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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A British accommodation

leonard_rennieThe latest bit of British jiggery-pokery with the EU power grab represented a potentially tricky situation for Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie. Their first instinct, as always, is to blame the SNP. But the sheer brazenness of the Tories’ cack-handed chicanery made things somewhat easier for the other British Nationalist parties. Not even with the worst #SNPBAD will in the world could Leonard and Rennie enthuse about the latest addition to the BritSpeak dictionary redefining ‘consent’ as… well… anything said or not said. To do so would leave them looking foolish as well as treacherous. And they prefer to do just one at a time.

Spare a thought for Ruth Davidson. She gets no choice in the matter. Looking daft and despicable is in her job description.

It would be folly, however, to mistake the position taken by Leonard and Rennie for anything akin to an honourable defence of Scotland’s interests. The dilemma for them is that, while they are happy to cooperate with the British Government’s efforts insofar as they are directed against the hated SNP, they are ever mindful that Holyrood represents their best – and in the case of the LibDems their only – chance of any meaningful political status. British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) craves a return to power in Scotland – even if it is on Tory coattails. For Willie Rennie, the prospect of a token post in a British party coalition at Holyrood allows him to cling to hope of a Dead Stoat Cloak.

Nothing would please Leonard and Rennie more than a ‘strategic retreat’ by the British government that would allow them to resume full participation in the ‘One Nation’ British Nationalist project. They would be delighted if their Tory allies in London were to contrive an amendment to the amendment which was just less brazen and cack-handed enough for them all to get back into bed together again.

Of one thing we can be sure. If the British government does move on the Power Grab Clause, it will be solely for the purpose of finding an accommodation with the British politicians squatting in the Scottish Parliament. Scotland’s interests will not be a consideration.


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Vive la difference!

jackie_baillieThe deal to save BiFab is, of course, wonderful news for the communities that would have been severely affected by closure. It is also a bright day for Scottish politics. There is no doubt at all that this deal would not have happened without the intervention by the Scottish Government. And every reason to suppose that it would not have been achieved, or even attempted, by the British parties. The Tories would have shrugged off the suffering of people and families, insisting that their lives were a necessary sacrifice on the altar of ‘market forces’.

British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) would have been paralysed with indecision and riven by internal squabbling. One faction would want to throw taxpayers’ money at the problem. Another faction would quietly relish the closures and ensuing devastation of communities as a useful example of capitalist failure. They’d have held lots of meetings and marches and rallies at which career politicians would jostle for media attention. Once the media lost interest, so would BLiS. The yards would have closed. livelihoods would have been lost. BBC Scotland would find a way to blame the SNP.

So, what is it that allows the SNP to succeed in these situations where the British parties have a record of inaction or failure? I would suggest that it largely comes down to a question of attitude. Where Tories would look at the BiFab situation and see it in terms of economics and BLiS would see it only as a political difficulty (or opportunity), the SNP tends to see a problem affecting people that needs a practical solution.

Where Tories ask how the situation can be rationalised and BLiS ask how the situation can be exploited, the SNP ask only how it can be sorted.

In an article for the January issue of iScot Magazine I wrote,

“What is significant is that the SNP administration seems to have been intent on finding the measures which might be effective regardless of dogma or popularity. No ‘focus groups’. Just expert panels. And no ‘Big Fix!” hype. No suggestion of simple solutions. No suggestions of solutions at all. Just the idea of progressive change – over time-scales that pay scant regard to the kind of electoral imperatives that drive other parties.”

I get annoyed at people who make facile generalisations about politicians and political parties being ‘all the same’. Clearly, they aren’t. Quite evidently, there is something different about the way successive SNP administrations go about the job of running Scotland’s affairs. Something that allows them to achieve things that British parties couldn’t.

In that iScot Magazine article I put this difference down to Scotland’s electoral system and the way it has facilitated the emergence of a distinctive political culture. I argue that the SNP is different because it was better placed to adapt to, and take advantage of, the new political climate in a way that the ‘old’ parties aren’t.

“The SNP has enjoyed electoral success – winning every election for ten years – because, as a party new to government, it is open to a new political culture in a way that the British parties cannot be – due to historical factors and the intrinsic nature of the British political system within which they are embedded.”

The SNP is attuned to Scotland’s political culture in a way the the British parties are not. The party is embedded in that political culture in a way the British parties can’t be. We see the evidence of this, not only in major achievements such as saving BiFab, but also in relatively small things that nonetheless represent a more progressive politics than we’d previously been accustomed to. Baby boxes are one example. And the changes to the tax system which, while small in terms of their impact on people’s pockets, are highly significant in that they are a break with the old ways.

Not that Scotland’s politics has totally rid itself of the old ways. Difference is relative. As much as we see the difference between the SNP and the British parties in the actions of the former, that difference is also evident in the way the latter behave.

Look at the reactions from the British parties to the news announcement of the deal to rescue BiFab that was so skillfully brokered by the SNP administration. Neither Willie Rennie nor Jackie Baillie so much as acknowledge the efforts of the Scottish Government.

But that kind of bitter, partisan pettiness is the old politics. Now is a time to celebrate Scotland’s new politics. Just don’t expect that any of the British politicians squatting in Scotland’s Parliament will join in the celebration.


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