Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013: The year of fear

I don't think it is any exaggeration to say that 2013 has been the year of fear. We have been subjected to a relentless campaign of grinding negativity from the British parties in Scotland, from the UK Government and, of course, from the aptly named Project Fear itself. The almost exclusively union-supporting media have regaled us daily with terrible tales of the various disasters that must inevitably befall Scotland should we decide to assert our rightful constitutional status.

I don't intend to review these scare stories here. They are familiar enough to anyone who has been paying even passing attention to the referendum debate. Less familiar will be the rebuttals which have comprehensively debunked the scare stories. These tend to get considerably less coverage. From the laughable nonsense about mobile phone roaming charges to the endlessly repeated fallacies about Scotland being simultaneously expelled from the EU and forced to adopt the euro, every bit of anti-independence fear-mongering propaganda has been forensically dismantled by a growing army of online commentators.

There is another element of fear in the referendum campaign, however. In contrast to elaborately contrived stories about how will be the only developed country in the world without a functioning currency if we vote Yes, we hear of genuine, reasonable concerns about what will happen in the aftermath of a No vote. I was recently asked to list those concerns. I will now attempt to do so - in no particular order.

Budget cuts

Few people now doubt that one of the first consequences of a No vote will be a slashing of Scotland's block grant. As is their normal practice, the British parties refuse to be honest and forthright about their intentions. But all the talk is of ending the Barnett Formula in favour of a "needs based system". The fly in the ointment here, of course, is that those "needs" will not be determined by the people of Scotland, as would be the case with independence, but by British politicians in London.

The priorities of these politicians, we can be sure, will be very different from the priorities of the Scottish people. The principal aim will be to reduce the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK). This is quite explicit in British Labour's idea of "One Nation". We can be sure that this does not involve rUK moving towards the principles of social justice and universalism that have distinguished the policies of the Scottish Government over the past several years. What it means is the Scottish Government being forced to abandon those principles due to being starved of the funds needed to translate them into policy and action.

Most notable among the many implications of these budget cuts will be the enforced privatisation of NHS Scotland and the abolition of universal benefits such as free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free university tuition.

A secondary purpose of the budget cuts that will hit Scotland in the event of a No vote is the diversion of funds to marginal constituencies in England - the constituencies where UK elections are decided regardless of how the people of Scotland vote.

Loss of powers

A No result in the referendum will be represented as an affirmation of the union and a vote for Westminster rule.

Alongside the erosion of Scotland's budget we can expect to see an erosion of the powers of the Scottish Parliament. This is likely to be gradual at first, but the momentum will grow. Various arguments will be deployed to rationalise this clawing back of powers by Westminster. Not least of these will be the smaller budget controlled by the Scottish Parliament and the fact that more and more public spending in Scotland will be controlled from London, either directly by the UK government or indirectly through private companies answerable to the UK Government.

The "Calman changes" implemented by the new Scotland Act will be abandoned as being unaffordable due to the stringencies of Scotland's reduced budget. Every effort will be made to roll back devolution to the point where we no longer have a government but instead revert to having only a "pretendy wee Executive".

All the talk of "more powers" that we are currently hearing from the British parties will quickly fade away to nothing. They clearly have no real appetite for further empowering the Scottish Parliament. And it will be maintained that, by voting No, the people of Scotland will have shown that they too lack the appetite for more powers.

Imposed policies

As well as policies that are forced on Scotland by London's stranglehold on spending, there will be increasing direct imposition of policies in the name of "harmonisation" and "efficiency".

One of the reasons that devolution is an ongoing process is something I call the justification problem. Basically, as more and more powers are devolved it becomes increasingly difficult to justify continuing to reserve the dwindling few that remain. As an example, once the devolved administration has secured full control of transport policy, it becomes problematic for central government to justify retaining power of transport-related taxes such as Air Passenger Duty. It's a case of "if this, why not that".

But this process can work in reverse. As powers, and particularly budgetary powers, are stripped away, it becomes ever easier to justify the repatriation of ever more powers. Once the Scottish Parliament is weakened, there will be nothing to prevent a massive rolling back of devolution. And if there is nothing to prevent it, then it will surely happen.

Tampering with the electoral system

The electoral system for the Scottish Parliament was designed to ensure that no party could ever win a majority. More precisely, it was designed to ensure that the British parties - principally British Labour - would always control the parliament and ensure that it did not make waves. That all fell apart in 2011 when the SNP stunned everybody by gaining an overall majority at Holyrood.

In the event of a No vote we can be sure that the British parties will collude in an effort to restore the status quo ante. Changes will be made to the electoral system with the intention of preventing the SNP ever forming another administration, even at the cost of thwarting the democratic will of Scotland's people.

Preventing another referendum

The main purpose of tinkering with the electoral system will be to circumvent calls for another referendum on independence. Most of us will recall how vehement the British parties were in their opposition to the people of Scotland being allowed a say in their own future.

Scotland's referendum has been a massive embarrassment and inconvenience to the British establishment. It is the most significant outbreak of popular power that the British state has had to face in a long time - possibly ever. It is a challenge to the established order that the British state will not tolerate again. A further referendum will be prevented at any cost.

Constitutional dispute

The dispute arises from the affirmation of parliamentary sovereignty implicit in a No vote. Or, to put it another way, the denial of popular sovereignty that a No vote would represent. When distilled down to its basics, this is what the referendum is about. The principle that ultimate authority is vested in the people versus the idea that it is vested in the monarchy acting through parliament. In Scotland, the historically accepted principle is that the people elect a parliament which acts in their name and is ultimately answerable only to them. The authority of the parliament and the government is derived directly from the people.

The British system is different. In it, the authority of the parliament and the government is derived from the monarch. It is by the grace of the Crown in Parliament that the people are permitted to choose those they send to the parliament as their representatives.

This may be a crude representation, but it serves to highlight the fundamental differences between the two systems and, more crucially, their total incompatibility.

These two principles have coexisted side by side for centuries only because the difference has been ignored. The referendum puts an end to that. The two principles being offered as the choices in a plebiscite has unleashed a constitutional genie that will not go back in the bottle for the simple reason that the bottle no longer exists. The bottle's existence was conditional on there being no formal acknowledgement of the sovereignty dichotomy. The bottle has now been smashed regardless of what the referendum result may be.

A No vote creates an ongoing constitutional problem in that it ostensibly settles the matter in favour of parliamentary sovereignty - and will be held by the British establishment to have done so - but the irresistible force of popular will then comes up against the immovable object of the inalienability of popular sovereignty.

In short, a No vote creates a situation in which continuing constitutional dispute is inevitable. A conflict which will be increasingly rancorous and one which can only, and ultimately must be resolved by independence.

Victory for Tories

A no vote will be paraded by the Tories as a victory for David Cameron. The mileage they get from this will almost certainly be enough to secure them a win in the 2015 UK election. Our reward for voting No will be yet another government that we have rejected at the polls and yet more policies that are anathema to us.

At what point will people say, enough?

End of political discourse

One of the benefits of the referendum campaign in Scotland has been a revival of political discourse. The political environment is richer and healthier and more diverse and more active than it has been in decades. It is questionable how much of this will survive the deadening effect a No vote.

Political turmoil

While there is the very real possibility that political discourse may be depressed by a No vote there is also the chance that much of the energy may be diverted to less constructive forms of activity. People are getting exited about the possibility of change. Independence is the key to virtually all of that change. A No vote will trigger a wave disappointment and frustration that will have to find an outlet. It is not easy to see how this might play out.

There will be considerable upheaval in the political parties too. But speculation on that topic could well be endless.

Setback for progressive politics

The independence movement in Scotland, and the previously mentioned political discourse that this has engendered, has become something of a standard-bearer for progressive politics in the UK. There is a distinct possibility that a No vote will take some of the momentum out of the drive for political and economic reform while simultaneously providing a fillip to more reactionary elements.

Loss of respect
The people of Scotland are being offered the opportunity to rectify an anomalous situation. We have the chance to reinstate our nation's rightful constitutional status. We have the chance to assert and affirm the sovereignty of Scotland's people in Scotland.

We are offered the opportunity to bring our government home. To have our country governed according to the needs and priorities of Scotland's people. To take decisions for ourselves. To manage our own affairs. To be a nation again.

If Scotland rejects independence we will be a global laughing stock, subject to a barrage of ridicule and contempt that we will have earned by our lack of resolve. If we don't respect ourselves, why should anybody else do so?

Damage to relationships within UK

I have written at some length on this topic in an earlier article, Vote Yes to save the union. I would invite readers to take a look. For those who have no wish to do so, the following selected excerpts may give a sense of my argument.

We all, nationalist and unionist alike, tend to value the same things about the union, differing only in the emphasis that we put on each. Where we part company is principally, if not solely, on the matter of the political union of the UK. I would urge unionists to think long and hard about whether we do not have a common interest in that regard also.

The sheer mindlessness of the anti-independence rhetoric pumped out by Blair McDougall's appalling Project Fear operation precludes the kind of nuanced analysis that Alex Salmond has offered [when he spoke of the six unions: the political union of the UK; union with Europe through the EU; the currency union, the Union of the Crowns; a defence union based on Nato and a social union among the people of the UK].

Whereas the circumstances of the world in which we live require a concept of independence that involves a redefining of relationships, the No campaign can think only in terms of a complete severing of those relationships. It presents a totally false choice between all of the six unions, or none of them. Even to the point of threatening to wilfully destroy things that work well, such as the currency union.

Those unionists who value the same aspects of the union as nationalists do must ask themselves whether they are prepared to sacrifice the good bits in order to preserve a political union which serves nobody other than the elites of the British state. They must accept that a No vote does not mean a return to some comfortable status quo ante. Scotland has changed in ways that make that impossible.

A No vote on 18 September 2014 will have consequences. The outcome itself and the all too easily envisaged response of the British state to that outcome will alter an already unsatisfactory political union in ways that must inevitably have a deleterious effect on the social union that we all value so much.


Scotland's independence referendum is all too often portrayed as a choice between a Yes option fraught with unspeakable dangers and a No option which is consequence free. This is a misleading and even a dishonest representation. Choices are always accompanied by consequences. If the people of Scotland are to make an informed choice on September 18 2014 then it is essential that they should be made aware of the implications of both options. Just as it is vital that they understand the difference between malicious scare stories and genuine concerns. My hope is that this article will prompt a discussion which may lead to a better appreciation of what a No vote would mean for Scotland.
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Monday 4 November 2013

Vote Yes to save the union

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon rattled a few cages with her address to the SNP Conference in Perth when she spelled out the risks associated with failure to seize the opportunity offered by the referendum.  With a forthrightness that was either refreshing or shocking depending on your perspective, she told the party faithful and the voting public that, "Scotland can't afford a No vote!".

A lot of the shock was feigned, of course. I first wrote about the implications of a No vote way back in June 2012 (What does no really mean?). At the time, such "negativity" was generally frowned upon within an independence campaign determined to be totally positive, although many people expressed the view that I was actually being overly optimistic. Since then, however, the theme has become part of the narrative of the referendum campaign and the pretence that Nicola Sturgeon was saying something new and controversial was as dishonestly contrived as anything we've heard from Better Together.

The reasons Scotland can't afford to vote No are now well known. Not only will there be no further devolution, it is all but certain that the Scottish Parliament will be stripped of many of its existing powers. The Barnett Formula will be scrapped in favour of a "needs-based" allocation - with those "needs" being defined by a UK Government that has every incentive to cut the block grant to the bone. Not only will this facilitate higher spending in those parts of England where UK elections are actually decided, it will also force the Scottish Government to abandon policies which provide comparisons with those being imposed in England which are increasingly embarrassing for all the British parties.

We can also expect that measures will be enacted to prevent a further independence referendum and that the electoral system will be rigged to ensure that government of Scotland is returned, in perpetuity, to the safe pair of hands that is British Labour and the ever-biddable LibDems.

How do we know this will happen? Simply because this is what best suits the interests of the British state. And, following a No vote, there will be nothing to prevent it. It is nothing more than realpolitik and the forces of history taking their inevitable course.

Even without taking into account the devastating blow that would be dealt to our standing in the world and our own self-esteem by choosing to be less than we might be, it is fairly clear how all of this would be disastrous for Scotland. But it is not my purpose here to dwell on this aspect. My argument is that the repercussions of a No vote will also be disastrous for the union. If this strikes you as counter-intuitive then I would merely ask that you bear with me while I explain.

If a disinterested observer were asked to compile a list of terms to describe the anti-independence campaign, I hazard that the word "thoughtful" would not feature prominently - or at all. In truth, the campaign to deny Scotland's rightful constitutional status never really gets much beyond trite variations on the already painfully banal slogan, "Better Together". If we are not just plain "Better Together" - with no explanation of what constitutes "better", then we are "stronger together" - with no thought as to the nature of this supposed strength or the purposes for which it is deployed. Or we have more "clout" in the world. Another piece of hackneyed sloganeering that draws on the lexicon of militaristic imperialism, with no recognition of the fact that projecting power on a global scale is an obsession of the British state that has little resonance in Scotland.

On reflection, it can be seen that all of this has little to do with benefits accruing to Scotland from being part of the UK. It is all about the advantages the British state gains from being bigger. The thinking simply doesn't get much beyond the woefully simplistic notion that bigger is better

What is missing from the anti-independence campaign's argument is a more profound consideration of what it is about the union that is valued. Valued, not by the British political parties and the vested interests that they represent, but by the people of the UK.

Alex Salmond addressed this issue back in July 2013 when he spoke of the six unions that "govern our lives today in Scotland". The political union of the UK; union with Europe through the EU; the currency union, the Union of the Crowns; a defence union based on Nato and a social union among the people of the UK.

The First Minister talked of these six unions in terms of their importance to Scotland, making the point that only the first of these - political union with the UK - works against Scotland's interests. The others serve us reasonably well and are generally valued by the people of Scotland. Recent polling by Wings Over Scotland confirms this as it shows, for example, a plurality in favour of EU membership, the monarchy, and being part of the Nato alliance.

The currency union is just a fact of life for all of us. As convenient an arrangement as might be contrived. And the social union is something we are so comfortable with that we rarely even think of it. When we do reflect on it, however, it is likely that we rank it first among all the unions. The rest are mere practical or political arrangements, whereas the social union is about people.

My point here is that, if we get past the self-serving politicians of the British parties whose sole priority is the preservation of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which benefit them and their clients; if we address those who have been lured by the simplistic slogans of the anti-independence campaign and induce them to really think about what it is that they value about the union, it is highly probable that they will come up with much the same answers that Alex Salmond did. They would surely place the highest value on the social union. And, while they might vary in the way they prioritise the others, there would still be general agreement with pro-independence campaigners on the list as a whole.

We all, nationalist and unionist alike, tend to value the same things about the union, differing only in the emphasis that we put on each. Where we part company is principally, if not solely, on the matter of the political union of the UK. I would urge unionists to think long and hard about whether we do not have a common interest in that regard also.

The sheer mindlessness of the anti-independence rhetoric pumped out by Blair McDougall's appalling Project Fear operation precludes the kind of nuanced analysis that Alex Salmond has offered. Whereas the circumstances of the world in which we live require a concept of independence that involves a redefining of relationships, the No campaign can think only in terms of a complete severing of those relationships. It presents a totally false choice between all of the six unions, or none of them. Even to the point of threatening to wilfully destroy things that work well, such as the currency union.

Those unionists who value the same aspects of the union as nationalists do must ask themselves whether they are prepared to sacrifice the good bits in order to preserve a political union which serves nobody other than the elites of the British state. They must accept that a No vote does not mean a return to some comfortable status quo ante. Scotland has changed in ways that make that impossible.

A No vote on 18 September 2014 will have consequences. The outcome itself and the all too easily envisaged response of the British state to that outcome will alter an already unsatisfactory political union in ways that must inevitably have a deleterious effect on the social union that we all value so much.

To those intending to vote No I say, if you value the best of the old union, then think of how it will be put in jeopardy by failure to take this opportunity to forge anew the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Think how much better together we will be if we create a new union. A reformed association which preserves all that is desirable and effective about what has been developed over the years but places this in the context of a political relationship fit for our times and the future. A relationship that is strong, not in the facile sense subscribed to by British nationalists, but in the sense of being robust and durable. A relationship that respects the differences between nations while cherishing the social and cultural ties among people. A true partnership of equals.

All of this is possible. It requires only the goodwill and commonality of interest that already exists. And the confidence to vote Yes.

This article was first published in Yes Clydesdale's Aye Magazine.
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Tuesday 15 October 2013

Looking behind the polls

I don't often comment on polls. I find it a bit of a pointless exercise. Such comments as I see on independence referendum-related polling usually fall into two categories. There's the endlessly analytical poring over the minutiae of the data that looks like a hell of a lot of work only to be rendered irrelevant by the next poll that comes along. Or, more commonly, there's the simplistic acceptance of the headline figures as if they represent a definitive forecast of the result of a referendum that is still eleven months away. Polls can tell us nothing about the result. At best, they might offer some clues as to trends and thus serve as a rough gauge of how the two campaigns are faring.

People tend to take what they want from polls. And what they take from them depends on whether they are looking for illumination or reassurance. The analysers, not unexpectedly, are generally the ones looking to shed some light on matters, while those who look no further than the basic findings are invariably the ones seeking comfort in affirmation of their preconceptions.

I am happy to leave the statistical number crunching to those better qualified and considerably more patient than myself. And I could never be so shallow as to read as far as the bit that suits my purposes and then ignore the rest. So, falling between these two extremes, what do I make of these polls?

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Passion and normality

The following is a transcript of my address to a Yes Clydesdale Independence Roadshow in Biggar on the evening of Monday 7 October 2013.
The problem with following a couple of erudite and eloquent speakers such as Robin McAlpine and Aileen Campbell is that you're likely to discover that they've said most of the things that you were planning on saying.
Which is annoying. And even more annoying when they say it better than you could.
Tell you what else is annoying... Apart from Willie Rennie, I mean.
What's also annoying is people who answer a question with another question.
You know the kind of thing I mean.
What do you want for dinner? What do you fancy?
What would you like to drink? What are you having?
Are you OK under that bus? Do I look as if I'm OK?
That sort of thing. Very annoying.
But sometimes you can't avoid it. Sometimes you can't help answering a question with a question. Because sometimes the question simply begs another question.
People ask me, “What persuaded you that Scotland should be an independent country?”
Why would I need to be persuaded?
Independence is not some extraordinary, outlandish condition for a nation.
Independence is the default status of all nations.
Independence is normal.

Monday 23 September 2013

Project Fear becomes Project Hate

English: Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I sense a new theme oozing out of Project Fear. Or, rather, a redoubled effort on an old theme. The campaign to deny Scotland's rightful constitutional status has always aimed to sideline the massive grass-roots, community-based Yes Scotland campaign that they know they cannot defeat and deceive the people of Scotland into thinking that the independence movement is all about the SNP and, more particularly, all about Alex Salmond.

British nationalists think so little of the people of Scotland that they imagine we will be readily duped into swallowing their decidedly amateurish propaganda about the 300-year old struggle to restore the sovereignty of Scotland's people being nothing more than one man's personal project.

Unionists have such contempt for the people of Scotland that they suppose it will be easy to deceive us into seeing David Cameron as the heroic saviour of Scotland while the man we actually voted for as the political leader of our nation is somehow our enemy.

Note too the matching rhetoric from the Tory UK government and British Labour's puppets in Scotland, Johann Lamont, Anas Sarwar and the rest. They speak with one voice. And it is a voice shrill with fear and hatred. Hatred of the man who has done nothing worse for Scotland than deliver the independence referendum that the vast majority of us wanted. A man who has championed Scotland around the world and steadfastly defended the rights, institutions and public services that the people of Scotland cherish against the predations of successive UK governments.

Thursday 19 September 2013

No hate here!

If anybody still doubts that the anti-independence campaign is anti-Scottish then they need only read the article by Simon Heffer in today's Daily (Hate)Mail to have their illusions instantly dispelled. Riddled with lies, the entire piece clearly has no ambition to inform but seeks only to incite the kind of antipathy towards Scotland that is reflected in the comments. It is nothing more or less than blatant hate-mongering.

Those who aspire to be the respectable face of British nationalism - or, at least, the face less contorted by rabid fanaticism - will seek to distance themselves from this kind of hate-fuelled ranting. But what we see in Simon Heffer's bilious diatribe is but the shittiest end of a very shitty stick. Nobody who peruses the British press can be in any doubt that there is an ongoing and increasingly shrill campaign of shamelessly distorted and dishonest denigration that cannot reasonably be characterised as anything other than anti-Scottish propaganda.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Of flags and feelings

A political statement
As someone with a bit of a passion for live music, one of the highlights of my year is Perth's annual Southern Fried Festival - a superb celebration of American roots music over the course of what, for me, is now a lost weekend every July. I love it! But there was one incident this year which caused me some consternation.

The occasion was a show at Perth Concert Hall where Darrell Scott was opening for Patty Griffin. I arrived a bit late and, preoccupied with finding a seat and greeting friends, I paid no heed to the stage and so it wasn't until the lights came up that I noticed the large flag draped over the grand piano. More precisely, two flags, as it was a banner combining America's "Stars 'n' Stripes" and the British union flag.

To say that I was irked would be an understatement. In fact, I was quite taken aback by the strength of my reaction. I muttered something unprintable, but which is commonly abbreviated to "WTF".

I am not someone who is given to powerful emotional responses. I tend to be, if anything, overly analytical. So I was rather perplexed by what was, for me, an uncommonly visceral reaction. Throughout the first half of the show I was constantly distracted by this flag and a nagging annoyance that was all the more irritating for being as unfamiliar as it was inexplicable.

Friday 7 June 2013

Votes for prisoners

"Two men looked out from prison bars, one...
"Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw the stars." Frederick Langbridge (Photo credit: antonychammond)
It's not very often I find myself at odds with Nicola Sturgeon, but on the matter of votes for prisoners I simply cannot agree with her hard-line stance. It is, she claims, a position informed by reasons of "principle, law and consistency". Perhaps not surprisingly she left political expediency off that list.

The consistency argument is valid only if one supposes that continuing to do things in a certain way is entirely justified by the fact that this is the way they have always been done. Or that conforming to what is done elsewhere is an overriding priority. But bad habits do not get better with practice, they merely become more ingrained.  Those who would call themselves progressives must always be prepared to question established procedures. Consistency in the sense of avoiding arbitrary and frivolous variation is entirely laudable. Consistency in the sense of being hidebound by tradition is rather less so.

Ms Sturgeon has a case, of sorts, when she cites consistency as a reason for maintaining the blanket ban on prisoners voting. But it may not be quite the case that she supposes. We shall return to this.

Citing existing law as a reason for not changing the law seems glibly circular. The law is what the law is. But what is the purpose of government if not to oversee and guide the evolution of the law within the context of an ever-changing society? There is, self-evidently, some measure of pressure for change. One might readily argue that it is part of government's function to resist such change. To serve as the (small-c) conservative brakes to the impetus of radical forces that might otherwise be overly precipitate. Brakes must be used judiciously, however, for they will not forever hold against the momentum of social reform whose time has come.

Prohibiting prisoners from voting may well be lawful. But that is not to say that it is right.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Balkanisation blethers

George Robertson
George Robertson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Former general secretary of Nato, Lord George Robertson, fairly characterised the inanity of anti-independence scaremongering when, at a recent Royal Society of Edinburgh conference, he raised the spectre of the "Balkanisation" of Europe as a consequence of the democratic process of self-determination being played out in Scotland and elsewhere.

Foolishly eschewing the option to draw a discrete veil over his Balkanisation blethers in the hope that it might be soon forgotten, Robertson later sought to clarify what he meant in a letter to The Scotsman in which he wrote,
"I cannot see why Scotland’s separatists recoil at the entirely appropriate use of the word separatism, and why the word ‘Balkanisation’ is also too potent for them. The dictionary definition of Balkanise is ‘divide (a region or a body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups’. That seems to say it all. If the break-up of Britain was to become the model for tomorrow’s Europe, then our future will be bleak indeed."
The following is the text of a letter responding to Robertson's reported remarks which The Scotsman declined to publish. I publish it here with the permission of the author who prefers not to be identified.
Dear Sir,

My dictionary provides the same definition of "Balkanisation" as Lord Robertson's but Lord Robertson makes the unwarranted assumption that Scottish independence (or indeed independence for Catalonia, Flanders or anywhere else in Europe) will automatically result in the mutual hostility that is part of the definition of Balkanisation. I would suggest that the way in which the UK government has recognized the right of the Scottish people to choose their future and the way in which to date the process has been agreed means that others are looking with interest to Scotland as an example of just how Balkanisation can best be avoided.

In a united Europe I would suggest that Balkanisation is far more likely to result from others seeking to copy the British approach to participation in the European Union than from Scotland, and others perhaps, seeking to join that Union on equal terms with the other member states.

Well said, that man!
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Monday 3 June 2013


Should Scotland be an independent country?
On Thursday 18 September 2014 the people of Scotland will go to the polls to answer the question, "Should Scotland be an independent country?".

Fundamental to an adequate appreciation of the debate on Scotland's constitutional future is a thorough understanding of the terms of that debate. Most importantly, we need to understand what is meant by "independence". One might be forgiven for thinking that even to pose such a query is to labour the obvious. Wikipedia tells us,
Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over the territory.
On the face of it, this seems perfectly clear and uncontroversial. But notice that in this single-sentence definition there are no fewer than five links to other terms that are, to a greater or lesser degree, presumed necessary to an understanding of the concept of national independence.

Consider, too, the different ways in which the term "independence" is represented within the context of the referendum debate. It is clear that the word means different things to different people. This variation in understanding would probably exist anyway simply by virtue of the nature of language. But the situation is aggravated by the anti-independence campaign's strategy of seizing any opportunity to create as much confusion and uncertainty as possible.

Few will have failed to be struck by the inconsistencies and contradictions that pervade the arguments advanced by Better Together, the UK government and sundry anti-independence propagandists. For example, they will cheerfully acknowledge Scotland's economic viability while at the same time telling some tale intended to suggest that any change to the existing constitutional arrangements would lead inevitably to economic melt-down. The representation of independence is similarly convoluted and disordered.

According to unionists, independence both changes everything and alters nothing. It both takes us into a frightening "year zero" scenario with unknown and unknowable implications, and it makes so little difference that it's a pointless exercise. Independence is simultaneously condemned as a "leap in the dark" and as having consequences that are inevitable, predictable and unfailingly dire.

Most curiously, independence is accepted without question as the normal, rightful status for all other nations, but as something outlandish and unthinkable in relation to Scotland and something which is both impossible and meaningless in the world of the 21st century.

Those who follow me on Twitter may have seen a series of short statements which seek to clarify just what independence means. This articles sets out to explain and expand upon those statements.

Democracy is pooled sovereignty. Independence is the power to decide the terms on which sovereignty is pooled.

Human beings are social animals. But there are limits to our sociability. Broadly speaking, we have not evolved to live in groups of more than about 200 individuals. At some point, frequently well short of this upper limit, groups start to undergo a process of fragmentation, often accompanied by conflict.

Over time we have developed ways of overcoming these natural limits. This is not the place to go into detail on this. Suffice it to say that modern civilisation is crucially dependent on our capacity to function as a society. In particular, it is essential to have in place arrangements which resolve the conflict between  self-interested individual autonomy and a functional, cohesive society capable of delivering the benefits only attainable with a certain critical mass of population.

Few would dispute that democracy is the most effective way yet developed for overcoming the problems associated with co-existing in groups vastly larger and more complex than nature has equipped us for. Democracy works by pooling individual sovereignty. In a democracy, each individual provisionally concedes some part of their personal autonomy to a common agency in return for everyone else doing likewise. In an ideally functioning democracy each individual then has equal access to this common agency and is satisfactorily served by it.

For some, even those who profess to wholeheartedly embrace all the fundamental principles of democracy, the concept of pooled sovereignty is problematic. There is a mindset that equates sharing with losing. A world-view that, were it to be generalised to all of humankind, would make civilised society an impossibility. It is therefore important to stress that pooling involves no sacrifice of sovereignty. Just as the individuals in a democracy continue to "own" themselves, so nations in a modern form of international union - such as the EU aspires to be - do not forsake or forfeit any part of their national sovereignty but, rather, lend it to the common agency in return for a share in the use of the aggregate sovereignty of all the other member nations in a joint project to facilitate optimisation of economic, social and political relationships between and among participating states.

What is crucial is that the nations involved enter into this pooled sovereignty arrangement willingly and on terms that they have freely negotiated within the constraints that are necessary for the union as a whole to work, and that the individual member states continue to function as sovereign states in their regular dealings with other members.

Clearly, this is not what is happening in the case of Scotland. Within the UK our national sovereignty is subsumed rather than pooled. We neither have the power to freely negotiate the terms on which we engage with other nations nor the power to appropriately exercise our national autonomy in our day-to-day dealings with those nations. Only independence will rectify this deficit.

Independence is the default status of nations. The condition to which the people of all nations will always aspire.

Nations are independent by definition. That is the starting point no matter how one conceptualises either the nation or independence. Where nations are not independent it is because their independence has been taken away by one means or another. Where independence has been denied, the tendency will always be for nations to revert to their "natural" condition. This is true even where the denial of independence does not involve overt oppression.

To put it as plainly as possible, and with all the usual caveats about generalisation and oversimplification, the nation-state is a necessary level of socio-political organisation in a global context. The nation remains the largest unit of human social organisation with which individuals can meaningfully identify. That's why nations survive. They serve a useful purpose. Nations work better if they are independent. And the world works better if independent nations find workable, liveable arrangements between and among themselves.

Some people decry the concept of the nation-state. But the fact is that we have not developed anything better. They denounce the nation-state as the source and cause of international conflict when the reality is that such conflicts have, without any exception that comes to mind, been occasioned by efforts to deny or obliterate national identity and autonomy. It is imperialism that has been the bane of civilisation, not nationalism.

Scotland's civic nationalist movement seeks for Scotland no more than the status and powers which normally accrue to a nation.

Independence is normal. It's the contrivance of inequitable devolution within an asymmetric union which is anomalous.

Unionists try to portray Scotland's present constitutional settlement as perfectly normal. But the truth is that it is very far from normal. Ask yourself whether you would vote to join a union such as the UK on the terms that currently pertain. The stark reality is that nobody would think it fitting to offer such terms, far less imagine that anyone might accept them. The UK simply could not come into existence in the 21st century. Why then should it be preserved?

The union was forged in a different era. It is a relic of a bygone age. An anachronism. While being represented, at least at some levels, as a voluntary partnership of equals it was, in fact, part of an ongoing project to remove the "problem" of Scotland by absorbing it into a Greater England. A process which mirrors that indulged by nations with imperialist ambitions throughout history as they seek to defend the centre by controlling the periphery.

Far from being a partnership of equals, the union was, from the outset, necessarily and inevitably asymmetric. It could only have been otherwise had England voluntarily relinquished some of its power. And that just doesn't happen in the real world. The balance of power within the union has always massively favoured England. Such imbalances do not rectify themselves. Rather, they become more and more entrenched over time as part of a process that requires neither overt conspiracy nor malign intent. Power accrues to power as power defends itself. It's just the way things work.

The world has moved on in the last three centuries. Much as the imperialist powers - old and relatively new - would like to cling to the past, they are, nonetheless, subject to the relentless processes of history. The UK has reacted to change in diverse ways over time, but always for the purpose of preserving the existing structures of power and privilege rather than implementing meaningful reform.

Recognising that Scotland would not so easily submit to being subsumed into Greater England, one of the more effective ploys was a re-branding exercise that created the synthetic nation called "Britain". Then there were various bits and pieces of constitutional tinkering such as the establishment of the Scottish Office and, latterly, devolution. None of this altered the fundamental imbalance as evidenced by the fact that, to this day, Scotland still tends to get governments at UK level that we didn't vote for. In fact, devolution may be said to have aggravated an already increasingly untenable situation by creating further democratic anomalies that had the effect of making the union almost as unsatisfactory for England as it had long been for Scotland. The so-called "West Lothian Question" being but the most obvious example.

No amount of further constitutional tinkering will resolve the inherent structural and systemic flaws in the union. Only independence will allow Scotland and England to form the true partnership of equals that the union has so signally failed to deliver. A relationship for the 21st century, not the 18th.

Independence is not conditional and may not be constrained or qualified other than with the informed consent of the people.

Independence is, by default, absolute. The reality, however, is that no nation can exist or function in isolation. Nations interact in all manner of ways and interaction would be impossible if every nation insisted on a rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of its own independence. All of politics is compromise. But for compromise to be acceptable it must be freely entered into by those affected. Compromise cannot be imposed and remain compromise. Imposed compromise is subjugation.

Only with independence will the sovereign people of Scotland be able to give their consent to the compromises that they find acceptable.

Independence is about the freedom to make choices, not the choices that are made.

The referendum is about the principle of independence and not matters of post-independence policy. It is not about the decisions that are made, but who makes the decisions,. It is not about the character of an independent Scotland, but the forces that will shape that character.

However much the anti-independence campaign may wish to portray it as such, a Yes vote in the referendum is not a vote for Alex Salmond or the SNP or any other political party. A Yes vote does not set in stone any policy that will not be subject to the authority of the government that is duly elected by the people of Scotland in 2016 and all subsequent Scottish governments.

Independence is a perfectly legitimate end in itself. But it is also a starting point for progressive reform.

Quite simply, a Yes vote brings all decision-making power back home to Scotland to be exercised by the people of Scotland through the democratically elected Scottish Parliament. A No vote is a vote to relinquish that decision-making power and leave it in the hands of a government over which we exert no effective influence. A government which only rarely and incidentally represents the will of the people of Scotland.

Personally, I am at something of a loss to understand how this gets to be a difficult decision.

Independence is not isolation but the capacity to freely negotiate the terms on which a nation engages with the world.

We've all heard the inane unionist scare stories about Scotland being cut off from the rest of the UK and hence the rest of the world should we presume to insist upon restoring our status as an independent nation. But it is never explained why this would apply uniquely to Scotland when, as is clearly evident, no other independent nation is any more isolated than it wishes to be.

Being independent is not an impediment to engagement with the world. Being independent facilitates better engagement because it allows nations to engage on terms which are mutually acceptable rather than on terms imposed by another power.

Neither does independence in any way preclude internationalism. Indeed, as has frequently been pointed out, there is no internationalism without independent states. True internationalism involves sovereign nations freely seeking mutually respectful engagement with other cultures and peoples.

Independence will be achieved when people realise that the things they aspire to will not be delivered by devolution.

It has been truly said that power devolved is power retained. Devolution is neither a form of independence nor a substitute for independence. Devolution, as it has applied to Scotland, is the conditional granting to a nation of powers that rightfully belong to that nation in any case. Devolution is effectively a denial of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland in their own country and an affirmation of the alien concept of parliamentary sovereignty.

One of the anomalies of our current constitutional arrangements lies in the fact that the UK parliament can only have just (rather than lawful) authority to devolve powers if that authority is sanctioned by the sovereign people of an independent Scotland. No such sanction has ever been granted and cannot be unless and until Scotland can act as an independent nation.

But there are many less esoteric and more practical arguments against devolution as a permanent settlement rather than a process that must ultimately lead to independence. Not least the fact that as more and more powers are devolved it becomes harder and harder to rationalise remaining powers being reserved.

Devolution will always fall short of what people demand because devolution will always prompt more demands. The converse of this is that any offer of "more powers" will necessarily be premised on an assessment of the minimum that might be conceded without serious risk to the ultimate authority of Westminster. Within the context of the British state devolution is always about preserving established power rather than seeking the settlement that best meets the requirements and aspirations of Scotland's people.

Ultimately, devolution must fail. It is a matter of deciding whether this failure leads to significant and ongoing repatriation of powers to Westminster, or the return of all the rightful powers of a nation to the Scottish Parliament.

Only with independence will the people of Scotland be able to fully exercise the sovereignty that is theirs by right.

Independence is not given, it is taken. It cannot be given because it is not in anyone's gift. It is not requested or even demanded of any power. It is asserted by the sovereign people. It is not independence that requires justification but the continuing denial of independence.

By foregoing the opportunity to assert and affirm our sovereignty in the independence referendum the people of Scotland risk strengthening and emboldening those who, for the sake of their own power and privilege, would seek to deny that sovereignty. Just as there is great promise in a Yes vote, so there is serious peril in a No vote. We must vote Yes. Not because independence is easy or profitable or glorious, but because it is normal, it is ours and it is precious.
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Sunday 2 June 2013

It's OK to get angry!

Make your anger work for your cause
On March 19 2003 as I watched the horrifying images being beamed to our TV screens from Baghdad - images which signalled the launch of the cynically brutal Bush/Blair assault on the sovereign nation and people of Iraq - I shed tears of bitter, impotent, frustrated anger at the appalling crime that was being committed in my name.

I am not ashamed nor even slightly embarrassed to admit this. On the contrary, I am quietly proud of the fact that, as I approach my mid-sixties, I still retain some remnant of the capacity for justified outrage that tends to be somewhat condescendingly dismissed as the province of youth. I am rather pleased not to have succumbed totally to the world-weary cynicism that life, experience and long observation of the political scene can so readily entail. And more pleased still to have avoided falling into that feigned world-weary cynicism which some hope will be taken for sophistication.

Sometimes, it's OK to get angry.

It's OK to get angry when pathologically self-righteous, self-serving politicians embark on insane neo-imperialist military adventures that are as unjustifiable and pointless as they are murderous.

It's also OK to get angry when confronted with evidence of growing inequality driven by unthinking adherence to a failed and outmoded ideology that demands we pander to the powerful by penalising and stigmatising the powerless.

It's OK to get angry when you witness the mindlessly callous injustices that flow from socially corrosive policies such as the ill-thought and utterly repellent bedroom tax.

It's OK to get angry when faced with the devastating consequences for people and communities of an economic system geared entirely to serving the bloated centre of the British state at whatever cost to the deprived periphery.

It's OK to get angry at the politicians who, having been entrusted with the task of standing between us and those who would exploit us, instead are to be found standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in serial acts of blatant, unabashed betrayal.

It's OK to get angry at the way the institutions of democracy whose role is to aid informed decision-making are instead being turned to the task of demonising dissenting voices that dare to challenge the structures of power and privilege which define the British state.

It's OK to get angry at all these things and more. Let no-one tell you that your anger is inappropriate. In the face of injustice, perfidy and corruption anger is always appropriate. But it must be appropriately used.

There is power in your anger. We must not fritter that power on the of kind puerile condemnation and denigration of individuals and groups that only serves the purposes of those who would divide us the better to control us. We cannot allow our anger to be diffuse and directionless. Most of all, we must not let that anger be so misdirected as to fuel hatred of others, intolerance of dissent and contempt for the principles and processes of democracy.

Anger on its own is a self-defeating thing. Nelson Mandela - a man with more cause than most to be angry - tells us that,
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Anger serves a purpose only when it is harnessed to action. Our aim must be to ensure that our anger is harnessed to a constructive purpose. Throughout history, every socially progressive movement has had two parents: anger at that which is perceived to be wrong; and the dream of a world where such wrongs are righted.

If, like me, you are angered by what is being done in the name of the British state; and if, like me, you have a dream of a better, fairer, more usefully prosperous and socially just Scotland, let us apply the energy of that anger firstly to the task of restoring our nation's rightful constitutional status in order that we may then set about the task of realising our dream.

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Saturday 25 May 2013

Yes success

If the mainstream media is to be believed then the Yes Scotland campaign isn't doing too well. On the few occasions when the organisation isn't being ignored altogether in favour of the easier target of the SNP, it is to allow some comment to the effect that they are "on the back foot" or have suffered another "setback" of some kind.

To be fair, it is not only the media who have been critical. Many committed independence supporters have expressed mixed feelings about the official Yes campaign. Usually along the lines of it not being proactive enough or sufficiently vigorous in dealing with this or that. Is such criticism justified? Are the media offering a fair analysis of Yes Scotland's management of the campaign? If information released to mark the first anniversary of the Yes Scotland launch is anything to go by then it may be that adverse judgements have been both harsh and hasty.

Headlining the announcement is the fact that more than 372,000 people have signed the Yes Declaration, marking significant progress towards the target of 1 million signatures set by Alex Salmond before Yes Scotland was even up and running. This in itself is a significant achievement and suggests that, with some sixteen months still to go, the target may not be as overly ambitious as some thought at the time.

One year on from it's launch Yes Scotland has built up a formidable campaigning force with more than 170 local Yes groups the length and breadth of Scotland and some 15 sectoral groups for young people, women, trade unionists etc. These groups are not idle. Over the course of any week there are thousands of people out canvassing, leafleting, manning street stalls and holding public meetings. Not to mention all the work that goes on in the background in order to make the public events happen.
  • 1200 Yes events held
  • 3.1million leaflets delivered
  • 23,000+ visitors to the Yes online store
  • 57,000 items of merchandise sold
These are numbers any commercial organisation would be delighted with.

Yes campaigners totally dominate the social media and, to an only slightly lesser extent, the blogging scene. Although not necessarily part of the official campaign, all these Facebook Groups and proliferating Twitter accounts are inspired by Yes Scotland and stem from the determination of those at the helm that it should be a genuinely bottom-up, grass-roots campaign. Meanwhile, Yes Scotland's own digital team regularly outperforms the opposition on all relevant metrics.
It all adds up to the largest grassroots political campaign in Scotland's history. If that's failure then I suspect Better Together would happily swap it for some of their supposed success.

What remains to be explained is the perception that Yes Scotland is "failing" both in some absolute sense and relative to Better Together. In part, this is down to the media bias referred to earlier and the effect this has on the visibility of Yes Scotland. For whatever reason, the mainstream media continues to portray the independence campaign as being led by the SNP. Better Together is generally acknowledged as the official anti-independence campaign. Yes Scotland, by comparison at least, seldom is. This could be down to any permutation of a number of factors ranging from lazy journalists unable or unwilling to extricate themselves from the simple dichotomies of British party politics, through to a deliberate attempt to sideline Yes Scotland on the grounds that it is easier to attack a political party than an aspirational organisation.

There is also a tendency to base all judgements about the success of the two campaigns on a very simplistic reading of polling results. What this means is that Better Together gets unearned credit for the natural inertia that would exist supposing they did nothing at all. Yes Scotland, on the other hand, gets no credit at all for its success in achieving what it actually aimed to do in the early stages of the campaign, which was to set out the fundamentals of the issues and arguments and get people thinking and talking about the constitutional question. Success in this is not reflected in polling returns. It is reflected in the fact that people are increasingly engaging with the referendum debate in various ways. Hence the thousands attending public meetings and the tens of thousands engaging online and the unknowable number simply talking about independence at home, at work or in the pub.

Then there is the difference in the nature of the two campaigns. The anti-independence campaign is brash, aggressive and clumsy. (Witness the "500 questions" fiasco!) There is no incentive to improve because there is little in the way of public criticism of failures. When someone representing Yes Scotland says something that diverges in some respect from the latest policy pronouncements of Alex Salmond or John Swinney this is pounced upon by commentators unable to comprehend that this does not represent any kind of "split" but merely the differences between two quite distinct organisations. Unable to think in terms other than the traditional party-political contest, these commentators see, and portray, such differences as damaging conflict. All too many seem quite incapable of recognising that, within the independence movement, differences on matters such as currency are seen as a strength, not a weakness. Expression of diverse views, far from being a sign of failure, is a powerful indicator of just how successful Yes Scotland has been in creating a broad-based campaign.

Where the anti-independence campaign is a flailing bludgeon, the Yes Scotland campaign is almost surgically delicate. It is sophisticated and nuanced and decidedly unaggressive. One would expect the flailing bludgeon to be more noticeable than the gentle prod. But subtlety should not be mistaken for weakness. Nor should having a low profile be taken to indicate ineffectiveness.

This was brought home to me when I met with the Yes Scotland campaign team last Wednesday (22 May). I went to the campaign's Hope Street headquarters in Glasgow as part of a delegation from Facebook group, the League of Very Sovereign Scots. I think I speak for everyone in that delegation when I say that we were greatly impressed. And for all involved when I say that it was a very productive and rewarding meeting.

The fact alone that four of Yes Scotland's leading campaign organisers were prepared to devote three hours to a wide-ranging, frank discussion with half a dozen people broadly representative of the grass-roots effort is a resounding testament to way the campaign is being run.

As well as being delighted by the accessibility, we were struck by the powerful commitment of the campaign team. Not just to the cause of independence, but to the creation of a genuine community campaign which is truly the voice of the people rather than old established political elites.

Arguably, this is the real success of Yes Scotland up to this point. While the Better Together campaign is merely an extension of the old divisive, disputatious, adversarial politics of the British state, Yes Scotland has, at the very least, inspired hope of a new politics. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum next year, Scotland's politics has been transformed. There is a new engagement with the democratic process which would have been all but unimaginable a year ago. People who would naturally shun the arid landscape of confrontational party politics are finding a place more to their liking in the new territories being opened up by the positive side of the referendum debate.

There is an impression, too, that even those long-accustomed to service on the battlegrounds of tribal party politics are being induced to rethink their attitudes in the light of experience of the boundlessly inclusive campaign for independence that is almost entirely the product of Yes Scotland's efforts.

As more and more people are encouraged by the openness of the framework generated by Yes Scotland, so the horizons of general political debate are broadened. As people are increasingly enthused by the possibilities and potential of independence, Scotland's political scene has become more active and richly diverse than it has been in decades. There is a growing sense that nothing is off the table. That anything is up for discussion. That meaningful progressive change is achievable. Swathes of thinking on social and economic policy that had long been relegated to the wilderness of fringe politics are now finding a niche in what I like to think of as the real referendum debate.

Yes Scotland may not yet have won the referendum. But, with sixteen months still to go, they have made massive and almost certainly irreversible strides towards creating the conditions in which it will be won. If that doesn't count as success, I really don't know what might.
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