Author Archives: petewishart

MEET THE ALBA PARTY

‘Just pronounce the bloody name properly……’ was my first reaction to the chaotic launch of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party. I could just about forgive the multiple technical difficulties, the questions we couldn’t hear and the awkward empty silences, but getting the Gaelic name of our nation wrong, particularly when you had just appropriated it? Come on….

But the moment when I knew this enterprise was doomed from the very start was when the words ‘we now go over to the blogger community’ was uttered, and up appeared the ominous silent presence of Wings Over Scotland’s, Stuart Campbell. From that point on I knew that no credibility could be bestowed on this mission and nothing could be done to make this a popular exercise that would in any way chime with the general public. In the course of the past couple of weeks Alba has not so much risen like the phoenix but fizzled out like a haphazard Catherine wheel at a firework show that no one wanted to go to.

Here was Alex, back and unrepentant talking about a ‘super majority’ just like the good old days. You could almost just about believe it. The references to romantic nationalism were designed to stir the loins and imagined claymores were being picked up to do gory battle on every regional list in Scotland. 

The thing with a new independence party is that only Alex could give this enterprise any sense of credibility, whilst at the same time, only Alex could ensure that it was doomed from the very start. 

His decades of leadership, his singular efforts at the last referendum, his chutzpah and political skills made him the only possible candidate for the job. But negative ratings worse than Boris Johnson’s and a failure to acknowledge his many failings brought up in his trial meant only he could ensure it would go absolutely nowhere. 

And this ‘super majority’ is a typically brilliant Alex concept. I mean who wouldn’t want a majority that was ‘super’? Ending ‘wasted’ list votes and the promise of claiming unionist scalps? What’s not to like about that? Only, of course, it is absolute bollocks. Unable to define what a ‘super majority’ actually means it has come across as a ‘vote for Alex’ vendetta. This doesn’t have the look of a great political breakthrough but has all the hallmarks of a tired and much diminished political figure wanting his ego fed with a dish of revenge, served cold. 

‘Super’ majorities are of course important. We know that because we’ve already had one. In 2011 the SNP secured an overall majority and that led to an independence referendum in 2014. It is that SNP majority that is the most secure route to a referendum again. How do we know that? Well, we know because of that precedent and because every column inch of every piece of Tory campaign literature is dedicated to ensuring another SNP majority doesn’t happen again. The Tories know that if we secure another SNP majority it’s game over. Anything that gets in the way of that is a risk to our independence ambitions.

It is inconceivable with Alex’s negative ratings that any more than the smallest subset of a small subset would be likely to vote for a party he leads. But then, just enough people might vote for him to deny an SNP list candidate or two a place in Parliament. Given the tightness of the polls those MSPs might just be the difference between another SNP majority, or not. Voting Alba actually presents as much of a risk to an SNP majority as the Tories they claim they will replace.

But there are other things wrong with Alba that is deeply troubling and that brings us back to our friends the ‘bloggers’. These people have been brought in to spread the message and to provide the intellectual and ideological heft to Alba’s appeal. Alex is used to being interviewed at election time by Paxman, Neil and Marr, now he is being interviewed by ‘Jeggit’ and ‘Barrhead Boy’. It is the damage that is done to the credibility of the whole movement by exposing the worst excesses of ‘Yes’ Twitter on to the general population. It is their innate ability to put people off the whole idea of independence that is being unleashed beyond the realms of where it can be safely contained.

The bloggers and their followers are also full on ‘raging against the woke’ social conservatives and their obsessions have to be satisfied. So it’s straight to ‘women’s rights’ and a full assault on the ‘hated’ GRA, progressive equality policies and anything designed to make the lives of trans people just that little bit more tolerable. 

Inevitably we were left with the appalling and absurd contention that the Scottish Government supports the idea of lowering the age of consent to 10 years old with the associated smears that the LGBT+ community is aligned to underage sex and paedophilia. The creation and propagation of the ‘predator’ is a trope as old as the hills but here was Alba heading down that rabbit hole within a political minute of it being formed. We now eagerly await the policy announcements on defence, foreign policy and the economy, with baited breath

I have always believed that another party would come along to accommodate those in the SNP unhappy at progress towards independence and determined to pursue an agenda around their own social conservative values. It has now arrived and we will soon see just how much of a public appetite there is for plebiscites, UDIs combined with a ‘war on woke’. Currently Alba is on about 2 to 3% in the opinion polls and heading not so much for a ‘super majority’ but for zero MSPs. In forming they might even have done the SNP a favour in helping to clear out those who have done nothing other than criticise and depress the party with endless cynicism and negativity from within. They can now knock themselves out with dreams about ‘negotiating independence within a week’ whilst we get on with securing that referendum, winning it and seeing our nation emerge as an independent country. 

Alba is soon going to find that the real world is significantly different to the weird alternative reality  found on the Twitter accounts of their house bloggers. What they will find is that the general public like and approve of the SNP, and trust us to lead our nation to independence. 

MEET THE BLOGGERS….

They’re male, they’re pale, they’re angry and intolerant and by God, they loathe the SNP. 

Meet the anti-SNP ‘indy’ bloggers. A more curious assortment of irascible and irritable bunch of contrarians you’re never likely to meet. Over the course of the past couple of years they have become an easily recognisable social media community and to their followers they are legion. 

There are of course numerous independence bloggers. There are those who offer justifiable criticism, who raise legitimate concerns, who wish to discuss salient issues and want to share their insights. Then there are our friends the anti SNP ‘bad’ bloggers. Their incessant cynicism, their limitless negativity, their determination to bring down the SNP’s leadership sets them well apart from the rest of the independence supporting community. These are the SNPbaad bloggers and if you come into contact with them or their followers you will recognise them immediately. 

‘Yes’ social media is their territory and they walk it like angry behemoths devouring all and anybody who gets in their way. Over the course of the past few years they have built up a formidable and loyal following. With an output that can only be described as ‘industrial’. They are not for the faint hearted.

Such has been their success the bloggers and their followers practically own Yes Twitter. If you dare to oppose them you will be variously branded a ‘traitor’, ‘in it for yourself’, a sell out. Your character will be dissected and traduced and found wanting. Pile ons will be invited, abuse is the common currency dished out angrily to the ‘unbelievers’. I, of course, am a familiar target for their ire simply because I am one of the few SNP politicians who dares to challenge some of their assumptions.

To them I am the hilarious (now try not to laugh out loud, and hold on to your sides) ‘cosy feet’ or ‘pension Pete’. Humour, as you can see, is not a huge feature of the ‘bloggers’ angry discourse… Most politicians observing the special attention dished out to those of us who have the temerity to challenge them stay well away, save they get the same special treatment. There has also been a general belief in the hopeful ‘just leave them alone and they will go away’ maxim. That of course has been an absolute disaster leaving them an uncontested space which they have readily occupied and greedily made their own. 

But what is their agenda and what exactly do the baad bloggers want? Over the years they have gone from being a comradely part of the Yes movement and ally of the SNP, to full on loathing of everything the SNP leadership is about. I’m not entirely sure if the main objective is to replace the SNP but what they seem to want to achieve is to impose their own unworkable indy strategies on the SNP and have us adopt their deeply held social conservative values. 

If you look at them closely there seems to be three distinct but curiously complimentary strands that sustains them. The first is obvious, and that is progress towards independence. In the Yes movement there is a justifiable impatience and frustration about securing independence. We all wish we were independent already and we all wish that there was some easy quick fix that would just get us there. Cue the bloggers. They have quick and easy fixes by the shed load and all of them are conveniently a lot easier than the hard work that is required. Impatience is the food and drink of the bloggers and it is devoured hungrily. New recruits are served up the panaceas and unworkable dead ends like some cheap indy one star a la carte restaurant.

To them all we have to do is ‘use the mandate’ ‘get off our knees’ and ‘just do it’. The ‘plebiscite’ is their favourite just now but if that’s not dead end enough for you then there are various UDIs aplenty. The only thing that is ruled out is the one thing that will actually get us there and that is a legal and constitutional route recognised by the international community. This above all else has to be totally disparaged as the work of the reviled gradualist ‘SNP’. So ‘there will never be a section 30’ and absolute faith in the word of Boris Johnson has to be almost carved in blog of stone. We could soon be knee deep in the next referendum and the bloggers will still be swearing blind ‘it will never happen’. 

Then there are the wedge issues. This is a bit more complicated but has been an absolute triumph for the bloggers. It is no coincidence that to a ‘man’ they are opposed to GRA reform and that they all hold deeply social conservative views raging against the ‘woke’. They seized on the opportunities presented by those with genuine concerns about these complex issues and went to town. They quickly debased the whole debate with all sorts of erroneous disinformation and gratuitous imagery to help build capacity for their cause. It is no accident that of all the liberal democracies in the world dealing with these complex issues Scotland seems to have more problems than most. The bloggers (and one in particular) can take a round of applause for helping to achieve that. 

The third has been an absolute gift to them, a gift that they could only dare dream about, and that is the trial of Alex Salmond and the inquiry into the handling of complaints against him. Here was the ultimate wedge issue. An issue that could be neatly divided right down the middle and a side chosen. For the bloggers there was no dubiety. Alex Salmond was the ‘innocent man’ fitted up by an all consuming absurd conspiracy directed by the wicked Nicola Sturgeon and her team of plotting leadership lackeys.

This threesome of misery has allowed the bloggers to divide, depress and attack, and I have to reluctantly concede that they have made the most of all of this.

What do they do now? With an election coming you would think that they would maybe take a break for the sake of victory, but not a bit of it. Their advice is to not vote for the SNP on the list and to abstain on the constituency vote. To them the SNP is no longer a party of independence and Nicola Sturgeon is no longer interested in the cause she has been fighting for all her adult life. In their fantasy world the only people who care about independence are the bloggers and their followers. Their fantasy world has also become just that little bit more sinister and deranged with their followers adopting all sort of rightist QAnon imagery and conspiracy theories, with the threat of ‘storms’ descending on the unbelievers. Their nosedive into this weird symbology suggests that cultism has become firmly established and more of their behaviour has become that of the bizarre. The simple fact is they have now become a menace and a threat to our independence ambitions.

Will they succeed in bringing down the SNP leadership and blunting our independence hopes?Where support for independence and the SNP has dipped this is more likely down to all the negative attention the party has received over the Alex Salmond inquiry (though the Bloggers joining in the attacks with the right wing press certainly hasn’t helped). Their campaign against Nicola Sturgeon would also seem to have failed as her personal ratings remain sky high and many more people believe her than their own champion. The biggest difficulty for the bloggers is that they are exclusively confined to Twitter and Twitter bears little resemblance to the real world. For all their rantings and ravings very few people are paying attention to them. 

At some point the bloggers and their followers are going to have to decide whether they go out on their own and form their own party or continue to try and divide and depress the movement as an unaligned force. They will probably wait to see how their proxies in the ‘pop up’ list parties fare in May before deciding their next course of action, but opinion polls do not present good news for them on that front.

The bloggers just now are a cross we simply have to bear. They will swear and they will curse, they will huff and they will puff, and they will attack and they will traduce, and they will give all sorts of reasons why people shouldn’t vote for the SNP. But the movement is resilient and has survived much worse than the bloggers. Even in the last couple of weeks a number of their followers have at last started to see them for what they are and what they are all about. 

The days of the reign of the bloggers might be coming to an end just as they think it might be taking off. It can’t come soon enough.

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.  

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.