Evading the issue

There may be very good reasons for a resolution failing to make it onto the final agenda for the SNP conference. It is inevitable that people will feel aggrieved when a resolution is rejected that concerns a matter of particular interest to them. It is pretty much part of the pre-conference routine for there to be complaints that the agenda is being ‘rigged’ to avoid topics that some of those on the platform might consider potentially embarrassing. Folk have their ‘pet subjects’. Their personal estimation of the importance of that subject is likely to far exceed that of a dispassionate committee. It will be difficult for them to understand how a resolution on what they hold to be a topic of central importance can fail to be included in the agenda.

It may be that a topic has already been thoroughly debated at a recent conference. It may be that party policy on the matter is so firmly settled that further debate is seen as pointless. It may be that the resolution itself is not well drafted, or that the procedures and guidelines for submitting a resolution have not been adhered to.

I found it very easy to understand why the ‘Plan B’ resolution submitted by Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny was not accepted. Many others, perhaps being less objective, are incensed that it has been rejected. It would be an extraordinary agenda setting process that didn’t offend someone.

What, for me, was most disappointing about the MacNeil-McEleny resolution was the fact that it didn’t address the issue of urgency. If the party managers are keen to avoid discussion of independence it is not because the matter of a ‘Plan B’ might cause the leadership some discomfort. It is because any debate around the topic of independence has the potential to lead to awkward questions about ‘Plan A’. More specifically, about the timetable for ‘Plan A’. That’s what the SNP leadership desperately want to avoid.

Perhaps a more effective tactic would have been to submit a resolution directly – if, perhaps, subtly – addressing the evident lack of any sense of urgency in the Scottish Government’s approach to resolving the constitutional issue.

Alternatively, an appropriately worded amendment to the resolution in the names of John Swinney and Maree Todd might have served to get the issue of urgency before delegates. One advantage of such an amendment is that rejection would be tantamount to an explicit admission that the party leadership doesn’t want the issue debated.

There may be very good reasons for that too.



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Passion and despair

I am passionate about independence. I am passionate about independence because I am passionate about justice. I detest injustice. I abhor unfairness. I execrate social, political and economic arrangements which are fuelled by exploitation and inequity and insecurity. I despise the elites who contrive and perpetuate gross social imbalances for their own social, political and economic advantage.

I am passionate about independence because I am passionate about democracy. I hold these truths to be self-evident: that the people are sovereign; that the sovereignty of the people is absolute and inalienable; that all legitimate political authority derives from and returns to the people. Only by way of fully functioning participative democracy can the people be an effective countervailing force with the capacity to confront entrenched elites and challenge established power.

I am passionate about restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status because the Union is a grotesque constitutional anomaly by which the people of Scotland are denied the full and effective exercise of the sovereignty which is theirs by right. The Union is an affront to justice and an insult to democracy. The structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state represent the very antithesis of fundamental democratic principles.

In every fibre of my being and every fraction of my intellect I carry the conviction that, in the name of justice and democracy, the Union must be dissolved and constitutional normality reinstated in Scotland. Only by breaking free of the British state can Scotland realise its potential as a nation and work towards its aspirations as a society.

I am not passionate about the Scottish National Party. I am a member of the SNP. I support the party in various ways. I campaign for its candidates in elections. I celebrate its electoral successes. But I can’t say I’m passionate about it. The very notion of being passionate about a political party seems distinctly odd – even a bit disturbing.

Just as trade unions are the means by which individuals exercise power in the realm of employment, so political parties are the means by which we exercise power in the sphere of public policy. Both offer individuals the opportunity to combine and act collectively. Both serve an entirely practical purpose. I favour the SNP because it is the best tool for the job.

As the party of government, the SNP has proved to be remarkably effective. The bit of the party leader’s address to conference which catalogues the administration’s past achievements and declares its future intentions is never problematic for Nicola Sturgeon. They don’t get everything done. They don’t get everything right. But they earn the highest accolade that a political party in Scotland might hope for – they’re a’ right. The people are the ultimate arbiters of whether a government is doing an acceptable job. The fact that the SNP has a minimum lead of around 24 points over the British parties, despite the rabid hostility of the British media and the rest of the British establishment, proves that I’m far from alone in reckoning that, when it comes to government, the SNP is simply the best tool for the job.

Some would say that they’re the only tool available. Certainly, the British parties have disqualified themselves from government by their refusal to respect the sovereign will of Scotland’s people and their open contempt for the Scottish Parliament. They don’t even pretend to serve Scotland’s interests. They serve only the British state. The SNP’s lead over the British parties may, in part, be explained by the fact that, in electoral terms, they and the British parties are not really in the same race. The SNP is at least attempting to appeal to the entire nation. The British parties are just squabbling over the diminishing British Nationalist vote.

There are rational reasons to elect an SNP government. Nobody votes for any of the British parties in the belief that Scotland would be better governed by them. People vote for the British parties solely in the fervent hope of preserving the Union, at whatever cost to Scotland.

As the party of independence, it is even more obvious that there is no alternative to the SNP. Only the SNP is in a position to provide the effective political power without which the independence movement cannot prevail against the British state. Anyone who disputes this can safely be dismissed as a fantasist.

But being the one and only party of independence puts an onus on the SNP to find an accommodation with the wider independence movement. And to do so as a matter of urgency. Similarly, the wider Yes movement must find an accommodation with the SNP. Yes activists outwith the SNP must accept that, while the Yes movement is wonderfully diverse, the SNP cannot have the same kind of flexibility. Just about every policy agenda imaginable can exist under the umbrella of the Yes movement. The SNP, as a political party, can only stand on that policy agenda which has been approved by its members.

In matters of policy there can only be tolerance and the realisation that no policy agenda is worth the beer-mat it’s scribbled on unless independence is achieved. Where the SNP and the Yes movement will find a workable accommodation is, not on matters of policy, but on the fundamental principles of justice and democracy discussed above.

The best that can be said of the SNP in this regard is that it has a great deal of work to do. Some of the things Nicola Sturgeon said in her address to the SNP Spring Conference give great cause for concern. Let’s take a look at a few quotes.

We must recognise that these are different times and new circumstances. This isn’t a re-running of 2014. The UK that existed then does not exist any more. Our approach must be different.

I would wholeheartedly endorse this statement, but for the fact that nothing in what follows matches up to the sentiment. Everything that is known about what Nicola Sturgeon calls “our strategy to win our country’s independence” suggests the intention to take precisely the same approach as for the 2014 referendum. (I’ll come back to that word “win” later.) Take this, for example,

We are establishing a non-party Citizens’ Assembly so that people from across Scotland can guide the conversation.

While I enthusiastically welcome anything that seems intended to encourage engagement with politics and facilitate participation in the democratic process, in terms of the independence campaign is this not looking like a revamped Yes Scotland? Does it not seem that, just as in 2012, the SNP feels the need to put in place some sort of buffer between itself and the wider independence movement? Whatever else it may be, The Citizens’ Assembly has the appearance of a device to keep the Yes movement at arms length.

Is another talking shop what the independence movement needs at this juncture? Look at what Nicola Sturgeon said the Citizens’ Assembly will be “tasked with considering”.

What kind of country are we seeking to build?

How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit?

And what further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

Again, Mike Russell will set out more details shortly, and seek views from other parties on the operation and remit.

Haven’t we done all this? Haven’t we been ‘having this conversation’ for at least seven years? What is the point? How does any of this relate to the ‘different approach’ to the independence campaign which is required?

What the Yes movement needs right now is, not more research or more analysis or more discussion, but more leadership!

And so I can announce today that we will now launch the biggest campaign on the economics of independence in our party’s history

Isn’t that exactly the basis on which the 2014 campaign was fought? Wasn’t one of the main problems with the campaign that we allowed British Nationalists to take the debate onto the ground of economics so that we were prevented from discussing it as a constitutional issue?

Why is Nicola Sturgeon pandering to British Nationalists’ endless demands for more and better answers rather than demanding at least some answers from those who are determined to preserve an iniquitous constitutional arrangement?

There is no economic case against independence. Why, then, must there be an economic case for independence?

You cannot answer a constitutional question with a calculator!

For all her fine words about “our approach must be different”, Nicola Sturgeon can’t help drifting back to the same approach as was ultimately unsuccessful in the 2014 referendum campaign because she hasn’t changed her thinking since then. She’s coming at it with the same mindset. A mindset which is fatally flawed. A mindset which is evidenced by her characterisation of independence as a “prize” which must be “won” rather than as an absolute right which the British state is trying by devious means to withhold from the people of Scotland.

The SNP and the Yes movement must be purged of the idea that independence is something for which we must qualify in a series of tests set and marked by the British political elite. If we take this approach, there will always be another test. And there will always be at least one test which we cannot pass no matter how many Citizens’ Assemblies we task with finding the ‘correct’ answers.

Nicola Sturgeon again,

Independence is about the children we can lift out of poverty. And the fairer, more equal society we can create. That starts with building confidence in the economic case. Answering people’s questions. Addressing their concerns. And inspiring them about the future.

No! Independence is about rectifying the constitutional anomaly which allows the imposition on Scotland of the policies which cause children to be in poverty. It is the policies we then choose as an independent nation which will lift those children out of poverty. And it sure as hell doesn’t start with validating a lack of confidence about Scotland’s ability to manage its affairs. Or endlessly answering questions whose sole purpose is to create the impression of doubt. Even the attempt to answer such questions fosters uncertainty. It’s not more answers we need but better questions of our own. Questions that expose the true nature of the Union.

Despair seems to be my default state at the moment. Nicola Sturgeon’s conference address did nothing to dispel that despair. Reading it, I get the clear impression of an SNP leadership set on once again allowing the British establishment to set the agenda, determine the rules of engagement, and control the process. It’s just as well I wasn’t there to hear it.


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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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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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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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Wincing and recoiling

snp_conferenceDo you ever read something that makes you physically wince? I flinched twice reading George Kerevan’s article. I cringed when i read this “the Scots electorate (mercifully) is having a year off”. Aye, George! Because voting is such an onerous task we should be glad of anti-democratic British Nationalists like Ruth Davidson who want to relieve us of the chore. Participating in the democratic process is such a burden we should happily do the bidding of those who advise us to sit down, shut up and eat our cereal.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way we could all just disengage from politics altogether? Wouldn’t it be great if there was some elite prepared to relieve us of the need to think about all that politics stuff? Wouldn’t it be a mercy if we were given two years off from the grind of democracy? Or five? Or fifty?

That five minute walk to the polling place is hellish enough. But then they make you pick up a pencil and make a mark on a bit of paper! Sometimes, you even have to think about where you’re putting that cross! (Yes! A cross! That’s two – count them! – TWO pencil strokes!) And you might be asked to do this TWICE in the one year! It’s inhuman!

Of course, it’s not just the voting that’s a massive imposition. All that politics nonsense takes up so much space in the newspapers and so much airtime on TV and radio. Think how much more sport there could be in the papers if it weren’t for all those column inches being devoted to stuff about health and education and welfare. Think how many more soaps could be crammed into a day if they would just stop putting politicians on. Who needs it? We pay those politicians to run the country. Can they not just get on with it? Do they have to be pestering us all the time?

I’d barely recovered from the physical impact of that little gobbet of thoughtlessness when I was made to recoil again; this time at the suggestion that,

This upcoming spring conference will be the last at which the SNP top brass can remain silent on the referendum question.

What!? The SNP leadership can remain silent about the new referendum at next month’s conference!? They can get through the whole two days without so much as mentioning it!? As they say on Twitter, WTF!?

I know George noticed the All Under One Banner march in Glasgow on Saturday 5 May. I know he’s aware of it, because he mentions it in the very next sentence. What does he think those 50,000 people were marching for? Longer tea-breaks!?

In theory, I suppose it’s possible that there were people on that march whose enthusiasm for independence wasn’t matched by a sense of urgency. It was a very large gathering. Perhaps I missed the banners saying ‘POSTPONE THE REFERENDUM’. Maybe I failed to hear the chants of, ‘what do we want? Independence! When do we want it? When Pete Wishart is satisfied that we can’t possibly lose!’.

Or perhaps I read the mood correctly. Perhaps there was a feeling of urgency in the air. Perhaps there is an expectation that the SNP will respond to that sense of urgency. Perhaps a large proportion of those people are anticipation something more than silence on the referendum question when the party meets in Aberdeen next month. Perhaps a significant number of those people will be bloody annoyed if all they get is silence from the “SNP top brass”.

One thing I can say for certain about the people on that march – they know the value of participative democracy. They don’t think of participation in the democratic process as a chore to be avoided if at all possible. They aren’t content to sit down, shut up and eat their cereal. That march was democracy in action. Those people, and the thousands more who were with them in spirit, were insisting on having their say.

The SNP leadership better be listening. And they damn well better have a good response. Silence will not satisfy those people. Silence is not an option.


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