Monday, 4 January 2021

A very English crisis awaits us


The Prime Minister of England put in another bumbling and incoherent performance on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, including an attempt to answer a reasonable question about a future referendum on the future of Scotland (the relevant clip is available here on Bella Caledonia). In essence, his evasion highlighted his underlying conviction that Scotland is an English possession, and has no democratic route of its own available to choose an alternative future which does not involve the consent of the English Government, which consent will never be forthcoming from him. His assertion that the 41 years between the two referendums on membership of the EU was “a good sort of gap” and is therefore some sort of precedent for determining the frequency of referendums is disingenuous to say the least. The reason that there was no further referendum between 1975 and 2016 wasn’t some great principle that referendums should be infrequent, it was simply that there was no majority in parliament to hold a further referendum. Had there been a majority for a repeat referendum in 1980, there is little doubt that one would have been held. Telling the Scots that it doesn’t matter who they vote for or what the manifestoes of the various parties say, the English Government has an absolute veto on implementing the will of the Scottish electorate is not only undemocratic, but also positively counter-productive for his own side in the debate.

That is not to argue that there are not legitimate questions to be asked about whether and when referendums (on any subject) should be held. They are often blunt instruments, reducing complex and nuanced questions to a simplistic yes/no answer, as we have discovered with the EU referendum, where what ‘leave’ actually meant was ill-defined, to put it mildly. There is surely something wrong with holding a referendum in which a majority can vote for free unicorns for all without anyone being able to say how said unicorns will be sourced. The reluctance of many politicians to get involved in holding repeated referendums on the same subject is also understandable as is their desire to declare a result to be ‘final’ so that we can all move on to other subjects. However, the idea that such arguments can ever trump the democratically expressed wish of voters is profoundly undemocratic. It’s doubtful that many would want to see a referendum on, say, EU membership becoming an annual event, but if that’s what the electorate vote for by electing a majority of MPs supporting such a proposal, by what authority can anyone tell them that they can’t have one? It’s a theoretical question and a highly improbable outcome, of course, but to ask it is to answer it: if a majority of MPs were to be elected on a manifesto pledging another referendum – or even annual referendums – on EU membership, then it would happen. It is a core element of the English constitution that parliament is both absolutely sovereign and can never bind its successors.

And it is that which exposes the underlying attitude of the English nationalists in the Conservative Party (as well as the Anglo-British nationalists of Labour): sovereignty rests indivisibly in Westminster, not with the devolved parliaments, and certainly not with the voters in Scotland (or Wales, come to that). It doesn’t matter how many times the Scots vote for parties committed to holding another independence referendum; unless and until they can gain a majority in Westminster (an impossible ask) or the support of either the English nationalist party or the Anglo-British nationalist party (both unlikely), their votes on the issue of independence count for nothing.

Those who would argue that the UK needs to think a lot more carefully about the use of referendums have a valid point, even if the demand for a lengthy and time-consuming process to do so looks suspiciously like an attempt to kick the Scottish question into the long grass for as long as possible. But if issues are not to be decided by referendums, then they can only be decided by elections or, rather, by those who are elected casting their votes in the parliaments of which they are members. The reluctance of the SNP leadership to consider options other than the ‘gold standard’ of an agreed referendum is understandable and pragmatic in terms of ensuring international recognition for Scottish independence, but if the government of England persists in trying to close off that option, the constitutional crisis which the UK will ultimately face becomes both considerably greater and significantly more likely. The fact that Boris Johnson sees this as a Scottish crisis rather than an English one governs his response - and makes the outcome increasingly inevitable.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda John

"The fact that Boris Johnson sees this as a Scottish crisis rather than an English one governs his response - and makes the outcome increasingly inevitable."

Maybe it's more a case that Boris sees himself as some modern Caesar at the head of some latter day Empire where his word and his word alone determines what can be allowed. In that old Imperial model things tended to come to a head with bloody rebellions and ultimately barbarians at the gate with hordes of uppity rebels in tow all after a chance to hack the Emperor to bits. Boris better watch his bits !