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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