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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