2007 - 2021

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:

 

 

FIVE times I asked @Douglas4Moray to spell out the democratic path to holding #indyref2@Channel4News
pic.twitter.com/LMnEu5zPnr

— 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.”

Shambling Greed

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.

Flag Frenzy

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.”

Every day!

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?

 

Comments (19)

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  1. Bill says:

    And while it all collapses into itself, what concerns Boris? The establishment of a new football competition dedicated to greed. At the advent of Covid he missed a number of COBRA meetings with the consequent delay in action that lead to unnecessary deaths. Within 48 hours of details of the new system emerging he is chairing a meeting to develop a response.

    Will the man who saved our football be forgiven for the deaths? A corrupt, incompetent government indulging in displacement activity while the issue of Covid continues to pose serious threats.

    Bill

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Another convenient smokescreen but surely they will run out of them eventually. When that day comes I’d guess they’ll remove the border in the Irish sea resulting in a break down of the “deal” and a border on the Irish mainland all of which will be blamed on the EU. An IRA mainland blitz will follow and we’ll be faced with an epic glut of flag waving, Dunkirk spirit and Vera Lynn war songs.

      1. William Davison says:

        As a resident of Northern Ireland, I can assure you there will be no I.R.A. blitz in Britain, the latter organization’s political front, Sinn Fein, is in in government in N.I. and aspires to be in government in the Republic, it isn’t going to resurrect the I.R.A.. The attack in Dungiven yesterday on a civilian worker/part-time policewoman was carried out by dissident republicans, who have been carrying out such attacks since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, so it’s nothing new. According to the Belfast Telegraph’s security editor, their leader is in custody and they are virtually moribund. As to the Northern Ireland Protocol/Border in the Irish Sea, a very recent poll has shown that a majority of people in N.I. are opposed to it, a figure which is likely to go up as it is fully implemented and starts to affect issues like the supply of medicines from G.B. to N.I..

        1. Tom Ultuous says:

          William, I’m finding it hard to believe that the British establishment will be allowed to tear up the GFA without reply. I’m not talking about the sort of bombing campaign the PIRA hit the British mainland with in days of old. I’m thinking more an attack on “UK” trade. With the odd strategically placed bomb they’d be able to play the same shell and pea game that brought us the headline “For the price of a few phone calls the IRA have brought the city of London to a standstill”. The odd crater on a port road, with the warning of the same on others, Warnings of bombs on lorries resulting in searches at the ports. Drones over airports. Not many operatives (and I’m not talking real IRA here) would be required to cause this chaos and it would probably result in foreign drivers refusing to pass through “UK” ports. If the loyalists weren’t slaves to the “we want what they don’t” mantra they could’ve joined in to force the “UK” back into the single market. All this lunacy could’ve been avoided had there been an English independence referendum instead of a Brexit one in the first place.

          Would Scotland becoming independent change the situation for the loyalists? If Scotland were to join the single market at the earliest possible opportunity that could mean the “border” in the Irish sea shifting to the border between Scotland and England. Wouldn’t that solve much of the food export problem as much of it originates in Scotland?

  2. Derek says:

    Ross had his arse handed to him on a plate on Today (Radio 4) yesterday, too.

  3. Dave King says:

    On The subject of flags. When will the half mast ones be removed? On the subject of corruption- the UK government have a convenient Football crisis to divert the proletriat.

  4. jim ferguson says:

    Centrism has indeed become ‘the doctrine that every institution should be reorganised according to market norms’ and this has its roots in Hayek and Thatcher. Both New Labour and the SNP have not sufficiently opposed the privatisation of state institutions over decades, and where we are is partly a result of the ‘success’ of the market agenda, which keeps elites happy, but shows our political parties and constitutional arrangements either unwilling or unable to stop the rightward march. Where the SNP has made interventions, (Bridge Tolls, Free Prescriptions, University Fees) these have been popular and successful, they do point the way to a more democratic economy: but in many ways, even in Scotland, the orthodoxy of the market has triumphed, as both a psychic and physical reality. Many people have been arguing for the socialisation of more of the economy and keeping the state under democratic control, but these voices are largely ignored and ridiculed. However, market failure and sleaze may turn this around. Activists within the SNP must pressure their leadership to show stronger independence of thinking when faced with a seemingly all embracing and super-sensible market ideology. It is an ideology which militates against the interests of the majority and rewards the billionaires.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      You’re spot on here, Jim.

      The privatisation of public corporations is part of Hayek’s and Thatcher’s democratisation of the state along Jeffersonian lines, which is the antithesis of socialism. The Jeffersonian revolution of the 1980s failed because it wasn’t sufficiently antagonistic towards the aristocratic elitism of merchants, bankers, and manufacturers, and towards nationalism (the coincidence of the state with ‘imagined’ rather than with ‘real’ communities); that is, it wasn’t sufficiently Jeffersonian.

      In the Jeffersonian scheme of things, free markets are the mechanism through which the general will is manifested; this includes the free market in ideas, which produces ‘truth’ as an expression of that general will. The manipulation of market forces by the aforementioned aristocratic elites to their own enrichment has indeed led to market failure and the consequent impoverishment of the republic generally.

      1. john burrows says:

        Thatcher led the party which represented the aristocratic elite of merchants, bankers and vested interests. It was they that put her in power in the first place. Apparently, you expected her to oppose the same people who gifted her the office.

        You also have a very odd concept of democracy. Thatcher sold off public institutions for a song to the very same aristocratic elites she represented. Brutally suppressing any dissent that stood in her way.

        Institutions which once served the public good were then redesigned to commodify the public that built them. A wreched policy which sundered the people from the sweat of their own labor.

        Perhaps you need to be reminded that Democracy does not exist in private boardrooms. I doubt very much that Jefferson even considered the prospect.

        Her greatest crime though was the destruction of Beveridges legacy. His concept of the abolition of want, which was the foundation of Atlee’s welfare reforms, destroyed the very idea that ‘we are all in it together.’

        She championed the individual good over the general weal of the people of the UK, and at a stroke, destroyed the cohesion of British society forever. The breakup of the British state is simply the inevitable consequence of her deluded rule.

        But, no doubt as an admirer of her, you’ll be telling us next that her poll tax, actually only ever imposed on the Scot’s, was progressive.

        This treatment of the Scottish people, as if they were mice in a maze, for her bizarre social taxation experiment, was the ultimate betrayal of the Union. It is a wound that will never heal and subsequently will never be forgotten, or forgiven.

        This is the root of the Scot’s emnity towards Tory rule today. A fact our English neighbors have never truly grasped and probably may never will.

        The Union was broken over thirty years ago. Today we can all merely be frustrated witnesses to its final dissolution. How else can one view the spectacle of coercion becoming the go to response of adherants of unionism. They have given up entirely on the concept of consent to their rule.

        And that is their ultimate betrayal of what was once a United Kingdom. This is Thatcher’s true legacy to her nation. At some point in time, in the distant future I suspect, even the English will come to revile her name. And justly so.

        1. Pub Bore says:

          No, it was an electorate, hungry for change from the social democratic regime of the post-war consensus, that put Thatcher in power.

          But you’re right; the revolution for which the electorate voted failed because it wasn’t sufficiently antagonistic towards the aristocratic elitism of merchants, bankers, and manufacturers. That’s what I said. The manipulation of market forces by those elites towards their own enrichment leads, as much as nationalisation does, to market failure and the consequent impoverishment of the republic generally.

          That impoverishment, as you say – and the failure of the revolution generally – is Thatcher’s legacy.

    2. Niall Campbell Morrison says:

      Interesting you think the SNP have not done enough considering Scottish Water, Scotrail, Cal Mac, Fergussons, BiFab and Prestwick….

      1. Pub Bore says:

        None of those nationalised companies is exactly a paragon of excellence. What’s the point of Prestwick airport, for example? How does it contribute to the commonwealth? What’s the point of Ferguson’s when CalMac Ferries is grinding to a halt for want of replacement vessels?

  5. florian albert says:

    ‘Now, as Britain collapses in on itself’

    Britain may prove to be a bit more resilient than Bella Caledonia gives it credit for.

    The Guardian gives figures for deaths from Covid19 for the last two weeks. For Britain, the UK, the figure is 6; ie 6 deaths per million inhabitants. The Guardian gives the figure for other European countries.

    HUNGARY 340

    POLAND 187

    ITALY 91

    FRANCE 59

    GERMANY 37

    SWEDEN 25

    SPAIN 25

    UK 6

    This may prove to be more significant than any talk about flags, either from the Conservative government or from Bella Caledonia.

    1. Richard Easson says:

      Of the eight listed, seven are countries.

      1. Pub Bore says:

        Why isn’t the 8th a ‘country’?

        1. Richard Easson says:

          Because it’s a Union as any Tory will tell you. Europe (the EU) is not a country.

          1. Pub Bore says:

            Aye, but the EU is a hybrid union, based on the principles of conferral and subsidiarity, in which sovereignty flows from the bottom up, from its several, mutually dependent member states (or ‘countries’).

            The UK, on the other hand, is the product of an incorporating union, by which act the incorporating states dissolved themselves and reformed as a new unitary state (or ‘country’).

            The two unions are thus not comparable. The EU isn’t a country; it’s an association of mutually dependent unitary states. The UK is its own unitary state, which is just what a ‘country’ is (politically speaking).

            My vision is of a Scotland that politically comprises not its own unitary state, but, rather an association of mutually dependent but autonomous communities of both place and interest, based on the principles of conferral and subsidiarity rather than those of nationalism and centralism.

  6. James Morton says:

    There are large parts of Scotland were the “fleg” is not a welcome sight. It has long been appropriated by bigots and racists. Its a hate sign used by those in the orange order. It’s a hate sign used by the National front and other racist organisations. It’s a feeble sign of impotence in the hands of Farage and his ilk. Its a symbol of failure because of brexit. Its a symbol of incompetence under Johnson. It’s a last ditch act of desperation by unionists, as if it were a magic cloak that, by merely putting on a building will wash away any notions of independence. If I were a unionist. If I thought that the union was worth a shit, I would be seriously pissed off at the “fleg” being used by the above. If the “fleg” was put on buildings or projects paid with money the UK stole from Scotland…I would be afraid of the blowback.

    The simple truth is that “Better Together” was their best case for union. They almost lost. They had to promise us the closest thing to independence and all that did was allow them a narrow victory. It was a victory built of promises long since reneged upon. So no Mr Brown, the vow was not delivered. Once the UK had managed to keep Scotland in its little union, they lost interest in Scotland that very day and decided to have another referendum on Europe. It was as if the UK decided to (and pardon my language here) take a watery shit on Scotland and then wiped their arse with the NO vote.

    Now their big plan is to steal money and powers from Scotland and spend some of it in Scotland and stick a Union Jack on it. The magic cloak of Britishness will make them love Britain again. This would be like a burglar breaking into your home, stealing your stuff and leaving a calling card saying “see you soon”. What a great plan. Take money and powers a majority of Scots did not want you to have. Spend some of it on projects no one wants. Stick a flag on it as a way of saying fuck you Scotland.

    Are unionists really looking to Douglas Ross and the tories being the only defenders of union? The problem there is that their vision of Scotland in union, is a tory vision of union. The tories. A party that 80% of Scots don’t vote for. The same 80%, who Baroness Davidson once said had contributed nothing to the success of glorious union. If I were a unionist and Douglas Ross was my last best hope to remain British, I’d be packing my bags and moving to England right about now.

    Mr. Ross needs to wind his neck in. His mouth is writing cheques his politics can’t cash

    1. Concise and 100% accurate James

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