In common with innumerable other commentators, Richard Walker portrays the British government as having no respect for democracy. He is, of course, perfectly justified in doing so. The catalogue of reasons for stating that the British government has no regard for democratic principles and that the latest iteration of British Nationalism is overtly anti-democratic, need not be revisited here.
Richard is also correct to note how drastically the context of the constitutional issue has changed since David Cameron volunteered that Section 30 order a decade ago. What I find perplexing is that even while acknowledging the massively altered circumstances he appears to suppose that the Edinburgh Agreement should still serve as a precedent. I don’t think it can. Mainly because one aspect of the situation hasn’t changed since David Cameron and Alex Salmond negotiated the accord which led to the 2014 referendum. The power relationship remains the same. The British state still dominates. Scotland remains subject to the whims of Westminster and the whimsicality of an English electorate which thought it a good idea to make Boris Johnson Prime Minister.
The important thing to remember about the SNP landslide in the 2011 Holyrood election is that this expression of the will of Scotland’s people carried no weight in the British political system. David Cameron had the legal and constitutional authority to brush aside the democratic mandate given to the Scottish Government by the sovereign people of Scotland, he simply chose not to use the power afforded him by the Union and the legal and constitutional framework developed under the influence of England-as-Britain’s imperative to protect and preserve. the Union.
As a precedent, the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement supports the argument that the granting of a Section 30 order is a matter of unconstrained choice for the British Prime Minister. Cameron chose to put on a show of respect for the democratically expressed will of Scotland’s people, but was under no legal or constitutional obligation to do so. Theresa May then Boris Johnson and now Liz Truss were and are similarly under no legal or constitutional obligation to respect Scotland’s democracy, and they choose not to. That choice is not contrary to the precedent set by the old Edinburgh Agreement. It is just a different choice.
Richard says “Westminster is left with just three arguments in their bid to keep the Union in place”. But the Union is not under imminent threat in the way that Scotland’s democracy is. The proposed 2023 referendum does not threaten the Union at all. If it is deemed lawful, it will be on the basis that it does not put the Union in jeopardy. Nothing that has been done in the past ten years has altered the power relationship between Scotland and England-as-Britain. Unless it is in the latter’s favour. Adam Tomkins has opined that “it would be insane for the UK Government to block indyref2”. But he doesn’t seem to have figured out the main reason the British government is mad to oppose the referendum as proposed by Nicola Sturgeon.
The referendum is guaranteed to have no effect, so it poses no threat to the Union. If it is a Yes vote, the present British Prime Minister will be under no more legal or constitutional obligation to respect that vote than any of her predecessors. If it is a No vote, the present British Prime Minister has the same freedom of choice as was enjoyed by David Cameron. She can choose to ‘respect’ the result as an expression of the will of Scotland’s people citing the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement as precedent.
Whatever way the vote goes, the British government gets to claim that it has ‘given’ the separatists the referendum they wanted, and they should now shut up about the whole issue for a century or two.
Heads, the Brits win. Tails, Scotland loses.
So why is the British government opposing the proposed referendum if it would be to their advantage for it to go ahead? Because it’s what they do. It is what they are committed to doing. After years of shouting ‘No referendum!’ it would look odd if they just relented now. It might cause people to wonder about the value to Scotland’s cause of a referendum that the British were happy to ‘allow’.
Richard Walker appears to follow the same line of thinking as Nicola Sturgeon. I’d be surprised if he didn’t. But there is a fatal contradiction in that line of thought. The justification for the referendum as proposed is that making it totally ineffectual gives the best chance of having it deemed lawful by the UK Supreme Court (UKSC). It is also argued that the referendum would not be totally ineffectual despite it being explicitly stated that it can have no effect. Sturgeon supposes that the referendum will have political effect. Which, obviously, it will. But she supposes a Yes vote will have the very particular political effect of forcing the British Prime Minister to grant a Section 30 order or risk being seen to be disrespecting the democratically expressed will of Scotland’s people. The problem is that she supposes this while continually pointing out how unashamedly contemptuous the British government is of Scotland, Scotland’s people and Scotland’s democracy.
Richard Walker too, seems to believe simultaneously that the British government has no respect for democracy and that it will respect a democratic Yes vote in a referendum that explicitly affirms their legal and constitutional power to disregard the outcome. The word that comes to mind is ‘doublethink’.
In refusing a Section 30 order, successive British Prime Ministers have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to ignore votes that were intended to have effect. The mandates given to the SNP/Scottish Government were intended to have the effect of bringing about a proper constitutional referendum. Despite the unquestionable democratic legitimacy of these votes and that mandate, the British state effortlessly and with nary a blush dismissed them. What rational reason is there to suppose the British political elite will have better regard for a strictly advisory referendum than for a determinative election?
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