Mike Russell will be doing no more than stating the obvious if he chooses to tell the SNP Conference that restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status must be done “the right way”. Who is arguing that it should be done the wrong way? This is just one of those glittering generalities with which politicians like to pepper their speeches to gatherings of the party faithful. It’s emotionally appealing. Even intellectually appealing, in a very superficial way. As with most such rhetorical devices, the glitter starts to come off once we start to ask the kind of questions the rhetoric is intended to preempt and evade.
Precisely what is meant by “the right way”? The glibly facetious answer, of course, would be “my way”. Saying that things must be done “the right way” is not dissimilar to insisting that “there is no other way”. In the family of propaganda phrases, they are close cousins. Both refer, not to a policy or course of action which is provably necessary or preferable according to any objective criteria. Glittering generalities, by definition, allude to high value concepts which tend to attract approval even in the absence of any solid information or reasoned argument. When a politician says “there is no other way” people are likely to solemnly agree whether or not they know what the “way” is, and without considering whether there are alternatives. It is a lightly disguised emotional appeal to the desire to be regarded as realistic and sensible. Or to avoid being labelled a woolly-minded dreamer who fails to appreciate the harsh realities.
Likewise, nobody wants to be perceived as being inclined to do things wrongly. So, when a politician states that things must be done “the right way”, we will tend to respond unthinkingly with approval. This approval is then associated with whatever “way” said politician is proposing even though the details remain unspecified.
Obviously, Mike Russell’s speech to Conference will be intended to gain approval for the course of action set out by Nicola Sturgeon in her recent statement on a new independence referendum. The glittering generality about doing things “the right way” is intended to attract such approval in spite any misgivings about that course of action. Or doubts about the appropriateness of the word “action”.
Just as “no other way” is supposed to steer us away from asking about alternatives, so “the right way” is meant to prevent questions about how this claim is justified on behalf of the SNP leadership’s chosen course of action.
It seems to me that, in relation to taking forward the cause of independence, there are two contending definitions of “the right way”. The British way involves recognising the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. It involves accepting the supremacy of Westminster. It involves allowing that “the right way” is whatever way the British state defines. It involves legitimising the authority of the British political elite to decide the rules and control the process by which constitutional change might happen.
It necessarily and inevitably involves denying the sovereignty of Scotland’s people – even while insisting that the people of Scotland are sovereign. It involves an intractable contradiction. Either the people of Scotland are sovereign, or our democratic will can be overruled by a clique of British politicians. Both things cannot be true.
Let’s just be clear that, when Mike Russell talks about “the right way”, he is referring to the British way. When he trots out the glittering generality, this is what he is asking SNP members to approve.
I have another definition of “the right way”. I maintain that “the right way” must adhere to fundamental democratic principles. I maintain that the principle of popular sovereignty must be upheld in all circumstances. I maintain that there can be no compromise with the alien doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty which is not fatal to the principle that all legitimate political authority derives from the people. I maintain that the sovereignty of the people is absolute and inalienable.
I maintain that the right of self-determination is absolute and inalienable.
I maintain that there is the “right way”, and there is the British way. And these are totally irreconcilable.
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