The rule of law and the right of rebellion

A quick post to commit some thoughts from earlier to the page. Neither well researched nor patiently developed, here are some thoughts for today.

The “rule of law”, much coveted by liberals, is an illusion. It is neither prescribed by nature (or God!), nor can it be guaranteed by an all-powerful leviathan. The state is not a single entity, but a multitude of semi-independent institutional actors – the military, the civilian government, the police, the judiciary, the security services etc. – whose interplay dictates the law. The “internally valid” legal systems that appear to rule over Western countries are the result of a particular balance of power between these institutional actors, and an accord that has been reached amongst them – and for practical, not moral, purposes.

A volatile and unpredictable country would not be attractive to investors. A government that behaved erratically does not inspire market confidence. A lawless state where businesses and individuals behaved dishonestly does not inspire market confidence. So in order to attract capital, the state must be willing to enforce honest and predictable behaviour among citizens and businesses, and commit to such behaviour itself. And this desire for market confidence is not strictly limited to measurable, economic capital: it applies equally to social capital. People live happier lives under the assumption that others will comport themselves honestly and fairly, that their liberty and property will not be arbitrarily appropriated, and that nemo me impune lacessit. There is a general agreement between all the institutional actors to create a state high in market confidence for both economic and social capital, hence they each agree to restrict their actions and defer to each other in such a way as to create the illusion of the rule of law.

This accord between the institutional actors – that is properly called the constitution regardless of what might otherwise be written on a piece of parchment – is neither guaranteed nor automatically enduring. There is nothing stopping the military, at any time, from removing the civilian government from power by brute force. Regardless of what is written in the statute books, military tutelage is implicit in the constitution of every state on earth. But though the military, by virtue of superior firepower and a near monopoly on violence, is the only institutional actor whose consent is necessary for the status quo, it is not the only one capable of breaking ranks.

Both those who would be the civilian government – i.e. a political party – and the citizenry can at times become frustrated with the balance of power, feeling either that the “elite” (i.e. those already in power) are too compliant, or the judiciary too restrictive of civilian government to make any radical change possible. In response, they may seek to rebel against the current constitution.

An act of rebellion by an elected government (that patrician liberals would not doubt snootily deride as “populist”) would shatter the accord and plunge the country into a constitutional crisis; or in other words, a power-struggle between the civilian government and the judiciary. The government would have a mandate from the people, while the demands of the judiciary (that the government immediately abandon its course) would represent the most parsimonious avenue back to stability and market confidence, What it is important to note here is that neither side has a monopoly on legitimacy, and that what legitimacy the judiciary has is purely pragmatic, not moral.

A constitutional crisis ends when a new accord is reached: either one side forces the other into submission, or a compromise is reached. The winner in a constitutional power struggle between the civilian government and the judiciary will often depend upon which other institutional actors – domestically and internationally – it can rally to its side; and of course the military, should it choose not to remain impartial, will ultimately have the casting vote.

Though the judiciary cannot legitimately claim the moral high ground in a constitutional struggle with the civilian government, it does not mean such struggles are devoid of legitimate moral argument. In a democracy, it is posited that the citizenry, as a collective, is “sovereign”. Here in Scotland, such is expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath, where it is said of Robert Bruce:

Yet if he should give up what he has begun… we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King…

If we are to accept that our people have a right of rebellion against a king, why not a constrictive constitution overseen by a judiciary?

The purpose of the rule of law, as established above, is to ensure predictability and maintain market confidence in both social and economic capital. It is intended, in other words, to enforce a social contract between citizens. But by denying people what they voted for, or restricting the sovereignty of parliament, the judiciary is in effect imposing a contract on the citizenry as a collective, which is supposed to be sovereign and thus superior to the judiciary. I therefore posit that, provided an elected government is genuinely enacting the will of the people (e.g. by fulfilling detailed manifesto promises), it shares with the citizenry a moral “right of rebellion”. And provided it conducts itself competently and seeks to resolve any succedent constitutional crisis as swiftly and cleanly as possible, such a rebellion is nothing much for democrats to fear.

The fetishisation of the rule of law is part of a worrying trend among modern liberals that takes ideas originally adopted for their practical value – democracy, the rule of law etc. – and turns them into symbols of moral righteousness, even moral superiority, and hopes the savages who live in ignorance in far-off lands can one day be patronised into enlightenment. The desperation to always have the moral high ground not only radical distorts our perceptions domestically, but also makes it infinitely harder to promote such ideas abroad.



I just realised I haven’t posted to this blog for over a year! Maintaining regular posts clearly wasn’t working by I still feel this could be a useful depository for ideas I don’t otherwise get the opportunity to express. Hence, some ponderings from a while ago.

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The fundamental problem with the Windrush scandal – and Home Office immigration policy – is the dogmatic fixation with standard procedure and the refusal to devolve decision making to front-line staff. The centralisation of problem-solving is a bad move by any organisation.

One of the basic arguments for capitalism is that innovation happens more quickly if the problem-solving duties are shared between everyone (or at least those with enough capital to start a business) rather than limited to a committee of central planners. But that devolution of problem-solving duties between institutions is limited in what it can achieve if it fails to be continued within institutions. A business with a few men and women in a boardroom setting blanket policies for stores or outlets across the country will not do as well for its customers as one where local managers and staff have discretion over how best to implement them. And a government department dealing with disparate groups of people in all sorts of circumstances cannot stick rigidly to centrally devised procedures and avoid frequent tragedy or farce.

Another policy that may have worked well were it not for centralised problem-solving is the Spare Room Subsidy, or “Bedroom Tax”. The principle behind the policy was a sound one – to address the shortage of council homes by encouraging those with unused bedrooms to downsize, in order to free up suitable accommodation for homeless families. Rather than forcibly removing tenants from their homes, the method chosen to achieve this was to ask those with unused bedrooms to pay a “subsidy” for the privilege. In theory, a sound policy.

But come implementation time, fractures appeared. For many people, there was no suitable council housing with fewer bedrooms for them to move to – particularly those who needed adapted homes. Some people used their spare rooms for bulky medical equipment, like dialysis machines, that they simply couldn’t find space for in a smaller property. And some people, for reasons of mental or physical health, would find it significantly harder than the average person to relocate.

The “fix” proposed was an exemption for disabled people – again a blanket procedure pushed by centralised decision makers. This too is inadequate and unfair. It takes a blind person many months and years to familiarise themselves with a new area, so it is right they should be exempted. But if a wheelchair user whose children have flown the nest has two spare bedrooms, and there is suitable adapted accommodation just down the road, is it really unreasonable to suggest they downsize to make way for a young family in need of a wheelchair friendly home? Likewise, is it right that an able-bodied tenant who has lived in the same house for forty years and built a settled life in his or her community be penalised if there is no alternative council housing available within the area? This policy has created fear, distress and hardship for tens of thousands of people across the country; but its failings could be redressed with one simple tweak: having a local, frontline human being with the freedom to problem-solve making the final decision on a case-by-case basis.

Policies like “hostile environment” and the spare room subsidy/bedroom tax betray a worrying trend among right-wing intellectuals to find the simplest, most elegant solution to every problem. It is a thing of delight as a thinker or a theorist to stumble upon such solutions. But when it comes to policymaking over areas where there is a lot of variation between cases, great nuance is required. The self-same fetishisation of parsimony which is an asset to the mathematician and the philosopher makes itself dangerous in the hands of the government minister.

An equally undesirable fetish once existed amongst intellectuals on the left, who took enormous pleasure in devising schemes and systems that were are complex, abstract and opaque to human enquiry as possible. Such schemes were a delight for the mind – and a disaster for effective policymaking.

Scottish local council elections: an analysis

Now that the 2017 local council elections are over and declared, some thoughts on how they went for the various parties, and what it means for the upcoming general election…

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Firstly, the (under-analysed) Scottish Greens. While outwardly pleased to made some gains, winning seats in certain wards for the first time and increasing their vote-share on 2013, there must be a degree of disappointment. The Greens overtook the Liberal Democrats to become Scotland’s fourth largest party in 2016. As recently as the beginning of March they were polling 8% (ahead of the Lib Dems on 6%). And local elections are traditionally where the Greens perform best. Yet while the Lib Dem vote largely held up, the Green flood never really materialised. Wherefore?

Since the beginning of March, two things have happened which have affected how the electorate has approached this vote. One event, completely beyond the Green’s control, was Theresa May’s calling a general election for the 8th of June, transferring voters’ focus away from local issues onto national (UK-level) politics – the Scottish Greens have never won a seat at Westminster, and first-past-the-post suppresses their vote. The other event was a disaster of the Greens own making.

On the 13th March, when Nicola Sturgeon announced her bid for a second independence referendum, the Greens made the calamitous decision to fall sycophantically in line with the SNP. True, the announcement in and of itself put the constitutional question front and centre in voters’ minds in the run-up to the vote. But the Greens made matters worse by not even pretending to deliberate on it.Just as Labour alienated its pro-independence voters by ignoring them, the 40% of 2016 Green voters who voted No in 2014 felt abandoned. Had the Greens at least tried to extract some sliver of radical reform out of the Scottish government they could present to their base as a victory, had they consulted members or even feigned to pause for thought, had they at the very least gone through the motions and abstained rather than overtly vote in favour, they

Just as Labour alienated its pro-independence voters by ignoring them, the 40% of 2016 Green voters who voted No in 2014 felt abandoned. Had the Greens at least tried to extract some sliver of radical reform out of the Scottish government that they could have presented to their base as a victory, had they consulted members or even feigned to pause for thought, had they at the very least gone through the motions and abstained rather than overtly vote in favour, they might have cushioned the blow. Patrick Harvey’s handling of this year’s budget negotiations showed he has a deft side. His handling of the indyref2 question betrayed his naïve one.

As far as this year’s general election goes, one can confidently predict no seats. The Greens’ votes are too thinly spread for a first-past-the-post election (all six of their Scottish Parliament seats were won on the regional list) – and for that reason voters regard a Green vote as little more than a pretentious way to spoil their ballot paper.

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The main beneficiaries from the exodus of Unionists from the Green Party appear to be the Lib Dems. They should be pleased to have outperformed the polls (11% first-preference vote share on the night as opposed to just 6% in the most recent poll). And there are some good portents for upcoming general election.

They came first in combined first-preference votes in the Edinburgh wards of Almond and Drum Brae/Gyle (winning resoundingly in Almond), a close second in Corstorphine/Murrayfield, and third in Inverleith, so are in with a good shout of following up Alex Cole-Hamilton’s 2016 Scottish Parliament constituency win in Edinburgh Western with a GE2017 recapture of the Westminster seat of Edinburgh West.

They were comfortably ahead in combined first-preference votes in the Fife wards of Howe of Fife and Tay CoastTay Bridgehead; CuparSt Andrews and East Neuk and Landward (coming second in first-preference votes) – which points to the Lib Dems retaking the Westminster equivalent of Willie Rennie’s North East Fife seat. And disgraced as Alistair Carmichael may be, one wouldn’t bet against him retaining his seat in Orkney and Shetland. So the Scottish Liberal Democrats should emerge on June the 9th with at least two, probably three seats. A great improvement on 2015, but still a far cry from the 11 they bagged in 2010.

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The Labour party had a drubbing, losing overall control of all its councils and slipping behind the Tories in numbers of councillors. SLAB have been the victims of a double collapse. They independently crumbled following the 2014 independence referendum, as national politics polarised along a constitutional fissure and Scottish Labour’s pro-indy supporters abandoned it for the SNP. The Labour Party later ran into an island-wide crisis after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader led to a bitter civil war within the party.

Today, the centre-left across Europe is a solution in search of a problem. Its traditional coalition of the metropolitan elite and working class is drifting ever further apart, and the problem in Scotland is exacerbated by the constitutional question. If Labour is to again find relevance in Scotland, it must tough it out – ignore Ruth Davidson’s jibes about going soft on the union – and welcome independence supports back into the tent; not just pay lip-service to them, but give them a proper a platform and acknowledge their voices. For as long as the party continues to denounce anyone in Labour who dares speak up in favour of separation as an SNP shill, the party will not be able to move on from the constitutional question and build an electoral alliance around the kind of issues which drive politics in the majority of normal democracies.

With a general election just weeks away, it is astonishing to see the Labour party – not long ago the unassailable hegemon of Scottish politics – pouring resources into just three seats. Tory tactical voting should ensure that Ian Murray wins re-election in Edinburgh South (Daniel Johnson also won the Edinburgh Southern Scottish Parliament constituency for Labour in 2016). East Lothian, where Iain Gray holds the Holyrood seat, sees Labour remain the largest party on the council, though with a strong challenge from the Conservatives, and a general election commanding higher voter turnout (and thus more SNP voters), Labour have a real battle on their hands.Labour’s final target – Jim Murphy’s old seat of

Labour’s final target – Jim Murphy’s old seat of East Renfrewshire – is even more of an ask. The affluent constituency, the safest Tory seat in Scotland until Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997, looks set to turn blue two decades later. The equivalent Holyrood seat, Eastwood, was won by the Tories for the first time since the opening of the Scottish Parliament (in the person of Jackson Carlaw), and with Labour haemorrhaging votes to the Tories in these local elections (Labour didn’t come first in combined first-preference votes in a single council ward in East Renfrewshire), I predict the Conservatives will unseat Kirsten Oswald of the SNP by a convincing margin. Nevertheless, with just a few hundred votes separating the Tories, the SNP and Labour in Eastwood in the 2016 Holyrood election, East Renfrewshire is the one to watch on election night, and should serve as a bellwether for how the three main parties doing.

Labour should not expect to win more than one seat in June, and should be delighted with two. Unthinkable just a few years ago, Labour seem all but certain to become the fourth largest party in Scotland in terms of Westminster seats. The party which introduced devolution with hubristic visions of a permanent Labour fiefdom now look destined to finish behind the Scottish National Party, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats.

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By traditional standards, the SNP unquestionably “won” this set of elections. They saw 431 councillors elected to the Conservatives’ 276 and Labour’s 262. But compared with the dizzying heights of 2015 and 2016, it is evident that political gravity is kicking in for the nationalists. With a vote share of 40%, they are set to remain Scotland’s biggest group at Westminster by a country mile. But retaining all 56 of their seats would take a miracle. As stated above, the Lib Dems are a shoo-in for North East Fife, and likely victors in Edinburgh West, in addition to retaining Orkney and Shetland. There is no reason the Tories shouldn’t win at least six constituencies – of the seven they won in the Holyrood election of 2016, only Edinburgh Central has no roughly equivalent Westminster seat. And Labour should win at least one, possibly two seats. So the SNP will be lucky to get into the 50s.

Nevertheless, their triumph in Glasgow, ending 37 years of Labour control, was hugely symbolic – though as much of Labour’s decline as the SNP’s rise. True, up until the Single Transferable Vote was reluctantly introduced by a Labour-led administration in 2007 as the price of coalition with the Lib-Dems, local council elections used first-past-the-post which makes outright majorities far more likely. But the fall of Labour’s last great bastion pays testimony to the yawning gulf between the Scottish electorate and the party that could once afford to take them for granted.

Equally symbolic however is the SNP’s loss of overall control of Dundee “Yes City” Council. Sure, with 14 seats to Labour’s 9 (and the Tories’ 3), they are still comfortably the largest party. But just as Glasgow is evocative of a now well-established disconnect between Scotland and the once-dominant Labour party, so Dundee betrays a nascent but quickly growing disconnect between Scotland and the all-conquering SNP. After a decade in government, the longevity of the SNP has been sustained in part by the lack of an alternative: the opposition parties have hitherto failed to convince the public they are a government in waiting. But with the de-toxified Tories now rampant, could that be about to change?

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The Tories have triumphed in these elections. Certainly, the SNP are well ahead of them in both councillors elected and vote share. But the gap is certainly now smaller than the 46.5%/22% of the last Holyrood election. The Tories surged everywhere. In Edinburgh and Aberdeen, they gained 7 and 8 more councillors respectively, pushing the ruling Labour party into third place. They went from no seats to 5 in Midlothian, taking seats from both the SNP and Labour (as well as the Greens).

They are the largest party on Aberdeenshire Council, and with the largest combined first-preference tallies in West GariochWesthill and DistrictHuntley, Strathbogie and Howe of Alford and Banchory and Mid Deeside, and with a strong showing in Upper Deeside and Donside, the Conservatives are almost certain to replicate Alexander Burnett’s 2016 election to the Holyrood seat of Aberdeenshire West with a June victory in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. As discussed above, they are the favourites for East Renfrewshire (though it will be an intense three-way battle between Lab-SNP-Con).And in the South Scotland region, where they won four constituencies in Holyrood in 2016, there are rich pickings aplenty. Both seats in the borders –

And in the South Scotland region, where they won four constituencies in Holyrood in 2016, there are rich pickings aplenty. Both seats in the borders – Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, which David Mundell already holds, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk – should go blue. In addition to the Scottish Borders Council, the Tories are also now the largest party in both South Ayrshire council and Dumfries & Galloway Council, so are in with a shout of Dumfries and GallowayAyr, Carrick & Cumnock and Central Ayrshire. Prediction? At least six, possibly as many as eight seats for the Scottish Conservatives.

As far as the Scottish Tories are concerned however, the real question is: are they a Scottish government in waiting? Could they replace the SNP in 2021 and form the next Scottish government?

Their strategy of banging on about the union seems to be working. But it would be wrong to assume that everyone that is voting Tory is doing so for that reason. People are increasingly disillusioned with – and increasingly bored with – the SNP. They will happy rally behind any credible alternative if they think it might bring about change. Ruth Davidson’s personal attributes, combined with Theresa May’s shift away from Old Etonians and neoliberalism towards a British Christian democracy, have lowered class barriers to voting Tory. In the US, working class voters wouldn’t think twice about voting Republican, and perhaps this is a watershed for the Conservatives that will change the British political landscape forever.

In order to succeed, the Tories would have to do more than bang on about Ruth Davidson and the Union, and actually win an election on a Conservative manifesto in Scotland – no easy task in the Cuba of the North. But say they did…

Despite the miracle of 2011, outright majorities in the Scottish parliament are mathematically rare. And assuming the Conservatives emerged from the 2021 election as the biggest party, but without a majority, it is difficult to see how they could form a stable government. The SNP and Labour would almost certainly rule out any co-operation, and vote against every budget no matter what. The Lib Dems will be loth to enter a coalition with them, and have a lot to lose by appearing too cosy with them. And the Greens, though pragmatic in their handling of this year’s budget negotiations, are surely too far away from the Tories ideologically for any sort of agreement to work. So even if (as is perfectly possible) the Tories emerge in 2021 as the biggest party in Holyrood – whatever grumblings they may make about “mandates” and the “right to form a government” – the likelihood of a Conservative government lasting more than one or two budgets (if it can get established at all) seems low.

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Now that that’s over, roll on June 8th…

Trump: Russia’s puppet?

There is mounting evidence of collusion between current and former members of Donald Trump’s team. One or two might be a coincidence. As it stands, there are: Mike Flynn, Erik Prince, Jeff Sessions, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone ­– as well as the DNC e-mail hack. (Don’t hesitate to correct me if I’ve missed anyone.)

It is far from proven (or likely) that Trump himself – despite repeated panegyrics on Vladimir Putin – is a fully paid-up Russian agent. Indeed, for all his admiration of the Russian president, his temperament precludes him, on myriad fronts, from being a reliable recruit. More probably, just as Steve Bannon and a variety of far-right groups have, Russia saw an opportunity to latch on to the Trump campaign and use it as a vehicle towards its own ends, nudging its allies into the right positions.

It is clear that Russia favoured a Trump victory, as shown by the DNC hack – not only was Trump clearly more sympathetic to Russia, but Vladimir Putin has a personal grudge against Clinton. Trump is the perfect president for Russia… – and not just because of his refusal to sleight Putin.

For a start, there’s the bullshit. Unlike other dishonest politicians, Trump doesn’t tell occasional lies in the hope of being believed – he continuously makes claims which are verifiably false, whilst denouncing the mainstream media (MSM) as “fake news”. Trump blurs the line between truth and fiction, which plays perfectly into Russia’s (principally Vladislav Surkov’s) “non-linear warfare” propaganda campaign, focused on sowing doubt and confusion about everything.

Moreover, Trump’s surreal and, to be frank, clownish persona help paint democracy as a joke. Why risk electing an idiot, when you can let a reliable authoritarian – with the right abilities to fight his way to the top – do just that? Unlike the autocrats in other paper democracies who use increasingly desperate ruses to make a pretence of democratic legitimacy, the Kremlim actively disseminated an anti-democratic ideology. The ideas and arguments of fascists are revived and publicly quoted by government figures, including Putin. It is readily suggested that democracy is on a par with terrorism. And in Trump, Russia has a Yeltsin-like buffoon to (subtely) point at.

Furthermore, Trump’s approach vindicates Putin’s. Like Putin, he is a strongman. Like Putin, he rejects the liberal rules-based global order of “human rights” and “international obligations” – results, not principles, are what matters. And most potently, his “America first” ideology dispels what Russia decries as the myth of American moral superiority. America has for a long time justified is global hegemony by portraying itself as a “responsible” superpower, acting selflessly to defend peace and order in the world. According to Trump, powerful countries, great countries, are entitled to serve their own interests by throwing their weight around – and if that comes at the expense of others, then so be it. His crassness, his duplicity, his lack of moral purpose – all serve to shatter the twin illusions of American and Russian exceptionalism: that America in particular (and the West in general) represents the pinnacle of civilisation, and that Russia is any worse than anywhere else.

Despite his fawning admiration, it is doubtful that the unpredictable Donald is actively in cahoots with Russia. But unwittingly or not, he is vulnerable to her influence – and is a very useful idiot in more ways than one.

The wider ramifications of the indyref2 debate

The battle over a second indyref – whether one actually goes ahead or not – will have repercussions far beyond Scotland. With Scots more confident in their constitutional opinions than in 2014, the debate promises to be divisive – but the division will not stop at Hadrian’s Wall.

The simmering English nationalism that begun to spring up in the wake of devolution has been brought to a full boil by the EU referendum. There is extreme resentment in England toward another period of intense focus on Scotland while England is ignored, and stiff opposition to what many English view as “appeasement” of Scots in the form of further powers. Even if Scottish nationalism fails to end the Union, it is very possible that just as Russian nationalism brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, English nationalism, fired up to new extremes of heat by the indyref2 debate, could cause the United Kingdom to implode.

Further, the indyref2 debate is likely to pour petrol onto the Northern Irish bonfire. Republicans, aggrieved at what they perceive as years of being sidelined and ignored, will feel that if the people of Scotland are entitled to determine their fate via plebiscite, then so are the people of Ulster. Unlike Scotland, a bitter and divisive referendum in Northern Ireland could well lead to more than just a few screaming matches. And if Theresa May is perceived as trying to block, or significantly bias, a referendum on Scottish independence, the fallout will be ten times worse.

For a start, Republicans in Northern Ireland will call into question the notion of self-determination that the peace process is precariously built upon. The consensus, they will argue, that Ulster is part of the UK because a clear majority of her people want to be British, even though a significant minority want to be Irish, is a convenient fig leaf for British colonialism. The UK government’s refusal to allow a referendum in Scotland when the population is split 50/50 – using arguments about timing, lack of popular support for a second vote or the first one being decisive – suggests that even if there were a Republican majority in Ulster, the UK would abandon its support for self-determination and find another excuse to justify its “occupation” of Northern Ireland.

Such an argument would be no less powerful in Buenos Aires than in Belfast. The Argentinians could accuse the Brits of being democrats of convenience, supporting self-determination when it suits their interests and suppressing it where it does not. For all its pretence of being a Union of consent, the UK is in reality still a colonial power fiercely clinging on to territory.

Indeed, Argentine thinking is somewhat stuck in 1816, when the country gained independence from Spain: they still view themselves as anti-imperialists fighting for their sovereignty against European colonial powers. In fact, the rôles are arguably the reverse. Today, it is Argentina that is the expansionist, colonial power that wants to capture new territory and subjugate its people. It is Britain that defends their sovereignty and freedom. If Britain is seen to waver on the principle of self-determination, the legitimacy of the Union Flag in the Falklands is diminished.

The situation is similar in Spain. Despite the loss of its empire, Spain has not overcome its colonial instincts – its suppression of the will of the Catalan people shows that Spain is far more concerned with territorial integrity than principled democracy. For the Spanish, Gibraltar is just an adjacent piece of territory they’d like to annex, as opposed to a legitimate and willing part of the Spanish nation. Whilst we continue to uphold the principle of self-determination, we retain the moral high ground as defenders of freedom. If we abandon it, and are seen to place our territorial integrity ahead of popular consent, we become just two rival colonial powers arguing over a rock.

And if there actually is a referendum? Unquestionably the uncertainty will be harmful to the whole UK’s, not just Scotland’s, economy. If the debate runs concurrent to Brexit negotiations – even if the vote itself is afterwards – not only will Britain’s hand be weakened in the discussions, but Theresa May will be in the absurd position of arguing one minute for sovereignty and taking back control, the next for coming together and pooling and sharing resources. And that’s not even to mention the chaos that a Yes vote could bring.

A second referendum on Scottish independence is unwanted, unneeded, and unhelpful. But if the Realm is to endure, respect for self-determination is not a choice, but a necessity.

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(For the same reason, we should resist the temptation to impose direct rule on our overseas tax havens.)

A few thoughts on indyref2…

With the depressing announcement that another independence referendum is probably on its way, I offer a few thoughts on its likely impact on our politics.

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Make no mistake, we are heading for a period of acrimony and division. The last referendum was a genuinely exhilarating time, when a nation that largely hadn’t considered its constitutional condition for centuries was suddenly awash with debate about its future. Today, people already know where they stand on the issue of independence – their opinion may change, but at any one time they know how they feel about it. For this reason, indyref2 – like Brexit – is far more likely to be a collective screaming match than another exciting “national conversation”.

If your only source of information was Twitter, you could convince yourself that Scotland is currently undergoing a civil war. In reality, our country is far from “Ulsterised”. But a second referendum will turn what was for the majority of Scots merely a decision last time into a durable identity – which will not be healthy for our already toxic politics.

Our politics has turned dangerous. The parliament of 2007-2011 (when the SNP had a minority government) comported itself in an atmosphere of cautious yet respectable camaraderie. Post-referendum, the SNP, the Tories and the Labour party are embroiled in a triangle of loathing that is not good for Scotland. In February last year, the SNP voted against presumed consent for organ donation, a policy they agreed with, purely out of fear of Labour getting the credit – then later had the cheek to complain when the Tories did the same to them at Westminster over pardoning gay men. This year, both Labour and the Tories were prepared to bring down a government that received 45% of the vote, less than a year into its stewardship, over the trivial matter of an unexciting budget.

Labour demanded a radical (and unrealistic) compromise of a massive tax hike, which the third-largest party had no mandate to do. The Conservatives were even pettier with their red lines, risking a democratic crisis for the sake of a few hundred pounds for the richest ten percent. Ironically, it was the Greens – by general consent the least realistic party represented in our parliament – who brokered the pragmatic deal that saved our system from collapse. We currently have First-Past-the-Post politics in an Additional-Member-System system – this is neither healthy, nor sustainable.

As far as a second referendum goes, the obvious beneficiaries are the Tories. As much as they feign outrage at Sturgeon’s decision, there is nothing the Ruth Davidson party would love more than the opportunity to distract people from that the fact that they’re the Tories by banging on about the constitution for the next 2-3 years. The more they can stand up for the clear decision Scots made in 2014, the less they have to come up with Tory policies in order to win their way into government.

Where Labour is concerned, they are missing a trick by laying the blame for indyref2 solely at the door of the SNP. For all their grandstanding about being the true defenders of the Union, the Tories have no legitimate right to take offence at Sturgeon’s pronouncement. It is Theresa May’s inability to negotiate that has (partly) bounced us into this referendum, and by pointing that out Labour could easily make gains amongst the anything-but-the-constitution part of the electorate. There is a chance that Labour could grasp the opportunity for revival that this referendum offers them. But it is far more likely they will blunder themselves into irrelevance.

The SNP have a lot to lose and almost nothing to gain. In fairness, they are already in decline. This may be the last parliament for a long time with a pro-independence majority – so it is understandable that they would choose to take a punt now when they’ll probably lose rather than wait for the best time to carp from the sidelines. Indyref2 will certainly provide a distraction from Nicola Sturgeon’s inability to achieve anything more in politics than popularity and selfies. And it is true that, the Tory government having dismissed opportunity after opportunity to compromise their way out of indyref2, Sturgeon has been backed into a corner. Yet the SNP have little to gain and everything to lose from this referendum, and it should be seen more as the last desperate act of a nationalist government in its death throes than a genuine threat to the future of the UK.

Of all the parties, the Greens have taken the biggest gamble. Though constitutionally a pro-independence party, up to half of their voters aren’t – seeing them primarily as a nice, anti-establishment party for whom sovereignty is not the be-all and end-all of their politics. If independence is achieved, they will be redeemed for their gamble. If not, they could well be annihilated.

As for Willie Rennie’s Lib Dems – Brexit has given the Liberal Democrats new impetus as the party of Remain; if indyref2 makes them definitively the party of Remain+No, that impetus could well be fatally diluted.

On the prospect of a second referendum

There is much speculation ahead of the SNP conference this month that a second referendum on Scottish independence is imminent. There are two women who can prevent it from happening. Neither (necessarily) wants it  – but both are too stubborn stop it.

For all her talk of preserving the Union, Theresa May’s strategy for doing so is a strange one. Nicola Sturgeon has a dilemma: hold a referendum she will probably lose, or risk giving up what may be her only chance to do so. She has offered May numerous get-outs – differential access to the single market, or devolution of immigration, or giving Holyrood a vote on the final Brexit deal – but none of them has been taken up. May’s rhetoric suggests her instincts are good – she seems to have a grasp of the issues affecting the British people. But her inability to compromise puts the Union at risk – and is not a good omen for the looming negotiations over Brexit.

But if there were to be another referendum, how has the lie of the land changed since September 2014?

The economic case for Scottish independence has demonstrably worsened. The oil price has dropped. With the rUK outside the EU, there is no longer an automatic guarantee of free movement or free trade. As the economic pain of Brexit becomes apparent, it will become apparent to Scots that the experts weren’t bluffing – many of the same experts that warned and will warn against Scottish independence. And a second referendum would only amplify the chaos and uncertainty. Greater control over the economic levers – especially immigration – would certainly have advantages. But it is unlikely that the case for independence next time round will be based on the economy.

The SNP’s best chance of winning a second referendum will be fighting a campaign on the mots du jour: “taking back control”. Though the economic prospects have somewhat deadened, a number of other changes have taken place. Scotland got a majority Conservative government it neither expected nor voted for – it voted overwhelmingly for the SNP presuming they’d play a powerful role in government, only to see them (and Scotland’s voice) sidelined. Scotland was dragged out of the EU despite decisively voting Remain. She may soon be dragged out of the European Court of Human Rights and have a “British” Bill of Rights imposed on her with only one of fifty-nine Scottish MPs in favour – just as we had the Eurosceptic political stunt of the pointless UK “Supreme Court” foisted on us with complete disregard for the separateness of jurisdictions the Act of Union is predicated on.

In addition, the No camp’s offer this time round is likely to be far less appealing. Last time round they threatened things that independence would induce, that ended up happening anyway – stories hoovered up and pointed out with glee by Stuart Campbell in his Wee Black Book. (In a gesture riven with hypocrisy, nationalists who had consistently condemned unionists for celebrating negative economic news now brimmed with Schadenfreude towards their own country.) And they made promises about what Scotland, as an equal partner in the union, could expect after a No vote that have largely failed to live up to the hype. Scots will likely be far more wary of pro-union threats and promises in an indyref2. And with 68% of Tory activists across the UK demanding no further devolution of powers be “Vow”-ed in a future referendum, Theresa May’s scope for promising anything will be severely restricted.

Further, with a populist wave throwing the world into chaos, surely we could better protect ourselves from the uncertain troubles to come if we had a fuller hand in our own destiny? Of course, the full resources of the whole UK could better protect us than our own if properly employed, but what if they are not? What if Scotland’s voice is ignored? Independence will have short-term, perhaps even long-term, economic (and other) disadvantages. But wouldn’t Scotland be better able to adapt to the challenges of the future were it not reliant on English votes to do so? If Nicola Sturgeon is to win a second referendum, such a message is her only real chance of doing so. Even then, it is unlikely she can.

Anyone predicting Scottish independence may sail to victory a-crest this populist wave is naïve for three reasons. Firstly, it has not been particularly pronounced. Brexit edged a 52-48 percent victory, a clear win but certainly not decisive. Nor did Trump surge to victory: he actually lost ground compared to Mitt Romney four years early. Barrack Obama would have beaten him in a landslide. Bernie Sanders would have beaten him in a landslide. Had the FBI not re-opened its investigation into her e-mails eleven days before the election, when she was twelve points ahead in the polls and bookies had already started paying out on her victory, Hillary Clinton would have beaten him in a landslide. The Donald only won because Hillary lost – badly!

In contrast, pro-establishment votes in Scotland in recent years have been far more decisive. Scots chose the union by a ten point margin, with the status quo winning 55-45%. Scots voted to remain in the European Union by 62-38%. In the 2016 Holyrood election, the SNP attained 46.5% of constituency votes – more than double the share of the second party – and 41.7% of the regional votes, despite having been in government for nearly a decade. It is often implied that SNP voters are idiots who have been “tricked” by the party into believing they are a radical anti-establishment party. This is nonsense. People knew fine well the SNP offered a continuation of the status quo: cautious government that keeps the country ticking over without rocking the boat. Those who voted for the SNP were consciously voting for the establishment.

On the 24th of September, when Scotland became the only nation where a majority of Labour party members, affiliates and registered supporters voted for (the relatively pro-establishment choice) Owen Smith over Jeremy Corbyn, it was swiftly concluded that a lot of left-leaning members who might be sympathetic to Corby had flitted the party and flooded into the SNP – a hypothesis backed up by polls showing Corbyn to be more popular among SNP voters than among Labour ones. This theory was cast into serious doubt however – as pointed out in the opening editorial of issue 96 of the pro-Corbyn Scottish Left Review – on the 13th of October when Angus Robertson, an arch-establishment candidate from the right of the party, won the SNP’s depute leadership contest with more than double the vote share of his nearest rival, the ex-Labour radical left-wing challenger Tommy Sheppard. Whatever way one looks at it, Scotland is objectively less anti-establishment than the rest of the UK, never mind the US, France, the Netherlands etc.

Finally, the notion that a vote for independence is the clear anti-establishment vote cannot be taken for granted. Sure, Michael Gove’s much hated “experts” are against it. But unlike Brexit, or the US election, or Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum, the people of Scotland have two establishments they can choose to kick. Of course, many on both sides will vote out of tribal loyalty to the cause. Several more will weigh up the arguments and vote according to what they feel is the best outcome for them. But a sizeable number will use the referendum as a protest vote – and it is by no means certain they’ll all be kicking the effing Tories.

For a start, Theresa May is far more popular in Scotland than Cameron. True, she is less popular here than she is in the rest of the UK (largely owing to the fact that half the population reject the very concept of a  British Prime Minister). But she is evidently more likeable. Unlike Cameron (or Osbourne or Blair), May evidently sees government, not as a career, but a calling – she is a woman of conviction, not merely of ambition. Whether or not you agree with her views, she is far easier to respect than someone who is ostensibly saying what they think you want them to. Furthermore, she is not tainted with austerity in the way that Cameron was, and is fresher in the job (and thus has less failure under her belt).

By contrast, after 10 years in power, the SNP are no longer the shining citadel they looked in 2014. At that time, even critical commentators couldn’t avoid begrudgingly shoe-horning into their polemics the obligatory boilerplate about the Scottish Government’s “competence”. It had won an outright majority (and the right to hold a referendum) off the back of a term in government which had not only delivered many populist (and popular) policies, but hugely increased Scotland’s national self-confidence. By transforming the Scottish Executive into a genuine Scottish Government, Alex Salmond’s was the first premiership to truly awaken Scots the potential of devolution. Two parliamentary terms later, the picture is not quite so rosy.

After 10 years in government, the SNP receives far less of a reputational dividend from its early accomplishments. With schools, hospitals and policing faultering, the word “competent” has disappeared from the invectives of the Scottish Government’s opponents. This is amplified by the fact that, for all her personal charm and political skill, Nicola Sturgeon is yet to achieve anything that might remotely constitute a legacy. She was widely welcomed as the human successor to Salmond’s ego, but is yet to do anything palpably radical or of remote historical significance.

Furthermore, a future referendum would almost certainly not have the convivial and effervescent atmosphere of the first one. Before 2011, despite a number of die-hards on either side of the debate, the majority of Scots had never really considered the idea that Scotland could be independent, let alone what they thought about that. 2014 was a genuine national conversation, one of the greatest democratic moments in British history – one couldn’t ride a bus, sit in a café or restaurant, or walk down a busy street without at least one conversation about the referendum being perpetually within earshot. It is precisely this excitement that the (hope-based) Yes campaign did a better job of mopping up than the (fear-based) No campaign. But a second referendum would be very different.

For one thing, people now have an opinion on independence. That opinion may change from time to time, but unlike in 2014, most Scots know at any one time what they think about the issue. Rather than the exciting national debate of 2014, we’d get the dreadful grind and animosity of the 2016 Brexit referendum. It would likely be a time of ill-will, and it is likely that ill-will will be directed towards the mongers of the plebiscite (i.e. the SNP). Further, having just had four votes in the space of just over two years, voters in Scotland are heavy with election fatigue. If they are bounced into yet another vote, they may well retaliate by voting No and giving the SNP establishment a decisive kick. For these reasons – though some things have certainly made the case for independence stronger – on balance, my prediction for a second indyref in the next few years would be an even greater victory for No.

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Of course, assuming Kezia Dugdale remembers to push the correct button, any second referendum is contingent on support from the Greens. Those in the Scottish National Party who see their party and the independence movement as synonymous naïvely view the Scottish Green Party as the environmentalist wing of the SNP. Far from it.

Whilst independence is the raison d’être of the SNP, for the Greens it is just one issue among many. While the Nats were declaring that “the dream will never die”, the Green party were accepting the result as decisive and declaring that another independence referendum should only happen if a million people signed a petition. Though they believe (as of 7 March 2017) a second independence referendum should happen “in time“, they fought the last election on the premise that:

For the next term of the Scottish Parliament Green MSPs will focus on using existing and forthcoming powers to deliver the changes that will make a difference to the people of Scotland – on fuel poverty, land reform, funding public services and many other challenges which need to be tackled right now.

The Scottish Greens, though officially a pro-independence party, are not unified in that belief. Their voters are very split – possibly 50-50 – on the issue. (No Scottish poll speaks to enough Green voters to be definitive, but they are consistently by far the most evenly split on the constitution). Though the first referendum brought the Greens to prominence, gunning for a second one could well cost them half their hard-won base. Yet if they did agree not to vote one down, they could potentially extract some genuinely radical reforms from the SNP.  It is unlikely they would lightly choose to vote against a second referendum (which would risk alienating the other half of their base). Yet if they do vote for one, or (more likely) abstain – expect them to drive a hard bargain.

Sadiq Khan and the “racism” of Scottish nationalism

Sadiq Khan has gone and done a Godfrey Bloom, overshadowing an entire party conference with his daft remarks. The idea was that extending an invitation to the Mayor of London – a moderate, Labour politician and proven election winner – would help to inspire Scottish Labour members to victory in 2020. Instead, he called half the country (including a large swathe of former Labour voters) racists.

In fairness to Khan, he was asked to come up to Scotland and make a speech anent a political landscape he was unfamiliar with. Rather than ask for help or advice, he decided to wing it and batter out a sermon of platitudes and fiction. He belatedly altered the speech, taking out the most offensive parts – but the gist remained the same. His gaffe came from a place of (understandable) ignorance, rather than malice – but its impact was hardly lessened.

There are many authoritative (and better informed) commentators who make more compelling arguments that Scottish nationalism isn’t as innocent as it presents itself. They do not extrapolate from a few radges on Twitter that all indy voters are “anti-English”, but offer a more intuitive analysis of the position forwarded by the moderate cheerleaders of “civic” nationalism. As commentators, their point may have (some) validity. If, however, they are Labour activists trying to win back voters, such arguments – even if correct – are unhelpful. Attacking nationalism – as opposed to the SNP government – draws in a far greater “basket of deplorables”. Labour will get nowhere calling its ex-voters racists.

Claire Heuchan, in an attempt to master the “Stream of Pish” literary style during an incoherent ramble in the Guardian, touched upon one valid point – that Scottish nationalism, despite its claims of tolerance, is awash with Scottish exceptionalism. It is true that Scots (not just nationalists) have a long seated tendency to view ourselves as morally and intellectually superior to “the English” – in fairness not always strictly without good cause – and naturally, a fair bit of that has seeped into our nationalism. However, the notion that this fatally undermines Scottish nationalism – as many unionists would hope – is fanciful.

(As an aside, the worrying thing is not that Heuchan says the things she says or ostensibly believes them – there are loons on every side of any argument who fail to stop themselves spraffing nonsense. The two worrying things are that, a) she is, in fact, a pro-union campaigner trying to actually win the constitutional argument – rather than just a mad yin with an opinion; and more importantly b), that the Guardian’s editors didn’t spot this for the steaming river of pish that it is. Of the five quality newspapers still available in Scotland, two (the FT and the Guardian) produce no Scottish edition at all, one (the Times) does a bit of tartan window-dressing on its English offer, and the two that are edited in Scotland (the Herald and the Scotsman) are in decline and owned by publishers specialising in regional publications. In the devolution era, Scotland needs and deserves more knowing insights into her present condition.)

Unionist or nationalist, we are all proud of the fact that Scotland is a country someone can belong to in two weeks if they want to. As Paul Kavanagh points out in a brilliant rebuttal:

The author claimed that the pro-independence aim of making Scotland better was proof of its anti-English racism, an argument which she based on nothing more than innuendo. Better than who? Eh? Nudge nudge wink wink. Why better than England of course! … It’s not Scottish exceptionalism to believe that Scotland can be better than it is. It’s British exceptionalism to believe that it can’t be.

Try as we might to dismiss Scottish nationalism as bigotry, unionists must accept that the argument is about administrative sovereignty, not racial segregation.

A few more thoughts…

There are certain schisms in politics so great that they latch onto every debate going, looking desperately for reasons to claim ownership of one camp or the other. Two such schisms are those of post-2014 Scotland and post-2015 Labour – and two such debates, are those concerning the BBC’s output north of the border and who should lead Britain’s largest trade union.

The BBC’s recent twin announcements – that plans for a “Scottish Six” have been abandoned but Scotland will get it’s own (evening) channel and a 9 pm bulletin – have their merits and deficiencies that could easily (and should properly) be discussed and argued over without any mention of the constitution. In modern Scotland however, such an aspiration is a pipe-dream.

Many unionists are enraged by the idea that Scottish television paid for by Scottish licence-fee payers should reflect life in modern Scotland. They do not arrive at that perspective however by evaluating the offer on its own merits, but by viewing it narrowly as a massive kowtow to the SNP and nationalism. They argue Scotland having a different news programme from the rest of the UK will sow division. They argue that Scotland hearing the news from a relevant perspective “like a normal sovereign country” will normalise the idea of independence.

They do not stop to consider whether the status quo – where English health and education stories (though not irrelevant to Scottish viewers) are treated as national stories and given top billing, and cricket scores are main sports headlines while Scottish football and rugby are begrudgingly paid lip-service (to say nothing of the shinty) – might actually serve to highlight the massive imbalance of size (and influence) amongst the home nations, and fuel a feeling of sideline-isation amongst swathes of the population. They cannot fathom that unionism needn’t be imported from London, that the best approach to keeping Britain together might be “unionism with a Scottish accent”. They bemoan the SNP “monopolising” Scottishness, then bemoan the idea of a Scottish Six on the grounds they can’t see a difference between Scottishness and  Scottish nationalism.

The contest to be the next General Secretary of the Unite union is another case in point. Len McCluskey believes that the best way of getting a good deal for workers is through vigorous engagement in politics. Gerard Coyne believes Unite members are better served by a less political union that is more focused on traditional syndicalism, that internal Labour politics is an unhelpful distraction from fighting for members’ interests.

There is a worthy and legitimate debate to be had here. Instead, it has been reduced to a daft, tribalist competition between “Blairites” and “Corbynites”. Those on the right of the Labour party will not entertain the idea that for employees to prosper, their sphere of influence must extend beyond the factory floor. Those on its left, that unions might be able to secure more for their members were they – along with striking workers sacrificing wages vital to their families in order to fight for justice at work – not so easily dismissed as part of the “radical far left” political scene.

Unionism/Nationalism, Corbynism/Blairism, are just two of the domineering divisions that impose themselves to polarise a myriad of otherwise innocent debates – in the coming months and years, no doubt Brexit/Remain will colonise a great many smaller arguments too. But however strongly we may feel, however divided we may feel, if we are to move forward we must strive to treat emerging issues with the stoicism, seriousness and independence they deserve.

A few thoughts…

Working on too many longer pieces just now, so just a few short thoughts…

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In an article the other day for The Spectator, Alex Massie made a half-decent point about Remainers being entitled to continue the fight post-referendum. Just as it would be unreasonable to demand of the SNP that they abandon their raison d’être and stop campaigning for independence, so it would have been unreasonable to expect UKIP to disband had the country had voted to stay in the EU. So why then should Remainers (or rejoiners) stop believing in and campaigning for the European Union just because we’ve voted to leave?

However, there are issues with this argument. It doesn’t acknowledge that when Yessers (and hypothetical post-Remain Kippers) assert that “the dream will never die”, they intend to pursue that dream purely through democratic means – i.e. another referendum. On the 19th of September, the day after the referendum, the Scottish Parliament had a pro-independence majority (and still does) – and yet MSPs chose not to declare UDI, but instead respect the result and start preparing for a future referendum. To their credit MPs, who are 3-1 in favour of the EU, have accepted they shouldn’t overrule Brexit-in-name – i.e. by blocking Article 50. But it is not yet generally agreed that they should not try to overrule Brexit-in-substance. Were the shape of Brexit up to me, we would be staying in the single market; then again, were it up to me, we wouldn’t be Brexiting in the first place. No, remainers shouldn’t pipe down and take their medicine – the Leave-vote card doesn’t give the government an opt out from scrutiny or accountability. But we must accept that the vote was to actually leave the EU’s institutions, not just to go through the motions of a paper Brexit. We have the right to mourn, but Brexeunt all.

Further, the legitimacy of Remainers – like normal people – continuing to believe in their beliefs despite other people disagreeing with them was not really the main thrust of Blair’s speech. Blair called for a rethink – and to his credit wasn’t arrogant enough to assume this could happen without another referendum. And yet though he portrayed himself as a democrat, neither he nor those that think like him promote the position they do out of a desire to keep the people involved in the process. In truth, they see the views of those who voted for Brexit not as different, but wrong; 52% of the population voted to leave the European Union not out of preference, but stupidity. Months have now passed since the referendum – surely enough of these idiots have come to their senses to reverse the result in a fresh referendum? Despite what he says (and probably believes), Blair is not some messiah sticking up for ordinary people, who realises they have changed their minds and wants to offer them a stop button – he is a self-righteous, elitist zealot who thinks what he opines is synonymous with the truth. These people were wrong, and if they can only be scared and patronised enough they will choose “correctly” next time. Blair is a democrat of convenience, not a democrat of conviction.

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The mere mention of a person who “thinks what he opines is synonymous with the truth” inevitably brings to mind (President!) Donald Trump, who in another of his trademark “Rivers of Pish” speeches made up either a terrorist attack or a mass “Taharrush” sexual assault (he wasn’t clear which, but neither happened) in Sweden.

When someone is accused of ignoring “an inconvenient truth”, the implied criticism hinges on the unspoken assumption that something about true facts lends them greater import than commodious propositions. Yet in The Donald’s epistemology, veracity is trumped by the modality of the convenient. Anything that would be handy were it true, is true. Any “facts” reported by the media that Trump doesn’t like are not only fake, but a personal attack on the President that could only have been carried out by a failed journalist.

I cannot fathom how embarrassing it would be to be the staffer at the US State Department who has to reply to an e-mail from the Swedish Embassy asking: What the fuck is your ELECTED PRESIDENT on about?