The Nationalists base their arguments for independence on a false appreciation of contemporary Scotland. Instead an understanding of Scottish life explained by class should be brought to the fore. NEIL FINDLAY MSP and TOMMY KANE say it is time for Scottish Labour to understand this and adapt accordingly.

This article first appeared in this month’s Scottish Left Review.

The superlatives have just about ceased; suffice to say the Scottish election result was unprecedented. The election of a majority Nationalist Scottish Government brings the potential for constitutional change almost unimaginable a generation ago. Any change however should be driven for the right reasons, with the correct analysis and with it a substantive and evidenced policy base outlining the benefits of any flavour of proposed constitutional change. Likewise any difficulties and deficiencies that might arise from independence needs to be discussed, as do all the other options: ‘Devo-max’ ‘independence-lite’ etc. This article sets out to contribute to the constitutional debate in a way which raises and revisits some fundamental questions that appear to be forgotten in the current climate.

The Scottish Left Review asked for a contribution defending the Union from a Labour left perspective. However, the supposition of that question requires a certain challenge. Home rule/devolution was pressed largely by the Labour and Trade Union movement. The path to the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament was not the sole domain of nationalists. And for all the faults of New Labour (many could be chronicled but that is not the purpose here) it is worth remembering it was the Blair Government who delivered home rule. Meanwhile, the SNP initially carped from the side-lines and jumped on when, seemingly, it was politically opportune for them to do so (this is being repeated with their attitude towards Calman).

So, which political institution – UK or Holyrood – is best placed to make life better for working people? For socialists and the left in the Labour and Trade Union movement this has to mean an engagement with and consideration of which government is best able to provide the impetus towards a more socially just and progressive society based on equality and fairness. Looking at which political arrangements can help create a society and promote a Scotland, and yes an England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that is independent of poverty, of homelessness, free from privatisation, cuts and the worst excesses of capitalism. There is no fear or concern here from any political model which would achieve these goals.

What represents the best governmental arrangement to achieve those objectives has vexed greater authorities than the authors here. But, truth be told, the question of what institution is best placed to provide progress is a bit of a red herring. Political institutions by themselves don’t achieve fundamental societal change; it is people and political movements that do that. Parliaments only, or at least should only, pass legislation which is based around the wants and needs of the people. If there is to be change, it has to happen through changes to our political thinking and subsequent policy decisions.

Nonetheless, we will consider the question in a way that examines political practicalities as well as the current political philosophy underpinning the present debate: it is vital that the policy positions and the core ethos of the SNP are examined. Namely, what type of independent Scotland do they have in mind? However, this article will be measured; we will therefore also explore the current position of the Labour Party in relation to constitutional change.

An examination of the current political drivers takes us back to basics. Any politics based on national identity requires caution. Few would dispute that nationalism of any kind has the potential to be dangerous. Furthermore, we contend that to base your politics, and any answers to profound political questions, on the basis of nationhood alone is highly questionable. Conversely, we are not frightened of constitutional change. If there is a yes vote for independence or any of the other options then it should be accepted as the will of the Scottish people.

Despite the gloom and low morale of the vast majority of people in Scotland caused by the current onslaught on their jobs, public services, and living standards, the SNP Government at Holyrood proclaim the Scots are beholden by a ‘renewed sense of optimism’; equating their victory with this apparent collective renewal. Such mistaken analysis ignores the concerns of the Scottish People and betrays an inability to understand and relate to the anxieties of workers, benefit claimants, the poor and the unemployed. It also exposes the lack of any class analysis of what it’s like to be an ordinary Scot today.

Independence is promoted on the basis we are ‘aw’ Scots together. But, we ‘aw’ know that’s not true. Brian Souter, Sir Angus Grossart, George Mathieson, Crawford Beveridge and Sir Tom Hunter have nothing in common with the Scottish people facing an onslaught on their jobs and living standards. Working people in Scotland have more in common with other working people in England, Wales and Ireland and everywhere else than they do with rich industrialists and tax avoiders like Jim McColl, even if they were born ‘jist doon’ the road.

However, concerns about the independence the SNP has in mind goes beyond their mistaken belief that that they can bridge the class divide. They appear to have taken sides already. Look at their wish to take control of, and then cut, corporation tax. When the First Minister visited the treasury shortly after the May election, did he call upon Osborne to tackle tax avoidance and tax evasion, to re-double efforts to collect all uncollected taxes and create a system of progressive taxation? Did he call for a financial transactions tax on the banks? Thus, protecting public services and negating the need for any type of the austerity programme. No, instead the First Minister called for cuts to corporation tax, which will suck hundreds of millions out of the economy and benefit the very people who got us into the financial mess in the first place.

A fundamental flaw is the SNP advocacy of Scottish independence within the EU. Perhaps this policy, amongst all the others, highlights the inherent contradiction of SNP policy on independence. How can you have full independence whilst staying within a supra-national institution that writes or directs so much of our legislation? This is of particular salience when this institution has neo-liberalism at its core, promoting the interests of big business over public services.

We should also remember political democracy is not the same as economic democracy. Remember Scotland’s economy is beholden to multi-nationals: is the SNP proposing a Scotland that seeks to develop, nationalised, co-operative, community-owned ventures with locally elected boards? Or, will we simply see a bunch of British right wing bankers and economists replaced with a new group of tartan clad right wing bankers and economists? As Richard Leonard noted in the SLR earlier this year, “political democracy without economic democracy is ultimately hollow and unsustainable”.

We can see why some people would be attracted to an independent state. Some of the policies of successive UK governments since 1979 have undoubtedly run counter to popular opinion in Scotland. However, it was mass UK political mobilisation, led by the British Trade Union movement that led to the great social, political and economic gains of the 20th century. The critical mass that can be gained from being part of a British Labour and Trade Union movement provides greater strength than a Scottish equivalent. And, with that strength there is far greater potential for social, political and economic change. We would do well to remember how the British Labour and Trade Union movement has contributed to our collective well-being and not simply focus on the negative sides of the British state, which after all works against the interests of working people in England as much as in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament has been a rich addition to our democratic processes. But all parties are now agreed on the need for further constitutional change. The Scotland Bill is going through Parliament; but one could legitimately ask whether the Scotland Bill goes far enough. There are of course other constitutional options; which others, including the Labour Party would do well to consider. Recent contributions to the debate by Malcolm Chisholm and Henry McLeish are welcome. Devo-max or independence light should be examined enthusiastically in a way which explores the potential for meeting the criteria outlined at the beginning: i.e. would a Devo-Max system go some way towards abolishing poverty in Scotland? Could we introduce a progressive taxation system in Scotland that sees wealth spread and a Scotland that is fair and just? Could we ensure Devo-Max protects our welfare system and tackles tax avoidance and evasion? Would Devo-Max allow the retention of universal policies such as free prescriptions, higher education and bus travel for elderly whilst taxing the higher earners at the other end to pay for these policies. Would this help create a Scotland that is fairer, but which allows us to retain our links with our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the UK?

Currently this is not a position being openly supported by the Labour Party in Scotland. On this, like in other areas, Labour needs to re-position itself. The world has changed and so has Scotland. Labour has to change with it. As Richard Leonard said recently

“Labour needs a vision of the kind of society we want to build, an up-to-date, relevant, compelling case for socialist transformation, rooted in peoples’ everyday experience….That means that Labour needs to rediscover its purpose and its soul and so win the battle for hearts as well as minds. To do that it must become less of an electoral machine and more of a political movement (SLR, Issue 65)”

The conditions are now right for change. There is a once in a generation opportunity to advocate a different way, indeed a Better Way as espoused by the STUC and their affiliates. This would represent a move away from the failings of the excesses of capitalism. British people are now suffering from that failure in a way which has made them question the central political and economic orthodoxy on which the UK has recently been built. And for those who question that assertion, we suggest that people know it’s failed because they are experiencing its failures everyday of their lives.

The implications of all proposed constitutional change require a thorough examination by all political parties and indeed all Scots. The present level of debate is simply not good enough. Progressives on the left also need to re-examine where they stand; both in terms of the constitution and where we are at more broadly; politically and, ideologically. If we do that we can again create the political movements and mobilisations which can lead to progress at all levels of society and government. Without that political lead things will remain as they are, whatever the constitutional arrangements, and it will not matter to the Scottish people who are cutting their services and their jobs; remember a cut is a cut no matter how local the butcher .

Whilst the SNP bask in the triumphalism of their historic victory we need to get down to the real substantive debate around the future of the country where all facts and connotations are laid forth to the people. The role of the Labour and Trade Union movement has to be in evaluating and recommending just what arrangement is most appropriate for ordinary people. Nothing else will do.

Neil Findlay is a Scottish Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament, representing the Lothian region and is also a councillor in West Lothian. Tommy Kane is a Labour Party activist and Parliamentary Officer to Neil Findlay.

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25 thoughts on “Only Political Change Will Do

  1. My understanding of social democracy is that it is always best if power is invested in the people. To this end, as part of the Constitutional Convention (itself the foundation of the Scottish Parliament) parties were invited to sign up to the principle that it is “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.” This was the Claim of Right and most of Labour’s and the Lib Dem’s Westminster MPs signed up to that principle. So surely the answer to which political institution is best placed to make life better for working people is the parliament that can respond to the aspirations they set, that can act upon their needs, without dilution – and with the people’s sovereignty paramount.

    In the 1980s, Labour recognised that our representative democracy in the UK did not best reflect the way Scotland voted – the “democratic deficit”. It was realised, slowly at first (it took 18 years of Tory rule to focus minds), that to put Scottish voters in a position whereby their votes were not over-ruled by a Tory majority in England, that to prevent the situation arising again whereby their needs were placed in hiatus (eighteen years, mind), that empowering Scottish voters with their own parliament, answerable to Scottish voters, was the best way forward.

    Labour’s position, then, was democratic. But now Labour want to use the Westminster majority (which saw mainly English voters deliver a Tory/Lib Dem Coalition) to over-rule and impede the desire for still further change. In fact, Ian Smart, writing in Scotland on Sunday, seemed to suggest that the people are not sovereign, that a referendum would be illegal – since the constitution is a “reserved matter” – and Royal assent would be needed for such a referendum to take place. If this is Labour’s position, then it is a move from power invested in the people to support for the idea of the Crown in Parliament. A far cry from the Calim of Right that helped establish our Scottish Parliament.

    Sure, working people in England suffer the same ills as those in Scotland (as do those in Germany and France and elsewhere) but their reaction is different and, if the last General Election shows anything, their ideas on the solutions to their problems differ. Is the Scottish working class to wait in hiatus until voters in England regain their sense of socialist values? Could the Scottish working class achieve more for our neighbours by achieving independence and showing how and alternative to Toryism could work? Independence should not be about ethnic nationalism but grounded in the same democratic spirit that was the Claim of Right, and the principle that the people are sovereign.

    1. Gregor

      I agree with your post and that is why I object to be told Labour oppose a Yes vote. Why is it impossible to argue for a Scottish Labour party in the nation of Scotland. Your arguement aligns with my own feelings and I will be voting Yes when the time comes.

  2. The tories have only been in power for a wee while.Before that it was Labour for years and years and years.Fourteen I think? They didnt scrap the house of lords,repeal the act of succession or get rid of nuclear weapons.Mr Milliband doesnt seem to be in too much of a hurry on these issues either.Just how long are we expected to have to wait for Labour to become a progressive political party? For the record,I dont feel I have much in common with Mr Milliband.He just doesnt come over as having Scotlands best interests at heart.In fact,he stands by as his MPs,MSPs and tory fellow unionists belittle my country and people.
    When Cameron said “in an independent Scotland you wouldnt be flying aircraft,youd be flying by the seat of your pants” the labour party joined in the laughter.They find the suggestion that the Scots are capable of doing what every other country does LAUGHABLE.
    WHO CARES? I care.

    1. Kev, what a lot of sense you speak, and I think you have got this in a nut shell. The part of Scotland I live in, people see Labour as being just the same as the Tories, which looking at the fourteen years in power, they are. Labour has to stop the NAT bashing and scaremongering and come up with something differant, does Labour really want to be a Toxic brand in Scotland? The Scottish people are starting to see that there are no positives from the union, a union that suits Labour politicians on the gravy train in Westminster, so lets have the guts to listen and go with what Scotland wants, or we will have Thatchers legacy!

  3. With people like Hugh Henry now joining the SNP and with past members like Jimmy Reid, you’d think _someone_ in the Labour Party would have realised that the Tartan Tory slur so eagerly peddled above was inaccurate. Maybe _someone_ has, but it certainly wasn’t Neil and Tommy. The old slurs didn’t work well back then and are seen as simple desperation now. Just who are Neil and Tommy trying to convince with this piece? Joe Public knows better now, so regurgitating this old nonsense is only deluding yourselves.
    The British Road to Socialism turned out to be a bumpy dead-end. Let’s try the Scottish route now. We can hardly do worse than the failures of the past.

    1. I think you meant Hugh Kerr who brings with him a great wealth of experience to the SNP and I’m sure he will be a great addition to the SNP team in Edinburgh.

      Hugh Henry joining the SNP – now that really would be a turn up for the books. Hugh Henry is a very talented MSP who works hard for his constituency and I’m sure if he were to see sense that Scotland should be a normal independent country, he would be more than welcome in the SNP, as would many other Labour MSPs or MPs. Henry McLeish and Malcolm Chisholm in particular talk a lot of sense as do many of the people writing articles on this site.

  4. ‘The conditions are now right for change. There is a once in a generation opportunity to advocate a different way’. Yes and if we want all that you espouse, then that way is Independence. Surely that will allow us to redistribute wealth, tackle poverty, progressive taxation and a country that is fair and just.
    ‘How can you have full independence whilst staying within a supra-national institution that writes or directs so much of our legislation?’ try telling that to the Latvians, Estonians and Poles who have gained there Independence recently. Or do you believe that the Germans and French don’t see themselves as their own country?
    If you want to see socialism flourish then you have to control your own country and show what can be done. I am sure Castro didn’t hesitate to embark on his campaign in Cuba becuase other workers elsewhere would not benefit from his achievements on his island. He then exported his success!
    This smacks of the rantings of the armchair socialists, who would rather that their fellow workers were subjected to a government they did not vote for, on a whim of if we get power we will do better.
    I assume Neil is only taking the Scottish average wage and not the nearly £60k MSP salary, or is that taking socialism too far?

  5. That one went past me totally, a fine example of policy wonkery. Anyone who talks of class has never had to feed pigs for a living. Feel free to gain some experience of the real world of work, come visit me and learn what “working class” Scotland is all about. This analysis is so devoid of empathy it borders on the cruel. We know what is best for us, we will and are telling you. Tommy and Neil the voters spoke to you, will you listen?

  6. If you want to see what we should not be saying listen to the Interviews on Good Morning Scotland on the 16th

  7. Neil, your article seems to be about ‘what should Labour do now?’ without any answers, nor even suggestions.
    You hear a lot of that from Labour these days; stuff about re engaging with the voters, re focusing, ‘evaluating and recommending what arrangement is most appropriate for ordinary people’ (your words) but there is not much substance to all this hand wringing.
    May I be of assistance? Start from the conclusion and work back. Scotland is overgoverned. Local councils, Scottish parliament, Westminster, Europe. More politicians than you can point a stick at. Question; which one do you do away with?

    1. At this early stage of the election cycle, we shouldn’t offer any suggestions nor answers at the present time. Thank you for your understanding.

  8. I’ve noticed the socialist word is creeping back into Scottish Labour parlance, it’s popped it’s head up in a few articles on here now and Ken even tried to proclaim his socialist beliefs on Newsnicht.

    The problem is nobody is buying it, everyone knows any socialist tendency’s were surgically removed a long time ago & we ended up with New Labour & 13 years of a Labour govt where the income and educational gap between the poorest and the richest widened faster than even Thatcher could manage.

    Why do you think so many of us abandoned your party, we know the opinions and the votes of middle England are far more important to Labour than Scotland’s hopes and aspirations.

    Also why do posters on this site always assume that the SNP will dictate the future forever in an independent Scotland, do you honestly believe the Labour party should just run away and give up the fight, personally I hope that freed of the shackles of the London party an independent Scottish Labour party could rediscover it’s old socialist heart and become once again a party fit to govern Scotland.

  9. Saoirse

    Also why do posters on this site always assume that the SNP will dictate the future forever in an independent Scotland

    Why should anyone think that after years trying to do Scotland down that Labour had suddenly changed and were finally going to look after the interests of Scotland.

    Maybe they could campaign along the lines of

    “We always believed and told everyone who would listen that Scotland was too wee to rule itself and only Westminster could stop Scotland grinding to a halt. However now that Scotland has Independence/Full Fiscal Autonomy we think we are the party to prove ourselves wrong and will make Scotland flourish”

    Remember what happened to the Torys after years of campaigning against devolution, then trying to be a creditable part of Holyrood. Voters have long memories and are not stupid.

    1. Dubbieside, While I think the SNP are doing an excellent job, I don’t think they will survive long after Independence, without that shared goal to bond them I fear they will fracture into small cliques.

      I also think a Scottish Labour party that wasn’t subservient to the English party could move away from the right wing policies demanded by English voters & become the progressive left wing party I used to believe in.

      1. Saoirse

        We still come back to the fundamental point of why anyone should or would turn to a party to run the parliament with either Independence or with Full Fiscal Autonomy after they had spent years opposing anything but the very limited powers that Calman has, but will never be used.

        Labour give the appearance of a party who think it is their right to rule Scotland. Look again at the Torys, they have in the past had a larger share of the vote in Scotland than Labour, then they spent 30 years fighting devolution using in the main the arguments Labour are using now, they still have very little credibility left at Holyrood.

        People will also not forget that Labour have ruled at Holyrood before, though the eight years in power at Holyrood and the thirteen years in power at Westminster appear to have been forgotten by some Labour members who now write wish lists for the things that Labour could have quite easily accomplished when they held all the power at both Holyrood and Westminster. Tuition fees, council tax reform or prescription charges are a few “socialist” things that Labour could have done but did not, why? and why should anyone believe them if they said they would suddenly re discover their socialist credentials at an independent Holyrood.

    2. I feel that much of the ground in this edtabe was already covered in the blog posting by Aidan.As I mentioned in my comment there, it is going to be very difficult for Labour to put any distance between any SNP policy, given the broad similarity between them in their manifestos at the last election.Plus, I find it hypocritical to accuse the SNP of making spending promises it cannot afford, given Labour matched many of them , if not all, in a vain effort to retain votes. As it happens, I agree with your sentiments regrading the fundability of many of the SNP’s manifesto commitments but I still voted for them. I suspect they will have to break their spending commitments at some point in this parliament. Either that or they will have to admit to the necessity of public sector job cuts. In addition, I do wonder whether the SNP will be able to enforce the council tax freeze for 5 years, as some councils might take the financial hit to regain their independence from Holyrood just a thought.I think your suggestions for rebuilding the party are correct. However, it will not be simple. In particular, the issue of who will become the leader of the Scottish Labour party at Holyrood is a major headache. In my opinion, none of them are up to task. Mind you, that might change if new faces who step forward are credible but I doubt that.

    3. you don’t think that would really be ceedpnndenie. So clearly you DO actually know what the SNP proposes but you don’t approve because, rather amusingly, it isn’t nationalist enough for you.You also know that it can be a yes no referendum on the question of ceedpnndenie or that it can include a question on Devo Max if there is support for that.It is not up to the SNP either to define Devo Max or to argue for its inclusion on the ballot paper. It is up to the supporters of Devo Max to do that. If no-one does it won’t be included and people will be given a straight choice between yes/no to ceedpnndenie with the information that the unionist parties have ruled out an option of Devo Max.So the SNP has no questions to answer on that. Rather, as someone who talks a good game on how flexible devolution is and how Labour shouldn’t get trapped into the position of being arch-unionists, I think it is you that has a bit of explaining to do, no?Are media reports that a group of Labour/Tory/Lib Dem MPs have been planning to take control of the referendum debate away from Scottish members true? How do you feel about that? This patronising pretence that the questions being posed have already been answered is offensive. They haven’t, and the utter waste of time and money that was the “national conversation” did nothing to clarify or shed light on any of these issues.Will it be a yes/no question? What in detail will we be asked to say yes to?These things are not established, and it is the SNP which must establish them.

  10. I think Labour should be a party that advocates social democracy. I see no reason why Labour should really take such a Unionist stance. I don’t understand what it’s got to do with socialism. It’s about borders not about lives. I think Labour would have more to gain from taking a neutral position on independence. I know its not going to happen because the Labour party in Scotland is fast becoming fundamentally a Unionist party rather than a party of leftists. I don’t think the maintenance of the 300 year old union at all costs – and it seems to be a fundamental aim – has any place in the party (that’s a Tory flag waving policy). Neither though should the advocating of independence be either. Borders and countries are not set in stone and shouldn’t be defended as if they should. Fundamentalism in this respect shouldn’t be an issue in the Labour party. Let other parties worry about this. Labour should be about the man and woman not the nationality of either.

    Also got to ask, why if the Union is so great – and Labour love saying the next bit – did Labour introduce the Scottish Parliament at all? What were the genuine reasons for doing so? Why did Labour think Scotland was a special enough part of the UK to merit its own Parliament?

    I doubt Labour would put forward nationalism as the answer. In the same way, an pro-independence supporter may not be nationalist either.

    If the overall political leanings of a group of people can be assertively unearthed as different from another group does that warrant govern-ship based on their own values? Independence is just the extreme form of devolution. If Labour thought devolution was right for reasons x, y and z surely independence is just the maximisation of those very reasons to the full margin. I don’t think someone who supports independence can be called an nationalist any more than a Labour person who supports devolution. It’s just a variance of the same ideals.

  11. “A fundamental flaw is the SNP advocacy of Scottish independence within the EU. Perhaps this policy, amongst all the others, highlights the inherent contradiction of SNP policy on independence. How can you have full independence whilst staying within a supra-national institution that writes or directs so much of our legislation?”

    Are you seriously saying that the UK, France, Germany, Italy etc. are not independent countries, just because they are members of the EU?

  12. Paul, Yes of course I meant Hugh Kerr. Thank you. My apologies to Hugh Henry, we may not agree on much but he is certainly a tireless worker for his constituents. All I can say in my defence is it was late, it was a long day…..

  13. For clarity Michael, whilst Tommy and I may not “have fed pigs” for a living we have however experienced quite a bit of the real world. I was an apprentice and tradesman bricklayer for 10 years and Tommy worked as a pipe fitter and then in a tyre factory before returning to education. Whether our working class credentials are enough to satisfy Michael I am unsure but one thing is for sure we won’t be patronised by someone who knows nothing about our upbringing or the communties in which we still live.

  14. “(…) an up-to-date, relevant, compelling case for socialist transformation, rooted in peoples’ everyday experience….”

    People’s everyday experience is that Labour has failed to deliver what it keeps saying that it stands for in Scotland but which it blatantly does not stand for in England. You cannot serve two masters. You either serve the UK Market State or you commit to social-democratic Scotland. Committing to social-democratic Scotland would cost Labour politicians rather too much, however, it appears. All prospect of ennoblement would be gone. No seat in the House of Lordies alongside Jack McC and his old sparring partner Baron Forsyth of Drumlean, according to whom the proudest achievement of Thatcherites was the creation of New Labour.

    Scotland does not need or wish to be divided along either real or bogus class lines by time-serving neo-liberal anglo-unionist party hacks who, despite their empty rhetoric, show themselves to be more socialite than socialist. What it needs is to be rid of self-serving careerist politicians who openly seek to divide Scottish society against itself so that the UK may rule Scotland in ways which do not and cannot serve its best interests.

    1. Frankly

      Good post – that is the problem. This approach is dragging the party in Scotland down. I do not want to surrender my values to gain a few seats in middle England. If they want Tories in power then let them have them.

  15. They cannot be totally independent as long as they accept rules and legislation and unbreakable “treaties” from another organisation. Once Scotland is independent (i.e. out of the U.K.) I would hope for a referendum on EU membership.

  16. The consitutional convention and calman commission were both desigend to exclude the gnats and the electoral system for holyrood was designed to prefent the gnats from winning an election so is it any wonder they were ‘carping from the sidelines’?
    Europe….. If Sotland would not be ‘independent’ in the EU, then presumably UK, Italy etc are not ‘indepemndent in Europe’ at the moment. Are you proposing that Labour should take UK out of the EU?
    If you want to the beat the gnats then perhpas taking them on where they are weak (civil liberties) rather than where they are strong (the economy) might be a good idea.? And it might not be a bad idea to accept some reponisbility for unwise actions such as the utter failure to embrace democratic reform. If labour are really keen on protecting the Union that has to mean more than simply attacking the gnats; campaigning for the abolition of the supreme court might be a good start.

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