Why? Why should Scotland’s First Minister be required to argue for a new referendum? It is plainly evident that the people of Scotland want one. So, why is Nicola Sturgeon, who has an unarguable mandate, having to petition Boris Johnson, who has none? More to the point, why is she simply accepting this obvious perversion of democratic principles and affront to basic fairness? Come to that, why are we meekly accepting it? Why aren’t we on the streets protesting this iniquity?
The default position in any system purporting to be democratic is that everybody should have a vote and that all decisions should be put to a vote. From that starting position arguments are made for exceptions. Infants aren’t permitted to vote, for obvious reasons. Young children aren’t permitted to vote for reasons which, while less clear-cut than for infants, are still perfectly adequate. Once a person reaches 16 years of age, the arguments for withholding the franchise on the basis of age begin to crumble. Where those arguments are weak, the benefit of the doubt favours the default position. Better that a hundred people should be allowed to vote despite being somewhat immature than that one person who is capable should be denied.
Denying the vote to someone who is capable must always be a breach of democratic principles. Allowing someone to use their vote can never be a breach of democratic principles. The necessary implication of this is that it must always be the ones who wish to deny the vote who have to make the case for doing so. If they cannot make an adequate case, the default democratic position holds.
The British political system turns this on its head. In the British system, voting is not a right but a privilege – to be granted or withheld at the whim of the British political elite. The British system fails this test of its democratic credentials.
Voting on every single issue is impractical. So we delegate most of the decision making to elected representatives. It is only on really major issues, such as constitutional reform, that a plebiscite is deemed necessary. Although other countries, such as Switzerland, have referendums on a much wider range of issues, here in the UK they are relatively rare events. But the principle of individuals in a democracy voting on everything still holds. It’s just that we vote at one remove. We lend our democratic franchise to a politician we trust to vote on our behalf.
That the British political system has many ways of allowing the executive to introduce and implement measures without parliamentary scrutiny is another reason it should not be considered fully democratic. The royal prerogative is an archaic, but powerful tool in the hands of those who crave unfettered power.
The case against democracy
That the British establishment doesn’t want a referendum to happen is all too apparent. That the British establishment is vehemently opposed to Scotland’s independence being restored is not in any doubt. The reasons for this are well known. None of those reasons has anything to do with what is best for Scotland and its people. None of those reasons is concerned with genuine democracy. All of those reasons are about preserving the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. All of those reasons are concerned with maintaining established power.
That the restoration of Scotland’s independence would disbenefit England-as-Britain is disputed only by those who view the world through the red, white and blue miasma of British exceptionalism. This in itself is not – indeed, cannot be – an adequate reason for denying Scotland’s democratic right of self-determination. If it were, we would still be living in the age of European imperialism and Scotland truly would be a colony of the British Empire.
If disbenefit to the British political elite and its clients is not a good reason to obstruct democracy and deny Scotland’s right of self-determination, what might be? Supposing democracy prevailed in the British state and the right of the people of Scotland to decide their nation’s constitutional status was assumed. What arguments might the British political elite deploy as they tried to make a case for Scotland being an exception to the normal rules of democracy? Happily, we know what their arguments would be, because they have been brash enough to speak them aloud.
The most commonly used argument against a new referendum is also the most obviously idiotic. Which may be indicative of something. That it was the line fed to Boris Johnson as his stock response to questions about Scotland’s independence movement is probably because it is the one he can get his head around. It is favoured because it is simple enough to be understood even by the intellectually challenged. The fact that it is nonsensical is not regarded as important. Countless times a day we hear it argued that Scotland should not be allowed to have another vote because we were promised the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event. Or, in the sole variation on this theme, that it was a “once in a lifetime” occurrence.
We are told that the Scottish Government made a solemn undertaking that no new referendum would be pursued for a period that was unspecified and, therefore, open to interpretation. This period has been stated as 5 years, 40years and many figures in between. Which is odd because one would have supposed that, had the Scottish Government given a formal undertaking, it would have been couched in more precise language. Contracts tend not to use terms such as “for a while” or “until the cows come home”.
In fact, the undertaking doesn’t exist. It is to be found nowhere in the legislation pertaining to the 2014 referendum. The argument is based on nothing more substantial than casual remarks made by some Scottish politicians. There was no “once in a generation/lifetime” promise. And, even if there had been, it would be meaningless. No government can bind its successors and no politician has the authority to constrain the right of self-determination. The argument is ludicrous and its use serves only to illustrate ignorance of and contempt for democracy. It cannot possibly be sufficient cause for denying the people a vote.
Another common argument against democracy deployed by British Nationalists is that holding a new independence referendum would cause division, polarisation and uncertainty. All of which are held to be entirely and invariably ‘Very Bad Things’. Generally speaking, no further explanation is offered. We are expected to take it for granted that division, polarisation and uncertainty are Very Bad Things because that is how they are portrayed. It’s a given. Or is it?
Is division a Very Bad Thing? Not if politics as seen as a contest of ideas and democracy as a way of resolving this contest without resort to drastic measures. Division is not only a natural part of democratic politics but a vital attribute. Division is what inevitably arises when people are free to think for themselves and express their views. Division is essential to democracy because it it powers the debates and discussions which inform subsequent decisions.
Where there is no division, there is no democracy. Only under repressive totalitarian regimes can public political discourse be an arid wasteland devoid of disagreement and dispute. Only the heel of the dictator’s boot can crush the individuality and freedom of thought that breeds division. Remember that next time a politician tries to persuade you that division is a Very Bad Thing.
Is polarisation a Very Bad Thing? True, it can be unhelpful in some – perhaps most – situations. Taken to its extreme, polarisation leaves a void where diverse thinking should be. It splits thinking into two discrete, rigidly defined and deeply entrenched camps and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to venture into the no man’s land in between. Were it a ubiquitous and permanent feature of our politics it might well be a Very Bad Thing. But we are not discussing politics in the broad sense. We are focused on a very particular issue. An issue that is deemed serious enough to require a referendum and dichotomous enough so that a referendum can produce a decision and not merely a result. As I explained in an earlier article,
To be effective, a referendum must offer clear options – preferably no more than two. Ideally, the choice should be binary – yes or no – with the meaning of each being totally explicit. If the proposition can’t be put, without ambiguity, in twenty words or less, then it is probably too complicated for a referendum. If explanatory notes are required, then it is almost certainly too complicated for a referendum. If those explanatory notes run to more than a single side of A4, then trying to decide the matter by means of a referendum is just plain daft.
If a referendum is to be decisive it is essential that both options are spelled out in a manner which leaves no room for dispute. If one or more of the options is undefined then the referendum can produce a result, but never a decision. And, for the purposes of referendums, ‘poorly defined’ is defined as ‘undefined’.Alpacas might fly
In the special circumstances of a referendum, polarisation is not a Very Bad Thing. It is an essential thing. If opinion is not polarised, the referendum isn’t working. If the protagonists are free to wander the space between positions then those positions become blurred. Voters will be left unsure whether they are voting for one thing or the other thing or something that is neither. Such a referendum will produce a result. But it cannot produce the clear and incontestable decision that is required.
If a politician is arguing that polarisation in an issue to be decided by referendum is a Very Bad Thing, it is because they do not want a clear and incontestable decision. They want a result that is vague enough to be defined in whatever way they find expedient.
I hate to do this to you, but look at Brexit. The EU referendum in 2016 is an object lesson in getting it all horribly wrong. To catalogue the ways in which it was wrong would take an entire book, rather than an essay. But we know that it produced a result without a decision because the aftermath was dominated by acrimonious debates about what Brexit actually meant and what flavour of Brexit people had actually voted for.
Far from the potential for polarisation being an argument against facilitating a vote, it is a basic prerequisite of a referendum.
Is uncertainty a Very Bad Thing? Well, if it is, it’s a Very Bad Thing we’ve learned to live with. There is always uncertainty. None of us knows with total certainty what tomorrow may bring. The number of things we can be certain of, such as sunrise and sunset, is dwarfed by the uncertainties of day to day life. If certainty was an absolute necessity for human existence, none of us would be here. If uncertainty was seriously deleterious to life, we’d all be dead instead of merely dying.
Uncertainty is not the Very Bad Thing. Insecurity is. We can cope easily with the vagaries of life so long as we feel secure. We don’t trouble ourselves unduly about what the future will bring if we know we’ll be OK. We will venture out on the tightrope of tomorrow without crippling fear if we know there is a safety net. That safety net may be provided by family or community or the state. Possibly all of these to varying degrees. It may, of course, also be provided by personal wealth. The extent to which we can deal with uncertainty is in direct proportion to the confidence we have in that safety net. If that safety net is damaged in such a way as to diminish our confidence; or if that safety net is removed altogether, only then does uncertainty cause stress. Only then does uncertainty become a Very Bad Thing.
When politicians speak of the horrors of uncertainty, they are admitting their own failure to provide and maintain the social safety net that most of us need.
In the circumstances of a referendum, uncertainty is no more a Very Bad Thing than it is in any other aspect of our lives, so long as we can be reasonably sure that the result – the decision – will not plunge us into chaos and catastrophe. If that was even a remote possibility, the question of putting the issue to a vote wouldn’t even arise. Nobody demands a plebiscite to decide between two options when one or both of those options spells disaster. It is one of the prerequisites of a referendum that both options be deliverable. And deliverable without causing the sky to fall or the seas to rise.
When politicians, who have to live with the outcome as much as everyone else, proclaim uncertainty to be a Very Bad Thing we can be sure that they are referring to the uncertainty that they intend to create as part of their referendum campaign. We have seen it all before. We have seen Project Fear.
The case against a new independence referendum is as insubstantial as Donald Trump’s hair. And just as likely to be blown into disarray by even the most gentle breeze of scrutiny. The case for allowing the democratic process is unnecessary and redundant. There is no justification for obstructing the democratic process. There is no reason the people of Scotland should not exercise their democratic right of self-determination. There would have to be a very powerful reason for denying a referendum. A reason which is acceptable, however reluctantly, to the people who are being denied access to the democratic process. There being no such reason, a new constitutional referendum should proceed automatically and without hindrance.
Yesterday, I used Twitter to put a question to Nicola Sturgeon. I asked,
Do you agree that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status and the choice of the form of government that best meets Scotland’s needs are matters to be decided entirely and exclusively by the people of Scotland?@BerthanPete
To date, I haven’t received a reply. I wasn’t really expecting one. The question was not intended to elicit a response from the First Minister so much as to give others something to think about.
If you answer that question in the affirmative, without hesitation or equivocation, then you are a true democrat. If you need to consider your response, or if you answer in the negative, then you are no friend to either democracy or Scotland.
We have to assume that Nicola Sturgeon falls readily and completely into the first category. I don’t need her to answer the question to be sure that she is, indeed, a true democrat and Scotland’s champion. I choose to think she would not burden her affirmative response with a string of caveats, conditions and provisos. I would be extremely disappointed if she did. And very, very concerned for Scotland.
This begs the question, however; if you believe that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status and the choice of the form of government that best meets Scotland’s needs are matters to be decided entirely and exclusively by the people of Scotland, why do you feel the need to explain yourself to the British Prime Minister? Why do you think it necessary to petition for something that you believe should follow from the fundamental principles of democracy? Why do you suppose the democratic process requires the consent and approval of any external agency?
If you believe the right of the people of Scotland to decide our future is, as the right of sovereign people, entire and exclusive, why would you compromise that sovereignty by inviting the involvement of anyone other than the people of Scotland?
If I am the last and only person asking this question, I will persist in asking it. Because it matters.
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