A PLEBISCITE CAN’T GET US TO INDEPENDENCE

With just a few weeks to go till the May Holyrood elections there are still some in the wider Yes movement hankering to turn that election into what they call a ‘plebiscite’. Borne out of an implacable belief that ‘Boris’ will never agree to a ‘Section 30’, its proponents contend that this will be the route that will allow Scotland to choose and get us to independence. 

But what exactly is a plebiscite? What does it actually do and has it any chance of working? 

Where there seems to be some dispute about what a plebiscite actually constitutes, what I understand of the proposal is that if successful it would lead to Scotland opening ‘negotiations for independence’ with the UK. In advance, the UK Government will be offered a final opportunity to ‘give’ a Section 30. I don’t think we’ll insult anybody’s intelligence by thinking for a minute that the UK Government will treat that ‘ultimatum’ with anything other than derision and contempt, whilst at the same time, making it abundantly clear that the result of any ‘plebiscite’ will be rejected and totally ignored. 

What I’m not sure about is whether this ‘plebiscite’ would be a one line ‘independence nothing else’ or whether there would also be a programme for Government. I’m presuming it would just be a one line manifesto as it would seem to be a supreme waste of time and effort if it was just ‘part’ of a package. What I’m entirely sure about is that all the unionist opposition parties would defiantly refuse to agree to an election framed on this basis. Where there would be no question of them boycotting the ‘election’, what they would do is simply refuse to engage on a basis of a ‘plebiscite’ and would fight it on what is included in their manifestos. 

And you could only start to imagine the campaign that would be waged by the unionist parties. They would simply love such an election. There would be all sorts of claims of the SNP seeking to ‘subvert’ a scheduled election or the SNP ‘treating the Scottish people with contempt’. They would have endless joy in presenting a ‘single issue’ SNP refusing to talk about how they would govern. They would see this as a golden opportunity to roll back the gains made with soft Yes supporters. It would be utter carnage. 

What we would have to ask is if the Scottish people would be prepared to go along with their democracy being appropriated in this way? Scottish democracy is precious to the Scottish people and they genuinely want to have a debate about services, leadership, vision and governance. 

But the biggest issue with all of this are the questions around democratic legitimacy. What this does is dispense with the principle at the heart of the campaign for Scottish independence that independence should be secured on the expressed consent of the Scottish people. We would be abandoning the case of a dedicated referendum to decide out future. We would then be putting the case for independence without any ‘No’ proposition, no opposition to the case for independence and waged under conditions that are rejected by those opposed to independence. 

But let’s just say that we do somehow manage to get the Scottish people to go along with all of this and somehow the plebiscite proposition prevails. 

What happens next?

This is a UK Government that we are invited to presume will always say ‘No’, We are apparently then invited to accept the notion that they will turn on their heads and say – ‘OK, fair enough you won this election, which we refused to contest as a plebiscite, and said we would ignore, but let’s get down to the business of divvying up the assets of the UK state’. It is beyond absurd. 

‘We’ll just do it anyway’ you might then say. Well, this is where we start to get into some seriously tricky territory. ‘Just doing it anyway’ means we would be doing something broadly similar to what Catalonia did when they won their uncontested referendum. This would in effect mean declaring some sort of Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). The consequences of which could not be more serious. 

What about the international community coming to our rescue, I can hear some people gently inquire? Well sorry, not a chance. Could you imagine for a moment turning up to the international community asking for our independence to be recognised when the state we are seeking to leave has had absolutely nothing to do with the process, where there has been no ‘No’ proposition and the whole question has not been properly debated? We would be laughed out of the room.

What some people fail to understand is that the ‘International community’ is a members club, which sees these issues as an ‘internal’ matter. The only part of the international community that has offered any sort of opinion on Scottish independence is the EU who have repeatedly said that they would be genuinely supportive of Scottish independence if it is pursued ‘legally, constitutionally and in partnership with the UK’. An uncontested ‘plebiscite’ is the antithesis of that. 

But there is one group of people who would be absolutely delighted if we abandoned the referendum route and embarked down this dead end, and they inhabit the Conservative benches of the House of Commons. 

What a plebiscite does is let the Tories off the referendum hook. They know that if the SNP replicate the conditions of the 2011 election and secure another majority it is all more or less over. All their current planning and strategising is simply screaming ‘we are in big trouble’. The Tories know a referendum is coming.

The Tories know the last chance of their union being saved is if we beat ourselves. Their only plan is to continue to say ‘No’ then hope that this No is accepted as their last word and gospel and count on the frustration and division building. They could not be more delighted at the way this simple but effective plan is working out. If we went down a plebiscite route it would be a total vindication of their ‘Plan No’. They, without doing anything, will have pushed us down the road of the electorally unpalatable whilst ending their referendum woes. 

A plebiscite can not possibly get us to independence and achieves nothing other than letting the Tories off the hook. My one regret is that this debate has never been concluded and put to bed. It should have been put to our conference where it would have been overwhelmingly rejected by the party. Unfortunately it will now continue to be a diverting feature up to the May election consuming debate and effort. How much better off we would all be if that energy was spent on winning that majority, securing a referendum and winning our independence.  

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BREXIT IS A DISASTER FOR OUR MUSICIANS

Of all the things musicians would rate amongst their ambitions when setting out at the start of their career success in Europe would be close to the top. A continent with a diverse musical taste, loyal fans, an almost inexplicable musical curiosity, Europe is on our doorstep but can almost seem like another world. The enriching cultural experience of just actually being there, the excitement of performing in an array of wonderful destinations, sharing a musical exchange with people desperate to know where the music comes from and what informs it. Touring Europe is the epitome of what being in a band is all about. 

I was lucky. Runrig had amazing success in Germany, Scandinavia and didn’t do too badly across the rest of the continent. We played the big festivals, appeared on their TV and I loved every crazy minute of it. This is now to be deprived to future generations of musicians with Brexit hurdles placed so high to make the whole enterprise next to insurmountable 

Never properly considered in any of the discussions, texts or considerations, our artists and music industry have ended up as nothing but mere collateral in the tragedy that is the ending of freedom of movement. Music is a border free proposition. Bands are multinational and music doesn’t care which country it is in. It is almost the exact opposite of Brexit. Leaving the EU and ending freedom of movement was therefore always going to be a disaster for for artists and musicians. 

Like the rest of us, musicians will now only be allowed to spend 90 days out of 180 in the EU. A European tour could involve playing in anything up to 20 countries each with their own developed live scene and each with their own demands in transport and organisation. Bands ‘tour’ because of the costs of assembling crews, transport and organisational infrastructure. I remember at the height of our success sometimes we would be ‘on the road’ for about half the year, mainly in Europe. 90 days could be over before the set list is properly bedded in. 

Musicians will also have new Brexit border arrangements to negotiate and this will increase red tape and costs. At the borders the ‘carnet’ will need to be stamped. A band’s carnet is a record of all the equipment brought from the UK. It will now be designed to demonstrate that nothing is being imported into the single market illegally and nothing is being exported. Every border in the EU now has the ‘right’ to examine and question the carnet and if every country decided to do so it would place an unacceptable burden on drivers, tour managers and technicians. 

Then there is all the new Brexit taxation and fiscal measures. There will be new arrangements for national insurances on top of income tax. There will also be the requirement to register for VAT in EU countries. This will mean more accountancy bills, more hours spent on paper work, more costs. Where touring is the prime generator of income for most artists (because of the pitiful return for recorded works with streaming) there is one feature of touring that often makes the difference between profitability and break even and that is the merchandise. All the new EU rules could make that margin even more precarious. Profitability from merchandise could dramatically reduce, again more barriers ,more burdens, more costs.

Then we came to the visas. This is the ‘killer’ and the one that could make the whole enterprise simply just not worth it. First thing to note is that the Government assured the music industry that it would secure an arrangement that would ensure visa free travel. Former Minister, Nigel Adams, said explicitly ‘that visa rules for artists would not change’. This is what makes this seem like a total betrayal of a sector. 

Where some countries like France have said that they will continue to allow visa free travel for artists most have said they will not. If we generously assume that the cost of a visa will come in at around £300 per person. A modest travelling touring outfit of 5 band members, 3 crew, sound engineer, tour manager and driver will mean additional costs of £3,000, and that is for just for one country. This will be doubled, trebled increased 10 fold dependent on how many countries will be included on the tour. 

Medium sized and larger enterprises with their array of lightning technicians, set designers, PA crews, caterers and accountants could face costs of £10 000 before a sound check has even been done. For bands operating at extreme margins the EU will be more or less closed. 

The music industry is the UK’s cultural jewel in the crown. It is worth some £5.2 billion to the economy and we are second only to the US in world wide reach and impact. It provides immense soft power for the UK. It is just something we do spectacularly well which makes the Government’s lackadaisical indifference even more bizarre. 

For this Government it is all about their obsession with ending freedom of movement. Nothing is more important than that mission and if live music falls foul of that objective then it seems it will just have to suck it up. For all the ridiculous EU blaming the hapless Minister deployed to answer my Urgent Question last week more or less conceded the ‘people must have what they voted for’ and the offer the EU made to allow visa free travel for 90 days was rejected because it might just ‘open the door’.

What the Government didn’t count on was the backlash. Some 280 000 have now signed the petition organised by our artists and this will be debated in Parliament on February the 8th. The letter by the cream of UK talent reinforced the strong feeling right across the industry. 

The Government verses our musicians and artists is not a good place for this Government to be and all everybody wants is for this to be fixed. The EU made a realistic offer and that is still on the table. The Government says the ‘door is still open’. Let’s walk through that door, sit down, negotiate, and sort this out. 

THE ‘DEAL” SPEECH THAT WAS NEVER HEARD

Thank you Mr Speaker

And I rise to oppose this bill.

This is the concluding episode of their tortuous Brexit drama, the final slice of misery, the last indigestible bit of this big fat Christmas turkey. 

And what a stinker this deal is.

It is a disaster for every sector of our economy, for business, for our service industries, for our agriculture, for our students, but it is more than that for our fishing communities.

For them it is a total and utter betrayal, and Honourable Members representing coastal communities, and prospective Tory Holyrood candidates contesting them, can expect the full wrath of communities betrayed. 

The one thing that this rotten deal was supposed to do was make the situation better for our fishing industry. In fact, it only makes things much, much worse.

Let’s be clear, my country overwhelmingly voted against everything to do with this disastrous Brexit 

From the Bill that made their referendum a reality to the bill that will confirm the disastrous terms on which we will leave the EU.

Every step of the way the Scottish people have rejected this Brexit and Scotland has consistently voted against all parties who have supported it.

This is a deal that will make every person in Scotland worse off

A Brexit that will confine my nation to this insular Brexit island where our young people will be denied the opportunity to live, work and love freely across a continent. 

This is the Tories Brexit. This is their deal and they will own it.

Though, not all on their own.

Incomprehensibly the British Labour Party wants a slice of this mess.

By backing this deal they will share in the Brexit ‘spoils’.

Can I commend them for their bravery, and look forward to them defending this disaster when it inevitably unravels

We in the SNP will not sully or hands on the handling of this Brexit. 

We will vote against it because it is rotten, makes our constituents worse off and goes against everything we aspire to as a nation. 

Apparently, the only reason we should vote for this deal is that in somehow voting against it means we will be voting for a No deal…..!

What a load of unmitigated rubbish. 

Nowhere on this bill is any provision for a no deal.

This is nothing other than Tory spin and only Labour are gullible enough to fall for it.

We can only vote for what is in front of us and what is in front of us is unacceptable and directly counter to the interests of my nation. 

The Tories will get their way today with Labour support and this will be the basis on which we leave the EU.

Scotland therefore has only one option available to us to determine our own European future in line with what the Scottish people want 

And that is through independence.

With Labour supporting this deal this Brexit now belongs to the unionist parties. This is theirs. 

This will be their case for remaining in their UK.

When we have the next independence referendum all the unionist parties will now line up behind the flag of this Brexit Britain.

The case for independence will line up behind the view that it is the Scottish people who will determine our own future with Europe.

Mr Speaker the battle for Europe is over. They have won, and my congratulations to them. I hope they enjoy their victory.

Mr Speaker, where this battle is over the battle for Scotland now begins, and in that we will triumph. 

NOW IS THE TIME FOR RADICAL ACTION ON DRUG DEATHS

YESTERDAY was a bad, ugly, dispiriting day that appalled and sickened all of us involved in the debate about drugs deaths in Scotland. Every one of these 1264 deaths is a son, a daughter a brother, sister, father, mother. Every one of these deaths was entirely unnecessary and avoidable and we should be saying one word – enough.

We have to take the radical action that will turn this round and start to make a difference. There will always be a lot that we can do but until we do the “big” things we will only be managing the crisis, such is the scale of the task.

My Scottish Affairs Committee conducted the most extensive inquiry ever undertaken into problem drug use in Scotland. We heard from governments, service providers, the police and judiciary, the health services and those with lived experience. All agreed that the big levers of change need to be pulled in order to have this effectively addressed.

Where it is the case that the Scottish Government could and should do more (something we recommended), we have to acknowledge without the full range of powers we will always be approaching this with one hand tied behind our back.

It is the drugs laws that create the legislative environment and context that the rehabilitation and support services have to operate in. As long as our drugs legislation treats drugs users as criminals, all the rehabilitation services in the world will be severely compromised in their ability to make a difference.

And we have to look to the international examples. Portugal had a drugs epidemic roughly on the same scale as Scotland. In the early 1990s, every Portuguese family either had someone caught in heroin’s grip or knew a family affected.

What they did was something remarkable. As a nation they collectively decided this could not go on and initiated a national debate, assembling a government-led commission to address the crisis.

The result was almost as bold as it was pioneering. Portugal decided a criminal justice approach should be replaced by an exclusively health-based one. It decriminalised all drugs for personal use. But it didn’t just leave it at that … it assembled what it called a “dissuasion commission” to address all drug users brought to the attention of the authorities. Almost 30 years later, Portugal has just about the lowest rates of drugs deaths in Europe.

While this was an approach that worked, it is not an approach that is readily available to us in Scotland as we only have some of the necessary responsibilities.

Drug laws are exclusively reserved and it is the view of the Westminster  Government that will prevail. If the two governments are aligned then there is no problem, but right now they’re not. The Scottish Government takes a health-based approach to drug use while the UK Government takes an ideological view about drug use based on the personal responsibility of the drug user. For the UK, drug use is a deviancy that has to be addressed by the law not a health issue that needs to be remedied by treatment.

It is this that creates the stigma associated with the view of drug users as “criminals” and “junkies”. This stigma is perhaps the single biggest impediment to properly addressing all the societal and cultural issues around problem drug use.

The UK Government is therefore also prone to overlook the evidence base. For example, its view on drug consumption rooms is that “there is no safe way to take drugs”, so all calls for DCRs are ignored based on a deeply held view on drug-taking. It doesn’t matter that all the evidence in the world suggests that safe consumption facilities save lives and directs people to services it will always be trumped by their ideological point of view.

In our report, the Scottish Affairs Committee recommended to the UK Government that we decriminalise all drugs for personal use and that drug consumption facilities be piloted. This, inevitably, was rejected by the UK Government. Since then Peter Krykant unofficial DCR facility has arrived on the streets of Glasgow, presenting the most significant challenge to our approach to dealing with drugs issues in Scotland.

Police forces know our drugs laws make absolutely no sense. All the police forces that appeared in front of my committee had devised ingenious ways to operate at the very edge of drug law legislation. Being on the frontline, they see for themselves the absolute failure of criminalisation.

Then there are the legal powers open to us. When he appeared at our committee, the Lord Advocate could not support the concept of a “letter of comfort” for drug consumption facilities or some sort of “legal exemption” because of his responsibility to uphold and enforce the law. But with the total refusal of the UK Government to accept our recommendations the Lord Advocate should now review what is available to him under his responsibilities and look to solutions that would “allow” a facility to operate.

There is no particular reason why Scotland has such a problem with drugs deaths. In the evidence presented to us, the concentration of poverty and alienation caused by de-industrialisation were often referenced, as were issues around trauma associated with the numbers that Scotland places in care.

The fact that so many drugs deaths are men in their 40s and 50s also suggests there is some sort of historical/cultural factor at play. Lastly we can not rule out the under-funding of services and availability of rehabilitation beds.

But most of that doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how it is addressed that is important. This is an emergency and it is an emergency that needs big solutions. We now have to use everything available to address it the best we can. More than that, we need all the necessary responsibilities and powers to ensure that we deal with the totality of the problem.

WHAT HAPPENS IF BORIS SAYS NO?

So that’s another 2 opinion polls confirming that Yes remains the majority choice of the people of Scotland. 14 opinion polls in a row this year have shown Yes in the lead and independence is becoming established as the settled will of the Scottish people. You know things are bad for unionists when they ‘welcome’ a poll that shows Yes ’only just’ in the majority. How things have changed since the days when the polls showed them with consistent substantial leads. 

Whilst independence is racing ahead in the constitutional race devolution is apparently a ‘disaster’. The remaining devolution supporting Nos must be wondering why on earth they should support a union led by a loose talking buffoon who so casually dismisses Scottish democracy. Meanwhile the crisis in unionism is such that they are conflicted as to whether to continue with the disastrous ‘aggressive unionism’ approach or adopt something more conciliatory. The dilemma for them is that the union was always supposed to be the favoured choice and they simply do not know how to adapt to being beat. 

You would think with all of this that the Yes movement would be ecstatic and even thinking of that first dram celebrating the impending death of the union, but not a bit of it. There are some, particularly on social media, who have become consumed with the view that there will never be an agreed referendum and a strange gloom and fatalism has taken hold. We could actually soon be knee deep in fighting the next contest and there will be some still swearing blind ‘it will never happen’. It doesn’t matter how much the Tories are gearing up for the next referendum and how many resources are being assembled the idea that ‘they will never agree’ has now become a matter of faith for some.

Now, I am sincerely of the opinion that the Tories will agree to another referendum particularly if the conditions of 2011 are recreated and there is another SNP majority. This, combined with a majority in favour of independence means the only chance the Tories have of saving their union will be to agree to an early contest. They know that to continue to say ‘No’ they will only drive support for independence even higher. They also know that if they continue to hold out they will not be saying ‘No’ to a referendum anymore they will be saying ‘No’ to democracy itself and that is an altogether different prospect and uncomfortable place for any government.

But just say those who profoundly believe ‘he will never agree’ are right and we are in a situation where even with a majority a referendum is ‘refused’. What happens next? Well something would have to give. It would be intolerable for any Government to forbid a nation to progress to a new constitutional arrangement if a majority desire it. 

At this stage we would face two choices. We could either embark on a series of measures to ‘make’ the UK face up to its democratic responsibilities or we determine a process that would no longer involve the UK as a partner and hope that any outcome would be respected by the international community and continue to carry the support of the Scottish people.

Why we stick to an agreed process with the UK is because it is quite simply the easiest and most convenient route to get to independence. If a referendum is agreed with the UK both sides of the question would be put to the Scottish people and if Yes prevailed we would go straight to independence, being immediately recognised by the international community. That would be it, we would be an independent country! I know there are people starting to suggest that the UK would try and gerrymander a referendum but any contest would have to be agreed by both sides with electoral authorities arbitrating.

Doing this without the UK being involved is an altogether much more complicated and riskier prospect. If we were to proceed without UK participation there would be no ‘No’ proposition leading to all sorts of questions about democratic legitimacy. The UK would then inevitably say ‘No’ to the result of any uncontested plebiscite or wildcat referendum. The danger would be without that UK acceptance we could be forced down the route of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the consequences of which could not be more serious. Where we are not Catalonia, we can see from their recent example the likely response from the international community if we were to pursue such a course of action. The EU have always said that they would welcome an independent Scotland back into its ranks but only if independence was pursued constitutionally, legally and in their view, correctly. An uncontested plebiscite and talk of UDI would simply appall them. 

There is also the very big question of whether the Scottish people would be prepared to go along with such a course of action. Since the inception of the SNP we have pursued independence with a firm belief in democracy, consent and constitutionality. It is a huge ask to expect the Scottish people to abandon that approach and embrace anything that looks like UDI. 

So what do we do if the UK does indeed continue to say No? Well, we turn up the heat, start to withdraw consent and build up international capacity. Where we should not give away the complete game plan the first thing we must do is to give the UK Government every opportunity to engage. We must burst every sinew to have them sit round the table to discuss the democratic choice of the Scottish people. We can allow them to draw up any agenda they want (as long as a referendum is on it) and we say to them we are prepared to meet any day, anytime, anywhere. We have to demonstrate to the International community and the EU that we have done everything possible to get them to the table.

At the same time if a No persists we should be starting to think about withdrawing from the structures of the UK state. If they are to deny us our democracy we should not be prepared to serve fully in theirs. The most obvious first point would be the inter governmental machinery and institutions that manage relations across the UK. Another example could be Westminster MPs no longer serving on public bill committees or participating in legislation designed for the UK. We could reconvene an unofficial ‘Scottish Grand Committee’ of Scottish MPs to consider the UK legislation and reserved powers. MPs should continue to serve our constituents and speak out in Parliament but it would not be business as usual. In the Scottish Parliament legislative consent could be increasingly withdrawn. The Scottish Parliament could also start to legislate on issues at the edge of the devolved powers challenging the UK Government to strike Scottish democracy down again. We could then start to grind them down with successive constitutional disputes.

We should also start to behave like the independent nation the Scottish people desire. This would most obviously be done in international missions. These would be concurrently utilised to put our democratic case and build international support capacity. These are just a few of the options open to us. There are many, many more.

But what if after all of that if it’s still a ‘No’? Well it is then we start to put in place our own Scottish designed referendum. In the absence of the UK accepting its obligations as a partner in the process we would turn to the international community to help facilitate such a referendum. We could demonstrate that we have tried absolutely everything and there is nowhere left to turn but them. At this point not only will democracy have been denied, democracy would have seen to have failed. The international community could not allow that to stand.

At the end of the day this could either be a straight forward process that respects democracy and the choice of the people of Scotland or a messy, drawn out affair that precipitates actions that could damage future relations. All of this will be the UK’s choice. What we must not be drawn into is precipitative action that would put us on the wrong side of the international community. There will be strong lobbying from some within the movement to embark upon actions that would lead to that situation just as there will be provocation from the UK to divide us and try and force us down a route unpalatable to the international community and the Scottish people. Patience but determination will be required.

I sincerely believe that the UK will not want any of this just as much as no one in our movement wants it either. That is why I come back to where I started – the UK will agree to a referendum if we win in May. They will have looked at the consequences of saying No just as we have. They will not like the look of it at all. 

But it will be all down to them. Whatever they choose – we win, because we must. 

THE 2019 ELECTION CHANGED EVERYTHING

It’s a year to the day since the 2019 General Election was called and it will go down as the election that changed everything around the constitutional debate in Scotland. We were able to exorcise the electoral demons of 2017 and we were able to bring a new sense of confidence and determination to the whole campaign for independence. Since that election independence has been the majority choice of the people of Scotland according to nearly all opinion polls conducted. We recruited a new generation of Brexit remainers to our cause and we demonstrated that Scotland and the rest of the UK were on different trajectories in how they want to be governed. 

It brought the ‘no to a second referendum’ mini boom of the Sottish Conservatives to a shuddering halt and we rid the country of 13 unionist MPs with all their resources and local influence. After the 2019 election things would never be the same again. 

2019 was just about the best of times. Our second best ever result and the return of 48 SNP MPs. We secured a bigger share of the vote in Scotland than the Tories did in the UK. Most importantly we stopped being defined by the relative ‘failure’ of the 2017 result. It proclaimed that the SNP was back in business.

But let’s deal with some of the nonsense that is still being said about the 2017 campaign. It’s still the conventional view that we did badly because we didn’t campaign ‘hard enough’ for independence. The truth is In 2017 you couldn’t give a referendum away, and you were practically chased from the doors when the conversation got to independence with undecideds or previous soft indy supporters. Constitutional fatigue had gripped Scotland and people simply had had enough following the Brexit debacle and the independence referendum. The amount of people who told me ‘I’ve voted for you since 2001, I even voted Yes to independence, but I’m voting Tory to stop any more talk of referendums’. It really was that bad. The idea that independence supporters stayed at home because there wasn’t the necessary amount of independence fervour is just simply nonsense. In 2017 there were a lot of people who simply did not want to know. 

Fast forward 2 years and everything was completely different. With Scotland on the Brexit precipice independence suddenly made sense to a whole new generation of Scots. ‘No’ voters who voted remain were coming in droves to our cause and the election of Johnson as Prime Minister confirmed to people that the UK was already becoming a foreign country with an entirely different set of priorities. Scotland did not like the look of where a Johnson led hard right Government stuffed full of committed Brexiteers would be taking them. The Tories fought the campaign on the same ‘No to indyref” campaign as 2017 and the people of Scotland this time told them, after thinking about it, they actually did want another choice about their future. 

There were of course those who said that we ‘sacrificed’ SNP leverage or influence in the chaotic minority Tory position in 2019. That somehow we could hold back a Tory Government determined to force an election in some sort of ‘electoral cage’. All that confinement did was let the Johnson beast grow electorally stronger by the week. Where it would have been fun to watch them force a vote of confidence in themselves (which is what they would have done) it would have made no difference to their ultimate massive success in England. 

The only thing continuing the misery would have achieved would be to go continually round and round the futile Brexit wheel, continuing the misery, trying to find a way to stop a Brexit that was driving our support and denying the people of England what they seemed to want. The disastrous ‘people’s vote’ campaign and the consort of Blairites and Liberals who ran it were simply the most inept political ‘operators’ I have ever observed in my 20 years at Westminster. I parted company with them, and even broke the SNP whip, when it got so absurd that they proposed a vote to ‘stop Brexit’ that didn’t involve, well, a vote to stop Brexit! Jo Swinson, Chukka and the rest of them got everything they deserved. 

The defeat of 2019 also had impacts on the Scottish opposition parties. The Scottish Conservatives have now been deprived of the one thing that has sustained them over the past few years abandoning their ‘no to a second referendum’ messaging. They know that they can no longer campaign against something they’ve ‘apparently’ ruled out without conceding that one is indeed going to happen. They will now try to campaign on domestic issues forever hampered by their southern neighbours making a pigs ear out of governing in the UK. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour just appear to be crushed by the sheer weight of their constitutional and leadership dilemmas. They will once again have to campaign in what was their ‘former’ heartlands on a hard unionist agenda that no-one who used to vote for them wants to know. 

The result of 2019 has helped set us up beautifully as we go into the most important Scottish election. This will be the independence election and the momentum caused by 2019 will mean we go into it with independence at a record high and at a sustained majority. Support for the SNP is well over 50% and if borne out we will again have an overall majority. The only people who now seem to be able to beat us are ourselves, and by god, at times it seems we are doing everything possible to try and make that happen…

2019 has helped give us the best chance we have ever had to make all our independence ambitions come true. It’s all up to us now. 

PLAN B IS NOT THE ANSWER

So it looks like Plan B is to be debated at conference and the party will have a chance to decide if this is indeed the ‘deadlock breaker’ that will end all our referendum woes. Borne out of an implacable belief that ‘Boris’ will ‘never’ agree to a ‘Section 30’ its proponents contend that this will be the route that will allow Scotland to chose. 

But what exactly is Plan B? What does it actually do and has it any chance of actually working? 

Sometimes like the proverbial constitutional bus several Plan Bs come along at once. If you look round ‘Yes’ social media you would find plenty to chose from. There are the various UDIs, legal challenges, covenants and wildcat referendums all claiming to be the real thing.

But the Plan B that will present itself to conference is a pretty straight forward affair. It proclaims that a victory based on a parliamentary majority will lead to negotiations to independence. In advance the UK Government will be offered a final opportunity to ‘give’ a Section 30. Refusal would mean that the UK Government would meet the full force of, well, an election… But an election like no other. In fact a ‘plebiscite’. 

Reading the motion I’m not entirely sure if there is also to be a programme for Government and a policy platform for the next Parliamentary term or whether it will just be independence and nothing else. What is entirely certain is that all the unionist opposition parties would refuse to agree to an election framed on this basis. Unlike a dedicated referendum there will be no opposition case and nobody representing the union case. It will therefore be the SNP fighting some sort of quasi referendum and all the other parties contesting a scheduled election. 

This then leads immediately to countless questions around democratic legitimacy. Forget the fact that no other nation has ever done anything remotely like this before it breaks every notion that independence should only be secured on the back of a public majority. We would also have to assume that the Scottish people would somehow go along with their democracy being appropriated like this, and that is a very big assumption…

But before we get into all of that surely the most basic question is what happens when the UK Government says ‘No’ to a Scottish Government newly armed with a mandate to ‘negotiate’ independence, as it most definitely will? 

This is a UK Government that has said ‘No’ to another agreed referendum and which consistently says ‘No’ to devolving the powers to Scotland to hold a referendum. We are apparently invited to accept the notion that they will turn 180 degrees on their heads and say – ‘OK we’ve done everything possible to stop you having another referendum but we’ll agree to negotiate independence with you because you won an election’? After being told repeatedly about the perniciousness of the UK state and the certainty of the ‘Boris veto’ it is beyond naive to believe that they will somehow so readily acquiesce to the result of an election?

‘We’ll just do it anyway’ you might then say. Well, this is where we start to get into some seriously tricky territory. ‘Just doing it anyway’ means we would be doing something broadly similar to what Catalonia did when they won their uncontested referendum – without actually winning a referendum! This would in effect mean we would be declaring some sort of Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). The consequences of that could not be more serious. 

Almost certain to be one of the first things to happen is that we would have all of this immediately ruled illegal and be disenfranchised from the entire international community. We would be left in the sort of hellish limbo currently endured by the people of Catalonia. The idea that the Scottish people who have conducted the debate around independence constitutionally and legally for decades would somehow embrace a ‘UDI’ is almost beyond preposterous and is just not going to happen. 

Of course UDI might be the furthest thing from the mind of the ‘plan B-ers’. It may be to them a means to simply exercise further leverage on the UK to ‘grant’ the plan A of a referendum, as some have indeed suggested. But this then takes us right back to their ‘Boris veto’ without taking us any further forward in our independence ambitions having wasted a great deal of time and support in the process.

What a ‘Plan B’ does more than anything else is let the Tories off the referendum hook. They are getting beat and they know it. They know that if the SNP replicate the conditions of the 2011 election and secure another majority it is all more or less over. All their current planning and strategising is simply screaming ‘we are in big trouble’. The Tories know a referendum is coming and the only people who have absolute faith in the Tories sustaining their current ‘No’ to a referendum are the Plan B-ers and others on social media.

The Tories in fact can’t believe their luck. They know the last chance of their union being saved is if we beat ourselves. Their only plan is to say ‘No’ then hope that this No is accepted as their last word and gospel on the matter and then count on the frustration and division building. They could not be more delighted at the way this simple but effective plan is working out. The loudest cheers of an SNP conference backing this Plan B motion will be in the offices of the Conservative party. It would be a total vindication of their ‘Plan No’. They, without doing practically anything, will have pushed us down the road of the electorally unpalatable whilst ending their referendum difficulties. 

The only good thing about all of this is it that this damaging debate will come to a head. We as a party will debate a ‘Plan B’ and the result of conference must be respected and we then all get back to winning our independence.

I very much hope the Plan B motion is comprehensively defeated but despite all my many reservations if this is what the party decides then I will do all I can to make it work. 

I hope all the Plan B-ers will do the same if the motion is defeated

THE CRISIS IN UNIONISM

What has happened to unionism? 

6 years after a decisive win in the first independence referendum its prospects have never been so grim and its uncertainty and lack of confidence so apparent. There are very few good options available to it anymore and unionism now looks to the future with a mixture of resigned resignation and a sense of being completely overwhelmed.

Immediately following the referendum it must have thought its prospects were good. Scotland had decided to stay in the union and, for them, the argument was settled. The Smith Commission was hastily set up to ensure that the post referendum landscape moved the referendum debate on. They even had an all party buy in to ensure that the work was carried out relatively consensually and rancour free. Perhaps there was even a belief that Scotland would move on from the referendum and there would be a return to a sort of unionist ‘business as usual’. 

If there was that belief it was short lived. The 45% of Scots who had voted Yes and had become politically active during the referendum campaign had almost collectively decided that they weren’t going anywhere soon. Membership of the SNP and the Greens almost increased 10 fold and a defiance was starting to assert itself in an independence movement that had decided that the fight wasn’t over yet. Then there was the reckoning. Scotland had decided to collectively punish the Labour Party for siding with the Conservatives in the referendum and Labour had absolutely nothing to offer the working class areas that they had represented for decades who had just voted for independence.

Then there was the behaviour of the UK Government. Instead of behaving like the gracious victor it started to immediately antagonise the losing independence side. Within hours of the close of polls David Cameron had started his plans for EVEL and the plans of ‘near federalism’ and of ‘leading the UK’ were never to be mentioned again. The result was that in the 2015 General Election the SNP won 56 out of the 59 available Scottish constituencies.

Then almost by accident came their real opportunity. Brexit was the new constitutional game in town and all the attention returned to this decades old Tory debate. Scotland overwhelmingly decided to vote to remain in the EU but there was a sense of constitutional fatigue and the post referendum edge seemed to go out of the independence debate. There was also the realignment in unionism. With the disappearance of Scottish Labour the Conservatives became the exclusive voice of unionism. 

A more user friendly, dynamic leadership was offered combined with a clear unionist unifying ‘no more referendums’ slogan and the Tories started what was, for them, their post referendum happy times. Progress was first noticed in the 2016 Scottish election where they overtook a Labour Party in terminal decline then it went almost stratospheric in the 2017 election when they went from 1 MP to 13. Support for independence simultaneously declined and it seemed for a moment that the forces of unionism just might be over the worst of their post referendum malaise. 

It was in this period that the policy of ‘aggressive unionism’ was forged and became the staple of the Conservative approach to the constitution. It involved saying an emphatic ’No’ to any further possible referendums whilst looking at various ways to diminish what they saw as  the ‘nationalist power base’ of the Scottish Parliament. For a while it looked like it might just gain some traction. 

Then came the Brexit reckoning. The sheer political carnage of the Brexit fall out was just about to hit home and in Scotland 2 constitutional issues were set to combine and unite in a way that would transform the constitutional debate forever. Aggressive Brexit-ism joined aggressive unionism under the new leadership of Boris Johnson and Scotland looked on in horror. Unionists who had voted ‘No’ to Scottish independence but voted remain suddenly found themselves conflicted. They quickly came to the conclusion that any risks associated with independence were as nothing to the no deal/hard deal Britain that was in store under a chaotic UK Government led by Boris Johnson.

Unionism in 2020 is then unprepared for the challenges of this new political environment. Anchored in their policy of ‘aggressive unionism’ it seems paralysed by the increasing support for independence and singularly incapable of responding to the new dynamic in the constitutional debate. Every month sees a new high in the support for independence and the only response seems to be an increasing belligerence to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish democracy. 

In order to try and respond to their precarious situation they have commissioned former Number 10 SPAD, Andrew Dunlop, to see what could be done to ‘strengthen the union’. In a briefing I attended as Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee the only recommendations I seemed to hear were to somehow ‘union proof’ Whitehall decision making (whatever that means) and put more resource into the Scotland Office. The main innovation, though, is the policy of ‘slap a jack on it’. With the prosperity funding arrangements and the direct funding provisions in the Internal Market bill the Tories hope to demonstrate to the people of Scotland their generosity and largesse by branding a huge number of funding projects with the Union Jack and an accompanying message of ‘funded by the UK’.

Somehow, they believe that this will be enough to get the Scottish people to love them again and have them see just how beneficial their union is. I couldn’t think of anything that would irritate the Scottish people more! ‘Slap a jack on it’ will only demonstrate that the UK is increasingly becoming a distant, imposing power unrelated to Scots everyday experiences. 

And this is the crux of the problem for the Tories. They are so wedded to ‘fighting’ independence and ‘resisting’ the possibility of a referendum that they seem incapable of recalibrating to the situation of being behind. Aggressively saying ‘No’ could just about hold when you speak on behalf of a majority but now that there is a sustained majority in favour of independence it is now just anti democratic. The Tories are no longer ‘opposing’ a referendum they are now opposing Scottish democracy itself. That is a tough place to be. 

They have also seriously underestimated the attachment the Scottish people have to our national Parliament and the view that an attack on it is an attack on them. They have nothing to say to win back the hundred of thousands of Scots who have deserted the cause of unionism because of Brexit. They are also stuck with Boris Johnson whose every action simply seems to provoke the people of Scotland. 

The smarter unionists know that this is no longer working for them and that simply saying No is simply unsustainable. They desperately call for a more consensual approach to Scotland that recognises the reality of their current situation. Their calls are so far going unheeded. If current standings in opinion polls are realised and there is a clear majority for a referendum, backed with a majority, there will be a major battle in the forces of unionism between the pragmatists and those who will want to tough out the ‘No’ message and continue with the ‘aggressive unionism’ policy.

The real choice for the unionists is do they want to resolve the issue of Scotland’s constitutional demands in partnership with us or in opposition to us? I still don’t know whether pragmatism will prevail or whether there will be a futile battle with us which they must know can only be lost. 

I only know, that whatever they chose, we win.

THE PEOPLE’S ACTION ON SECTION 30

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Dear Martin 

Thank you very much for your email asking me and my fellow MPs to contribute to your fundraiser. Where I want to wish you well, and note the impressive sum that you have raised so far, I will not be making any donation. 

There are a number of concerns I have about this initiative. First and foremost is that I believe it may compromise progress towards securing our aim of independence. I also fundamentally believe that where legal actions may at some time be required, Scottish independence will be determined by political means and not through initiatives in the courts.

Where legal opinion is split on whether you may be successful, my exclusively political view looking at the available evidence, is it is unlikely to be successful. There are also further questions about whether you will be able to continue the fundraising efforts for a series of very expensive actions which may be required throughout all the necessary stages of this case. You will also be aware that the Scottish Government is not supporting this action.

But it is the likelihood of failure that I want to highlight as my main concern.

There are many good reasons why both sides in this debate have left this issue unresolved. For the independence case, having this tested (at this stage) and the prospect of losing it now could be disastrous for our independence prospects. The first response from unionists following a defeated action would be of unbridled jubilation. Where they are currently losing the argument, whilst having to observe support for independence at a sustained majority for the first time in our history, securing a judgement that a Scottish designed independence referendum is ‘illegal’ might just gift them a boost to their moribund campaign. 

Secondly, if the UK Government were to continue to refuse to participate in a properly constructed ‘legal’ referendum, agreed by both sides, we might need to use a Scottish based referendum as either a tactic to force them to an arrangement or as a basis of a campaign to resolve the issue. If it is already declared ‘illegal’ this will not be available to us. Where I note that you and your supporters take a fairly casual and cavalier approach to any defeat what you may be doing is creating a legal cage for a Scottish designed referendum and then have that referendum permanently locked inside it. 

I do however note that you may be successful, and even if I personally believe that to be unlikely, that would indeed be a positive outcome. However that satisfaction might be short lived. Firstly we would still require the UK to participate in a referendum to supply a ‘No’ case and we would further require them to recognise any result to secure a legal basis to the referendum and to have it internationally recognised. There are also further legal hurdles in the Scotland Act 1998 to overcome about reservations in relation to the constitution. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, any legal judgement will detail the provisions on which any action is successful. There is nothing to stop the UK subsequently amending the Scotland Act to make a referendum retrospectively illegal. This is exactly what they did in relation to the Scottish Parliament’s Continuity Bill and there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t do it again. A court ‘victory’ therefore may take us no further forward than we are now.

Finally, the letter you sent me barely made any sense referring variously to issues of popular ‘sovereignty’ and a ‘Section 30’ order. I believe that recognised legal authorities have already pointed out to you that neither of these issues have anything to do with the action you are raising. Your action is exclusively about whether Holyrood legislating for an independence referendum “relates to a reserved matter” under the Scotland Act. A Section 30 Order and ‘sovereignty’ are not detailed in your action and have nothing to do with your intended court case.

I know that independence supporters are desperate to see their nation secure its rightful place in the community of nations and are looking for anything that might secure some sort of shortcut to achieving that. However, those of us elected to secure independence for our nation have a responsibility to detail reservations we may have on particular plans and proposals and highlight some of the difficulties that might emerge from pursuing certain actions. I’m afraid that your action does not provide a helpful way forward and presents just far too many risks. For those reasons I will not be contributing to your fund-raising  appeal. 

A ROUTE MAP TO INDEPENDENCE

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Who would have thought that five and a half years after losing a referendum on independence support is now edging over 50% and becoming a sustained majority? The resilience of the movement and the belief that this is unfinished business has endured and we are now at the point where we can almost touch out and reach our ambitions and move towards the reality of Scotland becoming an independent nation. 

The Tories and unionists know they can’t beat us. The scent of decay in the union case is almost overwhelming and they know that they are approaching the endgame. Large numbers of No voters from 2014 have joined our ranks angry at Scotland being taken out of the European Union against its will. More have joined frustrated at the performance of the UK under the leadership of Boris Johnson and his arrogance in presuming to deny us a choice on our future. A majority in Scotland now back independence and that majority is only going to get bigger. We are at a tipping point and approaching the optimum time for the question to be put about our future as an independent nation. The last hope the UK has is that the movement beats itself through frustration, division and impatience. After coming this far and having this in our grasp, we simply can not allow that to happen. 

So how do we design a route map to independence that unites everyone in our movement? How do we bring together those that believe that our approach has to be gradual and constitutional with those more eager to be more assertive in dealing with the UK? How can we arrange a way where those still to be won over or tentative in their support can be united with those determined just to get it done? Well, we do it all in stages, going through a series of steps increasingly intensifying our approach.

The first thing we have to do is quite simple, and has underpinned our strategy since the SNP was established – build the support for independence and get to a sustained majority.

It doesn’t matter if it’s called Plan A or Plan Z , without a majority every putative plan falls. The building of support, the persuading of those who have to be convinced, must always be the first stage in the mission of winning our independence. The bigger that support, the bigger our claim and right. We have now reached that point, and that was always going to be the most difficult stage to achieve.

The next stage is to secure a referendum that would get us to independence. In 2014 we held a referendum that would have been immediately legally recognised. We stick to this approach because we know it works and is a process that the Scottish people clearly understand and accept. if we are successful in such a vote it would automatically transition Scotland to independence. It is right that we set out to secure this as the means to secure our independence this time round too. 

Only, as we know, the UK seem less than obliged to participate in this and have set themselves up as a block. It seems they have two main reasons why they believe that they can do this. The first is they still believe that they represent majority opinion in Scotland on independence and believe their assertion that there is no support for another referendum. That is why we need to properly secure and own majority opinion on the issue. It must become the conventional view that independence is the will of the Scottish people. Secondly, they know that it remains in their interests to say No to reinforce their base and secure their Parliamentary representation. Lastly, they do it because they can, and in exercising a veto they variously hope that something turns up or we beat ourselves through impatience.

Then there are the various mandates. The simple fact is that these mandates have never been respected or recognised by the UK. They see them as half hearted, conditional and simply a part of various manifestos where the SNP have emerged as the largest party. Only the 2011 ‘mandate’ backed with an SNP majority has been taken seriously by the UK. If we were to unilaterally ‘use the mandate’ we would have to accept that (at this stage) it would mean there would be no participation from the UK, no ‘No’ opposition and any victory on that basis would be legally questionable and next to meaningless in the court of international recognition.

This is why the next Holyrood election is so important. We must have a clear and unambiguous commitment to hold a referendum and have it understood that a vote for the SNP is a vote for a referendum on independence. If the SNP can secure an overall majority as we did in 2011 that would replicate the conditions when the last referendum was triggered. If we also get another majority then the whole democratic case of withholding a referendum is taken away. That is why talk of ‘list’ parties and ‘gaming’ the system are so singularly unhelpful.  

Winning a majority and securing an irrefutable mandate should be the end of the matter and we should then move quickly to a referendum in agreement with, and participation of the UK. That would be stage 2 concluded and an end to the process.  

But if the UK continue to block us then this is when we should be prepared to move beyond the Section 30 process. This is when we move into stage 3 and into the territory of ‘all options’ as suggested by the First Minister. 

What we have to demonstrate is that we have tried absolutely everything possible to secure the UK as a participant in resolving the question of our democratic right to consider our nation’s future. We have to conclusively convince the EU and the international community that no stone has been left unturned in trying to engage them as a partner in resolving this democratically and constitutionally.

If the UK refuses to participate in an agreed referendum in the face of majority support and a clear democratic mandate we must presume that they have decided to exempt themselves from their obligations and responsibilities as a partner in the union. We would then have the grounds to seek to secure our independence without their participation. This should involve a referendum designed in Scotland where a last invitation is offered to the UK to participate to put the case to remain in the union.  A request to the EU to sanction this referendum should be made and every attempt to involve them in the designing of that referendum should be pursued.

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We should also concurrently start ‘the equivalent’ of an accession process as a substate to rejoin the EU. Where there is no provision in the EU rules to allow for this we should express our intention to rejoin and seek their approval and participation in designing a process to achieve that outcome. We would say to the EU that the UK is refusing our democratic right as a nation to be part of the EU and we should do all we can to keep Scotland aligned with EU regulations.

Beyond that, we should be looking at withdrawing from the apparatus of the UK state and starting to informally acquire the responsibilities currently exercised by the UK. This could start by withdrawing from the inter governmental infrastructure determining the management of the four nations of the UK. This could be escalated up to and including the participation in institutions of the UK Parliament. 

All of this has to be done with the full consent and approval of the Scottish people. That all through this process we demonstrate to them that we have deployed reason and constraint, that we have stopped at nothing to engage the UK. This is where we need to show the patience but determination that has historically characterised our independence movement.

It is all about these ‘ducks in a row’ and ensuring that they are in perfect aquatic alignment. 1. Secure majority support and a cast iron democratic mandate secured on the back of a majority in the Scottish Parliament. 2. Secure a referendum with the participation of the United Kingdom with a process that is beyond legal dispute. Then, If necessary 3. After exhausting all possible means to engage the UK, a process be designed with the EU and International community to allow an internationally recognised referendum to take place, whilst simultaneously withdrawing from the institutions of the UK. 4. Win that referendum and become an independent nation. 

This is the practical and inclusive way forward in securing our independence. Incrementally, consensually and taking the whole movement together, united.