James Kelly does excellent work when he’s wearing his psephologist’s hat. When he swaps it for a political analyst’s headgear, however, things start to deteriorate. There is something quaintly naive about a worldview in which British political parties regard polls as “food for thought” and “liberal commentators down south” have consciences for the pricking.
Here in the real world, if a British politician is shown polling results indicating that large numbers of people in Scotland think the UK is not democratic their first thought is to wonder why they are being shown this. If they have a second thought it won’t be about fixing the broken democracy. It’ll be about manipulating perceptions of democracy.
But why would they even have that second thought? Scotland is in the rather odd position of being both essential and irrelevant. It is essential to what Kelly refers to as the UK’s “self-image”. Or what I prefer to call the British political elite’s conceit of itself. That self-image – or conceit – is complex. But elements of it are hinted at by notions such as Westminster being the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. What is often remarked upon as snobbery is, in fact, the self-assurance of exceptionalism. The notional country of ‘Great Britain’ is held to be the source and exemplar of democratic governance. It is definitively democratic. So much so that it doesn’t actually have to act democratically in order to be democratic.
There’s also all that hang-over stuff from the age of empire which has ‘Great Britain’ strutting the world like a retired British Army colonel complete with swagger-stick and ill-fitting uniform barking orders at taxi drivers and observing incessantly that “It wasn’t like this in MY day!”. Except that they still think it’s MY day. And possessing Scotland is vital to this self-delusion. Scotland is absolutely crucial to that “self-image”. Without Scotland, the notional country of ‘Great Britain’ collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness. The delusion evaporates. The conceit is punctured. The self-image becomes, to coin a term, ‘unsustainable’.
This is why Kelly gets it so horribly wrong when he says,
“If the facts on the ground are in conflict with that self-image, a tension will arise that could eventually bring about political change and an end to the wall of intransigence.”
Which is his way of saying that is people in Scotland complain enough about the democratic deficit then the British political elite will respond by rectifying, to some extent, that deficit. But the democratic deficit doesn’t stem from the British Tory party, as he seems to imagine. The democratic deficit is a function of the Union. It is ‘hard-wired’ into the British political system. Which is why however essential Scotland is to the ‘Great British Conceit’ it is also irrelevant.
British political leaders don’t care about public opinion in Scotland because they don’t have to. They don’t have to because the Union ensures that Scotland is always subsidiary to England-as-Britain. (Or Borissia, as I really enjoy calling it.) As essential as Scotland might be, that fact can never be reflected in our nation’s status and power because the Union is there to ensure that it can never be reflected in any concrete way.
James Kelly is immersed in the same folly that has all but submerged our First Minister. The foolish idea that the democratic deficit enshrined in the Union can be fixed by getting the British political elite to change. The fallacious notion that what Scotland is depends entirely on what ‘Great Britain’ does and NOT on what Scotland does. The ludicrous belief that Scotland’s independence can be restored by somehow using the democratic leverage that the Union denies us to force the British to yield to the leverage that we don’t have and give us the leverage which we can’t have because of the Union which the British can never put at risk by giving Scotland the leverage which the Union was designed to deny to Scotland in order that Borissia might exist.
This isn’t a numerical conundrum or a mechanical problem. It is entirely a political issue. A deep political issue. Politics isn’t bound by mathematical rules. Politics doesn’t operate on the basis of mechanistic cause and effect. That’s because politics is a people thing. You can know all there is to know about numbers and everything it’s possible to know about engines, but if you don’t get people you don’t get politics.
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