“When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is.” –
The nature of Scotland’s devolved settlement is that the country is simultaneously less powerful than many would like but more powerful than many would give it credit. The reserved powers list in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act are quite clear and the Scottish Government can and has been taken to court when it has attempted to overreach its powers. However the areas of devolved powers are broad and cross-cutting enough that it is often possible to effect change in defiance of Westminster simply by looking for the cracks and loopholes within those reserved and devolved powers.
We have also seen the pandemic reveal that some powers (such as the power to close or restrict borders) which were previously assumed to be reserved have, in fact, been substantially devolved. Until the pandemic struck it would have been considered unthinkable that the Scottish Government could effectively order the closure of the Anglo-Scottish border – and yet, for a time, it was (that the closure wasn’t particularly well policed and enforced is another matter entirely).
Scotland pushed against reserved Westminster policy many times – mostly significantly by using powers over planning permission to effectively block nuclear power and onshore fracking in Scotland. A larger challenge looms in the form of offshore oil and gas, but I believe that the Scottish Government could go further that it current does in terms of opposing oil extraction around Scotland despite the powers to do so being largely reserved.
“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” ― Yogi Berra
This article was previously posted on Common Weal. You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20
In my analysis of GERS last year, I remarked that this was in a very real sense the end of an era not in the sense that it would show us anything different from the previous years but that it was the last year that wouldn’t. Covid has upended the entire world and for statisticians that means the worst possible thing that could ever happen to their data tables – a discontinuity.
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….” ―
Yesterday my wife and I took part in a fascinating radio interview looking at how people, particularly migrants to Scotland, have come to support independence. I hope I’ll be able to share it with you in a month or so when it’s due to be published though at this stage I have no idea how much – if any – of our conversation will make the final cut (the programme is expected to be about ten minutes long, we talked for over an hour and the interviewer spoke to several people apart from us). As one might expect the conversation looked, in part, at the nature of Nationalism in Scotland and how that is viewed by both migrants and the countries from which they came. That part of the conversation got me thinking about my own views on Nationalism and where Scotland is, or could go, as part of our journey towards independence.
Be assured, that this isn’t going to be another lazy attack on Nationalism as we have seen levelled against proponents of Scottish Independence (particularly by those who wave their own flags just as hard under the more sanitised name of Patriotism or National Unity). Indeed, I shall defend at least the logic of Nationalism later in this piece. But I shall lay out why I think it only takes us so far in the philosophy of independence and set out a proposition that there is perhaps a hint of what an independent Scotland could look like in a post-nationalist world.
(And yes, I appreciate the irony of writing this on a day when a lot of folk are watching groups of men defined by their national identity kick a ball around. I never was one for Football.)
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln
A strange election in strange times has, after more than the usual delay, returned a result that seems almost strangely familiar. Prior to the 2016 election, the “received wisdom” was that the majority SNP government was going to come back to power with that majority and thus usher in five years of “boring government” under a “one party state”. Instead, we got a minority government and everything that followed from that. This time round, the challenge to “restore” that majority government was rejected and we again find ourselves with a Parliament that looks really quite similar to the one in 2016. Many of the names have changed, many of the seats have not. The SNP have fallen one seat short of a majority, the Tories remain the “2nd party” by equalling their previous tally, the Greens have increased their ranks and Labour and the Lib Dems have reduced. Despite enthusiastic campaigning by their activist, no new parties have entered Parliament and none have left either (though the Lib Dems have dropped below the “major party” threshold which may have significant implications for them). From a pure democratic stance, at 63% the turnout was the highest of the devolution era – despite or in spite of fears that the pandemic would suppress it. More voters is always a good thing. As is diversity in the Parliament with record numbers of women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups in the House.
A full breakdown of the results in each constituency and region can be found here.
There will be discussion over the coming days about the makeup of Government and whether the SNP continue to run as a minority or whether they form a formal coalition – most likely with the Greens. For my part, with a track record of two minority governments I think that a coalition is unlikely and my preference would be against one anyway for reasons I’ll detail below but primarily because of my feeling laid out on Thursday that a Government that can rely on whipped loyalty will make less good decisions than one that has to justify itself to Parliament.
The call for a second independence referendum must now intensify. There is a Parliamentary majority capable of passing a referendum bill and instructing the Government to proceed with its manifesto promise. Indeed, between the SNP and the Greens there is now as many pro-independence MSPs in Parliament now as there were in 2011 when the first indyref was initiated. Mandates are sure to be traded – some more, some less valid – and we’re still lacking an effective pressure campaign to keep the tactical and strategic advantage on our side, but I think it is likely now that the only person who can actively prevent an independence referendum within the next Scottish Parliament is now Nicola Sturgeon. The campaign is there for her to take and run with.
For more detailed analysis of each of the parties and the overall political landscape, keep reading below the fold.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.” – Errol Morris
This article was previously published on Source under the headline “The UK is Pooling More than it Shares”.
You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19.
In many ways, this year’s GERS report marks the end of an era. It’s not that the report itself is going to change drastically or that we’ll finally reach the point of independence where we can stop moaning about how independence is impossible/necessary and that our fiscal position is fundamentally strong/weak and improving/declining compared to the rest of the UK (delete as per the report’s figures and your personal political position). It’s more that the Covid-19 crisis has completely changed the way that a state’s finances work. This year’s GERS report does include the initial measures implemented in response to Covid but only the initial responses up until the end of March. The full impact of this unprecedented fiscal year shall not be felt until the GERS 2020-2021 report next year.
We’ve entered a new era in which almost everything in government will be judged either as “Before Covid” (BC) or “After Covid” (AC). The assumptions that governed our economy have changed. Spending plans have changed. Priorities have changed.
But until then, this final GERS report of the BC era largely just repeats the arguments already well rehearsed in previous years.
“The wizards, once they understood the urgency of a problem and then had lunch, and argued about the pudding, could actually work quite fast. Their method of finding a solution, as far as the Patrician could see, was by way of creative hubbub. If the question was, ‘What is the best spell for turning a book of poetry into a frog?’, then the one thing they would not do was look in any book with a title like Major Amphibian Spells in a Literary Environment: A Comparison.” – Terry Pratchett, The Last Hero
In Part One of this series, I laid out the reasonable options that Scotland could pursue in order to demonstrate the democratic will for independence. There have been some murmurings of a potential “Plan B” to supersede the “Plan A” of a sanctioned referendum by Section 30 order so as to circumvent the current barrier of Boris Johnson simply saying “No” everything time we ask for one.
In that article, I referenced Pete Wishart who has expressed his objection to any “Plans B” and has since written his own blog post outlining some of the same challenges as I have identified – albeit without also challenging the limitations of the “Plan A” approach. I strongly encourage folk to read his article in conjunction with my own efforts and to start discussions in earnest about which option you prefer AND how you’d like to see the challenges addressed.
To greatly summarise my own Part One, I found that all of the reasonable options bar the “Plan A” of a sanctioned referendum cannot be blocked simply by dictat from Westminster BUT in addition to individual challenges unique to each of those Plans, they all suffered the common problem of not having an automatic mechanism of bringing the UK Government to the table to accept the results and begin to negotiate independence. On the other hand, “Plan A” – which DOES have that mechanism via something like the Edinburgh Agreement – suffers from the problem that Westminster can ensure that the vote itself doesn’t take place. The effect is the same in all cases. Until Scotland can put pressure on the UK Government to accept the Plan and the results, we are not going to become an independent country.
In this article, I’m going to draw again from Common Weal’s strategy paper Within Our Grasp to look at various ways that Scotland could ramp up the pressure on the UK Government until they agree to recognise our independence.
“There is always a choice…Or, perhaps, an alternative. You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all others are based.” – Havelock Vetinari, Going Postal.
You would have thought that Lockdown would have opened up more time for me to look after my blog but instead Common Weal dove headlong into its busiest session of policy-making we’ve ever seen. Between pushing for more effective Covid strategy, analysing the impact of the pandemic on the Scottish economy and launching our post-Covid reconstruction plan I’ve been writing everywhere BUT here.
But most of that has now been completed and I’m currently on holiday which means that instead of writing about politics for work I now get a little time to write about politics for FUN!
Over the next few blog posts I intend to lay out what I see as the main strategic block on the development of the Scottish Independence campaign. Namely, a focus on developing “mandates” for another Scottish independence referendum rather than working out how to actually get one, where to go if one doesn’t happen and what to do after one happens.
This kind of thinking is long overdue but in the absence of it coming from the Scottish Government I’d like to offer my own thoughts and analysis to and for the sake of the independence movement.
Substantial parts of this series will be drawn from Common Weal’s strategy for gaining independence Within Our Grasp which you can read here.
“It is fear that reinforces the walls we build, people are afraid to be swayed from their convictions, afraid to question their moral instincts and expose themselves to ideas that may challenge the fabric of their entire existence, but what are we if we are not seeking to better ourselves?” ―
We are entering a new phase of the independence campaign. One in which “mandates” are traded against each other – propping each other up more than they are trying to topple the other.
One in which the bounds of the constitution must be challenged rather than worked within.
One in which the “status quo” is no longer the answer to “change” nor is it even on offer.
One in which the nature of the debate becomes ever more existential rather than aspirational.
The idea of a 2020 independence referendum is all but dead with even the First Minster now looking more towards a post-2021 election victory to bolster her own mandate even where the UK Government has already committed to ignoring it.
This isn’t going to be a fight won by legal battles (though a clarification on the UK’s constitution would be welcome) nor by wagging votes at each other.
Meanwhile, Scottish politics itself is suffering as the two major cleaves running through it (Yes vs No and Remain vs Leave) have dealt a crippling blow to the designed “collegiate” atmosphere that the Scottish Parliament was supposed to be founded upon.
Some might hope that a more gradualist approach to independence will get us there, even if it really does take waiting a lifetime. But between the impending climate emergency and the sheer unlikelihood of the other parties changing their minds on their own, I don’t think this is a wise approach.
Common Weal recently published a strategy document aimed at using the sheer power of the Yes Movement as well as the substantial bloc of SNP MPs in Westminster to start to apply pressure on the UK Government – to first mock and embarrass them then to ramp up and slowly bring their ability to govern Scotland to a halt until and unless they accept the inevitability of Scottish independence.
How about we add another tool to that box and start to bring pressure on the Unionist parties themselves? Could we even do this from within? Could we give them the nudge that we need?
“The mistakes that have been committed in foreign policy are not, as a rule, apparent to the public until a generation afterwards.” – Otto von Bismark
At 2300 GMT on Friday 31st January, I will no longer be an EU citizen.
My citizenship, and all of the rights, privileges, protections and responsibilities that it entails, have been stripped from me as a result of a narrow vote three and a half years ago followed by three and a half years of pissing about, general incompetence and an unwillingness to listen to any but the most hardline radicals who practically wallowed in their ignorance of the EU and how it worked.
I accept the “will of the people” in their instruction to the government to leave the EU but this is a very different proposition from accepting how that will was discharged.
Had the Brexit process been conducted competently, then that would have been easier to bear. Instead, we have a litany of self-inflicted disasters piling up with no shame and even no sense of self-awareness on the part of those doing the piling. It’s enough to make one smash their face against their desk.
“To discover strategy is to fulfill mandate” –
On Sunday Politics Scotland this morning, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack shifted the goalposts again. The 2014 independence referendum has now been declared a “once in a lifetime” event and that even a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Scottish elections or even an outright SNP majority in those elections would be insufficient grounds for him to grant Scotland his permission to self-determine our form of government.
He went even further than this extremist position by stating categorically that he believed that it would be “absolutely unacceptable” for Scotland to hold any such referendum at a time of its choosing and under our own terms – effectively attempting to apply a veto to the Referendums Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament recently.
I think we should have a look at this Tory attempt to stifle Scottish Democracy.