Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Too little, too late


If the Tories really, desperately wanted to encourage the Scots to vote for independence, the best thing that they could do would be to raise Thatcher from the dead and send her on a tour of Scotland to extol the advantages of London rule. They’ve reluctantly had to accept the impossibility of that, so they’ve opted for the second-best approach – Boris Johnson is going on a fleeting visit this week instead. Apparently, he’s set to deliver an ‘impassioned plea’ to the Scots to reject something which he refers to as ‘narrow nationalism’ in the hope that they’ll enthusiastically embrace his peculiar brand of English nationalism instead. Leaving aside the tiny little problemette that Johnson has never been known to do passion – lies, bluster and poor jokes with an occasional Latin or Greek allusion may appear to be the same thing, but only in his eyes – it demonstrates a massive failure to understand how much things have changed in Scotland, and how irrelevant his London-centric views have become. And talking (as he apparently intends to do) about how the union can be reformed so that it works better, in the immediate aftermath of passing legislation to undermine the existing settlement and claw back powers, looks like an attempt to pretend that the last two decades never happened.

It isn’t just the Tories suffering this strange failure to comprehend recent history – Labour have their own problems as well. Unlike Thatcher, they didn’t even need to try and disinter their former leader: Gordon Brown still lives. And he’s made another of his increasingly frequent ‘interventions’ in politics, warning that the UK faces a choice between reform and failure. One of the great mysteries of politics in the twenty-first century is why so many Westminster politicians, to say nothing of the London commentariat, believe that Brown has huge influence in Scotland and that the Scots are hanging on his every word, despite the lack of any evidence (or indeed the presence of masses of evidence to the contrary). Maybe it’s because he at least sounds Scottish, something which the Tories’ tame Scots, such as Gove, singularly fail to achieve. Still, if Johnson can do his best to destroy what remains of the Conservative Party in Scotland, it’s only fair to allow Brown the opportunity to do the same for Labour.

There is another potential point of commonality between Johnson and Brown. Brown is calling for fundamental constitutional changes led by a “commission on democracy” that would “review the way the whole United Kingdom is governed”, whilst Johnson is apparently toying with a similar idea – as Martin Kettle of the Guardian puts it: “One minister tells me the plan is for Johnson to announce that he considers the UK’s existing constitutional architecture is not working. Whether these issues are to be remitted to a constitutional commission of some kind … will soon be made clear”. There have been similar calls here in Wales – just a few days ago, Senedd member Mick Antoniw repeated his call for some sort of “Welsh constitutional convention”. There’s nothing wrong with a constitutional convention per se, but there are three big caveats.

The first is about timing and how long it will take. Waiting until the end (of the union) is literally nigh and then demanding a process likely to take some years to come to fruition looks like exactly what it is – an attempt to kick the can down the road. Delaying the inevitable for as long as possible in the hope that something will turn up, or that the Scots in particular will decide that they can’t be bothered any more simply isn’t a viable strategy – it’s about denying their democratic rights, not honouring them.

The second is that none of those individuals or parties have a clue what to do about the huge and inevitable built-in imbalance which England, with 85% of the population, will represent in any conceivable alternative structure. Setting up conventions in the vague hope that either someone will come up with a solution or else that everyone else will come to a consensus view that they have to lump it is a substitute for addressing the issue. And an extremely poor substitute at that. Political parties could and should, instead, just put forward their own ideas – the problem is that they don’t have any.

The third, and most important of all, is about the terms of reference and who sets them. Terms of reference which start from the premise that the UK can and should be reformed (which seems to be what is being proposed) are terms of reference which set out, from the outset, to close off rather than openly discuss all possible options.

Still, the good news in all this is that it doesn’t matter. By the time Johnson has finished selling the advantages of the union to the Scots, everything else will be just a question of the belated locking of doors on equine residences.

1 comment:

CapM said...

Creating a convention to save the UK looks like a Displacement Activity to me like for example the "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" idiom.

What we have in reality however is a discussion about whether to undertake the first Displacement Activity.
Like having a discussion about whether the deckchairs should be rearranged.