Yesterday’s events in the House of Commons signalled something significant in British politics. It marked the breakdown of trust between Parliament and the Government that the Government will obey the law and act in an honourable and honest manner. Now you might think that you’ve never trusted the British Government, and you’d certainly not be the only one – especially in Scotland – but in this dysfunction that we call the British state, the collection of precedents, customs, habits, and laws which together pass for a British constitution can only work when both sides in Parliament trust that the precedents, customs, and habits will be adhered to. That has ceased to happen.
What we have in the UK is not a proper constitution, we have instead a gentleman’s agreement that was forged in the gentleman’s clubs and public schools of the 19th century. It was all very hail fellow well met. As long as you were the right sort of fellow. Originally confined to those deemed acceptable company at the dinner table in an upper class household, the British state proved itself to be very good at accommodating those who sought to challenge it, coopting them and absorbing them. The Labour party started as a movement aiming to undermine the pillars of the British establishment and ended up as one of the strongest pillars. However this could only work as long as everyone in the British establishment abided by these unwritten rules of fair play, decency, and honour. It could only work as long as everyone involved acted as a gentleman or woman.
The problem is that we now have a government of talentless opportunists, shysters, chancers, liars, and cheats. Boris Johnson may have the vowels of a gentlemen but he has the bowels of a bastard. This is a government which cannot be trusted to obey the law. It’s a government whose word cannot be trusted, as the DUP have discovered to their cost. Scottish Unionists beware, your unionism counts for nothing. Your loyalty is that of a faithful dog who finds itself abandoned by the side of a canal.
You cannot make a deal with a government which will betray you the second that it believes it’s in its interests to do so. Yesterday MPs were being asked to approve the Government’s Brexit deal even though this Government of the untrustworthy was refusing to allow MPs to see the details of its deal. At the same time the Government was refusing point blank to publish its economic assessments of the impact of its deal. MPs were being asked to buy a house without being allowed to see it, without being allowed to so much as glance at a home report, without being allowed to know whether its foundations were sound, without being allowed to know whether it would provide adequate shelter. Then Michael Gove declared that democracy is precious. It’s so precious that he wants to keep it locked away in the dark.
Had this deal been approved yesterday, the Benn Act would have had no effect. A deal would have been agreed by Parliament and so the conditions of the Benn Act would have been fulfilled. There would then be nothing to prevent the Brextremists of the ERG from refusing to pass the enabling legislation, ensuring that the UK falls out of the EU on 31 October without a deal. Don’t you think it’s at all suspicious that those MPs who were so vehement in the opposition to Theresa May’s deal are now lined up behind a deal that is universally agreed to be worse? A deal, moreover, which is rejected by the überunionists of the DUP whom the ERG had sworn to defend. The reason is because they knew that if the Commons had agreed to the principle of the deal yesterday, then they could wreck the details and ensure that there was no deal left by 31 October. Then there would be a no-deal Brexit by default.
Had the ERG not succeeded with its wrecking attempts between now and 31 October, they would have plenty more chances between now and 2020. That’s the date by which a final trade deal is supposed to be agreed between the UK and the EU. No agreement, and we’re back to a no deal Brexit. The ERG agreed to back the Prime Minister because they knew that it gave them plenty of opportunities to get the no-deal that they crave, and because they knew that backing it meant removing the chances of the opposition parties to block it.
Any party and MP who had agreed to the principle of the deal yesterday would have been complicit in turning the entire UK into a hostage of the Brextremists. Yesterday MPs decided that they couldn’t trust the untrustworthy, and voted not to approve it until they’ve had a chance to scrutinise the withdrawal legislation. That’s how democracy is supposed to work, not by handing a blank cheque to a known liar.
The lesson from the events of the past couple of weeks is a lesson for those who still call themselves Unionists. It’s a lesson for those in Scotland who still cling to the belief that the British state is a union. It’s not. The UK is a union of nations in name only. It is a unitary state with devolved decorations. Yet worse than that it’s a unitary state which lacks the proper constitutional checks and balances to ensure that the executive branch of government can be held to account. It’s a unitary state which persists in using a deeply unfair and unrepresentative system of elections which means that a government can achieve an absolute majority on as little as one third of the popular vote.
This is a unitary state which does not respect Scotland, because it doesn’t regard Scotland as a partner, but as a possession. Possessions are not given choices. Possessions are not consulted. Scotland is just a puppet in the pageant of Britishness, serving to disguise the nationalism of British nationalists from themselves. As soon as it no longer serves, it will be discarded, locked away, silenced and forgotten. A Scottish Unionist does not and cannot negotiate with the British state. They can only beg as supplicants. That’s what Brexit has taught us.
That’s a lesson which remains true even if by some miracle Brexit can be avoided. The UK that Scotland is a part of is not the UK that Scotland was told it was a part of in 2014. It is now highly unlikely that Brexit won’t happen, but the important truth that Brexit has revealed is a truth about the nature of the UK that was hidden from Scotland during the independence referendum of 2014. Scotland isn’t a partner in a family of nations. Scotland doesn’t have a voice or a say. Scotland is only to be respected insofar as it agrees and obeys with the interests of whoever happens to occupy Number 10 Downing Street. All by itself, that is a significant change in material circumstances that justifies an independence referendum. The debate in Scotland in 2014 was a debate about the nature of Scotland. In 2019 the debate in Scotland is a debate about the nature of the United Kingdom.
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