When even Adam Tomkins is telling a fellow British Nationalist they’ve committed a serious error of judgement then you know that fellow British Nationalist has made a total arse of themselves. Ian Murray MP (BLiS) has made a total arse of himself. In asking the head of the UK civil service to intervene to stop civil servants in Scotland working on a policy which was a central plank of the platform of which the Scottish Government was emphatically elected, Murray has amply demonstrated the intellect-crippling effect of ideological extremism. This is a British Nationalist fanatic behaving as fanatics ultimately always will as their obsession runs its course, being frustrated at every turn. The fanatic will grow increasingly intolerant of the things that frustrate them. Democracy being first and foremost among such hindrances, the fanatic inevitably comes to abhor democracy.
That Ian Murray should display the anti-democratic tendencies of a British Nationalist fanatic comes as no great surprise. Nor should it provoke any serious concern. Murray is an MP representing a Scottish constituency. This necessarily implies that he is ineffectual by definition. Even as a representative of one of the British parties in Scotland does nothing to increase his significance within the British political system. He really doesn’t matter. Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the UK civil service, who Murray has asked to stop the Scottish Government planning for independence will surely give him short shrift. Case will be required to explain to him the way democracy works much as Adam Tomkins has tried to do. Whether this explanation might penetrate the fanaticism is a moot point. Such a rebuff is at least as likely to reinforce that fanaticism as to rein it in. It all depends just how intellectually crippled Murray is.
Of rather more concern than the folly of a lone British Nationalist from what some now regard as a fringe party in Scotland is the view expressed by an unnamed Cabinet Office mouthpiece.
The UK Government is clear that now is not the time for a further independence referendum.
Our collective priority must be responding to and recovering from the challenges the Covid pandemic has created, rather than constitutional debates.Labour MP demands Whitehall stops Scottish Government preparing for indyref2
If Murray’s lowly status makes his anti-democratic sentiments a matter of small concern, rather more worrying is any indication that such sentiments have by some insidious means, infected those who actually matter within the British political system. The Cabinet Office is one of the most powerful agencies within the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. It might well be argued that views expressed by and on behalf of the Cabinet Office are of even greater import than ministerial statements of policy. The utterances of government ministers are just noise without the machinery to implement whatever notion may have come upon them. So when the voice of that machinery makes a statement which paraphrases the anti-democratic sentiments of a British Nationalist fanatic, we would do well to take heed.
The “now is not the time” schtick is mere boiler-plate. It is one of those things recited in the manner of a rote mantra by anyone even remotely connected with the apparatus of the British state. It’s a phrase now deployed with little or no thought as to the implications. These implications are made clear by what follows, however. When a spokesperson for the British Cabinet Office declares explicitly that the “collective priority” of the British state takes precedence over “constitutional debate” this is the anti-democratic brain-farts of Ian Murray and his British Nationalist ilk afforded the solidity of official policy. When established power is this dismissive of the fundamentals of democracy then the people should attend carefully. And respond appropriately.
When one understands and respects the essential nature of constitutional politics – and therefore “constitutional debates” – one grasps how vital it is that the people take seriously any dismissiveness or antipathy on the part of those wielding political power. Power that is supposed to be accountable to the people. Power which derives from and which must, if democracy survives, ultimately revert to the people. In a democracy nothing is more important than constitutional politics and the debates which inform constitutional politics. The late Tony Benn posed the five questions which constitutional debate addresses. Five questions which must constantly be asked of those in power.
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?
Any time debate around these questions is subordinated to any other matter at the insistence of established power then democracy is in real jeopardy. When it comes to be taken for granted by established power that constitutional debate may be subordinated and suppressed at will then we may well have gone beyond mere jeopardy.
The coronavirus pandemic is not a matter to be taken lightly. But it is hardly the first matter which established power has declared must take precedence over the fundamental principles of democracy. Brexit is another. Something or other relating to the economic situation is a perennial gambit. In fact, there is hardly an area of public policy which British Nationalists have not at one time or another insisted was more important than constitutional debate. Often demanding a cessation of constitutional debate ‘for the duration’. The problem for democracy is that this ‘duration’ has no end date. If any issue can be deemed to warrant the suspension and suppression of constitutional debate for any length of time then true democracy no longer prevails. If the powerful can switch off scrutiny and oversight at will, then they shall inevitably do so. And tend to do so at the times and in the circumstance when scrutiny would be most inconvenient to them and so most essential for democracy.
The right of self-determination is the definitive democratic right. If the right of the people to choose the form of government that best serves their needs, priorities and aspirations can be withheld then there is no democracy. There is at best what has come to be called ‘managed democracy’. If debate around Tony Benn’s five questions can be casually discontinued or contemptuously discounted then there is no democracy. Ian Murray MP wants to stop the Scottish Government acting in accord with a popular mandate. That Cabinet Office spokesman goes even further in seeking to prevent – or render ineffective – constitutional debate such as determines the nature, form and exercise of political power.
Scotland’s democracy is under real and imminent threat. Power unused does not simply evaporate. It gravitates by default to those political interests which already have power because they want it and are prepared to exercise it. Power is thus accumulated and concentrated and rendered unanswerable by deeming the asking of relevant questions to be inappropriate and/or irresponsible. Either the people exercise the power derived from their strength in combination, or they forfeit that power. Decide!
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