Read it and weep! The counsel of despair wrapped in the shiny paper of academic analysis! What’s long and thin and contains no meat? If your first thought was a hot-dog sausage that’s probably because you haven’t read Gerry Hassan’s article in the Sunday National. You can save yourself the effort by skipping to the closing words – “longer game”. I wish I’d thought to do so. Being aware that the author isn’t responsible for the headline – or, to put it another way, that the headline may not accurately presage the content – I opted to read on in order to ascertain whether Mr Hassan really does write of ‘The long game for indyref2 and Scottish sovereignty”. As you now know, he does. He really should know better.
Not that it is necessary to read to the end in order to realise that Gerry Hassan is merely stirring the thin gruel of conventional wisdom concerning Scotland’s constitutional question. Granted, he throws in a handful of worthy names in an effort to thicken and flavour the watery broth. But there is nothing substantial here. Nothing satisfying. Nothing sustaining. The concoction is based on a stock of unexamined and unquestioned off-the-shelf assumptions. Here’s an example.
The case for a second indyref is based on Scotland voting to remain in the UK, and being told that this was the only way for Scotland to remain in the European Union.
Everybody knows this. At least, everybody Gerry Hassan listens to. It is established as truth solely and entirely because few trouble to subject it to any scrutiny. Few trouble to subject it to any scrutiny because it is established truth. Why question it? There are more important things to do. Those weel-kent names won’t drop themselves. Thus, the opportunity to think and say something novel and interesting is foregone in favour of sticking with the blandly uncontroversial cosy consensus. Ideas are not challenged. Intellects are not exercised. Mindsets remain unchanged.
There must be something wrong with me. I cannot have somebody tell me what is what without
wanting needing to whether it is. I cannot encounter a statement such as the one above without feeling the urge to query every aspect of it. The questions flow naturally and inevitably from the assertion. The questions are inescapable.
Mention “the case for a second indyref” and I am compelled to ask why there has to be a “case” for the exercise of a fundamental democratic right. Why must we argue for something that is inalienably ours? Why are we being required to justify something which does not and cannot require any justification? Who are we trying to satisfy? What rightful authority do they have to insist that we persuade them of an entitlement which no authority has the right to withhold?
To find the best answer, first find the best question. In this instance, we must ask what is the necessary and sufficient condition for the exercise of the right of self-determination? It is unarguable that a substantial or significant demand should exist among the electorate or the populace. That is the necessary condition. To determine whether it is sufficient we must ask what might take precedence over popular demand? In a democracy, vanishingly few things have the potential to take precedence over the will of the people. That will must prevail in all circumstances unless a powerful case can be made for denying it.
Immediately, we see that Gerry Hassan has it arse-for-elbow. No “case” need be made for having the people decide an issue fundamental to the governance of their nation. What is necessary is a sufficient case for denying the people that opportunity.
That is a very long-winded explanation of a mental process which should be almost instantaneous and unconscious. I make no apology for this. Because, had that process occurred in Gerry Hassan’s mind he would have written a very different article. His entire approach to the subject would have been altered. He would have approached the constitutional issue with an entirely different mindset. Not doing so was a choice. Unless an individual is utterly devoid of the attribute – or afflicted with pathological intellectual indolence – intellectual curiosity must run its course, save that it be purposefully reined-in.
The consequences of this failure to interrogate the cosy consensus are far-reaching. It initiates stream of fallacious thinking leading inevitably erroneous conclusions. Gerry Hassan makes the point for me when he explains Section 30 as –
… the part of the Scotland Act 1998 which allows the Scottish Parliament to pass laws in reserved matters such as constitutional matters and which needs Westminster’s agreement.
This is just wrong. As it must be given that it is the product of the kind of inadequate thinking described above. Only someone who imagines a case must be made for the exercise of a democratic right would be capable of such a distorted view of Section 30. There is something irksomely ridiculous, and faintly offensive, about the suggestion that Section 30 exists for the purpose of empowering the Scottish Parliament. In order to believe such a thing one would need, not only a highly ‘idiosyncratic’ reading of the actual legislation, but a decidedly ‘quaint’ notion of what the British state is and how it operates. Not to mention a massively wrong-headed view of devolution.
Like devolution and the Union and everything else the British state is and does, Section 30 is exclusively and entirely concerned with preserving and entrenching established power. Its purpose is absolutely unmistakeable from the wording.
Her Majesty may by Order in Council make any modifications of Schedule 4 or 5 which She considers necessary or expedient.Scotland Act 1998
Expressed in a less legalistic, and more forthright, fashion what this says is that the British Prime Minister – currently a malignant child-clown named Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – can alter the powers of the Scottish Parliament whenever they want and in any way they deem “necessary or expedient” for their purposes – that purpose being ever and always the preservation of the Union. I think it’s fair to say that Section 30 isn’t sounding like quite the boon to Scotland some seem to suppose it to be. It is simply another device by which the British state may rein in the Scottish Parliament. Or, at least, that was the intention. Belt and braces legislation. Just in case there were any loopholes which might allow Holyrood more power than was intended, Section 30 allows the British political elite to quickly patch up any chink in the armour protecting the Union. (Section 30 Is Not Scotland’s Salvation)
All of which gives rise to yet another question. Why would somebody misrepresent Section 30 in the way that Gerry Hassan does? The answer, I think, can be discerned in the overall tone of his article. In common with the SNP leadership and probably the larger part of the Yes movement, Gerry Hassan proceeds on two associated, and somewhat contradictory, assumptions. Firstly, that the British state will continue to heap increasingly intolerable impositions on Scotland and that this will have the effect of increasing support for independence. Secondly, that despite this predisposition for treating Scotland with the contempt that flows from the very nature of the Union, the British state is, nonetheless, bound by the very democratic principles that the first assumption discounts.
The underlying idea is that the British state will drive the people of Scotland increasingly towards independence as an escape from the ever more onerous repression of autocratic, anti-democratic British Nationalism empowered by the Union, to the point where the British state – which regards resistance to such democratic demands as an existential imperative – must buckle before the demand for an end to the ever more onerous repression of autocratic, anti-democratic British Nationalism empowered by the Union.
The self-defeating circularity of this idea is too obvious to be worth explaining. But what is truly depressing about it is something which may be a little less obvious. Note how it is entirely about what the British state does and what is done to Scotland and how Scotland responds to what is done to it by the British state. Nowhere in there will you find any suggestion of Scotland doing anything. Scotland is the powerless victim. Being proactive isn’t even a possibility.
What makes this depressing is that it all too accurately reflects what is happening in the real world away from academic pontification. Independence isn’t happening for the simple and plainly obvious reason that nobody is making it happen.
Worse! If Gerry Hassan is correct, nobody is going to do anything to make it happen. Not ever! The mindset of those who have the potential to make it happen is such that they cannot conceive of making anything happen. Waves must not be made! Boats must not be rocked! Horses must not be frightened! Say only what is necessary to keep alive the hope that relief will be given. Never so much as hint at the idea that power might be taken. Scotland’s cause is stuck fast in the mire of a conviction that belief is sufficient. That action is not necessary. Action equals aggression and aggression discourages belief.
This attitude may be familiar to those who wade through Pete Wishart’s insufficiently occasional musings and mutterings from Perthshire. Arguably, there is no more stubbornly unthinking proponent of the notion that independence is eventually inevitable so long as we don’t actually do anything to force the pace. Or, for that matter, cause there to be any pace at all. Like his patently inane concept of an ‘Optimum Time’, independence is ‘out there’ somewhere waiting for us to happen upon it. We need only drift along, imperceptibly propelled by gentle persuasion, sustained by nothing more than saintly patience.
We should be untroubled by the British political elite dismantling our democratic institutions and destroying the apparatus of our state and disposing of our essential public services. Don’t think of this as harming us! Think of it as helping us in some way that remains curiously unexplained. Besides, that’s their way. We are better than that. They may have hands to slap, but we have cheeks to turn. Which means we must win. Although, again, the how of it remains a mystery.
For all this palpable nonsense, Pete Wishart does stumble on something meaningful. Although I suspect he neither intended this nor understands the significance of it. Among the seemingly endless list of things he instructs us not to say or do we find a prohibition against “trying to game or trick our way to independence”. There’s an element of this tricking and gaming in Gerry Hassan’s speculation on how things might pan out over the coming indeterminate period. It’s a waiting game, and the trick is to wait. But the eventualities which transpire are convoluted enough to appear convincing. Or, at least, worthy of one of Scotland’s leading political commentators. Gerry is always good value for his publisher’s money.
Lots of stuff might happen. And what happens may have lots of consequences. There will always be a job for those who purport to be able to unravel the impenetrable complexity they describe. The rule is that things can never be simple. If politics was straightforward, anybody could do it – or fathom it. Even ‘ordinary’ people!
Moreover, politics must be devilishly hard and fiendishly complicated so politicians have an excuse for getting it wrong. And so they can convince the rest of us that, when they do get it wrong, they are the only ones who can fix it.
The reality is that politics is surprisingly simple. We’d only be surprised because so much effort has been put into persuading us that it’s beyond our comprehension. At the core of even the most intractable political issue there is always a very simple idea. A quite clear division of opinion. A choice which, however difficult it may be to make, is always easy to express when stripped of the clutter heaped upon it by those with a vested interest in discouraging engagement with the issue and/or manipulating the perceptions of those who do engage.
Scotland’s constitutional issue is simple. I have watched in increasing frustration and despair as it has been buried in a morass of ‘ah buts’ and ‘what ifs’. It is a simply choice between reverting to being a normal nation or persevering with a political union which only the deluded and the dishonest can defend. You make your choice. Then you make it happen. That’s all there is to politics.
Gerry Hassan’s article is profoundly depressing because it so vividly illuminates the fact that, while our political leaders may have made the choice to restore Scotland’s independence, they are neither doing nor proposing anything which might actually make it happen. In all of Gerry’s analysis and speculation, there is not so much as a hint of any bold, decisive action on the part of the SNP – as either party of administration – designed or intended to make the change happen.
If that is not depressing enough, consider that we don’t even expect this any more. Few are shocked or angered when nothing happens. The tantalising carrot of a new referendum has been dangled in front of us for so long we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that it is always just out of reach. We’ve been trained to be content with it still being just in sight. We get excited when it is talked about so much that it seems closer than it ever is.
I’m not fooled. And I can no longer fool myself. It’s hard to say what tipped the balance for me. I question everything. And I some time ago ceased to be able to come up with any satisfying or encouraging answers. One thing I do recall that had a more profound effect on me than even I realised at the time was when, at a Women for Independence event, Nicola Sturgeon mocked the #DissolveTheUnion hashtag. It was clear that she hadn’t a clue about the thinking behind the hashtag. But her jokey dismissal of the very idea of dissolving the Union struck a chill in my heart that has never receded.
There is no independence without dissolving the Union which negates our independence. It is the most fundamental and crucial action which required in order to restore our independence – in order to reinstate constitutional normality. And here we have the individual who is supposedly responsible for taking that action laughing at the very mention of it. Before anyone dismisses this as a momentary and trivial lapse, we lately have another senior SNP politician angrilly berating those who so much as mention dissolving the Union and insisting that nobody who is a genuine independence supporter must ever speak of it.
There’s more, of course. Much more. But there is nothing which doesn’t cause me to end 2019 in total despair for Scotland’s cause. The aspiration to restore Scotland’s independence is as strong in me now as it ever was. Time has not diminished it at all. Gerry Hassan’s counsel of despair, while appropriate to my mood, is quite redundant. I am already resigned to the fact that independence isn’t happening. Because nobody is making it happen.
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