2007 - 2021

Back to the future, or stay rooted in the past?

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There is no going back; at least for Britain/rUK/England. Brexit has happened. The idea of ‘Britain’ that produced its membership of the EU in 1973 died with the final passing of the generations who directly experienced world war. Brexit attracts superficial but effective support because it rose to prominence on a wave of anti-EU, anti-immigration populism stirred up by neoliberal globalists who will trade off anything, indeed have all the resources to manipulate or avoid everything inconvenient in their own interest, provided only there is exclusive global freedom for the absolute free movement of capital; this is the neoliberal’s Elect justification by faith: ‘keep your populist illusions of freedom and sovereignty for the masses intact, but put your faith in the revelation of the power of the global circulation of money’.
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At a more thoughtful, but not necessarily more effective level, rUK/England has turned in toward older, deeper political values that are essentially and obsessively representative of the long tradition of libertarian ‘possessive individualism’ (CB Macpherson) as represented by Locke, but simultaneously an essentially Hobbist culture of sovereignty and statecraft that underpinned all English political thought thereafter (Q Skinner). There is no going back.
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Scotland, however never shared either the Hobbes or Locke natural rights bedrock of English political culture, but rather more the ‘society’ oriented natural law tradition found in Grotius and Pufendorf, Stair and Hutcheson; the last taking us into the Scottish Enlightenment. The obvious demonstration of that Scottish tradition, in so far as it survives even now, is found in the answer to the question Brexit-Unionists demand of the independence movement in Scotland, which has come into its time, especially following the 2016 Brexit referendum. Why, Brexit-Unionists ask, do you want to leave one Union, to take back control: only to rejoin the EU? Ironically, Unionists can understand the demand for independence. Indeed, they cannot in conscience resist it, because they represent it: independence from a Greater Europe; but in spite of their own principles, they simultaneously reject Scottish independence as economically imprudent, and therefore irrational but uniquely, only to be rejected, solely because – its Scotland. Work that one out. This position is incoherent, especially given the thin, obviously counter-economic-growth nature of the Brexit negotiated deal with all its threats to economic stability: but Brexit, after all was nothing to do with rationality; this was about ‘taking back control’, a polite summation of a mixture of possessive individualism, a Hobbist appeal to the absolute sovereignty of ‘Britain’, no matter what; and some fairly murky prejudices Brexiteers would rather not publicly discuss in polite society.
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The answer to the Unionist question challenging Scots Remainers who now want independence to ‘take back control’, is very simple. Scotland is prepared to join larger Unions; it always was, even to the point of joining an incorporating union designed to make it difficult to leave – in 1707. Such a venture requires more than liberty alone offers. The Scots commissioners in 1707 wanted a federal union. The English commissioners refused. The incorporating union was intended to make it difficult for either party to leave, largely because England thought it knew where its power advantage lay. That was proved suspect within a very few years, when Scotland almost left the Union in any case; a decision that was only very narrowly defeated, on proxy votes in Parliament. Neither is this solely a matter of politics; our law itself is hy-brid, built over centuries from roots in Roman law, Scottish legal custom, European law over centuries; and including English common law and Anglo-British statutes, which have been woven (not always happily or smoothly) into Scotland’s remarkable and distinctive legal fabric. Scotland is a master at making a Union work in difficult circumstances; but nothing is forever, and nothing survives, no matter what.
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Scotland and England joining together in a Greater Britain delivered advantages to Scotland, over time notably in just those economic and social spheres that benefited from a natural law perspective; but the Union required a great deal more sacrifice of Scotland, its institutions and customs, and difficulties of adjustment for its people, than it ever did of England; where in England the Union finally fixed major constitutional, religious, dynastic and geopolitical issues, dynamically improved the Union’s economic and imperial prospects, and cost England virtually nothing: what was there for England not to like – save for quite widespread personal dislike of Scots, represented publicly and politically by the vituperative likes of Wilkes et al? Their legacy still thrives.
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The irony of the real fragility of the incorporating union was discovered only in 2014. It was the PM David Cameron, the Conservative government and the Westminster Parliament in the Referendum negotiations that insisted on scrapping the principle of an incorporating union altogether, if/when Scotland leaves; in order to protect rUK’s control of the currency and the seamless continuation of rUK as the ‘Union’, unchanged for all its 1,000+ international treaties, some absolutely critical, especially for rUK. It has simply been missed by commentators and critics that a future departure of Scotland from the Union will be carried out, as if the Union was a federal union after all (although it clearly isn’t), because that is what rUK requires, both de facto and de jure; and that is all that can be delivered safely in the interests of both Scotland and rUK. The deepest irony is that rUK finally discovered that England alone cannot leave the Union. It is rooted in its own past, for all foreseeable futures: rUK is not ‘free’, but trapped in its inescapable past.
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It is unwise to examine the Treaty of Union through rose-tinted Unionist, dark glasses. The reality of Union was that Scotland made an essentially unsound, incoherent, irrational system of parliamentary Government work effectively if not fairly, for three hundred years. The erosion of trust began early, with the Patronage Act, 1712. Three hundred years later and following much further degradation to the spirit and substance of Scotland’s quasi-autonomous special relationship, the Union clearly no longer delivers for Scotland: a 21st century fact that is too obvious to be avoidable, even by die-hard Unionists. Nevertheless, Scotland has not given up on the idea of a Union that works. 2014, however was the ‘last chance’ saloon for THIS Union: and with Brexit 2016-20, the Union not only simply failed to deliver on 2014 Scottish expectations, but in doing so inadvertently declared its real, uncompromising ‘possessive individualist’, ruthlessly neoliberal nature. Brexit was Britain’s final declaration of Bad Faith to Scotland.
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The Scottish public has given up on a Union that does not work for it, and that has instead become a strutting, bombastic exemplar of bad faith. Scottish Conservatism and the Labour Party have become political laughing stocks in Scotland; intellectual deserts, inhabited only by dust and faulty memory. The EU represents a viable alternative Union, with greater opportunities, that is less restrictive, more realistic in its expectations of sacrifice and that has not long outlived its value. An amicable trade deal can be negotiated between Scotland as a member of the EU and rUK; but Scotland has learned now from long bitter experience; this can only be done on fair terms, and in good faith with rUK: when it is at arm’s length.
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The EU is not remotely the ‘finished article’, and it has real, deep flaws; but it is what we have, it has a future and a purpose, and Scotland has a long history of making the best of flawed Unions, if they can be made to work. The British Union’s flaws were inherently unresolvable, rUK would never give up its essential and certainly peculiar possessive individualist, Hobbism; in spite of determined efforts by Scotland over long, long periods. The EU represents a Union with a significant number of small states, very like Scotland; who together have some real purchase on the EU’s identity and nature. This is a Union with prospects for Scotland’s future in the 21st century. A Union that is designed to be so, and can in time, and with effort adapt; it remains the wisest product of European, including (ironically again) the best British reflection on the outcome of two world wars.
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Unions? Scotland has form.

Comments (15)

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  1. Dougie Strang says:

    Great, insightful piece. Thank you John and Bella.

  2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    This is good, John; well-argued. A timely rejoinder to the tired old trope that Scottish Independence is about sovereignty or ‘taking back control’.

  3. Helen McCallum says:

    Thanks for Insightful thought provoking stimulating article … Thinking that perhaps origins of WM attitudes towards friendly Scots besides domination are ingrained deeply pathological involving destructive envy facilitating dislike ridicule exclusion and disrespect endlessly streaming ..Would be interesting to look at other non political reasons why this response ..No Hope then for a WM change of heart ..My New Years resolution is ..Staying alive to fight the Bonnie Fecht for Scotland’s Independence

  4. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks for this, John.

    I noticed Écosse was getting a good share of coverage on French news stations this morning each time Brexit was mentioned.

    It would be great if momentum could be maintained by having a website dedicated to info, media, and lobbying regarding Scotland’s return to Europe. Maybe there is something out there already I don’t know about. The matter cannot be left to the SNP (any more than can Scottish independence itself).

    As for another glimpse of European awareness of Scotland, I was fascinated to discover a few years ago that the tune ‘Marche des soldats de Robert Bruce’ has its own vibrant existence in Europe. Here, for example, is a rendition by a French Marines band:

    https://youtu.be/WulAWn_N_O0

    And here is a less martial German performance by Musikzug Battenberg:

    https://youtu.be/-I1Qu5y_qpk

  5. Squigglypen says:

    What an excellent piece. It was a choice of Chitty chitty bang bang or Bella and your article re- engaged my brain.
    Still grinding my teeth at Johnson’s mocking of our SNP in Westminister…the Scottish Nationalist Party he said…when reprimanded said he meant it with a small n..haw haw! guffaw guffaw!…why are we still in this toxic UK union..with a small n?

  6. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks for this, John.

    I noticed Écosse was getting a good share of coverage on French news stations this morning when covering Brexit.

    It would be good if momentum could be maintained by having a website dedicated to info, media, and lobbying regarding Scotland’s return to Europe. Maybe there is something out there already?

    I was fascinated to discover a few years ago that the tune ‘Marche des soldats de Robert Bruce’ has its own vibrant existence in Europe. Here is a rendition by a French Marines band:

    https://youtu.be/WulAWn_N_O0

    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      And here is a less martial German performance by Musikzug Battenberg:

      https://youtu.be/-I1Qu5y_qpk

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        Apologies for repetition of comment. Misunderstanding over multiple URL links and delayed moderation. Perhaps a moderator would delete one version of the post? Thanks.

  7. Axel P Kulit says:

    “Scotland is prepared to join larger Unions; it always was, even to the point of joining an incorporating union designed to make it difficult to leave – in 1707. ”

    Define Scotland: I understand at least 90% of the population were against the 1707 union. The governing classes were bribed, blackmailed (probably) and coerced (BBC) into voting for the union. The people were ignored.

    1. John S Warren says:

      Nobody asked ‘the population’ anything about anything in 1707, anywhere in Europe. I think you simply misunderstand the nature of history, which represents its own times, or the history of ideas – which have formed us; or the evolution of thought, which fortunately does not rely on a count of hands ‘a priori’ before being considered; or nothing would ever change.

      Do we even do much better now? The Brexit referendum was famously passed by 52% to 48%, as if that was decisive. Not 52% of the population, but 52% of those who voted. ‘No’ (17.4m votes) represented only 34.7% of the total electorate, of 46.5m. But you said “population”; ‘No’ represented only 26.6% of the total UK population in 2016, of 65.4m.

      You plucked your 10% figure out of the air, because nobody knows what the people actually thought; nobody asked them. Most of them were not in Edinburgh rioting; many probably knew little about the Union until after it happened (just was we do not really know the bones and marrow of the terms of Brexit even now). So in over three hunderd years, on your defined criteria we have moved from 10% to 26%. So much for definition – and ‘progress’.

  8. Axel P Kulit says:

    Westminster could preserve their union for a while by making it federal, after which Scotland will leave, but they probably won’t.

    The Federalism Fairy is dead.

  9. Blair says:

    John, thanks for this piece. From a deep systems point of analysis:

    “Scotland is a master at making a Union work in difficult circumstances; but nothing is forever, and nothing survives, no matter what.”

    Nobody really knows but at a systems root level it would appear that the Electro–Magnetic Spectrum has always existed and will keep existing for sometime.

    “The deepest irony is that rUK finally discovered that England alone cannot leave the Union. It is rooted in its own past, for all foreseeable futures: rUK is not ‘free’, but trapped in its inescapable past.”

    rUK only exists because Scotland existed long before England. Scotland does not need to be in a union, it just needs to establish its rightful place in the Kingdom.

    Let the world know that Scotland is extremely well resourced and the everyone’s future is here to be discovered.

    Now Bella, what can you do?

    BREXIT gives everyone including the Gateway to Passover all the real read lines: SEE intelligently in real colour and advance on to a new level without fearing.

  10. Wullie says:

    Thank you Mr Warren,

    This article has given some hope in what I am experiencing as a very, very bleak period. The thought of Rees-Mogg et al “Unchained” and unregulated makes me feel quite ill.

    Your paragraph copied below gave me fresh insight. I hadn’t thought of post-2014 as the “last chance” for the Union in Scotland, but clearly it was. The promises of more power, “near home rule”, “leading our family of nations”, “The most powerful devolved parliament ever” etc. etc. were empty lies. It was Westminster’s last chance to offer a fair, honest and respectful union. It failed.

    “Nevertheless, Scotland has not given up on the idea of a Union that works. 2014, however was the ‘last chance’ saloon for THIS Union: and with Brexit 2016-20, the Union not only simply failed to deliver on 2014 Scottish expectations, but in doing so inadvertently declared its real, uncompromising ‘possessive individualist’, ruthlessly neoliberal nature. Brexit was Britain’s final declaration of Bad Faith to Scotland.”

  11. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    “The irony of the real fragility of the incorporating union was discovered only in 2014. It was the PM David Cameron, the Conservative government and the Westminster Parliament in the Referendum negotiations that insisted on scrapping the principle of an incorporating union altogether, …..”

    I think you have made a strong point here. It also illustrates the mendacity of ‘the unwritten constitution’, which a former head of the Civil Service described as ‘allowing us to make things up to suit the circumstances’. It encapsulates ‘Perfidious Albion’.

    What the narrow clique which controls Westminster and Whitehall wants is as little democracy as possible, and few, if any, legal checks on them so that they can pillage the assets and wealth of ‘these islands’ and tell the people what to do – or starve.

    Labour, under Starmer, plans to continue the Blair/Brown view that the Thatcherite paradigm has to be accepted, but they will do it in a nicer way and do a bit of redistribution, but the ‘meritocratic’ myth will continue. Others in Labour, think that if they win an election they can make Whitehall change the Uk in a more redistributive way. All previous Labour Governments were given a bit of leeway to calm the savage public beast, by a bit of redistribution, and then ‘the run on the pound’ was engineered and the Tories returned. Labour in Scotland has no ideas other than, “We hate thae EssEmPee, because its us that should be in Government, no fur any purpose other than it should be us.”

  12. Tom Ultuous says:

    Good article John. People really have been taken in by this “taking back control” shit. What control did the EU really have? On forums I’ve often asked Brexiteers to name me 3 EU laws they disagreed with and not once have I received a reply. Had we been an independent nation when oil was discovered would the EU have had the “control” to sell it off to US oil companies for brown envelopes and bleed us dry of our slice? Would the EU have had the “control” to sell off our nationalised industries to their pals in the city for a song? Mugged r’us.

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