Saturday, March 24, 2018
One of the joys of an event like that is 'celebrity-watching'. I found myself standing right next to the legendary Scottish Resistance just before my speech, but possibly the most surreal spectacle was Michael Gray taking part in the Yes Bikers ride-past on a distinctly analogue bike, and grinning with sheer delight as if he'd just found out Santa exists after all. One or two people on social media criticised pro-indy MSPs for not turning up, but that's a bit unfair - I'm 99% sure I spotted Ash Denham, and there may have been others as well.
The schedule of the day was ingeniously crafted to provide lots of highly visual showstopping moments. It must have looked fabulous on television. In China, I mean - from what I can gather, the only TV cameras on the spot were from a Chinese channel. Ah well, maybe there are some soft No voters on holiday in Shanghai at the moment.
Like almost everyone, I took a few photos while I was there. Here's a selection...
Friday, March 23, 2018
I'm not sure if I've been the only person at the 'Hands Off Our Parliament' event today who spent half the time frantically searching his phone for the word 'Penicuik', but the news was good in the end. The SNP have gained the seat previously held by Labour, and this is the first actual SNP gain in a local by-election since the Westminster general election last June. Before you get too excited, it's one of those anomalies thrown up by the voting system, where Labour were defending the seat in spite of the fact that the SNP won the popular vote in the ward last time around. As you can see below, there was no big change in either the SNP or Labour vote. But it's still a significant blow for Labour, who have been overtaken by the SNP as the largest single party on Midlothian council. (Labour will presumably cling onto power with the help of their ever-faithful Tory allies.)
Penicuik by-election result (first preferences):
SNP 35.0% (-0.2)
Conservatives 30.2% (+4.0)
Labour 27.6% (+2.0)
Greens 7.2% (+1.6)
The SNP had to wait until the Green and Labour votes were redistributed before being formally declared the winners, but from the moment it became clear the Tories were in second place on first preferences, it was pretty obvious what the final result would be. Ironically, I saw a chap on Twitter claim that this result proves that only the Tories can beat the SNP, but if anything the opposite is true - if Labour had been second on first preferences, they probably would have taken a truck-load of transfers from the Tories, and might just have pipped the SNP on the final count. But the Tories are never likely to get enough Labour transfers to come from behind in a straight SNP v Tory run-off.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
If you want to get a Section 30 order, you first have to be serious about holding a referendum without one
My interest was caught by Peter A Bell's blogpost the other day about Green MSP Ross Greer's comments on Indyref 2, and not for the first time I find myself half-agreeing with Peter and half-disagreeing. I certainly agree that Greer, in arguing that a Section 30 order is essential before a referendum can go ahead, is a siren voice who could potentially lead us onto the rocks - not ideologically or philosophically, but simply in strategic terms. Greer suggests that we should forget all about holding a referendum without Westminster's consent and instead concentrate on "creating the political leverage to get the Section 30 order we need" - but the obvious point he's overlooked is that embarking on a process that could lead to a non-Westminster-approved referendum is in itself the sort of leverage that could actually produce a Section 30 order. It's arguably very unlikely that anything else would even be capable of creating sufficient leverage (with the possible exception of an early general election in which the SNP make net gains - but of course the triggering of an early election is not in the gift of anyone on the pro-indy side). There's no point in calling for the creation of leverage if in the same breath you're arguing that we should throw the best chance of leverage we have into the bin.
Greer says: "The idea of us being in a situation where we had to attempt independence with the absolute resistance of the UK government, I don’t think, would make independence actually possible." Does he not understand that this stance, if maintained, would give the UK government a very simple method by which they can make independence "impossible"? All they'd have to do is just keep saying "no" to a referendum. Job done. Scotland would have no leverage at all.
Think back to the first indyref. Why did the UK government grant a Section 30 order for that one? They didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, that's for sure. They did it because the SNP initially took the view that a Section 30 order wasn't needed and were talking seriously about going ahead without one. That was dangerous for the UK government, who risked losing any say over the format of the vote (for example whether there would be a Devo Max option), and also risked being faced with a dilemma over whether to take legal action to stop the referendum - which might or might not have succeeded, but would have been politically damaging either way. A credible threat of an "unapproved" referendum would generate a similar set of risks for London now.
In many ways, the strategic logic is similar to that of the Continuity Bill. The Scottish Government would much prefer a deal with London to protect devolution, but paradoxically by preparing the ground for exploiting a no-deal scenario, you make a deal far more likely to happen. But of course there's always just a chance that London will still prove intransigent, in which case you have to fall back on the Continuity Bill - in that sense it's an each-way bet. Perhaps that's what scares people about using the same tactic to extract a Section 30 order - if it didn't work, we'd actually have to press ahead with an "unapproved" referendum. But would that really be so awful? If a referendum bill was passed without a Section 30 order and the Supreme Court subsequently upheld it, it would become the law of the land and the "fears" of a unionist boycott would probably recede. If the Supreme Court didn't uphold it, the vote wouldn't happen anyway, but at least we'd then have political and legal clarity which would lead us inexorably towards using a Holyrood election to seek an outright mandate for independence.
Greer raises a specific concern about unionist-controlled local authorities refusing to cooperate with a referendum held without a Section 30 order. I'm obviously not a legal expert, so I'm willing to be corrected on this, but it seems intuitively likely that there are ways to deal with that problem. It's surely of some significance that powers over local government are devolved to Scotland.
Incidentally, I'd also suggest it's rather important that Labour and the Liberal Democrats (with the eccentric exception of Mike Rumbles) have created a precedent by voting in favour of the Continuity Bill, in spite of the Presiding Officer's opinion that it exceeds the parliament's powers. That will make it harder for either party to credibly argue that the SNP are doing something terribly wrong by passing a referendum bill over which there is some legal doubt. I don't say that in any sort of triumphalist "gotcha" way - I think Labour and the Lib Dems have done absolutely the right thing over the Continuity Bill, and they may even have done it for the right reasons. But it's created new facts on the ground, just the same.
Where I part company with Peter A Bell is his belief that Greer's flawed thinking on strategy is symptomatic of a major difference in approach between the Greens and the SNP. In reality, Greer's views are shared by some senior people in the SNP, while some take the opposite view, and others are somewhere in between. I've no idea which camp Nicola Sturgeon is in, and unless Peter has some sort of inside knowledge, I think he's in danger of projecting his own beliefs onto her. This isn't first and foremost an SNP v Green problem - there's an internal SNP debate on strategy that needs to be won.
* * *
If you're an SNP supporter in the Penicuik ward, don't forget to vote in the local by-election today. The SNP won the popular vote in the ward last year, but this is exactly the sort of place where Labour have prospered in recent months, so it could be a tight contest and every vote is important. (The Tories are in with a serious chance as well.)
Monday, March 19, 2018
Incredible though it may seem, that was almost exactly the posture Sweeney adopted towards Salmond yesterday. He literally treated Salmond, a former First Minister of Scotland and a current Privy Counsellor, as the equivalent of a terrorist spokesperson. Sweeney was theoretically in the position of interviewee, but from the moment he opened his mouth, his single-minded objective was to deny the legitimacy of Salmond as an interviewer on the basis that Salmond is a paid Putin stooge, to deny the legitimacy of any questions Salmond asked on the basis that they were coming out of the mouth of a paid Putin stooge, and even to deny the legitimacy of the subject that he had been invited on the programme to speak about because it had been selected by a paid Putin stooge. It was clear that he had decided in advance that he would regard his participation in the interview as a failure unless he effectively pulled off a full-blown coup against the interviewer and managed to spend the whole ten minutes putting Salmond on the ropes about a completely different subject, ie. Salmond supposedly being a paid Putin stooge.
At several points, Sweeney attempted to contrast the different practices of the BBC and Russian-owned RT, on which Salmond's weekly TV show runs. But let me just ask the obvious question: can anyone imagine a BBC interviewer putting up with the behaviour that Sweeney exhibited yesterday? Off the top of my head, I cannot recall a single example of a guest on the BBC being allowed to spend an entire interview ignoring the actual subject of the interview and instead making a prolonged personal attack on the interviewer. The closest I can think of is Jo Swinson asking an awkward question about John Humphrys' views on his female colleagues, but that was much briefer and much more courteous, and she only got away with it because of truly exceptional circumstances. Normally the outside interests of the interviewer are completely off limits. Sweeney also suggested that RT does not allow criticism, whereas people are permitted to criticise the BBC on the BBC, but is it actually true that there's any real distinction there? I've seen limited criticisms of RT expressed on RT, and yes, I've also seen limited criticisms of the BBC expressed on the BBC. In both cases, the broadcaster itself is the gatekeeper of the extent and type of criticism that is aired, by virtue of being able to select which people are or are not invited to speak. Former BBC Scotland presenter Derek Bateman has often noted that he hasn't been invited to take part in any BBC programmes as a pundit or commentator since he started making constructive criticisms of the corporation on his blog. Paul Kavanagh, a fierce critic of the BBC, has similarly observed that he is never invited onto BBC programmes, in spite of the fact that as a regular columnist on The National he is on a list of people recommended to the BBC on an ongoing basis as possible pro-independence guests. By contrast, a small number of 'safer' pro-independence guests such as Angela Haggerty (broadly a defender of the BBC) appear extremely frequently.
What Sweeney did yesterday was eerily reminiscent of Nick Robinson's outburst against Salmond on social media a few months ago, which leaves us with the distinct impression of a BBC that now views itself as being in a state of open warfare with the former leader of the UK's third largest political party, and doesn't see any problem with that. I have to say I'm struggling to imagine the BBC losing the plot quite so comprehensively with the former leader of any of the main London-based parties, which raises some troubling questions about underlying attitudes within the BBC towards the Scottish independence movement. Is the ludicrously contrived link between Salmond and the Russian menace being used as a conveniently deniable outlet for the contempt some senior BBC journalists and presenters have always felt towards the SNP in general? If so, how can the BBC be trusted to cover Scottish politics and the independence issue impartially?
Incidentally, what yesterday's interview was actually supposed to be about was Newsnight's bizarre decision to use a backdrop featuring a doctored image of Jeremy Corbyn in front of the Kremlin as part of a Bolshevik-style poster. Salmond did a heroic job of dragging Sweeney kicking and screaming back to that topic, which produced this remarkable moment about three minutes in -
Alex Salmond: The mainstream press are accusing Jeremy Corbyn of being a Kremlin stooge. So why should you picture him against the Kremlin?
John Sweeney: Because somebody has poisoned two British citizens, or rather one British citizen and his daughter, and you cannot buy this nerve agent in a shop.
What? I mean, what?! How does that reply make any logical sense unless the BBC are insinuating that Corbyn was somehow involved in the poisoning himself? I asked that question on Twitter last night, and Sweeney (who must have been searching for his own name, because I didn't tag him in the tweet) offered this retort -
"James! The exchange was more nuanced than that. I pointed out @AlexSalmond takes money from the Kremlin’s chums and that too many Putin critics get shot. After a bit he cut me off."
Words fail me. If anyone can detect even an ounce of "nuance" in Sweeney's unhinged, paranoid rant about a veteran Scottish politician supposedly being a puppet of the Russian state, you're doing better than me.