Context and process

Nicola Sturgeon’s response to suggestions – or hints – regarding alternative ways to take forward Scotland’s independence project will doubtless be portrayed by the British media with lurid headlines proclaiming a ‘major split in the SNP’. The first thing to, therefore, is to ignore the British media. Which is almost always good advice anyway.

Restoring Scotland’s independence will always require a referendum. As far as I can make out, nobody has suggested differently. What is being discussed is, not the requirement for a plebiscite, but the form of the process leading to a vote, and the nature of the proposition to be voted on.

Mhairi Hunter implies that winning a referendum is the only possible way to start the independence process. She appears to believe that a fundamental constitutional issue can hinge on relative trivialities such as opinion polls and party policy. This hardly seems realistic.

And it places wholly unnecessary constraints on the independence movement. Why should we be slaves to the polls? Why should SNP policy limit our thinking about ways to realise the aim of restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status. Surely, the independence project is too important – and now too urgent – to be hobbled in this way. Surely, we must be prepared to explore every possible avenue in our effort to rescue Scotland from the scourge of ‘One Nation’ British Nationalism.

A referendum cannot be the start of the “independence process”. The 2014 referendum came after years and decades of campaigning. It could not have happened without the Scottish Parliament being reconvened and the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011. These things, and more, were as much a part of the independence process as the referendum. They were prerequisites for the referendum just as winning the referendum would have been a prerequisite for the negotiations which would have followed. It’s all part of the process.

We have to be prepared to examine that process to see if things could be done differently. We cannot be fixated on doing things in a particular way just because that’s how they were done before. I don’t doubt that the process followed by Alex Salmond for the 2014 referendum was appropriate – and probably necessary – at the time. But times have changed. Circumstances have changed. The entire context of Scotland’s independence campaign has altered dramatically in less than a decade. It is simply not reasonable to suppose that the same process must remain appropriate. We must be prepared to at least consider the possibility that it may be entirely inappropriate.

Angus MacNeil tweeted, “No UK Government stood in the way in 2014 … Same again with this positive call from the FM”.

No UK Government stood in the way in 2014 … Same again with this positive call from the FM— Angus B MacNeil MP (@AngusMacNeilSNP) December 3, 2018

This is not strictly correct. The UK Government fought tooth and nail to prevent any Scottish independence referendum ever taking place. They only relented after the voters broke the system and elected a majority SNP administration in the 2011 Holyrood election. And because they thought they couldn’t lose. Neither of these things is true today. The SNP’s majority was wiped out in 2016 due to the combined impact of the independence vote being split and tactical voting by British Nationalists. And the British establishment is now all too well aware that its grip on Scotland is more tenuous than at any time since the early decades of the Union.

These two factors alone represent hugely significant changes to the context of the independence campaign. And that’s before we start to consider things such as EVEL, Brexit and the power-grab. Not to mention the increasingly blatant contempt for Scotland being exhibited by the British political elite.

Reading Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks, I get a distinct sense that the First Minister is intent on adhering to the process followed by her predecessor. In my view, this would be a fatal error.

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A horror of democracy

dimblebySometimes it’s worth listening to British political commentators, not because they have anything insightful or informative or even interesting to say about Scottish politics, but because of what their comments reveal about British attitudes. We are surely entitled to regard a veteran BBC presenter such as David Dimbleby as some kind of barometer of those attitudes since this is a large part of what justifies the ‘expert’ status afforded him by the BBC. Dimbleby is an ‘insider’. He has ‘contacts’. He is knowledgeable. He is trustworthy.

David Dimbleby is very much the voice of the British establishment. So, when he says that Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum “brutalised politics”, we have to assume that this is how it is perceived by the British establishment. When he says that people were “frightened” during the referendum campaign, we must suppose that this is what is believed to be the case by a significant part of the UK population. When he says that it was “terrible”, we are obliged to consider this to be, at the very least, a widely held opinion.

One thing we know for certain is that David Dimbleby’s portrayal of the referendum campaign as brutal, frightening and terrible is completely false. Those of us who were actually there know it to be false. Anybody who had any involvement or contact with the Yes movement knows it to have been a positive and even a joyful thing.

There was brutality! The intimidation of pensioners by British Labour activists bussed in from England could readily be described as brutal. People were frightened! The anti-independence campaign was not referred to as Project Fear for no reason. There were terrible incidents! An elderly man attacked in the street by some crazed Unionist woman and revolting scenes of Union Jack-wrapped British Nationalist thugs in George Square spitting hate and giving Nazi salutes.

Had the Yes movement responded in kind, then Scotland’s politics truly would have been “brutalised”. Had independence supporters been prepared to engage in the kind of deplorable tactics employed by Better Together, then the referendum campaign would surely have descended into generalised ugliness. But it simply didn’t happen. Much as some in the No campaign tried to incite violence on the street of Scotland’s towns and cities, the worst that happened was that one of them was hit by an egg – injuring only what pitiful remnant of dignity they clung to.

We could debate at length whether Dimbleby’s remarks are purposefully dishonest; a casually uttered calumny on the 2014 referendum campaign intended to serve the British state’s effort to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination. We might speculate that his warped view is no more than a grotesque personal fantasy. We can wonder how common this perspective is among those who rely entirely on the British media for information, or if it is merely a cosy consensus generated among British journalists wedded to a London-centric perspective and perpetuated because nobody in their little clique has the professional rigour or intellectual integrity to challenge it.

Regardless of any of that, Dimbleby’s words tell us something very disturbing about the British establishment’s attitude to democracy. A referendum is part of the democratic process. The 2014 independence referendum was widely acknowledged to represent the ‘gold standard’. It was democracy in action. Popular, participatory democracy. The entire process was conducted according to rules imposed or accepted by the British government. The cream of the British political elite became involved. An unprecedented percentage of Scotland’s people were engaged.

The 2014 referendum transformed Scottish politics. It gave birth to the remarkable phenomenon that is the Yes movement. It energised our democracy. It generated a wave of activism which has enlivened Scotland.

And, if Dimbleby is to be believed, the British establishment found this great exercise in democracy utterly horrific. That can’t be healthy.

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Hear the fear

britsThree things are evident in the response of British politicians to the SNP’s proposed day of action and, indeed, to any form of democratic engagement with or on the part of the ‘ordinary’ people of Scotland. The first and, perhaps, the most obvious is their contempt for the democratic process. Or, to be more precise, their disdain for any form of democratic activity which they do not control. People doing politics is not the British way. The British tradition is that politics should be left to the professionals. Politics is the business of a self-defining and self-perpetuating elite. Other than on the few occasions when they are shepherded into polling pens, the sheeple should not presume to participate.

The British ruling elite regards democracy as an indulgence to be grudgingly bestowed upon a generally unqualified and undeserving population in carefully controlled portions. Too much democracy, like too much alcohol or too much sugar or too much money, is bad for those not equipped by breeding and schooling to deal with it. Political power is a privilege. And privilege is, by definition, for the privileged alone.

So it is that also evident from the content and tone of British politicians’s utterances is their eagerness for a swift return to the comfortable formality of a terpsichorean two-party system. The SNP is hated not least because it declines to fall into step with this well-choreographed routine, preferring to dance to the tune of Scotland’s distinctive political culture. The SNP is regarded as dangerous and threat to the British state because it knows the steps of the British political ballet well enough to join in when this suits its purpose. And that purpose tends to be to trip British politicians.

Nowhere is the British establishment’s disdain for democracy and contempt for the electorate more evident than in the fanatical opposition to a new constitutional referendum. The principle of popular sovereignty is anathema to British Nationalists; whose ideology coalesces around the concept of ‘the Crown in Parliament’ and political authority emanating from a divinely ordained monarch. This is the tenuous foundation on which rest the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. Structures which are threatened by the fundamental democratic principle that the people are the sole legitimate source of all political authority.

When British politicians feverishly denounce the idea of Scotland’s people exercising their right of self-determination, their voices tremble with the dread knowledge that a new constitutional referendum will bring those structures of power, privilege and patronage crashing down.

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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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Being positive is not enough

pw_holdThere are two strands of opinion within the Yes movement which I have been particularly critical of over the past few months. I call them ‘The Postponers’ and ‘The Persuaders’.

(I interrupt myself at this point to deal with those who, having read that opening sentence, are already poised over their keyboards ready to pound out some pompous diatribe denouncing the appalling practice of ‘labelling’. My advice to these people is that, instead of pestering me with their inane drivel, they bugger off over to Twitter and start a campaign to have all the nouns removed from dictionaries. #DownWithNouns)

Where was I? Oh yes! I have dealt with ‘The Postponers’ often and at length. Although I have touched on the need for a new mindset and a different attitude as we approach the new referendum, there still needs to be some discussion about the way we conduct the Yes campaign this time. The story of a former Tory councillor having declared her support for independence is an ideal hook on which to hang some remarks about ‘The Persuaders’ and their thinking on the matter.

‘The Persuaders’ is a shorthand term for those who insist that the way to win the new referendum is to gently and delicately woo ‘soft No voters’ with the ‘positive case for independence’. According to this theory, we shall lure these wavering No voters by presenting them with a sufficiently appealing, but always realistic, vision of an independent Scotland. We will win them over by telling them believable tales of economic prosperity illustrated with colourful graphs and charts and peppered with impressive statistics.

If ‘The Persuaders’ have it right, we will start the necessary thousands on that journey from No to Yes by painting a picture of independent Scotland as an enlightened and socially progressive place where inequality and injustice are at least addressed and alleviated by public policy rather than being engendered and exacerbated by it.

Crucially, ‘The Persuaders’ insist that we must never so much as hint at the idea of No voters having got it wrong in 2014. We must assiduously eschew the slightest suggestion that they are in any way responsible for the consequences of their choice. We must never, by word or gesture, hint at the notion that voting No was a mistake. Whatever repercussions it entailed, voting No was a perfectly valid choice. Mentioning the ready availability of information which would have prompted a different choice is taboo. As is any reference to how obviously false the No prospectus was.

No voters effectively gave the British political elite a blank mandate and invited them to fill it in with whatever suited their British Nationalist agenda. They gave the British state licence to do what they pleased with Scotland. And that licence has been used with great relish to our severe detriment. But we are prevailed upon by ‘The Persuaders’ to studiously avoid  making any connection between that No vote and everything that has ensued – from EVEL to Brexit to the ‘power-grab’ and the accelerating erosion of Scotland’s democracy.

‘The Persuaders’ have this unshakeable conviction that all the independence campaign needs in order to win is a better message. A more positive message. A brighter, shinier, glossier message. They are driven by the belief that there exists somewhere a form of words which will change minds in the way that a magic spell might transform a frog into a prince.

There is a problem with this theory. We’ve already done all that. We’ve done every conceivable Yes message – and a few barely conceivable ones. We’ve done the relentlessly positive campaign. Independence is not a complex idea. There are only so many ways that such a fundamentally simple concept can be described or explained. Eventually, the plethora of different descriptions and explanations becomes confusing and meaningless. The effort to find the sharpest and most effective message leads only to a message which is diffuse and vague and devoid of any impact.

The 50% of voters who are already Yes represents pretty much everybody who either doesn’t need any persuasion or has already been persuaded by the tactics of the 2014 Yes campaign. The other 50% is pretty much entirely made up of people who either can’t or won’t be persuaded by any positive message no matter how slick it is. If they were going to be persuaded by that positive vision of independence it would have happened by now. The Yes movement has been offering them that message for more than six years. ‘The Persuaders’ have convinced themselves that it is only a matter of time – and constant repetition – before the message takes effect. How much time will it take? How much time do we have? ‘The Persuaders’ are adamant that the positive independence message needs to be refined just a little bit more and it will become the alchemical formula by which the base metal of No will be transmuted into the gold of Yes.

It is not going to happen.

Ashley Graczyk’s account of how she came to support the independence offers a clue to a more promising strategy. If Ms Graczyk is to be believed – and I find no reason to doubt her – she was prompted to reconsider her position on the constitutional issue, not by the persuasive power of a positive vision, but by a dawning awareness of the negative impact that the Union has on Scotland. Listen to what she says,

I came to the realisation that to preserve and protect the values we have in Scotland we cannot have policies imposed on us from Westminster that jar with the kind of Scotland we are trying to build. So simply, we need independence.

It wasn’t the prospect of a future independent Scotland that persuaded her. It was the reality of the present-day UK.

This tells us how we should approach the new referendum campaign. Of the 50% that polls indicate (probably wrongly) are still No around 20 points can be written off as hard-line Unionists and ideological British Nationalists who would rather burn on the bonfire of the British state than bask in the warm glow of an independent Scotland. Another 20 points can be disregarded, but not discounted. These are the ranks of the disengaged and the resolutely apathetic. We shall return to them.

The final ten points represents the prime target of the Yes campaign. These are the people who are mistakenly identified by ‘The Persuaders’ as ‘soft Nos’ who can be won over by addressing their doubts about independence. But, as pointed out earlier, all the evidence indicates that these doubts have long been impervious to the unrelenting blandishments of determinedly positive Yes campaigners. There simply is no reason to suppose that this is going to change. In place of reason, ‘The Persuaders’ have amassed huge stocks of hope – almost all of it forlorn.

Those ‘soft Nos’ would be more usefully regarded as people who are entertaining doubts about the Union. People like Ashley Graczyk. People whose inertia will be overcome, not by a promise, but by a protest. The way to win these people over is to feed their doubts about the Union. To play upon their uncertainty by making a powerful but honest case against the Union. We have ample ammunition. We simply have to overcome our reluctance to use it. We have to rid ourselves of our addiction to the sense of superiority which comes with being positive.

There is no disgrace or dishonour in fighting against something if it is wrong. The Union is wrong. It is wrong for Scotland. It is arguably wrong for all of the people of these islands. So let’s put an end to it. Then we can devise something better.

Finally, I said we’d get back to the alienated and apathetic who, in my admittedly oversimplified map of Scotland’s electorate, make up that 20% between the wavering Unionists – defined as people who have not yet learned to question the Union – and the entrenched British Nationalists – defined as people who insist that the Union must never be questioned. While the waverers make up the 10 points that would be sufficient to give Yes a conclusive victory, it is worth noting that the strategy of mounting a hard anti-Union campaign is more likely to reach the alienated and apathetic than any amount of positive campaigning for independence.

Anger is a more effective antidote to apathy than aspiration. You won’t sell independence to people who are so disengaged as to be deaf to any entreaties. But you just might rouse a few of these people from their apathetic somnolence if you can make them angry. If they cannot be roused to anger at all it just might be by a campaign pointing out the iniquities of the British state. By targeting those wavering Unionists with an anti-Union campaign, we might actually engage with some of those who suppose they can opt out of politics.

Making a positive case for independence is essential. But it is clearly not enough. We need something extra. There really is no way to further enhance the Yes message. We need to augment the campaign for independence with a campaign against the Union. A campaign to dissolve the Union.

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