A constitutional crisis is approaching. Yes, another one. These days they come along more frequently than Wullie Rennie’s number 17 bus from Cowdenbeath to Kelty. Despite the fact that Scotland has given an overwhelming and undeniable mandate to the SNP for another independence referendum, a mandate which is so compelling that even the dinosaurs of what’s left of the Labour party in Scotland are starting to recognise it, senior members of the British government have said that it’s not going to happen. Today the man who gives oleaginousness a bad name, Michael Gove, has said that the UK government will “absolutely” not permit another independence referendum.
This weekend the Labour Holyrood frontbencher Monica Lennon has said that while she believes the SNP’s independence blueprint is seriously flawed, the future of Scotland must be up to the people of Scotland to decide. She called upon the British government to transfer the power to hold a binding independence referendum to the Scottish parliament. She now joins other senior Labour figures who have made similar calls. She joins Alison Evinson, leader of the Labour group on Aberdeenshire council and president of COSLA who also demanded that Scotland must have the right to decide its own future, warning that democracy in the UK had become fragile. She called upon the Labour party in Scotland to offer “its own prospectus for a progressive, socialist, outward-looking and egalitarian independent country.” Meanwhile the former Labour minister Malcolm Chisholm said that there was an incontrovertible democratic demand for IndyRef2, and called upon those who are either against independence or undecided about it to get behind calls for another ballot.
The democratic, political, and moral argument for another referendum is undeniable. The Conservatives in Scotland ran their election campaign on the sole issue of opposition to another independence referendum. It was all that they talked about, to the exclusion of Brexit and everything else. If your sole source of information about the issues in this election were campaign materials from the Scottish Conservatives, you would think that Brexit wasn’t happening, and that the issue of another independence referendum was the sole question facing Scotland. Jackson Carlaw finished his appearances in Scottish political debates during the election campaign with a bit of drive-by misogyny, exhorting the people of Scotland to “tell her again”.
Well the people of Scotland did tell her again, they just didn’t tell her what Jackson wanted them to tell her. The Conservatives were, by any objective view, trounced. They lost over half their Westminster seats and their vote share dropped significantly. Their campaign certainly motivated voters, it motivated them to turn out and vote for a party which wants another referendum. Yet now the Conservatives want to impose their manifesto commitment to reject a referendum upon a Scottish electorate which has rejected the Conservatives’ only manifesto commitment in Scotland. That is profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian. It proves what Labour’s Alison Evison said, that democracy in the UK has become fragile. Even worse, it proves that democracy in Scotland has been shattered.
The Conservatives are now on very dangerous ground for a party which claims that it seeks to defend the “union”. There is clearly no union when one nation in that supposed union is denied the right to decide whether it wishes to remain in it. Shortly after his election victory in the rest of the UK, Boris Johnson announced that he seeks to strengthen the union. Clearly what he meant was that he seeks to strengthen it by adding extra locks and bars to the windows and doors, and not that he seeks to transform it into a place that Scotland doesn’t want to leave. The Conservatives are transforming their precious union into a prison, which means that it is no longer a union at all.
A demand by a political party that an exercise in democracy must be a once in a generation event and therefore they refuse to allow the people to hold another is a demand that the people cannot hold that party to account. Scotland is not to be permitted to voice its opinion on whether the UK that it was promised it could be a part of is actually the UK that the Conservatives have delivered to us. No wonder the Tories are terrified of another referendum.
The Tories are making their demand to be beyond democracy irrespective of the will of the people as expressed by the very same rules by which Boris Johnson claims to have a mandate to pursue Brexit. Again, by any objective standard, the mandate given by the electorate of Scotland to the SNP is stronger and more convincing than the mandate given by the electorate of the UK to the Conservatives. The principle of consent is the bedrock of democracy. The government has power to change laws, to impose duties or legal rights upon citizens, because the citizens have given their consent through the ballot box. When a government seeks to impose its will despite the fact that a large majority of the citizens have rejected it at the ballot box, then it is no longer a democratic government. There is no consent, and without consent there is no democratic legitimacy.
Even Margaret Thatcher recognised that the current stance of the Conservative party was profoundly undemocratic and unsustainable. In her memoirs The Downing Street Years, she wrote, “As a nation, [the Scots] have an undoubted right to national self-determination; thus far they have exercised that right by joining and remaining in the Union. Should they determine on independence, no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure. What the Scots (or indeed the English) cannot do, however, is to insist upon their own terms for remaining in the Union, regardless of the views of the others.”
Yet that is precisely what this current generation of Conservatives is seeking to do. They wish to insist that Scotland must abide by their own terms for remaining in the union, regardless of the views of the people of Scotland. They are using the electoral weight of England in order to stand in the way of Scotland. By taking this step, they themselves have killed the union, and killed the democratic argument for Scotland to remain a part of it. They may succeed in the short term, but in the medium to longer term all that Boris Johnson’s refusal is doing is making the chances of independence even greater. It means that when a vote does come about, as it most certainly will at some point in the future, the Conservatives and their allies will no longer be able to argue that Scotland is a partner in a family of nations. You don’t keep your family together by chaining them and locking them away in a cupboard. Democracy dies when it is locked away.
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