be contained indefinitely. Nicola Sturgeon would be well advised to keep this in mind as she writes her speech for the SNP Conference in October.


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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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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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