Democratic dilemma

One person, one vote! The majority rules! That’s democracy! That’s all there is to it. Isn’t it? Anoraks like myself may insist that there is more to democracy than this. But ask a hundred people chosen at random from Scotland’s electorate what democracy is and those two things will feature most prominently in their responses. We each get one vote and when all the votes are counted the highest number wins. There might be the occasional mention of popular sovereignty. Maybe the odd reference to ultimate political authority or democratic legitimacy. But, for the most part, people will tend most commonly to reach for those to things as the essential attributes of democracy. One person, on vote! The majority rules! That’s democracy.

But it’s not always that simple. While it’s true that we each get one vote and in that sense we’re all equal, it is also true that some votes count for more than others. We are equal in strict numerical terms, but not equal in terms of the effect of the one vote that each of us has. The first past the post (FPTP) system is notorious for affording disproportionate influence to a relatively tiny number of ‘swing voters’. At every election, individuals and groups seek to enhance the relative value of their votes by means of diverse ‘tactical voting’ strategies. If you live in any part of the UK that isn’t England, it’s likely that your vote could be worthless. Arithmetic and the Union make it so.

Look at any political or electoral map of the UK and, unless you’re very seriously prejudiced, you’ll see that Scotland is different. The outcome of the 2016 EU referendum nicely illustrates the situation. Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted differently from England (with Wales). Scotland voted Remain. England voted leave. Scotland’s vote counted for nothing, Regardless of which way you voted, if you voted in Scotland (or Northern Ireland) your vote had no value. It had no effect.

Political science lecturer Sean Swan summed up the situation rather well. In an article for the London School of Economics back in March 2017 he observed,

Scotland’s position within the UK is intolerable. Under the British constitution, it is irrelevant that 57 of Scotland’s 59 MPs are opposed to Brexit; irrelevant that Scotland voted two to one against Brexit; and irrelevant that Brexit is opposed by the parliament and government of Scotland. Regardless of whether or not there is a majority in favour of outright independence, the status quo reduces democracy in Scotland to a mockery in which neither (Scottish) popular nor (Scottish) parliamentary sovereignty apply.

A democratic outrage: Scotland’s constitutional position and Brexit

Brexit is one example of how the Union devalues democracy in those parts of the UK which are peripheral to England-as-Britain. It is by no means the only such example. The instances of Scotland’s votes being discounted are too numerous to relate. Those maps clearly indicate that Scotland is already separate from England-as-Britain in all sorts of ways. The needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s voters differ markedly from those of England-as-Britain. In Scotland, the way we vote reflects this difference. But the only time our votes count – the only time they have any apparent effect – is on those increasingly rare occasions when our preferences happen to coincide with the preferences of a majority of voters in England-as-Britain. Failing that, our votes don’t count. Whatever we vote for, what we get is what a different country votes for.

But supposing the EU vote was the only instance of Scotland’s vote being ignored, it would be enough. Only a single instance is necessary to demonstrate the fact that the Union is ant-democratic. A thing is anti-democratic if it so much as has the potential to deny a fundamental principle of democracy. If there is any democratic principle that the Union doesn’t at least have the potential to deny then I have been unable to discover it. If further proof of this were needed then we need only look to the way the Union asserts for the political elite of England-as-Britain legal authority to veto Scotland’s right of self-determination.

As tyrants know and totalitarian states demonstrate, control of certain aspects of the life of a nation is equivalent to control of all aspects of the nation’s life. Lip service may be paid to democracy by honouring the principle of one person, one vote even as genuine democracy is denied by the differential weighting of those individual votes.

Similarly, the idea of majority rule becomes less clear-cut when there is the capacity – or the potential – to alter the definition of a majority. If majority is a shifting concept then it is inevitably going to be shifted by those with the power to do so in order to favour those who have that power. All power ultimately serves itself. If there exists a power to influence what constitutes a majority then this influence will be used to enhance and entrench that power. It is in this way that established power comes to be established. Again, it needs only one example to prove the point. In 2014, a majority for No counted. In 2016, a majority for Remain didn’t.

Somebody is bound to point to the fact that sometimes the shifting concept of a majority works to Scotland’s benefit. Mention the ‘40% rule’ which denied us devolution in 1979 by redefining a majority as insufficient to rule and they will point out that this was rectified with the 1997 referendum. But only because it was what established power wanted. Had the British state not wanted devolution; had it not been deemed to suit the purposes of England-as-Britain, then it would not have happened. The Union gives the British political elite that power. The 1997 referendum may be held up as an example of British democracy is action. But can it be counted as democracy if it is subject to the whim of a ruling elite? Is it genuine democracy if it could have been denied – even if it wasn’t?

We voted for devolution. And we got it. That’s democracy. Isn’t it? Even if that vote could have been overruled? Even if it wasn’t overruled only because devolution was permitted only on the strict condition that it didn’t undermine the Union which guarantees the superiority of England-as-Britain? Even if the purpose of devolution was to tighten the British state’s grip on Scotland rather than loosen it?

Herein lies the dilemma. How can the exercise of democracy undermine the exercise of democracy? How might we vote away our right to vote? If we accept the fundamental democratic principle that all legitimate political authority derives from the people, how can democracy include the right to diminish that authority? Does democracy not bestow on us a responsibility to defend democracy even if – especially if – the majority favours the erosion of democracy?

Can the majority rule against majority rule? Does the minority in such a circumstance have a solemn duty to defend democracy against the majority?

These are important questions. They relate directly to Scotland’s predicament. And to how we respond to that predicament. That the Union is incompatible with democracy cannot be in doubt. How then should we relate to those who insist that the Union be maintained – even if they are the majority?

Does removing an impediment to democracy take precedence over the commonly accepted rules of the democratic process? Is the principle more important than the practice?

As a democrat, I am bound by the choices and decisions of the majority. As a democrat I am compelled to abolish the anti-democratic Union. Can I, in good conscience, accept the Union because it is favoured by the majority even knowing that the Union adversely affects the very democracy which requires that I respect the will of the people?



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10 thoughts on “Democratic dilemma

  1. As I write I have on my screen your blackboard which reads:

    Independence Formula – Lever (SNP) – Fulcrum (Scottish Government) – Base (Scottish Parliament) – Force (Yes Movement) = Effect (Dissolve the Union).I sometimes pop it up onto my laptop screen – and ask myself – if it is correct, why has it not worked?

    If one views it as a work in progress, heading to a clear end point – questions arise.

    Are there identifiable factors which are slowing it down from working?

    Are there identifiable factors which may prevent it from attaining any visible forward progress?

    Indeed, are there clearly identifiable factors which may impede and obstruct it entirely?

    If the formula is correct – why is it not working?

    I start (but do not conclude) my answer with one further but central question.

    If there are such factors – from where, or from whom, do they arise?

    Questions are good – they produce answers – and if they lead to the removal of impediments or barriers to our country’s independence we need to find the answers. (it is one, but only one, where I remain (reasonably) convinced we need to “get to grips” with the Regional List Vote. I do genuinely believe it has a part to play – as to how, I remain in thinking mode!

    Your formula is correct – and may I suggest the candidate to force the changes we need lies with the Yes movement – they are not in any way the identifiable source of the problem(s) within the Formula – they are the for me the only solution, and the democratic one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The lever I describe in that analogy is a tool. If a tool isn’t working as it should then we should ask two questions: Is the tool defective? Is the tool being used correctly? If we conclude that the tool is defective then we have two choices – we can either repair it or replace it. If we conclude that the tool is not being used correctly then we have two similar choices – we can either learn to use it better or we can find another user.

      The faults with the tool have already been identified. The necessary repairs have already been described. Improved ways of using the tool have already been devised.

      No replacement has been identified. No alternative user exists. The choice seems pretty straightforward to me. The existing user can spend their time and energy trying to find or contrive a replacement tool by the deadline and wishing for a better user. Or they can get on with the job of making the tool they have work the way they want it to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yet, most of the pro independence movement (SNP, YES, etc.) refuse to see anything beyond a referendum (even if not a S30 one) as the only route to independence, and, that, yet again, will hand the initiative and the advantage to the NO voters. Yes, but, they cry, we must have a majority of the people wanting independence or this, that or the other could happen. No, we don’t. The reason that we don’t have to demonstrate a majority in any referendum is: a) because referendums are not necessary in law, domestic or international, and I defy anyone to point to any legal obligation that it is necessary; b) because they can be interfered with. What has happened is the mechanism that might have delivered independence has now become the sole mechanism for independence, and self-destructive pro independence supporters have backed themselves into a corner – all in the name of so-called democracy and one vote per person for everyone in Scotland, and that seems so right-on, who could question it? Well, I do, because it is supremely and essentially self-defeating, always forcing the pro independence movement to ‘prove’ that there is a will for independence on a given day, in a given week in a given month in a given year, as opposed to a vote for independence parties for several years in all elections. How bloody democratic is that?

    Yes, the self-defeating pro independence lot cry, but not everyone who votes SNP or Green or SSP, etc. is pro independence. Maybe not, but, if the SNP, in particular, was to put a policy in its Manifesto that stated quite reasonably that, being the party of independence, it would move towards independence immediately on winning, if it won, the election, who could argue with that? No one. But argue they do. In this, the pro and anti independence supporters are as one. Fear of an SNP defeat in the polls, then by the minorities’ anti independence alliance? Aye, democracy, right enough. Straight out of the manual on ‘How to Bring your Dreams to Naught’ by I. MacShot MyselfintheFoot. Did someone say we have a Treaty which may be adjudicated in international law? Well, let’s do nothing about it, even though it shows that we are a partner and not the colony that England-as-the-UK has always treated us, because…well…we don’t want to upset all those nice NO voters who mean well, and who might, some day, see the light. Never mind that England-as-the-UK will use it against us quicker than you can say, bye, bye Scotland, when the chips are down and we have to negotiate our way out of the Union, probably ending up asset-less and resource-less because, hey, it is right-on and the poor Unionists don’t have much. Let’s tie both hands behind our backs and give England-as-the-UK a head’s start, poor thing.

    It is democratic, legal, legitimate, peaceful and eminently sensible to use the Treaty – the means of entering this accursed Union – to leave the Union. All the better if we crowdfund the action as the people of Scotland or a substantial section of it – 50% is more than enough – or are independence supporters saying that the Unionist 50% is more democratic, more legal, more legitimate, more worthy of representation than our 50%? If we bring an action on the Treaty as the inheritors of the Scottish people who entered it, when we were still living in an independent country, we have the right to have it resiled under international law in one of the special tribunals set up to deal with old treaties. We also have the right to appeal to the UN Charter on self-determination and on human rights. These are substantial rights that we already hold. The Unionists can bleat all they like, but they have no corresponding right to thwart our rights under the Charter. They have no right to prevent us from taking theTreaty for ‘sounding’ in law and for adjudication. They may present their own case against resiling of the Treaty, but they have no forgone right to prevent our leaving the Union. It is way past the time when we started to understand what our rights are and to stop pandering to minority sections of Scottish society who, on their own, have not won any democratic election, our primary source of authority in the UK. Only by banding together for one occasion, for one vote, on one day, in one week, in one month of one year, in order to push through their own minority self-interests, which they are disinclined to do for any other reason than anti independence, can they defeat us, and then, fairly narrowly. Time to stop being right-on and self-defeating, and time to be ruthless and winning. The Unionists do it all the time, these No-voting minority groups whose narrow self-interest comes before the interests of an entire nation of people.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Indeed, Mr Bell, but not, emphatically not, a pre independence referendum. Basically, every country that gained its independence in the mid to late 20th century did so after a post independence referendum, a confirmatory or ratifying one. Every country that has sought its independence in the 21st century has lost the pre independence referendum or, I think there was one tiny past of Papua New Guinea that is still waiting, months and months later, for it to be implemented, having won a majority for independence, lost. These are facts. Why should Scotland be the exception that proves the rule? Nothing thus far has gone our way. The referendum route is a trap, a self-made one, Mr Bell, which allows the Unionists to fight a rearguard action, hampering and hindering and interfering. The 2014 indyref should have been the last because it alerted the establishment to how close we came, and they were not prepared for that. There are still many questions around it, too, about how it was conducted, etc. People who want independence need to get their heads round WHY we are hampered and hindered so much, why the media tries to kill off any good news story about the SG, why the Unionist parties at Holyrood and at Westminster do all in their power to limit our powers and leave us voiceless: resources and assets; and England-as-the-UK is going to be desperate for these in the near future. We need to secure them before they are taken from us – which they will be if we do not get that Treaty ‘sound’ in law and challenged. If we do not, even winning a pre independence referendum, extremely difficult now, will lead nowhere in the end, and we will be left stripped of our resources and compromised and crippled economically for the foreseeable future.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Indeed. What comes first is some form of UDI. Which others will declare the very work of Satan. But which thinking people will recognise as not only a very ordinary course but an absolutely necessary one.

        A referendum is only a trap if you conceded to your opponents the power to significantly influence the process. I would suggest that we do it right. I see absolutely no point in doing it wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. And that is precisely what we did in 2014, with the best will in the world. Many people who should never have had a vote on this constitutional issue had one, for starters. This still rankles. It rankles even more that most of them actually did use it to vote NO, in full knowledge that they were interfering unjustly in another country’s independence bid. The naivety that ran alongside the referendum campaign was plain to see: we trusted people to use their vote wisely and to think before they used it. That is why another pre independence referendum is such a risk. If, after having been warned that another NO vote is possible, even more than possible, I would find it very hard to forgive those who continued to call for a referendum and we lost again. Most talk as if the 1979/1997 referendums were, in some way, indicative of a kind of inevitability, but these were referendums for devolution, not the finality of independence. Our assets and resources were remaining where they were in 1979/1997; indeed, they shifted out of our hands (oil/territorial waters) precisely because of devolution and its limits, because of the chicanery at the heart of the UK. Independence would remove them from Westminster and Whitehall’s fiefdom. Therein lies the huge difference between voting for/allowing something that is not going to cost you much, and is not going to affect you greatly at the end of the day, and voting for something that will bring massive changes to the structure of the UK (mummy). It is here that people feel the fear factor whispering in their ears: what about my pension; what about a border; what about being foreign, essentially, to grandma and grandpa in England? Sometimes, you have to face up to the fear of others and try to persuade them on, but, more often, you have to navigate around it and render it ineffectual in order to conquer it. Sometimes, trying to save a floundering person is right at that moment and you can be successful, if you, yourself are a very powerful swimmer; but, usually, you have to swim away before they pull you under with them, and call out the lifeboat when you get ashore. That way, you have a chance of saving both instead of both going down with the sinking ship. It appears to me that the vast majority of pro independence supporters are prepared to be pulled under just to prove what jolly nice human beings they are. They are not; they are behaving in a self-destructive and self-defeating manner that no self-respecting Unionist would ever dream of doing.

    Liked by 1 person

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