Saturday, 1 April 2017

Using a constitutional cudgel to crack a political peanut

So, Theresa May has signed the letter triggering Article 50 and setting the UK on the road to leaving the European Union (EU). No one knows what this involves or what the ultimate impact will be, although we do know that the risks are enormous, not just for those who actually voted in the EU Referendum, but for their children and grandchildren. The process is certainly unlikely to be complete within two years. For those of us who voted Remain, this is a disaster. We feel embarrassed by the arrogance, complacency and isolationism of British attitudes towards our European neighbours and, if possible even worse, towards those Europeans and other nationals who live in our midst.

The day after the EU Referendum, the Polish technician doing my nails burst into tears as she explained that her 'best' friend had just said that she had voted Leave to 'get rid of all the foreigners', this in a suburb of Edinburgh. She and her family have now left the country.

Only a couple of weeks ago, in another similar Polish-owned establishment, a client came through the door waving a tabloid newspaper. 'Look, you're all going home!' she exclaimed. I was stunned. The owners expressed no emotion. It was left to me to protest.

Perhaps it is no surprise that research by Prof John Curtice published this week, and reported in The Herald and Scotsman (see below), noted that in Scotland attitudes to immigration issues relating to Brexit were similar to those in the rest of the UK. This country has no monopoly on virtue.

The simplistic advantages of withdrawal of which we were told during the EU Referendum, have long since been discredited, though they are still regularly recycled by members of Question Time audiences. Did anyone ever really believe that holding a referendum was the right way to deal with complex economic issues which none of the electorate - including myself - could possibly have understood? I have an able and well informed MP, Tommy Sheppard, whom I expect, as my representative, to read and analyse such information and to decide how to vote based on his considered view. Given that Theresa May spoke with some eloquence before the EU Referendum in support of a Remain vote, she seems to have pursued Leave with inordinate doggedness, precipitousness and, indeed, enthusiasm. Was she disingenuous then or is she disingenuous now?

In the meantime, the predictable has happened. The intransigent and unimaginative Theresa May has given the intransigent and manipulative Nicola Sturgeon exactly the opportunity which she wanted, and in one stupid and short-sighted act betrayed the majority of people living in Scotland, who did NOT vote for independence in 2014. Sturgeon sent her Section 30 letter to the Prime Minister yesterday.

Cue lots of shock and horror from Nationalists, about the 'discourtesy' of May in not alerting the Scottish Parliament in advance of the action to leave the EU, despite Nicola Sturgeon not having alerted the Westminster Parliament in advance about her own earlier announcement on the Scottish Referendum. This statement Sturgeon had deliberately timed to coincide with what she thought was going to be the date for triggering Article 50. Silly, childish, tit-for-tat behaviour. Discourtesy on both sides, to the sound of much baying from the ranks. Lots of opportunities for public expressions of grievance. Sturgeon has been playing May like a fish.

The UK Prime Minister does not seem to have the emotional intelligence to recognise the perverse effect on Scots of suggesting that now is not the time for another referendum. Of course it's not. Everyone knows that, including the Scottish National Party (SNP), though they pretend they don't. They know they need time to build up support for their stance. They also know that voters must be aware of the likely outcomes of Brexit negotiations before they vote. Nobody can vote blind. A referendum in Scotland right in the middle of complex negotiations over Brexit would be a significant distractor. May should just have said, 'Yes, hold it now' and have done with it. Handing the Nationalists yet another grievance on a plate is pointless and counter-productive.

In the middle of this tug-of-war between two stubborn and narrow-minded women is the population of this country, caught between a grievance-obsessed Nationalist government in Scotland and an increasingly right-wing nationalist government in Westminster. A plague on both your houses!

So, what reasons have we been given, in one context or another, about why Scotland should hold another Referendum on independence?

Reason No 1: the United Kingdom is leaving the EU against the wishes of 'the Scottish people'.

The 'official' reason for holding another Scottish Referendum is that Britain's vote to leave the EU constitutes a 'material change of circumstances' as set out in the SNP's most recent Manifesto. Because, Nationalists say, 'Scotland' voted to Remain in the EU, she is being 'dragged out against her will'. A vote for Yes in another Scottish Referendum would give the SNP a mandate, so it is said, to retain membership of the EU, or to rejoin after having left as part of the UK.

So, what do Stuart and I think about this?

a) As 36% of the SNP actually voted to Leave the EU, this is quite a flimsy argument. (The 36% becomes 38% across all Scottish parties.) The SNP covers a wide spectrum of opinion, from 'almost UKIP' on the far right to 'almost Communist' on the far left, and everything in between. All SNP leaders have had to manage this diversity of opinion, which they do with rigour and - usually - effectiveness, unlike the Labour party. However, it does mean that there is strong opposition WITHIN the SNP to EU membership being presented as an inevitable outcome of a Yes vote in another Scottish Referendum.

b) The SNP is not alone in being a party divided in its support or otherwise of EU membership.  The proportion of the SNP who voted Remain was much the same as in the Labour Party and notably lower than in the LibDems and Greens. UK figures for Remain were: SNP 64%, Labour 63%, Liberal Democrats (LibDem) 70% and Greens 75%. Conservatives (Tories) voted 42% for Remain, and UKIP 4%, unsurprisingly. I do not have any specifically Scottish figures, but I would guess that support for the EU among both Labour and LibDems voters in Scotland might be higher than in the UK figures. In Scotland, the Tories overall supported Remain, Rise was neutral and Solidarity supported Leave. The picture this gives us, therefore, is not a simple one. What it certainly does not seem to indicate is that most of those who voted Remain were also supporters of Scottish independence and would have wanted a second Scottish Referendum.

c) The question used in the EU Referendum did not include any statement about a vote for Leave in the EU Referendum triggering a Scottish Referendum on independence. Those who voted Remain, therefore, cannot be said to be endorsing such a move. Many people from non-SNP parties feel very angry that their vote to stay in the EU has been interpreted as a request for a Referendum on leaving the UK - 'highjacked' is a word that is frequently used. It is interesting that in her pronouncements, Nicola Sturgeon has now dropped references to the 'will of the Scottish People' and is talking only about the 'decision of the Scottish Parliament', an implicit admission that she knows that she does not have the majority of Scots on her side in her decision to pursue a further referendum.

d) The constituent countries of the UK did not vote as individual nations, so it cannot be said that 'Scotland voted to remain in the EU'. The question was about the UK, not Scotland.

e) Scotland cannot simply retain the existing UK EU membership as it is not recognised by the EU as an independent country. If it subsequently applied to join, it would also have to sign up to a number of compulsory features, such as membership of the Euro, about which many Scots might be unhappy. During the previous Scottish Referendum, the SNP (actually, Alex Salmond, the then leader) claimed to have made a request to the EU for continuing membership, and been told that that would be acceptable. That claim was not true but was used during campaigning in 2014.

f) Already, the SNP are toning down their references to the inevitability of Scotland seeking to rejoin the EU if it became independent, probably because of points a), b) and c) above. So they have very largely dropped a suggestion of a direct link between the UK leaving the EU and Scotland becoming a member. In fact some influential members of the SNP, such as Alex Neil, now want the issue of independence to be presented separately from the issue of EU membership to allow voters to opt for independence without the expectation that Scotland would rejoin the EU. The EU Referendum result was clearly only an excuse, not a reason, for a repeat referendum. As Sturgeon has written, the “fundamental case” for independence “ultimately transcends” the issues of Brexit, “of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets”. (See David Torrance's article below.) 

Reason No 2: Scotland is being governed by a UK Conservative party for which it did not vote and there is little chance of this situation changing

A second reason often given to hold a second Scottish referendum on independence is to enable Scotland to be governed by a political party for which the majority of its citizens voted. Because England has 11 times the population of Scotland, it sends more MPs to the Westminster Parliament. The discrepancy in Wales and Northern Ireland is even more apparent. As a result, unless the voting pattern in Scotland reflects that in England, it is likely that the governing party will not reflect the views of Scots.

a) One of the problems lies with the voting system used for the Westminster Parliament. Under the 'first-past-the-post' system, parties with a 'strong' showing, such as the Conservatives, can be rewarded with far more seats than you would expect from the number of votes cast for that party. However, the SNP also benefits from Westminster's first-past-the-post system.  With 50% of the Westminster votes in the last UK election, the SNP acquired 95% of the Scottish seats (56). The Scottish Labour Party with 25% of the Westminster votes, acquired only one Scottish seat, as did the Liberal Democrats with 10% of the votes.

b) The Scottish Parliament uses a different voting system from Westminster, a proportional one with both constituency and regional seats. Under this system, the SNP achieved just under half the seats, and so operates as a minority government. The majority of people living in Scotland are therefore being governed by a Nationalist party for which they did not vote. That is the nature of politics.

c) The governing Conservative Party at Westminster currently has only a narrow majority: 15 seats, the lowest of any single-party government since 1974. In normal circumstances, that would make it extremely vulnerable to successful challenges from Opposition parties, both within the House and during by-elections. Its recklessness and ineptitude over Europe should make it significantly at risk. However, the reason that the Tory government is hanging on so successfully is NOT because the UK population is impressed by its record, or because the Tories will always and inevitably have a 'built-in' majority, but because the Labour Party, the 'official' Opposition, is in complete disarray. If Labour were stronger, it could easily work with other parties to make life difficult for the Tories and perhaps, at least, get them to amend legislation. As it is, Labour was divided in its response to the triggering of Article 50 and, unbelievably, Jeremy Corbyn set a three line whip to force Labour MPs to support the Tory government, against the wishes of 63% of their voters. The reason given (though not as blatantly as I am expressing it) was to hold on to their constituencies under the first-past-the-vote system. Many of us find this tactic quite shocking.

d) However, what these details do show us is that the Tories are NOT essentially unassailable. It is weaknesses in other parties which make them appear to be so. In fact it is the UK's second House, the House of Lords, which has been the source of challenge to the Tories. So, there is NO convincing argument to support the idea that Scotland is always bound to suffer under a Tory government. The Labour Party just has to get its act together. Or, a progressive alliance or new centre party has to arise from Labour's ashes. Even though there are now set limits on when you can hold an election, that is not impossible to work round. A few defeats and the Tories would have to accept a general election, and at the least, opposition parties could force through amendments to the legislation.

e) I am tired of hearing younger friends complain that the Tory party has 'always' been in power. Of course it hasn't! Not long ago and well within what should be their memory, the UK had a Labour government which was in power for 13 years from 1997 to 2010, having fought successfully against the Tories in three separate elections. They achieved an enormous amount for the poorest in our society, rather more, dare I say it, than the Nationalist government up here. And, of course, there were also Labour governments before that. Many of our most notable politicians from all parties have been Scottish, to the extent that in the past I have heard English people moan about the Scots 'taking over'. Many of these Scottish politicians stood for English seats, so no prejudice there. Despite recent challenges like the redrawing of constituency boundaries, it is ridiculous to think that the Tories will be in government forever! Does anyone seriously think that the only way to remove them from power is to dismantle the entire country? Sounds like an excuse to me: using a constitutional cudgel to crack a political peanut.

f) Silly childish jibes like 'toxic Tories', 'Make Scotland Tory free' and so on ignore the fact that there are several members of the SNP whose views are not a million miles away from those of the 'toxic Tories'. Are these people really advocating a clamp down on democracy? The Nationalist government has been pursuing its own version of austerity for some time now and has disappointed in its failure to make much difference to the lives of Scotland's poorest. Blaming 'Westminster' for this,  in the usual way, is not good enough. Of course there are some good decent Tories, sometimes even more good and decent than some members of the SNP, dare one say it. Of course, everyone's favourite Tory is Ken Clarke, but beyond him there are people like Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Nicky Morgan and a handful of others who are anything but toxic and are, in fact, finding the Government's stance on Europe and other issues quite unpalatable. I disagree with many of their views, but they are not 'toxic'. But yes, acceding to party discipline, they voted with their colleagues on triggering Article 50. I wish they hadn't. It is not unknown, however, for the SNP and others also to apply the party whip.

g) The SNP traditionally did not vote on 'English' issues in Westminster, but have started to do so, for example on fox hunting and Sunday trading. This makes any arguments about unfair political practices in Westminster which undermine Scottish sovereignty difficult to justify.

Reason 3: Only independence will enable the Holyrood Government to achieve social justice for its citizens

The Tory government has been pursuing a policy of austerity. One argument for an independence referendum would be that Scotland could choose to abandon this policy.

a) There is nothing to prevent the Scottish Government from pursuing any distinctive mission now, as it already has sufficient devolved powers to address significant social issues. Its powers are extensive and include those of tax, social security, education, health care, policing and local services.  Scotland has had its own devolved parliament now for 18 years. The Nationalist government has been in power for ten years. You might therefore expect significant evidence of improvements in public services such as health, education and criminal justice, as a result of the Parliament using these powers, particularly in the last couple of years, as its tax-raising powers and areas of responsibility have increased. There is little evidence, however, that such improvements have been delivered. Indeed, there is growing evidence that health targets have been missed, education standards are falling, the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, and the policy of centralising police services has led to inefficiencies which have had a significant impact in a number of reported cases and threatened public safety. The focus of Nationalist government appears to be to reduce the power of local councils and centralise the management of services, an authoritarian approach at odds with the European principle of subsidiarity.

b) The devolved administration has been accused of not using many of the powers it already has. Over the last year, the Scottish Parliament has not passed ANY legislation. Iain Gray, Labour's education spokesman, has  described it is a “damning indictment of the SNP’s obsession with separation.”

c) The Nationalist government required the support of the Scottish Tories when passing its budget. It fought against the proposal by the Labour, LibDem and Green parties for a 50% tax rate for higher earners. This reluctance to introduce redistributive measures for the benefit of its poorer citizens may be related to its fear of losing votes among the more prosperous. Another example is the financial support for tuition fees, a key policy for the Nationalist government. Attractive for the middle class voters which the SNP is so anxious to attract, this policy has been accompanied by drastic cuts to other sectors of education such as further education colleges, and a failure to address the educational needs of the least privileged. A view commonly expressed is that social justice has been put on the back burner while the Nationalists continue to campaign rather than govern. Sentimental English socialists, seeing the Labour party slide towards oblivion, sometimes fantasise that Sturgeon's government represents the 'real' socialism. Ah no, come up here and see for yourselves.

d) As a result of these weaknesses, Sturgeon's personal approval ratings have fallen significantly over the last two years, from 40% in February 2015 to 11% in November 2016. As her ratings have fallen, those of Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader, have risen. (Yougov: What Scotland thinks)

e) Sturgeon has recently prepared voters for a period of austerity following a successful vote for independence, accepting that there will be a significant negative impact. Such austerity will be inevitable, given that by the Nationalists' own figures, the EU accounts for £12 billion of Scottish trade while the UK union accounts for £50 billion - four times as much trade. (See Blair MacDougall's article below.) Being out of the EU is likely to be disastrous. However, being out of the UK union in addition to the EU could be catastrophic. Anyone who points this out, however, is accused of 'talking down Scotland'. The effects of this increased austerity, as usual, will fall most heavily on the poorest in society.


The catalogue of real, manufactured and imaginary political grievances and slights which forms the basis of the Nationalists' case for independence is only one part of the picture. The other part of the picture is made up of thousands of scattered and intermarried families like our own, who live in hundreds of communities across the whole of the British Isles. We now face the prospect of the family members we love and the friends we care for becoming foreigners, as borders are erected. This is a choice that neither Stuart nor I have made.

Nor do we look forward to travelling the world with a Scottish passport and minimal diplomatic assistance apart from what is provided by those other European countries who are prepared to do so.

Dismantling a union with Europe that has lasted for forty years will require some intricate manoeuvring and a great deal of hard slog. It will be particularly difficult as we have already made thousands of the civil servants needed to carry out this work redundant, in both England and Scotland. Furthermore, very few of those civil servants who remain have got the necessary specialised skills and experience. In fact, Prof Tom Devine argued just the other day, that the split with Europe is so tricky that it is quite likely that it will never happen, despite Article 50. We can, after all, withdraw from the Brexit process at any time, if we have the political will to do so.

Today's papers stress the immense difficulty of withdrawing from Europe. If it is so difficult to dismantle a union that has lasted for 40 years, can you imagine what it would take to dismantle a union that has been in existence for 300 years? Can you imagine what it would take to build the legal, financial, bureaucratic and literal walls and fences required to separate us from our neighbours in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

In the midst of all this uncertainty, there is what MacDougall calls the 'angry populism'. The unpleasant and sometimes downright nasty memes started being circulated again a couple of months ago. We now have the (usually) ludicrous and (occasionally) intimidating sight of Nationalist activists starting to come out onto Scottish streets as they used to do in 2014, swathed in flags and with carefully painted blue faces. Perhaps the government is hoping that the deficit in Scotland's finances will be paid for by increased profits from face paint manufacturers. Does anyone really think that flag waving and silly hats are going to persuade the thinking voters of Scotland to back another independence referendum? And what image does it present abroad? Massed flags and a bunch of fruitcakes in fancy dress greeting Sturgeon's latest pronouncements outside the Holyrood Parliament provided embarrassing footage. 'Get back to your own country!' such activists used to shout at those of us with English accents during the 2014 Referendum.

As a people, are we really incapable of living alongside each other? Are we going to let politicians with personal agenda continue to try to whip up feelings of resentment? We do not think that what this world needs just now is yet more division, not just within Scotland but across this small island. To separate us from our European friends is bad enough, but to separate us from our families and neighbours? I don't think so.

Stuart suggested that I simplify this post and summarise it in one sentence: 'Those two women should take a long hard look at themselves. '

Newspaper articles referred to when preparing this post
Poll: majority of Sots do not want separate Brexit deal, The Scotsman, 30 March 2017
How Brexit damaged democracy, Bagehot in The Economist, 31 March 2017
Sturgeon may have called the referendum too soon, warns Tom Devine, The Herald, 28 March 2017
Holyrood passes no legislation for a year, while SNP obsesses on independence, Emma Bean, Labour List, 28 March 2017
David Torrance: SNP's case for independence based more on faith than empirical reality, The Herald, 28 March 2017
Trust in SNP falls as voters prioritise economy, Tom Gordon, The Herald, 25 March 2017
SNP on the wrong side of their own angry populism, Blair MacDougall, The Scotsman, 29 March 2017
Michael Heseltine calls for second referendum or general election on Brexit deal, New Statesman, 30 March 2017
"Jeremy knows he can't do the job" What now for Labour and Britain's Opposition?, George Eaton, New Statesman, 30 March 2017
Is parliament paralysed by the constitution?, Liam Kirkcaldy, Holyrood Magazine, 28 March 2017
Brexiteers are heading for a sharp dose of reality, Jay Elwes, Prospect Magazine, 29 March 2017
How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and whyLord Ashcroft polls, 24 June 2016.
Five facts from Scottish EU referendum vote, BBC, 24 June 2016
Permanent cacophony of grievance from the SNP, Brian Wilson, the Scotsman, 31 March 2017

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