The Labour party’s Scottish branch office has its conference this weekend in Dundee. You can be forgiven for not having noticed, what with so many other vitally important events that are far more newsworthy taking up your attention. Like the two for one offer on toilet unblocker in your local supermarket, or the house across the road getting new curtains in bright red plush velour no less. It’s the talk of the local branch of ScotMid, which is considerably more than can be said for the Labour conference.
Branch office manager Richard Leonard, for whom the adjective hapless appears to have been invented, has been doing the rounds of the interview circuit in an effort to inform Labour voters that he does in fact exist. According to a recent poll, only 37% of Labour voters in Scotland know that he’s the leader of the party in Scotland. The poll didn’t ask how many of them cared, but that number is likely to be lower.
Richard’s great plan to reinvigorate the Labour party in Scotland is to turn it into a Brexit party and to rule out a second EU referendum. With this masterstroke he has managed to piss off the almost two thirds of the Scottish electorate which voted to remain in the EU. But it’s a lot worse than that. Richard has also been stamping his foot at the very possibility of there ever being another independence referendum. Since, as we are frequently informed by a British press which is keen to highlight differences of opinion within the Yes camp, one third of independence supporters also want to leave the EU, that means that by ruling out another indyref under all and any circumstances, Richard has also cut his party off from the support of leave voters who also support Scottish independence. He’s now restricted his party’s appeal in Scotland to people to want to leave the EU and who are implaccably opposed to independence. Most of those people vote Tory, and Richard is trying to sell them Jeremy Corbyn’s version of socialism. That’s a form of politics which believes in self-determination for everyone except Scotland.
There’s a definite parallel between the Conservatives and Labour on the Scottish Question now. It’s a development which hasn’t been much remarked upon in the British nationalist press in Scotland, but one which has fundamentally altered the nature of this supposed union of which Scotland forms a part.
Over the past few months we have witnessed the Conservatives in Westminster insisting that they will refuse to accede to any request for a Section 30 order in order to hold an independence referendum. We have also seen Richard Leonard insist that opposition to another independence referendum will form a part of the next Labour manifesto and will be the policy of a future Labour government irrespective of how the Scottish electorate votes.
The cornerstone of Scottish political discourse up until now, amongst both those in favour of independence as well as those opposed to it, is that Scotland is freely and willingly a part of the UK. We are not a colony held subject against our will, and all that is required for Scotland to leave the UK is for the voters of Scotland to say so. Even Margaret Thatcher, that self-proclaimed English nationalist, conceded that point. She once famously stated back in those pre-devolution days that if Scotland wanted independence it only needed to return a majority of SNP MPs to Westminster.
That’s no longer true. We can no longer believe that Scotland is willingly and freely a part of the UK until the people of Scotland say otherwise when the British government and the major British parties refuse to allow the people of Scotland to have a say on their future. Scotland is being torn out of Europe against its will by people who insist they are respecting the will of people while doing their utmost to prevent the people of Scotland from having any say. If the democratic will of the people of Scotland must be subordinate to the democratic will of the people of England, then this cannot be a union at all.
The refusal of Theresa May to acknowledge the democratic mandate held by the Scottish government represents a seismic change in our understanding of this British state that Scotland remains a part of. Yet it is one which has passed unremarked by much of the Scottish media, which apparently sees its job as to defend the interests of the UK in Scotland and not to defend the interests of Scotland in the UK.
We can no longer pretend that this is a union founded upon consent when we have a British Prime Minister who lied to the Commons and baldly stated that the SNP has no mandate for another independence referendum. This is no longer a union founded upon consent when that Prime Minister says she will refuse to allow an independence referendum. This is no longer a union founded upon consent when the leader of the Labour party in Scotland states that his party’s manifesto can override the will of the people of Scotland.
Our entire understanding of British democracy has been trashed by the British government and the official opposition. It’s been trashed by a British media which baselessly asserts that any independence vote held without Theresa May’s permission would be illegal when the issue has never been legally tested.
In 2014 the anti-independence campaign sought to fight on a very narrow range of arguments. In particular they were concerned above all to avoid getting into the democratic argument for Scottish independence, the way in which the British state subordinates the interests of Scotland and how it contains no constitutional structures which are able to protect Scotland from the effects of English nationalism. Theresa May’s denial of the mandate which the Scottish government possesses thrusts the democratic deficit of a Scotland within the UK into the very centre of the debate.
Despite the intransigence of Theresa May, the question of Scottish independence will be revisited by the electorate of Scotland. And when it is the questions of democracy and consent will be front and foremost. A British state which insists that a Prime Minister without a mandate in Scotland has a veto over Scotland’s future has no answer to that question. If it’s for Theresa May to decide whether Scotland can speak then there is no consent. Consent which is presumed is no consent at all, and without consent there is no union. The union is already dead, it’s been killed by those who claim to love it. The only question left is how best to unchain ourselves from the corpse.
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