A Parcel of Rogues

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It’s Sunday after the vote and I’m sitting in a park in Edinburgh, killing time.  I had intended to stay in Scotland another week to do more interviews about what’s next but now, with a 10 point spread on a No vote, I find myself too brokenhearted to continue.  Especially since Maia left for California this morning and I am once again traveling alone.  I’ve re-booked my flight but unfortunately the first available seat does not leave until Monday.  I shout out on Twitter and Facebook that I am here for another day and would like to talk about what’s next.  A few people re-tweet the message, but no one local replies.  They’re busy picking up the pieces and mourning.  I understand.

In all, just a bit over 1.6 million people voted to leave the United Kingdom on a platform of nuclear disarmament, universal healthcare, increased social programs, investment in renewable energy, and a peaceful foreign policy based on cooperation.  That’s no small achievement and in an election with normal turnout would have been enough to win it.  16 and 17 years olds voted yes by a margin of 71% to 29%.  College age young people narrowly voted no (largely due to the huge number of students from England and EU students who were told by Better Together that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU and they’d have to return home).  Every other age demographic between 24 and 54 voted Yes – albeit mostly by relatively slim margins.  What sank it was that 73% of people over 65 voted no and Scotland has more than its share of pensioners.  For some of them the issue was undoubtedly a lingering sense of British nationalism (this is the last age demographic to have been raised during the days of the British Empire) or a reliance on an overtly Anglo-centric corporate media whose bias has been well documented.  For most of them, however, the issue seems to have been Pensions.  Specifically, the Better Together campaign lied to them and told them their pensions would be forfeit in an independent Scotland and even put up billboards to that effect all over the country.  This despite the fact that the UK Treasury had said that there was no risk to pensions and the fact that over 142 countries have left the British Empire in the last 80 years and pensions were not affected in any of them.

Even so, if the Yes campaign had won by larger margins in other age demographics they could have overcome the split.  The key issues seem to have been:

– A lack of focus on the Business case for independence.  The trouble with democratic grassroots movements is that they reflects the hopes and passions of activists, which are not necessarily the hopes and passions of the population at large.  There was a very strong case to be made that Scottish businesses from oil, fishing, and whiskey to technology and engineering would have flourished in an independent Scotland. With a direct seat at the EU table Scotland could have better negotiated for her key industries instead of having them used as bargaining chips by Westminster to protect the London financial centers.  But, while the general shape of it was there – notably in the “Wee Blue Book” produced by Wings Over Scotland – this case was never a core part of the Yes campaign because the activists whose passion drove the campaign were more interested in social justice and abolishing nuclear weapons.  For many (including myself) those were the biggest issues for the campaign, but Edinburgh went 60% no and it’s not a coincidence that this city is Scotland’s financial hub.  It didn’t have to go that way.

– The overtly Leftist nature of the campaign also alienated conservatives who might have voted Yes.  Campaign posters proclaiming “End Tory Rule Forever” were very motivating in working class areas but for the conservative voters who make up almost 40% of Scottish politics they were strong motivation to get to the polls and vote No.  Building a left-right coalition is difficult but has been a fundamental feature of every successful independence movement I can think of.  That doesn’t mean promoting Tory policies but it does mean talking to conservative voters about the values they share with independence campaigners.  My conversations with the few more conservative folks I met who were involved in the campaign are instructive – framing the issue as Scotland taking responsibility for itself and allowing the Scottish people to stand on their own feet might well have resonated.

– The BBC’s overt and unrelenting bias. The corporate media was awful too, but that’s expected. The BBC is actually state-funded and is legally required to maintain neutrality. Their behavior was therefore illegal as well as unethical.

Further, BBC and Corporate commenter collaborated with the No campaign in an overt effort to demonize Alex Salmond and present the referendum as being about him and not about Scottish independence. The claim that Salmond is a power mad bully who wants to be “king of Scotland” was repeated ad nauseum. Now I’m no fan of politicians, but there were no political parties or politicians on the ballot.

They also spread all sorts of misinformation about Scotland’s finances claiming that they are subsidized by England (in fact Scotland receives a bit more per head than England but pays even more back into the national treasury) and leading Better together campaigners claimed that Scottish Independence would “embolden the forces of darkness,” encourage terrorism, make Scotland vulnerable to invasion from Space aliens (I couldn’t make this stuff up) and that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU. Never mind that Scotland has 1/3 of Europe’s oil reserves and the odds of Germany or France letting them be ejected from the EU are about even with the odds of aforementioned alien invasion.  Every ridiculous scare tactic you can think of was tried.

Part of this is a result of a corporate media looking after the interests of the wealthy.  The other part though is the fact that UK media is incredibly anglo-centric, and even though the Yes campaigners would never say this, it’s glaringly obvious as an outsider.  On the first episode of this season of Dr. Who the Doctor is – for the first time ever – given a human nationality and proclaims upon realizing that he’s Scottish that it’s great because he gets to complain more and blame the English for everything.  Or look at the English Sky News reporter who, the day before the referendum, broke down and started shouting at a Yes campaigner that he’s just an ignorant knob driven by anti-English racism even though he’d said nothing that would give a reasonable person that impression.  England simply couldn’t understand that this referendum wasn’t about them and took it as a very personal insult that the Scots would want to govern themselves.  That sense of offended incredulity and condescension permeated virtually all of the mass media, almost all of which is based in England.

In point of fact not one person I interviewed on the Yes side had even the slightest bit of anti-English feeling and the English people I spoke to who support independence were emphatic that there was not the slightest hint of ethnic nationalism in the movement.  Even with the vast majority of English people in Scotland voting No, the Yes people refused to frame the issue in ethnic terms and appraoched English people as friends and neighbors to be won over.

As a concrete example of this media bias, on the night after the vote, a group of far-right brittish nationalists including Orange Order members and neo nazis rioted in Glasgow to celebrate their victory by throwing flares, charging police lines, burning Scottish flags, attacking anyone who had Yes buttons or stickers, and attempting to set fire to the offices of the Sunday Herald – one of the few papers actually based in Scotland and the only one to actively back independence.  The BBC headline was about “clashes between Unionists and Yes voters,” even though the entire article was about violence by people who had supported the No campaign.  That’s an overt editorial decision and an overt display of bias in defiance of facts.  Ironically, the London guardian, a progressive weekly, did a far better job.  In response, Yes campaigners launched a campaign for people to refuse to pay the license fees that support the BBC.

– A lingering sense of inferiority that is the universal legacy of nations that have been conquered and colonized.  Several of the people I spoke to talked about how Scots had been told over and over again that they are not smart or strong or wealthy enough to govern themselves.  One of the Labour MP’s who campaigned against independence even said that the “Scots aren’t genetically programmed to make big decisions for themselves.”  Despite such overt displays of racism on the No side the mass media continued to insist that wanting independence must be driven by racism against the English, a complete inversion of reality.

– Promises of devolution and home-rule within the UK.  As before, UK politicians promised extensive new powers to Scotland if they would only abandon all this crazy talk of governing themselves.  These promises were mostly nonspecific and Labour / Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition that fought Scottish independence has already backtracked on key promises and missed the first several deadlines on their promised timetable.  Before Salmond resigned, he called Gordon Brown (the UK Prime Minister) to ask about the timetable on the promised devolution.  Brown told him those promises were “meaningless.”  The national UK media has already tried to switch the narrative to a conversation about home-rule for England and Brown has said that there will be no devolution for Scotland without matching home rule for England, which makes devolution a poison pill for Labour that they will be forced to try and block since England is more conservative and losing the voice of Scottish Labour MP’s in Westminster on English matters will dramatically weaken their party.  In short, very little if anything will actually be delivered from the “solemn vow” made by the heads of all three UK parties.  Americans will not be surprised to find out that politicians lie, but apparently many Scots were. The good news is that this betrayal will hopefully make people less likely to fall for such promises if and when the next vote comes around.

I do not have answers on how to address these issues and as a Californian it’s not my place to try even if I did.  But they will need to be answered if Scotland is to ever win independence.

The good news is that the incredible movement of movements that came together around the Yes campaign is not going anywhere.  In the days since the election thousands of people have registered as members of the Greens, Scottish Socialists, and SNP and the pro-independence organizations within the Labour party that defied their leadership are seriously considering breaking away from the national Labour party and striking out on their own.  The non-party grassroots organizations are also steeling themselves for the next fight, the hashtag #the45 (for the 45% of voters who voted Yes) has already gained currency on twitter.

As I said before, the bad guys almost always win.  What matters is that we keep working for freedom.  So, while I’m deeply disappointed in the results, I’m glad that people have not given up.

As for the scoundrels that used fear and misinformation to intimidate pensioners and sink independence (for now),  I suspect that future generations will look back on them with the same scorn that Robert Burns heaped on the traitors who took bribes from the English to dissolve the original Scottish Parliament and merge Scotland into the UK in the first place.  “A parcel of rogues in a nation” was how he described them then.  It still seems fitting to me.

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It all comes down to this

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Last nights drive back to Edinburgh from the Highlands was gorgeous.  North of Perth we put on the radio and Dido’s “Thank You” came on and we both sang along.  It was magical.

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We stopped in Perth for dinner at a nice restaurant and, while Maia was away from the table I handed the waitress a ring and asked her to bring it with dessert.  When it arrived, I barely had time to get down on one knee before she had said yes and was in my arms.  So that’s a solid Yes vote on the referendum closest to my heart.

Back in Edinburgh, we first went down to Hollyrood (the Scottish Parliament) to see the crowds young people gathered outside and singing

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After an hour or so we are so tired that we can barely stand and, since the final results won’t be announced until 6am, decide to get some sleep.

We wake up at 5 to the screeching of the alarm on my phone and check the news to see the vote tally’s so far.  Glasgow has gone to Yes along with Dundee, but not by the margins needed.  Meanwhile, No has taken all the conservative regions and many of the contested areas.  The final vote counts are 55% no 45% yes.  Total voter turnout was 86% out of the 97% who were registered.  The big breakaway groups for No were, as expected, old people who had been lied to and told their pensions were in danger and people born in England.   There were many English people living in Scotland who voted yes – I’ve interviewed several of them – but not enough. The good news is over 70% of young people voted yes, but with so many English retirees living in Scotland it just wasn’t enough to swing it. Still, mortality being what it is, the longer term demographics for next time are promising. If there is a next time.

After a quick breakfast, we head back over to the Leith Yes office, the campaign is in spin down mode and they’ve posted in Facebook that they’re mobilizing crews of volunteers to go around town and take down all the Yes posters and generally clean up.  When we get there though no one answers the buzzer, maybe out working or maybe they just can’t face it today. I don’t blame them.

The no vote was by a wide enough margin that there’s no chance of another referendum for another generation but with 45% of Scotland saying at the polls that they are so disgusted with business as usual in the UK that they want to leave, it will be hard for the 3 big national parties to backpedal on their promises of greater devolution of powers to the regions – even though 60+ Tory MP’s have already said that Cameron didn’t have authority to promise greater autonomy to Scotland without consulting Parliament and they intend to fight any efforts toward further decentralization.

If Devolution does happen, it will have to include an English Parliament and more power for the regions of England as well, which is a good thing anyway.   Hopefully the Yes campaigners can build bridges to their counterparts in England and form an alliance to win more local democracy. It’s a far far cry from the self determination and radical change that the Yes campaign had hoped to achieve, but it would be at least a small victory.

Still, the sense of missed opportunity and disappointment is palpable on social media. When we read the results this morning the lady and I both cried a bit and hugged each other before letting exhaustion overtake us and falling back asleep.  We have only been here a few days and, though we’re both tied to this place by heritage, our roots are back in California.  For the brave men and women who’ve come out and campaigned hard for this every day for months like 17 year old Emerald in Inverness or Brian in Arbroath who’s devoted his life to this cause for over 50 years; the loss must be devastating.  All over twitter and facebook I see posts from Yes campaigners describing themselves as “gutted”, “eviscerated”, ” heartbroken”, and similar.

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On the street there is no celebration, just business as usual. It is a gray morning in Scotland and I see very few smiles on the street.  Looking over at Maia though I can’t help grinning like an idiot.  Life is full of disappointments, but the good times make it worthwhile.  As I said to one of my new friends on twitter last night, the bad guys almost always win, but the struggle for freedom is worthwhile on its own merits and the bonds forged along the way make it all worthwhile.

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Into the Highlands

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Sunrise came far too early and it’s off again. Today I am 34 years old and Scotland has a real chance at independence for the first time in over 300 years. My phone chimes repeatedly when I turn it on with birthday wishes from friends, coworkers, and clients. Today feels like a good day.

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After about an hour and a half of driving we arrive in Elgen, the road sign count has shifted back strongly in favor of Yes and we see a fair number of stickers and a few big flags as well. There doesn’t seem to be an actual Yes office in town, though there have apparently been a good number of events and the day is getting on by the time we get breakfast in our bellies so we decide to head on to Inverness (dubbed InverYESs by local activists).

We’re deep in the highlands now and there are no longer any No posters or signs anywhere in sight and big home-made Yes signs appear regularly.

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We make a stop along the way at the site of the Battle of Culloden, where my mothers Clan (The Ritchie’s) were almost wiped out holding the center of the Jacobite line. Culloden and the Jacobite’s conjure decidedly mixed feelings for me. On the one hand Prince Charles wanted absolute monarchy and was, in historical terms, little more than a pawn of the French whose army was financed with money from the French slave trade. But the Ritchie’s and others joined him out of the belief that he would restore the Scottish Parliament and give them back home rule – and because he promised religious tolerance.
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History is full of good people betrayed by their leaders and walking the battlefield I find myself in tears. I gather a few wildflowers and press them into a notebook to take home. To be here, today, gathering flowers on the day Scotland gets to finally vote on the act of union these men died to undo seems entirely appropriate.

Driving into Inverness, the streetlight poles are almost all decorated with Yes posters, though a fair few have No posters too.

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The drive to the local Yes shop takes about 15 minutes and we pass a polling station on the way.

We also pass the first private residence flying a Union Jack that I’ve seen this entire trip.

The Yes shop is, ironically, located on Union street, a pedestrian-only boulevard festooned with Scottish flags and posters. Inside there’s a big crowd of excited people – some locals, some tourists (Inverness is right on the shore of Loch Ness), and lots of activists. I first talk to John and Sheena, both of whom are retired. Sheena is thrilled and nervous and excited all at once at the voter turnout today and the real possibility of a victory. For her, as with many others, it all comes down to self determination and the ability for the Scottish people to take charge of their country and build a better future for her children and grandchildren. She quotes Winnie Ewing, the woman who was the SNP’s first elected official, on the announcement of her election “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”
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John is dressed in a kilt (the first Yes campaigner I’ve seen in a kilt) but speaks with an English accent – the result of being sent off to boarding school in England as a kid and raised there while his father served in the RAF. He’s a former BBC presenter and speaks passionately about how disgusted he is with the BBC for their overt bias in this campaign. “When I was in the BBC they told us to go out there, see what’s happening on the ground and report the truth – whatever that is.” I remark that it is the British Broadcasting Corporation after all and he says that they’ve made that very obvious and there will be a reckoning once Scotland has her independence.wpid-wp-1411064089163.jpeg

Emerald is 17 and is active for the first time ever in politics. She is smart, informed, and ready to talk about the big issues. Like many, she was undecided at first but – after reading through the facts and figures – decided that an independent Scotland would be more likely to provide a bright future for her and her peers. Part of that future is being protected from Westminster’s agenda of privatization by taking full control of taxation and spending instead of relying on the Barnett formula to give Scotland money for social programs based on what is spent on similar programs in England. Since making her decision she’s come down to the Yes shop every day for the last several months to volunteer. I ask her what she’d like to see from other young people and she says that, while many young voters will probably vote the same as their parents, she hopes that as many as possible take the time to research the issues and make their own minds up based on facts – no matter which conclusion that leads them too. As we’re wrapping up our interview a large man in a rumpled business suit tries to interrupt and shout her down but she refuses to be intimidated, replying calmly and citing figures. I admire her professionalism, personally I might have been less polite.
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Across the street the pub has a big Scottish flag painted on the window with the words “Freedom and Whiskey go Together” and a row of Yes posters. The owner, Dave, says that he’s made sure that his bar is still a friendly place for everyone regardless of how they’re voting. He doesn’t see any point in being aggressive with people or trying to change other people’s minds but will happily talk about the issues. As a barkeep he’s particularly interested in Scottish Whisky and talks at length about how under the current tax system all Value Added Tax on alcohol exports is counted as revenue for London even though Whisky exports bring in billions of dollars to the treasury. He believes that once the revenue from those taxes is counted Scotland’s tax base will look a lot better than the (already impressive) official figures would suggest. We chat for a while on a range of issues from the war in Iraq to monetary policy and a couple of the other patrons join in as well – and with informed opinions no less! Can you even imagine that in an american bar? When he finds out we came all the way to Scotland to write about the election he refuses to let us pay for our drinks and thanks us for giving them a voice. I find myself humbled, and immensely gratified. I promise to do my best.
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After a quick walk around town and a bite to eat we’re off away down south back to Edinburgh to await the election results. The news has announced there will be no exit polls, the first and only result will be the official one with the actual counting observed by delegates from all parties. I doubt we’ll get much sleep tonight, but than I think that’s probably true of the entire country.

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From Arbroath to Aberdeen

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Arbroath is a pretty little town on the east coast of Scotland, just to the east of Dundee.  Driving past, you might not think much of it, but way back in 130__ a group of Scottish nobles signed a declaration that they would never under any circumstances allow themselves to be subjugated to rule from England and that they fought “not for wealth or position but for liberty, which no good man gives up except with his life.” The document is also important to world history because it established the concept of popular sovereignty – that Scotland belonged to her people and a king was only worth supporting if he could protect and defend them.  American school children are taught about the Magna Carta because it was accepted as a legal document by the English political system, but the Declaration of Arbroath was at least as important a touch stone for the American founding fathers and directly inspired the American Declaration of Independence.
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Tonight at 6pm there’s going to be a rally at the town monument to the Declaration.  We drop in at the local SNP office to get their perspective before hand.

Given the local history, it’s not surprising that this is SNP territory.  I got to talk to Brian, the head organizer for the office who helped found the local SNP chapter back in 1966.  Way back then, independence was “a farce” and most people outside the SNP didn’t take it seriously, so instead the party focused on building credibility by talking about other issues.  Party politics are often tribal – people vote for the party their parent supported – and at first it was very hard to break through that.  Now though, after almost 50 years of organizing, Brian is starting to see people who are second and third generation SNP.  Since the landslide victory at the last Scottish Parliament elections the SNP has finally proven its viability as a political party and moved from being a small party that attracts protest votes to the dominant party in Scottish politics.  You can tell he’s still getting used to the change even 4 years on. In fact today the SNP holds the absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament – something that isn’t supposed to be even possible because the hybrid voting system is designed to prevent single party dominance and force the parties to form coalitions. It was that absolutely unprecedented landslide victory as labor voter defected to the SNP en masse that made this referendum possible.

To understand the scale of the shift image if in the space of two elections the Democrats had gone from the dominant party in Californian politics to a back-bench third party with only a fraction of their former support and the Peace & Freedom party suddenly controlled the absolute majority of seats in the State legislature and our congressional delegation. We haven’t seen a shift of that magnitude in American politics since the collapse of the Whig party and the rise of the Republicans with the election of Abraham Lincoln, and we all know how that ended up! Instead of descending into civil war and carnage though, Scottish civil society has adjusted peacefully and is in fact remarkably civil. People here talk about how the referendum has divided the country, but the scale of invective and hostility pales in comparison to the way American Democrats and Republicans talk about each other.

I mention how the Welsh activists I talked to seemed to have a much bigger emphasis on history than the SNP or Yes activists I had talked to and he confirms that this is a deliberate choice. They consciously decided that rather than focusing on past injustice their movement was going to be entirely focused on the present and future because they’re out to win elections and set policy today and that requires a positive vision and not harping on about the past. It’s a strategy that is obviously working and is worth paying attention to for anyone who’s interested in the nuts and bolts of building a viable third party.

We get to talking about voter turnout and the fact that this election looks like it will have higher turnout than any other election in Scottish history. I also mention how remarkable it is that so many people who are not SNP (the vast majority of people I’ve talked too) are participating in this campaign and ask why he thinks this is. His answer is that “this is an election for Scotland,” not for any political party. As in America, most districts here elect a single party year after year by such wide margins that if you don’t agree with that party there’s no point voting so many people don’t bother. Here, every vote matters because it’s a direct nationwide popular vote.

I thank Brian for his time and we head across the street to the pub for a quick pint and a chance to use the restroom, which quickly turns into a conversation about what brings two Americans to Arbroath. At the end of the bar are a couple of men in their fifties who’ve both been drinking for a while, one is loudly pro-independence and the other is more quietly but doggedly a No voter. The latter of the two seems genuinely shocked that people in other parts of the world would care what Scotland does and says he “hadnae even considered” that the outcome might affect others. Both men seem genuinely gratified that we’ve flown halfway around the world to see this moment first hand and wish us well as we finish our drinks and head out.

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Our next stop is Aberdeen, about an hour and a half to the north east on the coast of the North Sea. The drive there along the coast is beautiful for the most part, if still foggy. We see more and more No signs in the farms we pass – none on individual houses, always posted out among the hay bales in the fields. Scotland has a radically unequal distribution of land in Scotland, a carry-over from the consolidation of land into the hands of the nobility during the opening phases of the industrial revolution. Many Yes campaigners look forward to changing that in an independent country that doesn’t have the UK legal systems continuing deference to the old nobility. I have no idea how many of the signs we’re seeing are posted by small farmers and how many by big agribusiness, but I can’t help but wonder. We pass a good number of Yes signs too but the ratio has definitely shifted towards No.

When we finally get to Aberdeen there is van after van full of activists returning from their big last-minute canvassing effort and the place is buzzing with activity. I got to speak briefly to Keiran, who is the lead organizer for Aberdeen Yes. Like many people here, he leans left but works in the energy industry and so is not eager to see Scotland stop drilling for oil the way some of the Scottish Green Party members I talked to down south are. I ask him how campaigning here is different from other parts of Scotland and he talks a bit about this and other issues. The Business for Scotland contingent plays a much bigger role here than it does in the more working-class parts of Scotland and many find the argument that as a sovereign nation Scotland will be able to protect and advocate on behalf of its industries compelling. Aberdeen also has large working class areas and many people relying on foodbanks and the more radical message plays well there.
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The space is getting crowded as they prepare for a big strategy meeting to coordinate tomorrow’s get out the vote effort so we decide to get out out of their way and head off in search of dinner and a hotel. Unbeknownst to us, unfortunately, every single hotel in the city is booked to capacity as all the workers from the offshore oil rigs are in town to make sure bad weather doesn’t keep them from voting.

After an hour and a half of looking for a place to stay, we give up and try to head towards Inverness in hope of finding an inn along the way. The fog has rolled in thick though so our visibility is less than our stopping distance and we end up pulling off the road and sleeping in the car. Tonight we can go no further.