How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2019 UK General Election

Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although I am politically active and an active member of the Scottish Green party, this post is intended to be objective and politically neutral. This is a guide on how to vote, not a blog to try to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

For the third time in four years, the UK is preparing to go to the polls to elect a Parliament to the House of Commons. The UK would not normally have been expected to be in this position as for the last several years there has been a law in place called the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) which was supposed to have fixed parliamentary terms at five years rather than the older system of leaving election timing to the whim of the Prime Minister of the day who could call or delay elections (within some limits) according to when they felt particularly advantaged or disadvantaged in the polls.

But Brexit, as with so much in British politics, has changed everything and the current logjam caused by the minority government inherited by Boris Johnson has meant that even his reforms to the Brexit Deal could not be passed through Parliament (and nor could any other permutation of result).

And so, just two years after the 2017 election that resulted in that minority Government, the UK is going back to the polls to see what happens this time.

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The 2017 UK General Election Results

As stated in the disclaimer above, the purpose of this blog post isn’t to convince you to vote in a particular way – that will be for another time and is already being done by others. This is instead a post which acknowledges that a great many people have never voted in a UK General Election before and this may be their first vote of any kind. If you are aged 20 or under, you will likely have been too young to vote in the previous election and there will be some who were eligible to vote but haven’t ever done so before and maybe there’s an issue in this election which has proved to be particularly important to you. It may also be the case that you were not eligible to vote in previous elections but have just taken on British citizenship or suchlike and nor are eligible to vote. If any of these things are the case and you’d like to learn more about the voting process then this blog is for you and is a continuation of my long running series which has also covered the 2015 UK General Elections, the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections and the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections. and the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections.

This guide is also unashamedly Scotland focused because that’s where I am and where the centre of my sphere of political interest lies but the basic principles of this guide will apply elsewhere in the UK (although the balance of candidates and thus voting considerations may vary)

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How To Break A Democracy

“Elections remind us not only of the rights but the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.” – Robert Kennedy

There’s a tweet being shared around Scottish political Twitter advertising an event on October 23rd. Australian company Clearpoll going to be holding an opinion poll on Scottish independence but are doing so in an intriguing way. They are offering a blockchain-based mobile phone app that, they claim, could be the first step in a revolution in how we approach voting. Instead of having to go to a ballot booth, one could simply press a button on your smartphone, secure in the knowledge that your vote will be transfered and counted without the vulnerabilities to hacking and spoofing that occur in other forms of electronic voting.

An advert by Clearpoll for a "blockchain powered mobile vote on Scottish independence" on October 23rd.

First of all. I’m not going to tell people to not take part in this poll. If that’s your thing, go for it. If you want to help test an upcoming piece of technology, by all means.

But I do want to voice my concern about this kind of technology making its way into our democracies. They are vulnerable enough without adding something that, if done badly, could break our voting system entirely.

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“I think it would be a good idea” – Apocrypha attributed to M. Gandhi on his being asked what he thought of Western civilisation.

The UK Government’s handling of Brexit continues to be veer somewhere between being a shambles and a criminally negligent disaster.

From its position on customs which remains something like “We have no idea what we want and we’re damn sure we’re not going to lift a finger to plan for it.”

Through its tearing away from anything even remotely connected to the EU – including Euratom (which means good luck running a nuclear power plant or obtaining a medical radiological), the Gallileo satellite system (to which the British response was a petulant “We’ll build our own…somehow”) and fundamental human rights which protect us all from the whims of governments that act a bit like the current UK one does.

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An Unequal Kingdom

“A system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85% of the population” – Gordon Brown, 2014

The “F-word” is rearing its head again in Scottish politics. Federalism. An idea sometimes presented as a “credible” alternative to Scottish independence and a way of granting Scotland greater autonomy over its own affairs whilst maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea that is rarely presented in any greater detail than that previous sentence.

Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have flirted with this idea throughout their history and have been doing so again recently. In an attempt to raise the level of debate about this subject, I have just co-authored my latest policy paper for Common Weal with long-time constitutional activist Isobel Lindsay which you can read here or by clicking the image below. Isobel also has an article in the Sunday Herald which you can read here.

Unequal Kingdom Cover

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Senatus Populusque Caledoniae

(Apologies if my scant Latin has mangled that translation. If someone corrects it, I’ll see about writing it out 100 times on the walls of the Palace.)

It seems that all news is canceled this week. All of it. There’s nothing happening. Our state broadcaster (which is totally unlike other state broadcasters in that when it promotes its state’s national interests, this is a good thing and not the most hideous evil to ever despoil the airwaves) has told us that the only thing of note happening anywhere is that someone is marrying someone with Magic Blood.

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This is to be a ceremony that we’ll all proudly take part in, by which they mean that we are to pay for it, despite not even being invited to the party. We’re not even getting a day off work because that would apparently cost too much.

Those in power are definitely not going to use this event to sneak out the devastating news that benefits are to be frozen again this year – that’s effectively a 3% cut after adjusting for inflation. I’m certain that they’ll be bending all effects towards sorting the gaping holes in the UK VAT system which allows more than £1 billion to be evaded every year.

They absolutely wouldn’t be cutting HMRC’s budget by £400 million per year RIGHT before the UK is going to leave the largest Customs Union in the world, would they?. They certainly would be breaking ground on all the new checkpoints and infrastructure that are going to be needed. The department should be awash with capital spending in preparation, shouldn’t it?

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They certainly wouldn’t big up their having done some furiously detailed groundwork on the impact of Brexit when they hadn’t actually done any such thing and were just hoping that no-one would ask to read them…till they did.

The UK has some seriously skewed priorities and it goes from the bottom right to the top of the structure of governance. Scotland needs to have a good, hard discussion about what role it plays in all of this.

The Scottish Parliament already has a far fairer voting system than the one used for UK elections (despite the comparative complexity of the former) but should we take the step of becoming an independent country then we’ll have to have a think about some other levels of government too.

I’ve already said a fair amount about the state of Scotland’s local government so today I’d like to look at what we’d want to do ABOVE the level of the present Scottish Parliament.

For instance, we may well decide to create an Upper House to scrutinise legislation but what we absolutely shouldn’t do is copy the UK method of stuffing it full of Lords and paying them to sleep off their hard day of…doing what ever they do for £300 a day.

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Far better would be a Citizen’s Assembly. Think of it as Jury Duty writ large. We’ve already decided that the best way to determine if someone has transgressed our laws is by a jury of randomly selected citizens so we could easily set up a method by which randomly selected citizens can determine if the laws themselves are just, fair and easily understood.

And for above that? How do we represent the nation of Scotland to the world?

If you had asked me in 2014, I would have said that I didn’t really mind too much and was pretty content with the Scotland’s Future plan of keeping the monarchy in the same way that Canada and Australia have.

But I’ve shifted somewhat since then. I’m not sure I’d really welcome the appointment of a Governor General as Scotland’s nominal Head of State nor am I completely clear on what duties they would actually have in practice. The First Minister already does most of the Head-of-State meet-and-greet stuff when folk come to Scotland and it seems a little strange for that to stop.

Nor do I want a restored and separate Scottish monarchy. Again, I’ve no time for someone to tell me what to do by dint of their divine appointment or Magic Blood even if Scotland does maintain a tradition of the Scottish Monarch being subordinate to the people of Scotland. Nor should a country professing to be a democracy pride itself on  its locking citizens out from ever obtaining any governmental office even in theory.

So, if we choose to have an official Head of State separate to the First Minister then it’ll have to be an elected President and that seems straightforward enough to arrange.

Though we still need to have that discussion about what we want them to DO. As said, the First Minister already does most of the Head of State meet-and-greet stuff when folk come to Scotland so we’re faced with the choice of either actually empowering our Head of State and giving them executive controls like the power to veto laws, sign their own legislative orders or other such powers (i.e. similar to the President of the USA) or we continue to have a head of state with a ceremonial role but little actual power.

And as I think on it…whilst I think it would be an upheaval too far to actually empower a Head of State, I don’t think I feel so enthused about swapping an unelected but powerless leader with an elected but still powerless leader. It just doesn’t feel as if it’s a decision rooted in the practical. On the other hand, I’m somewhat nudged by the argument that a Head of State separate from the government may be able to say and do some things without constraint by that government (though it’s noted that our current monarch maintains a “strict” rule against saying anything at all unless they think they can get away with it).

But maybe I’m wrong.

So help me out here. What would you want from a Head of State of an independent Scotland? How would someone gain that position? And what kind of person would you expect to see in the role?

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Scotland’s New Deal

“Remember, the EU isn’t as keen on “Special Deals” as it once was”, The Common Green, 11th February, 2017.

I’m always more than happy to be proven wrong especially when it’s in a pleasantly surprising manner.

This week saw the news story in The National that, contrary to my impressions up till now, that a report had been written by the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs recommending that the EU should  indeed be considering some kind of “Special Deal” for Scotland which would allow it stay within the Single Market even if we remain within the UK after Brexit.

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The White Paper Project

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” – Alasdair Gray

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Today I get to announce the launch of a very long awaited project I and the rest of Common Weal have been working on for quite some time now. We announced back in September that we have been working on renewing the case for Scottish independence by publishing a successor to the Scottish Government’s “Scotland’s Future” document.

Version 1.0 of the Common Weal White Paper can be download here or by clicking the image above.

This is a leaner document than Scotland’s Future was. That document was as much a party political campaign device as it was a blueprint for independence. It not only sought to describe the powers which would come to Scotland independence but also sought to convince voters of the SNP’s own vision for independence. There was nothing inherently wrong with this latter task per se and other parties too sought to promote their own distinct visions as well – as they will all do so again throughout the next independence campaign but this is not the task of an independence White Paper. This paper shall, as far as possible, not seek to propose a list of policy ideas which an independent Scotland could do nor shall it attempt to convince you of the merits of those policies. It merely lays out the technical and structural requirements which must be in place for Scotland to become an independent country once we, the voters, decide that it should become so.

It is a “consolidated business plan for the establishment of a new nation state”.

To this end, the White Paper is split into several broad sections. Part 1, Process and Structures, covers the foundation of a National Commission – a cross party and cross administration body which will be tasked with designing and implementing the institutions and systems which need to be set up in the time between the independence referendum and the formal independence day. It is one thing to state, for instance, “There shall be a Scottish Central Bank”. It is quite another to decide how large it needs to be, where it needs to be based and who needs to be hired to run it. The National Commission shall also be given interim borrowing powers so that it is able to issue bonds, raise capital and fund the construction of the vital infrastructure Scotland would need to either move from rUK or build from fresh.

Part 2, Key Institutions of an Independent Scotland, covers all those things we kept being asked questions about during the last referendum. Would we have a constitution? A currency? What would we do about borders? Defence? All these and more. Of course it’s not yet possible to answer every question in this regard. Some of it will be up for negotiation with rUK, some of it will be dependent on the shape of the Brexit deal between the UK and the EU and Scotland’s relationship with both in the run up to independence but we’re making a stab at as much as we can and this is the section which will perhaps be most expanded upon as the Project is iterated in future versions.

Speaking of negotiations, Part 3 covers the prospective shape of some of these – chiefly the allocation of debt and assets and what rUK’s response to our leaving shall mean for our claim on them. Also covered to some degree is how Scotland will interact with various international and supranational organisations although it should be stated once again that no case shall be strongly made for Scotland’s joining or refusal to join any of these organisations. That shall be left to the party or parties which seek to form the first independent Scottish parliament.

Finally, Part 4 outlines the position of Scotland as far as finance and borrowing goes as well as outlining as best we can the default fiscal budget for year one of independence. It is, of course, almost impossible to place any kind of actual certainty or promise on such a budget as it is based on several key assumptions such as the desire to keep both public spending and the various tax revenue streams broadly similar to their position at present. If a party decided to scrap the entire tax system and replace it with one of their own devising then it would have to be up to them to explain how that worked and project the revenue to be gained from it and how it would be spent. Other assumptions include Scotland spending the money assigned to it in GERS for various “UK projects” on projects of similar value and in similar accounting lines (so that, to pick an arbitrary example, our “share” of UK economic development funding spent outside Scotland but from which Scotland “benefits” would instead be spent on economic development within Scotland). Again, whether or not this happens will be a case for the individual parties to make and will depend entirely on accurately and precisely how the current fiscal projections for a devolved Scotland within the UK map onto the fiscal situation of an independent Scotland.

Once again, this is not the completion of the White Paper. This is the beginning. You will see that there are several sections which need to be expanded and built upon and items like costs and figures will be updated as time goes on (the default budget, for instance, is based on 2015-16 figures but – as we’ve probably noticed by now – Scotland didn’t become independent in 2015-16 so these precise figures will be revised as and when they should be). Some areas require the attention of people with specific experience and expertise in them to be able to complete so we are openly calling for those experts who are able and willing to contribute. Please contact us if you want to be involved. Let’s work to build the early days of our better nation.

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EU’re Out, Apparently

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Well that’s that then. Votes cast and counted and the UK, by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1% have voted to Leave the European Union. The long, fractious and never really embracing journey that the UK has been on shall now enter a new phase. I can only guess as to where it’ll end up.

You may have heard by now though that the vote across the nations and regions of our “One Nation” was not homogeneous.

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England and Wales voted to Leave. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain. It represents yet another rejection by Scotland of “UK” politics and I believe that, as previously stated, a second independence referendum is now inevitable. The First Minister has herself confirmed this morning that the Scottish Government is now going to actively pursue one whilst also seeking to negotiate directly with the EU to try to preserve and protect our relationship. I do not believe that we will find that door to be particularly tightly closed.

As for Leave, once they’ve dealt with the resignation of David Cameron, probably a few key allies too, and have taken over the Tory party they’ll have to get into the grit of actually disengaging with the EU.

The EU Commission has already made it clear, understandably, that they would prefer Article 50 to be triggered as soon as possible so that they can get the whole business done and dusted. Leave, however, are still trying to be cagey. Some of the talking heads in the media today are still even hinting at an “alternative” plan like a Vienna Convention type disengagement. The big problem with that idea is that, even if it’s possible, it can be vetoed by any of the remaining 27 states. If the EU insists that Article 50 and a formal discussion is the way to go then it can indeed insist that it shall be.

It’s still very far from certain what the UK’s future relationship with Europe will actually be once all is done and dusted.

Indeed, there’s an outside chance that a Brexit may not yet happen. It could be that the Tory leadership changeover results in a General Election…which the Tories then lose. Labour, especially one which actively campaigned on the point, could well ignore the referendum result. At this point I wouldn’t discount any possibility, no matter how unlikely.

Assuming though that Boris Johnson and chums take the reigns and we go through Article 50 and Brexit happens, there’s still several possibilities (ranging from EFTA, through a set of Swiss style biateral treaties, through a CETA/TTIP type deal and out to the “default” WTO regulations only) which I outlined here.

I’m particularly disturbed by some of the rhetoric which stuck. Lord Ashcroft’s on-the-day polling found a solid correlation between likelihood of voting Leave and support for the argument that it would help “Take Back Control”.

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I mentioned in my article on sovereignty that countries which pin themselves to the idea of national level politics, especially to the point of it becoming a geas, can bind themselves into the Globalisation Trilemma. If, as I suspect they will, Leave use their win to forge towards turning the UK into some kind of Free Market paradise then the concept of democratic politics could find itself severely compromised.

Speaking of the Free Market, it was in the financial world that the most “excitement” of election night was to be found. The polls, public and private, in the days running up to voting day had starting indicating a Remain vote. This had pushed the value of the GBP up significantly as traders started “buying the rumour“. When the Sunderland vote came in though it was the first indication that things were not going to go well for Remain. That one result caused a panic sell in the markets which did not improve as the night went on. By morning, the “Great” British pound had fallen to the weakest point seen since 1985 and, after a morning-after retracement, had lost 8% of its value. This is the worst single day hit that the pound has ever taken, twice as deep as plunge as 1992’s “Black Wednesday” and the third deepest single day hit ANY major currency has taken in modern times. History books shall be written on this point alone.

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Currency fall

It should be of very careful note that against the Euro, the Pound lost about 10% of its value compared to 2015. This is important because the UK had a trade deficit with the EU of about £68 billion in 2015. Assuming all things other than currency being equal then that trade deficit could be expected to rise to £75 billion simply because it’s now more expensive to import goods and services from Europe.

This difference in trade, around £7 billion, represents almost exactly the amount that Leave claimed that we’d “save” in net contributions to the EU. There may well be no gains, no money for the NHS or anything else that was promised. I hope I’m wrong. Because if I’m not, the areas which most voted Leave are also the areas most likely to be dependent on the EU for trade. They will be the areas most reliant on a good deal and/or economic plan for what comes after.

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As for Scotland, it’s looking now almost inevitable that this result will hasten another go at an independence referendum and, this time, not only will it not be called until we’re ready but it’s looking rather like a lot of former No voters who had been promised that their vote would ensure their EU membership have now seen that whisked away. It has been enough to convince many that independence is now the best option ahead of Scotland. If you happen to be one of them, Welcome.

The Greens and the SNP, will now be exploring all options to protect and preserve our EU relationship. We’re in very uncertain times now with few precedents to guide us so what form this will all take is a matter of pure speculation.

My own preferred option could take the form of direct negotiations between the Scottish Government and the EU resulting in some kind of deal whereby if an independence referendum is held and won in the period before formal Brexit then a newly independent Scotland could “inherit” the UK’s old seat with no loss of continuity. Of course, this would require the co-operation of the Westminster government to allow such negotiations to take place or to even acknowledge that the result in Scotland is significant. It would be a tragedy of democracy if we were simply ignored.

I’ve got no easy answers for the next few months, or years. I’m as much an unwilling passenger as everyone else who voted Remain yesterday. I’ll try my best to work out where we’re going just as soon as it becomes apparent though. And who knows. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get off early.

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SP16: The Morning After

I’ll confess to being a lightweight. I snuck off for a few hours sleep right after the Clydesdale results were called and woke up right after the Lothian list so unlike virtually every other political pundit in Scotland right now, I’m able to type only marginally less coherently than normal.

So. How about those results?

The Green contingent has expanded three-fold and whilst I’m more than a little upset that neither of the two candidates covered by my branch, Kirsten Robb and Sarah Beattie-Smith, made it in I’m heartened by the success of the others notably Andy Wightman in Lothians. Who Owns Scotland? We’re about to find out!

My hypothesis that the SNP would come back with another majority appear to have been disproven although a clear pro-independence majority remains. Arguably, the Greens could call this a result significantly in our favour as we move to the wrangling over Parliamentary positioning begins.

I’m willing to be wrong again but I can’t see much appetite for an offer of a formal coalition. It doesn’t seem like good game theory for the SNP to offer up a Ministerial position (almost certainly something like Energy or Environment) just to avoid a two seat minority. Especially when they already have form for running a minority government with a fair degree of success.

I could see a discussion over some kind of Supply and Confidence arrangement based on some concessions that the Greens have campaigned on and over which there’s already a substantial level of support within the SNP membership.

I’ll make one prediction on this point. Unless the SNP are willing to rely on Tory support, Fracking will not happen in Scotland. Good.

I’d be hoping that there might be some more movement over local taxation and, perhaps, the Scottish Government will let Andy formally get his teeth and claws into the Land Reform Bill. That’ll be a joy to watch. The Greens campaigned on giving the Scottish Government the courage to be bolder on a range of issues. Here’s hoping it can.

So, on the vote itself. We saw hints of the total flight of the Right and Unionist vote within Labour as early as November last year but even as the last polls came in they appear to have underestimated the depth of that flight. Ruth Davidson’s campaign to get people to vote Unionist, rather than Conservative, appear to have been successful. What shall be interesting to watch now is what she does with that support. How far can they be pushed on Austerity (or how far can blame for it be deflected) before the Union-at-any-cost vote starts to tally up just that?

Where it leaves Labour is another great unknown. They’ve been utterly wiped from their birthplace in Glasgow and Lanarkshire and have retreated to the Morningside Reds of Edinburgh. They appear to have three choices ahead of them. Either ossify as an increasingly marginal voice in Scottish politics; Abandon the Unionist vote and try to out-left the SNP (I don’t think at this stage that even a drastic Home Rule or Federal position would draw back those now set on independence) or try to out-right the Tories (which would mean claiming, adopting and accelerating Austerity). I cannot honestly see a route back to the forefront of Scottish politics for Labour barring some singularity event such as actual independence or some act of self-destruction within the SNP greater even than the one that UK Labour appear bent on.

The proportionality of AMS was stretched rather to its limits last night. Despite narrowly missing out on a majority the SNP, as the largest party, were the largest beneficiaries of the system gaining approximately 9 seats more than their regional vote percentage would have suggested. The Tories though also benefited gaining about two more seats than their regional vote share whilst Labour broke about even, the Greens losing one seat and the Lib Dems being rather drubbed by the system, losing three seats to the maths. This calculation would have been mitigated by the addition of 6 “Other” seats which, on these results, would have more likely have been distributed amongst the sitting parties rather than going to smaller ones. In most proportional voting systems around the world a minimum threshold of 5% is often applied and, in our case last night, no small party achieved more than 2% nationally or more than 4% in any single region.

Seat Allocation

It’ll be interesting to see if there are any calls for electoral reform based on these results the way even the SNP made a mild complaint about their overwhelming success under FPTP last year.

Another topic which will now need to be thrashed out is the position of Presiding Officer. I reckon that this year the wrangling over whether the party/ies of government or of opposition give up an MSP for the post will be particularly intense this year given the slim margins and the tactical situations faced by each of the parties. The SNP won’t want to dilute their minority any further, Labour won’t want to shrink further either, the Tories and Greens will want to capitalise on their gains to maximum effect and if the Lib Dems lose one more MSP they cease to be an official parliamentary group.

Personally, I’m rather disturbed by the concept of choosing the PO from the MSPs in the first place. Why should the electorate who have only just chosen their representatives have to give one up as the PO must remain neutral, must resign from the political party and whip and have severe restrictions on where and how they vote (Only in the event of a tie and only to maintain the status quo or further the debate). To me, this isn’t a job for a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I’d look towards inspiration from the “checks and balances” of the US. Perhaps the PO should be appointed from a pool of senior judges or similar judicial positions? They are already used to applying impartially the rule of law so should trivially be able to manage Parliament in a neutral manner.

Of course, an alternative to a Presiding Officer could be an elected President, but that is likely to be a discussion for a post-independence situation…

Where do we go from here? I honestly have no idea. Going from bracing for a substantial majority and “the most boring Parliament” of the devolution period (as one pundit put it) to back to the days of actual discussion about policy I think the next five years could be one filled with potential…if we choose to allow it. For a last word:

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