Scotch Myths 5: Countries Need to be Defined in Advance by Powerful men

I might be alone in this but I am suddenly deeply drawn to the debate about the constitution of an independent Scotland. It is exciting, filled with possibilities, inspiring even. Pity it’s only in my head.

Because what I hear from the outside world depresses me. We have Unionist Politician demanding to know how many soldiers Nationalist Politician is going to have in an independent Scotland. Then Nationalist Politician tells Unionist Politician to stop worrying because we’ll keep the Queen as head of state. Then they set about each other as Unionist Politician demands to know what currency Nationalist Politician is going to foist upon us.

I watch this with growing resentment. Is an independent Scotland meant to be a democratically-founded nation or is it to be stitched up in a negotiation between a gang of professional politicians and even-more professional civil servants? What if every Scot in the country wanted to mint a new Scottish currency. Would we be overruled on grounds of convenience? If there was a strong majority in favour of getting rid of the archaic concept of Monarchy would we be overruled? Is the constitution of our country a matter for Powerful Men and not a subject for discussion with citizens?

Let me be absolutely clear – I have no issue with politicians stating their favoured solutions to the many constitutional conundrums ahead. It’s just that surely there should be at least a hint of ‘in my opinion’ as they do. Things like ‘in my opinion we should have an airforce base’ or ‘my preference is for Sterling’.

If there is one overwhelming reason for disillusionment with the British state (in my opinion) it is that over centuries it has developed the self-certainty that the big decisions must be made behind closed doors and the public kept at arms length at any cost. You the public don’t understand defence. You the public don’t understand economics. You the public don’t understand the importance of the monarchy. So away back to your TV talent contest and we’ll let you know when we’re done.

My hope for Scotland is that it is something more than this. I’d like someone to say one simple thing: the constitution is for the people to decide. A democracy which is born as an oligarchy will forever regret its birth. Those who wish to make a claim about the shape of the constitutions should do so – in the year after Scotland becomes independent we should all be given time to make up our minds. We should then vote in an election on the basis of what options are put on the table. A democratic constitution is surely not such a leap.

And then (almost more objectionably) I hear Unionist Politician demand ‘and what rates of tax will people have to pay once Scotland starts on this social democratic route?’. What a patronising and insulting question. I answer you this – tell me today if and when you’re going to bomb Iran and I’ll tell you what our future policies will be. Which country must answer for the things it is yet to do? The decisions in a democracy are made with at least some reference to that democracy. To ask political parties that don’t yet exist to make policies for times that we can guess about for a country not yet born and which has not yet had an election brings only shame and embarrassment to the questioner. We are not some colonial backwater unfamiliar with the concept of elections; we know the meaning of ‘manifesto’.

Britain doesn’t know what it’s going to do tomorrow never mind in three years’ time. That’s why George Osborne set up the Office for Perpetually Revised Statistics (‘the Government today admitted that everything it told us was going to happen to the economy last week is now not going to happen, but by way of reassurance it has now told us something completely different which is now definitely going to happen’).

What will be the constitution of an independent Scotland? Scotland will decide. What policies will Scotland pursue? Scotland will decide. Return to your port and your cigars and patronise us no longer. A country is not defined in advance by an elite or expected to answer for its own future. Not a proper country.

So are we to be a proper country?

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  1. Mark Harper says:

    Surely the important bit is to get the correct result in the referendum? Afterwords we could proceed to kick the relevant arses into touch! Once independence is achieved we’ll have loads of arguing to do ;oD

  2. Superb Robin. Tho’ if the UK was left to decide in the 90’s Kelvin McKenzie would have decided for them. The truth is always out there, but the people can’t be arsed digging it oot. The poor wee lambs.

  3. douglas clark says:

    Mark Harper is surely right. The issue is about having our own arguements, not about being drowned out.

  4. Alex Buchan says:

    No I disagree. I think Robin is right. We need to kick some arses (as Mark puts it) now. If the independence movement becomes some mechanical door chapping operation run by the SNP with no rocking the boat then all the action is going to come from the other side. It’s not a case of picking arguments with Alex Salmond, it’s about showing the independence movement is full of life and full of ideas and with lots of different strands to it. One boring political party organised campaign allows others to characterise as the SNP’s campaign and to argue, as Ruth Davidson keeps trying to do, that is a massive ego trip by Salmond and the SNP. The independence movement has to be big and it has to be varied, there’s a false sense of confidence around and a feeling that we just have to leave it to Salmond. Alex Salmond is the best politician you could want to have fronting a struggle for independence, but we need more varied voices, more varied groups, we need to be a movement not just a political party.

    1. Stuart Mcgregor says:

      “we need a movement not just a political party” that is genius and should be the war cry of nationalists everywhere. I’ve been speaking to English Nationalists who are right behind us, this movement isn’t just about Scotland any longer its about the Union slowly unravelling and ending in it’s eventual death. Brilliant article.

  5. Bob Leslie says:

    There is nothing permanently binding or set in stone about the SNP’s vision of Scotland immediately post-Independence. I have no problem with Alex saying the Queen and the Pound will be retained PROVIDED that whatever Constitution we have post-Independence allows us to change that if we wish. There really needs to be a debate about what we would like included in the Scottish Constitution. Obviously, since the document would require the assent of the Scottish People, we can’t say definitely what would be in it, however we CAN say what we would like to see. I, for one, would like to see meat on the bones of the Scottish People’s sovereignty: referenda triggered by, say, 50,000 signatories to a petition; the right of Local Authorities to introduce Bills relating to their locality in Parliament; fixed-term Parliaments; and a Bill of Rights.

    1. alethea says:

      There is a draft Constitution here http://www.constitutionalcommission.org/production/byre/images/assets/A%20MODEL%20CONSTITUTION%20FOR%20SCOTLAND%281%29.pdf

      I understand the reason it has not chosen to go for a Republic is because they thought that would not be accepted.

  6. Soixante-neuf says:

    Well obviously all this is true, but how do you handle these questions? When the answer is that these would be matters for the democratically elected government of an independent Scotland, this is howled down as evasive.

  7. Gerry Fisher says:

    The first question that has to be settled is that of Independence. None of the others have any meaning without that first decision.
    Now some people would like to divert the voters from that question by bringing in a lot of other questions on which there can be many different opinions. They might just hope to divide the body of opinion which demands that first essential step. Bit like those who have argued in the past for a socialist republican Scotland, separating off those who want Independence but dont want socialism and like the monarchy. What unites those who fight for the cause is the need for Independence. The other questions will be up to the voters later. And those who demand this that or the other features of a Scotland for the future might just like to remember that their chance of getting what they want demands Independence first when they will have their chance of persuading the citizenry as to the rectitude of their position. Without Independence they will not have that chance.

  8. Andrea says:

    In Zimbabwe there have been meetings throughout that country to discuss the development of the constitution. (see sokwanele.com)

    You could do something similar over the next months and years – which would help raise awareness and the level of informed discussion.

  9. Vronsky says:

    Gerry’s answer is the standard SNP response to challenges on continuation of the monarchy. It’s logical enough, and perhaps takes warning from Quebec experience where the question asked in the referendum was complicated to the point of unintelligibility: ‘Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?’ Hmmm.

    However, wouldn’t the same logic apply to membership of the EU? What happens to independistas like me (and I’m not alone) who see Brussels as Westminster writ large? Shouldn’t the SNP, for consistency, have no position on EU membership, leaving that for the voters to decide after independence? I know it’s simply a matter of politcal judgement – picking the course towards independence that has fewest obstacles. I have no problem with that, but we must ensure that we don’t arrive in port with no ideas on what we’ll do when we go ashore – so a wide and articulate movement of reform is certainly needed. Good article, Mr McAlpine.

  10. douglas clark says:

    If the Scottish electorate wants us to move out of the EU, then that is a post independence arguement. As is the question of a monarch. I frankly don’t see why the SNP should be expected to outguess the electorate of an independent Scotland. The whole point of independence is that we make our own decisions. And these would be the sort of issures that should be resolved by a referendum.

    That said, I expect that the first government of an independent scotland ( which will likely be the SNP or whatever they re-name themselves as) will view their responsibility as almost certainly being one of advocating financial and political stability. It seems logical to me that there should be a period of time before any further major decisions are made. Your mileage may vary and I think that that is what a healthy democracy is about.

    Personally, I am for getting rid of the monarch and staying in the EU. I would expect that some political party in the future would run with that manifesto. If the rest of their manifesto was sensible, then, perhaps I’d vote for them. Others may vote for the exact opposite. But we will never get the chance to test this if the case for independence is diluted. Which is not to say that the support for independence isn’t a broad church, it’s just that the SNP are the ones most likely to deliver it.

  11. The SNP have to promote a sense of certainty to counter an anti-independence campaign based on promoting a sense of uncertainty about what independence means. An independent Scotland will not be Westminster/Whitehall writ small, you can count on the people of Scotland to make sure of that.

  12. John Souter says:

    Robins’ thoughts and concerns largely mirror my own.

    While it’s true independence is the first result needed before moving on to issues such as royalty, currency and EU membership are decided based on plebiscites from a sovereign people, it would do no harm to know the form and strength that ‘sovereignty’ was going to have in an independent Scotland.

    After all the last thing I would want would be for the democratic model as practised by Westminster, with all its political kleptocratic humbug that usurps the democratic process, to be adopted by Holyrood.

    The one proven given throughout history is that humanity doesn’t handle the power syndrome very well or wisely. A written constitution – Bill of Rights – call it what you will, is at least an effort and at best a tool that by broad definition regulates and defines the limits of power within the scope prescribed by that sovereignty.

    As such I see no divisive quality in a proposed constitution being debated and drawn up during and in conjunction with Scotland gaining its independence. In fact I would argue that such an exercise would expose in a very positive and practical manner the real democratic dividends Scotland and its sovereign people can gain through independence.

    While independence is our goal, the constitution will decide the level and quality of the pitch we play the game in.

    Me! I’m a republican that wouldn’t touch the EU with its own barge pole. But, above all, I’m a democrat who only ask’s for the facts to be laid at the public’s door in a truthful and honest manner by those we delegate to represent us. Not too much to ask, but under the present political model it seems impossible to deliver – the right constitution could make that impossibility achievable.

  13. Paul says:

    Scotch is a whisky. The word you are looking for is Scottish.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      It’s a pun. A joke. Scorch / Scotch – Myths/Mist ?

  14. jake says:

    great idea….lets just argue amongst ourselves about innumerable details and hypotheticals and when we’re settled and agreed , in about another 300 years then we can have a referendum. Whose playbook do you think that idea comes from?

  15. Macart says:

    A fine article and a sentiment I’m very much in agreement with. All we ask of our politicians is to lay their vision and their policies out, we’ll sort out the discussion part. We’ll be making the decision here and its bigger than any party politics, its about the journey of a nation. Every adult person in the country is going to be asked to make a decision for the future generations of Scotland (No pressure then). Endless sniping, fear mongering and name calling seem to be the tactic of the day for certain vested interests, perhaps they know already the worth of any objective argument on their part. The challenge for them is simple – Give us some constitutional policies to look at and some practical vision of your view of the future for our country and we’ll compare it with what’s on offer with independence. The people will then discuss and decide. No vaulted chambers, no smokey committee rooms, just people at home, on line, at work or in the pub working out what’s best for themselves and their children.

  16. Donald Adamson says:

    Robin,

    Excellent piece. You are not alone in being drawn to the issue of a written constitution for an independent Scotland. The idea that the best strategy is to go for a Yes vote in 2014 and that everything else will be alright on the night is unlikely to win this referendum. Apart from anything else, at least another 250,000 Labour voters are going to have to be won over to the Yes campaign (that’s 7,500 every month between now and the referendum) and I don’t think that pointing to the benefits of a ‘blank slate’ is going to do it.

    What will do it, is identifying the specific policy instruments and objectives that only independence can deliver. If people can clearly see the purpose of independence and have a sense of ownership in the direction that an independent Scotland will take, that will do it too. A democratic written constitution is one of many policy areas that serves all these functions.

    But this isn’t about blueprints for independence, which is what Robin also seems to be saying here. If independence is about nothing else, it is surely about the democratic transformation of Scotland, a transformation that can only be delivered with independence. What the independence movement needs to do is use this incendiary idea, and all its implications, to excite the interest of Scottish voters, so that, instead of passively receiving the blueprint for independence from a political elite, voters themselves imagine the pathways for the direction that they want an independent Scotland to take. Again, a democratic written constitution is both a means and an end here.

    Alex Buchan puts it well when he says:

    This is “about showing the independence movement is full of life and full of ideas and with lots of different strands to it”.

    Again, a democratic written constitution is both means and end here. Elliot Bulmer has provided us with a model constitution. It isn’t perfect and as the author himself says, a written constitution isn’t a “panacea”. But he has provided us with what he calls a “work in progress”. And in Part One, Sections 1-4 of his brief book he provides some compelling reasons to support his arguments for a democratic written constitution, arguments that, it seems to me, Robin echoes here. The question is: are we going to do anything with it?

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