What is to be Done?

The answer, when it came, was insultingly brief – perhaps deliberately so. Contrary to some speculation at the weekend, Johnson’s letter to the First Minister showed no signs of careful thought or legal briefing or even a sense that these were weighty matters. A quick reference to the ‘once in a generation’ canard, some false claims about Scottish public services, and that was it. No Section 30. No second independence referendum. Concentrate on with the day job, Nicola.

Some people are after taking drastic measures – even a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, justified by an appeal to international law. Politically, this is bonkers, given the twin need to win the consent of people and institutions within Scotland and the recognition of the wider world – both of which are political, not legal, considerations. How would UDI even work? Do you still need to seize the post office and the tv stations like they did in the old days? Does the provisional government broadcast the news from Pacific Quay? Where are you getting your weapons from (you would need them)? What do you do about the army and the police, and the huge numbers of citizens who would react in horror and alarm? UDI at this point would essentially require a coup d’état, and you can’t enforce a coup with battalions of keyboard warriors.

Others want to press on with a referendum regardless, and to dare Westminster to challenge it in court. This is at least a more realistic proposal on tactical grounds, but if the required endpoint is a referendum that compels the UK government to act in accordance with the result then this, too, is an unpromising path. As Aileen McHarg and Chris McCorkindale have said, Westminster holds far too many of the constitutional cards – and could even choose to legislate that holding a referendum is definitively not in Scotland’s power. An unauthorised referendum would be almost impossible to organise and would be boycotted by unionists. It would lack precisely what we need to achieve: legitimacy.

At which point, people get very cross. Recriminations begin. The recent past is searched to find junctures when we could have taken a different road, and somehow not ended up here. But we have ended up here because here is where we have always been. I get that this makes people want to howl with frustration, and to deny that it is so. However, the fact that we are, indeed, legally, constitutionally and politically stuck in the UK until the UK decides to recognise our demands is something we shouldn’t be trying to deny or sidestep. This is the key fact we should be clasping to our collective bosom. It has the power to warm the heart, not chill it.

It’s easy to look to the Edinburgh Agreement as a precedent for what should happen now. But Cameron only agreed to the 2014 referendum because he was sure, in his complacent privilege, that he’d win it. If he’d for a moment thought there was a real threat, he’d have blocked it. The Edinburgh Agreement and the resulting referendum made the UK seem like something it isn’t – it fed into the unionist myth of an equal partnership of consenting nations, made it seem real for a few short years. But they have never actually meant it, and certainly not when it comes down to something as fundamental as the territorial integrity of the state itself.

Now, of course, they’re not looking to hide the true state of affairs. Perhaps they don’t feel the need; or perhaps they think they can just keep on cleaving to the 2014 result as Scotland’s consent to their rule despite the ongoing passage of time and the multiplying changes in circumstance.

Are we then beaten? Is that it? No, of course not. As the lawyers keep pointing out, this is a political struggle, a point we keep losing sight of in our endless focus on party tactics, constitutional process and legal procedure. In taking this focus we sometimes assume that we already have the very thing we’re actually trying to achieve – the demand for independence as something like the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish electorate.

But this isn’t yet achieved. The events of the last ten years have done much to solidify a bloc of opinion around this demand. The 2014 referendum campaign laid the basis. Brexit has added to it, though not perhaps yet as much as it might have done. And now we have the return, in its full horror, of the very democratic deficit that the Edinburgh Agreement appeared to put aside. It was the democratic deficit in the 1980s and 90s that made devolution the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish people. And now? We face an obstructive Westminster, unbothered by talk of mandates, using the tattered figleaf of an ever more distant referendum result to cover the nakedness of its contempt for the principle of self-determination. This democratic deficit is steroidally grotesque. There are plenty of people in Scotland who may will have been sceptical of independence hitherto who will be seriously unimpressed by this look.

If there is then no easy path to a legitimate referendum, and therefore to independence, that shouldn’t mean we give up, or turn on ourselves. That’s exactly what Johnson and co are after – they want to humiliate and demoralise. Having Westminster expose itself like this opens another front in the battle to grow the majority we need as an absolute precondition for establishing a different future. It’s not simple, nor guaranteed, but it’s the vital work that still needs doing.

Uncanny Britannia

What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.

This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.

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Ruth Davidson, Mental Health and Tory Policy

Co-authored with Irene Sutcliffe – you can follow her on Twitter here

On 16 September, the Sunday Times published an interview with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. The piece was both about Davidson’s private and public lives (the two can’t really be separated, not in her line of work): her pregnancy and the importance to her and her partner of starting a family, her political career to date, and her desire not to be Prime Minister (despite strong rumours to the contrary). The interview was trying to be a refreshing take on a Conservative politician – as the interviewer points out, on the surface, Davidson is hardly your archetypal Tory, ‘…a working-class, winningly informal, cheerfully profane 39-year-old lesbian former kick boxer…’. The piece even begins with Ruth dancing for the photographer, apparently unembarrassed. She is portrayed as frank, amusing and charming. She has an autobiography coming out, called ‘Yes She Can’, and a lengthy extract from this book, which deals with her breakdown aged 17, is printed at the end of the interview.

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The Politics of ‘Us and Them’

In its death agonies, the vestigial remnant of Scottish Labour is convulsing in some entirely predictable ways. One of them, particularly evident recently, has been an even more ferocious assault on the independence movement in Scotland, which they corral – not, a lot of the time, unfairly, but not always entirely accurately – under the label of ‘Scottish nationalism’. Once again, those of us happy to support or work for the goal of an independent Scotland are being balefully admonished for fomenting a ‘politics of division’. This line is common to both Labour and the Tories, of course (and the Lib Dems, but who notices them?). But it’s Labour who make a particular habit of suggesting that this ‘divisive’ politics necessarily has something of the night about it.

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The Rhetoric of Scottish Independence

fullsizeoutput_b24As the ill wind of Brexit swirls all around, we find ourselves skirmishing again over the issue of Scottish independence. The Unionist ultras, at least, seem to be in a state of high anxiety, while those who were still holding out for the messianic advent of British federalism are looking more forlorn and friendless than ever. Back at HQ, Nicola Sturgeon surveys the terrain with what I can’t help but imagine is a coolly calculating eye. The way ahead, though, is anything but clear.

Surrounding her is a cacophony of voices offering advice, most of it unsolicited. There are probably as many different views on how a second campaign for Scottish independence should be run as there are surviving partisans of the last one. Everyone has learned the lessons of 2014 – the only problem is that there’s no general agreement on what those lessons should be. Continue reading

English Scots

Don’t mind me, I’m an oxymoron. Or at least, I think I used to be – which is as much as to say I wasn’t really anything at all. But perhaps I’m oxymoronic no more. I can stand up if I want to and say, hey, everybody, get this – I am an English Scot.

There’s still a good chance that anyone within earshot, even if listening and inclined to give a toss, would be hard pressed to say what that particular label means. It’s new, undoubtedly – it first gained currency during the independence referendum, when a group of English-born supporters of independence launched the group ‘English Scots for Yes’. Math Campbell-Sturgess, one of the group’s most prominent members and an SNP councillor, penned an eloquent account of his own motivations for Wings over Scotland. The label itself went largely unexplored, what with the pressing business of the referendum and all that. Perhaps now, though, we can come back to it. What does it mean?

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Undiscovered Countries: Shakespeare’s Britain

‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.

What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.

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