A game of constitutional chicken

Power is often just a matter of what you can get away with. A question of how far you’re prepared to go. In a given situation, one player my appear to have all the advantages, but they succumb to their opponent’s audacity. All the advantages in the world count for nothing if you’re the first to back down. Temerity can compensate for a lot of disadvantage.

The current face-off between the Scottish Government and the British political elite is very much like a game of constitutional chicken. It’s not about who holds the best cards. It’s about who folds first. It’s not about what is lawful or rightful. It’s about how far you can go before being challenged. It’s not about how much power you have. It’s about being prepared to use that power to it’s fullest.

In a democracy, politicians only have the power that the people afford them. Or, at least, that’s the theory – the democratic principle. In reality, politicians tend to have as much power as they can assert without it being disputed. The ‘looser’ the constitutional constraints on political power, the more difficult it can be to dispute asserted power; and so the more likely it is that asserted power will become established power – and even more difficult to dispute. Where the constitution is weak, the audacious can accrue great power.

Few modern democracies have weaker and looser constitutional constraints on executive power than the UK. It is thus by design. The dearth of effective constitutional constraints allows the British executive to acquire powers simply by laying claim to them.

One might think this would lead to dictatorship. That the outcome of this accretion of power to the executive must eventually be a totalitarian state. Indeed, this would be the logical, and almost certainly inevitable, conclusion were there a complete absence of constraints. But at least two factors serve to prevent this. The fact that the UK is a democracy – albeit one with a woefully inadequate constitution – means that the people are a limiting factor. There are elections and no matter how effectively voters are manipulated by the media, they can still occasionally tug the political choke-chain. Or, even more infrequently, they can do something very surprising and use their democratic power effectively to achieve an outcome something akin to what the majority favour.

The ruling elites of the British state have to be mindful of popular democratic power. For the most part, they have it under control. But the public are fickle and voters can behave unpredictably. So some caution is required.

But there is a more prosaic reason the UK hasn’t become a fully-fledged totalitarian state, despite the executive having the potential to wield dictatorial powers. The present arrangement works too well. The ruling elites are served very well by the existing structures of power, privilege and patronage. So why change anything? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

You might want to reflect on that for a moment. As far as the political, social and economic elites of the British state are concerned the existing British political system makes dictatorship redundant. Or maybe you don’t want to think about it at all.

The Union is, of course, a key element of the system that serves the few at whatever cost to the many. While Scotland and England could undoubtedly function perfectly well as independent countries, the entity that has evolved – and continues to evolve – from the old ‘Greater England’ project requires the Union. The survival of neither England nor Scotland depends on the Union. But it is crucial to the preservation of a British political system which serves the ruling elites better than a totalitarian regime might.

It is to be expected, therefore, that the British executive will do everything in its power to preserve the Union. It follows that it will assert whatever powers are required in order to counter any perceived threat to the Union. and that is precisely what is happening.

Power is relative. A political actor can achieve and maintain superiority either by becoming stronger or by making competing political actors weaker. Either by acquiring/asserting new powers, or by diminishing/depleting the powers of competitors. Invariably, the power dynamic involves both. Take a look at what the British government is doing in Scotland now and you will see it both asserting additional or increased powers and seeking to undermine the powers of Scotland’s democratic institutions.

Take a look at what the Scottish Government is doing and you will see a perplexing lack of effort either to challenge the powers being asserted by the British government or, more crucially, to assert the powers of Scotland’s democratic institutions. Few doubt that the British side is audacious enough to assert whatever powers it deems necessary to thwart Scotland’s constitutional aspirations and preserve the Union. Many now wonder whether the SNP administration has the audacity to respond appropriately by asserting its popular mandate.

Much of this reticence and hesitancy on the part of the Scottish Government appears to be due to concerns about the lawfulness of asserting power. The British state is distinctly unencumbered by any such concerns. Perhaps because the British ruling classes have bred into them an awareness that power is just a matter of what you succeed in getting away with. Perhaps because the British ruling elites have for generations operated on the basis of absolute confidence in their entitlement to power. Perhaps because the British executive has the audacity that the Scottish Government lacks.

In the game of constitutional chicken, having a mandate from the people means nothing if you are not prepared to use it. Having a lead in the polls is no use if you are not prepared to act. Having a just and worthy cause counts for nothing if you are not prepared to pursue that cause as aggressively as may be necessary.

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7 thoughts on “A game of constitutional chicken

  1. Correct Peter.

    The idea that you can allow Brexit to play out and that the yes vote will increase over time. Is a very dangerous and cowardly proposition. This might be the high water mark of pre-referendum polling. It might not be , but why risk waiting?

    16-17 year olds and EU nationals were not included this time. So make that poll 55% yes! We need to strike. Recall parliament and send a shot across the bows of unionism. Panic the feckers. Get team yes excited with butterflies in their stomachs’.

    Or wait until September and then see what the Tories do. Then wait for Brexit , then a GE or the next Scottish election. In fact just do nothing and see what turns up.

    Which option is it to be now!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I would be for re-calling the Edinburgh Parliament, and declaring an end to the Union.
      That is what should happen.
      This waiting and waiting, has to end.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Gordon -If they recall parliament. It will cause a stir. We need something to cause a stir, and then for that stir to become a tidal wave of movement. The current inertia cannot go on.

    It is like living in a black hole with the SNP at the moment. Outside of the hole the universe is in flux. Inside the hole nothing seems to exist.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Both the Quebecois and the Catalans have played the constitutional chicken game, with one coming off better than the other. The Quebecois were mollified, to an extent, by greater powers being ceded from the Canadian government, even though the Quebecois lost the second referendum as well as the first. The Catalans brought retribution down on their heads. It would be my guess that the UK would emulate Spain: both former imperial powers; both up to their necks in colonialism; both itching to give their recalcitrant ‘regions’ a good kicking. We differ from the Catalans in that we have the Treaty, but that will be a fat lot of good if we are not prepared to use it. What the Catalans have is an internal agreement with Madrid that no ‘region’ will separate from the Spanish whole, and, while our Treaty has been broken and its Articles breached almost to the point of ‘declaring war’ on us, its co-signatory, few appear to give any particular emphasis to that fact. I must admit that I am at a loss to understand the game the SNP is playing but it does seem to be that it is this: the greater the suffering (of the people least able to bear it – therefore, not the NO voters) the more people will turn to independence. Hmmm. Can’t say I’m at all persuaded. Maybe they do have an ace up their sleeve with the Referendums Bill, but I wouldn’t bank on it being allowed the oxygen for survival at the end of the day, given the constitutional adjudications of the past in this area. What they do seem to be doing is working within the tight parameters of devolved power, which is astounding, given that independence will never be achieved by those means, and that facing down the British State will have to be undertaken at some point if all is not to be lost. Forgive my cynicism, but are any of the SNP MPs and MSPs willing to do that?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. McEleny and McNeil. After today’s Ashcroft poll, maybe a few more will be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet.
    Very delicate situation. Everyone must stay united. But Sturgeon must be prepared to listen to people outside of the leadership bubble.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Peter

    It you asked an English person to draw a map of England (only England)…could they?

    That test is the clue that ‘England will be fine alone’ is a lie. For many, that map would make their minds rebel. This is a country that has plaster over internal divisions via colonialism. Hence, I suspect once the stark truth is revealed (they are just one country on 1/2 a small Island – not an Island Nation) those internal tensions may finally re-surface and that “England” may not hold itself together.

    Just because England wants to go into reverse to a former glory, doesn’t mean they can control where it stops the reverse process – or even if they can. Remembered that before there was an England it was many tiny states…and those divisions are still visible.

    Just as the perpetrator of Battered Wife Syndrome shows their emotional weakness through violence, part of the English elite’s weakness is that they are not an “Island Nation” and the sudden realisation in the population after 300 years will not go well for them.

    You have underestimated the risks and the weakness of the British (read English) elite. This is what they are playing for, and they won’t “chicken” willingly – you will have to make them.


    1. I didn’t say ‘England will be fine alone’. I said, “Scotland and England could undoubtedly function perfectly well as independent countries” and “The survival of neither England nor Scotland depends on the Union”. There is no “lie” there. To say that a nation can function perfectly well, or that it is not entirely dependent on political union with another nation does not imply that it will have no problems. It merely supposes that it will be at least as capable of dealing with those problems as any other nation. You indulge in a form of scaremongering about England viability as an independent nation that is indistinguishable from that deploy by British Nationalists with reference to Scotland.

      Of course ending the Union will be problematic for those with a British mindset. Far from having “underestimated the risks and the weakness of the British (read English) elite”, I quite explicitly acknowledged the fragility of the British political system when I wrote that the Union is “crucial to the preservation of a British political system which serves the ruling elites”.

      Frankly, I think you seriously overestimate the fragility of England. I have always maintained that ending the Union would benefit England as well as Scotland because, whatever else it does, it would prompt some serious thinking on the matter of an English national identity which has survived the Union far less we than Scotland’s. Despite England’s national identity having been eroded and diluted by the imposition of ‘Britishness’, I suspect it remains far stronger than that of any of the “tiny states” to which you refer.

      The ‘downgrading’ of British identity may be traumatic for some. But England has an obvious alternative to which it will surely turn. It will simply become England. Perhaps a ‘new’ England.


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