For many years now – since long before the first independence referendum – I have been warning that the ultimate aim of the British state is to lock Scotland into a ‘reformed’ Union, unilaterally altered and imposed on Scotland without consultation or consent. A Spanish-style constitution which proclaims the UK to be a single nation ‘indivisible and indissoluble’. There is nothing particularly controversial about this warning. Nobody who understands the nature of the British state and the purpose of the Union will find anything untoward in the suggestion that jealous Britannia would seek to tighten her grip on Scotland’s throat. Politically, it is the obvious thing to do. It is the obvious way to solve the ‘Scottish problem’. Think of it as the other UDI – a unilateral declaration of incorporation.
What I had failed to realise – or at least failed to acknowledge – until recently is the extent to which the British establishment has already achieved its aim of binding Scotland inextricably to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state. The independence movement in Scotland has always operated on the understanding that its goal was achievable by means that were entirely ‘legal and constitutional’. It has always been assumed that there was a legal route to the restoration of Scotland’s independence and that it was our responsibility to find and follow that route. Lately, I have come to the realisation that this ‘legal and constitutional’ route was always a myth.
I now see that my warnings about the British state’s intention to close down what we understood as the democratic route to independence were sadly belated. That route had long since ceased to exist – if it had ever existed in the first place. Although I had long insisted that there was no path to independence through the legal and constitutional framework developed under the pressure of the imperative to preserve the Union, I didn’t fully appreciate the implications of this. I am now fully aware that if we are to defend Scottish democracy we must step outside the bounds of British legality. We must do so as a matter of urgency. But not so precipitously as to lose touch with the democracy that we seek to defend.
Although this thinking developed over a number of years, it was punctuated by moments of clarity. Moments such as that which occurred to me when arguing that the referendum being proposed by Nicola Sturgeon is a mock independence referendum. If Yes wins, the result will be dismissed on the grounds that the referendum is merely consultative and that, had it been a ‘real’ independence referendum people would have voted differently. If Yes loses, the referendum will be deemed a decisive vote which must be honoured. Again, this is no more than ‘normal’ politics. In making this argument it suddenly occurred to me that the 2014 referendum was the same. We know that the No vote has been proclaimed by British Nationalists as the last word on the constitutional issue. Or at least the last word for whatever length of time the British state chooses. The moment of clarity was when it dawned on me that had the vote been Yes in 2014, the British would have behaved in very much the same way as I foresee them behaving in relation to a Yes vote in Nicola Sturgeon’s mock independence referendum proposed for 2023.
In 2011 I and I suspect the entire Yes movement went into the referendum campaign convinced that a Yes vote would mean independence being restored. Precisely how the one led to the other might not have been entirely clear, but we were not giving much thought to such things back then. How naive we were! I venture to suggest that I speak for pretty much the entire Yes movement when I say that we thought the Edinburgh Agreement meant that the British state was obliged to accept and respect and act on the result. This belief seems foolish in the light of the British state’s conduct over recent years.
The fact is that the 2014 referendum was no more a formal exercise of our right of self-determination than the First Minister’s proposed 2023 referendum will be – if it happens. The 2014 referendum may have been a closer approximation of a proper constitutional referendum than the 2023 version. But it would have been no more effective in taking us to independence.
I’m not sure why this didn’t occur to me sooner. I recognised the existential nature of the constitutional issue for both the British state as it understands itself and Scotland as we know it and would wish it to be. So quite why I imagined the British would feel bound by the Edinburgh Agreement is difficult to understand. I guess I just didn’t think it through. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the past eight years. I see things very differently now.
There is no legal way out of the Union for Scotland. There is no way out of the Union for Scotland that will not be deemed illegal or unlawful or illegitimate or invalid by the British ruling elite. This was true in 2014 no matter how blind we were to the truth. It is, if anything, even more emphatically true today. The ‘legal and constitutional’ route to independence declared indispensable by our First Minister, doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because the imperative to preserve the Union trumps everything and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty allows it to do so.
If the Union is an existential issue for them, independence is an existential issue for us. If preservation of the Union is an imperative for them, restoring independence is an imperative for us. If the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is essential for them, the principle of popular sovereignty is essential for us. Why is their doctrine more weighty than our principle? Why is their imperative more pressing than ours? Why is their existence more important than ours? Only because they say so! That is all! They say so! Nothing more than that!
Where is our voice? Where is Scotland’s voice? Where is the voice stating that Scotland’s principle of popular sovereignty shall not be outweighed by England-as-Britain’s doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty? Where is the voice declaring that Scotland’s imperatives shall not be subordinate to the imperatives of any external power? Where is the voice insisting that Scotland’s existence shall not be sacrificed on the altar of British imperialist pretension?
Where is Scotland’s voice?
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