That’s not me asking. It’s Kenny MacAskill in his latest column for Wings Over Scotland. And, as you may have anticipated, it is a rhetorical question, immediately answered in the negative –
Will Westminster change? Of course, it won’t, it never has, and it never will.
MacAskill is fast becoming the voice of a growing ‘tendency’ within the SNP that has turned to questioning the SNP leadership because all the questions that might be asked of the British state and its apparatus are now rhetorical. They have all been answered. There is no longer any reason to afford the British government the benefit of the doubt because there no longer is any doubt about the malign intentions of the British state. The idea that we should wait and see in the hope that Westminster will change now looks like the thinking of another time. Like propounding geocentrism in the age of space travel.
Despite this, I might answer Kenny MacAskill’s question differently. Instead of dismissing out of hand the possibility that Westminster could change, I would say maybe it could. I would warn against hoping it might. Because from Scotland’s perspective at least Westminster and all it represents can only change for the worse.
To the extent that it is possible to discern any strategic thinking on the constitution issue within the close and closed circle around Nicola Sturgeon, the strategy appears to be to play for time in the hope that Westminster will change. Or, rather, that Boris Johnson will change his mind about granting a Section 30 order. The theory become hope becoming fervent prayer is that somehow something will put some kind of pressure on Johnson such as will force him to relent. Will Boris Johnson change?
In answering that question we might be tempted to treat it as rhetorical. We might think the answer so obvious as to make the question risibly redundant. But, as with the question about Westminster, I would advise a more open-minded approach. I would answer that Boris Johnson might very well change. But that this will not be good news for Scotland. I would insist that Boris Johnson doing a U-turn on the granting of a Section 30 order would not be the great victory that the SNP leadership would surely proclaim it to be.
I do not make the mistake of underestimating Boris Johnson. To be more precise, I fully recognise that there are forces behind Boris Johnson that we would be very foolish to underestimate. While Boris is being portrayed as a bumbling clown I am painfully aware that he is a clown who wins. I have no regard whatever for the man. I have to take cognisance of the fact that he has an impressive record when it comes to getting what he wants. Or what he has been put in office to deliver. Johnson suck! But Johnson succeeds!
Nobody succeeds in politics without options. Nobody enjoys sustained success in the political arena unless they have the means to recover from mistakes, adjust to missteps and cover up misdeeds. The must have, in the parlance of our time, a ‘Plan B’. They must have options. Betimes, these options may not look much like plans. Betimes the successful politician’s survival will seem more attributable to sorcery and the power of prayer than to foresight and long-term planning. But it doesn’t matter where the options come from or what constitutes them so long as they are availabe.
The ultimate option, of course, is brute power. When that option is available then the politician can be as reckless and haphazard as Johnson appears to be confident that there is always the power of the British state and it’s prodigious apparatus to fall back on.
Granting a Section 30 order is one of Boris Johnson’s options. It is one of the things he can fall back on instead of – or as a precautionary precursor to – resort to brute power. If/when he agrees to a Section 30 order it will be because it suits his purposes to do so. (Please take it as read that when I refer to Boris Johnson I am referring less to the man than to the forces he fronts for.)
If/when Boris Johnson grants a Section 30 order, every alarm bell, klaxon and siren in Scotland should be triggered simultaneously. Although you probably wouldn’t be able to hear even that cacophony over the racket of the SNP leadership’s crowing about how they’d forced Boris to back down. How they’d humiliated him. How they’d fatally wounded him and his regime. And it will all be total crap!
Like Westminster, the forces behind Boris Johnson don’t change. They are the forces of an English/British ruling elite which has remained fundamentally unchanged for more centuries than are covered by the period of the Union. They are the forces of what we now call British Nationalism. Cold, heartless, malignant forces. Forces whose sole function is the preservation and expansion of power in the hands of that ruling elite.
It may be a mistake to personalise these forces in this way. It is almost certainly wrong to attribute to what is more in the nature of a machine the emotions, attitudes and motivations of a human being. But if we are concerned with effects rather than causes, with the outcomes of actions rather than what motivates them, then Scotland must regard the British state as cold, heartless and malignant. We must recognise that those forces will do whatever it takes to ‘live’. Whatever it takes! That does not change. That is the ultimate option that Boris Johnson has at his disposal. That is what he has to fall back on. And that is why we should be worried if he should appear to stumble.
We can take a guess at how Boris Johnson would use the granting of a Section 30 order to his advantage. It will be a rather well-educated guess. A guess with a degree from the University of Experience. Our guess may not prove accurate in every detail. But it doesn’t have to. Because, remember, Boris has options. Supposing he grants a Section 30 order – a development some foolishly discount – it will be because he knows that being inside the process will allow him to sabotage the process. Something which would be extremely easy to do. Think it through!
Characteristically, Boris will make two completely contradictory and mutually exclusive arguments as regards the process launched by the granting of a Section 30 order. He will argue that the process must be identical to that which led to the 2014 referendum. Unless it suits his purposes to argue that because circumstances have changed, the process must be different in whatever ways he defines. We got that on our first day at the University of Experience. The SNP and Yes activists and The National and Wings Over Scotland will scream hypocrisy! duplicity! irrationality! – but it won’t matter to Boris. Because he has options. He has power. He has effective control of the process which Nicola Sturgeon assures us will lead to a free and fair referendum on a matter that the forces behind Boris consider settled in their favour.
We can guess that Boris Johnson will insist on Edinburgh Agreement v2.0. We can guess what conditions Boris Johnson will attach to that agreement. Insistence on the Westminster election franchise; insistence on a qualified majority; insistence on a ballot question of his choosing – insistence on anything that will scupper negotiations and kill the Edinburgh Agreement ‘stone dead’. Insistence on anything that no Scottish Government could possibly sign up to. Except maybe an SNP government.
Suppose Nicola Sturgeon were to cave and accept any and all conditions that Boris might devise for the purpose of deterring her from appending her signature to the agreement. No worries! Boris has options. Boris takes the line that absent Edinburgh Agreement v2.0 there can be no referendum. Nicola Sturgeon cannot sensibly dispute this as she has accepted the Section 30 process and that process puts all the power in the hands of the British Prime Minister. Section 30 effectively says that the British Prime Minister can do whatever the fuck he likes with the Scotland Act; with the devolution settlement and with Scotland. And Nicola Sturgeon has hailed that as the “gold standard” of democracy. Please don’t ask why.
The Section 30 process means that Nicola Sturgeon is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she signs on Boris’s terms she will be burned in effigy on the streets of every town and village in Scotland. And the referendum will be unwinnable by the Yes side. If she refuses to sign, either the referendum doesn’t happen at all – see ‘burning effigies’ above – or it goes ahead in a way that Nicola Sturgeon herself has implicitly declared “illegal and unconstitutional”. Which would ‘justify’ Boris’s resort to brute power. How that might be made manifest is something I prefer to leave to your imagination. It’ll probably be worse than you think.
Westminster may change. But if it does it will be the worse for Scotland. Remember English votes for English laws (that will then be imposed on Scotland)?
Boris Johnson may change. But if he does it will be the worse for Scotland. If it wasn’t the Internal Market Bill allowing England-as-Britain to impose on Scotland laws that cannot be voted on by Scotland’s democratically elected representatives (not that it would make any difference), it would be some other and perhaps more devious and draconian piece of legislation.
Nicola Sturgeon may not change. If she doesn’t it will be the worse for Scotland. She may remain wedded (welded?) to the Section 30 process for reasons it would surely be interesting to explore at another time. She may adhere to the Section 30 dogma despite the fact that, like Boris, she has options. Options which maybe aren’t guaranteed to make things better for Scotland, but which certainly couldn’t make our predicament any worse.
I urge Kenny MacAskill to keep up the pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to adopt a new approach to the constitutional issue and to embrace a Manifesto for Independence. I urge – I beg and implore – everybody in the Yes movement to add their voices to his.