Can the soul of a nation be weighed?

Elliot Bulmer is a man whose views on constitutional matters should be listened to. He knows whereof he speaks in such matters. His article in today’s Sunday National offers the valuable insights of an esteemed academic presented with enviable clarity and concision. For those involved in the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence, the article is essential reading. I defy anyone to find a more accurate, erudite and eloquent summary of Scotland’s constitutional predicament than is contained in the first few paragraphs. I comment with appropriate humility.

The thing that strikes me most immediately and tellingly about Elliot Bulmer’s article is not only that in less than 900 words he manages to describe the situation; give an informed and informative account of how that situation came about; make a compelling case for the restoration of constitutional normality; and issue a warning about the consequences of failure to do so, but that he does all this without once resorting to that dread phrase “the economic case for independence”.

At this point I must beg Elliot Bulmer’s forgiveness as I reveal the content of a private communication. I trust he will allow that I commit this normally unforgivable indiscretion with the best of intentions. Some time ago, I was privileged to receive an email from him in which he commented extremely favourably on a remark I had made in a blog article. The phrase was “You can’t answer a constitutional question with a calculator!”. Regular readers will be aware that I have made much use of this aphorism ever since. What they cannot know is what prompted me to recognise the worth of what I had previously regarded as a throwaway line. A line which, it transpires, concisely expresses the simple but essential truth that Scotland’s predicament is a constitutional matter and emphatically not a matter of economics.

It’s not only my opinion. It is an essential aspect of the body of international laws and conventions governing the constitutional status of nations. The following is from the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples, UNGA Res 1514(XV).

Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514

The old “Too wee! Too poor! Too stupid!” argument is not only nonsensical and insulting, it is unlawful!

There is no need for an “economic case for independence”. There can be no economic case against independence. Given that the Union is constitutionally anomalous, it is the Union which must be justified, on whatever grounds it may. Instead of putting so much of our energy into building an economic case for independence that is entirely redundant and was never going to be accepted by the British state in any case, we should have been demanding an economic case be made for preserving the constitutional aberration that is the Union.

Allowing the constitutional issue to be presented as a matter of economic calculation and engaging with debate on almost exclusively economic terms is arguably the most serious mistake made by the independence movement in Scotland. As Elliot Bulmer says, quoting Hassen Ebrahim, the constitution is the “soul of a nation”. In his own words, constitutions deal with,

… those fundamentals – in terms of institutions, rights, identity, values and principles – that bind us together as a political community.

Can the soul of a nation be weighed? Can it be accorded a monetary value? Are our “institutions, rights, identity, values and principles” for sale if we get the right offer?

The question is not whether Scotland can survive as an independent nation but whether Scotland can survive as a nation without independence. What economic argument could possibly convince us to accept the legitimacy of a constitutional arrangement imposed by the “dominant majority” and actively opposed by as much as half of Scotland’s people? Why would any democrat even imagine that such a constitutional settlement might be acceptable? How might it conceivably represent an “underlying stable settlement”? How can it be regarded as the “settled will” of Scotland’s people?

In a handful of short paragraphs Elliot Bulmer summarises the constitutional issue facing the people of Scotland. An issue that has yet to be resolved because, self-evidently, the vote in 2014 failed to resolve anything. It provided a result, but no decision. The constitutional question was left hanging largely because the constitutional issue was never properly debated in constitutional terms. Neither side offered a clearly defined constitutional option that could be the object of an informed choice. The Yes side presented voters with a plethora of visions, definitions and explanations such that no distinct idea of independence could emerge from the confusion. The No side, meanwhile, started by offering only the status quo, but then went on to adjust its offering throughout the period of the campaign until people had no way of knowing for certain what a No vote actually meant. They wouldn’t find out until after the votes were counted.

How different it might have been if the Yes campaign, instead of constantly reacting to the No side’s propaganda and going wherever the No side led, had stood firm on the distinctiveness of Scotland’s institutions, rights, identity, values and principles. How different if the Yes campaign had been based on the need to defend that distinctiveness against the effects of an imposed constitutional settlement formulated for the purpose of denying that distinctiveness.

How different Scotland’s predicament might be even now had our political leaders and influencers learned the lessons of the 2014 referendum.

Elliot Bulmer captures the essence of this denial when he describes the contradiction which beset the British state’s constitutional tinkering in the closing decades of the 20th century. He observes that the reforms

… had contradictory, irreconcilable aims: to modernise and democratise at the periphery, without challenging parliamentary sovereignty at the centre.

That final phrase is the killer. The entire devolution experiment intended to make the Union acceptable was embarked upon only on the strict condition that it would never put in jeopardy the very concepts and institutions which make the Union unacceptable. Is it any wonder the experiment failed with such inherently contradictory and incompatible objectives?

Elliot Bulmer goes on to note that the experiment was botched in other ways. It was “piecemeal”. The pieces didn’t fit together. He points to the failure to reform the House of Lords in conjunction with other changes and the fact that, while the Greater London Assembly was established, this was not part of any “wider scheme of devolution within England”. At the risk of seeming to tread in the mire of economics, we might also see this disjointedness in the way devolution in Scotland was done. It is a truism that the tax/benefit system is best administered as a single entity. They are too closely related for anything else to make sense. The very worst ‘solution’ imaginable would be to separate the administration of tax from the administration of benefits and then split the administration of each between different governments operating on different principles in markedly different political cultures. And yet this is pretty much exactly what the devolution reforms of the Smith Commission set out to do. One is prompted to wonder if failure was what was intended.

We have already touched on what Elliot Bulmer identifies as the most important failing of the British state’s constitutional reforms – the lack of any “constitutional conversation”. The 2014 referendum campaign was quite deliberately prevented from being the constitutional conversation it ought to have been by the British state’s propaganda machine. With, it must be acknowledged, the eager assistance of professional practitioners of the dismal science and a veritable army of enthusiastic amateurs within the Yes movement. Rather than being a conversation about the constitutional question on which people were being asked to vote, the 2014 referendum was made a futile and fruitless and endless and necessarily inconclusive squabble over money. Instead of intelligent and concerned people discussing institutions, rights, identity, values and principles we had opposing armies of benighted bean-counters battering each other with graphs and charts and statistics to the bored bemusement of voters in general.

The slogan “It’s the economy, stupid!” was coined by an economist. Or, at least, by some creative working for an economist. The fact that this idea has come to be so deeply embedded in our politics is a testament to the power of propaganda. It has absolutely nothing to do with what goes on in the real world. In fact, no political campaign was ever decided on an economic argument. For a start, no economic argument is ever unambiguous and unambivalent enough to inform a decision. And nobody really understands these arguments anyway. Normal people tend to become desiccated and brittle on contact with economic arguments and are reduced to wind-blown dust by explanations of economic arguments. They also know – or are intuitively aware – that economic forecasters never get anything right.

The purpose of an ‘economic case’ in any political campaign is not to inform voters’ choices but to justify choices already made on the basis of existing prejudices and preconceptions. People claim to have been persuaded one way or the other by the economic arguments only because they don’t want to admit that they’d spent the entire campaign trawling Netflix for anything that might drown out those pestilential economic campaigners and commentators. I’m an original 1970s political anorak and I don’t mind admitting that by the middle of 2013 I was ready to jump into one of those “fiscal black holes”.

So, now you understand why Elliot Bulmer’s guaranteed 100% economics-free analysis is so refreshing – all the way to the end!

And what an ending it is! All the warnings about England-as-Britain’s direction of political travel and the threat of populist British Nationalism and the precariousness of our democracy are rolled into his final paragraph. If it’s a good enough closing for Elliot Bulmer, it’ll do for me.

We have already seen attempts to undermine the judiciary, weaken parliament and politicise the civil service. This follows the same playbook used by other authoritarian populists across the western world, but the UK is in a uniquely vulnerable position. The lack of a written constitution means everything can be swept away by an ordinary parliamentary majority. No institution is safe. Democracy hangs on a thin thread

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14 thoughts on “Can the soul of a nation be weighed?

  1. In the end, Mr Bell, it has to come down to the NO voters of 2014. If everyone has been reading the comments offered, in the ‘From NO to YES’ pieces in The National, by previous NO voters who have discovered a Damascene Conversion, the aspect of their explanations that I – and it is just my opinion – have taken from them, especially this week’s excruciatingly patronizing piece, is how stupid we independistas have been to have accepted this p**h.

    These people are not to be applauded for their eventual, open-eyed wonder at how they could have missed the reality of the Union in 2014, but need to be told that little, apart from Brexit, has changed the circumstances that pertained prior to 2014. All the things about the Union that they now abhor were there for all to see in 2014.

    I don’t mean they should be castigated, pointless now, although I do find it hard to not wish to slap Mr Fernandes for his assumption that he, in Scotland for three years only prior to the referendum, was in a position to know better than people who had campaigned for decades, whether Scotland required independence or not, but they most certainly need to know what their NO vote cost us. It is fine and dandy to blame the SNP, but, at the end of the day, we are all human beings and it behoves us to use our votes reasonably and to avoid knee-jerk reactions.

    The other point is that many voters do vote in a bubble of me-ism and self-interest. No voters of 2014, in that respect, are no different from the aristocrats of pre Communist Russia or pre Revolution France: they want to keep what they have at the expense of those who have not, and eventually, conflict must break out where no respite to selfishness is offered. It is invariably the selfishness of the status quo-ers or of the reactionaries that cause strife. Power and its preservation.

    Our right to self-determination, which has moved from devolution to independence, is enshrined in the UN Charter, as are our human rights. NO voters have no reciprocal right to stand in the way of our self-determination. It is as simple as that. That position, allied to bringing a case against England-as-the-UK in the ICJ in order to resile the Treaty is the only way left to gain independence. Nothing in the domestic arena can work now, except, perhaps, civil disobedience. As I have tried to show in other comments, it is small minorities or large minorities, but almost always minorities who make the most noise, and the majority backs off.

    Four minorities allied in 2014 for the sole purpose and contrary to international law – because they had nothing whatsoever else in common – to thwart independence: the Tories, Labour (and their shorts in the Orange Movement) the Lib Dems and rUK voters. Their foghorn voices are still drowning out those of the majority of Scots who want independence, just as a tiny minority of misogynists has hi-jacked the trans issue to drown out women whose rights they threaten quite deliberately and knowingly. We are living in the age of minority tyranny.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Regards 2014…. Unfortunately, the economic arguments did take precedence, and was very much in the minds of many “No” voters. It is all many of thee thought about.
    Be it those concerned over their pensions, or those concerned over their savings accounts. And their were a few who worried about how Social Security benefits could continue, etc.
    The UK Establishment wanted it that way, and got it exactly their way!
    To say the economics was not a major factor in the eventual outcome, is mistaken.
    However, the YES side, lead by SNP, was totally misguided in keeping that focus on economics, and feeling the need to having to justify absolutely everything on that side of it.
    The SNP leaderships greatest mistake, I’d say on that front, was to stubbornly insist there wold be a Currency Union, even tho London said there wouldn’t be.
    Now regardless of whether on Independence, London would have accepted Currency Union, for the time being at least, and they probably would have been left little choice, the fact is, they went thru all of 214,, insisting point blank, there would be no such monetary alignment, It just wasn’t going to happen. Yet rather than cal their bluff, and SNP say, okay fine, we will ave our our currency and throw that back at them, SNP went full steam ahead into this oncoming fire of monetary propaganda.
    We know that Alistair Darling was in favor of a Currency Union, and he must have feared an Independent Scottish Currency, but he was lining up against it, until SNP went for the Currency Union concept. That was unexpected for him, so he set out to oppose it, simply to create confusion.
    Had SNP ditched their original plan, Darling would then have had to justify why he thought it was a bad idea after thinking it was a good idea! He (Darling) would then have to say why he was opposed to an Independent Currency for Scotland, after telling us for some months it was the only option!
    But they didn’t do that. It was a major mistake of the SNP Leadership, if not their greatest.
    It caused great frustration among other YES campaigners, but there was nothing they could about it.
    It was out of their hands, and in those of SNP. Salmond & Co. were the leaders, and it’s their decisions that went, and we had to go by.
    One they seemed almost set to continue with, even today

    There were other mistakes, which while not directly associated with the Independence movement, did have an impact in my view.
    The merging of Police and Fire being one. This took important Headquarter functions and autonomy away from places like Dumfries, Inverness and Aberdeen, as well as others.
    Now, this might seem rather a minor point, but it did matter in those ares, especially in a place like Dumfries, and they resented it greatly, and they still do today.
    To overlook something like thus, is again, I’d say, a very great mistake.
    The architect of this needless change, MacAskill, is now an MP and one of those in SNP who tell us we should wait, and wait and wait, before Independence. Wait for what we can’t see, but wait anyway!
    That this unpopular change in local autonomy was made right before an Independence Referendum, is to be wondered at. And they couldn’t see how damaging that was?
    We would have thought common sense might’ve told them not to go along with this move.
    It is noticeable, that matters relating to Local Authorities, and Council structures, etc, are not high on the list of Scottish Parliament priorities, and that is true across all the political groups at Edinburgh. But, it has an effect on folks when you are trying to win them over to Independence.
    What might seem like a “simple” thing as this, can have a big impact on some.
    These things do matter.

    Alas, it is a fact, again, too many see it as what is the here and the now.
    They don’t seem to understand, if they don’t like this or that, they can, with Independence, do something about it.
    A current example of this mentality, being those opposed to this new GDA thing going thru Parliament. They declare they will vote against Independence if it does pass..Well…. what good will that do anyone?
    That Gender Law will be there, and without Independence, it will still be there. With Independence it could be changed to something more acceptable and reasonable. They seem incapable of seeing it that way, however.
    Others just don’t want to, and self righteously declare it would be no different from now, with Independence, as their own way of opposing ending the Union. Such as these, we have to admit, will never support Independence, and they will use whatever excuses come to mind. We can forget about trying to win that lot over.
    But there is a great many “swing” voters. Many undecideds, and we have to be mindful of that group we can, and should win over.

    As things stand, those with the power as has been pointed out, seem only to be reacting to events, or allow themselves to be backed into a corner.
    That has to change.
    And also, as I and others have said, this insistence on having a Referendum first before all else, and of meekly accepting everything London throws at Scotland otherwise, has to change.
    And that last mentality and policy of SNP is at present, their greatest mistake.


      1. I understand that… but far too many didn’t see it that way, They put economics before all else.
        That was what I was trying to get explain.


    1. Yes, indeed, Mr Keane, economics became the crucial factor because we allowed it to be. As for the GRA, no, the SG is pushing ahead with it despite Westminster backing off from self-ID. For many women, this feels like a betrayal., and I’m afraid it is endemic in the SNP – supporting minorities at the expense of the majority. It is incomprehensible in any situation, but a number of the SNP representatives appear to be refusing to back off. All that women are asking for is a deeper and more far-reaching examination of the legal implications for women of this legislation; we are not saying: stamp all over trans rights. We want the legislation to suspended until the implications for women’s rights are examined closely – and they are profound, whatever the right-on, ‘all things to all men’ brigade who appear to have hi-jacked the SNP have to say. If this legislation goes through on the nod, when the implications become reality, it will be too late.

      Just like Scottish politics of the Unionist variety, it is a small but aggressive and vociferous group that is pushing this, and their language gives away the fact that they are misogynists with little interest in women’s rights. Both these instances are ones where power and the pursuit of power by small minorities, allied to bigger interest groups, manage to achieve a circumvention of majority rights by shouting louder and by being pandered to by the right-on brigade. Children and young people’s right not to be filled with hormones and/or be operated on until they can decide for themselves is also at stake here. We should not forget that the Brexiteers were a minority at one time, as were the Nazis, and the two ‘comfortable’ parties in Ireland look set to try and crush Sinn Fein out of the running, despite that party being the choice of the electorate, with more votes than either of the other two.

      The gullible are always too ready to swallow right-on propaganda without examining its essentials because it makes them fell good/superior/right (delete as appropriate) even while they may be leading people to hell: Brexit is all about regaining England-as-the-UK’s independence (it isn’t, the empire days are gone and Englanddoesnlt need its independence because it has its and always has had it); self-ID is about affording trans people better lives (it’s not, it will lead to an erosion of women’s rights and women are being re-defined as TERFs or cis women without a by-your-leave); Sinn Fein is still allied to the IRA, say the two state parties (it isn’t and has been distancing itself since Gerry Adams gave up the leadership, and a united Ireland is back on the agenda in both the North and the South, which neither the leadership of the Dail may wish for, nor the DUP, but the people do, more and more). We have to stop this pandering to aggressive minorities who, generally, have no locus for their pushiness and no legal/moral right to demand anything. It will cost us our last chance at independence.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. “…in less than 900 words…” hmmm, I wonder if there’s a lesson there.

    An excellent analysis, but what do we do? Yes, mistakes were made and continue to be made, the SNP are in a corner navel gazing, the FM rules the party with an iron fist….So what do we do? Just get Indy done!! Gather all the MP’s, MSP’s etc together and declare we are independent.


  4. In so many ways I struggle to even express my views regarding the political party of my choice. Scotland is not best served by ANY of the predominant political parties that currently exist and their future strategy( if they have one) . EG the Woke or for those of us who are still asleep our freedom and rights of expression positive or negative is under catastrophic threat. The assault on our very freedom of speech hangs by a thread before the hangmans noose. We need to cut the rope because if we do not there is no independent future.


  5. The words of Secu Toure, the First President of the Republic of Guinea, to Charles DeGaulle, when the latter offered Guinea a place in French commonwealth rather than independence, are salutary:

    “”We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery”.

    Only when our “institutions, rights, identity, values and principles” become more important to us than our economy and finances will we choose independence over riches in slavery. The reality is that only the already rich will enjoy riches in slavery.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Having, or desiring, independent government for its own right, and regardless of all else, yields self-respect.

      With self-respect it follows that we have, and know our, self-worth.

      Economic prosperity, or even the prospect of, cannot price in the value that we place upon ourselves.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Or, alternatively, we could actually do something about achieving our independence and screw the me-ists, Steelwires, because, as I have tried to point out, the me-ists are mainly small, minority groupings reliant upon each other’s succour to achieve anything? Let them oppose independence when we take our case to the ICJ and the UN. They will always win if we insist on pre independence referendums instead of establishing our independence first and, then, holding a confirmatory/ratifying referendum.

      Liked by 4 people

  6. People have to pay bills and put clothes on their children. And old people, most not living in the lap of luxury, are prey to fears about their already precarious economic position.
    We have to educate people on Scotland’s economy because there are Yes votes in it.
    However broadly I agree with the article.
    Ironically, aside from the older folk, it is the affluent who will hair-split on the economics, the ones who would be fine in an independent Scotland, even if there was short-term turbulence. The young and the working class can be persuaded on other grounds.


  7. Is Scotland a “sovereign state”? Is it a nation? Does Scotland desire to be regarded as a self-governing autonomous entity? Does Scotland desire to remain part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain? The questions of devolution.
    An unwritten constitution, to paraphrase the columnist, is at the mercy of popular vote in Parliament; more fragile than paper.
    A United kingdom is not the same as an United Nations. Nationhood is the watchword I gather.
    Can Scotland raise a ‘brave heart’?


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