However, we are fast learning that the problem with devolution is that the powers and competences of the Scottish Parliament exist only at Westminster’s pleasure.SNP need independence ‘contingency’ plans as Tories rip up the rule book
I am not sure who the “we” is in this sentence, but the “we” that includes me have known this ever since devolution was first conceived of. If anyone is only just figuring this out now then “fast” is not the appropriate word to describe their learning process. If someone is just learning for the first time that “power devolved is power retained” – as Canon Kenyon Wright put it – then let me be among the first to welcome them to our planet. We might well add that it is not only “powers and competencies” but the Scottish Parliament itself which lives in the constant shadow of the British state’s boot heel.
Few things, excepting the British government’s behaviour towards Scotland, better exemplify the precariousness of Scotland’s democracy under the Union than Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998).
Basically, Section 30 means that any British Prime Minister, wielding monarchical powers, can do as they please with the devolution settlement and the Scottish Parliament. It will be argued that this authority is not absolute; that there are formal (legal/constitutional) and informal (political) constraints that stay the hand of the British Premier. But Scotland’s status in the Union means that those formal constraints are no more guaranteed to us than are the competences of the Scottish Parliament. Because they are guaranteed to us only by the British state. Which, as Section 30 of the Scotland Act (1998) makes clear, is no guarantee at all.
As to the informal constraints, they are no more secure than the formal ones. Politics is the dynamic management of relationships of power. The important word here being “dynamic”. Circumstances are never fixed. Situations are always fluid. The purpose of the Union is to give England-as-Britain a permanent and very considerable advantage in managing power relationships with Scotland – which to all intents and purposes is regarded as annexed territory. It is never a question of whether the ruling elites of nascent Little Britain have the advantage but only ever a question of whether and how they use that advantage.
For much of the latter half of the period of the Union to date the British ruling elite have opted to take a ‘soft’ approach to matters. In this, they were enabled by having placemen in Scotland giving them control of much of the apparatus of the Scottish state while giving the appearance of control being local. But that changed with devolution. Or, to be more precise, it changed with the rise of the Scottish National Party. The Scottish Parliament was intended to be permanently under the control of the British parties. It mattered not at all to the British which of the British parties it was as they also had control of the British parties – the British political parties being part of the British establishment.
Devolution was only permitted by the British ruling elite because and on condition that the Union was fully protected. Only when the right interests had been persuaded that the Union would never be placed in jeopardy was the devolution experiment allowed to proceed. Section 30 is the belt to go with the braces. It is there to persuade doubters that devolution poses no threat to the parliamentary sovereignty which legitimises the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.
The important dates on the devolution time-line are 2007, when the British parties lost control of the ‘pretendy wee parliament’, and 2011, when the Scottish electorate via the SNP gave jealous Britannia a bit of a kick on the arse. That got her attention.
Ever since 2011, and in some regards since 2007, the British political elite has been intent on undermining, sidelining, denigrating and delegitimising the Scottish Parliament. The distinct political culture that had always existed in the depths of Scotland’s culture began to rise to the surface. Under the SNP, this distinctiveness was being formalised in Scotland’s institutions and infrastructure. This could not be permitted. The soft approach to keeping Scotland reined and hobbled had to harden. Britannia had to rule, whatever the cost.
We are not just learning all of this. It was known as long ago as 2007 that the British were coming to burn down our Parliament and enfold all of Scotland once and for all into the chill embrace of Greater England. Is is absolutely no surprise to find that the British state has found in Boris Johnson a British Prime Minister who will facilitate the re-annexation of Scotland. It comes as no shock at all to witness the British government taking an ever harder line in its dealings with Scotland. It was only to be expected that the advantage afforded British Nationalists by the Union would be exploited with increasingly explicit rigour. That’s just politics!
The 4th dimension
One of the more perplexing things about political discourse around the constitutional issue is the strange tendency on the part of many people to exclude the fourth dimension from their thinking. It’s not just that they analyse and speculate as if time didn’t matter. Very often they proceed as if time didn’t exist. They will articulate proposals or solutions as if time was not a consideration. If they detail process to any extent at all, that process is time-compressed in a manner reminiscent of the way time is compressed in movies and TV shows. Characters are in one place and then they are in another and the time taken to get from one place to another doesn’t exist unless that time is useful to the telling of the story.
Call me what you will. I once did a rough calculation which made my point. I no longer have the details to hand and can’t even remember what the TV programme was, other than that it was a UK crime drama or an episode of a police procedural series. Noting all the locations in which the lead character appeared within the time period represented in the story, I calculated the journey times involved. The result showed that in a period of less than 24 hours the character had spent more than 20 hours travelling. Virtually all of that time had been ‘disappeared’ by the programme makers.
And so it is with much of the ‘thinking’ about Scotland’s constitutional situation. People will insist that we need a new party to be the political arm of the independence movement. Having decided this, they then go straight to the new location omitting completely the time it takes to get there. Mention the fact that it’s taken the SNP 90 years to get where it is and you will be accused of being a party loyalist. I could give many more examples. But I think you get the idea. The thing that tends to be omitted from proposals and plans is a time-frame. Or at least a realistic time frame.
Time matters. In the context of Scotland’s predicament time is of the essence. The time-frame is not something we can manipulate to squeeze in however much action we want. The time-frame within which we must act it restricted, restrictive and growing tighter by the hour. It is most definitely not open-ended, as implied by Nicola Sturgeon in recent remarks made in an interview with Andrew Marr. The journey time to the location at which the coronavirus crisis and its “economic legacy” is dealt with is undefined and undefinable, but without doubt far longer than the duration of the episode we are in.
Things are happening. Things are about to happen. Things that will be to the severe detriment of Scotland and its people and its democracy. We know this! We have a copy of the script. We can see the other players cards. The other player is now so emboldened as to be making no attempt to conceal those cards. There are mere months at most until Scotland arrives at what will effectively be a point of no return. A point at which we are locked into a new Union on terms unilaterally decided by the British political elite – absent any meaningful consultation with Scotland’s political leaders and without the consent of Scotland’s people. A point at which all democratic routes to the restoration of Scotland’s independence are closed and sealed. A point at which England-as-Britain finalises the annexation of Scotland. A point at which Scotland effectively ceases to exist as a nation other than for certain marketing purposes. (Ironically, ‘Scotland The Brand’ will survive. But it will be wholly owned by the British ruling elite.)
It is not only in the general political blethering that there is a strong tendency to disregard the time factor. The same tendency has afflicted ‘thinking’ within the SNP. For the last five or six years the upper echelons of the party have behaved as if populated entirely by Pete Wishart clones. But let’s not get into that. The failures and failings of the SNP over the period since 2014 are a matter of record. This issue has been endlessly discussed and minutely analysed by countless people – myself concluded. And that is as it should be. It is entirely fitting and absolutely essential that these failures and failings be known and understood.
But we know! We understand! There comes a point where you have to pack up that knowledge and understanding and take it with you as you move on – always aware that you have that knowledge and understanding still and for whatever use it might be.
We have to move on. Because, like it or not and regardless of whatever else may be going on in the world, we are caught in a time-frame from which we cannot escape. Everything that has happened since 2007 has been building up – at an accelerating pace – to developments that will unfold over the coming six months or so. Brexit at the end of this year is destined to be a defining moment in Scotland’s history every bit as much as the SNP landslide of 2011. At that point, the true nature and purpose of the Union will be made abundantly clear to all. The advantage afforded England-as-Britain will manifest as naked domination rather than the disrespect, disregard and clumsily subtle delegitimisation we’ve seen up to now. Unless we do something about it. And do it now!
What to do?
What should we do? What can we do? Taking due account of all factors including the constraints of time, how should we proceed? Avoiding the error of supposing that the end is the process, what should that process be? What is the end anyway?
If you suppose the end to be flooding the Scottish Parliament with pro-independence MSPs, you will think primarily in terms of a process which leads to that end. Or, as is presently the case with certain actors on the fringes of Scottish politics, you will disdain to consider the process at all.
If you suppose the end to be implementation of a particular policy agenda, you will think primarily in terms of a process which leads to that end. Or, as is presently the case with certain actors on the fringes of Scottish politics, you will disdain to consider the process at all.
If you suppose the end to be the dissolution of the Union and the restoration of Scotland’s independence, you will think primarily in terms of a process which leads to that end. Or, as is presently the case with the SNP leadership, you will exhibit no outward indications of considering the process at all.
But the SNP is hardly at the fringes of Scotland’s politics. It is right there at the centre. It is one of the critical components of the apparatus and process by which Scotland will be saved from the trundling juggernaut of British Nationalism. There are four such critical components – the people of Scotland; the Scottish Parliament; the Scottish Government; and the Scottish National Party. Remove or disable any one of these components and you also remove any possibility of Scotland having and retaining the power to determine its own future.
Only one of those components is disputed within the independence movement. The SNP! It is just a political party! It is not the whole independence movement! It’s not all about the SNP! How often have you heard such things said? Are you not sick of it?
The SNP is ‘just a political party’. But political parties are important. They are the means by which people exercise collective power in the realm of public policy in the same way as trade unions are the way people exercise power in the realm of employment. The only ones who disparage the utility of political parties are those who have reason to fear the collective power of people. Or those who are ignorant of what political parties actually are and what they are for.
If a political party ceases to be a vehicle for collective power then that can only be because the people who own that party aren’t using their collective power to control it. Power that is not exercised does not evaporate. It goes by default to those who are prepared to exercise it. Thus, through apathy and indolence, the collective power of political parties falls to an elite within the party. Then the apathetic and the indolent disparage political parties for not allowing them the power they disdained to exercise. The more political parties are disparaged, the more those with a tendency to apathy and indolence disdain to use them as vehicles for their democratic power. So, the more that democratic power falls to the elite that is prepared to seize it and use it for its own purposes.
See the vicious cycle?
If you do, you’ll recognise what has happened to political parties through the ages and what is happening to the SNP now. Members forsake their power within the party and that power is taken by a relatively small clique and members disengage because they cease to see the party as a means to exercise collective power so they forsake that power and… so it goes on.
Now place this in the context of the immediate constitutional predicament and the urgent need to end the Union before the Union ends Scotland. The SNP is a crucial part of this because it is the only political party in a position to turn popular power into effective political power. It is the only party which is available to us right now through which the people can exercise collective power in order to achieve the end of restoring independence.
There may be other parties which lay claim to this role. It may be claimed that this role may be fulfilled by a number of parties. Think about that one for a moment. Collective power exercised through numerous agencies!? It is a glaring contradiction in terms! And the parties which proclaim themselves alternatives to the SNP are guilty of the fallacy of the missing fourth dimension. There is no time! What must be done must be done now! Not in however many election cycles it takes for an alternative to emerge! A party which will, in any case, be susceptible to the same problems as are now besetting the SNP!
Hands up everybody who thinks the British political elite respects the collective and the consensual and ‘rainbow coalitions’. All the naive fools may now lower their hands. The British state respects only brute political power. Even if there were another party or parties in a position to give effect to the collective power of the people that party or parties would not be effective because to split collective power is to weaken it. That is why trade unionists have a certain antipathy for ‘scabs’.
The logic goes thus. The SNP plays a crucial role in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. No viable alternative is available and there is zero possibility of such an alternative becoming available in time to be a viable alternative. The SNP is not fulfilling its role as a component of the apparatus by which independence will be restored. Conclusion! Make the SNP fulfil its role!
Why is this not obvious? Why are people abandoning the SNP and running around grabbing at any magical solution or cunning plan whose glitter catches their eye? Why are they abandoning the simplest logical path to go wandering in the desert of ineffectual whining? Why are they not choosing to be effective? Why are they not using the democratic power they possess in the most effective way possible by deploying the tools already at their disposal? Is it only because they have lost the capacity to appreciate time? Is it because they are unaware of Scotland’s true predicament and the imminence of the threat to our nation?
A question of loyalty
It should be clear from the foregoing that I regard the SNP as a tool. Just as I regard all political parties as tools. One can have a certain fondness for tools. One can have favourites. One can appreciate the particular attributes of a tool and the efficiency with which it performs its function. One will certainly favour a particular tool over another when it comes to a specific function. One may even be said to ‘love’ a tool because it has a prominent place in your life. But can one be loyal to a tool? I certainly couldn’t. I wouldn’t know how.
There is a job to be done. We, the people, are the only ones who can do that job. We cannot do that job without the proper tool(s). If we have a tool and it isn’t doing the job then whose fault can that be but our own? If the tool is not well maintained then who should we blame but ourselves? If we need that tool put in good working order who but ourselves should we expect to do that?
Choosing the right tool for the job is not a matter of loyalty. It is a matter of practicality.
What is the job that we have to do? Knowing what it is that we want to achieve, how do we go about it? What is the process that leads to the stipulated objective?
The end point is independence. But what does that mean in plain language. It means the end of the Union. It means the restoration to the Scottish Parliament of all the competencies of a democratically elected Parliament. It means the restoration to the Scottish nation all the assets and attributes which are its due. It means the restoration to the people of Scotland the full capacities of the sovereignty that is theirs by absolute right.
None of this will be given. All of this must be taken. The Union will not be ended unless we end it. The parliamentary competencies presently arrogated by England-as-Britain will not be restored unless we restore them. That which is Scotland’s will not be returned to Scotland’s ownership unless we assume possession. The people of Scotland will not exercise the full capacities of their sovereignty unless they choose so to do.
In practical terms this means that people, party, government and parliament must combine to effect the dissolution of the Union by declaring the Union dissolved. All must combine to effect the restoration of our Parliament’s rightful powers and competencies by asserting those competencies in that Parliament. All must combine to affirm ownership by Scotland of all that is rightfully Scotland’s. All must combine simply to be the sovereign people of Scotland and its genuine voice.
The Scottish National Party will be fit for purpose when it commits to this process and this agenda. It is for us – all of us – to ensure that it does.
I did not set out to write all that I have. But that’s how it turned out. Because, for me, writing is thinking. And I want to end on the kind of positive note I’ve been finding it very difficult to strike of late. To this end, I return to the article in The National by Joanna Cherry and something she writes at the very end of the piece.
This Tory Government has a significant majority. Most of its MPs are 100 per cent signed up to project Little Britain. In order to realise their dreams, they are quite prepared to undermine the devolved settlement that has been the settled will of the Scottish people for more than two decades. The question for the Independence movement and for the SNP is whether, with this level of disrespect for Scottish democracy, we can be sure that a second independence referendum will be guaranteed simply by the SNP winning yet another election.
The answer, of course, is no. In terms of the constitutional issue, the SNP winning the next Scottish Parliament election will achieve nothing other than continue to keep the Parliament out of the hands of the British parties. A worthy enough achievement in its own right and something which is, for obvious reasons, the first and only priority of any election strategy. But as things stand this takes us no nearer either a referendum or independence. So we have to change how things stand.
What makes the difference is the SNP winning the next election having adopted a Manifesto for Independence which commits the Scottish Government to the actions outlined above. Principally, renouncing the Section 30 process; affirming the sovereignty of Scotland’s people; and asserting the competence of the Scottish Parliament in all matters relating to the constitution.
Make it happen! For in this instance it most assuredly is correct and fitting to say ‘there’s no other way’.
Another word from Joanna Cherry.
This Westminster Tory Government is ripping up the rule book. It is time for some serious contingency planning.
With respect, I’d like to rephrase that. This Westminster Tory Government is ripping up the rule book. It is time for us to write our own rules.
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