It’s obvious what Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland is all about – John McLellan

The Citizens’ Assembly is an over-sized focus group that is about paving the way towards independence, writes John McLellan.
Nicola Sturgeon can't be blamed for doing what comes naturallyNicola Sturgeon can't be blamed for doing what comes naturally
Nicola Sturgeon can't be blamed for doing what comes naturally

In the words of one of the candidates, I shouldn’t be defeatist, but with yet another poll giving Boris Johnson’s support in the Conservative leadership contest at over 70 per cent and over half the votes already cast, with a week to go the man I backed has in all probability lost. Congratulations. Well played. See you in the bar?

Whatever happened in last night’s BBC one-to-one interviews with Andrew Neil – it was too late for this column’s deadline, but having been on the end of one or two robust exchanges when he was my boss at Scotsman Publications, I expect they both got a thorough slapping – it will have made little difference to the outcome.

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Similarly, the ITV head-to-head served only to enhance the excellent Julie Etchingham’s career and the most illuminating things Mr Johnson had to say was how damaging “blue-on-blue” public arguments were to the Conservative brand and that a general election was “forthcoming”.

The overwhelming feeling amongst my colleagues on both sides is the need to get it behind us. Keep calm and carry on and all that Churchillian stuff, so what now?

Brexit, yes obviously, but according to other polls in Scotland the Boris bounce will be in support for an independence referendum which if nothing else is the best possible way to focus Scottish Conservative minds and mend any fences broken in the leadership contest.

The SNP has not been sitting on its hands and enjoying the discomfort the tussle has caused, but has been laying the groundwork for the path to independence they hope Boris Johnson is about to pave. Part of the process is the so-called “Citizen’s Assembly” announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in April, supposed to be a gathering of 120 people drawn randomly from a cross-section of the population to discuss Scotland’s future.

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The SNP insists it is not party political; Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell said one aim was to gather different views “including those with whom we might otherwise profoundly disagree” and ex-Labour MEP David Martin was appointed as its co-convener after he was swept away in his party’s worst Scottish election performance in living memory.

At an Electoral Reform Society event in Edinburgh this week, Mr Martin was at pains to argue the Assembly is not a front for the independence case but the Scottish Conservatives and Lib Dems believe that’s precisely what it is and are not co-operating.

In acknowledging today’s extreme political tensions, Mr Martin optimistically believes it could help “lower the temperature”, but with those tensions at an all-time high within Conservatives, Labour and, though they’ll deny it, the SNP, the chances of what sounds like a very big focus group making much difference to the political climate are remote. One of the First Minister’s chattering class cheerleaders described Conservative and Lid Dem opposition as “irrational”, ignoring the obvious opportunity to expose arguments and inform counter positions.

Supporters argue the Irish model on which it is based laid the foundations for the referenda which legalised abortion and same sex marriage and a Scottish version could have a similar impact, but the Irish process was conducted within a constitutional framework which, despite the Northern Irish Troubles, has not been in dispute since 1937.

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Arguments about social and political reform in the Republic don’t start or end with divisions over reunification and are not framed by what’s good or bad in the North. And until relatively recently Ireland was in the grip of social conservatism the likes of which have not been experienced here since the 1950s; the emergence of Ireland from the grip of theocracy has been long and painful, and a process separate from a political mainstream so closely tied to the past no doubt played a crucial role.

But this is not Ireland and having to spell out what the Assembly is not is a weakness from the start. Mr Martin said it would not decide whether there should be a second independence referendum, when it would be or what it would ask.

“What it is,” he said, “is trying to involve and inform citizens in as active and proactive a way as possible, so that when that choice comes we’re all better informed and all better able to make that decision.”

In other words, the Assembly is indeed part of the preparation for an independence referendum, so with that clear understanding why should parties opposed to another vote give it their blessing?

Edinburgh South-West SNP MP Joanna Cherry has also been explicit in her view that the Assembly was “the perfect way to move Scotland on from the current state of Brexit paralysis… towards independence”, comments described as “unhelpful” by the Scottish Government’s Assembly adviser Dr Oliver Escobar. On Monday she rowed back, saying it was “not about whether or not Scotland should become an independent country ... others may think it may underline that the devolution we have is enough”. But the damage was done.

The problem with initiatives from the SNP leadership is that everyone in Scottish politics knows nothing the SNP does can be divorced from the goal of independence and Mr Martin correctly observed that by announcing the project at the same time as legislation for a second referendum, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had created suspicion.

But it seems unfair to blame the First Minister for doing what comes naturally, and when one of her most senior MPs agrees it is the “perfect way” to advance secession and the co-convener confirms it is to help inform choices in a future referendum, why should Conservative Unionists suspend our disbelief?

Whatever is happening in Westminster doesn’t mean our heads button up the back.

Journalism in an age of disinformation, violence and hate

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It might not have Amal Clooney and Jeremy Hunt but, following this week’s Press Freedom conference in London, a somewhat smaller but just as important event takes place at Edinburgh University’s Law School this Friday.

It will explore threats of violence against journalists, imprisonment and censorship, legal threats such as defamation, surveillance, hate speech, privacy and content moderation and trust.

There will also be workshops on FOI requests, fact-checking and tackling disinformation, envisaging rights-respecting online regulation.

It starts at 8.30am at Paterson’s land, Holyrood Road and entry is free.