The Good Ship Britannia Sinks Below the Waves: Scotland, Brexit and the Thoughts of Tim Shipman

“If, as looks likely, the good ship Britannia is sinking below the waves threatening to take all of us with it, we really need to organise and plan how we leave the shipwreck” argues Gerry Hassan.

The events of the last two days have shown how the British establishment, political classes and their supporters view the UK. There is the contempt and chaos in the Brexit process; ‘Taking Back Control’ has come down to running roughshod over parliamentary processes, Henry VIII powers, with Scotland being treated with the disdain of a mere fifteen-minute non-debate on the key Brexit bill. Similarly, crocodile tears for Northern Ireland were shown to be empty – with no debate and reference in yesterday’s session of mammoth votes for concerns about the border and the so-called ‘backstop’.

The reactions of our commentariat have been just as revealing. This is Tim Shipman, Political Editor of the Sunday Times and his description of devolution:

“Powers were always owned by London and devolved down. They were never, and could never be, owned by Edinburgh. They’ll be devolved down again but legally they are in London’s gift. If you have a country, that’s how it works. You may not wish to be part of UK, but win a referendum.”

This is the unvarnished truth about the nature of power in the UK, What the establishment doesn’t want to say – unless it has to remind us or has a temper and is a bit annoyed. In a literal sense, he is of course, completely right. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly (when that is up and running), are all creations of Westminster statute, and thus not sovereign and are open to being abolished by the Westminster Parliament. Only Westminster is ‘sovereign’: that magical mumbo-jumbo term which is rooted in some distant past of Albion and the divine right of kings. That is ultimately where the idea of sovereignty originally came from, and why our Executive has ‘Crown powers’ – powers that were once held in the hands of an absolute monarch, and which include the right to declare war and other such fundamentals.

If you think this is bad Shipman was only just getting started and was on a roll, telling us what he thinks. Here he is – illustrating that he has no understanding of the nature and composition of the UK:

“I’m not clear why Scotland should be regarded as more important than, say, Manchester. It is the SNP who presume that it has some saintly status.”

The UK is a union of four nations: a partnership supposedly born of respect, equality and mutual understanding. Shipman missed these basic facts, which the UK Government and ‘Better Together’ rolled out nearly every day in our indyref, and instead, considers Scotland the equivalent of a great city like Manchester. No disrespect to Manchester, but Scotland is a legally defined nation with its own laws and legislature, whereas Manchester is a proud and glorious city and city region. Big difference that, Tim.

Next is the following statement with the most basic factual error:

“Again, why does a corner of the country count for more than other parts of Britain with 4 million people? Simply not true to say its sidelined. Scotland and Northern Ireland have hugely disproportionate influence.”

Scotland does not have a population of four million, but 5.4 million. That means Tim is out by a factor of 35% – a bit of a margin of error. And if anyone is feeling charitable and thinking anyone can make a mistake over the odd million or 1.4 million, or even that he mixed up the number of people with voters, he continued in the same vein. The SNP’s protest he claimed was ‘from an entity which has half the population of London’. Fact: Scotland’s population is 5.4 million; Greater London’s population is 8.8 million – only two million people short of being twice the size of Scotland.

That’s not a great set of thoughts from one of the most senior, and in many circles, respected journalists on the British political scene. His commentary on the SNP protest in Prime Minister’s Questions shows his contempt:

“It was a ludicrous stunt. They clearly wanted to be thrown out. Their behaviour was like a class of six year olds. They’ve utterly failed to make the constructive contribution they promised.”

Shipman’s two books on the Brexit vote (‘All Out War’) and the 2017 UK election (‘Fall Out’) are the most comprehensive accounts of the two biggest domestic British political stories of the last couple of years. They contain insights, nuance and analysis of all the key players and issues, and even give the impression that Shipman understands that British politics is about more than Westminster. We now know that this was nothing more than an act. Shipman has let his inner, true feelings out, and that he believes British politics is only about Westminster, and everything else is just appearance, pretence and decoration.

This is serious stuff in serious times.

In many ways we should thank Shipman for his honesty, for we can now say that all the stuff about a partnership of equals and respect is just mood music, and that when the chips are down, the UK political establishment shows its colours and its basic intolerance, even contempt, of places like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All of this requires that the above is understood and sinks in, but that Scottish opinion doesn’t act in the black and white and dismissive, condescending ways the British establishment do when pushed.

For example, to describe Westminster’s mindset as ‘So, you’ll have had your devolution’ as Iain Macwhirter did today is not the whole story, as he goes on to imagine the making of a new post-Brexit ‘new unitary British state’ in which ‘devolution … has effectively been abolished’. Neither this new unitary state or the complete end of devolution is going to happen, and instead we are in for a time of confusion, political and legal conflicts, an increasingly active judiciary, and a constitutional mess that we somehow have to navigate.

Devolution was never about transferring real power to Scotland or elsewhere, but we are way past such constricted versions of power and legitimacy. Political power in Scotland doesn’t sit in Westminster or even the Scottish Parliament, it rests with the people, and not due to some ancient myths such as what happened in Arbroath in 1320, but because the people, Yes, No and don’t know, collectively spoke and changed our country in the long indyref campaign of 2011-14. ‘We are the people’ were the words spoken by Canon Kenyon Wright at the signing of the historic ‘Claim of Right’ in March 1989: not an exclusive or triumphalist claim, but words which were maybe a hope then, but which have come to pass: of a people knowing and feeling the power we have.

Similarly, we have to be wary of thinking – because the house of Westminster is falling apart and the idea of Britain with it – that we need to launch our lifeboats imminently. If, as looks likely, the good ship Britannia is sinking below the waves threatening to take all of us with it, we really need to organise and plan how we leave the shipwreck. That is why in such serious times it is highly unlikely that there will be an indyref before 2021. Theresa May will not grant one, we aren’t going to have an advisory vote, and what would happen if a vote were held now and the Scots as existing polls show voted narrowly to stay in the UK? That would mean the lifeboats were cancelled and we went down with the ship.

Illusions about what the United Kingdom is are being laid bare every day in hundreds of ways. This is a warrior state which has been shaped by imperialism, colonialism, crony capitalism, and an utter contempt for its own citizens. We are playing for high stakes in the last days of Britannia and that means not indulging our own short-term fantasies of imminent escape, but being calm, serious, making detailed plans, and recognising our collective power as a people. There will be no going back on that and people need to have a confidence in the long revolution we have created.

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  1. Topher Dawson says:

    Gerry I think it’s coming sooner than 2021. Have you ever watched the face of a wave steepen as it comes in to a beach? The top starts to curl over and you know it’s about to crash down. I feel the face of the wave steepening now in Scotland, and when it breaks it is going to be majestic.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      It takes a mariner’s weather eye to see it coming. I wonder what realistic options are open if/when May formally confirms our colonial status by refusing permission for Indyref 2? Could Catalonia happen here? If so, what preparation would we need to make, what civil strategies to lay, bearing in mind that the English people are not the Spanish state, and that this time round there would probably be considerable goodwill and better understanding from south of the border?

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        Mutual accountability is important in how we hold and frame this debate. A friend just privately took issue with me for my colonial allusion above. He felt it was historically inaccurate and fans the wrong sort of flames. I argued the toss with him on the former point, citing especially Highland history, he argued that things changed for Scotland as a whole from the late Victorian era. However, as for fanning the wrong flames, he may have a point; one that I sometimes wrestle with within myself in weighing up the checks and balances between speaking truth, and overstepping it.

        I just thought I would acknowledge that private discussion openly here, because it is important in these heady times that all of us hold one another in processes of caring and careful discernment. I remain unsure how much I go along with my friend’s point. That said, and notwithstanding the slight discomfort including writing this, I appreciate being called to reflect. The quality of how we hold the emergent debate on Scotland may count for more than the points we score in conducting it.

        1. Donald Mackenzie says:

          I understand the point you make about point scoring but wonder… Scotland’s history is a very important discussion to be having. Being told what is and isn’t ‘historical fact’ is at the very centre of this whole debate. The idea that history cannot be contested and that there are objective facts that everybody agrees on is surely just a means of control? The idea that people can tell you with such certainty that colonialism did not happen in Scotland, and especially the Highlands, is a direct consequence of the debate about our past being controlled for so long.

          I feel the implication is that, because there is no debate allowed over whether colonialism happened historically, of course we can not imply it is happening (or even that any action or relationship could be construed as colonial or colonial like) today. Even suggesting colonial attitudes invalidates one’s argument because it must be hyperbole. Funnily enough, I doubt this would be an issue if people felt deep down there was no argument over whether colonialism happened at all. If it definitely hadn’t happened and you made the allusion people would likely take your point on without needing to take you to task and talk about ‘historical facts’. I understand peoples’ reluctance to get the debate mixed up in old grievances (at a crucial time such as this), but I also can’t help thinking that a lot of the problem is that these grievances have remained for so long because they are central. As Orwell said ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’

          .

          1. Alastair McIntosh says:

            What a deep and thought-provoking reflection. Thank you. Suffice to say that there needs to be much wider awareness in Scotland of the facts and enduring consequences of bygone explicit colonisation, the best scholarship on which is very recent indeed.

            For example, this book by Aonghas MacCoinnich of Glasgow University: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Plantation_and_Civility_in_the_North_Atl.html?id=YqGXCgAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y&hl=en

            Or, this newly published major paper in Northern Scotland by Iain Mackinnon of Skye: https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/nor.2017.0125

            Such work might be dismissed as irrelevant to the present because it is historical. But as MacKinnon’s abstract surmises, “The article concludes that the late modern Gàidhealtachd has been a site of internal colonization where the relationship of domination between colonizer and colonized is complex, longstanding and occurring within the imperial state. In doing so it demonstrates that the history and present of the Gaels of Scotland belongs within the ambit of an emerging indigenous research paradigm.“

            By “late modern”, I take him to mean the older generation alive today. The generation more prone to have voted against independence and for Brexit. The unease I felt when my colleague privately called me to task for using the C word, is that this research is virtually unknown outwith scholarly circles. Until it gets better known, and until there is greater awareness of how Scotland’s psychohistory (Lowlands & Borders too) has shaped both our political psyches and our land tenure today, then I concede that it might be prudent to tread gently, but only so that that the right material does not land the wrong way.

  2. MBC says:

    Glad the penny has dropped Gerry. It dropped for me in the 1970s. There was never a partnership of equals. That’s a myth. A con. We were had. Britain is a chimera. The whole project was about imperialism and capitalism. The rules of the ruling elite in England haven’t changed since 1066. The people are serfs. There will never be democracy. Yes, there are progressives in England. But they are not in the saddle and never will be. There will be no revolution. Best to get out.

  3. Euan Stuart says:

    Gerry, I think what you are overlooking or failing to see is that people like Shipman make inaccurate comments on Scotland’s size, status, rights or endeavours to insult and mock.

    They know exactly what what they are saying, it’s a two pronged attack. First to solicit a response from those that know, second to misinform and lead those who don’t know.

    The common insult is to refer to the Scottish Parliament as an assembly. Another is to refer to Scotland as a region.

    As for devolution, it was never meant to succeed under an SNP Government and has now reached the end of the road. The Scottish Parliament can not be seen to suceed pioneering popular policies different from London, whilst London”s own policies for England are failing.

    This week’s events have been significant. Expect a backlash from the uk government and media as a result of tory incompetence ably supported by their ugly sister labour in the coming weeks!

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Euan Stuart,

      I agree. People like Mr Shipman know exactly what they are saying. They are not showing ignorance about Scotland. They are showing contempt wilfully. It is bombast.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Lifeboats?! Or something more akin to what The Telegraph calls “a grisly tale of incompetence and cannibalism”:
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/articles/raft-of-the-medusa-louvre-explained/

    However, sovereignty is perhaps better considered as a term in political theory rather than “magical mumbo-jumbo”. For a productive discussion about reimaging a constitutional arrangement, it helps to draw on concepts from political philosophy.
    “Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, also has a core meaning, supreme authority within a territory. It is a modern notion of political authority.”
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sovereignty/

  5. Interpolar says:

    A thoughtful piece, thank you Gerry. Indeed, there is probably an increasing awareness in London that there is an epic political drama of their own making coming their way. To them, Scotland is an unwelcome distraction that they will laugh off for as long as they can.

    If I may use your ship analogy, Scotland is swinging on a loose guy-rope hanging from Britannia’s masts as she increasingly lists. With each vacillation of the rope we have to decide whether now is the time to jump in the hope of making it overboard – but with the risk of being smitten on the deck below. Alternatively, we may decide to hang on and wait until she capsizes or sinks entirely, but then the moment is no longer of our own choosing, and it may in fact never come. There are many imponderable factors, and no choice is going to be risk-free. We may regret jumping, or we may find ourselves wistfully look back as we do at 2014 with realisation that it was a wasted opportunity for Scotland.

    To a great extent, in light of the proceedings in Westminster of the calibre we have seen over the last 48h, the Scottish Government doesn’t only have a mandate for Indy 2, but an obligation. In current form the UK government would strike any request for a Section 30 Order of Council will be struck down by the UK government, that much is clear. But the SG may have to go through the motions regardless, while considering the next options in order to even be in a position to navigate the turmoil that will engulf the UK towards the end of this year. By then it is not impossible that the UK government will be more malleable by then. An autumn decision on the matter strikes me as being about right, but the SG is almost forced to seek Indy 2 in some form over the coming 24 months. Anything else would not be doing the day job.

  6. Willie says:

    The Scottish Parliament was set up to stymie demand for independence.

    Its proportional voting system, a combination of first past the post plus d’honde was set up so that parliamentary majorities by a single party, and especially an independence party, would be difficult, if not, near impossible.

    That the SNP have now achieved first a minority government, then a majority government and now a Green supported third government, the time has come to roll back the powers of the devolution scheme that has not delivered what was intended.

    Democracy in the UK does not exist. It is an illusion and what is going on now lays that bare.

    There isn’t I think a country in the world who has left the UK’s clutches peacefully.

    Hopefully we can, but as we now see, just like Spain,or 1930s Germany, the UK do not do democracy.

  7. Willie says:

    I see that it has just been announced that Rolls Royce are cutting some 4,600 managerial and support staff jobs from their 23,000 UK workforce.

    With our exiting the EU and with the rights to seamlessly work and live across a Europe now being removed these job cuts which are to be implemented over the coming year could not have come at a worse time.

    And of course, Rolls Royce employ a substantial number of folks here in Scotland who could, or might probably will form part of the cuts.

    Taken together with the downsizing now being required by many U.K. retail companies such a Debenhams, House of Fraser, the struggling engineering construction firms like Carillion ( now bust ) Interserve, Mitie, the struggling government services contractor Crapita, the Great British future striding the world stage is starting to look a little tarnished.

    But austerity, the removal of the social care net, the lowest pensions in Europe, also tells us how great we are.

    Mind you, if you are or were a captain of industry like those of the now bankrupt Carillion, or a Sir Philip Green of the now bust BHS, you’ll be absolutely fine.

    Great isn’t it. Can’t wait for my chlorinated chicken or my Health Care by Trump Enterprises.

  8. Wiliam Ross says:

    Gerry

    Scotland is not and never could be an equal partner in the Union and everyone knows it. In fact, that is why we have an SNP. If we were an equal partner we would have the same number of MPs as the English and we would be run as a confederation. Drop that nonsense please.

    The “power grab” unfortunately consists of Holyrood acquiring more than 100 new powers. Every one of these powers is coming back from the hands of Brussels oligarchs. What`s not to like?

    Is there some constitutional rule to say that the Scotland Act can never be amended?

    I do not know of a single real life person who is concerned by the devolution aspect of the EU Withdrawal Bill.

    And your advice, let us be very upset by this clear and deadly threat to devolution but actually do nothing! Typical.

    Shipman is not a minister of government or even an MP. He is a commentator who speaks only for himself.

    Chill out y`all.

    William

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      ‘Oligarch’ being a pejorative term you simply plucked out of the air at random, William?

    2. Wul says:

      “I do not know of a single real life person who is concerned by the devolution aspect of the EU Withdrawal Bill.”

      Those who are concerned about it are therefore not “real people”?

    3. Heidstaethefire says:

      Scotland is no kind of partner at all, it is simply expected to do what it’s told. I note May’s 80 powers of yesterday has suddenly become 100. Remarkable. Would you care to detail them? What you don’t seem to grasp is the that when push comes to shove, any decision of Holyrood can be overruled by the powers that Westminster/Whitehall has abrogated to itself.

    4. Ian Leveson says:

      Whether 80, 100, or 124 they are not “new”powers, they belong by rights to Holyrood under the Scotland Act. So Westminster is trying to sell us something which is already ours. These are not additions, just work and the decision-making being shifted from one administrative location to another, and belong in Scotland.

  9. William Ross says:

    Graeme

    “Oligarchy” means rule by the few. Juncker, Barnier and Selmayr have absolutely no democratic legitimacy and represent no-one. That’s why they are such brilliant negotiators. Check out “Adults in the Room” by Varoufakis. “Oligarch ” is very apt.

    William

  10. DaveM says:

    It’s interesting that Gerry goes through the piece in a, mostly, well-considered way, then ends on, “Oh well, nothing’s going to happen any time soon” but doesn’t say WHY this conclusion has been reached. Were this an essay, it would get a B- at best. Come on, Gerry.

  11. William Ross says:

    Wul

    What I meant was that in my ordinary real Scottish life, spent in Aberdeen in business and outside at nights and weekends, I have not met anyone who is concerned that some cynical roll-back of devolution is afoot. I am personally in favour of independence and many of my acquaintances are SNP supporters.

    Heidestaethefire

    I think I have understood that Scotland is by its own volition part of a larger unitary state which conducts foreign policy and is responsible for constitutional matters. Change that through a second referendum not whining at the Moon.

    William.

    1. Kenny Smith says:

      This is where it falls down for you, Jamsie and your like. I’m sure you are correct in maybe the social circles you move in people might not be that interested but what I can see myself is people who voted no and probably would have voted no again are aghast at all of this, yes they are majority labour supporters so probably have more of an attachment to holyrood that Tory voters but they like having a Scottish parliament and are keen for it to have more powers. You said it’s an international issue and your right that’s why we have been denied representation at the negotiations but the minute we are out then it’s a domestic issue so then the Scotland act applies or it should. Nobody has ever said there wouldn’t be common ground but these decisions should be built on consensus not imposed. This bullshit about internal market is deliberate attempt at making it sound like the single market of the EU which is false. I’ll ask you why during a whole 2 year campaign last time round we never once heard the phrase internal market but hear it ad nauseam now. Also before you say Scotland is UK region like Yorkshire which is another load of bull getting stuffed down our throats, Yorkshire isn’t a joint signatory to an internationally recognised treaty of Union, well pretendy union. I have said it before but it’s never been more apt the Tories are furthering the cause of Scottish independence more than the SNP ever could.

    2. Wul says:

      OK. But isn’t it possible, if you have genuine goodwill towards a parliament and it’s people, to act in consultation and cooperation over matters that will affect them?

      There’s no reason for a “work to rule” in a genuine partnership of mutual respect. If you truly value another body, you can act towards it in an inclusive and caring way.

      I think what is upsetting people is that the contempt for Scotland and its parliament has become manifest in these Brexit processes. Or, actions speak louder than words.

      1. Wul says:

        I could truthfully respond that I’ve never met anybody in my everyday life (in Glasgow, working for local authorities and latterly in the construction trade) who complained about being in the EU.

        It was never an issue for anyone I spoke to, or anyone in my family. Literally a non-issue.

        I wonder if there’s a certain income bracket or range of professions where people come to realise that they could be making more money if it weren’t for “EU red tape”?

  12. William Ross says:

    Kenny

    Your remarks are properly addressed to Jamsie who is a Unionist. I have voted SNP at every opportunity in my life and I campaigned for YES in 2014. However, like approximately 40 % of YES voters I voted LEAVE in 2016.

    Our country voted for Union in 2014 and hence we are stuck with Westminster taking decisions on international matters and the constitution. Either the UK LEAVE vote is respected or it is not.

    We did not discuss a UK single market in 2014 because we had an EU single market, something that seems not to trouble you at all. If we are out of the EU as a whole independent sovereign UK then there must be common UK commercial standards as the SNP accept and as the original Treaty of Union provides. With independence that can change.

    I would never dream of arguing that Scotland is like a Yorkshire. It is a fantasy.

    I have to agree with you regarding the Tories though. They are NOW furthering the cause of Scottish independence. The recent statements of Mundell re Scotland ” not being a partner” in Union are unhinged. This is as mad as saying that Scotland is AN EQUAL partner in Union.

    Both sides crazy….

    William

  13. Angus McIonnach says:

    God knows there’s a lot of folk with crazy short-term ideas on the timing of an independence referendum (referendum 2018!), but I would be interested in more of Jerry’s thoughts on when there might be one, if not during the “brexit window”, and the “mandate window” ending in 2021.

  14. john mcewan says:

    I like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1Kg5TVJo5k
    Indy before 29th march 2019

  15. JOHN MCEWAN says:

    oh aye first line of the song And That.s Why ” FEAR IS THE KEY ”

  16. Observer says:

    Just for the record: It’s not accurate to suggest that approximately 40% of Yes voters voted Leave. For a start the electorate was smaller, with no EU citizens voting at all and no 16-17 year olds. Had these been included, even the U.K. would have voted Remain. Secondly, of those able to vote, turnout was much much lower. 40% of Yes voters is 640,000 votes. Leave only got 1m.

    You are a bit closer if you suggest nearly 40% of Leave voters voted Yes, though I would suggest the figure is somewhat lower, around 30%. Leave voters are unsurprisingly much more likely to have voted No, being on average older and more Tory than Remain voters.

  17. William Ross says:

    Observer

    You are right that I was referring to 40% of the YES voters who actually voted in 2016. Turnout was much lower in 2016. Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests a figure of 36% LEAVE for YES voters. That’s still four out of ten. I am sure that these votes were to some extent concentrated in the North East of Scotland. Coming from Aberdeenshire, I barely knew any SNP voter who voted Remain. That reality was borne out in the 2017 GE.

    William

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