Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The road to independence for Scotland - and the road to nowhere for Douglas Ross

So a couple of 'quick notes' for you tonight.  I have a new article on The National's website about whether Douglas Ross is likely to keep his promise to Michelle Ballantyne to be "Boris backing, Brexit positive, anti-Nat".  You can read it HERE.  Also, I'm quoted (along with John Curtice and Mark Diffley) in Chaminda Jayanetti's new piece for politics.co.uk entitled 'The road to independence: How Covid and Brexit pushed Scotland from the Union' - you can read that HERE.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

It's time to democratise the SNP's NEC

Earlier this evening, I had a brief but interesting Twitter exchange with the former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, who incidentally I voted for back in the day no fewer than four times - twice when he was the SNP candidate for Cumbernauld & Kilsyth in 1999 and 2003, and twice when he was a Central Scotland list candidate in the same years.  (He was elected on the list in 1999, but missed out in 2003 due to his ranking on the list being too low - ironically as the result of something of a stitch-up.)

Now, in fairness, what Andrew says about being unhappy with the NEC decision does check out - I had a look through some of his earlier tweets and he had made the same point before. So I'm happy to apologise to him for getting the wrong end of the stick. (I know some cynical souls will suggest that we may simply be seeing a tactical retreat after the NEC decision had already proved to be unsustainable. But we have to take what people say at face value in the absence of contrary evidence.)

Nevertheless, it's also reasonable to point out that I gave Andrew the opportunity to explain exactly what he did mean by the comments I misconstrued, and as you can see he very studiously avoided doing so. There presumably must be a reason for his reluctance to publicly explain what "placating the gallery" is getting at.  Off the top of my head, I can only really think of a small number of demands that people have been making on social media - one is that the decision to block James Dornan be overturned (that's already happened), one is that the decision to block Joanna Cherry be overturned (Andrew says he'd support that), and one is that people should think more carefully about who is placed on the NEC and the process by which they end up being placed there.  Is it the latter demand that Andrew is concerned about?  This is not an attempt to "cast aspersions", but when an explanation isn't forthcoming, all that can fill that gap is a process of logical deduction, and I'm struggling to think of any other possibilities.

If I'm right, it's little wonder that Andrew is unwilling to spell out what he means, because the calls to reform the NEC are a simple matter of democratic accountability.  To the limited extent that the NEC is elected at all, it's elected by an indirect method, and that's bound to cause great concern if the end result is a body taking decisions that are alien to the wishes of the wider party membership.  As for the observation that those who do have the opportunity to elect NEC members should take the process more seriously in future, that's an affirmation of a democratic principle too.  If you feel that any person you've helped to elect has let you down or acted inappropriately, of course you should reflect on that before you cast your next vote.

In the overall scheme of things, it wasn't all that long ago that even the SNP leader wasn't directly elected - there was election-by-delegate instead.  That wouldn't be considered acceptable now, and an unelected NEC really ought to be seen in exactly the same way as an anachronism.  And it can no longer even be said that it's an "anachronism that works".

Incidentally, none of this should be seen as a criticism of Angus Robertson, who would be an excellent MSP for Edinburgh Central, every bit as much as Joanna Cherry would.  (I regard Robertson and Cherry as two of the four most likely successors to Nicola Sturgeon, along with Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes.)  But we must have a fair process, and an end to factional control of the SNP's internal structures.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Since Scotland broke away from the disastrous Westminster-led response to the crisis, our outcomes have been dramatically - not "marginally" - better than England's

I raised a dubious eyebrow at this comment today from David Herdson over at Stormfront Lite -

"And what’s true in England is true in Scotland too. While Nicola Sturgeon likes to pat her administration on its back, the truth is that cases are rising there too, and the death total is still worse than just about everywhere else in Europe. Having marginally better outcomes and considerably better communication skills than London is nothing much to write home about."

Of course there's a grain of truth in that - over the entire course of the pandemic to date, Scotland can be reasonably said to have had a poor outcome by international standards.  But what that doesn't tell you is more important than what it does.  The vast bulk of infections and deaths were front-loaded in the early part of the crisis when Scotland was in almost total lockstep with the Westminster-led "Four Nations" approach.  The modelling suggests that almost 100,000 people were infected in Scotland the week before lockdown - that's nearly 2% of the entire population in just seven days.  I personally know people who were infected that week, and probably most of us do.  That was being allowed to happen by an intentional policy choice of herd immunity.

At some point, the penny dropped in Scottish Government circles that we were not in fact facing the "mild infection" that the likes of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance had briefed them about, and as a result Scotland has diverged sharply from the policy south of the border.  To the best of my knowledge, the extent of the U-turn has never been publicly acknowledged, but it's been almost total.  We've gone from Jason Leitch saying in his Grand Complacency Tour of the TV studios in February/March that almost everyone was going to get the virus and that was totes fine, to a specific goal of eliminating the virus completely.

That hasn't left us with merely a difference of "communication" styles between Scotland and England (although the communication in Scotland has self-evidently been vastly superior), but a difference of substance.  And that divergence hasn't just led to "marginally better outcomes" as David suggests, but to dramatically better outcomes.  He's correct that case numbers in Scotland rose on Friday to their highest level for two months - but that was a rise of 30.  That's still well behind England on a per capita basis.

That said, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and Scotland's success story is about to be tested as never before by the gamble of opening schools on a full-time basis in a matter of days from now.  It's ironic, then, that David's piece is a call for the reopening of schools to be prioritised.

*  *  *

Friday, July 31, 2020

YouGov poll: Nicola Sturgeon's net personal rating is 87 points higher than Boris Johnson's

YouGov today published results of a full-scale Scottish poll, but it only contained favourability ratings for various leading politicians.  It would be odd to conduct a poll of that sort without also asking for voting intentions, so I'm wondering if there might be more to come, possibly for a Sunday newspaper.  In the meantime, we have the familiar picture of Nicola Sturgeon towering over her unionist competitors - 

Net favourability ratings:

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP)  +36
Rishi Sunak (Conservative)  +7
Sir Keir Starmer (Labour)  +1
Richard Leonard (Labour)  -28
Jackson Carlaw (Conservative)  -32
Matt Hancock (Conservative)  -38
Dominic Raab (Conservative)  -38
Priti Patel (Conservative)  -48
Boris Johnson (Conservative)  -51
Michael Gove (Conservative)  -57
Dominic Cummings (SAGE)  -69

I know some will say that this is mildly encouraging for Sir Keir Starmer, but given that he hasn't had much time or opportunity to get on anyone's nerves yet, I'm not sure a neutral rating is much to write home about.  Meanwhile, these numbers are a rude awakening for anyone in the Tory ranks who would fondly like to imagine that Michael Gove's Scottish background and accent are some kind of secret weapon - he's somehow less popular than even the Prime Minister.

To return to the subject of last night's stitch-up at the SNP's NEC, quite blatantly intended to prevent Joanna Cherry and James Dornan standing at next year's election, what I would say is this.  When we have a wildly popular leader, who commands respect and admiration in Scotland, the rest of the UK and to some extent even internationally, it would plainly be in all our interests to be able to get behind her and achieve a thumping, united mandate next May.  But if that's going to happen, it really does take two to tango.  You can't turn the SNP into a cold house for those with certain perfectly legitimate views (for example self-ID sceptics) and then lecture the people you've alienated about how they still have to vote for you anyway.  Maintaining a big tent requires a bit of give and take, not just a one-way process of take.  Nicola Sturgeon is in so many ways a good leader, and now would be an excellent (and indeed essential) moment for her to demonstrate that once again by asking for the NEC's decisions to be urgently reviewed before any lasting damage is done.  

So many independence supporters would prefer to stick with the SNP in May.  Make it possible for them.  Don't put up needless walls.

A factional and self-destructive decision

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The SNP leadership should just chill out and stop trying to artificially obstruct Joanna Cherry's bid to become an MSP

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Before they burn their bridges, leading figures in the SNP ought to remember that Alex Salmond is a man with options

Following on from my bewilderment over a period of weeks as Iain Macwhirter acted as an unlikely cheerleader for herd immunity, it's refreshing to once again find something to agree with him about, and I see that his column today will argue that Nicola Sturgeon should seek a reconciliation with Alex Salmond "before it's too late".  I think from the SNP leadership's perspective that point should really be beyond dispute.  The period after Mr Salmond's acquittal ought to have been a time of healing, but instead a number of senior SNP parliamentarians foolishly made comments that were obviously intended to make it very difficult for the former leader to be welcomed back into the fold.  It became clear that one or two of them really did believe in the nonsensical claim peddled by the controversial journalist David Leask that the man who had led the SNP for almost one-quarter of its entire existence to date, and who they had served under themselves without any apparent difficulty, was somehow not part of the "real SNP" (whatever that might be).

We live in an infantile age where anyone who makes even the smallest mistake or misjudgement can find themselves characterised as an irredeemable monster.  In the eyes of several individuals very close to the top of the SNP, Alex Salmond was at some point reclassified, practically overnight, from a respected statesman to an "enemy of women", and absurdly the verdict of the court made almost no difference to that assessment.  Even if they truly believed that the demonisation was justified, they seemed to have lost sight of the realpolitik of the situation, which is that Mr Salmond, unlike the vast majority of politicians, is a man with options.  It's not actually possible to deny him a future in politics by simply freezing him out of the SNP, because he has the option, if he wishes to take it, of a bright future in politics outside the SNP.  His critics might think it's unfair or distasteful that he has that option when others don't, but all that matters is that he does.  You'd almost be forgiven for thinking that people close to the leadership actively prefer the idea of his comeback being outside the SNP, given that their actions make that outcome somewhat more probable - but the idea that they're doing it intentionally makes absolutely zero sense given the obvious potential for electoral damage to the party.  The more plausible conclusion is that sound strategic judgement has given way to identity politics zealotry.

During the 1980 Labour leadership election, Denis Healey famously treated his natural allies with contempt.  He told them they had "nowhere else to go", and that he would instead concentrate on wooing the left in his ill-fated bid to defeat Michael Foot.  A few months later, some of the MPs that Healey had antagonised left to join the newly-formed Social Democratic Party, and one of them sent him a note that simply read "found somewhere else to go".  The SNP leadership are acting as if Mr Salmond has nowhere else to go.

As I've said a number of times in recent months, I'm personally in two minds about whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing for the independence movement if Mr Salmond ends up launching a new list-only party.  On the face of it, things are going exceptionally well at the moment - support for independence has never been higher, and thanks to Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the pandemic there is unprecedented faith in Scotland's ability to govern itself competently.  That progress could in theory be squandered by the self-inflicted wound of a major new divide in the pro-indy camp.  But, on the other hand, even sky-high support for independence would be of absolutely no use to anyone unless the SNP leadership actually do something with it.  If a Salmond-led party emerges, at least we'd immediately have something that we don't have right now - ie. a very credible route-map to Scotland becoming an independent country in the aftermath of the 2021 election.  The new party would not win a majority, it would not become the largest single party, and it would not form a government on its own.  But it would have every chance of becoming a kingmaker, and it would presumably use any leverage it gains to insist on a way forward that is not dependent on the granting of a Section 30 order.

In all honesty, and in spite of my mixed feelings about the strategic wisdom of launching a list-only party, if Alex Salmond was to decide to take the plunge I'd probably put my doubts to one side and get behind the initiative.  Right now I'm a proud supporter of the SNP because it's the only large party with independence as its raison d'être, but if another large and credible party comes along with a stronger commitment to independence, the equation would obviously change radically.

It's safe to assume that, unlike me, the SNP leadership don't have even the slightest doubt in their minds that the cause of independence is best served by the Yes movement remaining largely united behind the SNP, and the SNP only.  If that is indeed their verdict, it would plainly be logical for them to reach out to Mr Salmond.  If they don't, they'll have no-one to blame but themselves for any negative consequences that follow.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

BREAKING: It's the other guy who's obsessed, insists angry man for the 34,289th time

Alert readers (ahem) of Wings Over Scotland may have noticed that in the vast majority of the countless blog/social media posts Stuart Campbell has used to rant about Scot Goes Pop over the last year, his main - and rather curious - complaint is that I am supposedly "dementedly obsessed" with him.  It does beg the question of whether he genuinely thinks his audience is too thick to notice the colossal irony of that charge, because one thing I'm quite sure of is that he's not too thick to have noticed it himself.  One of his stock tactics has been to demand answers to certain questions, and then when I do what he demands and provide the answers, he uses my reply as further evidence of my "demented obsession".  On the most recent occasion he attempted that stunt, only a couple of weeks ago, I actually asked him for an assurance that if I gave him the reply he was angrily insisting upon, we could dispense with the increasingly tedious "demented obsession" repertoire, even if just this once.  He gave that assurance.  So I posted the reply he wanted, and as it happens I haven't blogged about him since (although needless to say I always reserve the right to blog about any subject at any time of my choosing).

But wait, what's this?  Today brings word of the 34,289th post on Wings about the subject of the James Kelly "demented obsession", and it does read like someone who has lost his cool somewhat -

"the usual suspects stamping their feet and pouting about it yet again on social media, in particular the firmly-ensconced SNP MP Pete Wishart and the worryingly obsessed former poll-analysis website WINGS OVER SCOTLAND IS BAD AND TERRIBLE AND STUART CAMPBELL SOMETIMES DOES SWEARS SO NOBODY WOULD EVER VOTE FOR HIM! Goes Pop."

Blimey.  Given that I haven't even been blogging about him, what could possibly have sent the poor Reverend into such a meltdown?  As far as I can see, it appears to be a complaint about a mere two tweets I posted yesterday in relation to a newspaper report about him and his interminable on again-off again plans for a new Wings political party.  Let me just gently reiterate a piece of advice I've given to Stuart in the past - if it really bothers you this much that people are commenting on you and your actions, you might not be ideally suited to a political career.  Because if you do enter the political arena, you're going to regularly make the news (as you've just done), and people will comment on social media about those news stories.  It really does go with the territory.  If you can't even cope with two mildly critical tweets, it might be best that you reach that realisation now, because there'll be a lot, lot worse to come from people far more hostile than I am.

As for his belief that swearing is a national pastime in Scotland, and that anyone who doesn't think an abusive leader is an electoral asset must be living in the 18th Century, I can only repeat what I said in my reply two weeks ago.  When Stuart imagines Scotland, he appears to imagine a pub full of working-class football supporters.  That's not totally inaccurate, of course, but it's only part of Scotland, and it's not even the dominant part.  A female friend spontaneously said to me afterwards "he's wrong, you know, extreme swearing would totally put me and a lot of other people off voting for a party like that".  Personally, I've no doubt that's correct.  Stuart disagrees, but if he puts it to the test he'll be in for a rude awakening.

"We’ve watched in bafflement as James Kelly in particular has interpreted this complete silence as a series of “U-turns” and “re-U-turns” so lengthy and contorted that we honestly have no idea what he even thinks our plans are now, despite the absolutely extraordinary amount of time he spends ranting about us."

Hmmm.  What I've actually been doing, of course, is replying to his own crazy-paving utterances on his plans.  Some of those utterances have been publicly posted in the comments section of this blog, so it's a bit pointless for him to pretend he's remained "silent" on the topic.  But, hey, if you think your readership is that gullible, why wouldn't you try the Orwellian "Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia" line?  I doubt it's any coincidence that Stuart's favourite book is Ninety Eighty-Four.

Honestly, Stu - I've got the memo.  You're trying to pathologise criticism of your budding political career because you know that the criticism is well-founded and has the potential to hit home.  But if pathologising my own critique as "dementedly obsessed" was ever going to work, wouldn't I have given up in embarrassment by now?  Do I come across as someone who'll be deterred from pointing out the dangers of a Wings party to the independence cause any time soon?  Maybe it's time to try a new tack.  In fact, here's a radical thought - you could actually engage with the criticisms, and debate like a normal, mature politician.  You might just need the practice...

Thursday, July 23, 2020


The other night, I happened to stumble across this Phantom Power film I took part in a few years ago.  It also features Derek Bateman, Paul Kavanagh and Janice Galloway.

I think I'm right in saying that my segment was filmed literally a couple of weeks after the independence referendum, so it's an interesting reminder of what was going through my head during that period.  Given that George Galloway has been in the news recently, this is the observation that leaps out -

"You also can look at the statements that the London parties made during the referendum...George Galloway, who normally you wouldn't think he was speaking on behalf on anyone but himself, but in fact he was the official designated representative of Better Together [in the televised debate at the Hydro], and he specifically said that not only was Devo Max on offer, but something that he called Devo Supermax.  I mean, if Devo Max is commonly defined as the devolution of everything apart from foreign affairs and defence, the mind boggles as to what Devo Supermax is, but certainly that's what George Galloway promised, and nobody from Better Together said 'actually, he spoke out of turn, that doesn't apply', so that is a pledge they made.  I think what we've now got to do is keep them to the promises that they made.  Whether they intended to make them or not, what they said is on the record."

This begs just one very simple and devastating question, which doubtless the fearless mainstream media will be persecuting Galloway with during the campaign to come - "WHERE'S OUR DEVO SUPERMAX, GEORGE?"

*  *  *

Monday, July 20, 2020

For the Yes movement to stay behind them, the SNP must have a crystal-clear manifesto commitment to an early referendum - with no caveats or get-out clauses

I've been having a look at Robin McAlpine's attack on the SNP leadership, and there are parts I strongly disagree with, but also parts about which I just have to throw my hands up in the air and say "it's too soon to tell".  He's convinced that the SNP have no intention of delivering an independence referendum in the next five-year Holyrood term - well, that's a concern that I have, but I'm not sure how either I or Robin are in any position to say that it's a certainty.

The most despicable part of Tony Blair's tactics in engineering an illegal war in Iraq was the way he managed dissent within the Labour party.  In the autumn of 2002, many Labour MPs wanted to debate the prospect of invasion, but they were told that "it's far, far too early to think about that, nothing is even remotely imminent, there'll be ample time to debate before anything happens".  But then in a blink of an eye, they were being told that it was far, far too late for debate, we had passed the point of no return, and that any attempt to stop the military build-up should have taken place much earlier.

The suspicion in some quarters is that the SNP leadership are attempting a similar stunt - but instead of shutting down dissent over a predetermined action until it's too late to stop it, they're shutting down dissent over a predetermined lack of action.  But is that actually what's happening?  I've been told, by someone who is in an excellent position to judge, that Nicola Sturgeon remains sincere in her commitment to independence, but that she only ever listens to an extremely small, closed group of advisers who simply have no strategy for bringing independence about in the absence of a Section 30 order, and no interest in ever devising such a strategy.  But I've also heard it said by others that a strategy is already firmly in place and that we'll see it play out reasonably quickly after next year's election.  Without being a mindreader, it's impossible to tell for sure which of those possibilities is the correct one.  That being the case, my main criticism of the leadership at this stage would be their tendency to say to the wider movement "just get on with building support for independence and don't worry your pretty little heads about process".  We all have a stake in "process", and being told not to even think about it is bound to fuel paranoia that we're being led up the garden path.

I think part of this problem will resolve itself, though.  The movement will be expecting a crystal-clear manifesto commitment to a reasonably early referendum.  If that doesn't materialise, or if there are caveats in the wording about taking no action until the economic impact of the pandemic has been reversed (which, if taken literally, could mean decades of delay), then at that point it might cease to be so illogical to look at smaller pro-indy parties.  I certainly wouldn't say there'd be nothing to lose, because there are some pretty major potential downsides to risking a unionist government, even when the main pro-indy party has no intention of pursuing independence.  (I keep thinking about how the Parti Québécois failed repeatedly to come close to regaining majority power after losing it in 2003.)  But it's fair to say there'd be somewhat less to lose.

The much more likely scenario, however, is that the desired watertight referendum commitment will be in the SNP manifesto, in which case the most promising course of action will be to give the SNP a thumping mandate, and then to hold their feet to the fire over honouring their own commitment.  The only possible exception to that would be if there is a new party led by Alex Salmond, which might well be strong enough to win seats and to gain some leverage with the SNP government.

Of course I'm going to have to take issue with Robin's language about the electoral system.  His subtext is that the SNP asking for "both votes" is greedy and unreasonable, and that they'd have to clear an extremely high bar to even begin to justify it.  But the reality is that the whole logic of the Additional Member System hinges on the assumption that the vast majority of people will vote for the same party on both ballots.  The only reason there are two ballots rather than one is to give people some discretion to vote tactically on the constituency ballot, while still voting for their first-choice party on the more important list ballot.  It would be downright odd if the SNP weren't asking for both votes.