I never cease to be taken aback by the number of people who voluntarily join discussions on social media fully determined that they will not be influenced by the discussion they’re joining. What is the point? Those who are open to having their views modified through engagement with others seem to be the exception. But rarest of all are those who actually hope that their perspective will be challenged in the course of debate. I count myself part of this latter category. I do so without pride or boastfulness. I regard it as nothing more than normal to come to a discussion purposefully to have one’s attitudes and prejudices and preconceptions put to the test. Having one’s thinking on a matter changed by input from others shouldn’t be regarded as a defeat – which is how all too many seem to see it. You don’t lose from having your perspective altered by new information or better explanation. You are not made less by having your errors corrected. No attitude should be immutable. No conclusion should be final. No opinion should be humble. A mind that is frozen in a fixed state is a crippled mind.
Another thing that surprises me about online discussions is the extent to which the arguments don’t change. As well as being open to having one’s thinking on a matter altered by engagement with other minds I look on it as an opportunity to hone my own arguments. Excepting only heavily qualified statements, one should never publish anything one is unable or unwilling to defend. If you make a claim or express a view you should be able and willing to back it up with facts and/or rational arguments. Otherwise, you’re not discussing you’re proselytising. Not that there’s anything wrong with proselytising. But one shouldn’t confuse it with debate.
My views on Scotland’s constitutional issue are firm, rather than fixed. I can be comfortable with them being so because my take on things has been developed over a very long time during which it has been subject to all manner of challenges. I have defended my thinking on the matter to the best of my ability and where I could not adequately defend it I have either altered my thinking or developed better arguments in its defence. Discussion with others is essential to this process. It frequently happens that some comment on Twitter, for example, will prompt me to consider a new line of argument or to further develop an existing one. It was just such a comment that inspired this article.
I have long maintained that in pursuit of Scotland’s cause there is no alternative but to use the SNP as the source of effective political power. Not because I have an affinity for the modern SNP or because I consider the party under Nicola Sturgeon to be the best that the independence might hope for, but because the SNP is the party of government right now and right now is when action is required that only the Scottish Government can take. Frankly, this is not a perspective that should need to be defended, founded as it is on hard, objective, observable facts. It is a fact that the situation is urgent. It is a fact that only the Scottish Government can effectively address this situation. It is a fact that the SNP is the party of government and will be for the entire period within which the situation must be addressed. Because it is a fact that the situation is urgent. Because it is a fact that the threat to Scotland’s political distinctiveness and national identity from rampant British Nationalism is real and imminent.
Unfortunately, these facts seem not to carry their due weight with some folk. Curiously, they will acknowledge – or at least not deny – these facts but still refuse to accept that there is no alternative to the SNP. It is very difficult to get to grips with such illogic. How might rational minds engage with minds which see facts and logic as mere inconveniences that can readily be discounted? How might you make the case that the world is round to someone who does not dispute any of the evidence for roundness yet persists in maintaining that the world is flat. Rational arguments are powerless against a position that is founded on faith. Faith that is open to rational argument ceases to be faith.
The comment which prompted me to write this came from someone who, as far as I am able to discern, accepts the reality of Scotland’s predicament and acknowledges the urgency of the situation. I intend to respect their anonymity so let’s suppose that this is the case even if it makes of them a person imagined for illustrative purposes. This imagined person knows that the situation is desperate and that only the Scottish Government has the ability to address the situation and that only the SNP is the party of government and will be for as long as is relevant. They know all this and they claim to be committed to Scotland’s cause. Yet they decline to give the SNP+SGP/Scottish Government anything of the support it will require to do what is required. They refuse this support either because they’ve given up hope of the SNP doing what is required or because they have been persuaded that there is an ‘alternative’ – or both. It would be perfectly appropriate if the term ‘doublethink’ popped into your head at this juncture.
The comment which brought me here, however, particularly referenced a third reason/rationalisation for declining to support the SNP in its role as the sole source of the effective political power on which the independence movement relies. This support is refused on the grounds that the SNP in its role as the party of government is pursuing policies that the commenter dislikes with some fervour. It is not relevant to the point being made here, but it happens that I share this commenter’s attitude to the policy in question – namely, GRA reform and especially the self-id aspect of the proposals.
In response, I stated that the constitutional issue must be considered in isolation from all matters of policy and expressed the wish that more people might understand this and the reasons for it. Re-reading my response before posting, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason people don’t ‘get’ that the constitutional issue is a special case or understand the reasoning might be because this has not been adequately explained. The fact that the constitutional issue must be divorced from policy issues is something I have stated so often I may be guilty of assuming it is a well-understood point. Evidently, it isn’t. Let’s see if we can rectify that.
I detest repeating myself. But I’ve had to resign myself to this being unavoidable. One of the greatest difficulties I find when writing about the independence issue is finding new ways of saying things I’ve said many times previously. I have a good vocabulary and access to excellent thesauruses. Still, it can be a real problem repeatedly expressing the same thoughts without using the same language every time. So I’d ask that long-time readers bear with me as I once again go over what it is that sets constitutional politics apart from ‘ordinary’ politics. Put as succinctly as may be, the latter is the politics of policy while the former is the politics of principle. More precisely, constitutional politics is concerned with the principles which govern power. It about how power is used. ‘Ordinary’ or party politics is about what power is used for. Already we can see a clear distinction between the two.
The first function of constitutional politics is to answer the five questions about power as attributed to the late Tony Benn. I shall paraphrase these as follows.
- What is the extent of the power exercised by government and how is it constrained?
- How is power legitimately acquired?
- In whose interests is power exercised?
- To whom and by what means is power accountable?
- How can power be removed?
The second function of constitutional politics is to state the principles which must inform the exercise of power. These functions may be thought of as the practical and the ethical or moral functions of the constitution.
The thing the constitution must never do is impinge directly and in prescriptive manner on issues of policy. The constitution is the permanent and unchanging foundation of the nation. The ideal constitution would never need to be amended. In practice, of course, the best we can usually manage is to make changing the chanstitution a difficult and lengthy process. The winds and tides which take policy this way and that must not be allowed to affect the constitution. Likewise, the constitution must not reduce government’s ability to navigate as the weather demands. The constitution lays down the red lines that prevent political expediency becoming the dominant or only criterion for policy. Governments must be free to plot a course within those red lines.
The constitution is the ultimate reference against which policy is assessed. It follows, therefore, that the constitution must be as concise, clear and unambiguous as human wit can contrive. Ideally (again!), there should never be need for any debate about whether and how a particular aspect of the constitution is relevant to a particular policy. Realistically (again!) this is rarely achievable. But it should always be the aim. Likewise, policy should ideally be formulated in such a way as to avoid challenge on grounds of constitutionality. The two things – the practical and the moral – work together best by never impinging on on another. One might even say that the extent to which the separation of constitutional and party politics is maintained serves as the measure of a healthy politiy.
The right of self-determination is the right of all nations and peoples to chose the form of government that best serves their needs, priorities and aspirations. The matter of the form of government is purely and entirely and exclusively a constitutional question. It is the province of constitutional politics. ‘Ordinary’/party politics deals with the matter of who will govern the nation. Constitutional politics deals with the matter of how the nation is governed. Party politics deals with the policies which direct the affairs of the nation. Constitutional politics deals with principles which define the nation.
For someone who so intensely dislikes repetition I seem to have said the same thing rather many times. But it is a point which cannot be laboured too much. Constitutional and ‘ordinary’ politics are very different beasts. They can exist together. They do not mix well. Constitutional politics in particular is detrimentally affected by ‘contamination’ with the politics of policy. Think of it this way! If one aspect of policy is allowed to intrude in constitutional debate why not all aspects of policy? If one aspect of policy is so privileged, what criteria are applied in the granting of this privilege? How does one avoid claims that other aspects of policy meet those same criteria? How does one answer those claims?
If one matter of policy insinuates itself into a constitutional debate it inevitable opens the door for myriad others. Unless all aspects of policy are included then there will always be the potential for claims that some aspect is being unfairly or unreasonably excluded. At some point far in advance of all aspects of policy gaining admission to the constitutional debate that constitutional debate ceases to be a constitutional debate. It becomes a policy debate. Indeed, the inevitability of this means that it ceases to be a constitutional debate the very moment the first policy issue is admitted. The die is then cast. There is no avoiding the constitutional issue becoming lost in a fog of policy debate.
This is not mere theorising. We have seen in practice how the fundamental constitutional issue which is supposedly the matter under discussion vanishes all but entirely under a welter of policy positions and agendas. We need look no further than Scotland’s own constitutional issue and the first referendum campaign to see what happens when constitutional debate is contaminated by matters of policy.
Nowhere is the danger of allowing policy to intrude on constitutional debate more starkly illustrated than in the case of the Scottish Government’s GRA reform proposals. Given the SNP’s responsibility to the independence movement it was – and let us not mince words here – criminally irresponsible to embark on such a massively controversial project while delaying action to resolve the constitutional issue. This is political madness of the kind that were it to feature in a work of fiction you would scoff mightily at the implausibility of it. Who the **** would be so ******* stupid? – would be the question on everyone’s lips.
I get angry writing about it. So I’ll move on.
We are where we are. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leadership have been guilt of some serious failures and failings. They have made some horrendously bad choices. The question for the Yes movement now is whether and how badly we let the ineptitude of our political leaders adversely impact the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. Just because the SNP went along when the British state sought to make the 2014 referendum campaign a debate about policy rather than principle doesn’t mean we have to accept that this is how it must be. Just because the SNP/Scottish Government is pursuing policies so controversial they seem almost designed to negatively affect the constitutional campaign doesn’t mean we have to allow the campaign to be derailed as a consequence. We can choose to create and conduct a proper constitutional debate despite the SNP. We can choose not to let that debate be contaminated by policy issues.
We can choose not to have the constitutional issue dragged down by the millstone of policy argument that it has been burdened with. But we better choose quickly. Time is tight.
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