British Prime Minister (pro tem) Liz Truss’s statement that the referendum proposed by the Scottish Government should not happen even if it is deemed lawful by the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) has provoked a predictably hostile response from the Yes movement. That the Yes movement should be so united in condemnation of Truss’s remarks is extraordinary in itself. Unity of any kind in the Yes movement is unusual and worthy of comment even when it’s in relation to a matter on which disagreement is all but impossible. Let’s enjoy it while we may. The tribes will be back to warring soon enough.
Personally, I find myself unable to get too worked-up about this. In the first place, it seems she didn’t quite say the ‘referendum shouldn’t happen even if Supreme Court deems it legal’. This is inferred from her actual words.
I’m very clear that, in 2014 when there was a referendum, we said it was once in a generation.
I’m very clear there shouldn’t be another referendum before that generation is up.
When a politician says they’re being “very clear” it’s usually because they’re not being clear at all. It’s also a way of signalling tat what they are saying isn’t new or a departure from whatever is regarded as being an established position. The “very clear” qualifier says this is neither new nor controversial, so move on. In reality, she was not being clear at all. The fact that she felt the need to insist upon her clarity twice in the course of two very short sentences suggests a measure of desperation in her response. The less clear she is being the more she feels the need to stress how clear she is being.
What does she mean by “we said it [the 2014 referendum] was once in a generation”? Who said this? Where is it written? Where does this appear in any of the agreements and/or legislation pertaining to the first referendum? Truss doesn’t say. She wasn’t asked. The ‘once-in-a-generation’ gambit is now firmly entrenched as the British Nationalists’ go-to response when questioned about a second referendum. It has been repeated so often, and challenged so little by the mainstream media, that it has taken on a sort of ‘factishness’. It’s one of those things that we are all supposed to accept as given. A lot of people across the UK genuinely believe there was a formal agreement to delay any follow-up to the 2014 referendum for an undefined period called a ‘generation’. I say undefined ─ in reality, the term is variously defined according to expedience. This alone tells you that it cannot possibly be part of any formal agreement or legislation. That sort of loose language just isn’t used in the context.
Another way of establishing that the term ‘once in a generation’ doesn’t appear in any official document is to look at the content of those documents. Vanishingly few will do so, of course. Even fewer given that it is “very clear” that there is such a clause. Very clear twice!
What does Truss mean when she say’s she’s “very clear” that “there shouldn’t be another referendum before that generation is up”? How long is that piece of string? Who decides? Truss doesn’t say. She isn’t asked. The statement is allowed to stand with its ‘factishness’ enhanced by the lack of any interrogation. In the context, this strongly implies that the decision of the UKSC is not a factor that can outweigh the ‘factish’ undertaking to put off holding another referendum until… whenever. It strongly implies this. But it is not quite the unequivocal statement some have taken it to be because that’s what they saw in the headline so that’s all they know. That and it being “very clear very clear”.
Supposing Truss had said outright that there shouldn’t (mustn’t?) be a referendum even if it is deemed lawful by the UKSK? Would that rouse my ire? Not really! It’s an appalling attitude, of course. But British politicians do appalling three times before they empty their bladders of a morning. There is nothing so uniquely appalling about this that I might get into a lather of righteous indignation about it. It’s just one more bit of appallingness in a picture that is nothing but appallingmess. It’s like a tiny bird shat on a Jackson Pollock. Who would notice?
“So, why the f*** are you writing about it if it’s so bloody unremarkable?”, I hear you ask. Well, stop interrupting and I’ll tell you! Duh!
Truss’s remarks ─ or the unavoidable implication thereof ─ display the contemptuous disregard for democracy that is so characteristic of British politicians however much they make it “very clear very clear” that they are fully on board with all that democracy stuff. So far, so mundane. Assuming ─ as I think we have every right to do ─ that Truss was expressing the view that a ruling of the UKSC could/should/must be disregarded if it ran contrary to the “very clear very clear” position of the British government, this adds contempt for the law to the previously mentioned contempt for democratic principles. Hardly less mundane. The Brits have form on this. It’s really not so surprising that a British Nationalist takes the view that the imperative of preserving the Union should take precedence over the law as well as over democratic principles. It’s all of a oneness, really. Contempt for democracy and contempt for the law go hand in hand. One needn’t delve too far into history to find examples which illustrate the point.
What struck me about Truss’s evident disdain for the opinion of the UKSC was the contrast with the attitude evinced by Nicola Sturgeon, with her insistence that everything has to be very clearly legal. Or very clearly very clearly legal. Whereas Sturgeon is bound and constrained by the need to dot every legal ‘i’ and cross every legal ‘t’, the British side in the constitutional dispute doesn’t give a shit. Whereas Sturgeon is so enamoured of democratic principles that she goes beyond what is strictly required in order to be seen to be the most democratic person on the scene (>50% of the vote requirement in a plebiscitary election decided by seats won!), the British side spits on democratic principles as a matter of course.
It occurs to me that this makes it a bit of an unfair fight. It’s like Sturgeon is moving her pieces in accordance with the rules of chess while Truss’s game is loosely based on the rules of draughts with elements of cage fighting. Even supposing Sturgeon is a chess grand-master, the smart money is going to be on Truss.
This is not to suggest that our First Minister should emulate her British counterpart. Absolutely not! Or not absolutely. It doesn’t take the political nous of a Machiavelli to figure out that Sturgeon just cannot win in these circumstances. Even if there are points awarded for style, that’s of little comfort when you’re reduced to a problem for the janitorial staff. Given what is at stake, Sturgeon has no right to give away such an advantage. She has a solemn responsibility to defend Scotland’s interests and our democracy and our distinctiveness as a nation. She has to be prepared to resort to extraordinary means when faced with an opponent who has no regard for either the will of the people or the wisdom of the courts.
I have long maintained that there is no route to independence through the legal and constitutional morass developed under the imperative to preserve the Union. The implication being that Scotland’s independence can only be restored if our political leaders are prepared to step outside the limits of British law while remaining strictly within the bounds of democratic principles. Sturgeon has given no sign that she is prepared to do what it takes in order to prevail against a totally unprincipled opponent. She wants those style points for herself. I want independence for Scotland.
By her words, Truss has indicated that she is quite ready to ignore the law in order to preserve the Union. She stands ready to defy the UKSC to prevent even a referendum which has no legal or constitutional effect. We already know that the British ruling elite is quite ready to flout democratic principles and international conventions in order to defend the structures of power, privilege and patronage which constitute the British state. The question for Nicola Sturgeon is, what are you prepared to do?
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