Saturday, March 23, 2019

The boundary between constitutional nationalism and revolutionary nationalism

A few weeks ago, I defended Jason McCann on this blog, and I entirely stand by that, because there was no doubt at all that his views had been misrepresented by the Daily Mail, and that senior people in the SNP had treated him unjustly by taking the Mail's version as read.  Nevertheless, there is a significant philosophical divergence between myself and Jason, and I've been confronted with that over the last 48 hours or so.  A couple of his friends from Ireland intervened in an exchange I had with him, and made fairly unsubtle attempts to whip up paranoia in Scotland about the extreme lengths the British state will supposedly go to in order to prevent this country becoming independent.  There were suggestions that Irish history could repeat itself here with a Bloody Sunday-style massacre of innocent civilians on the streets, or the internment of independence supporters.  Jason didn't make those comments himself, but he made no secret that he approved of them.

Now, I'm not going to tell people that they shouldn't be saying these things, because I know we're all sick to the back teeth of the holier-than-thou (and doomed) attempts from certain quarters to lecture a diverse movement on the one and only correct way to "do Yes".  But all the same, my own personal opinion is that hysterical predictions about British state violence will always be counterproductive, because I truly believe that the majority of Scottish people are not idiots, and that they know perfectly well that the British army is not going to start murdering or interning Yessers, and that they will basically just stop listening when they hear that kind of thing.

Why is internment or a military massacre unthinkable in Scotland?  Partly because it isn't 1972 anymore, and even the British state has learned a few lessons over the last half-century about its past mistakes.  But the main reason is that there is no significant history of political or communal violence in Scotland within living memory, and that is something that very obviously sets us apart from Northern Ireland.  The army wouldn't even be present at a pro-independence march - it would be a police matter, not a military one.  And even if the army were present for some inexplicable reason, there would be no pretext for them to fire on civilians, because there is no threat of violence from a pro-indy paramilitary group to use as an excuse.  By the same token, there could be no conceivable pretext for internment.

(When I pointed out these key differences between Scotland and Northern Ireland, one of Jason's Irish friends suggested that I complacently believed Scotland was immune to the state violence meted out in Ireland in the 1970s, because I think the Irish are "savages" and we are not.  Needless to say I had not said or implied anything of the sort.  To put it mildly, it was disappointing to see Jason enthusiastically applaud such cynical debating tactics, and indeed chip in with very similar remarks of his own.)

Admittedly, it's an open question as to whether Scotland would remain free of political and communal violence if we were foolish enough to heed the counsel of Jason's friends, because they clearly disapprove of the basic nature of our independence movement, which is apparently "feart" and "compliant" and full of "bottlers".  Their advice was for us to educate ourselves on "revolutionary thought" and then "mobilise" and "resist" in some non-specified way.  To me, that sounded for all the world like incitement to violence - a suspicion that was angrily denied, although they were curiously reluctant to set my mind at rest by clarifying exactly what "mobilisation" and "resistance" actually did mean.  Eventually I managed to coax one of them into offering a manifesto of sorts...

"Step 1: Extract thumb from arse
Step 2: Take to the streets
Step 3: Occupy government buildings ...we find Post Offices a good option
Step 4: Publicise your *peaceful* occupation via independent print online and social media"

I don't know whether these people have been paying attention, because if the massive pro-indy marches and rallies of recent times don't qualify as "taking to the streets", I'm not quite sure what would.  (In fairness, Irish TV coverage of our marches probably isn't that extensive.)  As for the occupation of government buildings, it may or may not be possible to do that sort of thing peacefully, but it sure as hell isn't possible to do it legally, or without needless confrontation with the authorities, or without a backlash from the vast majority of the population who would think we had completely taken leave of our senses.  Independence has made itself credible in Scotland precisely because its proponents do not strut around like Lenin plotting to overthrow the Tsar of Russia.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the civic/constitutional nationalism of the SNP, and the revolutionary nationalism that is part of the DNA of Sinn Féin.  (I doubt if it's any coincidence that Jason is a member of Sinn Féin but not of the SNP.)   I've always thought the best crystallisation of the SNP's approach was the answer Roseanna Cunningham gave during the 1995 Perth and Kinross by-election campaign, when she was asked by the Lib Dem candidate how she could possibly swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen when she was passionately opposed to the institution of monarchy.  She simply pointed out that the Queen is the head of state of the United Kingdom.  That may seem a nonsensical reply for someone who doesn't want there to be a Queen or a United Kingdom, but in fact it's precisely what you would expect a constitutional nationalist to say.  By swearing allegiance to the legal head of state, you are symbolically committing yourself to work within the existing constitutional arrangements to bring about the radical change you seek. Sinn Féin, of course, take the polar opposite approach - they refuse to swear allegiance to the Queen and do not take up their seats in the House of Commons, a stance which symbolises their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing constitutional arrangements, and their belief that the north of Ireland is occupied territory.

So which approach is better - the SNP's or Sinn Féin's? You pays your money and you takes your choice, and Jason has made the point that Sinn Féin is the only party on these islands to have ever achieved independence from England. (That's historically dubious, because the present-day Sinn Féin is not a direct legal continuation of the original party, but nevertheless it's true that the original was very much a revolutionary organisation.)  But my view is that we squander the immaculately peaceable heritage of Scotland's national movement at our peril.  It's taken us a long, long way - not quite to our desired destination just yet, but a hell of a lot further than any of us would have thought possible even ten years ago.  And most importantly of all, it's done that without the trauma of 25 years of low-grade civil war.

As we've discussed before, there may eventually be a limit to the utility of constitutional nationalism if the UK government are foolish enough to close off each and every option to achieve independence by democratic means. At that point you'd have little option but to go over the head of domestic law and look to international law instead.  But the SNP wouldn't be the SNP if they didn't exhaust every realistic option within the UK constitutional framework first.  They have not yet done so.  And even if that moment arrives, I'm struggling to see how occupying government buildings is going to be of much help.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Would Theresa May even respect an indicative vote in favour of a softer Brexit?

So there are basically five possible outcomes to the current crisis -

1) May's deal passes
2) No Deal
3) Softer Brexit
4) People's Vote
5) Revocation of Article 50 without a referendum

We can more or less rule out option 5 completely, because the Tory and Labour leaderships are both opposed to revocation.  (Admittedly a Labour spokesperson was very careful the other day not to explicitly exclude the possibility, but that was probably just to avoid a backlash from passionate Remainers in the PLP and the party's rank-and-file.)  Option 4 isn't totally impossible but looks extremely improbable in the wake of a recent vote in the Commons in which an absolute majority of MPs actively voted against a second referendum.  It appears that there are more than enough committed Labour opponents of a referendum to offset any Tory supporters.

So that leaves the first three options as the only credible ones.  It's still possible that May's deal will pass next week thanks to a sort of pincer movement of cliff-edges - Remainers might be spooked by the very real possibility of No Deal, while Brexiteer Tories might be spooked by the very real possibility of a softer Brexit.  But if the deal doesn't pass at the third and final attempt, which still seems to be the expectation, it's murderously hard to see whether option 2 or option 3 becomes the more likely outcome.    Presumably MPs will at last seize control of the parliamentary timetable from the government and will hold a series of indicative votes, in which they might vote for a softer Brexit along the lines proposed by Jeremy Corbyn.  But Stephen Bush of the New Statesman, who history has shown has uncanny seer-like powers on matters such as this, seems to think there would only be a 50/50 chance of a Corbyn-type plan passing (in fact reading between the lines I get the impression that he thinks the chances may be a little less than 50/50).

And even if MPs express a preference for a softer Brexit, such a vote would not in the first instance be legally binding, and Theresa May would surely regard it as inconsistent with her government's red lines.  She has proved herself to be perfectly capable of completely ignoring the wishes of parliament when they are not binding, and as incumbent Prime Minister there would be various options open to her for frustrating the watering down of Brexit.  Which I suppose leads me to conclude that the risk of No Deal should be taken very seriously indeed, even if it's hard to quantify in percentage terms.

*  *  *

Just a passing thought: hasn't the time come for the SNP and the wider Yes movement to start pointing out to the public that rather a long time has passed since the first independence referendum?  Up to now, we've tended to stress the point that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since September 2014, that there has been a material change in circumstances and so on.  But we've reached the stage where it's also fair to say that five years is in itself a long period of time, even regardless of the huge change in circumstances.  Nobody is pretending that five years constitutes the fabled "generation", but it is the maximum amount of time allowed from one general election to another, it's longer than the entire duration of the First World War, and it's almost as long as the entire duration of the Second World War.  If you listened to the unionist parties, you'd think we had a referendum last week.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Is this an all-time low for Scottish Labour?

As we all know, an individual Scottish subsample from a GB-wide voting intention poll is rarely of much use, except as a straw in the wind when there's absolutely nothing else on offer.  But the latest subsample from YouGov is worth mentioning for the sheer comedy value alone.

SNP 38%, Conservatives 22%, Liberal Democrats 19%, Labour 11%, Greens 5%, UKIP 2%, Brexit Party 1%

I must admit that I don't keep track of all-time highs and lows in subsamples, but I find it hard to believe that Labour have ever been much lower than 11% in a YouGov subsample.  OK, we all know that they aren't really on 11% (and the Lib Dems certainly aren't really on 19%), but nevertheless YouGov's subsamples tend to be a little more reliable and less volatile than those from other firms, so it's reasonable to suppose that Scottish Labour must be doing pretty badly for this to even be possible.

What makes the timing strange is that there are signs that Labour may have steadied the ship at GB level - the newest Survation poll gives them a three point boost and has them back in the lead, while both Opinium and YouGov show a reduced Tory lead, albeit due to a falling Tory vote rather than a rising Labour vote.  In YouGov's case what seems to have happened is that the Tories have suddenly lost a significant slice of support to UKIP and Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party, probably due to the (dubious) perception that Brexit is now at risk after last week's Commons votes.  Meanwhile, memories of the Independent Group split are fading with no further defections having taken place for weeks - which is very good news for both Labour and the Lib Dems, who had both taken a hit in polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of the breakaway.

There are suggestions that Jeremy Corbyn may be contemplating another no confidence vote in the government if the Brexit deal is voted down for a third time.  The only way the government can conceivably lose a confidence vote at this stage is if a smattering of Tory MPs take the nuclear option and risk their own careers by voting with the opposition.  Presumably the Labour whips already know whether there is the remotest prospect of that happening, but even if there isn't, it may still be good tactics to table a no confidence motion because it will put the Independent Group (and possibly the Lib Dems) on the spot.  It's one thing for former Labour MPs to talk about propping up a Tory government by abstaining, but actually being seen to do it for real is another matter.  If the Independent Group start to be seen as the Tories' little helpers, it could well deter wavering Labour MPs from defecting.