John McDonnell offers an interesting argument for preserving the Union. Filter out the word-spray intended to put a patina of sense on that argument and what remains is the proposition that the more successive British governments do harm to Scotland the less feasible democratic constitutional reform becomes. The inescapable logic being that doing harm to Scotland is an effective way of preserving the Union. Which necessarily implies that those who wish to preserve the Union are powerfully motivated to do harm to Scotland.
This is not a new argument, of course. It is simply a variation on the theme of constant crisis as a means of social control. A theme familiar from the writings of George Orwell and other peddlers of dystopian visions. Perpetual war is probably the most common form of constant crisis. But this looks like it may soon be be knocked off the top spot by climate change. And, as you would expect, the dismal science of economics is always a contender.
Constant crisis is a particularly useful tool for social control because it is flexible enough to be adapted for almost any set of circumstances. The nature of the crisis is, obviously, an important factor. It needn’t be something as serious as armed conflict – which includes such as the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’. It can be something relatively low-key – such as the economic instability which is an ever-present background hum in our lives.
Just as the intensity of that background hum can can be turned up or down as may be expedient, so the manner in which the constant crisis is related to individuals and groups can be fine-tuned to maximise the coercive effect. This can go from the constant crisis being the problem which regrettably requires that people be controlled, to people resisting control being the problem on account of the crisis.
Evidently, John McDonnell feels the need to ramp up the threat level. Brexit isn’t enough. In his desperation to convey a sense of crisis he throws climate change and child poverty at us as well. With all this going on, so the argument goes, it would be irresponsible to indulge the democratic right of self-determination. It is only a matter of adjusting the size and shape of the crisis and pretty much anything can be portrayed as an indulgence or a distraction or a waste of resources.
What is missing from McDonnell’s ‘thinking’ is any consideration of the fact that circumstances are the product of choices. A chain of causal connections links the nature of present circumstances to past choices. The matter of how and by whom those choices are made can never be irrelevant. Constitutional politics is concerned with the core questions of who decides, how those decisions are arrived at and the processes by which decisions are implemented. Constitutional debate can never be a mere indulgence.
If the crisis being deployed as a justification for compromising democracy is real, it is a product of self-evidently bad choices made by the British political elite. If the crisis is false or exaggerated, it’s because the British political elite choose to deceive us. Why, then, would we trust their choices? Why would we entrust them with the power to make choices that affect Scotland? Why would we not choose to make those choices ourselves?
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