Westminster is Playing Scotland for Time

March 2, 2018

By Jason Michael - Ireland/Scotland

Yesterday was the day Mundell accepted the reality of another independence referendum. It was also the day the establishment blocked the Scottish government in the Scottish parliament. These were both parts of the same game.

After what has been a particularly slow news month yesterday was a day of three interesting developments, all of which smack of being elements of a single strategy. “I fear,” said the Scottish Secretary David Mundell in his Westminster political report ahead of the Scottish Conservative conference, “we will face a fresh call for a vote on leaving the UK in the months ahead.” Immediately following this news a swarm of British government-backed Twitter trolls – no doubt part of the same troll farm funded by the Tories to do war with Momentum and Corbyn in England – arrived on the scene of Scottish political social media. Then finally, as if to put the cherry on the top, the Presiding Officer in Holyrood ruled the Scottish government’s alternative Brexit repeal bill beyond the legislative competence of the parliament in spite of his opposite number in Cardiff doing the opposite.

It isn’t exactly news that we will likely see things set in motion for the second independence referendum later this year. Peter Bell was quick to point out that he has been banging the drum on the necessity of holding the second independence referendum in 2018 since 16 April 2015, and since that date he has tweeted the hashtag “Referendum2018” quite actually hundreds of times – going so far as to even name the date as 20 September.* The EU referendum and the announcement of the date the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union have done nothing but add another layer of urgency to the 2018 date.

So regardless of the heretofore endless stonewalling from the British nationalists on the prospect of another referendum, when Mundell dropped this he was only putting voice to something everyone in the debate already knows and has accepted. Why he has done this is another matter. It would appear that he wants to be the first in the political arena to say it out loud, and in so doing steal the thunder from any surprise announcement from Nicola Sturgeon. Whatever his reason, that it has now been conceded as a likely event on the near horizon by the top brass of the Scottish Conservatives allows them now to step into a war footing – enter the army of bots.

In a move taken directly from the Bell Pottinger playbook, The Telegraph reported on Saturday that the Conservative Party is “hiring an army of paid tweeters to take on Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on social media.” Exactly a month to the day after the BBC announced the British government’s intention to fund a “fake news unit” to combat the distortion of information on the internet, the same government launched an Israeli-style Hasbara project to distort information, disrupt social media, and generally troll its own citizens for its own political gain.

From about lunchtime pro-independence Twitter users were commenting on the sudden rapid increase in targeted trolling. Before I had even taken a bite out my pork sausage, pepper, and sage sandwich I had blocked no less than twenty obvious paid troll accounts. Professional programmer Duncan Wallace spotted that many of them claimed to be reporters with the non-existent Southern Standard with a web address directed to a holding site for a London hotelier and developer. The purpose of these trolls and bots is always the same; to shut down normal social media activity by harassing Twitter users, disrupting conversations, and essentially doing whatever it takes to stop information flowing the way it should.

Why would the British unleash this horde of cyber troopers on some random Tuesday afternoon, effectively giving us a dry run of the next referendum campaign? The answer is that this was no ordinary Tuesday, this was a day the shadier elements of the British establishment were on the move, and – by the looks of things – they were moving in plain sight.

As a consequence of the ongoing standoff between the Scottish and British governments over the repatriation of EU powers the First Minister had announced her plan to put an alternative repeal bill before Holyrood, the success of which depended on the decision of the Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh. In Cardiff the Welsh Assembly had no problem introducing the same bill into its chamber, but Macintosh decided that to do the same in Scotland – to protect Scotland and defend the democratic will of the Scottish people – would be beyond the competence of our devolved parliament. Readers will remember of course how the delivery of “the Vow (ahem)” made Holyrood “one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.”

So why did we not have even the same power yesterday as the Welsh Assembly? Mark Hirst at Radio Sputnik pointed at Paul Grice, saying that his “fingerprints [were] all over it.” Sir Paul Grice KBErecently knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours for his “services to the Scottish parliament” – is the senior civil servant who babysits the Presiding Officer. As Clerk and Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament he is responsible for delivering all services to the Parliament and its Members. He is the Parliament’s “principal adviser on procedural and constitutional matters.”

In short, Hirst was suggesting – and he’s not wrong – that Sir Paul Grice is Westminster’s gatekeeper in the Scottish parliament. He is the one tasked with ensuring that procedural rules are interpreted in such a way so as to benefit the interests of the British government in our parliament. Considering that no one in Scotland elected him to wield so much power, and considering his rank in the British establishment, we can be sure Mark Hirst was right on the button when he implied this was the game being played right under our noses.

It seems to me that each of these threads leads to the British government’s presently operative grand strategy; the same strategy we have seen in operation since the power grab fiasco began – playing Scotland for time. David Mundell knows that the clock is ticking on the next independence referendum, and that that timescale matches perfectly what Peter Bell has been saying for nearly the past three years – September 2018 at the latest.

Putting the kybosh on Scotland’s alternative Brexit repeal bill forces the Scottish government into a bull-run scenario wherein every action it now takes is dancing to the British government’s tune and to its timescale. Every moment now spent in Scotland challenging this at law is precious time and resources diverted from the push for a pre-Brexit referendum. This is why Mundell has opened the can of independence referendum worms. He is sending up the signal that – insofar as Scotland’s unionists are concerned – the push back is on. All of this was of course deliberately obfuscated on social media with the attempt to unleash a trolling chaos. This was the starting gun, and, while many of us may have missed it, it was fired none the less. Right now the ball is back in the First Minister’s court. The suspension on the next referendum must now be rescinded.

* Amended from 23 September to 20 September – See comments for details.

You can follow Jason Michael at his twitter page @Jeggit or at his webpage The Random Public Journal
Jason Michael is a  Scottish journalist and blogger based in Dublin. Writing on politics and society. Columnist for iScot Magazine and author of the Random Public Journal.


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