Scotland as Tesco – “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap”

Last week figures were published by Eurostat suggesting that Scotland was better educated than anywhere else in Europe, measured by proportion of the population educated up to degree level for every year between 2011 and 2019.

However, even during my teaching career I became suspicious of the “maximise the number of graduates” policy.

There were several reasons for this.

1. when it all kicked off in the middle 80s, one important reason was to contribute to mopping up as much youth unemployment as possible – a more intellectual YOP perhaps? My first Prof – Peter Sloane, who eventually became Dean of Social Sciences at Aberdeen – used to tell me that if student:staff ratios got above 12:1 then HE as we knew it was done. While I am sure he himself presided over much worse than this even at Aberdeen, there is a limit, and at one point at what was then Paisley College in the late 80s, the ratio was 38:1 for Marketing (I wasn’t in Marketing, but it wasn’t much better in the areas I taught in). So, one cause was opportunism rather than a conversion to the notion of a well-educated population.

2. But, of course, there had to be a justification beyond “we don’t want all these young folks wandering the streets”, and Mummy and Daddy Middle Class weren’t going to have their wee Johnny or Jenny on YOP – and of course it was such as them Thatcher was looking to in order to keep her in power. The justification was in Michael Porter’s “The competitive advantage of nations”. Porter is (or was) the sort of consultant who didn’t demean himself working for large corporations – his game was working for governments. In this book, one of the things he argued was that having a high number of graduates was associated with a high level of economic performance – pointing inter alia to an early stage Silicon Valley. Ergo, have lots of graduates have a vibrant economy. Except this isn’t the only way to consider this issue.

Let’s accept that Porter’s statement is correct – that vibrant economies have lots of graduates – but did having a high number of graduates make the economy vibrant? OR – and call me cynical but this is my bet – a vibrant economy needs graduate level employees, so the kids see the openings and get themselves off to university. In short, having lots of graduates, of and by itself, won’t make the economy vibrant. It might be a necessary condition but it sure isn’t sufficient.

I remember a colleague getting into bother (and for the record, no it was NOT me) for writing a letter to the press, which included the “joke”, “what do you say to a new graduate?” “Big Mac and fries please”. If demand and growth in the economy is inadequate to make use of the number of graduates produced (hopefully in the right disciplines – do we produce enough Engineers and Scientists for instance – but that’s an argument for another day) then frankly the system we have in place is just a cruel hoax. Why for instance did we produce all these new teachers last year when there were 80 something full time jobs? Glasgow CC wasn’t even taking names for its supply list!

3. But of course that number of students wasn’t easily sustainable, which has justified the change to fees, in England at least, with kids paying anything up to 10k a year for three years. One curiosity is that government expenditure hasn’t changed that much. While fees are “paid” by students, other than for the very well-heeled they are paid by a loan, which is put up by the government – but, unlike University expenditure this is a loan to the student to be repaid by them, so doesn’t count toward deficit or debt. However, if it follows the experience of student loans, a good deal won’t ever be repaid, which is the final proof of my point 2 – following the optimistic version of the Porter thesis presumed that students would come out to the embrace of employers desperate to employ them and paying them for stable jobs. Aye right. Rather graduates came out to a much colder and difficult world than the one they have been sold. Some will do just fine. Many more will struggle, be laden with debt which they will struggle to repay (if they ever do). And of course, you gotta go to Uni – it’s good for school stats innit?

All of this drives me to the view that the number of people at university as the gold standard for all is wrong, inappropriate and in many cases just cruel.

When I started in HE my office was next to a guy who wrote learned articles on how an HE market would work more efficiently than the managed market we had at the time. That students “knew” what they wanted to do better than the Scottish Office which at that time set not just the number of places a University or Central Institution could take on in any year, but it also specified in which disciplines – so Economics, Sociology, Biology, Civil Engineering could all take on their specified numbers of students AND NO MORE.

The counter argument – and the policy we have now – is that students will respond to the vacancies they see and take University courses as appropriate. Uhm, yeh, sure. So now we have loads of students in Media Studies but not enough Engineers. The justification now is “personal responsibility” so when a young graduate ends up with no job, it’s their fault. It’s gas lighting on an industrial scale.

Moreover, do we have enough school leavers being trained at “technician level” – so folk like electricians, plumbers etc.? These are unlikely to make an economy vibrant – BUT you try running a vibrant economy without them. These are the people who actually do the work, and we have done two things. First, we have made clear that they should be aspiring to the next level up irrespective of their capacity to profit (whether in the sense of learning or reward). Secondly that their skills are valued less (well not until you have to employ a plumber/ heating engineer).

While having more graduates may make us the most educated in Europe, can we say that we are the most appropriately educated in Europe? Do we have too many graduates? Too many in the wrong subjects? Do we have enough technician grade graduates trained to a high enough level?

I don’t doubt the difficulty of this – there must be easier ways to get voted out than to tell the middle class that their kids might not go to University (which btw since it should be based on ability means the middle class will work as never before to hothouse their kids and put pressure on teachers to make sure they ‘attain their full potential’ – often defined by mum and dad!)

Likewise, this will not go down well in the Universities – cue cries of outrage among the Principals who have had years of pursuing their own megalomaniac projects and want to continue to do so. Being told that their student numbers are being cut to facilitate increases at technician level which would be something for the FE sector to get on with (though you never know with Universities – BSc Plumbing?) is not what they want to hear. Emphasising student choice is all very well, but the great majority of students are at university for one reason and one reason only – to get a job at the end of it all. This is something to remember when universities complain of cuts as philistinism – there is a lot of that in the universities as well!

Then we have to ask where we get the estimates for expected jobs in the future. Will the employers help? If you think I have been cynical so far, prepare for an even higher level. Too many employers have a time perspective which gets them to the end of the week, most weeks. How many doing job X will you all need in five years will be met by blank stares and comments about pointy heads. Will they be involved in training the students, giving them work experience for instance? My own encounters with employers convinces me that they expect a Business graduate to turn up the finished article – that he or she will know the kind of processes used, the financial control system used in that company. They’ve paid their taxes why do they need to do further training to address the gaps left by those bloody useless University lecturers. The idea that in a class of even just 50, there will be 50 graduates all going off to different companies, in different industries, doing things in different ways etc, is something their myopia prevents them from even being aware of, never mind understanding. Employers need to be much more realistic, but if they want graduates to have more appropriate skills then they need to become more collaborative

This is not the same as saying “more involved” because then they try to dictate and their ignorance becomes palpable. This is rather an old story, but my PhD supervisor one night at a dinner, found himself beside Hector Laing, then chairman of United Biscuits and Treasurer of the Tory Party – a darling of Margaret Thatcher. On learning what David did, old man Laing expressed his disappointment with the quality of young graduates. Rather then being apologetic (and because David is a bad b*****d) he asked Laing what skills they should have. After a bit of debate, it became apparent that Laing (who remember at the time is one of the captains of British industry) wanted them to be able to read and if they could count as well that would be an advantage. They haven’t got a b****y clue! They only – as they always do – want something to moan about, someone else to blame.

In short, the whole “number at University” strategy, and the annual row about the numbers and the attainment gap etc misses the point entirely. Certainly, being a graduate in any discipline teaches certain basic skills – creativity, research, looking for alternative answers, communication etc – but in that case does it matter what any graduate studies. Why not recruit Nurses (now a graduate profession) from the ranks of graduates in Ancient Hebrew? How many graduates are in jobs which actually use their skills? How many degrees are just cannon fodder for avaricious employers – for instance para-legals (BA in Law) who get taken on by law firms to do the donkey work for much less than if they had an LLB but the client gets charged as if they did.

There are two necessities for any future debate about training and education? First, we need honesty rather than political slogans, a commitment to the future of young people and not the future careers of middle-aged politicians (and in most cases, even older Principals). Secondly, while Higher Education should never be allowed to be only training, there needs to be awareness of employment destinations and that there is a need to profile to some extent post-school opportunities to the needs of getting a job.

The Canada Playbook

Just in case anyone doesn’t know, there have been two referenda on whether Quebec should leave Canada, becoming an independent state. These were in

  • 1980 when No won by 59.56 to 40.44%
  • 1993 when the outcome was even closer – 49.42 Yes to 50.58 No

    The history of this is a topic all by itself. What I want to explore here is how the Canadians reacted to their whisker thin success in 1993 and then subsequently some of their strategies during the referendum debate.

    The most important reaction post the 1993 referendum was the Clarity Act. Its key points are

  • Giving the Canadian Federal House of Commons the power to decide whether a proposed referendum question was considered clear before the public vote;
  • Specifically stating that any question not solely referring to secession was to be considered unclear;
  • Giving the House of Commons the power to determine whether or not a clear majority had expressed itself following any referendum vote, implying that some sort of supermajority is required for success;[13]
  • Stating that all provinces and the indigenous peoples were to be part of the negotiations;
  • Allowing the House of Commons to override a referendum decision if it felt the referendum violated any of the tenets of the Clarity Act;
  • The secession of a province of Canada would require an amendment to the Constitution of Canada.

    Two of these – 4 and 6 – are clearly not relevant to the situation Scotland finds itself in as part of the UK, but the others, to varying degrees and in various ways most certainly are

  • If this applied in the UK then in 2014 the form of the question posed then would have been a matter for David Cameron’s government. In fact, the form of the question proposed by the Scottish Government was changed by the Electoral Commission to little controversy. However, the Elections Bill going through the House of Commons at the moment will subject the Electoral Commission – supposedly the neutral referee in electoral disputes – to the power of whoever is in government, via a Strategy Paper to be delivered by the responsible minister (at the moment this is Michael Gove) that the Electoral Commission will be expected to follow.
  • This would mean that questions such as “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country” (SNP original 2014 formulation) and “Should Scotland be an independent country?’ (Yes/No)” would be ruled out. Instead, something like the Scotland in Union question – Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?’ (Remain/Leave)” and indeed this could be hardened up – “Should Scotland remain as part of the United Kingdom or secede from the United Kingdom?” could be what we face at the ballot.
  • Even once a Yes vote has been secured, it would be open to Westminster to determine whether or not the majority that had been achieved (let’s suppose we turned 2014 round so that it was 55% Yes) was a “clear majority”. It would be open to them to decide ex post facto that the majority should be 65%, or that 60% of the electorate should have voted as a minimum.
  • If any of a UK version of the Clarity Act had been broken, then the referendum could be set aside. This would be wholly at the discretion of the House of Commons.

    First question, would the UK pass this sort of legislation?

    In fact, early signs of the above are already visible, including the incessant demands for a majority to be greater than the normal 50%+1. Levels vary, but I impressionistically, I would say that a supermajority of around 65% is their preferred level – though of course if support was known to be at or near that level, no doubt it would be increased. When challenged on the justification for this, many of them will point to what a bad idea Brexit was and yet it got through by not much more than 50%+1. There are though a number of replies to this

  1. The vote was acted on with relatively little controversy
  2. This is the UK tradition with regard to determining political matters. The only referendum where it was not employed – or not on its own – was the 1979 referendum for a Scottish Assembly. If it is to be changed then should there not be some sort of justification. Why is it different for Scotland? When this question is posed, typically unionists run away or talk about something else. According to a University College London report (How could a vote on the unification of Ireland play out? | Northern Ireland | The Guardian) “It would breach the agreement [BGFA] to require a higher threshold than 50% + 1,” – just not in Scotland. They do though point to the need for consent which is clearly critical.

    Then there is the form of the question. It is claimed by unionists that the Electoral Commission don’t like questions with Yes/No answers, pointing to the use of Remain/Leave in the Brexit vote. However, the question proposed by the European Union Referendum Act was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” Yes/No. The Commission’s view was that this “encouraged voters to consider one response more favourably than the other”. This could raise concerns about the legitimacy of the result of the referendum, and it was changed to the one used on the day. But to be clear, the issue was not Yes/No, but their concerns about the question as originally proposed.

    Clearly therefore preparatory work is being done on numbers 1 and 2 , while 3 and 5 aren’t relevant till after a successful referendum (though in these circumstances, would a referendum be seen as worthwhile?).

    But would Westminster actually do this? It seems clear that the laissez faire approach of David Cameron is unlikely to be forthcoming – though I suspect it was like this at the time as according to Blair McDougall, support for Yes at that time was about 28% so it would be a walk in the park. At the moment all the talk is of just saying No, there wont be a referendum, get on with the day job. However even the Tories must be clever enough to know that this wont work forever. A Clarity Act must then become attractive (if not sooner) and its not like they are not being encouraged down this road.

    In “The need for a UK Secession Clarity Act”, Jamie Blackett, “The Deputy Leader of the Alliance for Unity makes a case for clarity”. They require

  • Noting that independence supporting parties have never achieved 50% of the vote in General Elections (though ignoring that electing an MP isn’t the same as voting in a General Election), an electoral mandate has never been defined. Therefore once again we see Scottish exclusivity – Boris Johnson took the UK out of the EU on the basis of 45% of the vote giving him a majority of 80. Perhaps we should look for the mandate that Thatcher referred to – a majority of Scottish MPs?
  • That the electorate should include Scots living outwith Scotland, though no attempt is made, beyond referring to the author’s children, to define just what a “Scot” is
  • That the question should reflect the “seriousness” of the issue, that the previous question didn’t do this and should be replaced by “whether they wish to leave or remain in the United Kingdom” – ie the Scotland in Union formulation
  • there should be a clearly defined minimum requirements for the not just the threshold – historically low compared to similar referenda “around the world” (ie just not in the UK) – and the turnout, which sound rather like the 1978 Cunningham amendment
  • I will just quote this and leave it here “whether Scotland should be treated as one homogeneous entity – as it was at the time of the Union – or allowed to vote regionally. A second confirmatory vote would give Unionist Orkney, Shetland, Dumfries and Galloway and Borders and perhaps other areas, all of which are now actively discussing separation from Scotland, the opportunity to opt back into the United Kingdom”. However, it is worth knowing that the author does refer to those parts of Scotland which might be against independence being “dragged out of the Union against their will”, and that Scotland seldom gets the government it votes for because of the dominance of the Central Belt. Clearly irony is not one of Mr Blackett’s strongest qualities!
  • To make clear that Scotland would not be allowed out of the Union without committing to a share of the National Debt to be determined in advance – presumably by the House of Commons?
  • “Trading arrangements must be clearly laid down” before independence, and presumably before Scotland might or might not have applied to the EU for membership, which probably would change quite a lot.
  • There should be provision for when another referendum could be called if independence has not been supported in the last one.

Now it might be argued that this guy is something of an extremist, even in the Unionist camp (he seems to have little time for Ruth Davidson and Douglas Ross who he regards as not sound enough in defending their country) but I think he does set out many of the ideas the Unionist camp have been working on.

For me there are two take-home points for this. It is very unlikely that delivering a letter to the PM (whoever that might be) asking for a referendum is going to work. Either they will just carry on saying no, or they will dig out their copy of the Canada Playbook and work out how to make the process not just as difficult but as crooked as possible.

In that event, and this is the second point, we need to start working on ways to independence that perhaps don’t include a referendum (though perhaps some other form of democratic event as Joanna Cherry pointed out was necessary) if that simply is made impossible by our government at Westminster.

Uncle Tom drops a bomb

This morning Tom Gordon in the Herald performs his one trick pony trick of talking about the First Minister. I think he might be a bit annoyed, for he suggests that she is in danger of “making a fool of herself”, and that after all is Tom’s job. I might have written a letter about it, but I have had far too many letters critical of Uncle Tom hit the spike to be bothered, so I wrote this instead hoping that John would not take the same view as Drew Allan. You can find the article here

For goodness sake Tom, you spend most of your time trying to achieve that very outcome. I would have thought you would have welcomed a wee bit of help?

More seriously though, you suggest that her use of “within my power” is plaintiff. However, if she hadn’t added it, what are the odds that you and the rest of that fine body of men and women, committed to finding the truth of the matter (at least your own truth) would have begun to question whether the FM might consider going beyond the powers she has. I mean you guys must be positively salivating at that very possibility for what is she to do when Boris/Liz/ Michael/ Rishi say “Naw”? “First Minister set out illegal actions” – oh I can see it now!

And this is the point Tom. You discuss the position of BoJo, of his successor (whoever that might be), though to your credit you write off poor old Keir (a bit hard anything before three years before an election – maybe he will yet tear his shirt off to reveal he is Superman), but this is not only about London or the Westminster bubble. This is happening in Scotland (remember that nation?) That country? Maybe not, or maybe you don’t want to?). Do you not think that when (personally I doubt if) the FM is told “naw” by whichever muppet is in charge of Downing Street Garden Parties that this will have no effect on support for independence and that it will be positive? Do you remember when George Osborne came all the way up to Edinburgh to make clear there would be no currency union? The expectation was that this would blow a big hole in the independence vote which was still about thirty something percent. Instead, it went up. Telling Scots they can’t have something is not a good idea. Wha’s like us, eh?

You know Tom you really do need to raise your eyes and stop imagining the world only happens in London, or even WM. It doesn’t. What will happen down there with regard to independence over the next few years is actually pretty obvious – non, niet, nein, naw. It’s what follows here that is interesting. Do you not want us to think about that? Perhaps not. But we should be and in advance, not at the time.

The Big Mac

As has been well rehearsed in many places, yesterday (18th August) was GERS day, when the undead, sorry Unionists emerge to condemn not just independence but the futility of even seeking independence. Needless to say, and as pointed out elsewhere, the Herald was all over this. There was the usual one-eyed nonsense from Tom Gordon, but also a piece by the former Adam Smith Professor of Economics at the University of Glasgow (no less), the interestingly named Ronald MacDonald (now Research Professor).

As is well known, the Prof is a dyed in the wool Unionist who will condemn independence at the very mention of the word. His area of expertise is international finance – check out his cv, he’s done the lot – IMF (no fewer than 14 times), European Central Bank, World Bank, Deutsche Bundesbank, Royal Bank of Scotland (in the 1990s GU was careful to add), Credit Suisse First Boston, Gartmore and Deutsche Morgan Grenfell etc – he really is neo-liberalism’s man and they have repaid the debt by awarding him buckets of research cash which he transformed into journal articles, books etc, which in turn got him a Chair at Strathclyde before moving to the more sophisticated environment of Gilmourhill. Yes, I went to GU as well (and yes, we did refer to it as Strath Tech, but that’s for another day), and sometimes wonder how quickly Tom Wilson (Adam Smith Prof in my day) and Andy Skinner (subsequent Adam Smith Prof and one of my most influential lecturers) must be birling in their graves that that man occupied “their” Chair. Anyway, enough of character assassination ….

His contribution yesterday is headlined “GERS report: ‘Sheer folly’ of SNP’s independence plans highlighted”, so we can’t complain we couldn’t know what to expect. The thing is that as a piece of Economics writing it just isn’t very good (in the humble opinion of a retired Senior Lecturer at the UWS Business School at Paisley, albeit with a 2:1 in Political Economy and Sociology, as well as a GU PhD).

Let’s leave all the criticisms of GERS to one side, given where we were (according to GERS) last year, and adding Covid to the mix, how surprising is it that a “fiscal deficit figure of 22.4% of GDP” is all that much of a surprise? But MacDonald is all over it, as if it were a surprise. His problem is the absence of any benchmarks – comparators to give an estimate of scale. And the further the piece goes on the more glaring and serious this failure becomes. He bangs on at length about “the fiscal insurance provided as part of the UK” as if the UK somehow uniquely was able to do this. Once he starts on this, it becomes more evident why he doesn’t use benchmarks.

If he wont give us benchmarks, let’s get a few of our own, starting with the “wee country” just across the North Sea – Denmark (just about the same population). The current UK deficit as a proportion of GDP is 13.43% (Countryeconomy.com), while in poor wee Denmark it is ….eh….gulp …. 0.6% (yes that does say zero point 6 of one percent). Aye right, you might think, but the Danes will not have provided the same largesse as the UK did to workers laid off. And you would be right. In some regards, they did it better.

The Danish government paid sick pay (normally funded by employers at a better rate than in the UK), they paid up to 75% of salaries and 90% for hourly paid workers (who of course will normally be less well paid and whom the loss would hit harder); they compensated the self-employed for up to 90% of lost revenue where the revenue decline is estimated to be at least 30% and there are 10 employees or less. Start-ups were compensated for up to 75% of lost salary.

Ah yes, but they were able to use the power of the Euro (stop laughing!). Leaving aside the way the Euro is mocked in the UK, it remains one of the world’s main currencies. Problem is that the Danes don’t use it – they still use their Kroner, though they are signed up to the Currency Stability Pact.

Therefore, Denmark isn’t a benchmark the Prof would use. So what about a few others? Remember the UK has a deficit of 13.43%.

France 9.2%; Czech Republic 6.2%; Australia 3.83%; New Zealand 5.79%

In fact if you go through an international league table of deficits, the only countries to rival the UK’s are Brazil 13.37%, Botswana 13.19%, India 12.26%, Trinidad and Tobago 11.79% and South Africa 12.25%.

But is there nowhere worse than Scotland, which Professor MacDonald takes great joy in telling us is 22.4%? Among those even worse are Kiribati 40.38%, Libya 24%, Timor-Leste 25.62%, Venezuela 22.99%. Now to be down there among those takes a bit of doing. Does the fault lie with us? Despite all the largesse of the UK, Scotland is just irredeemably hopeless? Or do we need to think about who it is that controls the till?

As you might expect, I go for the latter for reasons I will set out in the next part.

However, before we proceed to that, there is another void in the Prof’s argument. He writes “Even with an appropriate currency regime in place, a newly minted independent Scotland without the long history of credibility that the Bank of England and Treasury have, would have to pay a premium on its borrowing over UK rates due, for liquidity and credibility reasons, of up to 1.65%.”

There are two fairly simple points from this. First, is 1.65% not a remarkably precise number – not 1.6, not 1.5. Why not 1.00% to 2.00%? I find that a wee bit suspicious – either that or I want to know his lottery numbers!

As to the second point, this isn’t something that ever happened to me (my parents had never learned to drive – I was the first with a licence, so the family car was always available), but I expect there are loads of people who when they passed their test and looked to get the family car were told “no, you don’t have enough experience”. Of course, until they get the chance to get out on the road they will never acquire that experience, and that is the problem with MacDonald’s point about credibility. He might be right that the markets will look hard at a new Scottish currency, but that is not to say – just as most kids don’t wrap the family car round the first lamppost (though the fact some do is a warning) – that the markets will not settle down, perhaps fairly quickly once they realise Scotland is facing up to its problems (not well described by GERS btw) in a realistic and effective way.

Of course until we are independent this uncertainty will always exist, and it is being used by Unionists like MacDonald in the same way as the bogey man behind the settee.

In conclusion, let’s be clear that MacDonald is a senior and leading economist. However, he is also stridently against independence. It is hard to see how he keeps these things apart – ie using his well-developed economics skills against independence for essentially reasons of personal opinion. I think his Herald article sums this up pretty well.

 

Some thoughts that occur from bringing together a couple of other thoughts. Part 1

Some thoughts that occur from bringing together a couple of other thoughts.

According to Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph (5th March) Johnson and team are gearing up for an early(ish) election – May 2023 to be specific, so not that early but before his term hits the normal five years at the end of 2024.

Nelson’s evidence for this is twofold. First there is the significant, continuing and until recently expanding lead the Tories have over Labour in the polls, suggesting the same sort of majority or even more.

Secondly there is Rishi Sunak’s budget, which, according to Nelson, could be summarised as “spend now, pay nothing until 2023”. Nelson suggests that until 2023 what people will experience is “an economic boom” (or at least the economy climbing back to where it was in March 2020) “and retail therapy” as the great British public spend all that money burning a hole in their pockets from holidays not taken, and that you can only spend so much downloading videos and on Uber Eats. Sunak’s hope is that if we really go at it (and the economy is forecast to grow by 7.3% this year), consumer spending increases so much (and along with it government revenue) that large tax rises wont be necessary. But if they are, then they are postponed till after May 2023.

Indeed, Nelson also suggests that if things don’t go quite to plan – we don’t spend enough, the economy doesn’t bounce back as hoped – then it might be that they cannot afford to hold the election as late as May 2023 (so perhaps the second half of next year?).

Secondly, and also in the Telegraph but in June, Michael Gove is quoted as claiming that Johnson will not permit a second Scottish referendum before the next UK election (in 22 or 23 if Nelson is correct). Why not? Well, the obvious reason, which surprisingly goes unmentioned in Gove’s analysis, is that with support in Scotland pretty much split down the middle, but having been as high as 58%, there is a pretty good chance they would lose. Does Boris want to go down in History as the man who not only took the UK out of Europe, but also was PM when the UK was lost (rather like Lord North and the US)? I wouldn’t have thought so either.

Linked to this are the frequent stories that Boris isn’t all that enamoured of being Prime Minister. It doesn’t pay enough (salary £161,866), he feels and demands too much of his attention, so have an election in May 2023, winning the same sort of majority (or more) and resign a few months later to spend more time with his young (and no doubt expanding) family (and make the sort of money writing for such as the Telegraph that he became used to).

So how do they get there? Professor Curtice has ventured the opinion that “not until Covid is over” is a reason for refusing a referendum that will “wash away” as the pandemic subsides. However, I am afraid the learned Prof seems to fail to appreciate that the end of the pandemic is not only a medical, or public health, judgement but an economic one as well. If we adopt an economic perspective the “end of the pandemic” could be a very long time in coming – certainly longer than with a medical judgement. Consider for instance that in the sense of paying off all the debts from WW2, that didn’t end till we paid the last of our monetary debts to the US, sometime when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.

Moreover, what do the Tories have to lose in Scotland? Douglas Ross? Alister Jack? David Mundell and a couple of others? It’s hardly a huge investment, is it? And of course, as I have little doubt that creating Great Britain and relegating the partner nations to regional status is a serious project for the Johnson gang, that the hope must be as we Scots learn to be British again, and to even love the Union flag, that support for independence will diminish and with it support for another referendum.

But what about that election whenever it is? From the noises coming from the Labour Party there is zero chance of them going to the country with another Scottish referendum as part of their manifesto. There is some pressure to reconsider the nature of the Union – Mark Drakeford is very strong on this, suggesting something more like a Confederation, though that may be an understandable reaction to having to work with Johnson and his cronies? Perhaps they will propose a Committee of Experts (or a Royal Commission as they more commonly known) to satisfy some, but kick the ball firmly down the road.

Last week, in an interview with the Daily Record, Starmer was quoted as saying “on the constitution, going into the Scottish election and since the election, we’ve been absolutely clear that the focus right now is on the recovery and on the climate challenge”. So, no deal there.

Moreover, the electoral forecasts for Labour under Starmer are by no means good. However, just to make sure, the Tories propose the old tactic, used to particular effect against Miliband in 2015, of pinning the proposition on him that, in order to get to Downing Street, he will enter into an electoral pact with the SNP, which, no matter the perception of Sturgeon in England, will be a vote loser for Labour. Whether such an arrangement is real, has any basis in fact whatsoever, really doesn’t matter. What matters is what people think.

Therefore, where Labour are concerned, they are not going to be supportive of another referendum, even if they do get to power, which seems unlikely any time soon. It is said that a good electoral outcome would be to half Johnson’s current majority.

So where does this leave us? Well perhaps an election as early as the second half of next year (in not much more than 12 months) or more likely May 2023, which the Tories will very likely win. After this Johnson retires to spend time his family (or something like that!).

It’s a bit early to speculate about a successor – probably Gove, maybe Sunak, or perhaps (may the Lord have mercy on our souls) Patel – but how much does it really matter? If you have the name of a senior Conservative Party politician who would support a second referendum, please send me this. I really cannot imagine any Prime Minister who is going to volunteer to be the man/ woman who was responsible for dismantling the UK.

In that case, where does this leave the Scottish Government/ SNP? Sturgeon has tied her colours to the mast of a referendum agreed with Westminster, as this is “the gold standard”. Great, but what if Westminster says post their General Election, that another mandate at a Scottish election is necessary, which of course won’t happen till 2025. Much will be made then of another failure of the SNP to win a majority on their own, even though the voting system is oriented toward no party ever winning a majority, and even though with Green MSPs and any Alba members elected, it is not an unreasonable expectation that there will be a majority of independence supporting MSPs elected, and even if we have had another four years of being softened up to accept Great Britain.

I actually have some sympathy for Sturgeon’s position. She understands – as too many don’t – that at some point we will have to engage with Westminster, or the international community is going to stand back and let things unwind. There needs to be, at some point, agreement with Westminster and with the international community.

That said, it is clear increasingly that there will be no referendum without it being wrested from the hands of Westminster. Certainly, one thing that should be done is to campaign for the proposition that Scotland can be and should be independent, in order to increase support through the 50s and up toward 60%. In fact this should have been happening since 20154, even if, as it has, it will attract the “get back to the day job” whine. One way to address this, as well as engaging closely with the wider Yes movement, is to put some real heft behind Mike Russell and his people (he does have people?) in the SNP. In other words to separate government from campaigning for independence – or does that not appeal to the control freaks in the party?

However, I doubt if this alone will be enough. As above the Tories have so little invested in Scotland that if they lose a few MPs, they could well gain more in England. For them, it really doesn’t matter. They have so little to lose.

This folks, is where you and I come in. If the proposition that another referendum is not just for the asking but will have to be forced from Westminster, then it is hard to see how this could be done by the political class acting alone – it will involve that part of the Scottish community which supports independence.

Some thoughts that occur from bringing together a couple of other thoughts. Part 2

If we abjure violence, then there is a creative issue of what can be done by the wider community. Much of course, is already being done – blogging, various Yes organizations already exist. But do these two things not themselves point to weaknesses? How much of the former involves independence supporters talking to each other (and sometimes falling out)? With regard to the latter is a plethora of organizations a sign of strength of a sign of dispute and division?

What can be done about them? First, blogging is an essential and valuable quality of the independence movement, but the issue is how to get these messages out into the wider community. One opportunity – which the Unionist side has been aware of for some time – is letter writing – the Green Ink gang as Wings labelled them. Oh yes, we can laugh at them – Mad Jill for instance is always good for that. We can write that they need a new script – I did that in the Herald the other day. But how much influence do they have?

I think we need to appreciate that the status quo remains the default position – people may leave it and some may come back, but it is still default, particularly for the media. As Chomsky points out defending the status quo is often easier than attacking it – for one thing the arguments are usually more familiar and can be presented much more briefly. For instance, such as “how can Scotland afford to be independent”, or “the rest of the UK won’t allow it” are often presented with not a shred of supporting evidence – it’s just obvious, innit?

But arguing for independence is much more difficult. First of all, the Unionists really only have to attack any independence proposition – “it won’t work” – as we already know the UK. However, we not only have to defend our proposition – “Scotland, an independent country” (but can it be?) – but also criticise the UK because what we suggest has to be “better” in some aspect.

Then there is the media. As John Robertson has pointed out till he must be blue in the face, Reporting Scotland is a serious problem because of its reporting of, particularly the Scottish Government. Then we consider the newspapers. Of all the papers sold and read throughout Scotland I can only think of one – The National – that adopts a regularly positive view of independence.

What I am trying to get at here is that the occasional letter is not going to achieve much – it’s too indiscriminate and lacks much in the way of coherence (other than supporting independence). What is needed is a more strategic and (dare I say it) planned campaign to the media. For instance, not just responding to the recycled crap being put out by the other side, but an approach which is proactive – i.e. not just responding to Mad Jill, or Peter Russell, or Alan Sutherland, but developing a positive view of what an independent Scotland could be. Let’s see them on the back foot, reacting to what we write.

To be honest I have very little idea how something like this would work, other than it is going to require a large number of people. One thing I have learned from interacting with the Herald Letters Page, is that its editor Drew Allan likes to get a wide range of people involved in discussing any topic – so let’s give him that!

The mechanism, I am not going to lie, is very unclear, beyond that social media is probably our friend. But I have a whole load of questions whirling in my head – is it hierarchical (I certainly don’t think so, but can we make it coherent if not)? How does it work out a position on a widely defined issue? Discussion? But what if someone dissents from it and wants to say so? Can we afford folk who want to “do their own thing”? Or is independence just too important for this?

Beyond that of course there is extra-parliamentary activity. Much of this has been undermined by the pandemic, but I struggle to see how demonstrations by such as AUOB can be a “bad thing” – it brings the movement together and confirms the independence movement is not just a small bunch of cranks.

There are loads of things wrong with this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwMVMbmQBug (though please spend five minutes of your time watching it), but Boris Johnson is the best asset the independence movement has right now (closely followed I suspect by Gove) and we have to exploit this ruthlessly. How many people are “mad as hell” with Boris and his policies? Remembering Chomsky’s view of presenting a critical view, we must normalise criticism of the UK as an inappropriate (or just wrong) source of our government.

Perhaps, going even further, there will be a need for peaceful and non-violent civil disobedience. At one level this need by no more than demonstrating – or instance sitting down in the road. At another level the aim would be to make Scotland ungovernable (or less governable) – for instance mass non-payment of TV licences (my experience of TV Licencing is that they are pretty good at chasing down the occasional miscreant – but a LARGE part of Scotland?). Tax is probably beyond our reach – most of us have tax deducted before we lay our hands on it. Perhaps this is the area where originality will be most valuable.

But the take-home point is that the movement needs to be less diffident about this – “oh no, we cannot have illegality” – we don’t – we have a means to an end. Let’s stop apologising for ourselves, particularly as anything we might do pales into insignificance compared to corruption going on down at Westminster.

But please, please can we have a debate about this? If my view that there is unlikely to be a referendum until after May 23 is right then should we not talk about how to use this time to best effect?

Follow the money

Last week, Neil Hanvey “urged” Nicola Sturgeon not to follow Boris Johnson’s Covid “surrender strategy”. I agree. Specifically, he endorses her insistence that “masks need to stay”, but also not to use the Chinese lateral flow tests, purchased by the UK government. An article appeared in the BMJ as long ago as last January advising against their use, and more recently doubts have been raised about their accuracy, which can be shown to be as low as 2 (two) percent. If we don’t use those provided by Westminster, however, the Scottish Government would have to pay themselves.

At the same time, this raises issues about the encouragement by the Scottish Government that we should be testing ourselves twice a week, using these tests which too often return false positives. We are told that kind of regime will help to keep us safe, but the evidence is that it is more likely to require some to isolate when it’s not necessary.

This in turn raises the question of how far the First Minister can stray from Westminster? Last year, had the furlough scheme come to an end as planned, how could the Scottish Government have had to act differently? A widespread (e.g., Level 4) lockdown would have been all but impossible. Can a government – any government – tell people not to go to work without offering financial compensation? Yes, there is Universal Credit, but, leaving its adequacy to one side, that could hardly cope when the first lockdown started with furlough in place. What funding would there have been for businesses required to close?

As we all know, the Scottish Government is not sovereign and thus has no control of a sovereign currency. That lies in London. This point, no doubt would have Unionist letter writers (Martin Redfern, Peter Russell for instance) reaching for their pen/ keyboard, that this is a conclusive argument for Scotland remaining within the Union. It is though a particularly potent argument for why we must leave it.

How can poor wee Denmark – similar population, though a more successful football team – manage? They did the same as Rishi Sunak – they sold government debt to their central bank who provided the readies. Anyone who imagines Sunak is “active” in the international currency market to borrow to the requirements of the Westminster Government in the past 18 months, probably thinks he makes up any shortfall playing the spoons in Whitehall.

In passing, we might also learn a good deal from how the Danes managed their lockdown. They provided much better funding as well as practical support for those required to isolate, and thus people were much more likely to isolate. Likewise, life was more pleasant (or less challenging) for those recommended to shield. Note too their furlough arrangements, as hourly paid workers were paid 90% of their usual earnings, while salary earners got 80%!

Now Nicola has announced that we will be making our way back to ‘normality’, or ‘Freedom Day’ in England, albeit that we are doing it a bit more slowly. But, while there may be minimum agreement between Westminster and our devolved government doing so is by no means the consensus of the scientific community. Indeed Mike Ryan, an executive director of WHO has described it as an experiment in “epidemiological stupidity”.

By the time we get to the middle of next month all restrictions will be removed, while financial support for individuals and businesses will be coming to an end. But what could the Scottish Government do about this, but follow, however reluctantly and with however much delay? They simply could not maintain many of the restrictions for at least two reasons

  1. The comparison effect with England – “they’re getting on with their lives, why can’t we?”. Yet, the UK recorded 36660 new cases yesterday and 50 deaths. Given the lag between catching Covide and dying from it, we can expect deaths to increase in three or four weeks simply because there are more cases. How many more deaths we cannot be sure – more of these cases are among young people who the statistics say are less likely to die, and being vaccinated reduces the likelihood of death among older people. However, that 36660 is in a situation under restriction. It is almost certain that without restrictions that number will increase. Much is made of fewer being hospitalised because of the vaccines, BUT more cases create the potential for a further mutation which it is possible could compromise those vaccines we already have, EVEN IF there are fewer hospitalisations. Let’s not forget the recent letter in the Lancet by 120 of the world’s leading scientists calling on the British government to “turn back on its decision to lift all restrictions” and “refrain from its dangerous and reckless strategy of immunity via mass infection”. Remember the short debate about herd immunity back in March last year – well it’s what we are going to get now, but “you’ll have had your jag”. Is this really what we want to do – more deaths, risking a new variant simply because of the number of infections? The comparison with England is about rather more than how many folk you can have round your house, or go on a foreign holiday.
  2. Yet to do more/ be different in many case would cost money. Where does it come from? Westminster will send up the money to pay for their furlough scheme as long as it lasts – likewise the business support loans and grants – but only for as long as they decide to keep it going. Without serious financial powers this is way beyond the capacity of the Scottish Government. Tony Blair was quoted as saying that Holyrood was a sort of “parish council”. He might have been exaggerating to keep English voters quiescent, but this makes clear just how much Holyrood is the creature of the Westminster Parliament.

Hanvey is right that following Boris Johnson’s “surrender strategy” is the wrong thing to do, but how much discretion do the Scottish Government have in order not to follow? As Deep Throat advised in “All the President’s Men”, “follow the money”.

Something not about Alex, Nicola, or even James Hamilton

Mike Small in a piece today (“On Harry Cole, Doomsday and the new Hyper-Unionism” – https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2021/03/23/on-harry-cole-doomsday-and-the-new-hyper-unionism/), quotes John Harris as saying ” “Shall we at last face the facts? Even if the institutions of the United Kingdom creak on unchanged or are somehow saved by a new federalism, as a meaningful political entity the UK is all but over. Independence is partly a state of mind, and for very different reasons, a large number of people in Scotland, Wales and England have got there already.” (“English politicians are waving the union jack, but its meaning is tattered and torn” – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/21/british-politicians-union-jack-flag.

Fwiw I have long had this notion – and I would put it not one wee bit stronger than that – this is no great analytical insight. – just a feeling – that when Scotland becomes independent, no referendum will be involved. In particular, I have been drawn to the Czechoslovak “velvet divorce” of the early 1900s. The reason for this was that ever since the Czechoslovak state had been set up, the Slovaks wanted a decentralised state, while the Czechs were quite happy with the country being run from Prague. As time went on the two communities progressively drifted apart. Slovaks were the minority community (about 1/3) but the Czechs felt that at that proportion they had too much power, though the Czech economy was about 20% bigger per capita than the Slovak. Czechs sought tighter integration of the two parts while the Slovaks sought more local independence. Sound familiar? Pressures from the larger community for greater centralisation of a system decentralised in some respects.

This became critical when in 1992 the Czechs elected Vaclav Klaus who advocated a tighter union of the two communities, while the Slovak’s political leader Miroslav Meciar wanted a confederal state. The Slovak Parliament declared Slovakia to be independent, and a few days later Klaus and Meciar agreed the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. There was no referendum – just the declaration of two politicians that the game was up for Czechoslovakia, even though only 36% of Czechs and 37% of Slovaks supported this in a contemporary opinion poll.

Why would this tell us anything about Scotland’s independence? For instance, while the Czechs were the largest group and dominated the country, they did so to a much lesser degree than England does the UK – 85% England; 8% Scotland. Nor did they have to deal with the Supreme Court and arcane notions of sovereignty, such that the Slovaks never had to go to the Czechs and ask if it was ok for them to become independent.

The relevance of this is that if Harris is correct and “as a meaningful political entity the UK is all but over”, there must be some process for this to happen.

Let’s take Wales, whose current First Minister, Mark Drakeford, was quoted earlier this month as saying “The United Kingdom “is over” and a new union should be crafted to reflect a “voluntary association of four nations”, (https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2021-03-05/the-united-kingdom-is-over-drakeford-says). Even more importantly he underlines this with “the break-up of the UK was possible if politicians only offered a “tweaking of the status quo” and yet, the direction of travel of post Brexit UK seems to be precisely the opposite.

The vision of the Westminster government, based on the philosophy and practice of the UK Internal Market Act is toward closer integration, side-stepping the possibility of potential difficulties with the device of “mutual recognition”, which threatens any part of the UK that imposes higher standards (eg of food production) with the lower standards of elsewhere having to be recognised and allowed to apply.

Harry Cole, Political Editor of the Sun (“ONE YEAR ON Boris Johnson was ‘naive’ to give Nicola Sturgeon pandemic powers, Cabinet colleagues claim” claims that some members of his Cabinet “wanted Mr Johnson to rely on the doomsday 2004 Civil Contingencies Act which gave Whitehall supreme authority for a “catastrophic emergency” rather than the four nations each going their own way. As Mike Small writes “There’s an ominous addendum: A Cabinet Minister said: “I have no doubt that it will be done differently next time. The PM knows that.”

In short, Johnson and his government are aiming to take the UK in precisely the opposite direction from what Drakeford wants. A confederation would be relatively loose – Huw Edwards might get to use his flag – but what Johnson et al want is a tightly integrated UK. But it is also important to remember Drakeford’s wider political opinions. This is the man who just last year said “Welsh nationalism is an “inherently right-wing creed” and that people must choose between it and socialism.” (https://nation.cymru/news/nationalism-inherently-right-wing-and-incompatible-with-socialism-first-minister-says/) and that “devolution is the best of both worlds. It allows us to remain part of the United Kingdom and draw on the strength of being part of that collective whole. But it puts decisions about what happens in Wales in the hands of people who live in Wales.” In short, Drakeford is no Nationalist, but if the sort of car crash that apparently looms comes about, he might have to make his mind up. Does he want Wales to be part of a new, more highly integrated UK – at least undermining devolution – or, if confederation is not available, will he support independence? Is this not rather like the contradiction that Klaus and Meciar walked into in 1992.

Then there is Ireland. Many feel the North rejoining the rest of Ireland is simply a matter of time, even if only on demographic grounds – a higher proportion of Roman Catholics among the younger population – the 2011 census was a “demographic watershed”, as for the first time, the proportion of the population declaring themselves as Protestant or brought up Protestant fell below 50 per cent. However, that does not take account the utter shambles of the Brexit agreement which places Northern Ireland in the strange situation of following EU Single Market rules (so that customs checks on the border are not necessary as to do so would contravene the Good Friday Agreement ) but still remains part of the United Kingdom. This part of the Brexit Agreement seems likely to see the EU Commission take the Westminster Government to Court over their unilateral increase to the “grace period” for not following new regulations to be extended.

What about England itself? Recently, Labour supporter Rachel Swindon tweeted, “If Bristol was worth a few headlines Liverpool will get its own 16 page souvenir pull-out.” Of course, if folk in Liverpool were to take the same course of action as people in Bristol, she might well be right, and just how Johnson would react if his government came under much the same sort of pressure in many more places than just Bristol (or even just Liverpool). Some of us are old enough to remember the riots in 1981 that took place mainly in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Chapeltown and Moss Side, though there were other outbreaks in Bradford, Halifax, Blackburn, Preston, Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port, Chester, Stoke, Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, High Wycombe, Southampton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Knaresborough, Leeds, Hull, Huddersfield, Sheffield, Stockport, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Luton, Maidstone, Aldershot and Portsmouth. The causes were held to be racial tension, economic circumstances and police powers and how they were being exercised. Sound familiar? I think it’s fair to say that these issues were not finally settled forty years ago. Could we be set for a replay?

In 1981, Thatcher responded by addressing issues of youth unemployment with such as YTS, Police procedure was amended, the Scarman Commission argued “it was essential that “people are encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area”. He called for a policy of “direct coordinated attack on racial disadvantage”, and things did settle down after this. However, Thatcher’s authority was dented and only restored by the Falklands War

If the same thing happened to Bo Jo, would he be able to respond, or is his government actually so full of dolts that they wouldn’t know what to do? Ally this to Brexit, the stress of the lockdown and the virus and is the British state starting to wobble really a stupid question?

And there is us, Scotland. Current SNP leadership intends, assuming it wins the election in May, to approach Boris Johnson to seek another s30 Order so that another referendum can be held by agreement with Westminster. I have considerable sympathy with this view, particularly the latter part – “agreement with Westminster”, for without that independence is going to be awful lonely and difficult, even if it is possible. However, at the same time, it is widely held that Johnson will say No. Fine, say the Scottish Government, we will go to Court to determine that Scotland is able to organize its own lawful referendum, even if this means going to the Supreme Court to establish this. So let’s suppose this is what happens and that the Supreme Court says it is within the powers of Holyrood to hold its own referendum. Want to bet Westminster just changes (they will say “clarify”) the law, which is what they did with the Brexit Continuity Bill when it became clear they would lose at the Supreme Court. In other words, that route seems barren and unproductive. It will generate much heat, for I am not sure Johnson appreciates just how badly saying “no” could play in Scotland. Remember how well George Osborne’s “you wont get to use the pound” went down in February 2014! But where do we go?

I don’t think there is any agreed answer to this, though there are many suggested, but they all have one thing in common – uncertainty.

But let’s consider a situation where Northern Ireland wants to integrate with the rest of Ireland, Wales wants a new Union based on confederacy which has little support in the ruling Westminster elite and Scotland is, well, just being Scotland, and at the same time, England is starting to explode. Can the UK as a political entity survive so many significant challenges coming at it from all sides? Call it what you want – collapse of a dysfunctional UK state, divorce, or whatever. It does though seem to me that a referendum is not necessarily going to be the only way forward.

Actions have consequences

This title is something of a truism. One form of this is that anything we do can come back and bite us on the bum at some point in the future. This might be something that Alex and Nicola would do well to contemplate. But that, dear reader, is not my topic for tonight.

Instead, it is this. Have all of us thought through the consequences of the action that we are set on? As Stuart Campbell pointed out yesterday, “We’re in for a heck of a week in Scottish politics”. We are indeed.

First of all, the Scottish Government have agreed to publish the legal advice that they were given prior to Salmond’s judicial review. This is astonishing on at least two counts. There have been two previous demands by the Parliament for this to be published, which were both ignored, but the fact is that if not unique, then it is fairly unusual, in British politics for a government anywhere (even, or particularly, at Westminster) to make its legal advice public. Blair, for instance, simply refused to make public the legal advice he received before taking us into Iraq. But tonight, the Scottish Government decided to make public the legal advice they received prior to Salmond’s Judicial Review. Given that we know their QC threatened to withdraw rather than go into Court to argue for the procedure used in investigating Salmond, it seems clear it won’t be pretty reading for them (though it will be for the other parties). The problem they faced was that otherwise they would have faced a vote of no confidence in John Swinney, as the man nominally in charge. Thus, it seems possible, if not actually likely, that some kind of political comparison has been made with the conclusion that the harms caused by losing Swinney were greater than publishing the advice.

This will now, secondly, have to be defended by James Wolfe as Lord Advocate, and in charge of the Government’s legal affairs, when he meets the Inquiry on Tuesday. Rather like Sturgeon’s meeting on Wednesday, it will be interesting to see how they do.

After this, the final curtain will come down on this wholly unedifying (and in my view unnecessary) affair when the Committee of Inquiry publish their final report, which will no doubt come to conclusions on whether the First Minister broke the Ministerial Code of Conduct. Even if it is found that she has, whether she will resign is open to question as there is nothing mechanical in this regard in the Code. In fact, interestingly, if a Minister is found to have breached the Code, then the question becomes whether the First Minister retains confidence in them. So, I suppose the issue will be whether the First Minister still retains confidence in Nicola Sturgeon.

If the conclusion of the Committee and James Hamilton is that she didn’t breach the Ministerial Code, then while she has been damaged by the bad (particularly bad?) publicity she gets from the press, she can put it behind her.

But let’s suppose, either the Committee of Inquiry or Hamilton’s investigation, determine that she did breach the Code. It is possible that politically she might survive, but especially with this Parliament about to be dissolved (before the end of March), and particularly if the SNP were returned with their own majority, she might be able to ride it out. We can though be sure that her breach of the Code will be made most salient by her political opponents. Will it affect the SNP vote? According to Ipsos Mori what matters for Scottish voters are

1.    Scottish independence/devolution 394 or 38%.

2.    Education/schools 305 or 30%

3.    Healthcare 239 or 23%

4.    Coronavirus 199 or 19%

5.    Economy 163 or 16%

6.    Europe 127 or 12%. (https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/99457212/posts/3204578393)

Only 0.7% selected LGBT rights and, and less than half of 1%, selected the Salmond Inquiry. It seems that James Doleman might be right when he asserted that no one outside the Edinburgh Ring Road cares very much about this.

Perhaps, though, we should care. So far, we have considered scenarios where the First Minister survives – possibly scarred, but still alive. But let’s suppose she doesn’t and has to resign. Who will be happy? Well I suspect Wings will put the flags out. Others – such as Kenny MacAskill, Chris McElenay – along with others, some of whom I still consider friends, will have a wee smile on their face. But who else? Will Sturgeon’s critics – and there are others besides those named – be happy to be standing beside such as Andrew Marr, Euan McColm, Alan Cochrane, Stephen Daisley, Sarah Smith, Kirsty Wark and of course Andrew Neill? Remember when various Labour grandees cavorted around BBC Scotland when it got out that Salmond had lost in Gordon in 2017? That will be as nothing if they get the First Minister.

If the current First Minister has to resign, we will have lost someone who is not divisive (unlike Alex Salmond, who has other qualities, including inducing endless loyalty among his followers), a fine communicator and, perhaps more important than anything, someone who has their public approval at a level that most politicians would die for.

Do I think she has made mistakes? Yes – I think that is clear from what I have written already? Do I think those mistakes amount to a resigning matter? No, I don’t, and I think this for two reasons. First, if she goes, who is getting the job? Is there an MSP who stands out as a candidate? Even an MP? It’s a bit like sacking your football club’s manager because he has lost a few games, when you don’t have a clue whether anyone better is available.

But secondly, because there is a greater prize out there that is more important than anything – independence. Getting out of the UK. I can scarcely believe that faced with the most incompetent bunch of shysters in Downing Street ever in my adult life, polls suggesting we would be starting with anything from 52% support upwards and a debate which seems to me to be changing from “why independence?” to “what are we doing still in the UK?”, we are having this rammy. As I titled an earlier blog – FFS.

In terms of religious belief I would characterise myself as an extreme agnostic (in the strict sense of that word, that as humans we are not equipped to be able to know if God exists), but my prayer would be that, even now, Salmond and Sturgeon can get their heads together, realise that there is a greater prize, the one they signed up for, and can come to an agreement to work together in the future. However uneasily! I mean if he can turn water into wine and raise folk from the dead, is that too much to ask?

A Garbage Can Explanation for Salmond v Sturgeon

Conspiracy, proper conspiracy, emergent conspiracy and garbage cans.

A few days ago Peter Bell published an interesting article – “Alex Salmond: A fly bugger” (https://peterabell.scot/2021/02/23/alex-salmond-a-fly-bugger) in which he asserts that when Alex Salmond’s refers, as he does in his evidence to the Holyrood Committee to “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals” he is not quite describing a ‘proper’ conspiracy.”

But what is a “proper conspiracy”? In law a conspiracy is when “A person who agrees with another or others to act in a way which would involve the commission of an offence by any party to the agreement is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence” (https://www.scotlawcom.gov.uk/files/5712/8024/7006/cp_criminal_code.pdf). One problem in using “conspiracy” for the current imbroglio of Salmond and Sturgeon is that to the best of my knowledge, no offence in law has been committed, by either side. Powers have perhaps been abused, the Ministerial Code broken, but I don’t see anyone being in the poky as a result.

Thus, is conspiracy an appropriate concept to help us to understand what has been going on, or is it just clickbait to attract online readers, or increase dead tree sales – ie just lazy journalism. I am pretty certain that Levy and McCrae as well as the others in Team Salmond are being well rewarded for their efforts and could easily employ “conspiracy”, emergent or otherwise, if it suited their purpose.

Perhaps, another, more insightful explanation can be derived from the “Garbage Can Model of Decision-Making” (Michael D. Cohen, James G. March, and Johan P. Olsen). Any rational theory of decision-making puts the various stages of decision-making in a logical sequential order – for instance that problem identification will always precede the development of a solution. This is not necessary for the garbage can model.

This model operates in what the authors describe as an “organized anarchy” of problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation. Public institutions, they say, often satisfy what they describe as “organized anarchy”. So do Universities!

The core idea is that that are four variables or “streams” circulating in a fixed decision space, that decision space being the garbage can; those four variables are: problems, decision participants, choice opportunities, and solutions.

Solutions can be in search of problems to attach themselves to. For instance, holograms existed for many years without any kind of widespread use, till financial institutions realised they could be used to foil counterfeiters. The expertise of participants can determine which problems to address – accountants for instance will tend to drift toward problems that are financial in nature; the choice opportunities that exist can determine which solutions are selected.

Let’s apply that to the present situation. For instance, fired up by the Weinstein case and the #metoo movement, the First Minister decides that there must be a procedure to deal with misdemeanours of even previous and no longer serving Ministers, so that sexual predators can be found out even years later just as Weinstein was. Let’s presume that the First Minister was telling the truth in 2017 that she had heard at an earlier stage, reports about Alex Salmond’s behaviour toward some women What to do about it? Could it be reviewed in the same way that the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris had been.

At the same time, two Civil Servants come forward with complaints about the previous conduct of the former First Minister, while in office. Thus, we have the problem, but we also have the solution in place – a process is to be developed to address this very problem.

The decision participants are in place – Judith McKinnon and Lesley Evans, and the choice opportunity when the First Minister signs of the procedure.

Bit too pat for you? How likely is it that two Civil Servants would come forward at/about the same time a procedure is being implemented to address this very situation? Undeniably convenient?

James Kelly too has published a similar sort of argument to Bell – maybe there wasn’t a conspiracy (he doesn’t bother to try to define “conspiracy”) but “having overreached themselves with a tainted process for what they might well have thought was the best of motives, they may have then panicked about the political damage that would be done to them as a result of a legal defeat.”, so they plough on and the case is heard at the High Court resulting in … Salmond being cleared on all charges. As David Hooks tweeted, “what a bloody shambles”!

The alternative is however that otherwise we need to be able to show conspiracy, emergent or otherwise. According to Peter Bell “All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.” That though is not quite true, for we need to show those with the influence and commonality of interest shared a common mens rea “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.”. We also need to show that they planned to, and did indeed, act in concert.

Kelly suggests that this was because of a belief that Salmond intended to return to Parliamentary politics, when in fact it was widely known at the time that he intended to become chairman of Johnson Press, owners ot the Scotsman, and was putting it about he was finished with front line politics. Maybe, particularly bearing in mind that Salmond and Sturgeon must have known each other a good length of time and were old comrades (or so it seemed), she might have asked?

But in any event, what do we know the state of mind of those involved? What, for instance, was the motive of the First Minister? Was it to ‘do in’ her former mentor and if so why? Or was it to ensure that the complainants were not “let down”? We might have opinions, but DO we know? It’s all very well to assert that anything that waddles and quacks must be a duck, but we would do well to consider the origin of the saying, which concerned a mechanical duck that did waddle and did quack but was not a real duck (https://www.mirror.co.uk/usvsth3m/you-know-phrase-if-looks-5235884).

There is, therefore, a good deal still to go before Bell’s claim that Salmond has left two verdicts for the Committee of Inquiry – that there was a conspiracy, or there was “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals” would stand up.

Moreover, let’s not forget just what is being claimed by at least some of Salmond’s supporters, that not only is the First Minister corrupt, but so must be her Deputy, John Swinnie and her Lord Advocate (a former Faculty Dean) as well as a good part of the Crown Office. Then there is the Chief Executive of the SNP (the First Minister’s husband) its Chief Operating Officer, as well as sundry Party Officials. Oh, yes and Police Scotland too.

I accept that the Garbage Can explanation can seem a bit too convenient, but is the alternative not just a bit extreme? Bell himself reflects a conclusion not inconsistent with the Garbage Can Model of what happened – “As far as she [the First Minister] and her people are concerned everybody was just doing their job. Perhaps ‘mistakes were made’. Maybe things were done that shouldn’t have been done or done in a way that could have been better. But no actual conspiracy.”

The First Minister wants us to focus on the facts. Well, we know that sexual harassment was and remains a serious problem for the First Minister – there was a problem. We know a process was devised to investigate such claims. Its difficulty was that it offended the law in so many ways that the Scottish Government had to abandon it in the Court of Session just prior to Alex Salmond’s Judicial Review.

We know there were participants – the First Minister, her Principal Secretary, as well as others in the Civil Service and in the SNP. We know there were a variety of decision opportunities within this organized anarchy.

In short, we need to ask ourselves whether there was a conspiracy, or even “”a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals”. Either way, the problem is that motive is crucial since Salmond himself is asserting that it was “deliberate” and “concerted” – not something that just happened. What is the evidence for this? How much evidence that it was malicious rather than incompetent or misconceived? How much evidence that it was directed at addressing the wrongs the complainants had claimed?