Finkelstein’s Franchise and Chamber of Secrets
For those still nursing their wrath with the strangely disempowering idea that “we’ll never get a Section 30 Order”, I hate to put it to you but, we’ve already got one. The Holyrood election and the next independence referendum have already started.
Strange Outriders for Project Fear 2, a strangely inept and miscast sequel to the original 2014 disaster movie, have already been seen skirmishing on the battlefield of social media and television studios. While last week George Galloway’s wife was obsessing about Nutella this week Lord Finkelstein (“Danny the Fink) took to the tv studios to pronounce: “If they do have that referendum that’s something that everybody who was born in Scotland and has eligibility to be in the Scottish state, should have a right to have a say”. It was a follow-up to the same line being trotted out by Galloway and Gove before him and its very likely a co-ordinated attempt to normalise the narrative about changing the franchise to disrupt dilute and undermine the next referendum.
Lord Finkelstein added:
“There are lots of people who engaged with the question of whether the United Kingdom continues, and obviously the people of Scotland are one of the largest groups in that decision” – how touching – “but they’re not the only group. It’s right that actually the UK Parliament has some sort of – has the power over the decision about whether we have a referendum.”
You may think it distasteful that an unelected Lord from the Motherfucker of All Parliaments ™ preach about what is democratic, but the attack-line was accompanied by a piece in The Spectator by James Forsyth (‘To save the Union, negotiate Scotland’s independence‘) who argued that:
“What to do? Well, one cabinet minister with a particular interest in the Union argues that the best way to fight the SNP is to clarify what independence would really mean. This would change the debate from being about the lofty idea of sovereignty to the cold realities of the situation. It could be done in the campaign itself, but any Unionist attempt to focus minds would be dismissed by the Nationalists as ‘Project Fear 2’.
“Highlighting the economic weakness of the case for independence is essential to any Unionist victory. One recent poll suggested voters thought by a 10 per cent margin that independence would be good for Scotland economically. Which is quite something now North Sea oil revenues have collapsed (the price of a barrel is half what it was when the last referendum was held in 2014) and recent figures showed that Scotland has the worst deficit in the western world (8.6 per cent of GDP). A new EU member state needs their deficit down to 3 per cent. Doable, but only after austerity on an enormous scale. That’s the crushing cost of independence. But how to make the case convincingly?”
“One way — albeit a very high-risk one — is to tell the SNP that they can have their referendum but only if the terms are agreed first. The UK government would negotiate the basis on which Scotland would leave the UK, with the resulting deal put to the electorate. This would transform the debate from being one about whether Scotland should theoretically be independent into one about the hard truths of separation. It would force the Nationalists to answer the questions they would rather avoid: what currency an independent Scotland would use, what share of the UK national debt it would take on, and more. We’d see what the border arrangements between this new state and rUK (the shorthand for the rest of the UK) would be, and how trade would be managed with the two countries in different customs unions.”
There’s some striking elements to this desperate line of argument but the most obvious is how much it is a voice of capitulation. Obviously there is complete ignorance of almost all aspects of the constitutional debate: the franchise has already been agreed; oil revenue is not considered in the calculations and forecasts for future economics; and the deficit figures are extraordinary. But this is essentially a cry for help and an argument that the only position left is to surrender terms. What Forsyth and Finkelstein are saying is that this shitshow’s at an and and we want to some kind of dignified exit, which may not be unreasonable. It’s something we should probably just play along with: “Oh, yes, it really will be terrible, oh yes, we’re terrified, uh-hu … ” – whilst quietly exercising diplomatic soft-power around the world and re-imagining how to create a functioning democracy.
It might seem strange but I have some sympathy for these people. The moment at which it might have been still possible to imagine a credible envisioning of a Future Union has gone, and this is what they are left with: rejected and unelected politicians arguing that what is required is the suppression and gerrymandering of the electorate to keep the Scots in check. The very idea that Britain is reformable or able to respond and adapt is spent. Finkelstein is living proof of this talking as he does from the House of Lords which has 793 peers. The only other countries in the world with second chambers larger than the first are the People’s Republic of China, Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso.
But it’s not just Britain’s political institutions which are decrepit.
Last week a leaked government dossier revealed that the military may be called in to airdrop food and patrol parts of the UK if it is hit by a no-deal Brexit and a second coronavirus wave at the same time. It said that the military may be drafted in to airdrop food to the Channel Islands under emergency plans drawn up by the government to protect the UK if a second coronavirus wave coincides with a no-deal Brexit. It warned that parts of the UK may face power and petrol shortages if thousands of lorries were stranded in Dover while shortages of medicines caused by port blockages could lead to animal diseases spreading through the countryside.
The classified document, dated July 2020, warned that if trade restrictions triggered by a no-deal Brexit are combined with floods, flu and another coronavirus wave, then hospitals may be overwhelmed and that the Navy may be needed to stop British fishermen clashing with European fishing boat incursions.
No Deal Brexit looms over the Union like a guillotine.
But if Britain’s archaic semi-feudal institutions like the Lords act as a repository for failed politicians and a bulwark against any change, perhaps worse is the clandestine influence of a rash of ‘think-tanks’ like Legatum, Competere, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the parliamentary faction called the Free Enterprise Group. The extent to which the far-right’s radical think tanks have shaped and captured the Conservative party is detailed here, and also in minute detail by Peter Geoghegan in Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics.
Whilst the presentation of Britain’s formal UnDemocracy like the House of Lords an the Monarchy acts as constitutional dressage, the dark money flowing through think-tanks and front groups is where the real action happens, and as Geoghegan outlines the important factor is the ‘Atlantic Bridge’ between Britain’s underbelly and their US counterparts the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the the Charles Koch Foundation.
The point being made is not the sometimes spurious one that all of the emerging hellscape can be ascribed to malign secret forces and that no real social or economic crisis is at play. Geoghegan wisely reject this sort of analysis:
“Pro-Leave campaigns broke the law,” he writes, “but we cannot say with any certainty that the result would have been different if they had not. Instead, the referendum and its aftermath have revealed something far more fundamental and systemic. Namely, a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.”
None of this is new, though the intensity of the lobbying group and the fragility of the political class is more acute, and the connectivity between Britain and the US is far more intense. What’s also different is that both Britain and America are facing existential crises at precisely the same moment, with Trump’s election coming in November and Johnson’s No Deal exit coming in December.
The archaic and the clandestine elements of Britain’s UnDemocracy are two sides of the same coin, but both point to it being riddled with forces which are innately dysfunctional and this dramatically undermines the prospects for the Union to be a credible future-focused entity. As Britain disintegrates some are taking crumbs of comfort in song and symbol. The Daily Mail and the Express were jubilant at their victory to re-instate Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory to the Last Night of the Proms. The delicious irony of this being “sung” by an audience that isn’t there is the most brutal metaphor for a broken Britain you can imagine.