In his Sunday National column today Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs Mike Russell deploys two of my favourite quotes. One, from Canon Kenyon Wright, is among the most potent expressions ever of the concept and principle of popular sovereignty.
What if that other voice we all know so well responds by saying, ‘We say no, and we are the state.’?
Well we say yes – and we are the people.
The other quote is the now famous words of Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell.
No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.
Stirring stuff! And Mike Russell himself essays a memorable observation which may well find a place alongside the words of those renowned champions of national autonomy and the sovereignty of the people.
They [Tories] make no real distinction between independence and devolution. Both are contrary to the ridiculous but (in their minds) absolute and unchangeable medieval doctrine of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty and neither are tolerable.
As ever, I take issue with the identification of British Nationalism exclusively with the Tories. As if British Labour and the token third party in British politics were any less insistent on the divinely ordained supremacy of the English parliament. Otherwise, however, Mr Russell’s words are a statement of what to many of us is obvious in a manner that is rather more forceful and assertive than we are accustomed to from senior SNP politicians.
I have frequently made the point that devolution was only tolerated by the British establishment on condition of a cast-iron guarantee that the Union would never be placed in jeopardy. A guarantee that was backed by a voting system designed to ensure that the new Scottish Parliament remained in the hands of the British parties – but never solely in the hands of any one of those parties. A measure which only incidentally excluded the SNP from power. At that time an SNP government was the stuff only of Unionist nightmares. Contrary to what is widely believed to be the case, Scotland’s voting system was not designed for the specific purpose of keeping the SNP out, but to thwart any notions British Labour in Scotland (BLiS) might have of using Holyrood as a base from which to attack the Conservatives.
To add a belt to the braces of the voting system and further reassure British Nationalists that devolution wouldn’t be a threat to the Union, Section 30 was dropped into the Scotland Act 1998. The Union was safe. Or so they thought. Now, they’re not so sure. Contrary to another belief encouraged by the SNP and many pro-independence activists, the British political elite is not panicking. None of the measures they are taking should be regarded as a knee-jerk reaction to the rising tide of democratic dissent in the British state’s annexed norther territories. At least, not entirely.
As Mike Russell says, the idea of devolution is anathema to British Nationalists every bit as much as the idea of restoring Scotland’s independence. Devolution was sold to hard-line Unionists on the basis that it would kill the independence campaign “stone dead”, in the words of British Labour drivelmeister, George Robertson. it was the lesser of two very great evils. But the experiment – for it was always regarded as such by the establishment in England-as-Britain – went seriously wrong in 2007. And disastrously wrong in 2011. (I’m going to assume everybody knows what I’m referring to.)
It was at this time – around 2007-2011 – that the decision was taken to wind down the devolution experiment. The things we find the British government doing now – power grab etc. – are not panic measures, no matter how muddled and inept their implementation may seem. They are simply the latest moves in a project to roll back devolution that began more than a decade ago.
One assumes that Mike Russell’s hope and intention is to frustrate this effort. One prefers to believe that this hope and intention is shared by all Scottish politicians. (As opposed to the British politicians squatting in the Scottish Parliament.) One would like to be assured that the SNP has in mind a plan by which Scotland’s independence might be restored – having failed to save either the devolution settlement or Scotland’s forced exit from the EU. But how can any of this be when, as far as we are allowed to know, the First Minister remains committed to the Section 30 process? A process which cannot possibly achieve the aim of ending the Union. A process which is, in fact, one of the measures put in place to ensure the preservation of the Union.
When Mike Russell quotes Canon Kenyon Wright he is addressing those of us who embrace the principle of popular sovereignty. But how does he answer the charge that committing to the Section 30 process compromises the sovereignty of the Scottish people by making our right of self-determination subject to the whim of a British Prime Minister?
When Mike Russell quotes Charles Stewart Parnell he is addressing Boris Johnson and his fellow British Nationalists on both sides of the border. But can he explain why if “no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation”, he and his colleagues can insist upon a process that expressly grants the British Prime Minister authority to fix the boundary of this nation’s march?
Had Mike Russell continued that quote he might well have been addressing Nicola Sturgeon. Parnell went on to say,
No [wo]man has the right to say to his country “Thus far shalt thou go and no further”.
But that is precisely what Nicola Sturgeon is saying to the people of Scotland when she limits the democratic actions we might take to restore constitutional normality to Scotland. When she says thou shalt go as far as is permitted by the legal and constitutional framework by which the British Nationalists protect their ‘precious’ Union, and no further, is she not doing exactly what Parnell declared neither she nor anyone else has the right to do?
The British Nationalist ‘One Nation’ project proceeds apace. It has been neither halted nor slowed by the pandemic. There exists a real and imminent threat not merely to the devolution settlement but to Scotland’s distinct identity as a nation. This being so, I want to hear more from Mike Russell than fine words and glittering generalities. I want to hear from him and from Nicola Sturgeon that they intend to take seriously the sentiments expressed and act accordingly.
I want to hear them declare that they intend to tear down the boundaries set on the march of this nation by the British state rather than insist that we respect those boundaries until the British state sees fit to permit us passage on its terms.
I want to hear them say that the people of Scotland will go as far as we see fit and not constrained by the imperious ambition of the British state.
I want to hear them renounce the Section 30 process completely and commit instead to respecting the sovereignty of the Scottish people.
I want to hear them assert the democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament and its exclusive competence in all matters relating to Scotland’s constitution.
I want to hear their plans for a referendum entirely made and managed in Scotland.
I want to hear a solemn undertaking that, subject to the approval of the Scottish Parliament and the consent of the Scottish people, they will end the Union and restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status within the first three years of being mandated so to do in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.
Isn’t that what you want to hear, too?