Last night, the Internal Market Bill was passed in the British House of Commons by 340 votes in favour to 263 against – a majority of 77 votes, or 12%. Scotland’s MPs voted 52 against to 6 in favour – a majority of 46, or 78%. I’m not one for throwing numbers at my readers. But sometimes stark numerical contrasts are the best way to make a point. These figures these illustrate power discrepancy between Scotland’s elected representatives and the British parliament. Roughly speaking, it requires less than 10% of the votes in that parliament to overrule 100% of Scotland’s votes. That is the essence of the Union.
The British parties hold 11 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British parliament. Five voted Nay and six voted Aye. The five were the British Liberal Democrats and British Labour MPs. Which tells only that the Internal Market is so bad for Scotland that even a large proportion of British MPs from constituencies in Scotland refused to support it. This made no difference to the outcome, of course. It would have made no difference supposing all of Scotland’s MPs had voted against. No difference whatever. Scotland’s votes do not count in the British parliament. Scotland’s interests cannot be represented in the British parliament. Scotland has no power within the British state. The Union ensures that Scotland has no power within the British state. That is, and always was, the purpose of the Union.
On this occasion, it was only the British Tories from constituencies in Scotland who voted against Scotland’s interests. That they voted against Scotland’s interests is hardly in doubt. Unless they can honestly claim to believe their own rationalisations, they knowingly voted against Scotland’s interests. They voted to harm Scotland in order to favour British ambitions. There is no grey area with the Internal Market Bill. There is not meant to be any grey area. It is intended as an unambiguous, unsubtle reminder to Scotland of our lowly status within the Union. It is the bully’s slap delivered to demonstrate dominance. It isn’t just what is being done with this legislation that is significant. Just as meaningful is the way it is being done. Power must be used. It must be seen to be used. The power over Scotland that the Union affords England-as-Britain needed to be reclaimed and reasserted. The Internal Market Bill does this and does it in a manner that cannot be mistaken. The Union has spoken.
Scotland has no power within the British state. But we are permitted a voice. Occasionally, that voice is allowed to speak. Once in a while Scotland’s voice may be heard in the British parliament. That voice serves only to accentuate Scotland’s essential powerlessness. The rhetoric may be portentous bordering on pompous. But it is totally ineffectual. Ian Blackford has made the angry denunciation of British power over Scotland his speciality. He does it very well. But entirely in vain. Pete Wishart tries hard but the product of this effort does tend to jar painfully with respect for the language. He did well to describe the Internal Market Bill as “one of the most spectacular, dishonest pieces of political chicanery…”. But he takes the sting out of his own words by qualifying this with the words “we have ever witnessed in recent times”. Which is it, Pete? “Ever”? Or merely “in recent times”?
It hardly matters. Nothing he or any of the 48 MPs actually representing Scotland in the British parliament says will make any difference to the outcome. They may be 81% of Scotland’s nominal representation, but that 81% can be effectively outvoted by the British 9%. That is what the Union does. That is what the Union is for. It’s what it was for three centuries ago and it is every bit as effective a set of constitutional shackles as it ever was. And I do mean ever.
What about us? What about the people of Scotland? What power do we have? Whatever power we have, how might we best use it?
I used to say that the restoration of Scotland’s independence was inevitable. I thought is inevitable because any devolution measure which succeeds in terms of the aims and objectives of the British state necessarily fails in terms of the aspirations and priorities of Scotland’s people. I was wrong. Or at least I was partly wrong and partly right. Arguably, I was more wrong than right. It certainly feels to me as if I was more wrong than right.
I was right about the succeeding and failing. That is simple logic. The principal aim of devolution is to preserve the Union and the power advantage it affords England-as-Britain over Scotland. It seems reasonable to assume – and much polling evidence supports it – that the people of Scotland aspire to more powers being exercised by the Scottish Parliament because, as a nation, Scotland’s priorities are significantly different from those of England-as-Britain. Brits win! We lose! Them’s the rules! I didn’t make them!
Where I was wrong was in supposing this to be enough. I supposed that the power asymmetry would inevitably become increasingly obvious to people in Scotland as our political culture diverged from that of England-as-Britain and British Nationalists went to ever greater lengths to drag us back into the British political culture; with the British Nationalists winning most of the time. What I failed to recognise is that it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter how obvious the gross imbalance of power became or how many people in Scotland wanted that balance redressed or how desperate they became to have constitutional normality restored or how they expressed that desperation, it would all be totally ineffective. Because the Union ensures that the people of Scotland cannot fully and effectively exercise their sovereignty. The Union denies the sovereignty of the Scottish people. That sovereignty cannot be taken from us. But it can be rendered ineffective. It can be denied the means to express itself. It can be denied effective political power.
I realised that the people have no power. They have strength. But not the means to channel and apply that strength so as to bring about change. Strength does not translate directly into effective political power. Strength must be mediated. It must be transformed into power. For that, it needs a political party. That, if they are functioning correctly, is what political parties do. It is what they are for. That they often fail to serve this purpose is almost entirely down to party members.
The SNP is the political arm of Scotland’s independence movement. It is the movement’s source of effective political power. It’s purpose in relation to take in the strength of the people by way of member numbers and votes and transform that strength into power. The power to effect change.
It’s not working!
It’s not working for two reasons. First and foremost, it is not working because the people are not providing the party with enough strength. That will be seen by some as a controversial claim. They will point to election victories and mandates and insist that the people have lent their strength to the SNP. And they have! I’d be that last to deny it! But it’s not enough!
This is the British state we’re up against. The British state armed with the Union and a legal and constitutional framework developed over three centuries as a means of protecting the Union and preserving the dominance of England-as-Britain over Scotland. T o go up against the power of the British state Scotland requires extraordinary and sustained political power. The power the people of Scotland have afforded the SNP has been exceptional, but not extraordinary. And it has not been sustained.
The second reason ‘people power’ isn’t working is the Union. As has already been noted, the purpose of the Union is to permanently and massively disadvantage Scotland relative to England-as-Britain. It acts to cancel out almost all of the strength that comes from sovereignty by making the sovereignty of Scotland’s people subordinate to the British parliament and the power of those elected to represent Scotland’s interests inferior to that of those who are there to represent the interests of the British state. Thus, the six individuals pictured above can effectively outvote any number of those MPs seeking what id best for Scotland and/or striving to prevent harm being done to Scotland.
Power imbalances are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. Power accrues to power. That political power may derive from the people. But if the strength that the people have is not used or not efficiently translated into power then it will tend to go by default to established power.
What about us? That’s up to us. Our strength – the strength of Scotland’s people – is sufficient to break the power of the British state. But only if it is channelled in massive and sustained amounts through a political party capable of acting within the British political system. Right now, that means the SNP. And only the SNP. A decade or more ago it might have been reasonable to argue that there might be an alternative to the SNP. That ceased to be a reasonable argument a while back. In part because the process of establishing an alternative would divert resources (strength) needed to defend Scotland against the British Nationalist onslaught. Partly because the effort to restore Scotland’s independence must be focused. To make that effort diffuse is inevitably to weaken it.
But most of all we are absolutely obliged to use what we have because we do not have time to devise anything else. Hopefully, the Internal Market Bill and the manner in which it is being imposed on Scotland will make people realise just how urgent Scotland’s predicament is. As well as persuading people not previously inclined to consider independence as a remedy for the anti-democratic asymmetry of the Union, it is to be hoped that it will concentrate the minds of Yes activists.
We have the strength to achieve the restoration of Scotland’s independence. We have the strength to save Scotland from the British Nationalist juggernaut even now as it is pressing against us. But we must use that strength wisely.
If you are still not convinced. If you are still swithering. Look at those six faces above. Remind yourself that these six people have proven their willingness to sacrifice Scotland on the altar of a British Nationalist ideology that is alien to us. Consider the fact that, should you fail to heed my urging, within a year those six people will exercise more political power in and over Scotland than all the politicians we actually elect. Let’s put that into numbers again. Scotland has 188 nationally elected politicians. If we do not act now to prevent it, all of them will be subject to the whims of the British Prime Minister or whoever the British Prime Minister installs in Queen Elizabeth House.
If the people of Scotland don’t use their strength wisely now, in less than two years there will be no way for that strength to be translated into effective democratic political power.
That’s what about us!