During the 2014 independence referendum campaign there was a lofty assumption by Better Together campaigners of the supposed superiority of British institutions and of the UK and the Westminster parliament as a yardstick of democratic standards of government. Some opponents of independence went so far as to insist that it was only because of the UK that Scotland enjoyed democracy and that as an independent state Scotland was at grave risk of descending into authoritarianism and becoming a one-party state in which any opposition to the government would not be tolerated.
Others asserted that it was only the tender administrations of Westminster which prevented fractious Scots from falling into civil unrest with the Highlands tearing lumps out of the Lowlands, Glasgow from attacking Edinburgh, and English born residents of Scotland being rounded up into internment centres prior to being deported. One of the most frequent claims was that Westminster and the UK protected Scotland from the perils of nationalism. Throughout the campaign there was a constant denial that British nationalism even existed. Nationalism was a curse for Scotland, a curse for which Westminster provided the cure.
Throughout the campaign, any questioning of the democratic credentials of the Westminster system were met with howls of British nationalist derision. We were constantly told that Westminster was the world’s most successful and stable democracy and that Scotland needed Westminster as a guarantor of democratic standards. This was an unquestioned assertion, constantly reinforced by Scotland’s overwhelmingly anti-independence media as well as by the Bitter Together parties. Left to our own devices, we were told, Scotland would descend into barbarism, social strife and totalitarianism.
Eight years on and it is clear that Scotland is indeed in very real danger of falling into authoritarianism due to an intolerant and xenophobic nationalism, that life is being crushed out of the fragile flower of democracy by corrupt nationalist politicians who consider themselves to be above the law and who are neutering any institution or organisation which could potentially hold them to account, while at the same time taking steps to criminalise protest and to restrict the right to vote. This danger comes from the right wing Anglo-British nationalists who have taken control of the Conservative party following the Brexit vote which they orchestrated with a campaign of lies, mendacity and deceit.
Despite their continuing denials, it is laughable for the Conservatives to pretend that they are anything other than xenophobic parochial nationalists obsessed with a romanticised vision of a long lost past, precisely all the sins which they accused supporters of independence of embodying in that referendum so long ago, which took place in such an utterly different world.
It is also now laughable for opponents of independence to insist that Scotland needs the UK in order to guard against authoritarianism and the destruction of democratic safeguards. The greatest threat to democracy in Scotland comes from a Conservative Government at Westminster which is presided over by a corrupt law breaking serial liar who cannot be held to account and who holds the norms and standards of democracy in contempt because he knows that the spineless party of charlatans which is formed in his image will allow him to get away with it. Johnson is bereft of morals and principles other than an abiding lifelong conviction that he should be allowed to do as he pleases and it is churlish to insist that he faces any consequences for his behaviour.
However this is about more than one man who is manifestly unfit for the office that he holds. It is about the entire Westminster system which put him there and which hands absolute power to the occupant of Downing Street but lacks any effective or meaningful checks and balances or means of removing a law-breaking liar from power. This is why we are in the ludicrous position of having to rely on Conservative MPs to unseat him, so that they can replace him with another of their ranks who is equally tainted by the sins of the Johnson regime in order to cement their party’s hold on power.
It’s like expecting East London gangsters to grass the Kray twins up to the police so that another crime boss can take over and rob more banks with impunity. That however is the closest that the Westminster system provides to any means of ensuring that those in the highest office abide by the rules.
The issue of securing and defending democracy must be front and foremost in the referendum campaign that lies ahead. Within the UK, Scotland runs a serious risk of seeing democracy destroyed, or at least neutered and rendered meaningless. It must be obvious by now that Westminster is incapable of reforming itself and that neither of the two main British parties have any intention of doing so anyway. They both have a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are. Our civil liberties and democratic rights will continue to be whittled away by politicians who will grow ever more arrogant with every passing scandal as it will merely reinforce their confidence that they can get away with anything without having to face any consequences.
Independence is the only way in which Scotland can guarantee democracy. We need a written constitution which explicitly spells out the procedures for removing an elected official from office if he or she is found guilty of having broken the rules. We need an effective redistribution of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary with meaningful checks and balances in place in order to ensure that power cannot be amassed by the head of government in the way that successive Prime Ministers of the UK have turned the office of the Prime Minister, who is theoretically only first amongst equals in the cabinet into what is effectively an all powerful autocrat with few limits on their power and influence. When that Prime Minister is as immoral and corrupt as Johnson the law breaker and habitual liar, the fragility and shallow roots of democracy in the UK are laid starkly bare.
The British state traditionally did without such formal provisions, choosing to rely upon what was called the “good chap” theory of government, relying on the principles, sense of honour and shame of those in high office to resign if they had breached the customs, principles and traditions which underpin the British constitution. It’s a system which is rendered useless when the high offices of state are occupied by unprincipled liars like Johnson, Gove, or Patel, who are utterly bereft of any sense of shame and whose only principle is to do whatever is in their own self-interest.
This current scandal will go the way of all other Westminster scandals, even if Johnson is eventually forced from office the system which allowed such a manifestly unfit individual to attain the highest office will remain in place, and the UK will continue to go down the road to jingoistic flag ridden British nationalist authoritarianism. Only independence can guarantee that democracy is secure in Scotland. The fate of democracy must be the major issue in the referendum to come.
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