Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has upset a lot of people within Labour in Scotland by remarking that the Westminster Parliament should respect the democratic choices of the people of Scotland. In an interview during the Edinburgh Festival, he said that Westminster shouldn’t block a second independence referendum if it had been approved by the Scottish Parliament.
Richard Leonard, who had previously called on Westminster to block any independence referendum, took the huff. There he was, desperately trying to raise his profile higher than a limbo dancer, and his bosses from London only go and show up how irrelevant he is. He’s beelin and he went on BBC Scotland news to do a spot of harrumphage. Although to be fair, you’d think that Richard was used to being irrelevant by now. That’s what happens when you have less public recognition than the manager of a mid sized Morrison’s.
Kevin Schofield, the editor of Politics Home, reported on Twitter that a source within Labour in Scotland hadn’t taken long to inform him of the branch office’s reaction to John McDonnell’s remarks. It wasn’t flattering. The source said, “He’s a fucking imbecile and has just given our opponents all the ammunition they need. We will now be perceived as pro Brexit and anti union. Well done the arses that run what was the Labour Party.” Actually, I’d have thought that a Labour source calling their own Shadow Chancellor a “fucking imbecile” was giving their opponents all the ammunition they need, but maybe that’s just me. Watching Labour in Scotland ranting is like watching Mr Bean having a steroid rage.
It’s not quite true to say that Labour is regarded as pro-Brexit. It’s not regarded as anti-Brexit either. It’s really regarded as having its collective head up its collective brexhind. That’s the real source of so many of the party’s difficulties. The problem with trying to be all things to all people is that you end up being nothing to anyone.
What’s truly remarkable here is that the simple statement that it ought to be up to the people of Scotland to decide on Scotland’s future is so explosive within the Labour party in Scotland. Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray claimed that the Shadow Chancellor was “betraying our party’s values”. And there we were thinking that democracy and the right to determine one’s own future was a core socialist value. It is quite astonishing that McDonnell’s comments should be in any way controversial in a party that claims to uphold a socialist or social democratic tradition when his comments merely reflect a basic principle of that tradition. But obviously not for viewers in Scotland. In Scotland, the Labour party’s understanding of solidarity is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories.
A politician saying that politicians in a democracy should respect the mandate given to them by the electorate should never be controversial. A politician recognising that people in a democracy have the right to change their minds when circumstances change should never be controversial. The fact that prominent figures within the Labour party in Scotland regard a statement that Scotland’s future should be for the people of Scotland to decide to be politically beyond the pale tells you all you need to know about their concept of democracy and their understanding of Scotland’s place within this so-called partnership of nations.
The incident even provoked Ruth Davidson to come out from where she’d been hiding ever since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, relieved to find a distraction from her own difficulties. Amazingly she had managed to find internet access in her bunker somewhere deep underground beneath a shed in a forest in Aberdeenshire. The erstwhile darling of the Tories tweeted, “I feel for those Labour voters that stood side by side with major figures of their party and against the forces of nationalism in 2014. Know that the Scottish Tories will always stand up for our United Kingdom.”
Which is interesting, because the most dangerous forces of nationalism in British politics are those within the Tory party who are pressing for a no deal Brexit. But apparently forces of nationalism don’t count when they wrap themselves in a union flag and pose for a photo op on top of a tank. It’s also interesting because just three years ago Ruth herself said pretty much what John McDonnell said this week, that the British PM and Westminster shouldn’t block an independence referendum if the Scottish Parliament had voted for one. Wouldn’t it be nice if Ruth’s statements lasted for a generation? Hell, it would be great if they lasted until the end of the week.
The overwhelming attitude from the political opponents of independence in this issue as in so many others is that it is within the gift of the Westminster Parliament to “grant” the people of Scotland the right to decide their own future. John McDonnell made a slip of the tongue during his interview in Edinburgh, when he said that the “English Parliament” shouldn’t block a Scottish referendum, but his slip of the tongue was unintentionally revealing.
Westminster may be theoretically and legally the parliament of the whole UK, but it comprises 650 MPs, of whom 59 represent Scotland, 40 Wales, and 18 Northern Ireland (including those represented by Sinn Fein which doesn’t take up its seats). The remaining 533 represent English seats, 82% of the total, more than four times the total for all the other nations combined. Now you might say that’s simply because England has over 85% of the population of the UK, and is actually underrepresented in the Commons, and you’d be correct. However the practical implication of these demographic realities is that a requirement for Commons approval for a Scottish referendum means that English MPs wield an effective veto. It means that within the UK Scottish democracy will always be subordinate to the political needs of politicians who do not represent Scotland.
The patronising attitude of the English political establishment came across loud and clear in an article in the Guardian by the Blairite apologist Jonathan Freeland, who argued that John McDonnell had offered the SNP more than he had to on independence. He didn’t need to offer another indyref as the SNP would never vote down a Labour minority government in any case because allowing the Tories to gain power would be unacceptable to Scottish voters. The proper place for Scottish democracy is to be subordinate to English political calculations.
In the UK nowadays, being “pro-Union” means preventing the people of Scotland from debating whether to leave that union. Now if you don’t want Scotland to leave the UK, that’s perfectly fine. That’s your opinion and you have every right to it. You have every right to argue your case, to make your points, to persuade people to your point of view. What you don’t have is the right to prevent the question ever being put to the people of Scotland, and you most certainly don’t have that right when the people of Scotland have explicitly voted for a majority of parties in the Scottish Parliament which have pledged to hold a referendum should the circumstances which held in 2014 materially change. Those within the Labour party in Scotland who espouse this deeply undemocratic view ought to consider very carefully how it’s going to be received by those 40% of Labour voters in Scotland who support independence. Because they will take note.
All that is happening here is that the credibility of opponents of independence is being undermined by their own words and deeds. Ruth Davidson’s flip flopping, and Labour’s refusal to concede that the people of Scotland have the sovereign right to decide their own future, undermine the very basis of the UK. It should not be for Westminster to “grant” the people of Scotland democracy. It is the sovereign right of Scotland. Yet within the UK we are expected to accept that Scottish self-determination should be determined by Westminster. Self-determination which is determined by others is a contradiction in terms. If Scotland cannot have self-determination within the UK, then the union is already dead. We live in a unitary state and are subordinate to the political expression of English nationalism. That’s why there is now a majority in Scotland for independence. Well done the arses that run what was the union.
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