Thursday, December 27, 2018

How will Nebulous Theresa answer the Lorraine Mann Question?

Over at Stormfront Lite, Alastair Meeks has made a set of rather bold political predictions for the coming year - including that Britain won't leave the European Union on schedule in March, and that there will be a fresh referendum.  I don't agree with that - although a referendum is certainly possible, I think the odds are still against it, and it's probably around 50/50 whether Brexit will happen on 29th March.  In particular, where I think Alastair is going wrong is that he believes Article 50 will be revoked by parliament if that's the only way to avoid No Deal.  I just can't see that happening, because both Tory and Labour MPs know the optics of that would be that they are arrogantly overturning the 2016 referendum result.  (OK, theoretically it could be argued that a revocation is just intended to provide breathing space and that Article 50 will be re-invoked again later on, but nobody will buy that, and rightly so.)  So the only way Brexit will not occur on schedule is if Article 50 is extended rather than revoked - which is an important distinction, because if my hazy understanding of the legal position is correct, the impetus for an extension can only come from the government, and it's not something parliament can insist upon.  And unlike a revocation, an extension can't be decided upon unilaterally by the UK.

Essentially what that means is that Theresa May can ensure that Britain leaves in March if she is determined to do so, but that might well involve her accepting No Deal.  So the key to understanding what is about to happen is inside May's head - would she actually do that?

In the mid-1990s, Alex Salmond and George Robertson took part in a televised head-to-head debate on the respective merits of independence and devolution.  Towards the end of the programme, the audience member Lorraine Mann coined what became known as "the Lorraine Mann Question" - she asked each leader what their second preference would be for Scotland's constitutional status.  In other words, she wanted to know whether Alex Salmond would prefer devolution or continued direct rule from London, and whether George Robertson would prefer direct rule from London or independence.  Both men looked as if they wished the question had never been asked, but Mr Salmond answered it clearly - his second preference was devolution.  Mr Robertson, by contrast, made a complete fool of himself - he refused to answer, and suggested (wrongly) that Lorraine Mann was an SNP plant.

Mr Robertson did, however, have the luxury of knowing that it was an academic question - he was never going to be forced to publicly reveal that he preferred London rule to independence.  Theresa May isn't so lucky.  She says the choice is between her deal, No Deal and No Brexit.  If that's right, when and if her deal is defeated in the Commons, she's going to finally have to reveal what her own second preference is.  We know what some of her Cabinet colleagues would do in her shoes - Andrea Leadsom's second preference would clearly be No Deal, and Amber Rudd's would be No Brexit.  But which way will May jump?  If she prefers No Deal, Brexit will probably happen on schedule, but if she prefers No Brexit, we could be looking at an extension of Article 50 and possibly a second referendum.

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

What happens if a "People's Vote" is won by Leave?

Quite often when the SNP introduce a new policy or strategy that I'm not sure about, I "sip it and see", and end up realising it was a good idea all along.  But with this whole "People's Vote" thing, I find I'm going at a rate of knots in the opposite direction.  When the change in policy was first announced, I could see some value in it, because it ended the bickering on social media between SNP supporters and the People's Vote diehards, and it also headed off any suggestion that the SNP weren't truly sincere in their efforts to keep the UK in the single market and customs union.  But what I didn't anticipate was the sheer unbridled enthusiasm with which the SNP were going to end up campaigning for a UK-wide referendum (in which Scotland could very easily be outvoted again), at a time when they're very noticeably not actively campaigning for a referendum in which Scotland can take charge of its own destiny.  Ian Blackford has been cheered to the rafters at slickly-choreographed People's Vote rallies down south, where he's shared platforms with the likes of Jo Johnson, Vince Cable and Anna Soubry.  It's fair to say that the SNP are now more popular with liberal opinion in England than they've been for a very long time, possibly ever, which is scarcely surprising given that they've 100% fallen in behind a London-led liberal agenda, and have put an independence referendum to one side for the moment.  

Where is this actually getting us?  Is the idea that the SNP are building up a reserve of goodwill with liberal England that can be cashed in later?  Do they reckon a centrist, pro-European government, perhaps led by Chuka Umunna or Yvette Cooper, is going to eventually take power and will be so grateful to the SNP that they'll feel compelled to grant a Section 30 order?  I'm not sure power politics works that way. Gratitude will only get you so far - ultimately any Westminster government will act in its own self-interest.

I've already pointed out how damaging a UK-wide referendum could be for the cause of independence if it results in a Remain vote.  Fretful swing voters in Scotland would look back on the last two years of chaos as a bad dream, and would not countenance the risk of repeating that process in order to negotiate independence.  But what if the opposite happens?  What if a People's Vote produces a second victory for Leave?  It was easy in 2016 for the SNP to say that Scotland's decision to stay in the EU had been ignored, but it won't be so easy this time.  They'll be asked one simple question: "You've spent months demanding a UK-wide referendum rather than a Scottish independence referendum.  You even romanticised that UK-wide referendum as a 'People's Vote'.  How can you possibly not accept the result now?"

What will be the answer?  Has this been adequately war gamed?

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The controversial journalist David Leask doesn't seem to have much of a fan base, but after my blogpost of the other day one or two people did speak up to defend his obsession with Russia.   Basically they suggested that Putin is trying to erode western democracy by undermining our "unity", ie. by identifying pre-existing differences of opinion, exacerbating them, and turning them into full-blown conflicts.  I can't help noting the irony of that line of argument, because undermining unity from outside is exactly what Leask himself is attempting to do in respect of the SNP.  He's taking relatively minor differences of emphasis between various people within the party and trying to turn it into a full-blown civilisational war between two supposedly incompatible factions that he calls "the real SNP" and "alt nats".  It's not working, partly because of the indescribable silliness of the notion that Alex Salmond and Angus MacNeil are not part of "the real SNP", but nevertheless that's what his game is.

There's also a sense in which Leask himself is undermining western democracy.  He's trying to get us into the mindset of war by arguing that the threat from Russia is so overwhelming that we must maintain monolithic unity to defeat it, and avoid taking positions that echo Russian "messaging".  I'm not at all convinced that we face such a state of emergency.  What is Russia actually doing?  Funding political parties?  Engaging in astroturfing?  We've faced that kind of interference in our politics for decades from non-state actors, and we generally regard it as a nuisance rather than as a threat to our civilisation that we must surrender our freedoms to face down.

And surrendering our freedoms is what Leask is demanding we must do.  Democratic politics is about the freedom to take opposing views.  In other words it's about division, which Leask tells us we must avoid at all costs if we are to stand up to Russia.  To coin a phrase, 'now is not the time' to self-indulgently argue for Scottish independence, or for withdrawal from NATO, if that would damage the 'unity' of the Anglo-American alliance.  And you can forget all about the democratic freedom to express your own views if they happen to coincide with Russian "messaging".  The example given in the CommonSpace piece was Leask's attack on Neil Findlay for calling the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament a "fascist", a descriptor that has a strong basis in fact.  It seems we must avoid even making reference to facts if they happen to have already been mentioned at some point by Mr Putin.

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The "impartial election expert" Mike Smithson, known for writing letters to thousands of people in East Dunbartonshire out of the sheer goodness of his heart, has a long and proud history of producing the most risibly shallow 'analysis' of politics in the Celtic nations.  I call it "Bedfordsplaining".  My favourite example was when he Bedfordsplained to us the true meaning of the phrase "ninety-minute nationalists", which apparently we had misunderstood for all these decades.  

Smithson has outdone himself over the last two days with a fatuous claim that the DUP will be so spooked by the new Lucid Talk opinion poll (showing support for Irish unity in the event of a no deal Brexit) that they will do a U-turn and back the draft deal.  The funniest bit was when he doubled down yesterday by saying he had "dealt with" the DUP's position and that May could therefore regard their votes as being in the bag.

I mean, where do you start?  The DUP have been taking their hardline position in the full knowledge that opinion polls have shown for months that a no deal Brexit would dramatically increase support for a united Ireland.  They haven't been spooked, and there's no reason why that's suddenly going to change just because Mike Smithson has finally noticed one of the polls.  Their position may be entirely rational, because people are notoriously bad at answering hypothetical questions in polls.  Of course the DUP would in an ideal world prefer to avoid any theoretical risk of a united Ireland by getting a Brexit deal through, but they're not going to do it at absolutely any cost.  They would need a substantial renegotiation of the deal to neutralise the backstop - and at the moment there's no indication that the EU are willing to go down that road.  If the deal remains unchanged and is put to the vote, the DUP will vote against it - that is simply a fact.

Smithson may be on marginally stronger ground in speculating that Corbyn secretly wouldn't mind if the draft deal went through, because it would prevent him having to make a decision about a People's Vote that his party wants but he doesn't.  That sounds plausible enough, but whether he can actually engineer that outcome while remaining publicly opposed to the deal himself is more doubtful.

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