Avid readers of this blog – I hope you’re both well and keeping safe – know how fond I am of questions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But I know for a fact that however many stupid questions there may be that number is vastly exceeded by the number of stupid answers. Questions are great! They are powerful tools, essential to analytical thinking. True genius lies not in knowing everything but in questioning everything. For the inquiring mind there is no greater prize than the question nobody thought to ask.
It needn’t be a totally novel question. Sometimes it’s just a case of a familiar question being asked in a particular manner or placed in a particular context that leads to that question being understood in a different way. Even a misunderstanding of the question can occasionally lead to a fresh line of thought. A question may be asked in anticipation of a particular answer or form of answer but due to the way it has been comprehended, it may elicit something unexpected. A question may be asked with no expectation of an answer but nonetheless trigger an interesting line of thought.
I was presented with just such a rhetorical question in a Twitter comment the other day. At least, I now think it was intended to be rhetorical. In the moment that I first read it, however, I took it to be a serious enquiry.
It’s a question that is asked repeatedly not in the hope of an explanation but merely to highlight the conundrum. If British Nationalists are as certain as they purport to be that they would win a new referendum, why are they so ardently, fanatically opposed to that referendum being held? It’s easy to shrug this off as just one of the many contradictions and inconsistencies which characterise British Nationalist ‘thinking’ on the constitutional issue. I myself have been the shrugger on many occasions. But not on this occasion. For some reason which would itself be fascinating to explore, this time just for an instant I appreciated the question in a way I hadn’t previously.
Maybe it was because the questioner appeared to attribute British Nationalist opposition to a new referendum to them being “scared” – presumably, of losing. Perhaps it was just that this seemed to me a rather simplistic explanation, and one that didn’t fit well with the evident conviction that they couldn’t lose. Whatever the reason, I found myself wondering just what really lies behind the fervid, monomaniacal opposition to that new referendum. If it’s not fear, what might it be? If it’s not only fear of losing, what other factors may be in play?
I do not buy the SNP line that ‘the Tories are running scared’. For a start, it’s not only the Tories. It’s the entire British establishment. I yet cling to a faint and rapidly dimming glimmer of hope that the SNP might learn this one day. At least as importantly I hope the Yes movement learns. Among the myriad ’causes’ which have sought to hitch a ride on the independence train the anti-Tory element is undoubtedly the most prominent. And probably the easiest to understand. There is genuine and deep-seated loathing of the British Conservative Party in Scotland. For cause! It takes no effort whatever to turn a pro-independence march/rally into an anti-Tory event. The difficulty lies in preventing this happening. So far, and with all due respect to the organisers of these events, none of them has yet proved up to the task. You can’t fight an effective political campaign if you misidentify your opponents.
But | digress! I scoff at SNP claims that the opponents of Scotland’s cause are ‘running scared’. Why would they be? They have all the power. That’s what the Union is for. The Union ensures that those who favour the Union have all the power they need to preserve their ‘prrreshusss’. The British ruling elite and their political servants have grown assured to the point of arrogance by centuries of being able to control Scotland (and the other annexed territories of England-as-Britain) with consummate ease. They hold the purse-strings and have access to all the apparatus of a former imperial power sans pareil – including a monstrous propaganda machine. Why should they be afraid?
The British political elite is supremely confident of its ability to deal with the ‘Scottish problem’. If they can’t prevent a referendum using the power afforded them by the Union they can win it using that same power. And even were they to lose, the power afforded them by the Union allows them to ignore or overrule an inconvenient result. Why should they be afraid?
The SNP+SGP/Scottish Government seems intent on playing by the British state’s rules, and the Union allows the British state to make or amend those rules at will. Or to break them with impunity. Why should they be afraid?
The British are certainly concerned about the ‘Scottish problem’. That concern is what is commonly mistaken for fear. But it’s not even a new referendum they’re really concerned about. As previously stated, they have every reason to believe they can ‘deal with’ another referendum. What worries them is the possibility that the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government might change its approach to the constitutional issue. The longer the current ‘fad’ (as they see it) for independence continues the greater the pressure for a reframing of the issue and the greater the chance that there might be a tipping-point at which the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government is forced to respond. The British are concerned that the people of Scotland might stop thinking of independence as something that has to be won and start thinking of it as something that has to be taken
The British ruling elite is confident that there is no route to independence through the razor-wire and minefields of the legal and constitutional framework that protects and preserves the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state. They are seriously worried that the Scottish people might come to the same conclusion and demand that their government and parliament step outside that framework in order to take Scotland’s cause forward. They fret about the fact that while the Union gives them control of Scotland, that control depends critically on acceptance of British authority. They know that the moment this authority is questioned or challenged, the power of the Union will be broken.
But is that enough to explain the bitterness and intensity of British Nationalist efforts to stop a new referendum happening? I don’t think it does. Now that I’ve been prompted to think about it, I am persuaded there is something more.
It seems to me that British Nationalist opposition to a new referendum stems not from a fear of losing, but from a more fundamental, deep-seated antipathy to the very idea of Scotland exercising its right of self-determination. Especially if the process by which we exercise our right of self-determination is entirely outwith the control of the British state. British Nationalists are appalled by the idea of the sovereignty of the British parliament being challenged. They are doubly appalled by the thought that the British might be excluded from the process and afforded no direct influence. Those who recognise how essential possession of Scotland is to England-as-Britain’s conceit of itself are further horrified by the possibility that their largely illusory ‘Great Britain’ may become unsustainable even as an illusion.
If the British ruling elite is afraid of anything it’s the power that rests in the hands of Scotland’s voters. The power to break the British state. The capacity to at least partially dismantle those structures of power, privilege and patronage. They deeply resent the fact that such power can even exist. What they fear is not a referendum that they may lose, but that in getting to a referendum that is a genuinely free and fair exercise of our right of self-determination the people of Scotland will already have broken England-as-Britain’s grip on Scotland. There is shame in there too. Shame in the realisation that even in what England-as-Britain regards as its own territory, it may be weak enough to fail.
British establishment opposition to a new referendum is driven not so much by fear as by an ideology that is little more than British exceptionalism expressed in a variety of ways. James Hawes has some very relevant things to say.
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