Scotland had previously been understood as a ‘Liminal Land’ – stuck halfway, mid-process – between the states of devolution and independence – between something and sovereignty. Democracy as a ‘form of becoming’ was understood by Donald Dewar who was this week referenced by Michael Russell as he spoke in the debate which rejected the EU Withdrawal Bill at Holyrood. Re-opening the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999 Dewar described the moment as: “a new stage on a journey began long ago and which has no end”.
But if 1999 seemed a ‘watershed’ full of uncontested liberal hopes, 2018 feels like a desperate defence of modest democratic gains. In a way we are back where we came from: where the SNP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Greens are in consensus in defence of Holyrood representing the mass of the Scottish people, and the Conservatives are in snarling opposition and contempt. After MSPs voted by 93 to 30 against consent to the Withdrawal Bill, Scottish Brexit Minister Mike Russell demanded: “The UK Government must respect the will of the Parliament.” Everyone kept a straight face. Scotland has twice rejected the Brexit proposition, overwhelmingly in the referendum and overwhelmingly again this week by its representatives who had a chance to look at the unholy shambles in more detail.
But if Scotland remains in a state of undefined flux, England-Britain has now joined the party. Previously held as a sort of rock of solid certainty , England-Britain now seems deep in the throes of a bizarre shape-shifting and decline.
As the famously plaintive “Who Shall Speak for England?” is replaced with the equally urgent “Who will walk Meghan up the aisle?” England-Britain is suffering a series of confused political changes and seizures. Change is everywhere:
The Lords – once (recently) understood as a persistent relic “soon” to be consigned to history by some reforming British government somehow somewhere despite 100 years of evidence that This Was Not Going to Happen – has been reinvented as the new the bastion of democracy. In 2018 the Unelected are Our New Saviours, whether its Meghan and Harry, or the Lords who are somehow somewhere going to ‘Stop Brexit’, or the new King Across the Water (Miliband, D), or the newly resuscitated Blair, these figures are rolled-out for media adoration with some vague notion that they have a popular agenda, agency or vision.
On not-so-close examination this appears not to be the case.
Nor is this just all a big meaningless pantomime. As the Daily Mail foams at “traitors in ermine” there is a real threat that the reform that comes down the line is not the Ever Promised democratic reforms pedalled out by Labour and Liberal voices for decades (whether its botched PR, evergreen federalism, mythical northern assemblies, or House of Lords reforms) but enhanced centralisation of the state in knee-jerk response to the attempts to take the edge off the Brexit crisis.
If the House of Lords isn’t reformed in line with the Daily Mail’s war-cry it will be stuffed with Tories. Heads you lose, Tails you lose.
If England-Britain is in full blown crisis it knows what to do in such circumstances: get the bunting out.
This weekend sees a new outing of the Diana Cult with its new offshoot, Meghan and Harry replacing the vanilla Kate and William model which flourished briefly but then collapsed in disappointment. The sort of change people can expect from the Unelected Saviours are things like homeless people being replaced with royalists sleeping rough wrapped in red white and blue and clutching Meghan merchandise like saintly relics. In this new order fantasy you can be a Feminist Princess and the Invictus Games is a progressive idea. The Unelected Saviours have better teeth than UKIP/Black Plague but their agenda isn’t as shiny as Nichola Witchell might have you hope.
If change is everywhere it is also nowhere to be seen.
England-Britain suffers not just from Celebrity Feudalism but GoldFish Capitalism, as this weeks re-nationalisation of the east coast railways showed. The line, last taken into public ownership in 2009 – will be pimped out again as soon as possible in an endless loop of dysfunctional politics, endlessly pursuing a failed economic doctrine as the ideological obsession of privatisation goes on and on despite a mountain of evidence against it.
This is a painfully slow learning curve.
So as racism becomes normalised and economic failure consolidated, democratic institutions are ignored while feudal ones are venerated. We are told to ignore the real racism of the day because the tokenism of the royals is on show, and they’ve had an upgrade. As Anthony Barnett writes: “Brexit is a hard right project, framed by xenophobia and certain to generate adverse international conditions that will frustrate any egalitarian expansion of the UK’s economy.” That’s to put it mildly, now shut up and eat your Coronation Chicken.