Sunday 29 January 2023

Sturgeon's tragic flaw


The Scottish play in which we are all performing even if our parts are minor can still end one of two ways either in tragedy or in comedy. But it is becoming clearer that we are approaching the end one way or the other.

The heroine is Nicola Sturgeon. She may still be hoping for an ending with a marriage, reconciliation and all opposing forces laughing and joking together. But it’s always been hard to see how her victory could in traditional terms be called a comedy because it always involved a divorce.

It’s equally unlikely that we get laughing and joking between the opposing forces. Neither side will accept defeat without a battle and a rematch and a court case. So, what does that leave? Tragedy.

If you think of tragedy in traditional terms it always involves a character flaw which leads the central character to destruction. Hamlet’s indecision and MacBeth’s ambition cause their tragedy. But what then is Sturgeon’s tragic flaw?

Something changed in her character in the years 2014 and 2015, which was caused by both defeat in the referendum and overwhelming victory in the subsequent General Election. Sturgeon began to think that she could not lose, that electoral victory was inevitable.

She was right. In every subsequent election whether for Holyrood or Westminster the SNP won a large majority. 45% will always win you most elections especially when the opposition vote is divided by 3.

But if you keep winning no matter how badly you run Scotland you begin to think that eventual independence is somehow foreordained and inevitable. This complacency is the tragic flaw that eventually brings you defeat.

There is always an historical analogy. After a series of improbable victories, the Confederacy was beginning to think that it could even invade the North. But it had neglected the fundamentals. It had failed to do what George Washington had done in a previous century. It had failed to unite and it had failed to receive foreign recognition.

But surely just one more victory at Gettysburg would bring the Confederacy independence. The Union would be forced to negotiate separation. And so, we reach a fine morning in July 1863 and victory seems inevitable to General Lee. His troops can do anything. His opponent is weak. But instead, the Confederacy loses decisively and loses forever.

If Sturgeon had used her power since losing in 2014 to try to win round her opponents by ruling well and for the good of all Scots, she would not be in the position she is in today. Instead she appealed only to her own side. Every election was about independence. She was never to blame for any setback. It was always the fault of Westminster or the English.

It didn’t matter to Sturgeon that ferries were not built. It didn’t matter that healthcare was poor and often unavailable. She did not care in fact one little bit about any devolved power that was hers. She only cared about a reserved power over the constitution that was not hers. She acted in this way because she thought her victory at any election was inevitable and her cause foreordained.

So her troops were sent into battle at the next General Election. If we reach the top of the hill and get more than 50% we will have our independence. But then she loses her nerve. She had only persuaded the 45% who voted Yes in 2014. She had done nothing to persuade the 55% who voted No. She had done nothing to show that Scotland might be run better after independence because she had done nothing to show that it might be run better before independence.

Only a politician who has begun to believe in the inevitability of her own victory would have gone to the Supreme Court thinking that it might rule that the Scottish Parliament had a power that it explicitly did not have. Worse she was told that she had no right to independence at all, which previously no one had explicitly known.

Only someone who thinks electoral victory is inevitable no matter what we do would come up with a law that puts rapists in women’s prisons. If you run a party whose only goal is independence why waste time and energy on trans rights which baffle most Scots including most independence supporters? They will vote for me anyway says Sturgeon even if it means rapists raping women in jail, because they won’t care, they only care about separation.

But the next General Election will not be about independence. For the first time in a long while there will be a good chance that Labour might win. If Labour do better in Scotland it will be at the expense mainly of the SNP. If Scots give the Labour Government the benefit of the doubt for a couple of years Labour may do better at Holyrood and if the SNP doesn’t win more than 50% then where next for Sturgeon?

It must have seemed to Bonnie Prince Charlie at Prestonpans that the Highland charge was unstoppable and so he chose to invade England without having even secured unity in Scotland. Finally he discovers a little later that claymores and Lochaber axes are no match for drilled musketry on Culloden moor.

Nothing is inevitable in history. But if you want to win independence you require above all the overwhelming support of your population. This is how Poland achieved the impossible, requiring it to defeat three empires, in 1918 and the years following.

It is hard to find an example anywhere of an independence movement continually striving for secession after losing a referendum on the issue and failing to have majority support afterwards. Quebec is the closest analogy, but here too the failure to increase support among opponents is the tragic flaw. Now Quebec independence is as lost a cause as that of the Confederacy. Scotland will soon join these lost causes, for which reason Scottish nationalists dress up as Jacobites. Just one more Highland charge folks?

Sturgeon has nowhere to go, but neither does Scotland unless people start voting on issues other than independence. But quite soon it may become clear to everyone that the SNP simply does not have the support to push for independence and then Scottish nationalists may begin to actually care that rapists end up in women’s prison’s and there is no ferry connection to their island.

Complacency and the sense that it didn’t matter how it ruled because it would always win eventually destroyed Scottish Labour. Nicola Sturgeon has the same tragic flaw for which reason the same fate awaits.

Tuesday 24 January 2023

The SNP's incoherence on gender had to be stopped


When the majority of Scottish voters chose devolution, they did not choose Scottish independence. If there had been a vote for Scottish independence at that time Scottish nationalists would have struggled to get 30%. It was therefore clear to everyone at the time that Holyrood was subordinate to Westminster.

Of course there was a lot of nonsense at the time about restoring the Parliament that Scotland had lost in 1707. Labour and the Lib Dems were willing to play at being soft nationalists because they thought it would appease the hard nationalists. There was even an attempt more symbolic than legal to claim that the Scottish people were sovereign and that the Claim of Right 1689 (a document riddled with anti-Catholicism with the intent of preventing a Catholic coming to the Scottish throne) still applied as if Scotland were still independent.

Donald Dewar thought that by pretending that Holyrood brought back what was lost he would so to speak imitate the Corries with their Flower of Scotland which when written appealed to Scots who could wistfully dream of a lost land that was independent without actually really wanting it to come back again.

This is the same romanticism that we find in Walter Scott’s Waverley, Redgauntlet, Rob Roy and The tale of Old Mortality. We sang “will you no come back again”, but we didn’t actually want him to come back least of all when the post Jacobite Scottish enlightenment brought with it prosperity, literature, philosophy and briefly made Edinburgh the intellectual centre of Europe.

But there was always a polite fiction about Scotland. We could pretend that we were a country just like any other country when we played England at rugby or Brazil at football. We could think that it was unfair if Scotland voted Labour but got a Tory Government, while it was not unfair if an equally populous area of the UK for instance the South East voted Tory but got a Labour Government. Some people called Scots were more equal than other people, because we were from a country. It wasn’t very democratic was it?

At its heart therefore devolution was a nationalist project, which intended to blunt nationalism.

Even so by calling Holyrood an Assembly and its ruling body the Scottish Executive, it was made clear to everyone that the Scottish Assembly was not sovereign and Scotland was not independent. But the fiction that Holyrood was something that it wasn’t was maintained because it had been baked in with the soft nationalism that set it up in the first place.

This fiction became still more fictional when the SNP gained control over the Executive and immediately set about rebranding it as a government. From then on the SNP acted as if it were ruling an independent Scotland while at the same time continually to seek independence. But you cannot become what you already are. This is the contradiction at the heart of Scottish nationalism.

Most cleverly the SNP maintained the fiction that Scotland was independent even after it lost the referendum in 2014. It is for this reason above all that it has described Westminster’s refusal to allow the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill to become law as undemocratic.

Words matter. The essence of the Bill is that the word “woman” can be applied to people with male anatomy and vice versa if they wish it. But words are not private things that mean what I want them to mean as if we were all Humpty Dumpty. I cannot chose to describe grass as red even if I feel that it is. I cannot describe a woman as a “homme” while learning French. My teacher will correct me. No that’s a femme. It has nothing to do with what I feel.

The absurdity of the transgender argument is not merely that it requires us to believe in a contradiction, that a man can be a woman, which is the equivalent of believing p and not p. More importantly it undermines the very concept of language as a social activity with shared objective definitions of words. If people could decide for themselves what ordinary words meant, then there would be no shared language space and no language at all.

But Westminster is equally culpable. It too has allowed the polite fiction that men can become women and allows them even to change the sex on their birth certificate. You may as well allow people to change the history of what happened in 1066 to maintain that the Normans lost and were driven into the sea.

But is it undemocratic for Westminster to overrule the Scottish Parliament? Obviously not. The Bill that set up devolution had a clause that allowed Westminster to overrule. Each Scot also has a vote at a General Election. Westminster is sovereign and can repeal the Scotland Act if it wished. The Scottish Parliament is not sovereign, despite the fiction.

But even if Scotland were independent and its parliament sovereign there might be circumstances where a law it passed might be overruled. The SNP wants to join the EU, but the EU has all sorts of rules which prevent countries passing laws that are contrary to EU rules. There are also various international treaties and acts that the UK has signed up to which limit the democratic rights of Westminster. We saw this when it tried to send refugees to Rwanda.

In every democracy in the world where there are levels of government from the national to the federal to the local there are times when elected bodies are unable to pass laws they wish to. In the United States the Supreme Court until lately banned states from forbidding abortion. When this changed and states regained the right to make their own laws on abortion, Nicola Sturgeon was outraged. But isn’t it undemocratic to forbid the legislature in Texas to forbid abortion when a majority wishes it? Where is the difference?

Scotland has a parliament with limited powers. We voted for devolution not independence. It is only the fiction, maintained by perhaps the majority of Scots including many Pro UK people that Scotland is somehow still an independent country because after all we can take on Brazil at football, that makes people think it is undemocratic if a parliament with limited powers is overruled. How on earth can it be undemocratic when one of the limits we voted for when we chose devolution was that Westminster could overrule if it thought it was necessary for the good of the whole of the UK?

We are in an awful muddle not merely about Scotland’s status as a country with a government. The fiction of the UK being a country made up of countries is itself a contradiction unless the word “country” is used in different senses.

But the muddle about gender if allowed to continue is liable to subjectify everything. There is no real distinction between sex and gender. To suppose that I can be female objectively but a man subjectively undercuts my very ability to define what a man is. If people with female anatomy can be men, how can I define what a man is?

It will be impossible to limit this once we allow words to be defined privately and subjectively. But Wittgenstein’s “Private Language Argument” decisively shows the incoherence of doing so. If I can subjectively define that I am a man though I am objectively female, I can logically define myself as being old even if I am only 20. I can define myself as black even if my skin colour is pale pink, I can define myself as a lesbian even though I have only ever slept with men.

Holyrood might as well have passed a bill that squares can become round. It doesn’t matter if such a bill has majority support and to describe it as undemocratic to stop it becoming law is to suppose that it is somehow unfair that squares can’t choose to be round. This is the level of the muddle in Scottish politics. No law that is incoherent should be passed, because it undermines the concept of law not merely in the UK but everywhere else too.

Sunday 22 January 2023

A rotting Sturgeon


I have been away from home for rather longer than expected, which has made writing rather more difficult and I haven’t been paying as much attention to the news from Scotland. There have been storms, a change from monochrome Scottish November to Technicolor. We are still just about going along the yellow brick road to independence, but unfortunately some lions and tigers and bears oh my have been encountered. What have you learned Effie?

It turns out that the promise that the next General Election would be a de facto referendum on independence wasn’t quite a promise at all. Perhaps it was just some prime steak to throw to the lions and tigers and bears. After all we have spent every year since 2014 with a promise that next year there would be a referendum, just as the Jewish diaspora for 2000 years told themselves that next year they would be in Jerusalem until one day they finally made it.

Nicola Sturgeon or her MPs scared that they would lose their seats suddenly realised that there was a good chance that they would lose this de facto referendum and so it looks as if it will be postponed until the next Holyrood election, where they hope that they will have a better chance because children and foreigners are allowed to vote.

But it isn’t up to only the SNP to decide the meaning of elections. If the SNP plus Greens and Alba get less than 50% of the vote it would be perfectly reasonable for the Government whether Labour or Conservative to declare that you have had your second referendum and lost. Sturgeon cannot unsay what she has already said. If General Elections can be referendums and if not how can they be de facto ones, then the failure of Scottish nationalist parties to win 50% of the vote can be interpreted by anyone as losing a referendum.

Whether the next Holyrood election will be declared a de facto referendum will depend on whether the SNP thinks it can win it. But while a General Election is an election to a Parliament which has the competence to decide whether Scotland can be independent or not. It is after all a reserved matter. An election to Holyrood is an election to a Parliament which the Supreme Court has told us lacks the competence to decide whether Scotland can be independent. It cannot legislate for a referendum, but requires permission.

But how can an election to Holyrood be a de facto referendum on independence if Holyrood itself lacks the competence to legislate for such a referendum? How can such a Parliament even declare that such an election is a de facto referendum?

Worse Holyrood has a weird form of proportional representation which almost no one understands. There are votes for constituencies and votes for list regions. Let’s say I vote Labour for the constituency but Green for the list. Is that one vote for independence and one vote against? Odder still it might be possible for nationalist parties to win 50% of the vote, but be unable to form a Government, which could not anyway legislate for a referendum de facto or otherwise.

Much of this is now just noise. The important issue was determined by the Supreme Court not by it saying that Holyrood could not legislate for a referendum, but much more devastatingly when it said that Scotland did not have a legal right to secede.

If Scotland does not have a legal right to independence because that right simply no more applies to places like Scotland than it does to places like Saxony, Lombardy or Vermont, then it legally matters not one jot or tittle whether the SNP, Alba et al wins 50% or more in a General Election, Holyrood election or local council election.

It is for Westminster alone to decide whether it grants Scottish independence, just as it was for Washington alone to decide whether it would grant South Carolina independence. The UK is a unitary state and Westminster is sovereign.

It then becomes a political matter. David Cameron felt compelled to give Alex Salmond a referendum. He could and I believe should have refused for the reasons above. If Scottish nationalist parties won 50% in a de facto referendum, whatever that is, it would still be up to Westminster to decide either to grant independence or more likely to grant a legal referendum, but this would be matter of politics rather than law. Legally Westminster can refuse forever even if the SNP won 100% in its phony referendum.

What has changed lately is that while David Cameron felt compelled by SNP success at Holyrood to grant a legal referendum, subsequent Prime Ministers are moving gradually away from this idea. Scots voted to stay in the UK, which still more justifies this changed the situation. With the legal backing of the Supreme Court a Prime Minister will no longer feel politically compelled like Cameron. He or she can legally and perhaps politically to say No forever. The UK is becoming like France or Germany where there is no question of a part seceding. It is becoming a dead issue rotting from the head down and beginning to smell.

All of this was very strangely foreseen a long time ago


There are two royal fish so styled by the English law writers—the whale and the sturgeon; both royal property under certain limitations, and nominally supplying the tenth branch of the crown’s ordinary revenue. I know not that any other author has hinted of the matter; but by inference it seems to me that the sturgeon must be divided in the same way as the whale, the King receiving the highly dense and elastic head peculiar to that fish, which, symbolically regarded, may possibly be humorously grounded upon some presumed congeniality. And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law.


What did you learn Effie? That Sturgeon’s head is dense. It changes its mind elastically. The rotting head, her leadership is divided from both her party and supporters and the whole Sturgeon belongs to the Crown.

Scottish nationalism is holed beneath the waterline still more than the Pequod. Once the law says that Scotland has no legal right to secession, it becomes absurd to pretend that it is undemocratic if secession is not granted. You cannot have a democratic right to something to which you don’t have a legal right. You cannot vote to steal something that is not yours.

Devolution gave people like Sturgeon more power than they could have dreamed of, but there were limits built in and the limits are becoming still more limited. There seems a reason in all things, even in law.