I hope I am wrong, but I foresee lazy television journalists and news columnists demanding a supermajority for every piece of challenging legislation that passes through the parliament, in much the same way that they turned the phrase “once in a generation” into a totemic principle.Stuart Cosgrove: A supermajority is on the cards, but should we really need one?
Stuart Cosgrove makes an interesting and potentially very important point. I’m grateful to him both for bringing it up and for reminding me that, having mentioned it in passing somewhere, I had intended to come back to the issue and explore it further. Needless to say, I forgot. I’m doubly appreciative of the reminder given that there’s so little happening in the election campaign at the moment. Apparently, somebody died. I’m assuming it was the person responsible for making pretty much everything work. Because pretty much everything seems to have ground to a standstill since the chap’s demise. I don’t recall this much fuss when the real Prince died almost exactly five years ago.
Returning to Stuart Cosgrove’s point about unintended consequences I must be mindful that these lurk everywhere. The other day, I posted on Fecalboak an image of a headline from The Scotsman – Nicola Sturgeon to fall short of majority as Alex Salmond’s Alba Party deprives SNP of key list seats, poll shows – intending to highlight the fact that the British media were already preparing the ground for the anticipated discounting by the British political elite of votes for pro-independence parties other than the SNP. Cue a small torrent of comments based on the ludicrously mistaken assumption that I was in agreement with the headline rather than pointing out the kind of propaganda we can expect to see more of once the new operative takes over from their deceased colleague and the election campaign grinds back into motion. Here’s an example.
Ah well, that’ll be that then. Ffs Peter, who gives a fuck what they think? We already know they’re going to ignore anything we do or say. Honestly, this sounds like something Willie Rennie would say.
That’s not even the most idiotic of the reactions. And if I’m not careful I could inadvertently provoke a similar storm of stupid when discussing the ways in which the idea of a supermajority might come back to bite various bums. Much, as Stuart Cosgrove notes, in the way that the apparently innocent phrase ‘once in a generation’ has left its teeth marks on certain posteriors.
It occurs to me also that I may find myself accused of inconsistency. I have previously said that it was a mistake for the Yes movement to fall prey to the self-censorship that can so easily arise from trying too hard avoid saying anything that our opponents might weaponise against us. As the ‘once in a generation’ idiom proves, they’re capable of fashioning a cudgel from even the most innocent of expressions. Trying not to give them sticks with which to beat us has the effect of letting them dictate the terms of debate. Being over-cautious can lead to paralysis. One can be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that one ends up saying nothing. Or, worse still, talking entirely in over-scripted and over-rehearsed soundbites.
That warning and advice is not invalidated by also suggesting that we should be aware of the implications and connotations and associations of the terminology we use, as well as the various ways in which our words can be misinterpreted or misrepresented. Which is what I’m saying about the term ‘supermajority’. Knowing how such a term may be turned against us allows us to prepare for when it is. It doesn’t necessarily mean we must elide the word from our lexicon. Although I’m certain there will be those who convince themselves that this is what I’m ‘actually’ saying, regardless of the words written.
We are all aware of how that fateful phrase ‘once in a generation’ has come to haunt Scotland’s cause. I don’t doubt there are times when both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon wish they’d never offered up that particular hostage to fortune. What makes it truly regrettable is that they could easily have left it out. It wasn’t essential. There are other ways of saying the same thing. Not so with the word ‘supermajority’. It’s not a throwaway remark. It refers to a very specific concept. A concept which is very much part of this election campaign. There isn’t really an alternative. There may be other ways of saying the same thing. But none, I suspect, that wouldn’t sound painfully contrived. We’re stuck with it now.
It will be used in ways not intended by those who have made it central to this election campaign. I’ll credit Alex Salmond and Alba Party with authorship in the knowledge that this will annoy the skitters out of the AFI lot and probably others. What’s life without a bit of idle mischief, eh? Those “lazy television journalists and news columnists” that Stuart Cosgrove spoke of will wrench the term ‘supermajority’ from its context and shoe-horn it into places it does not rightly belong. This malicious reinterpretation will be picked up by the British parties who will argue that because a supermajority is used in one context it must therefore be applicable in all contexts. Or at least all the contexts which suit the purposes of British Nationalist propaganda.
Perhaps the most obvious example would be an independence referendum. The argument will go that because a supermajority has been required in order to make the referendum happen then the referendum itself must be subject to a supermajority stipulation. The non sequitur is of no importance. The British propaganda machine feels no embarrassment. The argument may be foolish. But looking foolish has never deterred a British Nationalist. Look at Douglas Ross!
And the argument isn’t entirely without merit – of a sort. It is far from uncommon for constitutional referendums or parliamentary resolutions to require a qualified majority. It is often the case, for example, that amendments to the constitution will require the votes of two-thirds of legislators. This fact will doubtless be used to lend weight to the argument that ending the Union cannot happen unless supported by two-thirds of those who vote. Or even two-thirds of the electorate. A significant obstacle.
Anticipating this argument we can be ready with the response that where a qualified majority is required this is written into the constitution. The UK has no written constitution. Practice relies heavily on precedent. And the precedent is that only a simple majority is needed. If a supermajority is required for our independence referendum, why was it not required for the EU referendum? Are those insisting on a qualified majority for this and that in Scotland comfortable with this being applied consistently across the UK? Sauce! Goose! Gander!
I have no idea if any of this has occurred to Alex Salmond. But I’d be surprised if it hadn’t. He’s pretty sharp. But perhaps he should do more to emphasise the exceptional nature of the supermajority that he is talking about. Maybe he could make an effort to stress that the supermajority as he sees it is for a very particular purpose. He could try to avoid some of those unintended consequences.