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WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG FOR ALBA, AGAIN…

Alex Salmond alba party launch video grab

So it was not to be the much trumpeted and long anticipated breakthrough it was rather once again electoral ignominy. Absolutely certain that the long forecast ‘Alba Rising’ would finally materialise they instead finished up losing all their councillors whilst registering a derisory 0.7% of the vote in the 100 or so wards they contested across Scotland. 

A year on and nothing much has changed for Alba. They remain unloved by the Scottish public and unable to breakout of their Twitter redoubt. If success was to be measured by anger and rage they would undoubtedly be the most successful party this side of a block button. Unfortunately, for them, the real world is a vastly different place from their intemperate Twitter shadowlands.  

After such an overwhelming electoral humiliation you would think that a period of quiet introspection would ensue. Most parties following such a humbling would be looking at where it all went wrong, questioning their leadership, reassessing their approach and appeal. Not Alba. For Alba this defeat was nothing to do with them, it was all the fault of the wicked SNP.

In Alba’s small entitled world they simply expect SNP voters to give them their support. These will be the same SNP supporters that Alba activists regularly berate in the most disgusting ways imaginable. SNP members who they variously refer to as ‘traitors, ‘sell outs’ or just plain stupid are all of a sudden to get into line and vote in the Alba candidate. There are many ways to appeal to an electoral base but constantly deriding and insulting the very people you hope to vote for you is perhaps the most unusual and intriguing strategy ever deployed. Until Alba stop this hate and take action against the most disgusting of the vitriol they will never come close to being accepted by the mainstream SNP or independence supporting voter.

But there is so much more that led to this result being quite so catastrophic. In fact looking at Alba it is difficult to imagine a party that is almost perfectly designed to remain unloved by the electorate.

For starters they are led by Scotland’s most unpopular political leader. Alex Salmond has satisfaction ratings below that of even Boris Johnson and is generally regarded as engaged in nothing other than a political vendetta. I know that Alba supporters don’t like to hear this but there is no disguising or sugar coating just how unpopular Alex is. Alba activists forget that the Scottish people actually followed his trial. Where it is manifestly true he was cleared of criminal offences he has not even started to demonstrate any contrition for the inappropriate behaviour acknowledged by his legal team.

But worse than that is the truly absurd narrative that Alba has developed to excuse away the Alex problem. Alba members will tell anybody who is prepared to listen that not only is Alex a wronged innocent man but he has been the victim of a massive conspiracy. To them the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the Crown Prosecution Service, the UK state and most of Civic Scotland conspired to have him jailed, for some reason. They tell us this in all candour not for a minute realising just how ridiculous and absurd they appear. If political parties could be sectioned Alba would currently be under the supervision of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest. 

And then we get on to the other issues. Other than independence ‘as a matter of urgency’ opposing the modest reforms in the Gender Recognition Act is the only other policy that gets them out of bed in the morning. The major problem for Alba is that the Scottish people simply do not share their curious obsession with trans people. Absolutely consumed with this they rage against ‘the woke’ and bedevil organisations engaged in the delivery of equalities like the worst sort of social conservatives. For people not immediately alienated and appalled at this cynical misrepresentation of a complex wedge issue there is only bewilderment at the sheer energy deployed on an issue that so few people actually care about.

There is of course more, much more. I could go into Alba executive members promoting Russian propaganda, their problems with up to date sex education, the disgusting aspersions cast on the First Minister, but I’ll take them all as read. If you were to design a political party less likely to meet the values of the socially liberal and inclusive independence movement you couldn’t do any worse than Alba.

And we saw from the results of the council elections exactly what the Scottish people want. They actually do want independence parties to work together for the national cause and that is why the Greens were so handsomely rewarded for their constructive role in Government. The rise of the Greens shows that another independence supporting party is possible. That there is room for diversity in independence politics.

But Alba remain defiant learning absolutely nothing from this catastrophic defeat. Their one last remaining and desperate hope is that indy supporters may see them as an alternative home if an independence referendum is not pursued as promised by the SNP. They sit there like political vultures hoping to swoop down if somehow we give up on our intentions. Well, I’ve got news for them, that is not going to happen. We were elected to pursue an independence referendum and that is exactly what we are going to do. 

They have also made some noises that they may contest any early General Election if indeed one is called. Apparently, they’re queuing up to take me on. If they did this their true colours would become apparent for all independence supporters to see. There is no way that they could even hope to hold on to a deposit far less win a first past the post constituency contest. But if things tighten up they could end up being the enablers of unionist MPs in marginal constituencies. 

So the hard question for them. What do they most want? To advance the cause of independence or damage the SNP? Looking at the sad remains of this party today I simply don’t know what the answer to that is

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF WESTMINSTER

Once again Westminster is embroiled in another bout of ‘something has to be done-ism’ after the latest incidences of sexist and misogynistic behaviour. First we had the bizarre claim that Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, was trying to distract Boris Johnson with her legs before we quickly moved on to a Conservative MP having to resign for watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons chamber. On top of that we were reminded that 56 MPs are currently being investigated for inappropriate behaviour. We can only conclude that something is distinctly rotten in the state of Westminster.

Five years ago, following the ‘me too’ movement, and after the latest glut of revelations about MPs behaviour I was asked to serve on the working group of the Independence Complaints and Grievance Scheme. We designed a report which looked at the issues and put in place a confidential hotline with independent process to properly examine complaints. The fact that so many complaints are now being properly investigated at least shows that part of the system has the confidence of staff. What we have not done is make any progress in tackling the central culture of Westminster.

Westminster is soaked in centuries of paternalism, misogyny and weird medieval power relationships. Practically every statue and painting is of a man and we still have ‘Lords’ and ‘Honourable Members’ just to ensure we know our place and who to defer to. There are cheap price late night bars to accommodate the anti family friendly hours just to ensure that the toxic mix is complete. Misogyny and patriarchy simply oozes out the walls of these corridors of power.

The Speaker and other senior members have again called for more reforms such as Members staff to be employed centrally but this is only tinkering with a problem that is now baked in.

We need family friendly hours, remote participation for those with caring responsibilities and child care duties. We need zero tolerance of anything approaching sexist or inappropriate behaviour. We need to look at the ridiculous hierarchy of Lords, Honourables and ‘Strangers’ and the impression that gives in working arrangements. 

Up to fourteen billion pounds is about to be spent on refurbishing the Houses of Parliament, yes you heard that correctly ‘up to fourteen billion pounds’! The plan is to gut the place and then put it all back together again only with bells and whistles. We argued that Westminster should be sold off and a new building created to support a modern democracy. This would be much cheaper and more useful to democratic practice. It, of course, was not even given the time of day. 

So this endless loop of awful things happening in Westminster, scandals emerging, calls for something to be done, back to these awful things happening again, will go on, and on.

VOTE TILL YOU BOAK

Voters, eh? What are they like? You can give them all the information in the world about how to vote but yet they will still have the temerity to make up their own minds. How many times have we seen a post election scolding from unsuccessful candidates and parties berating an electorate for not doing as required? The simple truth is that regardless of the quantity and quality of election literature put about by parties voters have a pretty good idea of what they want, and that does’t always neatly align with parties expectations. 

Over the weekend postal votes started to go out for the council elections as we get down to the business end of this particular contest. This is an election determined by the Single Transferable Vote, a system designed to strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned psephologist. STV is just one of the four different types of electoral systems we use in Scotland, and or me, STV is perhaps the most elegant. STV more or less delivers proportionality and it  empowers voters in a way that others don’t by giving the ability to rank candidates according to preference. The only thing is it is incredibly complicated. As we know to our cost in Perth and Kinross the candidate with the most first preference votes doesn’t always get elected. That’s because each winning candidate has to reach a threshold determined by a formula dependent on the total number of votes cast divided by the number of available seats in the ward plus one. You keeping up….? Don’t worry. I do this for a living and I find it all incredibly difficult. The important point is that your vote has a value beyond your first preference. 

Because of our multi varied electoral environment, political parties keep their messaging as simple as possible to maximise their support. So in the SNP we would say ‘both votes SNP’ or in the case of these elections ‘SNP 1 and 2’ to avoid any chance of confusion. This is the core message and if we want voters to take one thing from all the competing demands it is this. Anything more than 4 or 5 words would as well being War and Peace. 

In these elections most voters will vote for their party of choice and leave it at that, and that is absolutely fine. However, increasingly voters want to use their vote intuitively with the intention of shaping the final outcome and damaging candidates and parties they don’t like. 

This is where ‘Vote Till You Boak’ comes in. VTYB comes from STV savvy Northern Ireland and helped nationalist parties deny unionists a majority by ranking nationalist candidates at the top and unionists at the bottom. Increasingly it is being adopted in Scotland.

In Scotland the political spectrum for those of an SNP persuasion ranges from the SNP all the way down to the Tories. Our boak list would be a matter of placing parties in a descending order of increasing nausea until all are ranked.

‘You’re not seriously asking us to vote for the Tories, are you Pete’ I hear you gently enquire? The answer to that is a decisive ‘No’. What we are asking you to do is put them in last place. If you only vote for your first preference then you remove yourself from the contests further down the line. You will have no say in whether a Tory gets in ahead of a less unpalatable independent for example.

The top of the list is pretty straight forward – SNP 1 and 2, or maybe even 3. We will also give advice on how you can maximise the chances of getting all SNP candidates elected by suggesting a voting order. How candidates are ranked after that will be a matter of individual preference (as long as the Tories are at the bottom, of course). In my case after the SNP I will vote for candidates that support independence and our Government. So that will be the Greens, indy supporting independents and maybe one of these small number of Labour candidates that are indy supporting.

Then I will vote for any fringe anti SNP ‘indy harming’ independence candidates from parties such as Alba. On the nausea scale at this stage my stomach may well be starting to churn as I put a ranking next to parties who bring such damage and division to our cause. I know that many SNP voters will find it hard to rank Alba candidates after the tirades of abuse and disgusting things their activists say on social media about our First Minister, but it is important that you rank them before the unionists. 

Then we get to the full on dry boak. On my list I would have a look at the remaining independents then Labour, then Liberal, and then with great pleasure I will place the Tory in last place. Then I will reach for the liver salts… 

We could well see a bumper turn out at these elections as many Scottish voters want to give the Tories an electoral kick-in following all the revelations about party gate. Putting the Tories last in an STV election is as close as we get to being able to register a vote against them. So vote well and vote wisely. Most importantly Vote Until You Boak. 

ALBA – WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG

So it wasn’t so much a ‘supermajority’ it was more electoral ignominy. Coming in at 1.7% the Alba Party didn’t rise like a phoenix but sank like a stone. For all the brave talk of taking out unionist MSPs the only thing Alba demonstrated was that there was little enthusiasm for an alternative independence party, particularly one led by Alex Salmond. 

So what went wrong for Alba, and what awaits them in the future now they plan to become a permanent feature in the Scottish political firmament and contest next year’s council elections?

The first basic and obvious problem was Alex himself. People weren’t just put off by him they were genuinely contemptuous of his return. As a former colleague it was actually hard to listen to some of things said about Alex on the doorstep from people who had once held him in such high regard.

Alex was simultaneously the best hope for an alternative independence party but at the same time the main reason for its inevitable failure. He was the only figure with the skills, the panache and the reach within the fringes of the movement to energise and mobilise a base. But it was only Alex with ratings worse than Boris Johnson that would ensure its inevitable electoral demise.

And then there was ‘the base’ itself. If ever there was a group of people purpose built to turn people away it was the people Alex assembled to prepare and promote the Alba message. The intolerant ensemble of ‘bloggers’, anti SNP malcontents and anti GRA obsessives provided an unpalatable coalition that became the face of the campaign. On top of that were a set of candidates with views that ranged from the naive to the offensive. There was little about the assembled forces of Alba that could be in the slightest bit described as ‘user friendly’. It seemed the more the party was exposed to the public the more unpopular they became. For all their complaining about a ‘media blackout’ the lack of any real media attention probably spared them from an even worse electoral outcome. 

Their campaign, when it had anything approaching a coherent theme, was a curious mish mash of romantic nationalism, EU scepticism and indy impatience combined with the bloggers deeply held social conservatism. With videos on Calton Hill narrated by a would be Robert the Bruce it felt like a pitch to the SNP of the 1970s more than an attempt to appeal to a middle Scotland of the 2020s. Then there was their anti woke obsessions which inevitably led to preposterous and embarrassing claims that the Scottish Government wanted to reduce the age of consent, ensuring anybody remotely committed to equality issues was immediately alienated. The only story the public wanted to hear from Alba was the issues around Alex’s trial and this was the one thing that Alba definitely did not want anybody going anywhere near.

But it was all about the ‘supermajority’. The idea that list votes for the SNP were wasted votes and that SNP supporters should vote Alba to secure a next to unionist free Parliament. With this simple message Alba supporters predicted MSP numbers into the 20s or even 30s. They assumed that SNP voters would forgive them the awful campaign, set aside the concerns about Alex and compliantly back them in their social conservative agenda. The truth is that none of that was ever likely to happen and the more the SNP support seemed to shun Alba’s ‘inescapable logic’ the angrier Alba activists seemed to get with them in return. The idea that cajoling, abusing and shouting at people you were hoping to win over and vote for you was perhaps one of the most curious electoral strategies deployed at this or any election. 

There was also the absurd expectation that the SNP simply roll over and ‘gift’ list votes to a party composed of people who had spent the best part of a year trying to undermine and bring down the SNP leadership. The idea that the SNP would take anything for granted and not fight for every single vote was just another symptom of Alba’s naivety and bizarre sense of entitlement.

And what exactly were they going to do with this ‘supermajority’ anyway? Unhappy at the independence ‘gradualism’ (that Alex himself invented) they were going to head down to London and negotiate our nation’s independence in the first week after the election!  We were invited to believe that a Tory Government, hitherto disinclined to facilitate a referendum, would get round the table with the Scottish Government to start planning the end of the UK simply because Alex Salmond and some of his colleagues had got elected! It was all simply unbelievable, and SNP voters knew that.

Then as the polls started to predict Alba’s inevitable collapse the ‘supermajority’ quickly gave way to a much more modest and realistic parliamentary ‘bridgehead’. This gave SNP voters the opportunity to decide whether they wanted a small, unruly, presence in Parliament constantly attempting to undermine the First Minister and the SNP Government whilst trying to create all sorts of divisions on how independence is secured. The ordinary SNP voter quickly decided that this was indeed something they did not want.

But in all of the talk about gaming systems what Alba did do, entirely inadvertently, was to draw attention to how the list vote could be used. Constantly being told that an SNP list vote was a ‘wasted vote’ some independence supporters did indeed look into the list electoral market place. What they concluded was that there was no way they could ever support a party such as Alba but could give their list vote to the Greens instead. The rise of the Green vote probably owes more to Alba than any other party and after all the disgusting slandering of the Greens by Alba supporters this must be one of the most bitter ironies of Alba’s ill fated emergence. 

So what now for the Alba Party? Well, the plan is to hold a conference and contest next year’s council elections. I’m not entirely sure whether there will be plans to secure ‘supermajorities’ on Scotland’s councils but I am absolutely certain it will allow them the opportunity to continue to attack the now ‘loathed’ Scottish Government and progress their unrealistic independence strategies. Their main thinking will be that there are second SNP votes to harvest, and liberated from having to insist on a ‘first vote SNP’ it is going to be decidedly unpleasant and damaging. Then there is the rest of their policy agenda and obsessions. We got a glimpse of some of that when some of Alba’s key bloggers made common cause with the Scottish Family Party to attack sex education in schools. The social conservatism is likely to be ramped up as their defining ‘non-independence’ feature and god knows what other issues are in their sights. The impact of all of this on the equalities debate in Scotland will be to reduce it to an even more intolerant and ugly place as a result.

I suspect that the ordinary SNP voter will continue to be unpersuaded by these Alba charms and Alba has probably reached the ceiling of its support. The problem for Alba is that they sincerely believe that what they observe on the Twitter feeds of their house bloggers is somehow representative of real world Scotland. Even after the humbling they received a few weeks ago the capacity for self delusion remains undiminished and the fault for their thrashing is all the SNP’s and absolutely nothing to do with them. 

Alba may be here to stay but they are only ever going to sustain a meagre existence on the very fringe of our politics, and thank goodness for that.

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.