Author Archives: petewishart

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.

PLAN B. PANACEA OR ANOTHER DEAD END?

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So plan B is back. This time with an opinion poll which seems to suggest it comes with majority public support. Always there as a proposed route forward is this the possible solution to all our indy woes and could it indeed break the constitutional stand off and get us swiftly and easily to independence? If it is now a serious contender we surely owe the proposition the scrutiny it deserves and to ask a few gentle but searching questions to test if it does indeed offer the salvation we all seek.

But what exactly is plan B? Sometimes like the proverbial constitutional bus several plan Bs come along at the same time, each making a claim to be the real thing. As yet no one has actually outlined what the exact proposal is. Looking around the debate it does seems to coalesce around the idea that if the SNP wins a majority of seats in a ‘democratic event’ this then gives the party the right to begin negotiations on independence. 

This democratic event might even arrive as early as next year and it is suggested that the next election to Holyrood should be fought on this Plan B basis. That would therefore mean that the 2021 election ceases to be a General Election in the conventional sense and instead becomes a single issue plebiscite exclusively on the proposition that if the SNP secures a majority we move towards becoming an independent state. If it was to happen there would be no programme for Government, no defence of a record in power, just a straight forward one issue independence question. 

I think we can take it as a given that all the unionist opposition parties would refuse to agree to an election framed on this basis and 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 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 majority in a dedicated referendum. 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’, 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 360 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 it is beyond naive to believe that they will somehow so readily acquiesce to the result of a plebiscitary 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. 

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Of course UDI might be the furthest thing from the mind of the ‘plan B-ers’; again we don’t know, because they haven’t told us. 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 that then comes back to the first question posed to them. What happens when the UK says ‘No’ again and how therefore does it take us any further forward? There are only two ways to pursue independence, one is with the participation of the UK state, the other is through a unilateral declaration.  

Where the plan B-ers are right is that this needs to be debated in the SNP and put to bed. The level of divisive self defeating nonsense we see on social media must come to an end and we have to unite behind an agreed way forward. My prediction is that this plan B is likely to prove as popular as the attempts to foist it on to the agenda at last year’s conference, particularly now that it will be properly scrutinised with serious questions asked of it. My little bit of advice to my good friends in the ‘plan B movement’ is to at least come up with some sort of concrete proposal so we can have some idea what it is we are supposed to debate. 

The only ‘plan’ we need is the one that gets us to independence and so far the one we are currently pursuing seem to be working and proving to be popular with the Scottish people. After losing a referendum only 5 and a half years ago almost unbelievably we are easing into sustained majority support for the first time with another spectacular poll this morning. We are on course for winning another majority in Parliament and we can almost reach out and touch our ambition. The SNP will enter the next Holyrood election with a route map to secure our nation’s independence and we will win it if that is what the Scottish people desire.

The unionists know that they can no longer beat us. Their last hope is that we beat ourselves. Their only plan is to say ‘No’ then hope that this No is accepted as their last word and gospel and count on frustration and division building. What always surprises me is that so many people think that ‘No’ is immutable and just so readily accept it. But they will be overcome and that will be done by force of electoral numbers, and if necessary, an escalation of tactics by getting all our indy strategy ducks in a row. There may be a time for some sort of Plan B, but that time has not come yet. 

A NEW INDEPENDENCE PARTY – IT’S NOT WORTH THE RISK.

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There has been a bit of talk about the formation of a new independence party on social media.

People frustrated in what they see as ‘wasted’ SNP votes and angry at observing unionist politicians securing ‘unelected’ places on Scottish Parliament seats. They believe that the list can be ‘gamed’ and that all these ‘wasted’ SNP votes could find themselves going to independence candidates swelling the numbers of independence MSPs and helping deliver that killer blow to the union.

They have recently been joined by a small but vociferous group on social media who are impatient that no independence referendum has yet taken place, and frustrated at what they see as a lack of commitment from Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership. To them it is necessary to have a new party to pursue the independence agenda more aggressively and keep the SNP ‘honest’.

The obvious electoral risks of pursuing that objective is outweighed in what they see as electoral opportunities. The fact that we already have an indy majority and have had since 2011 doesn’t seem to reassure them and the fact that the Greens already exist as an established independence  list party ignored. Instead the ‘right’ type of party/parties are required to maximise the independence vote. 

And so far there seems no end of possible vehicles for this potential new party. Early contenders are Wings Over Scotland, the newly formed ‘People’s Alliance’, the more obscure Scottish Independence Referendum Party and most recently a group called the Independence for Scotland Party has been approved by the Electoral Commission. Add to that the more established Yes parties including Solidarity and possibly SSP/RISE, and together with the Greens, we begin to see a never ending bounty for the discerning indy list party seeker.

Given the plethora of possible parties some arrangement would be an absolute essential for any of them to have even the remotest chance of success. But in classic Judean Popular Front style some of the personalities involved with these nascent parties have issues with each other just as much as they have concerns with the the leadership of the SNP itself. For example, the one party most likely to emerge is a Wings Over Scotland Party, and its main figure, Stuart Campbell, has been toying with the Yes movement for some time as to his intentions. Loved by his supporters, Campbell remains at best a marmite figure even amongst those on Twitter less obliging towards Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Consumed with an obsessive crusade against the already shelved Gender Reform Act one would have to presume that if he did reach for the rosette he would not exactly be a ‘unifying’ figure to those impatient with current arrangements.

And that brings us to what platform would this/these parties stand on? Where there have been conditional ‘assurances’ that they would exist to support the SNP a number of agendas inevitably have started to appear. For example, a more aggressive approach to independence would be an absolute priority. Anything from UDI to legal challenges, to directly confronting Westminster will surely feature on any leaflet. The first test of any hope of success will rest on whether the general Scottish public is in tune with the impatience and frustration observed on parts of Twitter.

The second main platform (perhaps bizarrely for those who see independence as an exclusive priority) would be an apparent firm opposition to any sort of gender reform. This would have to be an absolute minimum if Stuart Campbell is to be involved. Economic issues are also unlikely to go unnoticed and there will be an obvious interest in Foreign policy. It is therefore possible that this would bring these list parties into conflict with the SNP. Instead of ‘assisting’ the SNP they could find themselves in opposition, perhaps even siding with unionists to stop the SNP getting their way on things they don’t like.

But perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here because we have to ask if there is any real appetite for a new party beyond the fringes of social media? In the last opinion poll the SNP secured 54% for Holyrood with satisfaction ratings of 71%. The Scottish people seem to like what the SNP are doing just now and particularly approve of our First Minster. For the list, 45% indicated that they would vote SNP with 8% for the Greens. Any new and unknown party would have to campaign hard against established, popular indy parties just to get noticed in a Scotland     relatively content in how it is governed. We only have to look at the example of RISE at the last election when they secured a paltry 0.5% of the vote.

But it is the damage that all this could do to the wider independence cause that is the main issue of concern. Just as we are winning new recruits to independence with support nudging into the majority along could come several parties campaigning against each other and risking all sorts of division. For all the clever theories about ‘gaming’ a PR system the real risk is that instead of increasing independence representation new parties fighting the SNP and the Greens for list votes could deny us that indy majority. And it might just be me, but I’m not particularly sure the public will be all that comfortable with an overt attempt to ‘game’ a Parliamentary election. Our proportional Parliament is by no means perfect but it is so much better than first past the post Westminster. In Holyrood elections most parties come close to securing the actual votes cast in total for each party. I remember when Labour were dominant and suggested standing as ‘co-operative’ candidates to increase their number. I recall the outrage that was expressed by us, and others, to that quickly shelved proposal. Lastly, if these parties did manage to depress the SNP overall vote this would be grasped as a ‘victory’ for the unionists who exclusively view SNP votes as independence votes. 

In the last 2 elections we secured an independence majority so why would we want to risk it all as we prepare for an election which could be critical to our prospects of securing independence? We have an indy majority just now. Let’s not do anything that risks losing it. 

WITHOUT THEIR ‘NO TO INDYREF2’ IT COULD BE A LONG, HARD ELECTION FOR THE TORIES

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I admit it (sad as it may seem) I’m a keen student of the Scottish Conservatives. Having had them as my main and only credible opponent in Perthshire I find them a fascinating, eccentric and curiously dishevelling political organisation. I observe them scrupulously and am always keen to understand what they are up to and where they are at. After all these years I think I can confidently say that I have got to know them reasonably well. For example, at the last General Election I was able to tell that I was more or less safe when I saw that they were re-running the same campaign as 2017. I think I can say (with all due modesty dispensed with) that I knew well before they did that they had no chance. In the end I increased my majority from 21 to 7,550 and secured 51% of the vote. 

They now have a new leader and they are quite rightly excited about their prospects at the next Scottish election. They certainly don’t lack ambition. They have said that they intend to become the next Scottish Government after May next year. And to be fair, for them, they have had a few successful years. They have overtaken Labour and have become the main opposition in Scotland. Two years ago they secured 13 MPs and for a while it seemed that their upward trajectory had real momentum. They were dynamically led and managed to almost distance themselves from the traditional Conservative image with all the negative connotations associated with what had became something close to a toxic brand in Scotland. 

Unfortunately, a couple of minor things came along which brought this progress to a shuddering halt. One, was the election of a deeply unpopular (in Scotland anyway) Conservative Prime Minister in the shape of Boris Johnson. Secondly (as a consequence) the departure of the Scottish leader who had presided over this modest success. The first electoral test they faced under these new circumstances was calamitous. They lost more than half of their Westminster representation and saw their national vote share plummet. 

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So what now for their chances as they go forward?

I think that it would be uncontroversial to suggest that their new leader is not exactly imbued with the charisma of his predecessor. Jackson may be many things but a font of charm, he most definitely is not…

The one policy that has come to define the Scottish Conservatives in the past few years has been their absolute and determined opposition to a further referendum on independence. They have pretty much made this their exclusive domain and are more or less defined by stopping Scotland deciding again. I collect all their literature (again, sad, I know) and every single leaflet I have had since 2015 is at least 2/3rds devoted to this ‘no to’ message.

So what is the first thing they do under their new regime? Well, almost incredulously, it is to dispense with the one thing that has underpinned any modest electoral success that they have had in the past few years. The Scottish Conservatives have ‘ruled out’ an independence referendum so will now no longer be able to campaign against it.  No more field posters asking us to ‘say no to indyref 2’ no more ‘vote for us to stop another referendum’. Campaigning against something they have ruled out would render them ridiculous and more critically would have them concede that a referendum is still a possibility.

Losing this means they will have to do something different and that looks like a hysterical and sustained assault on the SNP’s record. Attacks on education, the health service, policing will now descend into the apocalyptic. They rightly calculate that the media will pick up on this supersonic ‘SNPbad’ armageddon with them telling us that only by voting Scottish Conservative will this be put right.

Only, there’s maybe a couple of obvious flaws in this plan. The first is that the Conservatives are actually in power in the UK and everyone can see what they are like in Government. All the Scottish people need to do is observe what’s happening in England and compare and contrast that with Scotland and come to their own conclusion about who is performing better. If they want, they can even have a cursory glance at their disastrous ‘Council of Chaos’ in Perthshire to see how Tory stewardship works in Scotland. 

The other problem is probably more of an issue for the Tories. People actually use public services in Scotland. For any criticism to work it has to chime with the day to day experience of our fellow Scots, most of whom are relatively satisfied with our health service, our schools and the fact that Scotland is now a safe place to live in. Yes, the Scottish people want better public services but they also get it that it’s the Tories who have introduced austerity and devastating cuts to the Scottish budget. The Scottish public know that the SNP Government are trying their best under difficult circumstances and the 45% who voted SNP just a couple of months ago suggests that they trust the SNP to deliver. Screaming at the Scottish public that they should be appalled at our hospitals, schools and police service will just alienate the Tories even further from the Scottish pulbic. 

The Tories, being Tories, will also have their own ideological agenda to pursue and that is likely to involve cutting tax and eroding the very public services that they are so unhappy with. With no ‘no to indyref2’ to campaign on they will have to have real policies which will be forensically scrutinised. Then there is the little matter of Boris Johnson, the real boss, who will continue to do things in which Scotland is unlikely to approve of. 

Without their ‘no to an indyref’ message this could be a long, hard election for the Scottish Tories, particularly in a Scotland where the constitution will define our politics like never before. Losing your only horse in the race before the starting shot is not a good start. 

It looks like their ‘mini revival’ may be well and truly over. And, ironically, they will only have themselves to blame for that.

 

 

AN ‘ADVISORY’ REFERENDUM IS NOT CONSEQUENCE FREE

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What a few months it has been for the independence movement. After the SNP’s incredible victory in December we have seen the first clear example of sustained majority support for independence with 3 polls in a row showing Yes in the lead. Out on the doors we are finding more people than ever considering independence and our Brexit opposition has brought us to the attention of a whole new swathe of Scottish public opinion. It certainly now feels like we are approaching the tipping point where support for independence is becoming the new consensus. Independence has never been closer and the only people that can now beat us is ourselves. 

What the Tories and the unionists are counting on is for the independence movement to be consumed with impatience, frustration and fragmentation. The Tories are looking for anything to get them off the independence hook and are hoping beyond hope that we embark on a strategy that will alienate our new support and confine ourselves to illegality and unconstitutionality. They counted on aggressively opposing a further independence referendum to bring Scotland to heel. Instead what has happened is that support for independence has risen with every Johnson denial of our democracy. They are now looking at us and observing with satisfaction what they see as the seeds of division. 

Where our new support for independence has been hard won it remains tenuous. Our new recruits have come mainly from former No voting remainers and they are looking to see if we are worthy of their continuing support. Talk of UDIs, ‘dissolved unions’ and wildcat referendums terrify them half to death and pursuing any such strategy could very well return them back to the Nos.

Just now all the talk of is of an ‘advisory referendum’. This is now being presented as a cost free strategy to break the deadlock. The suggestion is that the Scottish Government simply legislate to hold a referendum and in doing so provoke a legal challenge from the UK Government. The supporters of this approach suggest that nothing will be lost if this is judged illegal and that all could be gained if successful in court. I’m afraid that the suggestion that this course of action would be consequence free is simply fanciful.

Let’s look at what would in fact happen if the Scottish Government went down the ‘advisory’ referendum route. Firstly, there wouldn’t be a Brexit type drama at the Supreme Court, instead there would just be the UK Government continuing to say their usual ‘No’. Their strategy would be to boycott the whole process and refuse to engage and acknowledge any result. They would not dirty their hands on a legal challenge on something they refuse to even countenance. Instead, they would leave that to any number of unionist groups who would be positively salivating at the prospect of having independence declared ‘illegal’.

If somehow a legal challenge fails and an ‘advisory’ referendum goes ahead it would no doubt be won (given that there would be no ‘No’ proposition). It is in what happens next that we enter the unknown and where things could get really messy. Firstly, we would need to win over 50% of the total electorate as the boycotters would claim ‘victory’ with anything less. This is a huge threshold to achieve and would have to be done with co-operation from unionist local authorities who may not be particularly well disposed to participate in such a referendum. 

Then what happens with this ‘victory’ with or without such a majority? The view from supporters of the ‘advisory’ referendum route is that this would make the UK Government engage, though why they would then when they won’t now, remains unexplained. Much more likely is that the UK Government would just decide to change the law as they did with the Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill and retrospectively declare any poll illegal.

With the UK refusing to accept the result we’d be right back to roughly where we are having indulged in a one sided supra-opinion poll that may or may not have given us a useful result. More worryingly there could be pressure to use the result as a mandate for independence and simply declare UDI with all the Catalan style consequences and impacts on our international standing. In the meantime the people of Scotland will be observing all of this and we can only start to imagine what their reaction might be.

Then there is more than a good chance that any advisory referendum is declared ‘illegal’. You could just imagine the whoops of joy from the unionists. A court case would have turned independence form a political cause into a legal one and we could well have confined ourselves to our own designed legal cage. 

An ‘advisory’ referendum is therefore anything but consequence free. It is something that could set us back significantly and could also unleash a range of forces that could quickly escalate out of control. 

If I believed for one minute that this or any one of the number of ‘Plan Bs’ being considered would get us to our goal easily and quickly I would back it, and them all, in a blink of an eye. But none of them do, and this was always going to be hard work. I can also understand all those who want to grasp at ‘anything’ and who feel we should ‘just do something’. But this is about securing our nation’s independence and we have to keep our patience and constraint and not set out along a route that could be playing in to our opponents hands and could set us back years. 

With majority support in place there is a feeling that things could in fact move on quickly and this is all likely to come to a head at next year’s Scottish election. If we win that with a clear majority for independence then there will be no available grounds on which the UK Government can legitimately continue to oppose. If they do then the ‘section 30’ road may indeed be running out. It is at this stage we consider all options to progress our cause. What we have to demonstrate to the international community is that we have tried everything possible to secure our independence legally and legitimately in the face of a belligerent and non compliant parent state. 

Right now we are winning and the Tories know that they can not continue to hold out. They are praying for our discipline to break – do not oblige them

THE SCOTTISH AFFAIRS COMMITTEE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED

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When I was first elected in 2001 as part of a group of five SNP MPs I never thought it would be possible for an SNP MP to ever chair a select committee in the House of Commons. Following our landslide in 2015 when we became the third party of the House I became the first SNP MP to be confirmed as a committee Chair. With our 47 MPs in this Parliament the SNP will once again assume the Chair of two select committees.

I will therefore be throwing my hat in the ring again to continue to build on the the work that has been achieved on the Scottish Affairs Committee and hope to continue to innovate in the way that work is being done. 

When I assumed the chair in 2015 the credibility of the committee had never been lower. During the independence referendum the committee inexplicably adopted a position in the debate immediately alienating large parts of Scotland and excluding a number of key stakeholders. My first job therefore was to unite the committee, rebuild its credibility and make it a proper cross party body of scrutiny, representative of all opinion in the House. This involved patiently listening to our stakeholders and reassuring them that the Scottish Affairs Committee would be there for all Scotland. It also meant taking the committee round Scotland to engage meaningfully with the people of Scotland and listen to what they wanted from the committee.

Four years later and the reputation of the committee could not be higher. It is now seen as a key interface between civic Scotland and Westminster and through our innovative reports and inquiries it is by far the most reported parliamentary 8D3A641F-7E77-4A6C-A20D-D7A13C358D16_1_201_acommittee in Scotland. Having conducted inquiries into fair work, bank closures, Scottish agriculture, oil and gas, problem drug use and the creative industries, the committee is now an indispensable part of the national debate in Scotland. In the hothouse of Scottish politics under my chairing nearly all reports have been unanimously agreed and the Scottish Affairs is the best attended committee in the House. 

I have ensured that at least once a month the committee meets in Scotland for one of its regular sessions. More than that I have ensured that we have regular public engagement events pioneering town hall type meetings all over the country. 

I was also keen to build on relationships with colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Affairs Committee is therefore the first committee at Westminster to undertake joint work with committees in the Scottish Parliament when we conducted joint sessions into the transfer of welfare responsibilities to Scotland. 

This article appears in the House Magazine. 

THE ‘PEOPLE’S VOTE’. A CAMPAIGN DOOMED TO FAIL.

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There has surely never been a campaign so inept and ineffective as the campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’. Outplayed and outsmarted at every turn it was as if the whole campaign was designed to fail. Where the hard Brexiteers had a simple clarity to their ‘get Brexit done’ message the ‘People’s Vote’ offered nothing other than a sort of half hearted ‘stop Brexit’, which required doing the whole miserable EU referendum all over again and hoping for a different result.

Not only did the hard Brexiteers totally outplay the ‘People’s Voters’ their overwhelming success  saw them secure the hard Brexit they always craved. So total has been their victory that they are now in a position to inherit the Brexiteer bulls eye of a ‘no deal’ if the ‘deal’ eventually offered isn’t sufficiently hard enough for their insatiable anti European appetites. Where the hard Brexiteers successfully recognised and manipulated the means to deliver their hard Brexit (the Conservative party) the ‘People’s Voters’ made next to no progress in having their policy adopted save from the hapless Liberal Democrats (of whom more to come). Following the 2019 General Election the Brexiteers victory over the ‘People’s Voters” was total, brutal and absolute. 

And it could have been so different. Following the surprise result in the EU referendum there was a stop Brexit campaign there for the taking. Stunned with their success the Brexiteers were initially paralysed in knowing what to do with their prize. A minority UK Government meant that Parliamentary opportunities were aplenty and very quickly the UK public was coming to its senses in realising the scale of the mistake they had made. A solid ‘stop Brexit’ campaign from the outset could have derailed the whole project and strangled this disaster at birth. Instead what happened was that Parliament voted to trigger Article 50 on a three line Labour whip setting the clock to take the UK out of the EU in stone. Some of the leading lights of the ‘People’s vote’ incredulously voted for or abstained on this madness crippling any future campaign to stop Brexit that they themselves would seek to lead.

A campaign was required, one that would lead the increasing stop Brexit voice with a clarity of message uniting the UK in opposition to this disaster. And that is when the ‘People’s Vote’ presented itself in all its middle class, metropolitan horror. From the very first celebrity endorsement it was apparent to anyone that this was a campaign doomed to fail. Almost self congratulatory in its self styled ‘People’s’ exclusiveness the ‘People’s Vote’ offered nothing to leave voting communities save promising only to do this all over again. And the journey that it took us on in trying to win a rerun of the referendum was almost inexplicable. When challenged to describe what would be on a rerun ballot paper they hadn’t even thought through what the possible options would eventually be. Instead an imaginative range of barely credible propositions were presented in line with the ‘People’s Voters’ assessment of the current political situation. It even got to the stage that the vote they sought no longer became a stop Brexit vote and became instead a ‘confirmatory‘ vote on the Tory deal. Worse than that they even started to support a ’confirmatory’ vote without a clear option to remain. It was at this stage that I parted company with the whole exercise and broke the SNP whip to abstain against voting for this increasing nonsense.   

It was just about then that the anti Brexit UK public took the whole initiative into their own hands with the quite incredible revoke petition. This petition quickly became the fastest growing and most signed petition in UK history and seemed to totally stun the ‘People’s Voters’. Could stopping Brexit now become a real feature in the campaign to actually stop Brexit? Well no, the ‘People’s Voters’ representatives in Parliament simply ignored this petition refusing to back the various revoke amendments that I and my colleague Angus Macneil continued to put forward in Parliament. Revoke remained a forlorn and unloved concept even when the ‘Scottish case’ brought by SNP colleagues and others ruled that Article 50 could be unilaterally revoked by the UK Parliament. Bizzarely, only the initial founders of the People’s Vote concept, the Liberal Democrats, grasped the opportunity and became a party of revoke, only too late, and half heartedly. Stung by the criticism from their former comrades in the People’s Vote campaign they laughingly tried to hide from this new found policy to much ridicule and eventual electoral pain. 

And yet the ‘People’s Voters’ limped on with no majority in Parliament and up against a Conservative party that had found its Brexit mojo. I don’t think that it came as a surprise to anyone when the People’s Vote campaign finally collapsed in acrimony consumed by its own contradictions before the final General election ignominy. 

The anti Brexit voice throughout this whole miserable experience could not have been more poorly served and let down. This failure was even achieved when nearly every opinion poll suggested that there was a clear stop Brexit majority just waiting to be properly led. A failure to provide any message clarity and a failure to try and secure an effective route to secure its ambition was only the start of the People’s Voters manifest mistakes. The lessons for the SNP are manifold and will have to take another blog to explain properly. Needless to say I had profound issues with the SNP going anywhere near this campaign and wrote about my reservations at length. 

We are unlikely to see a campaign as inept as the ‘People’s Vote’ ever again and we can only feel sorry for the majority of the UK public who still oppose the UK leaving the EU. It is this majority who will now have to suck up the whole impending Brexit mess. 

Out played and not up to it, the ‘People’s vote’ was simply the worst of campaigns. 

A TALE OF TWO ELECTIONS

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Well, that was some result, wasn’t it? 48 seats and 45% share of the vote. 2017 now seems like another era. The SNP are closer to where we were in the landslide of 2015 than where we were in 2017 and everything has changed once again.

What was behind this shift and what does it tell us about where we are going? I had a front row seat in this political spectacle having successfully defended what was the most Tory/SNP marginal in the whole of the country. We went into this election a mere 21 votes ahead of the Tories and came out of the experience with a majority of 7,550 securing 51% of the vote. 

There are the obvious things. Brexit and the character of the Prime Minister himself were key. These played out miserably for the Tories and it is little wonder they rarely mentioned either of them. What they did want to talk about, in fact the only thing they talked about, was the constitution. They made this election about ‘stopping’ another indyref and every piece of literature from every candidate majored on this. They honestly believed that all they had to do was to rerun the same campaign from 2017 and they would secure the same result. They could not have been more wrong.

Their big mistake was to believe that Scotland 2019 was exactly the same as Scotland 2017. It was a huge mistake that cost them more than half their MPs and has left them in a situation which will be all but impossible to recover from. 

Firstly, let’s deal with 2017 because a lot of nonsense has been talked about that election and what was and wasn’t done by the SNP. The conventional wisdom is that independence wasn’t put to the electorate hard enough, that somehow we were running away from our core message. This view starts and ends with the belief that the Scottish public were just sitting in eager anticipation waiting to be sold an enthusiastic indy message by SNP candidates. It then follows that because this wasn’t forthcoming large sections of our support simply stayed at home instead. Where it is an appealing and convenient view it is total bunkum.

What actually happened is that the First Minister had just announced that we would be seeking a further independence referendum – the starting gun to securing our place in Europe as an independent country. It was the first step in a process of taking the case to the Scottish people and interlinking the Scottish response to Brexit with our national ambitions. It was a case that was going to take a while to properly marshal and would require a detailed case to be put. Then Theresa May called her election and took everybody by surprise. We were completely blindsided and unprepared with the result being we couldn’t even give a referendum away. 

Exactly at that point we were dealing with an electorate experiencing a deep rooted constitutional fatigue following a bruising Brexit experience and who just wanted all talk of referendums to go away. The Tories immediately seized on this mood and ran an efficient and devastating campaign of opposing that referendum. 

And it was hard election. Particularly for candidates in seats like mine where there was a historic Conservative organisation which had a core support to build upon. Even amongst our own support stopping any more constitutional upheaval had a resonance. The amount of times I was told ‘I voted for you in the last election, I even voted Yes to independence, but this time I am voting Conservative to stop another independence referendum’. It really was the worst of times.

Fast forward two years and things couldn’t be more different. Scotland has looked over the Brexit cliff edge and it does not like what it sees. It now recognises that independence is a necessary life boat to spare us from this impending UK disaster. It is collectively concluding that Scotland could be better and be so much different to Brexit Britain. Yes, we lost some support from SNP supporters who favoured Brexit, but we have gained so much more. Remain voters impressed with our commitment to retain our place in the EU and even soft Tory voters were prepared to offer us their support. I was seeing quite remarkable things in my canvass in areas that I had previously written off as Tory no-go areas.

Our job then is to hold on to that burgeoning support. It is fragile and is yet to be fully convinced. It wants to believe and we have to accommodate it. Talk of illegal referendums, UDIs, dissolving unions and trying to game or trick our way to independence will send all these aspiring recruits running back into the arms of the union case. The Tories are hoping beyond hope that we now blow it through impatience and alienate this new support that is coming our way. Instead it should now be all about gentle persuasion, about convincing and understanding. There is a real sense that we are in the end game of Scotland’s participation in their union. It really now is only ours to lose. We now have the opportunity not just to win it but to win it well and put it beyond all reasonable doubt and question.

This is now our task and we have got to show that we are up for it. I can’t wait.