Scotland’s Simple Choice

Scotland’s very simple choice – if Humza Yousaf doesn’t prevent it

London has always said that the Union is based on consent and that Scotland can leave if its consent is withdrawn. Scotland has never voted for independence, although it can do so at any general election if a party gives the option clearly, unequivocally and directly in its manifesto. The former First Minister eventually came round to that realisation in June last year, when she declared in a Ministerial Statement to the Scottish Parliament that “if the law says [a referendum] is not possible, the General Election will be a ‘de facto’ referendum”. But she did nothing to put her solemn promise into action, and subsequently endorsed the SNP National Executive Committee’s plan for a conference to consider all proposals, which itself did not take place in the wake of her spontaneous resignation.

Scotland never having chosen independence, London is under no obligation to lift a finger. Since after the 2014 referendum, support for independence keeps polling at something approaching 50%, and occasionally even exceeding it, an excellent starting point for any independence campaign.

If Scotland does vote for independence by democratic majority in a plebiscitary general election, and pro-independence members occupy the vast majority of Scottish seats in the Union parliament (as they would virtually automatically from a majority of votes), that will crystallise the issue and oblige London to concede. That is what London would have to do, in order to escape incongruity with their own prior explicit positions (as in 2014 when they accepted that Scotland would leave if Yes won the referendum, or over Northern Ireland to which they have given a continuing statutory right to choose whether to leave), and in order to respect the democratic imperative and avoid dishonouring themselves as oppressors in the councils of the world. Any attempt to shackle Scotland against the democratic will of its people would so shock the conscience, throughout the UK and elsewhere, as to be completely out of the question.

Following a vote for independence by democratic majority, Scotland’s exit from the Union would almost certainly come about by negotiation. But given London’s reluctance, it would have to be understood that Scotland could and would leave over London’s head if those negotiations were declined or were not fruitful. In that hypothetical final resort, the mechanism of leaving would be in the hands of Scotland’s supreme representatives, its members of the Union parliament, by seceding from it and thereby taking Scotland out of the Union.

The only vote which Scotland has ever held on independence was in the referendum of 2014, when the decision was to remain in the Union, by a majority of over 10% on a turnout of almost 85%. There is no power to establish a Scottish referendum on independence without London’s entirely discretionary consent, which is now refused and will continue to be refused, and so for practical purposes it is not an option.

At the SNP convention in Dundee on 24 June, the new Leader Humza Yousaf got warm enthusiasm from the half-empty hall when he said:

“I believe that in this election the SNP should offer the people of Scotland a manifesto for an independent Scotland. In that manifesto, page 1, line 1, I am proposing that we put a simple but powerful statement to the people: Vote SNP for Scotland to become an independent country.”

To further loud encouragement, John Swinney followed with these words:

“At the next Westminster election, if people vote SNP, they are voting for Scotland to be an independent country. Clear, simple, democratic. By seeking a clear and unequivocal instruction from the people of Scotland to act to deliver independence, in an election to the parliament that has deliberately kept itself in control of the constitution. That’s what we need to do as a party. And we should end the process discussion there. We should say: That’s what we’re doing – those are our terms that we’re offering to the public. And we’ll know where we stand with the result of the election.”

It was obvious from the audience reaction and from remarks by speakers from the floor that those statements were taken as notice that the General Election would be a plebiscite on independence. But speaking to journalists immediately afterwards, Yousaf inferred that what he had in mind was somewhat more convoluted, and in fact little different from the SNP’s unsuccessful strategy since 2015, namely winning most Scottish seats and then asking to be allowed to hold a referendum (if London has the impertinence to refuse independence negotiations). Here is what he said:

“The question you’re inevitably going to arrive at is what if Westminster says no, then what do you do, how do you break the logjam? That’s a question of course for UK parties. If this is a voluntary union then they’ve got to be able to prove it. If they’re not going to prove that we can negotiate our independence even though people have given us mandate after mandate after mandate, then the only way we’re going to break that is through the power of the people. . . .We’re going to make it absolutely clear with no equivocation at all – a vote for the SNP is a vote for Scotland to become independent. If we win that election, if we get that mandate from the people then we negotiate with the UK Government to give that democratic effect. . . .If you want to have a referendum and test the proposition for popular support, you do that through a referendum, that remains our Plan A, always has been our Plan A. It’s very simple, that’s been denied to us. So, what are the rules of a General Election? The rules are pretty simple – you win most seats, you win that General Election, on a very simple proposition, vote for the SNP to become an independent country.”

For years it has been a trick of the SNP to confuse two entirely distinct matters. On the one hand is London’s blocking of the referendum route, which it has complete legal power to do simply by declining to pass the reserved power to Holyrood. The party has insisted on a referendum, for which it has obtained parliamentary mandates, in full awareness that London would refuse, and has loaded criticism on London for that refusal. And on the other hand is the electoral route, which London cannot stop and has never claimed to be able to stop, but which the SNP had rejected out of hand (until Sturgeon’s Damascene conversion last year, from which she and the party soon resiled). The trick involves weaponising the frustration at London’s intransigence on the unimportant referendum issue by claiming that it was blocking Scottish independence full stop. But that claim is utter nonsense, since the electoral route is and always has been available and is out of London’s hands. Why the SNP chose to transfix the country on their manufactured conundrum is the great mystery of contemporary Scottish politics, but that is what they did, putting most of the public discourse of independence on the false footing that London is to blame for our inaction.

Yousaf is at that same SNP game, but through his wordy obfuscation we can perceive the folly of his stance, namely:

  1. He bases his plan on the SNP winning a mere majority of Scottish seats, something which could be achieved on much less than a majority of votes, far short of the democratic majority for No in the 2014 referendum
  2. With the SNP’s seat majority he plans to shame London into granting a referendum, which is a manifestly ludicrous notion, since it is entirely at the whim of London, has been consistently refused for years despite Scottish parliamentary mandates, and is currently met with point-blank refusal from both Tory and Labour.
  3. He is silent on what the SNP will do if it does in fact win a majority of votes, an unpardonable omission if the SNP’s manifesto is indeed to be for independence.

What this shows is that Yousaf cannot be trusted to decide correctly on the starkest and simplest, almost existential, question for the Scottish independence movement: are we to use the electoral route (the only one open to us) as the independence plebiscite, or are we not? 

As a member of the party, I do not consider the SNP in itself to be worthy of support, so deplorable has been its behaviour over the past few years in various ways, some very serious. Many stalwart supporters and eager activists for independence, great people who would be pure gold for any proper independence campaign, are no longer members, and their departure is bitter evidence of the party’s dysfunction (though we can hope that most would harness up again to campaign for Yes in a ‘de facto’ referendum). Among remaining members, so little communication is there nowadays that I have no idea how many will swallow Yousaf’s line without subjecting it to any serious thought.

If that was all there was to it, many more would have ditched the party already. But there is a dilemma, because the SNP is the only entity which is capable of turning the election into a meaningful independence plebiscite, by setting out the appropriate manifesto, the essential term of which might say something like: “A vote for this party will be taken to be a vote for Scotland to become an independent country, and on a majority of such votes that is what will happen, whether on terms negotiated with the UK Government or not.” And of course any genuine plebiscite election will require arrangements to include the other independence parties to stand under the same term, and to strengthen rather than split the vote. 

So Yousaf is Leader of the sole organisation with the power actually to implement the correct choice of route. It will be a plebiscite election only if he leads the SNP to make it so. Accordingly, it is now incumbent on the party and the Yes movement to get him to change his mind and take that course, or to get him to stand down in favour of an alternative Leader who will do the right thing. Otherwise, the achievement of independence will be set back very considerably, and the SNP itself will dwindle all the more.

Comments (27)

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  1. Colin Dunn says:

    “But speaking to journalists immediately afterwards, Yousaf inferred that what he had in mind was somewhat more convoluted . .”

    Implied not inferred.

    1. Alan Crocket says:


  2. India says:

    >If Scotland does vote for independence by democratic majority in a plebiscitary general election, and pro-independence members occupy the vast majority of Scottish seats in the Union parliament (as they would virtually automatically from a majority of votes), that will crystallise the issue and oblige London to concede. That is what London would have to do, in order to escape incongruity with their own prior explicit positions

    Sure, it would look bad, but as it has demonstrated every time it has rejected a call from a first minister for a referendum, London doesn’t care about that, its previous positions, or any incongruity. So long as they can point to around half the population, even if it’s a minority, and say they speak for them, they’re happy.

    They’re even happier when people say the problem is somehow to do with the SNP’s strategy, such as it is.

  3. David McCann says:

    Sums up my feelings exactly

  4. John Wood says:

    The SNP – in my direct and ongoing experience – does not act in the interests of the people of Scotland but in the interests of corporate profit, and those of international plutocrats. The self-appointed, so-called ‘king’ and his World Economic Forum friends are the ones in control. They have publicly told world governments to ‘co-operate’ and they do. Especially in the UK. This is the basis of the bullying, corporate culture that infests Scotland and in which we are treated with utter contempt by those we elected to represent us. Any ‘independence’ from Westminster will therefore be an Orwellian fake.
    The Greens too are now bought and sold for the same gold.
    Unlike Westminster where corruption and neofascism are on public display, no doubt deliberately to strike ‘shock and awe’ into the population and demonstrate that they are completely above the law, I do not accuse the Scottish government of the same. However, I think they are far too afraid to stand up and be counted. And stand up and be counted is what we voted for them to do.
    The SNP is never going to deliver a real independence that works for ordinary people. They may say nothing publicly but in practice they do as they are told by Westminster, and more importantly, those who fund Westminster. Look at all the World Economic Forum policies they are implementing, that have no democratic mandate at all. They even seem to be in favour of handing over sovereignty over our health policy to a distinctly dodgy looking individual at the WHO. It would be an act of utter treachery. The SNP has become just another hollow shell with no real substance at all.
    So I propose that we create a pledge for all candidates, of any party, to sign and be held to: that they will respect the right of self-determination, the Claim of Right, and that means that government in Scotland, by long tradition – at least in theory – is by assent. Charles has indeed publicly sworn to uphold this. Let’s hold him to it. If candidates will not make that commitment, we simply don’t vote for them – and if need be, spoil our ballots.
    It means that whoever wins an election, that principle is then upheld. It means that if we want a referendum, or some other means of indicating our will, it must be allowed. Let the Unionists then try to argue their case that we are too poor, too wee, too stupid. It was an argument they failed to uphold in every other case as the British Empire collapsed.
    This is a matter of principle. It makes no difference what currency we use, whether we wish to rejoin the EU or not. It is simply a matter of sovereignty. It goes beyond ‘nationalism’. It is about the planet as a whole and its people, everywhere. We are not ‘resources’ to be exploited and discarded when no longer profitable, like concentration camp inmates, or factory farmed animals. And we need to stand up and say so.
    If our representatives cannot stand up for planet and people, they need to go.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John Wood, but the British Empire has not collapsed (yet). If we were truly motivated by the principle of self-determination rather than selfish interests, we would be first concerned to make the process of leaving the Union (Empire) common, standard, smooth and safe (safe implies a high bar). So we should be working with Welsh and Irish movements. If our motivation was primarily anti-colonial, we should be working to bring about the end of the British Empire, with its overseas territories and crown dependencies (aka colonies, military/spy bases, tax havens). The surest way to Scottish Independence may be through constitution writing, for which there is precedence and pressures. When our British imperial quasi-constitution falls, no doubt some will be amazed, having expected it to last forever, such is the power of conditioning and the weakness of political imagination.

      1. John Wood says:

        Thanks, yes I stand corrected. The British Empire was the price the US demanded for its support in World War II. It prefers to control countries and their peoples through debt rather than direct military intervention, though as we’ve seen in once country after another over the last 70 years direct physical attack can be used for ‘shock and awe’ and to demonstrate new weaponry. The British Royal family however seem to own large chunks of the US economy so perhaps it goes full circle.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @John Wood, indeed the USAmerican and British Empires are intertwined, although they have not demilitarised but increased their militarisation after World War 2, and are rather debtors to some of their clients (like USA and Arabian Gulf states). I believe the French used their Marshall Plan funds from the USA post-WW2 to regain their colonial territories in places like IndoChina with the USA’s approval. There are plenty of military adventures in undeclared and often covert wars (for which the British imperialists use special forces not under the scrutiny of its Parliament). Surely it is the USA who is the world’s greatest debtor, in more ways that one. But yes, ‘shock and awe’ (aka state terrorism) is also used to blood troops, test and promote sales of weapons; and in the British forces, to reinforce personal allegiance to its supreme commander, the hereditary monarch (whose family are customarily and without merit given progressively higher ranks in it). The group most singled out for terror are each Empire’s own publics, held hostage by nuclear weapons and the usually tacit threat of their own militaries, who are far more dangerous than foreign powers.

  5. Niemand says:

    A telling analysis but it does leave out the elephant in the room – how do you campaign in a general election on literally one issue only?

    Whatever the spin, you would be voting for the SNP (in the main) and that comes with a raft of non-independence, domestic policies too even if somehow you never mentioned them. And how would you avoid the media and opposition party scrutiny of them? And would not the same questions from independence doubters still come up on currency, borders, EU etc, issues that the SNP seem to have made little progress on? It is easy to see it as becoming a real mess of totally unconvincing responses to legitimate questions, a recipe for defeat, not success.

    Yet, it could work, but you would have to bank on all that being swept away by a surge tide of support for independence, a genuine openness to people voting Green and Alba (or even some other new party) as equally legitimate, (there are many never SNP again voters out there now) and for that you need real co-operation, a really convincing SNP leader and team behind them . . .

    1. Alan Crocket says:

      Yes, but I think I would just make the following observations.

      There’s no magic formula to make it easy, and there will have to be a good campaign. But the 50/50 starting point for independence is hardly a handicap. There will always be unionist flak, whatever the forum – no different in a plebiscitary election. It’s up to the Yes side not to get encumbered.

      The non-independence policies can be set out in part B of any manifesto, but on a “for what they’re worth” basis, given that the SNP, even with every single Scottish seat, will always be powerless at Westminster.

      The SNP and the other Indy parties should all bend over backwards to achieve consensus in a ‘de facto’ referendum, so that only one candidate stands in each constituency, to maximise seats and votes for independence. If the SNP has to leave a few seats for Alba and Greens, so be it, but these parties themselves might consider that the SNP has a better chance of seats at Westminster. If parties don’t have that spirit of cooperation and sacrifice – whatever it takes – then they’re not seriously for independence.

    2. John says:

      I don’t buy this argument in Scotland as you can counter it by saying that
      the votes of electorate in Scotland have been irrelevant to which party forms Westminster government since 1979. Once you have established that fact you can say that voting for or against independence parties is only meaningful vote that electorate in Scotland have at a General Election.
      A Holyrood election is different as each vote of electorate in Scotland will influence who wins power and which policies will be implemented (where Westminster allows!).

      1. Niemand says:

        How do you work out the 1979 date John?

        The thing is though it doesn’t really matter if you don’t buy the argument. It is those doubters who need to vote for an independence party to get the majority required that matters.

        What I wonder is how the argument is going to go down that implies all votes ‘since 1979’ in GEs in Scotland have been worthless, since after all, there will be many voters that need to be persuaded to vote SNP etc now, who have voted for unionist parties that have been in power in Westminster since 1979, so do feel represented there, and prior to a few years back had plenty of Scottish MPs other than the SNP in the guise of Labour and to a much lesser extent Tory and LDs. It is the relatively recent dominance of the SNP at Westminster to the exclusion of virtually all other Scottish parties that have had very little influence on anything as they have never formed part of any UK government and never will.

  6. Donald Wallace says:

    The hall at the convention in Dundee was not ‘half empty’. I agree it was not full, I was there, but thought 75/80% full.

    1. Alan Crocket says:

      Tech specs on the Caird Hall website give a seating capacity of “2000 or 1200” (whatever that means). Wikipedia says it can seat 2300. Take 2000.
      A series of photographs appeared on the Wings site of June 24, from which there appeared to be about 600 in the stalls, about 200 in the banked seats at the rear, and about 100 in the very sparse side seats and balcony.
      You pays your money . . .(I’m afraid I didn’t use the ticket I had bought, so I’m one of the empty seats.)

    2. David Hind says:

      I and many other SNP members did not attend because we went to the Stirling independence march. The SNP knew the date of the march well in advance, to not take heed of it was a terrible decision.

  7. Graeme McCormick says:

    At the convention in Dundee I posed the same question, Alan: What if the UK refuses to negotiate if there is a yes majority vote?

    It was not answered but from the support I received this question has to be answered.

    I’d go further and suggest that unless the SNP confirms that Scotland can become a nation state without the consent of the UK government then the SNP is in severe trouble.

    If the independence-supporting candidates achieve a majority vote then the SNP MPs have the power to dissolve the Union by not taking up their seats, dissolving the Union and setting up a provisional government in Edinburgh. The SNP must put the electorate and our opponents on notice that failure by the UK government and Opposition to agree the dissolution terms BEFORE the election then the dissolution will take immediate effect. In the absence of agreement between Scotland and England then the Vienna Convention on Treaties kicks in re the dissolution of a state.

    This process can deliver Scotland as a nation state in 15 months. If not embraced, then independence is off the table due to the SNP’s failure to snatch the opportunity and the clawback of devolutionary powers which is gathering pace.

    I propose to submit a resolution to that effect for the National Conference. Readers who wish to be part of an independent Scotland must join the SNP to support it with their vote.

    1. Alan Crocket says:

      I don’t think we need fuss too much about what London will or won’t do. At the 2014 referendum, a time-scale of 2 years was envisaged if Yes won, to allow for a negotiated exit to be worked out. It would be simple to provide that Scotland would leave the Union within 2 years after a successful ‘de facto’ referendum, whether on terms negotiated with London or not.
      I don’t envisage that London would try to prevent Scottish independence after a successful vote, and I cannot imagine what possible justification they could put up for that course, given that the UK has no constitutional impediment to Scotland leaving the Union, and that London has always styled it a “union of consent”. If Scotland democratically votes to leave, it will be in London’s interest to negotiate the terms of an amicable split. It is rather for those who believe that London would attempt to block it to make their case, by which I mean something more substantial than the pitiful make-believe we usually get. London’s blocking of a referendum is entirely beside the point, because that is really no more than a devolution issue. To maintain that Scotland – of all places! – is just not allowed to leave, is frankly so bizarre, as to be out of bounds – completely, even for London.

      1. John Wood says:

        “it will be in London’s interest to negotiate the terms of an amicable split. … To maintain that Scotland – of all places! – is just not allowed to leave, is frankly so bizarre, as to be out of bounds – completely, even for London.” Well London has a very long history that would seem to say the opposite. London’s terms will never be amicable. They cannot even conceive of such a thing. They have no concept of what ‘amicable’ means.
        Their way is always violence, covert if possible but overt if necessary. The only terms they will accept will be ones that leave them in complete control. There might be some virtue signalling and false promises, but they always aim to take back control not give it away. Every British colony that gained political ‘independence’ soon found itself re-enslaved through debt. Ireland has been put though decades of horror. The idea that Scotland – of all places! – might actually be allowed to leave, is far more bizarre to them. London, or rather that self-appointed, so called king will do whatever it takes to hold onto Scotland. It’s only to be expected. Do we really doubt they would hesitate to create another Ukraine, another Yemen, another Palestine, another Ulster?
        I remain convinced that Scotland will become independent of London within the next few years, but I do advise learning from history. Never underestimate the British establishment, ‘perfidious Albion’.

    2. John Wood says:

      I am sorry, but the SNP now comes with too much baggage. A growing number of people in the highlands and islands feel utterly betrayed by the SNP. I and many other people want self determination for Scotland but we cannot vote for that party owing to its other policies and its failure to stand up to global corporate crime. Ditto for all the other major parties, including the Greens. We need an option that allows us to vote for independence without being seen to endorse the indefensible. It either needs to be a pledge by candidates of various parties on the matter of principle as I suggested previously, or a new party. I suggest a party that has one manifesto item: immediate independence and a further election to decide what sort of country we want. The two things are quite separate.

      1. Alan Crocket says:

        In the world as it actually exists, there is one, and only one, way for Scotland to go independent, and that is for it to be offered the option clearly, simply, directly and explicitly in a general election manifesto, and for a majority to vote for it.
        The only entity which can do that with sufficient weight is the SNP – however repugnant the party may be otherwise, on which we can all have our view. The minor Indy parties should be invited to the feast on their own terms, and all parties should do whatever is necessary for an agreed approach to maximise the the vote and the number of seats.
        Obstructing that course by prioritising any other issue which has come up betokens a lack of serious support for independence, precisely for that reason, that it would prevent Scotland from having a clear plebiscitary choice on independence by the only means possible.
        It would also be a failure to appreciate that independence is on a higher plane, politically, constitutionally, historically, economically, psychologically, culturally, or whatever. I would also suggest that Scotland might make a better stab at sorting out other issues after independence than now.

  8. 230720 says:

    Bottom line is that Snp needs to win majority support for secession (and disregard the will of any dissenting minority) to get its way. How does it propose to do either of these two things?

  9. Paddy Farrington says:

    Round and round we go in this pointless discussion. Until it is clear that the people of Scotland resolutely want independence, arguing among ourselves about process is just displacement activity. What we should be discussing is what political strategy will get us there, what new political alliances need to be forged, what common activities and struggles can help in this process, and how the still abstract notion of independence can be made directly relevant.

    1. Alan Crocket says:

      Properly speaking, there is no argument about process, because there is only one process open to Scotland for the people to declare their will on independence, namely a plebiscitary election, a Yes vote in which would mean independence either by agreement or over London’s head. The issue which the article seeks to address, is that the SNP, the only entity which can make the next election a plebiscite, currently looks as if it will not take that route. The Leader must change course or step aside, or hell mend the SNP and heaven help Scotland. That is not an idle discussion. The future of Scotland hangs on the outcome.
      That is not to deride the various matters you list, but those are all grist to the mill in the independence campaign, a campaign we are not going to have unless the SNP takes the right course.

  10. Duncan Sutherland says:

    If you wish to contemplate forcing the state to let Scotland become independent, it might be as well to bear in mind what happened when a united Independence movement attempted to make Catalonia independent despite the fact that the constitutional court of Spain had ruled that the Independence parties’ proposed democratic mechanism for achieving that was unconstitutional.

    Certainly, those who voted for Independence constituted a majority of those who cast their votes in the illegal procedure which the semi-autonomous Catalan government carried into effect in 2017 despite efforts of the Spanish government to disrupt it, but too many people abstained from voting for the result to be taken seriously by the international community, which unanimously declined to recognize the declaration of Independence which the Catalan parliament eventually voted through, after the moment of maximum popular support in the streets had passed.

    The ensuing general strike organized by the Catalan government achieved nothing, and then the state began an inexorable process of legal retribution, at least some of the highlights of which you may recall.

    The careerist leadership of the SNP is not going to risk getting caught up in anything like that. The leadership of the Catalan independence movement in 2017 was made of much sterner stuff, as was the leadership of Sinn Fein when it won most of the Irish seats in the UK general election of 1918, two years after the Easter Rising.

    Getting caught up in the machinery of the state is not for faint-hearted career politicians. They don’t do self-sacrifice.

    1. Alan Crocket says:

      Scotland and Catalonia have no lessons for each other.
      The Catalonian independence movement faces a constitutional barrier against the breakaway of any part of Spain. The language of that barrier in the Spanish constitution (to which Catalonia signed up in 1978) is brief and indistinct, but as far as I know it has never been challenged in a constitutional court. The Spanish constitution can only be amended by an overwhelming majority of the regions of Spain. Good luck to them, but they have an uphill struggle.
      Scotland’s position is entirely different. There is no constitutional barrier to Scotland leaving. The UK does not even have a supervening constitution at all, since any constitutional provision may be overturned by an ordinary majority vote at Westminster. London has always said Scotland can go if it wishes. The right of Scotland to resume its own sovereignty is unchallenged (except by the SNP – and some who entertain notions like “forcing the state to let Scotland become independent”). Scotland would have left years ago if its people had had the gumption to vote for it in 2014. There has always been open to Scotland an indubitably legal, proper and effective route to independence, namely to vote for it under the appropriate manifesto in any general election, if any party with a substantial weight of Scottish support cares to launch such a manifesto.
      The troubled Irish course of over a century ago has nothing to do with the Scotland of today.

      1. John Wood says:

        “The troubled Irish course of over a century ago has nothing to do with the Scotland of today.” I couldn’t disagree more. It has everything to do with the Scotland of today.
        We need political leaders who will stand up for us, at all levels, and refuse to be bullied without being provoked into violence. Where’s Gandhi when you need him?

      2. Derek Thomson says:

        “Scotland would have left years ago if its people had had the gumption to vote for it in 2014. ” Aye, and there’s the rub. We had our chance, and we blew it, to my eternal chagrin.

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