Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Johnson's parting gift to his party


Fresh from demonstrating their commitment to honesty, integrity and decency in politics by leaking dirt on each other to the Labour Party, the Tory leadership contenders are lining up to give their views on whether or when another referendum on Scottish independence can or should be held. Some say ‘not for ten years’ whilst others simply say ‘no’ or ‘it’s not the right time’, and one, Tugendhat, said that “you can't keep asking the same question hoping for a different answer”. There are reasonable arguments to be made (none of which have anything to do with a bit of campaign rhetoric from Alex Salmond in 2014 about “once in a generation” opportunities) for not repeating the same question in a referendum too frequently, and in that sense they have a valid point. The real question, though, is the one that they don’t seem to be asking themselves and neither do the compliant media seem to be asking them, and that is: who gets to decide when the time has come, how often to ask the question, whether some sort of event is needed before holding a further vote and what such a trigger might be.

But even without asking those questions, it is clear that there is a common, unstated, assumption: the answer is not Scotland. Yet that is really the heart of the issue. It might be considered wise to wait an arbitrary number of years between votes. It might be considered wise not to repeatedly ask the same question in a referendum. It might be considered wise to predetermine that a certain type of trigger is needed before running a further vote. It might have been wise to formally determine such issues in advance of the last vote – but that wasn’t done.  However, the only people who can decide what is wise or not in this context are the people of Scotland themselves. And even if some rules about further votes had been set in advance, in a democracy nothing can or should stop people from changing their minds. If Scots decide it is time to ask the question again – as they have done, by returning a majority of both MPs and MSPs on a manifesto of holding a vote in a succession of elections – on what moral basis or principle should the UK PM refuse? Telling Scots that they do, of course, have the right to independence if they vote for it (which is what being in a voluntary union amounts to) but that only the English government in London can decide when or whether they’ll ever be allowed to have such a vote is telling them that ultimately, they have no such right at all and there is nothing voluntary about the union.

In terms of making a coherent argument against independence, denying a vote by hiding behind laws imposed by London doesn’t look like the smartest of moves, although we should acknowledge that being smart isn’t exactly the prime qualification for becoming Tory leader. Delaying the vote as long as possible also looks to be self-defeating when all the polling shows that younger voters in Scotland are supporting independence in ever increasing numbers, whilst older voters are doing what older people have a demographic tendency to do; delay is only increasing the probability of a positive vote. Perhaps they genuinely believe that they can hold the line against both independence and a referendum for more or less ever by using the courts; perhaps Scots independentistas really will just say ‘OK’ and stop campaigning, although that looks like a forlorn hope to me. I suspect that the truth is more likely to be that they can see the tide turning against them, don’t know how what else to do, and are taking the essentially short term view which results from the winner-takes-all UK electoral system. Hoping that ‘something will turn up’ if they delay long enough isn’t the best strategy anyone has ever devised. It looks like being his or her own worst enemy is Johnson’s parting gift to his party’s next leader.

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