It matters

Nicola Sturgeon to lay out ‘detailed case’ for second independence referendum

Why? Why should Scotland’s First Minister be required to argue for a new referendum? It is plainly evident that the people of Scotland want one. So, why is Nicola Sturgeon, who has an unarguable mandate, having to petition Boris Johnson, who has none? More to the point, why is she simply accepting this obvious perversion of democratic principles and affront to basic fairness? Come to that, why are we meekly accepting it? Why aren’t we on the streets protesting this iniquity?

The default position in any system purporting to be democratic is that everybody should have a vote and that all decisions should be put to a vote. From that starting position arguments are made for exceptions. Infants aren’t permitted to vote, for obvious reasons. Young children aren’t permitted to vote for reasons which, while less clear-cut than for infants, are still perfectly adequate. Once a person reaches 16 years of age, the arguments for withholding the franchise on the basis of age begin to crumble. Where those arguments are weak, the benefit of the doubt favours the default position. Better that a hundred people should be allowed to vote despite being somewhat immature than that one person who is capable should be denied.

Denying the vote to someone who is capable must always be a breach of democratic principles. Allowing someone to use their vote can never be a breach of democratic principles. The necessary implication of this is that it must always be the ones who wish to deny the vote who have to make the case for doing so. If they cannot make an adequate case, the default democratic position holds.

The British political system turns this on its head. In the British system, voting is not a right but a privilege – to be granted or withheld at the whim of the British political elite. The British system fails this test of its democratic credentials.

Voting on every single issue is impractical. So we delegate most of the decision making to elected representatives. It is only on really major issues, such as constitutional reform, that a plebiscite is deemed necessary. Although other countries, such as Switzerland, have referendums on a much wider range of issues, here in the UK they are relatively rare events. But the principle of individuals in a democracy voting on everything still holds. It’s just that we vote at one remove. We lend our democratic franchise to a politician we trust to vote on our behalf.

That the British political system has many ways of allowing the executive to introduce and implement measures without parliamentary scrutiny is another reason it should not be considered fully democratic. The royal prerogative is an archaic, but powerful tool in the hands of those who crave unfettered power.

The case against democracy

That the British establishment doesn’t want a referendum to happen is all too apparent. That the British establishment is vehemently opposed to Scotland’s independence being restored is not in any doubt. The reasons for this are well known. None of those reasons has anything to do with what is best for Scotland and its people. None of those reasons is concerned with genuine democracy. All of those reasons are about preserving the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. All of those reasons are concerned with maintaining established power.

That the restoration of Scotland’s independence would disbenefit England-as-Britain is disputed only by those who view the world through the red, white and blue miasma of British exceptionalism. This in itself is not – indeed, cannot be – an adequate reason for denying Scotland’s democratic right of self-determination. If it were, we would still be living in the age of European imperialism and Scotland truly would be a colony of the British Empire.

If disbenefit to the British political elite and its clients is not a good reason to obstruct democracy and deny Scotland’s right of self-determination, what might be? Supposing democracy prevailed in the British state and the right of the people of Scotland to decide their nation’s constitutional status was assumed. What arguments might the British political elite deploy as they tried to make a case for Scotland being an exception to the normal rules of democracy? Happily, we know what their arguments would be, because they have been brash enough to speak them aloud.

The most commonly used argument against a new referendum is also the most obviously idiotic. Which may be indicative of something. That it was the line fed to Boris Johnson as his stock response to questions about Scotland’s independence movement is probably because it is the one he can get his head around. It is favoured because it is simple enough to be understood even by the intellectually challenged. The fact that it is nonsensical is not regarded as important. Countless times a day we hear it argued that Scotland should not be allowed to have another vote because we were promised the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event. Or, in the sole variation on this theme, that it was a “once in a lifetime” occurrence.

We are told that the Scottish Government made a solemn undertaking that no new referendum would be pursued for a period that was unspecified and, therefore, open to interpretation. This period has been stated as 5 years, 40years and many figures in between. Which is odd because one would have supposed that, had the Scottish Government given a formal undertaking, it would have been couched in more precise language. Contracts tend not to use terms such as “for a while” or “until the cows come home”.

In fact, the undertaking doesn’t exist. It is to be found nowhere in the legislation pertaining to the 2014 referendum. The argument is based on nothing more substantial than casual remarks made by some Scottish politicians. There was no “once in a generation/lifetime” promise. And, even if there had been, it would be meaningless. No government can bind its successors and no politician has the authority to constrain the right of self-determination. The argument is ludicrous and its use serves only to illustrate ignorance of and contempt for democracy. It cannot possibly be sufficient cause for denying the people a vote.

Another common argument against democracy deployed by British Nationalists is that holding a new independence referendum would cause division, polarisation and uncertainty. All of which are held to be entirely and invariably ‘Very Bad Things’. Generally speaking, no further explanation is offered. We are expected to take it for granted that division, polarisation and uncertainty are Very Bad Things because that is how they are portrayed. It’s a given. Or is it?

Is division a Very Bad Thing? Not if politics as seen as a contest of ideas and democracy as a way of resolving this contest without resort to drastic measures. Division is not only a natural part of democratic politics but a vital attribute. Division is what inevitably arises when people are free to think for themselves and express their views. Division is essential to democracy because it it powers the debates and discussions which inform subsequent decisions.

Where there is no division, there is no democracy. Only under repressive totalitarian regimes can public political discourse be an arid wasteland devoid of disagreement and dispute. Only the heel of the dictator’s boot can crush the individuality and freedom of thought that breeds division. Remember that next time a politician tries to persuade you that division is a Very Bad Thing.

Is polarisation a Very Bad Thing? True, it can be unhelpful in some – perhaps most – situations. Taken to its extreme, polarisation leaves a void where diverse thinking should be. It splits thinking into two discrete, rigidly defined and deeply entrenched camps and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to venture into the no man’s land in between. Were it a ubiquitous and permanent feature of our politics it might well be a Very Bad Thing. But we are not discussing politics in the broad sense. We are focused on a very particular issue. An issue that is deemed serious enough to require a referendum and dichotomous enough so that a referendum can produce a decision and not merely a result. As I explained in an earlier article,

To be effective, a referendum must offer clear options – preferably no more than two. Ideally, the choice should be binary – yes or no – with the meaning of each being totally explicit. If the proposition can’t be put, without ambiguity, in twenty words or less, then it is probably too complicated for a referendum. If explanatory notes are required, then it is almost certainly too complicated for a referendum. If those explanatory notes run to more than a single side of A4, then trying to decide the matter by means of a referendum is just plain daft.

If a referendum is to be decisive it is essential that both options are spelled out in a manner which leaves no room for dispute. If one or more of the options is undefined then the referendum can produce a result, but never a decision. And, for the purposes of referendums, ‘poorly defined’ is defined as ‘undefined’.

Alpacas might fly

In the special circumstances of a referendum, polarisation is not a Very Bad Thing. It is an essential thing. If opinion is not polarised, the referendum isn’t working. If the protagonists are free to wander the space between positions then those positions become blurred. Voters will be left unsure whether they are voting for one thing or the other thing or something that is neither. Such a referendum will produce a result. But it cannot produce the clear and incontestable decision that is required.

If a politician is arguing that polarisation in an issue to be decided by referendum is a Very Bad Thing, it is because they do not want a clear and incontestable decision. They want a result that is vague enough to be defined in whatever way they find expedient.

I hate to do this to you, but look at Brexit. The EU referendum in 2016 is an object lesson in getting it all horribly wrong. To catalogue the ways in which it was wrong would take an entire book, rather than an essay. But we know that it produced a result without a decision because the aftermath was dominated by acrimonious debates about what Brexit actually meant and what flavour of Brexit people had actually voted for.

Far from the potential for polarisation being an argument against facilitating a vote, it is a basic prerequisite of a referendum.

Is uncertainty a Very Bad Thing? Well, if it is, it’s a Very Bad Thing we’ve learned to live with. There is always uncertainty. None of us knows with total certainty what tomorrow may bring. The number of things we can be certain of, such as sunrise and sunset, is dwarfed by the uncertainties of day to day life. If certainty was an absolute necessity for human existence, none of us would be here. If uncertainty was seriously deleterious to life, we’d all be dead instead of merely dying.

Uncertainty is not the Very Bad Thing. Insecurity is. We can cope easily with the vagaries of life so long as we feel secure. We don’t trouble ourselves unduly about what the future will bring if we know we’ll be OK. We will venture out on the tightrope of tomorrow without crippling fear if we know there is a safety net. That safety net may be provided by family or community or the state. Possibly all of these to varying degrees. It may, of course, also be provided by personal wealth. The extent to which we can deal with uncertainty is in direct proportion to the confidence we have in that safety net. If that safety net is damaged in such a way as to diminish our confidence; or if that safety net is removed altogether, only then does uncertainty cause stress. Only then does uncertainty become a Very Bad Thing.

When politicians speak of the horrors of uncertainty, they are admitting their own failure to provide and maintain the social safety net that most of us need.

In the circumstances of a referendum, uncertainty is no more a Very Bad Thing than it is in any other aspect of our lives, so long as we can be reasonably sure that the result – the decision – will not plunge us into chaos and catastrophe. If that was even a remote possibility, the question of putting the issue to a vote wouldn’t even arise. Nobody demands a plebiscite to decide between two options when one or both of those options spells disaster. It is one of the prerequisites of a referendum that both options be deliverable. And deliverable without causing the sky to fall or the seas to rise.

When politicians, who have to live with the outcome as much as everyone else, proclaim uncertainty to be a Very Bad Thing we can be sure that they are referring to the uncertainty that they intend to create as part of their referendum campaign. We have seen it all before. We have seen Project Fear.

It matters

The case against a new independence referendum is as insubstantial as Donald Trump’s hair. And just as likely to be blown into disarray by even the most gentle breeze of scrutiny. The case for allowing the democratic process is unnecessary and redundant. There is no justification for obstructing the democratic process. There is no reason the people of Scotland should not exercise their democratic right of self-determination. There would have to be a very powerful reason for denying a referendum. A reason which is acceptable, however reluctantly, to the people who are being denied access to the democratic process. There being no such reason, a new constitutional referendum should proceed automatically and without hindrance.

Yesterday, I used Twitter to put a question to Nicola Sturgeon. I asked,

Do you agree that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status and the choice of the form of government that best meets Scotland’s needs are matters to be decided entirely and exclusively by the people of Scotland?

@BerthanPete

To date, I haven’t received a reply. I wasn’t really expecting one. The question was not intended to elicit a response from the First Minister so much as to give others something to think about.

If you answer that question in the affirmative, without hesitation or equivocation, then you are a true democrat. If you need to consider your response, or if you answer in the negative, then you are no friend to either democracy or Scotland.

We have to assume that Nicola Sturgeon falls readily and completely into the first category. I don’t need her to answer the question to be sure that she is, indeed, a true democrat and Scotland’s champion. I choose to think she would not burden her affirmative response with a string of caveats, conditions and provisos. I would be extremely disappointed if she did. And very, very concerned for Scotland.

This begs the question, however; if you believe that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status and the choice of the form of government that best meets Scotland’s needs are matters to be decided entirely and exclusively by the people of Scotland, why do you feel the need to explain yourself to the British Prime Minister? Why do you think it necessary to petition for something that you believe should follow from the fundamental principles of democracy? Why do you suppose the democratic process requires the consent and approval of any external agency?

If you believe the right of the people of Scotland to decide our future is, as the right of sovereign people, entire and exclusive, why would you compromise that sovereignty by inviting the involvement of anyone other than the people of Scotland?

If I am the last and only person asking this question, I will persist in asking it. Because it matters.



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9 thoughts on “It matters

  1. Absolutely agree that division and polarization can be very beneficial, but it is what they might spawn that becomes the real bone of contention, and I’m not taking the side of the British Nationalists in this. I believe the FM is wary of division and polarization because of what they can do, and on this, I am in agreement with her, albeit not, perhaps her approach, which, like you, I find too acquiescent and undemanding. England itself, without Wales and NI, has a massive population, and that makes it cocky and pushy and over-assuming – arrogant, if you will. The UK, dominated by England, is not best known for its progressive and co-operative stance in recent years. I believe we are right to fear England and what it might do if we do not behave as it expects us to behave. You don’t get the real feel for how ordinary people approach questions of constitutionality and their sense of belonging and nationalism in newspapers and political magazines, because these issues are filtered through the sieve of intellectual discourse. Gut feelings and reactions are to be found, more often than not, on Twitter or Facebook, on blogs, websites, etc. and some very harsh views can be exchanged.

    As a campaigner for independence, I have always found British Nationalism dispiriting and negative, and, during the first indyref, I found that EU residents were afraid of being repatriated if we left the EU, which was one of Better Together’s planks, stay in the UK to stay in the EU, which led, I believe, to the EU residents’ NO vote: Scotland was going to be booted out, the naysayers said, because the UK was the member state; this showed both a dire lack of understanding of the Union between Scotland and England, and that extended even to intelligent and highly-educated people. When it came to rUK residents, the antipathy became more personal and more nuanced. The almost 75% of the rUK vote for NO was predicated, I believe, on the assumption that things would never change; that Scotland was a part of a Greater England, essentially, and would never actually get around to doing anything about changing that. Why would they when they were so beholden to English taxpayers?

    A subtle move towards accusations of anti Englishness at any suggestion that we were not playing the game began to become commonplace, with few who used this tactic ever actually realizing that it smacked of anti Scottish racism. Telling people that you ensure their existence is tantamount to racist abuse and would be seen as such in any other context with any other national group than the Scots, and certainly on a one-to-one relationship level. I fully appreciate that many rUK residents support independence and would happily live in an independent Scotland, but, three-quarters almost of any demographic being against what you are proposing makes life difficult with regard to a referendum and its aftermath. I think that this is where Nicola Sturgeon is coming from. I could very well be wrong, but I think she does worry about what both Westminster and our own rUK residents will do if we ignore them and plough ahead.

    It is, again, one of the main reasons that I do not want another referendum unless we are 99.99% sure we are going to win it. Resiling the Treaty avoids the need for supermajorities, for trying to win over people who may be very opposed to what you are proposing because they see Scotland as part of the UK and always will, and, more to the point, will resent bitterly any attempt to change the status quo in Scotland’s favour. The Irish understand English Nationalism so much better than we do, and they are not afraid to call it what it is. That it is present in Scotland cannot be denied. I must admit that, like you, I was in favour of a referendum as being the most democratic way forward, but I have to say that I was deeply hurt and angry at the rUK response in 2014, albeit I had expected the Scottish Unionist response. I always find it deeply disturbing, offensive almost, when people who have no real right to stymie something, do so in their own selfish interests, ignoring the real misery that they could be inflicting on the very people who have welcomed them, and whom they must despise to some extent to do what they do. It seems like a very strange way to integrate.

    I do believe that the FM wants to create as few waves in the English Scots’ community as possible, Mr Bell, and I can understand that, even if I find it counter-productive. I think this is the community that she wishes to alienate least, precisely because of their big brother next door who could give us a kicking and because we need tax payers to stay here, as more and more EU residents decide to leave and go home. Resiling/dissolving the Treaty is democratic with a ratifying referendum, legal and internationally acceptable. We have to win our case, of course, but we also have to win a second indyref, and the spirit of Quebec Past continues to haunt pre independence referendums, although that wee bit of Papua New Guinea appears to have given the middle digit to ‘big’ sensibilities. Of course, those people voted over 90% for independence. If the Scots, old and new, ever did that, I’d faint clean away. I’d be quite happy to faint clean away just so long as I came round again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The clever 30 page pdf that goes along with Sturgeon’s letter to BoJo is here:
    https://www.gov.scot/publications/scotlands-right-choose-putting-scotlands-future-scotlands-hands/

    and her brief letter is here (I think it was added later to the article but could be wrong):
    https://www.thenational.scot/news/18112269.sturgeon-calls-johnson-grant-holyrood-independence-powers/?action=success#comments-feedback-anchor111

    and it was Sturgeon introduced the Claim of Right to Holyrood in January 2012.

    My feeling is that if BoJo ignores the letter, or doesn’t do as he’s tellt, he won’t be PM for long.

    “Yesterday, I used Twitter to put a question to Nicola Sturgeon. I asked,
    Do you agree that the question of Scotland’s constitutional status and the choice of the form of government that best meets Scotland’s needs are matters to be decided entirely and exclusively by the people of Scotland?
    To date, I haven’t received a reply. I wasn’t really expecting one. The question was not intended to elicit a response from the First Minister so much as to give others something to think about.”

    No harm in that, emphaisising the Claim of Right is something we should never stop doing. Personally I think it’s central to Sturgeon’s whole being and life – as it is to many of us who knew about it, or found out about the Claim of Right later on in our days.

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    1. How are you going to win indyref2, Yes? The numbers simply do not stack up, and they will continue not to stack up. If we are hoping for some miracle movement away from NO to YES, we have to think hard about a referendum situation and stop extrapolating election results as if this is what they are. Many of those who voted for the SNP to protect them within the UK will not do so in a referendum for independence. 2014 proved that. Many of those EU NO-voting residents we believe – rightly, I think – would vote YES next time are gone, while rUK NO voters, the biggest NO-voting group per capita (bigger even than all the Scottish Unionists) have grown in numbers since 2015. A second indyref will be a huge risk and, if we fail again, there will be no opportunity for at least fifty years to even think about independence because we’ll be trying to keep our heads above water in a low-wage, low tax (for the richest), low working rights, low benefits economy.

      Resiling the Treaty needs no supermajority, but a ratifying/confirmatory referendum. It is both legal and democratic because the case would be built on Scotland’s treatment within the Union, her silencing in the union and the loss of her natural resources. Okay, there is a risk there, too, but I believe it is the one we should be taking. It is far more likely to succeed now because it will be out of the hands of Westminster and Whitehall. Even if we get another S30 Order, and Johnson calls the FM’s bluff, as Cameron did with Mr Salmond, he will insist on an early referendum so that he can plough on with Brexit for the whole UK? Does anyone seriously believe that the British State, either by means of a second indyref, which they will torpedo out of the water, or a domestic court case, which the UKSC will torpedo likewise, will sit back and allow itself to be undermined? Does anyone doubt that Johnson would strangle us to get Brexit done for the English electorate? We have to remember why they will not let us go willingly.

      All this: if we just do this, that’ll happen because it must, is so much nonsense. Few things happen just because… They happen because they are made to happen. Even seeming acts of nature are precipitated by events we do not see, but they exist nonetheless. We must wait to see what Johnson will do with the FM’s request. If it is a refusal, then the FM is scuppered unless she accedes to a Scottish referendum, which she has deemed illegal just by deeming Westminster’s permission legal, or she changes tack, which she might; if he calls her bluff, she will be forced to hold a referendum with the numbers still too low to win even before the British State starts on her. There is no way that the UK under Johnson and the right-wing Tories are going to let Scotland go willingly, so they must be made to do so, and that will not be via a second indyref or even through the domestic courts. Both of these are cul de sacs, and that will become obvious very soon. Many are afraid of what could happen if we try to leave the UK without a pre independence referendum; I am afraid of what could happen if we hold one. If we lose, we will be cancelling any other legal route.

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      1. I wrote the following comment on Craig’s blog:

        I’ve been using comments in newspapers and blogs for the last year to give the link to your article on the Scottish Parliament’s right to resile the Treaty of Union with England. Many people like it, but no one with authority or the necessary public confidence acts on it in any way. I even wrote to you once asking you to give leadership to some kind of National Scottish Convention to take independence out of the hands of the SNP because I had come to believe that the SNP will actually lose us our opportunity for independence. By trying to stop Brexit its interest moved to the UK away from Scotland’s independence. It became a British party that fielded candidates only in Scotland and formed the devolved government of Scotland.

        If someone with the necessary authority and confidence of the public does not act soon, I believe it will be too late. You seem to me to have the necessary knowledge and experience, and the confidence of enough Scots to initiate an independence convention if the Scottish Parliament and MPs do not act. Please, Craig, Act for Scotland!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In light of the intransigence demonstrated in the Queen’s Speech, the Scottish MPs must now withdraw from Westminster, unite with the Scottish Parliament and resile the Treaty of Union with England and revoke the Act of Union. Under International Law they have that right. No Prime Minister of England, who has no mandate in Scotland, and no Queen of England, who as far as Scotland is concerned, reigns by the will of the People of Scotland have the right to decide what the People of Scotland may choose.

    The resiling of the Treaty and the revocation of the Act should be followed by a confirmatory referendum.

    The oath of loyalty that the Scottish MPs took was to the Queen, not the Prime Minister, nor the English Government of the UK. The Queen is not the Sovereign in Scotland. She reigns under the sovereignty of the People of Scotland. It’s time for the People of Scotland to withdraw her right to reign in Scotland unless she submits to the will of the People of Scotland.

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  4. Don’t dismiss the claim of right, that Blackford had endorsed in WM in July. Does anyone think that was just a bit of fun.

    It was done for a very particular reason. That issue will be why Boris crumbles.

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    1. As Andrew Tickell points out. “The fact a majority of the MPs who voted on Ian Blackford’s motion endorsed the language of the 1989 Claim of Right has no legal teeth either.” – t.ly/JjXPm

      If you read David Mundell’s response to Ian Blackford’s opposition day motion you will see how the British state will counter any call upon the Claim of Right. They will insist that they are honouring the claim and respecting the sovereignty of the Scottish people in various ways. Devolution, for example. There is every chance a court would accept such an argument.

      I don’t dismiss the Claim of Right. But I’m not the one who matters.

      BTW – It was Patrick Grady MP who tabled the opposition day motion. And it was July 2018.

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      1. Devolution, I believe, has turned out to be a hollow victory for the Scots because of what we have lost because of it. It can be a good thing, but not in the hands of Westminster and Whitehall, who pay only lip service to it. Anything we do now within devolution will be negated by the Supreme Court ruling. We are trapped by a constitution that is little more than English Law, English convention and custom, etc. British Nationalists signed up to this. They signed up to every rotten detail of the way we have been treated. Domestic law and the ‘British’ constitution cannot save us. Our aim of Right is useless because it is, essentially, in the gift of Westminster, as in 1998/99. Our sovereignty – although I’m not convinced that, legally and constitutionally, we ceded it all – was ceded to the new ‘British’ parliament with the monarch as head of state. The Treaty of Union guaranteed our separate legal systems, both Scots and English, and, albeit the new ‘British’ constitutional law was wholly English, our representatives also accepted that. Acquiescence and collaboration have been our undoing. That has to stop. Testing the limits of devolution is not going to cut the mustard. We must now take this to the wire – and very soon. 2021 will be far too late because many of the trade deals will have been done and we will be tied into them. This cannot be stressed too powerfully. If Johnson leaves the EU in January, 2020, and if he has refused the S30 Order before then, we must not waste another moment in either taking our case to the UN, or in repudiating the Treaty as having been breached irreparably by rUK. A ratifying/confirmatory referendum thereafter is perfectly feasible and legal – and democratic. If the assorted Scottish Unionists, British Nationalists and English Nationalists in our midst don’t like it, tough. They can seek to bring us back into the fold legally, but Brexit will be made all that much harder for rUK; those trade deals will not be worth the paper the’d be written on; and we can fight for successor state status just for the hell of it. We have as many bargaining chips as rUK. It’s just that most don’t realize it. If rUK invaded, it would make itself into even more of a pariah state that it is now, with its refusal to reinstate the Chagos Islands, and we have the Treaty to show that they will have been behaving like imperial nabobs in their last domestic colonies. What price those trade deals then?

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