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Archives for May 2011

On the move

Brian Taylor | 12:46 UK time, Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Thank you for reading my blog.

It has now moved to a new home, with a fresh format.

Visit my new page to see all of my expert analysis in one place. You can follow me here.

Minimal swearing

Brian Taylor | 12:00 UK time, Thursday, 19 May 2011

And with a nod - or, more precisely, three nods - Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond becomes the first first minister with a full working majority.

At the Court of Session in Edinburgh this morning, Mr Salmond swore the relevant oaths which make him first minister of the Scottish executive and keeper of the Scottish Seal.

Actually, in keeping with Scottish legal custom, the swearing was minimalist.

The oaths were read by the Lord President, Lord Hamilton.

The first minister merely nodded in silent, contented acquiescence.

Immediately prior to that, Mr Salmond handed over the Royal Warrant appointing him to office.

It was signed by Her Majesty the Queen in Dublin where she is presently undertaking an historic visit to Ireland.

Historical notes

Simple but solemn, this ceremony finally marks Mr Salmond's accession to majority power in the parliament which will, as he purposes, feature a referendum on independence

Little historical notes on all sides.

Firstly, "Scottish executive". That remains the legal title, as set out in the Scotland Act 1998, and is thus used by the court.

However, the Scotland Bill, presently before Westminster, proposes to change that title to "Scottish government", admitting into law the nomenclature already used in practice.

The newly reconfirmed FM, of course, has a list of other proposed changes to that bill: a list which grows, incrementally, as he steps up the pressure upon the UK government, partly in preparation for the referendum.

Then the Seal. It is the post-Union descendant of the Great Seal of Scotland, the symbol of monarchical authority.

Distinctive status

In the Act of Union (Clause 24 for the enthusiast), it is provided that "from and after the Union, there be One Great Seal for the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which shall be different from the Great Seal now used in either Kingdom." (In the interim, the Great Seal of England was to be used.)

It is provided further that "a Seal in Scotland after the Union be alwayes kept and made use of in all things relating to private Rights or Grants, which have usually passed the Great Seal of Scotland and which only concern Offices, Grants, Commissions, and private Rights within that Kingdom."

It is, in effect, a devolved Seal: subordinate in nature and yet reflecting the distinctive status of Scotland within the union.

The reconfirmed keeper will no doubt conduct those duties assiduously - while, equally eagerly, seeking to alter the constitutional status of Scotland.

Salmond's day

Brian Taylor | 13:13 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Excellent speeches in Holyrood today - and not just from the newly installed first minister.

Worthy contributions from each of the leading opposition figures: those who are departing from office (like Annabel Goldie); those who are staying (like Patrick Harvie); those who have just arrived (Willie Rennie); and those who are welcome, permanent figures (Margo MacDonald.)

In particular, I might commend Iain Gray's contribution: a dignified concession of victory allied to a pledge of constructive opposition.

Patrick Harvie, too, essayed an analysis of the nature of opposition politics in a majority parliament.

But the day definitely and rightly belonged to Alex Salmond.

No rival nominee, no doubt about the outcome - but matched with a thoughtful, polished contribution, free from bombast and hubris.

He opened by offering words of praise to his defeated rivals.

Nations 'inter-dependent'

Mr Gray struggled somewhat to maintain an even demeanour as Mr Salmond reflected that leaders frequently had to learn to cope with disaster before triumph beckoned.

He closed by quoting Fletcher of Saltoun, the Patriot, who had opposed the Union in 1707.

All nations, he argued, were inter-dependent - but that should not mean subjugation.

It was an evident attempt to address the controversy over the scope of independence by returning to first - one might even say "fundamental" - principles on the issue of independence.

But that, as Mr Salmond has decreed, is primarily for a subsequent referendum although it is, of course, entirely legitimate to discuss it now, in detail.

Between those two sections of his speech, Mr Salmond added to his list of demands for enhancing the Scotland Bill, presently before Westminster.

The strategy would appear to be to turn up the heat - slowly, steadily - upon the UK Government in the expectation that any wide-ranging refusal from UK Ministers might appear unreasonable in public eyes.

To amplify that prospect, Mr Salmond is quite deliberately choosing issues for devolution which have been contemplated in the past by parties other than his own or addressed in some form by those parties.

Financial devolution

For example, Labour complained that efforts to tackle drinking problems in Scotland would be better pursued via amending alcohol duty - which is reserved to Westminster.

Simple, says the re-elected FM: devolve duty.

More broadly, he cites Liberal Democrat support for enhanced fiscal powers, beyond Calman, as evidence of a broad push for financial devolution.

On broadcasting, he says that devolving control would allow the Scottish government to pursue the issue of a distinct digital channel in Scotland, backed across the chamber in the previous parliament.

The instant response from the UK government is notably cool.

These matters will be considered - but would require to be backed up by "solid evidence and detailed assessment".

I believe Mr Salmond and his colleagues are calculating that demanding wholesale transfer of powers now would backfire - while seemingly modest requests place the onus upon the UK government.

Seeking balance

Refusal might seem unreasonable in the public eye: the calculation being that obdurate opposition might stir support for eventual independence.

This leaves Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and his UK colleagues seeking a balance.

What can they concede without disturbing the balance of powers in the Union?

What can they withhold without seeming unnecessarily stubborn - and thus jeopardising that Union still further?

The newly reinstalled FM is content, for now, to leave them with that dilemma.

Alternative prospectus

Brian Taylor | 18:39 UK time, Thursday, 12 May 2011

Here's a thought anent the proposed referendum on Scottish independence. Not when it might take place, but what it might comprise.

Scottish Parliamentary powers were on the agenda this afternoon for a meeting between Alex Salmond, soon to be the returned first minister, and Michael Moore, the Scottish secretary.

But behind it all now lies the deliverable promise by the re-elected Scottish government to hold a referendum within the five year lifetime of the new parliament.

That meeting first. Mr Salmond emphasised that he wanted the present Scotland Bill to be enhanced.

Specifically, he wants earlier and bigger borrowing powers; control of Crown Estate revenues in Scotland; and devolution of corporation tax.

Mr Moore wants further and better particulars before his government decides.

But, in summary, he is interested in speeding up borrowing powers; potentially interested in elements of the Crown Estate pitch; and pretty sceptical about the corporation tax ask, despite the fact that it is being considered for Northern Ireland.

In essence, Mr Salmond argued that such concessions were effectively mandated by the Holyrood election result.

Which brings us back to the referendum. You might suppose it would be a straight yea or nay to independence.

Ain't necessarily so. Certainly, the Scottish government outlined such a prospect in its original White Paper on the topic in August 2007.

Then it was envisaged that the wording would be Yes or No to the proposition "that the Scottish government should negotiate a settlement with the government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state."

There might then be a further argument as to whether there should be a subsequent referendum on the outcome of any such negotiations, should Scotland give the go-ahead to the talks.

Mr Salmond says that would not be required. Others dissent.

But there is an alternative prospectus. In the White Paper of February 2010, the Scottish government outlined a multi-option plebiscite.

In the wording used at the time, Scots would be asked whether or not they agreed that "the Scottish Parliament should have its financial powers and responsibilities extended as recommended by the Commission on Scottish Devolution."

There would then be a second question, examing the following statement: "The Scottish government proposes that, in addition to the extension of the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament set out in Proposal 1, the parliament's powers should also be extended to enable independence to be achieved."

Now, the Calman package is presently incorporated in the Scotland Bill - which Mr Salmond is seeking to enhance.

It would not seem feasible that this would feature as an option in a referendum in three years time.

But Mr Salmond is of the view that full fiscal powers - perhaps building on the Liberal Democrats' Steel Commission - would require a referendum before implementation.

Is it in prospect, then, that the planned referendum might incorporate both fiscal autonomy and full independence as options?

The upside for the SNP? If people are not ready for independence, even in three years time, then perhaps they might be persuaded to vote for fiscal autonomy as some form of fallback - when they might be more reluctant if it were presented straightforwardly as a single choice.

A job of many parts

Brian Taylor | 18:04 UK time, Wednesday, 11 May 2011

She will be, she says, very much her own woman.

Tricia Marwick, that is - the new presiding officer in Scotland's Parliament.

From me, the very warmest congratulations to the new PO.

She has been a hard-working, dedicated player in Holyrood from the very earliest days - as a list, then constituency MSP, as a committee convener and as a parliamentarian.

She now ascends to an exceptionally challenging job.

Part diplomat, part referee, part boss, part servant of the public, part politician, part social host, part constitutional lawyer.

The PO does much more than hose down excitable MSPs during questions to the First Minister.

She has to ensure the smooth running of parliament - and rule upon whether proposed legislation exceeds devolved powers.

She has to represent Holyrood - and Scotland - to the world: including to the other Holyrood, the palace.

Adding to these challenges, another one was immediately thrust in Tricia Marwick's direction this afternoon. Will she be even-handed?

She has been a forceful advocate for the SNP's cause both inside and outwith Holyrood.

Now she stands down from her party - and has to adjudicate upon MSPs from all strands of opinion.

No problem, she says. She has already carried out such work in parliament's cross-party bodies. She will bring strict neutrality to her new task.

Labour is not directly contesting that - but rather questioning whether the outcome sits comfortably with Alex Salmond's assertion that he intends to involve all sides of the political divide at Holyrood, with his statement that he has a majority - not a monopoly of wisdom.

Nationalists note three points. That this election was a free vote, not whipped.

That David Steel was PO in the first parliament, while his party was in government.

And that Tricia Marwick has a strong record in promoting the interests of parliament, not government.

The new PO told me she will very much stand up for the rights of backbenchers and parliament as a whole.

She also has one more ambition: to engender better behaviour at Holyrood.

Loadsaluck with that one.

Moving on

Brian Taylor | 13:59 UK time, Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Garden Lobby, Holyrood, Tuesday: warm handshakes, air kissing, chat, gossip. It's as if they've never been away.

Except that rather a lot has changed in the interim - prompting a few puzzled glances from the wicked media, mustered as ever to glean information.

Now, hold on. Is that a new Labour list MSP?

If it is, are congratulations in order for individual success - or commiserations for collective failure? Bit of both?

Three topics under discussion. Firstly, genuine, cross-party sadness at the death of David Cairns MP.

He was a man of wit, dignity, intellect and integrity - as evidenced by his principled resignation from government and so much more.

My sympathies to his family.

As more than one said to me, such an event contextualises all else. Memento mori.

Before that sad news broke, the chat in the lobby was about a couple of other topics: the election (aftermath) and the election (Presiding Officer).

Election mandate

PO first. Would it be seen as too domineering if the post went to an SNP member, given that they have an overall majority?

No, say Nationalists. They recollect that David Steel was the PO in the first Parliament when his Liberal Democrat party were in coalition.

But doesn't the overall majority change things? (An inquiry, I stress, not an argument.)
One or two Nationalists I spoke to said they could see a bit of a point there - but not enough to make them vote for one of the names in the frame from a rival party, such as Hugh Henry.

They noted, with approbation, that Mr Henry had issued a statement indicating that Alex Salmond was entitled, given his mandate, to choose the timing of his proposed referendum on independence.

However, they also recollected instances of hyper-partisan comments from the said Hugh Henry which tended to turn them in a different direction.

To stress, this is not a group decision, not a matter for a whip. As witness, there are two SNP candidates in the picture already, Tricia Marwick and Christine Grahame. I encountered supporters of both.

The vote tomorrow is iterative: that is, it is repeated with the lowest-ranked candidate dropping out at each ballot until a 50% vote is obtained.

Diminished band

Designed to ensure wide-ranging support for the winner. Bit like that, you know, AV thingy which attracted such resounding enthusiasm last week.

The other topic, of course, is the election. Umpteen opinions, of course. I found the views of Labour MSPs, that diminished band, the most intriguing.

They had caught up with my sundry musings on the topic, on aspiration et alia.

Nothing I could say, one assured me, was as blunt as the comments being delivered internally.

A commonly expressed view was that Labour lost the 2011 election in 2007 - by failing to grasp that defeat then was real and meaningful, not a freak to be overturned by one more heave.

Equally, there was disquiet at the negative tone of the campaign.

One noted the argument that devolution came into its own "now that the Tories are back."

'Impending doom'

Wrong, said my interlocutor. Labour was supposed to be pro-devolution in all circumstances, not just political adversity at Westminster.

Plus there was grumbling about the anti-independence turn.

Too negative, too easily deflected by promises of a referendum, too little relevance to immediate concerns.

One told me that last-minute leaflets from HQ, warning of impending doom, had been neatly filed in the nearest bin.

Blog Wall Monday

Brian Taylor | 14:05 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

There are several fine poems and literary quotations inscribed on the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament: droll, emotive, sensitive, serious.

Myself, I like the extract from Scott's Heart of Midlothian, I love the lines from the Jute Mill Song and I warm to the exhortation by Burns to see ourselves as ithers see us, is highly apposite.

But how about this one, from Hugh MacDiarmid. In customary contentious fashion, he demands of the world: "Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?"

In that challenge, I think, lies at least part of the explanation for the SNP's success and Labour's failure.

The SNP contrived to sound aspirational throughout the campaign, whether it was Alex Salmond's eager passion for renewable energy or the stress upon the value of the arts and science in revitalising Scotland.

By contrast, Labour had something of a tendency to sound slightly thrawn. By no means all of the time. By no means every candidate.

But, on occasion, they could end up sounding a little like soor-faced Roundheads - while Scotland seemed to be yearning for cavalier enthusiasm to dispel the pervasive gloom.

Labour sounded sometimes as if they sought to contain and constrain, as if they sought, unwittingly, to return to centralised control, to council housing and the Co-op divvy.

A simplistic caricature, I know. But Labour simply did not sound uniformly aspirational. The SNP, predominantly, did.

Labour will dispute this, probably sharply. But look at their two key messages in the campaign: "now that the Tories are back" and anti-independence.

Aspirational approach

Both, Labour would argue, had positive aspects: Labour's offer to counter cuts, Labour's alternative to the SNP agenda. But both were founded, at core, upon engendering a sense of fear.

As I noted throughout the campaign, the opening shot re the Tories posited the existence of an external evil, with Labour offering themselves as the exorcist.

Even if voters bought that concept, they opted in huge numbers for the SNP as their defenders of choice.

Then the anti-independence campaign. Nationalists insist its potency has long since declined but, just to be sure, they neutralised it by stressing that the choice would be made at a subsequent referendum.

They now intend to keep to their campaign promise that this issue will not be addressed until the latter half of the Parliament. Again, that was part of the strategy - to focus primarily upon the voters' concerns, rather than those of the party.

There was, of course, much more to the SNP victory. A better campaign. Sophisticated canvassing, directed by the SNP's hugely esteemed Peter Murrell. Alex Salmond v Iain Gray. And, yes, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote to the SNP.

No great surprise that the LibDem vote slipped in Scotland, post UK coalition.
But it did not have to go to the SNP. That took endeavour, calculation and strategy. Nationalists took care not to excoriate the LibDems over much - or, more precisely, their voters.

The SNP endorsed AV - partly because they calculated that would win LibDem favours. Still, though, I believe the difference in tone, the SNP emphasis upon aspirational Scotland had an impact.

And, be clear, that aspirational approach did not attach itself solely to independence although that is, of course, the mid term vision. It resonated through SNP policies from jobs to education.

Let me close with another poem. It was read magnificently by Liz Lochhead at the opening of the Holyrood building. But it is the work of the late, great Edwin Morgan.
Speculating on the wishes of the people of Scotland, he declared: "A nest of fearties is what they do not want." Astute, as ever, astute.

Shout of joy for SNP

Brian Taylor | 14:12 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

On the occasion of his first victory, Alex Salmond declared: "I heard a rumour. I think we won the election."

No single seat victory this time. No murmured rumour, even expressed ironically.

This is a yell, a holler.

For the SNP, a shout of joy.

For Labour and others, a shriek of pain.

This is a magnificent victory for the SNP: Scotland-wide, deep and embedded.

The Borders, Caithness, the whole of the North-east. Glasgow Shettleston. Everywhere.

The reasons? A concatenation of circumstances which, combined, have given the SNP the most convincing and stunning victory in their history.

Firstly, the SNP and Alex Salmond fought a good campaign. Focused, planned, sustained, based upon record, team and vision - as they promised.

Secondly, voters preferred Mr Salmond to Labour's Iain Gray. It is futile Labour complaining that the SNP featured Mr Salmond's name as a subsidiary element on the list ballot paper.

Had Labour chosen, they could have advanced Iain Gray in the same fashion. Head to head, folk opted for Alex Salmond by a mile.

Thirdly, there was a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote in particular, driven by distrust of their role in the UK coalition.

But that vanishing vote had to be garnered. The SNP succeeded. Labour failed.

Fourthly, there was a decline in the Tory vote. But Labour could not contrive to make sufficient headway from that to counter their catastophic failings elsewhere.

Fifthly, Labour's strategy was misplaced.

It was perhaps summed up by the speech delivered by Ed Miliband to the Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow at the outset of the campaign.

Yes, Mr Miliband talked about the SNP. But his prime focus was to assure his colleagues that they were about to take the first step (by winning in Scotland) towards victory for Labour (and, thus, E. Miliband) at the next UK general election.

That was wrong on two counts.

One, it talked about party prospects, not popular concerns.

Two, it over-emphasised the subsidiary nature of the contest.

Folk in Scotland understand devolution. They get the concept. But they believed that they were voting in a parliamentary election - a Scottish Parliamentary election. Not a rehearsal, not a dry run.

In similar vein, Labour's opening strategy misfired. "Now that the Tories are back.." was the totemic line.

From that, Scots were invited to infer that only Labour could defend them from this externalised evil, as posited by Iain Gray.

But, even if Scots entirely bought that rhetoric, they looked around and concluded that, just perhaps, the Scottish National Party could be trusted to stand up for Scottish interests.

The more Labour reminded people that the main Unionist party was back in Westminster power, the more folk in Scotland appeared to calculate that they could counter that by voting for the SNP.

In the latter stage of the campaign, Mr Gray modified that to lay a greater stress on attacking independence directly.

Different problem, same outcome. Voters were not sufficiently frightened, if at all, by these tactics.

Final thought. To amend a phrase from the Scotland Act, "there shall be a Scottish referendum". It will happen during the forthcoming parliament - still towards the second half, according to the all-potent SNP.

Will people say "I like that" - as Donald Dewar did of devolution? Maybe. Today does not tell us definitively.

People were voting for a government. A government whose record they found acceptable.

They were not voting directly for independence. Mr Salmond openly acknowledges that.

But a referendum there will be.

I can just hear Alex Salmond now.

They told us, he will say, there would never be a Scottish Parliament.

Then never an SNP Government.

Then never an SNP majority.

Now they will tell us, he will add, that Scots will never vote for independence.

Perhaps, perhaps. That referendum campaign has yet to be called, let alone decided.

But right now Mr Salmond is entitled - fully entitled - to bask in the delight of a simply stunning victory.

Feeling the impact

Brian Taylor | 00:25 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011


Impact from the results obviously most clearly felt at Holyrood. But there will be pressures elsewhere too.

Firstly, the impetus towards an independence referendum will be significantly enhanced.

Secondly - and probably more immediately - there will be pressure for greater powers within the Scotland Bill, presently before Westminster.


First things first.

Warm congratulations to James Kelly for his election as the MSP for the redrawn Rutherglen seat.

But the story it tells for Scotland is intriguing.

Collapse in the LibDem vote - and it seems to have gone to the SNP, rather than Labour. Tories manage to hold on.

If, if, that is repeated across Scotland, then the SNP are back in power, big style.


A succession of Labour politicians - most recently deputy Holyrood leader Johann Lamont - disputing strongly that their campaign was misplaced.

They opened by targeting the UK Tory cuts - deploying the phrase "now that the Tories are back".

But they are insisting that was a legitimate context for the Holyrood elections - even though their main rival was the SNP.


Early word from the counts.

Turnout may have been depressed by the weather. But the broadest smiles so far seem to be on the faces of the SNP candidates.

No results yet, of course - but the expectation on all sides seems to be an SNP victory.

On our BBC panel, Mike Russell says that the SNP are on course for their largest share of the vote in a Holyrood election.

Labour's Douglas Alexander says his party has fought well and their vote is holding up: His forecast is that the LibDem vote will slide rapidly.

Could that mean a clean sweep for the SNP in Aberdeen - Donside, Central and South?

Final campaign mission

Brian Taylor | 15:25 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Polls and party intelligence both suggest that the SNP maintains a lead as we approach polling day in the Holyrood elections.

There is, of course, contention about the extent of that lead - and still greater contention about whether any such lead can be overturned.

Few, if any, believe that the gap is as wide as represented in the STV poll, broadcast last night in tandem with their debate.

But the general view is that the Nationalists have contrived to turn round a Labour advantage since the outset of the campaign.

The Tory response to this apparent eventuality has been to posit the likely return of Alex Salmond as FM - and their leader, Annabel Goldie, as his resident chaperone.

In the final days of the campaign, they have modified this somewhat to encompass more of a "plague on both your houses" message: arguing that they would counter "both Nationalism and Socialism" at Holyrood.

Perhaps they felt the original line was a little too concessionary towards the SNP. Perhaps they felt they needed to stress their Conservative roots as well as their Unionist ones.

Intriguingly, the Liberal Democrats have taken of late to mirroring the Labour argument: to the effect that the SNP in office would jeopardise economic recovery by their focus upon an independence referendum.

Nationalists acknowledge that the independence issue has been raised with them a mite more frequently - by those with potential concerns - since Labour began to focus upon it at the start of last week.

But they insist they counter this with the referendum, stressing that the issue of independence is not settled at this election but only determined by a subsequent plebiscite: one that the SNP would not seek to call early in the next parliament.

In short, they argue, folk are not frightened by the association of the SNP with independence - or they can be assuaged.

They point further to the newspaper advertisement listing endorsements from business folk. Not, they freely acknowledge, backing independence: rather backing the economic competence of the SNP ministerial team and their leader.

Labour strategists insist that they are doing better on the ground than the nationwide polls suggest. They liken the response more to 2010 than 2007.

They say their constant focus upon jobs is matching the prevailing mood.

One concern they acknowledge features seats where there is a pre-existing LibDem vote. If that drifts, will it disperse to other parties evenly - or mainly shift to the SNP?

Answers after tomorrow.

Time to talk bins

Brian Taylor | 11:30 UK time, Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The air war will, of course, continue right up to polling day.

Before voting on Thursday, the final messages will be refined, delivered and broadcast.

But alongside all that is the ground war: always critical, these days far more sophisticated.

Among many intriguing items on GMS this morning, I caught the report from the Stirling constituency which featured vox pops highlighting the concerns of individual voters.
Did you hear it? Well worth a listen. Folk were worried about familiar themes: jobs, the state of their city, public services.

But those concerns were tailored. An elderly woman reflected on what she perceived as a general decline in the condition of the place she lived.

A parent voiced concern about school provision. A man from rural Stirlingshire urged attention upon.....rural Stirlingshire.

Which proves a point. Down the years, I have watched umpteen eager politicians who are desperate to put their issue/obsession over to the voters.

Flow of votes

They are frequently disappointed - occasionally irritable - when the voters want to talk about something else. Those politicians, needless to say, scarcely win, unless they amend their style.

Which is where the air war and ground war coincide. Parties hope that their range of messages will get through, somehow, in the weeks, months and years prior to a contest.

On the doorstep, they have to tailor those directly to the concerns raised by folk.
You must go with the flow of the voters.

If they are worried about the refuse collection, there is little point in delivering a panegyric on the merits of European integration. Better start talking bins.

As I have discussed previously, sophisticated canvassing now involves producing a mosaic picture of a constituency: who is worried about what, who needs reassurance on a particular point. Suitable leaflets / visits will duly follow.

By now, of course, it's largely down to core messages - and to getting the vote out on the day.

Positive or negative

All the parties are fully aware of two points re polls. One, they may be wrong. Two, they may not translate into a uniform picture on the ground.

Of course, if the swing is in, then it will have an impact, positive or negative. But, if that swing is limited, it can be countered by local constituency effort: targeted canvassing, lifts to the polls.

Of course, parties also want to ensure that any swing in their favour is reflected in both the constituency and regional list options. Hence the renewed stress on all sides on both votes.

Fascinating stuff.

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