Entering the New Territory of British Undemocracy
Things are unraveling fast. The slide seems to be glacially slow and then change comes very suddenly. Three arenas of significant political change appear to be converging simultaneously: the very nature of the Union; the “spectacle of indolent, shambling greed” that Greensill represents, and the end of Centrism – the political force that spanned British politics from Tony Blair to David Cameron – as an operating and unifying force.
Union without Consent
The recent sharing of an extraordinary interview with Douglas Ross, the Tories’ Scottish leader, who is having a nightmarish election campaign, with Channel Four’s Ciaran Jenkins, only underlined the new truth:
— Ciaran Jenkins (@C4Ciaran) April 19, 2021
— Ciaran Jenkins (@C4Ciaran) April 19, 2021
This is a masterclass in political interviewing and public broadcasting – but you do have to ask yourself why you’ve never seen a Scottish journalist doing the same.
Douglas Ross is toiling. He has no answers. He is going to be heavily defeated and removed from his leadership position as his deputy scuttles off to the House of Lords to avoid not just democracy but her own party’s retribution.
But the interview is not just something to enjoy with unsavoury glee and schadenfreude, it is revealing of where we are and the rapidly disintegrating relations within the UK. It is revealing that the Conservative positioning makes it clear that there is no legal pathway to political expression – that is the new reality.
As Gerry Hassan has written (“The crisis of unionism has become the death of the union as we know it“): “This Tory Government is dramatically changing the UK and the union, how political authority is exercised, the relationships between the four constituent parts and the centre, and in so doing radically altering fundamental characteristics of the UK.”
Hassan identifies four areas where this dramatic new way of ruling manifests itself:
- Brexit and the way it has been implemented as an English nationalist project, riding roughshod over Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The undermining of the Good Friday Agreement and peace process
- The UK Government taking the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court over the legality of two pieces of legislation passed unanimously by Holyrood: one on the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the other the European Charter of local self-government
- The complete undermining of the devolution settlement by overturning the Sewel Convention – by which the Westminster Parliament does not legislate in devolved areas without the express consent of Holyrood or the Welsh Senedd
- These were preceded by the forcing of the UK internal market act encroaching significantly into a host of devolved areas
The past week has seen the publication of extraordinary and savage accounts of the state of the Union by Professor Ciaran Martin and former Permanent Secretary Philip Rycroft. I wrote about it here (‘Resist, Reform or Re-Run?’) – and here (‘Muscular Unionism a Disaster for the Union’) – and Andrew Tickell wrote about it here: (‘Devolution is over – it’s time to face the new reality’) .
What Professor Martin describes is basically a century of union by consent coming to an end; the Union has become an entity sustained by law alone.
As the Irish Times reported: “… a refusal to accept the majority view would represent a constitutional Rubicon for the Union, former senior civil servant Prof Ciaran Martin argues in an important paper. The glue holding it together, he argues, since the resolution of the Irish question in 1921, has been consent, “the separate and collective consent of four constituent parts, each of which is free to withdraw’’. A scenario where Westminster ruled Scotland instead through “the force of law’’ only would profoundly change the relationship and undermine the legitimacy of its rule.”
This is where we’re at and this is entirely new territory.
As Hassan writes: “The UK Government is considering, in light of a pro-independence majority, the option of fighting the principle of self-determination in the Supreme Court. According to Martin, the UK authorities would then be saying that Scotland might be a nation but this did not confer any intrinsic right to self-determination – a position that even Margaret Thatcher rejected.
This is all revealing the fragile nature of the devolution settlement across the UK including, according to Martin, incompatible interpretations north and south of the border: “Politically the Scottish Parliament was established because a clear majority of Scots voted for it in the referendum of 1997. But legally it is a creation existing entirely at Westminster’s pleasure. Constitutionally it is nothing more than a large, powerful County Council.”
I think I had underestimated the importance of the current Tory corruption and lobbying scandal calling it “brazen sleaze on an almost unimaginable scale”.
It’s much more significant than that.
John Gray writes in the New Statesman:
“The media narrative which represents the Greensill affair as the worst lobbying scandal for a generation understates its importance. Cameron’s downfall is the tawdry finale of a project that began with Tony Blair’s New Labour, continued during the coalition years and still shapes the thinking of the floundering Labour leadership today. The centrist ideology in which the principal function of government is to re-engineer society as an adjunct of the global market has become the orthodoxy of a vanished age.”
Gray goes on to outline the extent to which this is not really about “lobbying” but more about the extent to which the state has been transformed into a private business. That Cameron was not in the slightest bit ashamed or perturbed by the Greenshill affair points not just to the lowering of standards in public life but to the privatisation of government, from which all of this seems quite normal.
“The origins of the Blameron world-view are political more than they are intellectual. Parties of the centre right and mainstream left responded to the victories of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the fall of the Soviet Union by accepting that capitalism had won. The future centrist programme would be about softening the market’s hard edges while remodelling society to serve its imperatives. Blair represented this as pragmatic common sense: his view was that a progressive party uses what works. But it was not long before the market came to be seen as the basis of society. Centrism became the doctrine that every institution should be reorganised according to market norms.”
This transformation of our understanding of the relationship between the state and the market pre-dates Blair. Gray again:
“By the time Blair came to power in 1997, the “monolithic” NHS could be attacked as wasteful and inefficient, though it was one of the world’s most cost-effective healthcare systems. Supposedly moderate centrists became committed to a market-based vision of society that was more simplistic and fundamentalist than that which dominated the Thatcherite Eighties. It became cross-party orthodoxy that healthcare, higher education, law and order and the armed forces all had to function according to market incentives. The end result, now visible in the Greensill affair, was that government became a part of the market. If the state is at bottom a business like any other, why not outsource it to the cheapest private provider?”
Austerity, argues Gray, flows almost inevitably from viewing the state as a business: “If the basis of society is not shared values but market exchange, cost-benefit analysis must be the chief – if not only – guide in organising core services. The upshot is a state that is enfeebled, hollowed out and lacking in legitimacy, as was the case in Britain at the end of the Cameron years.”
If his analysis is right then we are “off the map” not just in our constitutional relationships but in our political and economic ones. The question becomes what does a new forced Unionism combined with a new post-Centrist economics look like?
Greensill, by this view is not just the apogee of corruption, it is the end of an era of Centrist orthodoxy, but what next?
Presumably hyperbolic rhetoric about British Greatness, Global Britain, lots of forced patriotism and militarism.
Now, as Britain collapses in on itself, much of the narrative about Scotland from the south becomes unhinged. Here Simon Heffer describes Nicola Sturgeon as a Maoist.
Increasingly desperate attempts to prop up the Union are resorting to just forcing bodies to fly the flag.
In an almost comical announcement last month, Conservative culture secretary Oliver Dowden announced that all government buildings would be required to fly the union flag every day as a “proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us.”
As the Irish journalist Peter Geoghegan writes in the Big Issue (‘Britain’s zombie union shambles on, but for how much longer?’):
“The red, white and blue won’t just fly on official buildings. The recent Dunlop Review – a report, written by the Tory Lord James Dunlop, looking at strategies for “strengthening” the Union – recommended “better branding” for Scottish infrastructure projects financed by the British Treasury. Dunlop also proposed that the prime minister establish a new cabinet position for inter-governmental and constitutional affairs.
Even Covid has had the flag treatment. In November, it was reported that a newly-formed “Union Unit” in Downing Street had asked to get vials of the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid vaccine labelled with the union flag. The idea apparently had “strong backing” from health secretary Matt Hancock.”
None of this is clever or subtle, or even very well thought through. But it does take us further into new darker territories and it does speak to increasingly desperate and crude propaganda models.
As Nesrine Malik has written:
“There is a lesson in this tale for all of us: the more that a society is preoccupied with its symbols, the more insecure it has become. In the UK, the Conservative government and its court press have seized upon the veneration of national symbols as a consolation for a decade of economic pain and social fracture. We used to visit our historic landmarks; now we must swear allegiance to them. We are not meant to study and scrutinise a figure such as Winston Churchill; he is now an icon who must be protected from blasphemers. Britain’s statues are now symbols of national anxiety: each one a sort of concrete voodoo doll, which if pricked will cause the whole country to bleed. They now enjoy over-the-top police protection, with political bodyguards introducing harsher punishments to protect statues from “baying mobs.
“And then, of course, there is the flag, the latest icon to be invested with a sanctity that demands it be flown longer and larger. The government has decreed that after the summer the flag should fly over official buildings every day rather than 20 days a year. No longer is it just jolly bunting on special occasions. This is the endpoint of a journey that began when Nigel Farage took a small union flag and placed it in front of him at the European parliament. In all its absurdity, that moment comes closest to representing what the flag has come to symbolise today – a false but potent claim of liberation from fictional oppressive forces.”
If much of this feels crudely dystopian it is at least heartening that they think that the Union flag has the resonance and respect they clearly do. That’s beautifully stupid and kind of reassuring.
But if these new configurations represent unknown lands this is not just a game. Today we heard that a bomb was set outside a policewoman’s car in Dungiven in Northern Ireland. The Conservative and Unionists’ reckless and negligent behaviour could lead us into dangerous territory. Where are the dissenting voices that are witnessing our further descent into Undemocracy?