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When do questions about simple processes become philosophical concerns?

Sunday, October 8, 2023
18 mins

The original idea behind OTS was to provide a platform for broad discussion of subjects which fall outside the parameters of mainstream ‘independence’ debate.

That debate flares up from time to time but has not resumed the intensity of the pre-referendum clashes which revolved around fundamental questions of economy and constitution. (We have seen previously how the ‘cultural’ debate pretty-much hit the buffers around the time of Alasdair Gray’s ‘Colonists and Settlers’ essay, collapsing in a confused tangle of accusation and smear.) But we felt that the three categories, ‘Economic’, ‘Constitutional’ and ‘Cultural’ would be sufficient to encompass most of the issues expected to reappear as and when (if?) a second referendum is in the offing. We prefixed each title with ‘The Case:’ because we believe that the argument in favour of full independence is solid and has been for many years, pre-dating the discovery of oil/gas reserves.

What we struggled to categorise might be labelled the ‘Ethical/Moral/Philosophical’ case. That would involve more complex questions than economy and currency, although they seem to have been problematic enough. 

Do citizens have a reasonable right to expect that people they elect to represent them will do so, and what are the democratic options available to them if that (for whatever reason) does not happen? 

Are citizens reasonable in expecting a minimum level of honesty and accountability from public servants? Again, what recourse do they have when corruption, cronyism and bad faith have infested all aspects of public life? 

If elected representatives are in fact pursuing the interests of individuals who cast no vote in those elections, shouldn’t they (all) be exposed and elections rendered void?

We assume that these questions, and many more like them, are philosophical rather than ideological and have nothing to do with left/right positioning. 

It’s the economy, stupid!’ may be an apocryphal remark (attributed to Bill Clinton’s campaign manager in 1992) but it remains the favourite unionist objection to another referendum: ‘there is nothing more important than the economy, so any argument for independence fails if it cannot guarantee that the citizens will be more prosperous after separation’. The logic here is hard to fault but it involves the kind of circular reasoning which can easily be used to frighten the uninformed. (A certain retired sports commentator will not relish being reminded of his role in telling elderly citizens, pre-2014 referendum, that they would ‘lose their UK pensions’ if they voted Yes.) So the statement is not as simple as it appears, just as ‘what currency will you use?’ carries the assumption that the City of London has exclusive copyright of the word ‘pound’. 

The claim of some passionate independence supporters that the movement is about natural justice and correcting an historical wrong is echoed in John Steinbeck’s comment to Jackie Kennedy that Scotland is not a lost cause, it is ‘unwon’. The fact that there was no democratic process involved in the Treaty of Union is also cited as a fundamental weakness in the case for a continued UK. But these appeals are dismissed as ‘ancient’ by many - that they took place in the same century as many of the most important political revolutions in modern history seems not to lessen certain politicians and campaigners’ insistence that we must ‘move on’ and make the best of what we’ve been given. 

Whether it is a unionist issuing taunts about currency or a nationalist insisting that there is no democratic foundation for the 1707, both statements are, in effect, slogans. There is no argument about them because they are mantras reflecting a solid position which is not negotiable. They are, in effect, totems, statements of faith. They do not help foster discussion, debate - they close them down. For some participants in the debate that is exactly what they want and so these statements are deployed repeatedly. Little wonder then that so many citizens become disillusioned and turn away from the attritional posturing presented via mainstream media as ‘debate’. 

There is, of course, a place for stirring rhetoric in any populist movement and it will always be important in times of change, but it may be that digging into the detail of what democratic processes have been inherited via 300 years of Westminster government is more helpful in illustrating the case for a fresh start.

Legal fiction?

Alex Salmond was prosecuted under legislation created specifically to deal with miscreant ex-ministers. We now know that Nicola Sturgeon and Jeanne Freeman have been exonerated of any possible wrongdoing during the ‘pandemic’ because they are no longer ministers. How can this be anything other than a blatant contradiction? We can find scant mention of it aside from tweets quoting a newspaper:

‘Campaigner Lesley Roberts believes the ex-first minister and her then-health secretary misled Parliament over three key issues: the deadly policy of moving hospital patients untested into care homes, the efficacy of face masks for health and social care workers and the use of Do Not Resuscitate forms.’ Ben Borland, Scottish Daily Express, 18.7.23 as linked, here: (3) Denise Findlay 💚🤍💜 on Twitter: "ScotGov “I can confirm that as neither Ms Sturgeon nor Ms Freeman are serving Ministers, …….they cannot be investigated under the Scottish Ministerial Code”….🤔 So all change since the Salmond Stitch Up https://t.co/6MM4Syhd5P" / Twitter

The fundamental hypocrisy is stark. No explanation of the legal decision has yet emerged but would it come as a surprise to anyone if detail was withheld on the grounds that the government was dealing with ‘a national emergency’ (i.e. the ‘pandemic’) therefore the normal rules needn’t necessarily apply? Even if an appeal for full disclosure was made and accepted, how long would the inquiry take? Who would be in charge of it? Would its findings have any legal weight? We are not so concerned here with the detail of the decision or the culpability of Sturgeon and her ministers. Rather, we are trying to concentrate on the process(es) with which we have all become so familiar. This example, where a process was tailor-made to enable the prosecution of ex-ministers, then suddenly ignored with no explanation offered, exposes a grave abuse of voters’ trust. 

Whether it is immoral or perhaps unethical is for others to decide but we can be sure that the average citizen, if given the bare details, would react by saying something like ‘That’s just not right.’ 

Freedom of Secrecy?

Concurrent with the roll-out of Freedom of Information acts, pledges from public and private bodies to respect ‘transparency’, ‘accountability' etc is the difficulty of accessing any data which the government/civil service deems ‘sensitive’. 

Time and again, following years (sometimes decades) of legal pressure, swathes of documents are indeed released (e.g. concerning serious miscarriages of justice, alleged ‘terrorist’ atrocities, shady corporate shenanigans etc) but redacted so heavily as to be useless aside from providing confirmation that the documents exist. If a judge considers that the Scottish Government was acting in ‘the national interest’ by exonerating Sturgeon of any blame for covid/lockdown-related injuries, deaths and business closures then we must assume that original correspondence relating to those decisions will remain secret. There is an obvious problem here - we see yet again a presumption that the government is acting in good faith. But is it? The only way to reach any definitive conclusion on whether or not it was properly motivated in reaching the decisions it did is to have access to all of the information considered at the time. But that doesn’t happen.

‘The nature of our institutions is hidden from us, and that includes not only our government institutions but the political, media, corporate and financial institutions which control so much of our society. Their nature is hidden not only by a complete lack of transparency but by things like propaganda, internet censorship, Silicon Valley algorithm manipulation and by the way the most loudly amplified voices in our society are those who more or less support status quo politics.

That all the most important aspects of our civilization’s operation are hidden, manipulated and obfuscated by the powerful makes a joke of the very idea of democracy. How can people know what government policies to vote for if they can’t even clearly see those policies? How can people know what to vote for when everything about their understanding of the world is being actively distorted for the benefit of the powerful?’ (our emboldenment) Caitlin Johnstone Caitlin Johnstone: A World Shrouded in Secrecy (consortiumnews.com)

In the case of the Scottish electorate, policies on which they may feel they had no vote at all might include: Gender Recognition Reform, Ferry-funding, covid/lockdown/vaccination policies, Deposit Return Scheme, ‘woke’ sex education in schools, financial support for Ukraine. (There are too many other examples to list but these are probably the most topical.)

Scotgov spokesfolk can always claim that they were ‘elected on a mandate’ which included all of these topics and more besides, and any objection is met with ‘if you don’t like it you can always vote us out at the next election’. In the case of the current Scottish government, comprising the SNP/Green alliance, that appears to be an option which an ever-increasing % of the electorate has already decided to exercise as soon as possible (which happens to be just under three years away). And in the meantime, with Nicola Sturgeon still refusing to vacate the political scene entirely, suspicion persists that Humza Yousaf is little more than a figurehead with no policies he can call his own and who would somehow be prevented from promoting any he happened to find. The fact that he appears determined to plough on with the hugely unpopular ‘gender agenda’, for example, bolsters such scepticism.

The selection rather than ‘election’ of Humza Yousaf as SNP leader (and therefore First Minister) involved no public vote and the rules covering the process for deciding leadership are made by the party, not the government. When Alex Salmond retired, on the day following the referendum, the leadership passed automatically to Nicola Sturgeon. There was no challenge and therefore no contest was required. It seems highly unlikely that Alex Salmond knew what Sturgeon was going to do in the following years, but there was no noticeable dissent at the time. 

Depending on your viewpoint, Sturgeon’s tenure as FM was a disaster (if you believed Brexit was the final straw and would trigger indyref2) or a godsend (if you’re a unionist who dreads the separation of the kingdoms) but the fundamental question of ‘process’ is raised again: in a democracy, is it acceptable that Prime/First Ministers can be ‘installed’ rather than elected? There are so many precedents for this we won’t list them but recent examples are Brown replacing Blair, Sunak replacing Truss, Truss replacing Johnson etc. The process appears to be so embedded in British-style democracy that it is beyond criticism, barely even noticed. There are people in the UK who actually believe William Pitt’s ‘mother of all parliaments’ shtick and proudly proclaim that there has been no greater system of governance before or since. 

But if we feel less than satisfied with the overall state of British democracy and want to change it then there is, of course, an Electoral Reform Society:

‘The Electoral Reform Society is an independent campaigning organisation working to champion the rights of voters and build a better democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’

…and it has a Scottish branch…

‘Electoral Reform Society Scotland is Scotland's leading authority on elections, democracy and political power.’

From those mission blurbs it appears that the ERS is championing rights and ‘building better democracy’ within the existing constitutional structure, somewhat limiting the options it is able to explore.

Can we have a Swiss model of government? Can we have a voting system in Westminster which doesn’t involve members being herded like livestock? How ‘proportional’ should an electoral system aim to be before it becomes unworkable? 

As previously stated, we believe the case for Scottish independence to be solid. Indeed, we expect that a moral/ethical/philosophical case, while more difficult to pin down in the form of bullet points, would slam the tin lid on whatever arguments remain. But we also know that we are biassed in favour of independence and we have to take that into account. It is not in our interest to ‘sway’ voters with this or that data. That is the job of politicians/rhetoricians. Our task, as ordinary citizens keen to play a part in making independence as hassle-free and successful as possible, is to ensure that the decision, once reached, is beyond question. 

No-one wants another referendum (regardless of the result) to be followed by a decade of bitter wrangling over semantics, misquotes and an endless ping-pong of ifs, buts and maybes. The result can only be considered incontrovertible if voters are provided with all the information required before going to cast their ballot. (How they are provided with it, and by whom, is another matter.) Just as the truth about north sea oil revenue (as confirmed eventually by Denis Healey) came too late to affect the decision of many to vote against independence, so the truth about the current Scottish government’s behaviour during the attempted stitch-up of Alex Salmond and the fear and chaos of the covid/lockdown years may not be known until well after the ‘next’ referendum. It may not even become fully public before the 2026 Holyrood election. In which case, how are people voting in 2026 (or later for that matter) supposed to reach informed decisions about the efficacy of a devolved administration before considering whether or not they believe the institution is capable of full, permanent, effective governance? What are the moral/ethical considerations on a uninformed electorate casting votes of such importance?

It could be argued that a ‘devolved’ government, with no real power over the most important policies affecting citizens (e.g. whether or not we should participate in this or that ‘war’), should not be permitted to exercise a ‘national security’ veto on data when it doesn’t have responsibility for national security at all. It seems that the withholding of information often has little or nothing to do with national security and more to do with the job security of individuals who might otherwise be embarrassed or compromised by the truth being widely known. How a ‘code of conduct’ can be expected to address such misuse is not clear but the implications in terms of professional ethics are plain enough and we have another example by way of illustration.

Elastic principles?

Sir Nicholas MacPherson was the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury from 2005 to 2014. In the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, he wrote a memo to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in which he advised against the Scottish Government's plan for a currency union with an independent Scotland. The memo was leaked to the press, generating controversy. Independence supporters argued that MacPherson's intervention was an attempt to interfere in the referendum campaign, and that it was unacceptable for a civil servant to use his position to promote a particular political outcome.

A Public Administration Select Committee investigation was launched (over 6 months before the referendum was even held) and published in March of 2015. It was highly critical of MacPherson’s behaviour. (The following passages have been replicated as they appear in the report i.e. the emboldenment and italicising of the final section is as published.) 

Public Administration Select Committee (civilservant.org.uk)

69. The circumstances of the Scottish referendum, where the very existence of the British state was at stake, were exceptional. However, the case presented in Sir Nicholas Macpherson’s advice on a currency union with an independent Scotland could have been presented in other ways and just as powerfully. The only purpose was to use the impartial status of a Permanent Secretary to give authority to the advocacy of a political argument. There were other ways of ‘reassuring the markets’. In any case, we do not accept that this was the primary reason for publishing this advice, because entering a currency union with an independent Scotland is a decision for government, not the Civil Service. The advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants. 

70. It remains the view of this Committee that civil service advice should remain protected. The decision to publish will have unintended consequences for advice given to ministers on future major issues—including referendums. [...]

71. We recommend that guidance regarding the publication of Civil Service advice should be reiterated and if necessary revised to ensure that a civil servant’s advice to a minister cannot be published in future, in order to protect the impartiality of the Civil Service in accordance with the Northcote-Trevelyan settlement. 

72. The publication of this advice only occurred because it suited ministers’ political objectives in respect of the Scottish referendum. The Government in response to this Report must make it clear that this will never recur.

The wording there is important: 

‘The advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants.’

Perceived impartiality’? As perceived by whom? The Select Committee, other civil servants, the electorate? 

Was Sir Nicholas criticised for being impartial or because he had let it be seen that he was impartial? 

In any case, the Select Committee’s scathing criticism of MacPherson for allowing his partiality to become public did not, apparently, disguise the British state’s gratitude - three months later his knighthood was upgraded to ‘Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath’ in the 2015 Birthday Honours, for ‘service to the Crown’. 

There are more than enough questions concerning ethics and morality here to be going on with but the story takes another twist. Sir Nicholas is now ‘The Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court GCB’ and has been a member of the House of Lords since October 2016. Just over two years ago he was approached by the Scottish Government to join a new advisory council aimed at post-pandemic planning for the Scottish economy.

‘Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon both say independence should be a key part of  the economic recovery ahead, however Sir Nick's presence will raise doubts about whether Ms Sturgeon truly believes it will be.

Alba MP Kenny MacAskill said: "Far from being a ‘clever wheeze’ as some in New SNP will think this is a sign of just how out of touch the SNP has become from the needs of their own working class voters.

“Why would you appoint an establishment figure like Sir Nick?  You can be sure he will not be bringing forward the ideas necessary to rebalance power and wealth within our society and is part of the cosy consensus designed to maintain the status quo.’

SNP turn to Treasury boss who helped sink Yes campaign, Sir Nick Macpherson, for help with economy | HeraldScotland

In the interests of ‘balance’ we should point out that the UK government’s response to the committee’s report underscored the impossible situation the civil service had been facing - how could it serve two masters? And yet the Scottish Government had succeeded in having the weighty ‘Scotland’s Future’ published as a free-on-request White Paper when, to many objective observers, it was a blatantly pro-independence document which no civil servants, in Westminster or Holyrood, should have been expected to frame objectively. 

Of course, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ but it is worth pointing out that these procedural difficulties/anomalies were - and remain - inevitable when one disputant has control of the decision-making machinery and, ultimately, holds a veto over the ballot happening at all. No-one - Scottish nationalist, British unionist, the ‘undecided’, or anyone in a civil service role benefits from such confusion and the result of any ballot held under such circumstances will always be tainted. 

In trying to consider the ethical/moral/philosophical case for Scottish independence we have to - with reluctance and sadness - reach the conclusion that a second referendum is undesirable from a nationalist’s point of view because it is almost certain to return another ‘No’. To quote the late George Carlin, ‘The table is tilted folks, the game is rigged…’. It is difficult enough to secure any kind of hearing for the economic/constitutional and cultural arguments via mainstream media - the ‘moral’ case is unlikely to impress anyone who has not already been satisfied as to the nuts and bolts of economy and currency. 

There are huge issues facing resolution of the independence question which have obvious ethical/moral dimensions and Brexit is perhaps the most obvious source of contradiction and conflict. But again, when we examine why it is such a no-win scenario for Scots we find that it has as much to do with undemocratic processes as the substance of the matter at hand. 

The simple fact that almost two-thirds of Scots voted to stay in the EU has been exploited by the SNP leadership ever since David Cameron, on Sep 19th 2014, swept Scottish independence into the wastebasket - if it wasn’t the threat of the vote happening at all being used to raise outrage then it was dire threats about the aftermath and what Scotland would do to resist. At no point did the SNP leadership, in Holyrood or Westminster, offer a solid road-map showing a way through what everyone knew was going to happen. No path of resistance was ever formulated, campaigning to ‘Stop Brexit’ was a blatantly undemocratic stunt and the embarrassingly weak appeal to the Supreme Court for ‘permission’ to hold another referendum resembled nothing more than a ceremonial throwing-in of the towel. 

From the ethical/moral point of view, where is ‘representation of the people’? Scots were forced to participate in a ballot they didn’t want (Brexit) and are still being denied the one they should’ve been entitled to as a direct result (independence referendum) whilst being represented nationally by a First Minister who they didn’t vote for and appears to be pursuing a mysterious agenda in which the pursuit of independence simply does not figure.

‘We can’t form solid political theories while everything’s hidden from us. Even if we could we’re unable to organize any means to put those theories into action for the same reason. The fact that the nature of our world is being so aggressively obfuscated keeps us from knowing exactly what needs to change and keeps us from effecting change.’ Caitlin Johnstone

Spinning plates in the dark…

And so we come full circle, now pondering Humza Yousaf’s behaviour and the parlous state of the SNP. In pursuing policies which - as far as is possible to determine without a direct referendum on each issue - are reviled by the Scottish population, he is condemning the SNP to failure at the next general elections, for Westminster next year and Holyrood in 2026. The predictions are dire. 

So why do it? We could perhaps start to make sense of it all if we had the full story of why the SNP, post-Salmond, made a decision to ditch the pursuit of independence and contrive to conceal that fact from the Scottish electorate while adopting a raft of policies which are unworkable/ineffective or simply outwith the administrative competence of the Scottish parliament and therefore doomed. The overall effect is to convey the impression of ‘busy-ness’ whilst avoiding any real ‘business’ and with that in mind it is the moral/ethical behaviour of the elected representatives themselves which must be questioned. Only they know for sure whether or not they are trying to represent their constituents honestly, in Edinburgh and London, and even then, they can’t all be expected to know whether or not their efforts are being stymied by powerful undemocratic forces of the kind alluded to by Alex Salmond in his 2013 Calton Hill address. Whether or not politicians and civil servants are acting ‘in good faith’ is another question altogether, one which transcends merely moral/ethical problems, forcing consideration of the philosophical.

It is one thing for a democratic political movement to lose its way. But it is quite another for it to capitulate to internal sabotage and then pretend that all is well.  If the SNP has abandoned independence as its raison d’etre then the citizens who campaigned and voted for it so doggedly, over such a long period, deserve to know what it has been replaced with. Moreover, they are entitled - if ‘representative democracy’ means anything at all - to know who was responsible.

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