The Playmobil Parliament
Mark McLaughlin argues that Brexit has handed the SNP a mandate for a second referendum, and says both sides need to recognise the crater-sized holes in their arguments this time around.
On December 17th 1928, American con man George C Parker was convicted of fraud for the third time, and given a life sentence. He was incarcerated in New York’s Sing Sing prison, where he would die eight years later at the age of sixty six.
In a glittering criminal career, George C Parker ‘sold’ New York’s famous landmarks to unwitting out-of-towners. Madison Square Gardens, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, General Grant’s Tomb, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge were all centrepieces of a series of elaborate swindles whereby he would forge documents and set up fake offices to demonstrate his ‘legal ownership’. It is reported that Mr Parker ‘sold’ the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for 30 years; buyers would only become aware of the ruse when police halted the construction of their own toll booths. His legacy lives on in the phrase “if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you”.
A casual observer of recent political discourse might reasonably speculate that George C Parker must have been a particularly virile man to have spawned quite so many descendants.
Every electoral cycle we are all offered the opportunity to own the Brooklyn Bridge. For the bargain price of one vote, we can secure £350 million extra a week for the NHS, or abolish tuition fees, or build 100,000 homes, or make America great again. Political parties with a chance of power promise what they must to win support, and those far from power promise anything they like, unencumbered by the burden of fulfilment.
The premise that general elections provide a mandate for anything more than a manifesto’s headline items is a fiction; a lie we tell ourselves to tether those who wield power to the pre-election small print. In truth, few voters read manifestos and even fewer believe them. The steady drumbeat of over-promise followed by under-delivery is a rhythm so familiar that most of the electorate has become deaf to it. Lying politicians lie; ’twas ever thus.
Yet there are commitments to which the political fortunes of the powerful are anchored. These are the promises that form the pillars of a party’s identity, from which no amount of flimflammery could justify a retreat. Difficult to describe in abstract but easy to identify in practice, the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to vote against a rise in tuition fees is among the low hanging fruit in this regard. For a UKIP voter, an equivalent betrayal might be a pivot to ‘open door’ immigration; for the Conservatives, a hike in income tax; for the Greens, to express support for fracking.
Consequently, the rammy over whether the SNP has a mandate to propose another independence referendum is borderline disingenuous. Their manifesto expressly stipulated the criteria for it to be considered, one of which was the very change in circumstances that has now materialised. Far more importantly, however, it would run counter to their very SNP-ness not to advance the cause of independence at every opportunity. For all the stamping of feet and gnashing of teeth in unionist quarters, the much greater betrayal would be for Nicola Sturgeon not to call a referendum at this point, having promised for 18 months to do just that.
The position of the Scottish Greens is more tenuous. No contortion of their manifesto could justify support for an independence referendum. However, there should be little doubt that they would have felt the coarsened edge of our constitutional debate had they not come to heel. Behind the SNP and the Conservatives, Patrick Harvie’s party has been the greatest beneficiary of the 2014 realignment, and their stance on indyref2 is a reflection of this new reality.
Is it really the contention of their political opponents that those who voted Green, most of whom switched because of their pro-independence stance, would be betrayed by backing another referendum? It seems like wilful ignorance to evidence this betrayal by relying an abstract provision of a manifesto on which few will have based their vote. Far more reasonable is the contention that the Greens would have lost support had they not acted like a nationalist party, for that is what they are. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that there is no clear and explicit mandate akin to that of the SNP.
The fact that there exists a parliamentary majority for another plebiscite doesn’t fill me with any less dread about the prospect of one. Pressing issues will be starved of political oxygen as the country is again consumed with divisive constitutional wrangling.
Political arguments are necessarily divisive, of course; debates on education, on tax, on poverty, on welfare are all adversarial. But the argument over statehood is an entirely different, more snarly, animal. It’s effect is so deeply personal as to provoke people to lash out and shut down; opponents become traitors; motives are questioned and characters are derided. It’s emotional and tribal and exhausting. The danger for the Yes campaign is not just a well-funded Better Together outfit, but that the youthful vigour that provided the impetus in 2014 is all democracied out.
Perhaps my greatest doubt, as a supporter of independence, is the futility of hopping aboard the referendum merry-go-round just to be in the same position when we hop off in a few years time. The central challenge is this: Leave did not win because they convinced the public to sacrifice economic prosperity on the alter of constitutional change. They won because they convinced the public that constitutional change was the route to economic prosperity. Or, at the very least, that its effect would be negligible. I remain unconvinced that this argument can be made in respect of independence in current circumstances.
There should be no doubt about the stakes involved as we prepare to roll the dice. There will be no indyref3 folks, we’re going all in. It’s a once in a gener… twice in a generation opportunity.
It also seems plausible that the shortest route between here and ‘First Minister Ruth Davidson’ is a narrow No vote. Labour will, as always, be too squeamish to engage on the issue of statehood and will retreat to the position that Scotland is too poor to be a separate state. The remaining pro-independence voices will complete their migration to the yellow corner while the No vote coalesces around the flag-waving Scottish Conservatives. When political gravity takes its toll on the Scottish Government, as it does with all governments, it would be Ruth Davidson, not Kezia Dugdale, waiting in the wings.
However, all these reservations and more are as nothing next to a Brexit vote which has laid bare the nature of the United Kingdom. Perhaps the most accurate snapshot of our current predicament is the ridicule heaped on Mhairi Black when she had the audacity to tweet that it was a shame that London, the city, could outvote Scotland, the country.
This is what critics would identify as the distilled essence of nationalism; the triumph of the state over the individual, the ‘people’ over the person. It has historically allowed nationalist governments to forego the rights of certain citizens for the ‘greater good’, paving the way for persecution and insularity. What silly, idiotic institutions would, as one critic of Ms Black’s comments put it, assign votes to a landmass instead of people?
Well, most international institutions do just that. In the European Union, each individual parliament of the twenty eight Member States must agree and ratify treaty changes. The United Nations, and the League of Nations before it, operates a one-nation-one-vote policy in the General Assembly, no matter the size of the States. Equally, a veto from the United Kingdom in the Security Council can override the votes of nations representing billions of citizens. Amendments to the Constitution of the United States require a two-thirds majority of state legislatures. In each instance, it is the individual parts of a union that are of significance, not the number of its citizens.
Morally superior sneering at those who believe Scotland should occupy the same position as every other nation is wearing in the extreme. Blinkered denial that the concept of nationhood exists, and that it has real and tangible effects, accounts for so much of the chasm that exists between Yes and No. London is a city, Scotland is a country, and that matters.
The United Kingdom is the anomaly, not the norm, in refusing to respect the democratic will of its constituent parts. Any suggestion of a Brexit veto for nations of the union was treated with derision and dismissed out of hand. If there ever was a union of equal nations, there isn’t any longer. It is a slogan, nothing more. There is only one nation-state.
This is the battleground on which Nicola Sturgeon will fight the second independence referendum. The foundations are already being laid by raising the spectre of Westminster ‘dismantling’ Holyrood, or stripping its powers. It’s a barefaced lie of course; there is no serious prospect of either, and the existing powers are substantial in many policy areas. But like all good political lies, the aim is to reveal a far more potent truth: that the Scottish Parliament exists at the whim of the UK Parliament.
Westminster, not Holyrood, is the sovereign entity. Holyrood’s powers, processes, limitations, structure and budget operate at the pleasure of a Government that has one MP north of the border. It is Scotland’s Playmobil Parliament, bestowed with the powers with which the UK Government has decided we can be trusted, but starved of the ‘economic levers’ to fulfil our potential. This is a gross mischaracterisation, of course, but remains the perfect framing for a nationalist cause. If pro-union voices aren’t worried about its potency, they should be.
Theresa May risks fuelling the grievance machine by denying that Scotland has a right to self determination. That right is well established in international law and exists in perpetuity. There is a legitimate way to stop the SNP governing astride their independence hobby horse, and that is at the ballot box. If the independence cause is to be defeated again, it will be defeated democratically, in Scotland, as it was in 2014. Technical chicanery risks reenergising a fatigued SNP base.
My personal view was that it is too soon, that the Yes side could not afford to lose again, and that the arguments around currency, borders and EU membership have not been coherently developed. Yet every time Theresa May advances Brexit with scant regard of Scotland’s vote to remain, or repeats that ‘now is not the time’, the political case for independence is made anew.
There should be no mistake, the second independence referendum will be as much a trial of the United Kingdom as an independent Scotland. Pro-union voices should be prepared to defend the idea of a Brexit process explicitly rejected by a majority of the Scottish people. You will have to defend a United Kingdom with no opposition and a slash-and-burn Conservative government in perpetuity. You must argue that it is preferable to be part a State that will prioritise keeping out immigrants over economic growth, rather than, in the customary schmultz, ‘rise and be a nation again’.
There are crater-sized holes in both arguments this time, and Better Together has as much thinking to do as the Yes campaign. Because if you truly believe that the UK’s balance sheet will be enough to save the union again, then I have a bridge to sell you.