Scottish Independence (What’s the point?)

14 Jan

One of the interesting features of the reaction of most English people to the creation of the Scottish Parliament was that it was not one of hostility or resentment, as much as it seemed to be one of puzzlement.

This would have been due to the fact that the debate around devolution that was going on in Scotland was one of those things that the UK media didn’t pick up on.  Because the UK media tend to be based in and around London, events aren’t happening in and around London have to be pretty dramatic to make the headlines.

 So when it was suddenly announced that it was ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ that there should be a Scottish parliament it would have come as a bit of a surprise for anyone who doesn’t live in, or regularly visit, Scotland. (Awareness of the devolution debate would have been greater in Wales, Northern Ireland and even Cornwall, due to their own ongoing debates about what their relationship with the rest of the UK should be).

And now here we go again, Scottish Independence is back on the UK political agenda and I expect it’s come as a bolt out of the blue for the majority of the non Scottish people in the UK.

So maybe it’s a good time for someone to offer a few comments on why constitutional reform of the UK might not be such a bad idea.

First, let’s get rid of a few idiotic misconceptions.

1/ The fallacy that the English can be blamed for all Scotland’s woes. (Some Scots do believe this. We have a word for them, ie ‘numpty’)

As a matter of fact, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Scottish history knows perfectly well that many of Scotland’s ills, past and present have been inflicted self-inflicted.

2/ Scottish Nationalism is based on anti-English sentiment.

Alex Salmond (MSP and leader of the SNP) has been quite emphatic in rejecting anti-Englishness as a basis for Scottish Nationalism and any kind of Scottish Identity. (I’m not necessarily in Mr Salmond’s fan club, he seems to me like a walking definition of the Scots term ‘sleekit’, and I’m really not sure I’d want to buy a second-hand car from the guy. Having said that, I do agree with him on this, and one or two other points).

3/ Scottish Nationalism will inevitably lead to a ‘Balkanisation’ of the UK.

I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean, but if the idea is that the UK will collapse into intercommunal violence in the way that the former Yugoslavia, then this is patently absurd. There was an extraordinary depth of hatred between the different communities in the former Yugoslavia that had been held in check by Tito for decades and was then stirred up by a bunch of irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags. (We have irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags aplenty in the UK, but not that same depth of hatred).

4/ The day after Independence Scotland will immediately transform into the land of milk and honey.

Obviously absurd. My best guess is that the first few years after independence will be a hard slog. I’ll come back to that later.

5/ Scotland will necessarily be better governed by Scots than it ever could by any English people.

Even a brief reference to Scottish History will demonstrate that Scotland was not always well-governed by Scots, nor has it necessarily been badly governed due to any inherent failing in the English. As a matter of fact Scots have always participated in the Westminster parliament following the Act of Union and there are times when Scots have been disproportionately well represented at the highest levels of government.

So having rejected a certain amount of nonsense, maybe it’s time to move on and get to the point.

Essentially the reason I’m in favour of Scottish Independence doesn’t really have much to do with Scottish Nationalism. It has nothing to do with any claims to special virtue on the part of Scots, or even Scotland, nor does it have anything to do with any complaints about England, or the English people.

The real reason for wanting constitutional reform is that the constitutional arrangements for the UK, as they stand at present, are a miserable, inefficient, undemocratic mess and I can see no prospect for reform from within.

The Westminster parliament was essentially created by Edward I (Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots etc). He was not a democrat by any means, and what he wanted was a device that would give his revenue raising measures a veneer of consultation. (He was very successful in this, unlike his French counterpart).

The Westminster parliament has moved on since then, it’s been tweaked about over the centuries by a succession of (mostly non-democratic) leaders to suit their own interests.

Oliver Cromwell was a case in point, he was a great supporter of the concept of the sovereignty of parliament provided parliament was doing what he wanted. At other times he was perfectly capable of using his soldiers to exclude parliamentarians who might oppose his wishes or even dissolving parliament altogether and ruling by dictat when that suited him.

So much for history (and not everyone is going to agree with what little history I’ve referred to here).

The real question isn’t ‘how did we get the parliament we’ve got?’ it’s ‘is this parliament conducive to the good governance of the UK?’.

I think the answer to that question is ‘no’.

Let me explain why.

We talk about the sovereignty of parliament. I have reservations about the proposition that parliament really is sovereign in the UK, (more on that later) but even if it is, the question is ‘should it be?’

My answer to this question would also be ‘no’.

In a democracy the only locus for sovereignty lies with the people. If sovereignty lies with parliament then you have an oilgarchy, not a democracy. (You may feel that oligarchy is okay, but I would prefer a democracy, I agree with Winston Churchill, it’s the worst form of government except for all the others).

In any case does sovereignty really lie with parliament in the UK?

I don’t think sit does. Not fully, at any rate.

Let me refer you to the concept of ‘crown priviledge’. And odd term to use in a parliamentary democracy, I know, but the UK is less of a parliamentary democracy than a constitutional monarchy. But it’s a constitutional monarchy where the power of the sovereign have been delegated to the Prime Minister (Hence the term ‘crown priviledge’. In effect, the Prime Minister has the privileges of the crown delegated to him).

This point probably seemed academic for long enough because the UK was governed for decades (generations even) in line with the convention of ‘Government by consensus’. (IE even if the Prime Minister could implement a particular policy, he would refrain from doing so unless there was a consensus in the country in favour of doing so).

Baroness Thatcher as Prime Minister put a coach and horses through this, amongst other conventions, and demonstrated quite how little power to oppose Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition really has. (Opinions differ, to put it mildly, as to whether or not this was a good thing).

As ever Tony Blair was quick to exploit the work of others, and in this case take it further. Thatcher maintained a facade of ‘Cabinet Government’, even if she made sure that her cabinet was composed of people who would roll over and submit to whatever she wanted, while Blair further eroded any notion of collective decision-making by calling individual ministers into 10 Downing Street and telling them what to do from the cosy vantage point of his sofa.

You may feel that all this  furniture based talk of cabinets and sofas is a bit tedious, so let me boil it down to a simple fact.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq it became apparent that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had the legal power to declare war on his own initiative without let or hindrance from any other human being.

(Gordon Brown talked about reducing this power, but I honestly don’t know whether or not anything came of this).

The fact that Tony Blair would have been foolish to the point of committing political suicide if he had, in fact, declared war off his own bat is beside the point. No single person should ever be allowed this degree of power in any civilised country.

At about this time, comedian and political agitator (I mean this as a sincere compliment), Mark Thomas asked for information as to the full  extent of the powers that could potentially by wielded by the Prime Minister under crown Privilege. He was told by the relevant authorities that they couldn’t tell him. The powers were effectively so extensive that they could not be defined.

Experts in constitutional lore and parliamentary procedures (of whom I am definitely not one) could doubtless provide examples ad nauseam of all the convoluted, involuted and downright absurd customs and practices that bedevil our lawmaking system. I am not qualified to do this and (I suspect much to everyone’s relief) I will not wade through the pointless tedium of making any such attempt. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think my point is made.

Only a fool would invent the system of government we now have and it only exists due to a long series of tweaks to an institution that was never designed to be democratic in the first place.

I don’t believe that our current (unwritten) constitutional arrangements are capable of reform, and I see no political will to even try. There are too many vested interests and too many fustian old clown who claim that, because we’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as anyone can remember, it would be an unforgivable crime against God and nature to make any change now.

So the only real chance to get my country and my people out from under the dead weight of the Westminster Parliament is independence (Or some system of devolution that is the same as independence in all but name). This isn’t to say that I don’t care about what happens to people out with Scotland, it’s just that, as I’ve indicated above, I see no prospect for reform of the UK as it currently exists and I don’t want to make any attempt to tell people in England, Wales or Northern Ireland what they should do in their part of the UK.

I don’t believe that an independent Scotland would have an easy ride from day one (as I’ve indicated above), but I do believe that independence might give Scotland, and more to the point the Scots, exactly the kind of firm boot up the backside that, collectively, we need.

I accept that the public sector in Scotland is far too big as a proportion of the economy. This isn’t due to anything inherent in ‘the Scottish character’ (If there is such a thing). It’s the result of a policy conducted for decades by governments of all persuasions to boost the public sector as a sop to Scots in compensation for the decline in the industries that used to make up our private sector. (I don’t ascribe this to any malice on the part of Westminster politicians, quite the opposite. I accept that it was well-intentioned, but it has left us with a structural economic problem).

I like to think that if we achieve independence in Scotland, maybe it would help pave the way for others in the UK to follow suit. Maybe that might lead to the Westminster parliament, and all that goes with it, fading away into history. If and when that happens, I might even be in favour of reconstituting the UK, only this time under a properly democratic, representative and transparent system of government. (Far fetched, I know. It’s practically science fiction, but the first step is eminently possible if the Scots people don’t ‘bottle it’ in an independence referendum).

In conclusion, Tony Benn once described the UK system of government as an ‘elected dictatorship’.

I find myself in the surreal and disorienting position of agreeing with him.

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