2007 - 2022

Kafka and Erasure as Unionist Fury Rages

The magnificent irony of swathes of Conservative and Unionist residents refusing to complete their census form which they perceived as being part of the Scottish Government ‘nanny state’, then blaming the Scottish Government for incompetence in the process is something to behold. In doing so many people will have removed themselves from future history. Unionists obliterating themselves from the records does admittedly offer a late Spring glimmer of schadenfreude. But there are other grimmer glimpses of erasure going on elsewhere.

The last week saw a queue forming to erase and obliterate the idea of Scotland, Scottish culture and Scottish democracy. First up John Ferry, a senior Liberal Democrat and Spectator columnist argued on BBC Scotland’s Debate Night that a vote for Scottish independence would be a “defeat for liberal democracy”.

He said: “If the UK were to break apart, if we were to divide this island into two states, it would be the first time in the modern democratic era in fact, since after the Second World War, that any of the world’s established liberal democracies had decided that inclusivity, pluralism, expansive democracy was intolerable,” he told viewers.

“And that would be a real shame. It would be a defeat for liberal democracy, it wouldn’t be a defeat for Britain.”

The SNP MSP Rona Mackay replied saying: “Anyone who denies the mandate to hold an independence referendum cannot seriously call themselves a democrat, the people of Scotland expressed their democratic will less than a year ago to put their future in their hands,” she said.

Democracy as a Defeat for Democracy

Online Ferry doubled-down on the bizarre claims writing: “It would be a defeat for liberal democracy, because precedence in that context is that those living in free countries with equal rights and democratic representation should tolerate pluralism. You can’t be liberated from a liberal democracy.”

It’s a Kafkaesque argument that “You can’t be liberated from a liberal democracy” while suppressing a democratic vote on our future. It’s arguments like these that are so terminally stupid it’s actually difficult to interact with them at all.

But Ferry’s strange intervention was not isolated. As social breakdown unfolds and a sort of flamboyant corruption is revealed daily, the pressure to erase Scotland and Scottish politics intensifies.

Earlier his week, the writer and broadcaster Billy Kay delivered the Scottish Parliament’s “Time for Reflection” message, and addressed the chamber in Scots. It was a short (four minute) long speech that was completely apolitical. The response was a torrent of abuse and cringe from a sizeable section of Scotland’s community who find any expression of Scottish culture intolerable and a source of shame.

If Ferry’s intervention smacked of a new Hallucinogenic Unionism marked by doublespeak and delusion, the online troll army that attacked Billy Kay were exhibiting extraordinary levels of cultural self-hatred and inferiorism. Both are marked by extreme insecurity. What is it that makes these communities so ill-at-ease?

In the same week we saw Rory Stewart with a different form of erasure, telling us that it is ‘Insane’ to think of Borders and Cumbria as existing in different countries. The former security officer described Scottish nationalism as ‘psychologically dangerous’. Despite being extremely well-travelled (at the expense of the British state) Stewart seemed completely ignorant that two nations could sit side by side and have many common cultural traits and shared language. But Stewarts input is part of a pattern of attack which essentially says: you do not exist. Any mark of distinction or even the mildest expression of cultural autonomy is completely intolerable. The odd thing about this constant state of paranoia is how – in real life – most linguistic and cultural differences are completely apolitical and un-threatening.

But the week wasn’t complete yet. Much to the delight of the Daily Express Baron Foulkes of Cumnock “won the support of Tory rivals including Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and former Trade Secretary Liam Fox” for a bill which would, they said “stop Indyref2 forever.”

The Express frothed: “Scottish Labour peer George Foulkes has announced plans for a bill which would allow the Treasury to veto any Holyrood plans to spend money on reserved areas, including foreign affairs, defence and the constitution. If it is passed, Ms Sturgeon would be forced to scrap a team of civil servants working on plans to break up the United Kingdom at the expense of taxpayers.”

Reform Unionism

There was more.

Over at the Spectator (again) Stephen Daisley was extending Foulkes efforts (‘This is how to save the Union‘). After first lambasting David Cameron, Donald Dewar and Tony Blair as the three harbingers of the vile separatism we endure in Scotland Daisley then goes on to outline the problems of Muscular Unionism, or the “devocrats”, who “deny the problem, or say the answer is more devolution or federalism”. Instead, like Foulkes he advocates ‘Reform Unionism’ which is truly an extraordinary proposal, or possibly not, nothing is after all ‘extraordinary’ any more, is it?

He explains: “There is an alternative to trying to uninvent the juggernaut or floor the accelerator: reform Unionism. Reform Unionism recognises the harm devolution has done and seeks to balance the democratic mandate for a Scottish parliament with the need to correct the flaws, errors and omissions of the current settlement that threaten to undermine the United Kingdom.

The most comprehensive remedy would be a new Act of Union. This could take the form proposed by Professor Adam Tomkins: legislate for a Union of law, prescribe the circumstances in which constitutional referendums may be held, and require governments and public bodies ‘to act with fidelity towards — and not to undermine — the territorial integrity of the country’. Alternatively, there is my far less learned suggestion: legislate to recalibrate the balance of powers between Holyrood and Westminster, prohibit the use of taxpayers’ money or parliamentary resources on reserved matters, and define the UK as a unitary state where all sovereignty resides with the Crown-in-Parliament.

Others argue for a Clarity Act, modelled on the Canadian government’s response to Quebec secessionism, which gives the House of Commons the power to deny a secession referendum — and even to refuse post facto recognition of an affirmative vote — if MPs deem the question (or the size of majority that voted for it) insufficiently ‘clear’. A UK Clarity Act could set out the necessary conditions for a referendum, the franchise, the final arbiter of the question, and any requirements for a supermajority.”

If the forms of erasure that we have seen colliding in a sort of spasm of unionist paranoia this week make little sense, this at least does. It is the explicit repression of democracy being suggested and basically, the imposition of permanent colonial rule. I don’t say this lightly and frequently hold people up for using the ‘C’ word too freely.

A Long Island

Of course none of these people are serious credible actors. None of them are people who will ever see office. But in the world we inhabit you don’t need to be a serious credible or even rational person to have great influence, and many of those who control and steer our lives operate from behind the curtain of public life. These attacks and attempts at erasure should be taken seriously, even if they are ridiculous.

As British democracy falters and the social contract collapses with little more than a shrug, the need to impose Britain as one unified nation intensifies. If this requires the re-writing of history and the repression of both cultural expression and democratic forums, then so be it. The attempts to subjugate or ridicule language run parallel to the attempts to legislate to repress democracy. There is nothing ‘ inclusive, plural, expansive’ about any of this.

This desperate need for Unity reaches its peak with the sort of misty-eyed terrible history spouted by Neil Oliver who last week explained:

“It is all one place to me, united and made whole by a history that is deep beyond the reach of memory.”

He goes on:

“Long before there was an England, or a Scotland, or a Wales there was a long island called Britain, or at least a name that sounded a lot like Britain.”

It’s all a bit Reichean but with a swirl of Arthurian gibberish thrown in for good measure.

Post-Brexit Britain / Global Britain is ridiculed for its relentless war memes and its obsession with tropes of former glory. Oliver and his cohorts take this further demanding an ancient mystical realm that demands our fealty. It seems like a long time since anyone actually bothered to promote the idea of the Union with a rational forward-looking vision of what that might be.

Comments (26)

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  1. Willie Lawrie says:

    “As British democracy falters ” – whit?
    Could someone define ‘British Democracy”?

    1. I mean the further erosure of its own status under the weight of relentless exposure of corruption and dysfunctionality and the slew of repressive legislation this government is enacting?

    2. 220501 says:

      ‘British democracy’ comprises the various processes by which we make decisions that affect everyone who falls under the jurisdiction of the UK. These processes work through a system of representation that elects people to question the decision-makers whom the executive appoints and to hold those ministers and civil servants to subsequent account for the decisions they make.

      This is exactly the same kind of democracy that we’d have in an independent Scotland, which isn’t nearly good enough. We should be holding out for something better than the régime that the Scottish government is currently preparing in advance of its independence. Why we should believe that it will be less open to corruption, less dysfunctional, and more prone to making the ‘right’ decisions just because it bears the ‘Scottish’ rather than ‘British’ brand is beyond me. The idea that it will smacks of Scottish exceptionalism.

      1. Cynicus says:

        “Why we should believe that it will be less open to corruption, less dysfunctional, and more prone to making the ‘right’ decisions just because it bears the ‘Scottish’ ….?”
        =======
        We shouldn’t.

        In fact, on EVERY one of your criteria the evidence, regrettably, is that things would be worse.

        The Commons, whatever its myriad faults is a real Parliament that holds the executive to account. There, in recent weeks, Members of the governing party have called for the resignation of the prime minister (and will probably do for him within a matter of weeks and months).

        In Westminster, committee members frequently give government ministers of their own party a roasting. When do we see that in Holyrood? Compare the laughable Fabiani inquiry, which divided on party lines, with almost any Westminster select committee.

        Add to that the small matter of a separation of powers, however imperfect, compared with the farrago we endure here and you might be loath to pull your punches next time!

        1. 220501 says:

          ‘In fact, on EVERY one of your criteria the evidence, regrettably, is that things would be worse.’

          Well, we don’t and can’t know that. Things could be better or they could be worse or they could be neither better nor worse. That’s the problem; the cheque that the Scottish government is asking us to sign in its referendums is as blank as the cheques the independentistas wrote for Natalie McGarry.

          Rather than acquiescing in the blind faith that things will get better (or, at least, will have a greater chance of getting better) when the Scottish government becomes independent, we should be holding the Scottish government’s feet to the fire. We should be making it a condition of our support for its independence that the real, structural constitution of a post-independence Scotland (the matrix of official and social relations within which power will actually be exercised in our society, the institutional infrastructure of which the Scottish government’s been building over the past 15 years, at huge expense, in preparation for independence), and not just its formal paper constitution (which the Scottish government may or may not let us have a greater or lesser hand in writing – we don’t even know what the arrangements for this will be), will be much more conducive to the liberal and democratic governance of our public affairs than the real, structural constitution we have at present.

          If we leave it until after the Scottish government has its independence, it will be too late. The demos will have lost the strong bargaining position it currently holds.

          1. Cynicus says:

            “Well, we don’t and can’t know that. “
            =====
            You repudiate a claim I never made. I didn’t claim we could KNOW that; merely that the evidence pointed to such outcomes.

            I see nothing else with which to disagree on your otherwise excellent post.

          2. florian albert says:

            ‘the institutional infrastructure of which the Scottish government has been building over the past 15 years, at huge expense’

            This sounds ominously like the Scottish government’s attempts to get two ferries built at the Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow.

            ‘The demos will have lost the strong bargaining power it currently holds’.

            Instead of thinking about the ‘demos’, think about voters. Very few of them view politics though that particular prism.

          3. 220505 says:

            Indeed, florian. And nothing will change while the Scottish government restricts our participation in public decision-making to merely voting for one’s preferring brand. We’ll still be subjects rather citizens. Naw change there!

      2. Simon Taylor says:

        ” These processes work through a system of representation that elects people to question the decision-makers whom the executive appoints and to hold those ministers and civil servants to subsequent account for the decisions they make. ”
        You’re having a laugh right ?
        On at least 2 occasions and probably more over the last 2 1/2 years the Prime Minister of the UK has been found to lie to Parliament. He has broken the law. His executive is corrupt. Yet he / they are still in post. There is no written constitution and the method of electing a government in the UK relies on the antiquated first past the Post, a system which is not reflective of the public voting. We have an unelected head of state who is in her 90s and probably not fully cognitive. To have an 80 seat majority with 40% of the vote is not democratic. The only people who can change the executive are Conservative MPs and the 100,000 members of the Conservative party. This is not democracy. Its not even close.

        1. 220504 says:

          You make my point for me, Simon. ‘British democracy’ is corruptable and dysfunctional. I’m only adding that it will be no less corruptable and dysfunctional for being ‘Scottish’.

      3. Willie Lawrie says:

        “elects people to question the decision-makers” – is that like the House of Lords and the Monarchy?
        The bastions of democracy – aye, right!
        Hopefully in an independent Scotland there will be no unelected sods overseeing the democratically elected MPs.
        If there must be a second chamber then they too should be democratically elected.

        1. 220504 says:

          No, it’s the Crown and its functionaries that we elect representatives to oversee. (But, as Simon will tell you, the process by which we do so is corruptible and dysfunctional. It’s not democratic enough.)

  2. 220501 says:

    If an independent Scotland remained a liberal democracy, Scotland wouldn’t be leaving a liberal democracy.

    The salient question is whether or not public life in Scotland would be any more liberal (unregulated and pluralistic) and public decision-making any more democratic (an expression of the general will rather than that of either a majority or a minority will) than it currently is were its national government independent of the UK government. If it wouldn’t be, why is it worth having?

    1. Cathie Lloyd says:

      I would contest the notion that the uK is a liberal democracy particularly in the light of recent legislation affecting the right to vote, citizenship and the rights of asylum seekers.

      1. 220501 says:

        So would I. But there’s little evidence that an independent Scotland would be either. The institutional structures that the Scottish government has been developing over the past 15 years in preparation for its becoming independent of UK government are no more liberal or democratic than those we currently have. The status quo will remain more or less intact and the transition from one state to the other will be seamless.

        1. BSA says:

          You have come to the same triumphant hypothetical conclusion at the end of each of your three posts but still no explanation of why Scotland could not live up to your vague democratic aspirations. What are the SNPs sinister plans and why would they survive the shock of independence ?

          1. 220501 says:

            Scotland could well become more liberal and democratic in the governance of its public affairs, but this would require other than bureaucratic structures and processes that the Scottish government has been developing over the past 15 years to ready itself for independence and through which power will be held and exercised post-independence. There’s no ‘sinister plan’, just a pragmatic programme of nation-building that will leave more or less intact the established matrix of official and social relations within which power is currently exercised in Scotland.

    2. Niemand says:

      This may be true and I do not trust the current Scottish government much at all – just a look at the recent changes the SNP to their own internal democracy is enough to reveal how much they are actually pretty disdainful of democracy. For years the SNP have come across as a very controlling party and Sturgeon more and more like a fairly benign pseudo-dictator.

      Having said that, this is a very different argument to the one for independence itself and not a strong rationale alone for rejecting it, since the chances of changing British democracy for the better are far less than improving democracy in an independent Scotland. The logic is very basic.

      1. 220501 says:

        I don’t see why ‘the chances of changing British democracy for the better are far less than improving democracy in an independent Scotland’. The forces of progress in relation to this in Scotland are no stronger vis-à-vis the Scottish establishment than they are in Britain overall vis-à-vis the UK establishment. I don’t see how having our own wee Whitehall in Edinburgh (which is what an independent Scottish government will amount to, given the institutional groundwork that the Scottish government’s been preparing over the past 15 years) will make Scottish society any more liberal and public decision-making in Scotland any more democratic than they are at present.

        I know that this isn’t an argument against making the Scottish government independent of the UK. But it is an argument for the proposition that independence by itself isn’t enough and that our support for independence needs to be made conditional ‘up front’ on real constitutional change.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    British imperial history is full of divide and rule, and has its fair share of partitions, so a historical attachment to unions (political or trade) is difficult to discern. After all, the British response to the Soviet Union was to attack it. As for a British imperial love of liberty and democracy, that seems entirely lacking in the ruling classes who fought the encroachments of these tooth and nail for centuries. ‘Democracy’ was a dirty word for Tories. Liberty was only to be the preserve of the elite few, perhaps indicated by John Stewart ‘On Liberty’ Mill, MP for City for Westminster, who worked as a colonial adminstrator for the East India Company for some 35 years. And in neocolonial times, the former colonial powers behind the partition of Africa fought clandestinely to prevent African unionists achieving their goals. And the UK opposed the reunification of Taiwan with China, blocked at the time by the US Navy. If Taiwan gets to leave China, why not let Scotland leave UK? Why was the reunification of Germany so long opposed?

    If the British Empire is really such a pillar of liberal democracy, why does the UK get annually censured by the United Nations General Assembly for being top of a very small table of colonial masters: https://www.un.org/dppa/decolonization/en/nsgt
    Perhaps Bella could mark International Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories this year in some way, 25 to 31 May apparently.

    And perhaps there are better alternatives to liberal democracy, whatever that means in practice, since it is eating the Earth.

    I think in terms of British political history, ‘unionism’ and ‘liberal democracy’ are somewhat like ‘free trade’. Not really principles, so much as sometimes-useful high-sounding ideas that are occasionally convenient for specific policies at specific times or for comparisons with foreigners, but can be as conveniently dropped, ignored or opposed when the dictates of imperial power politics indicate. After all, it would not do to let just anybody and everybody choose which unions they want to belong to.

  4. Joe Killman says:

    Thought provoking article. Separation is necessary. We make our own decisions. Got to be better than anything coming out of Westminster.

  5. Niemand says:

    ‘It seems like a long time since anyone actually bothered to promote the idea of the Union with a rational forward-looking vision of what that might be.’

    This is very fair comment and something Unionists should take note of, ha ha.

    It reminds me a bit of the Brexit vote where my dismay at the remain side (‘my’ side) grew as they similarly failed to promote the idea of the EU with any forward-looking vision. The difference was though, instead dwelling in the realm of fantasy they instead simply suggested we were probably, mostly better in than out, so no vision at all, fantastical or otherwise. Of course this is also a Unionist approach of a different sort – the Union as default position which it is too difficult to leave. But the idea of the Union as something you actively want to be part of because it offers something rational, tangible and meaningful for the future for all its inhabitants, is noticeably absent.

    Oliver is not entirely wrong about an ancient land called something like Britain and maybe that might appeal to a few, but appealing to ancient history is not relevant to today’s Union (tbf some Nationalists take a similar approach like mystically invoking The Treaty of Arbroath or similar more times in a day than most people would do in a lifetime, if ever).

  6. Robert Logan says:

    Democracy in the UK is dead.

    Imagine the EU had said ‘No – ytou cannot have a referendum’ – or – ‘No, that vote was dodgy’

    The imbecilic Englanders would have been rioting on the streets, desperate for more poverty, more queues of lorries, and higher prices on everything, while businesses go bust …

    England – where democracy died.

  7. Cath Jones says:

    I would say that any aspirations towards liberal democracy and indeed further liberal democracy sure as hell won’t be satisfied within the union as it is in fact going backwards on that front. The U.K. official opposition presents nothing to offer Scotland either that will satisfy our ambitions to “do things differently”. Scottish Independence is literally the only catalyst for change on the table. It may not work out but I’m taking the only chance in town. It’s been made abundantly clear nothing progressive is ever going to be allowed to happen for the majority in the U.K.

    As in all states we need to be alive to the threat of capture by all of the usual forces of capital and political power, that means thorough accountability and transparency of politicians to the population as a whole and a robust written constitution.

    We should be expecting the usual media circus designed to shake our confidence in change, but if it is change we crave that requires sustained effort.

    1. 220505 says:

      But what will change materially when the Scottish government becomes independent? Will it be a change for the better? How do we make sure that it is?

      How about crowdsourcing a constitution, like the Icelanders did, and making our support of the Scottish government’s independence conditional on enacting that constitution?

  8. John S Warren says:

    On Mr Oliver’s sentimental thought that “It is all one place to me, united and made whole by a history that is deep beyond the reach of memory.” Beyond the Romanticism, the long history is otherwise. The Geological Society website neatly summarised the position, which I quote here because I am not a geologist but think the history is worth framing:

    “520 million years ago, much of the Earth’s continental landmass existed as two large continents, Gondwana and Laurentia, separated by 7,000 km of ocean. What is now the UK was separated between them – the north of Scotland on Laurentia, and the rest on Gondwana. The two were joined during the Caledonian Orogeny.
    During the Caledonian Orogeny several mini-continents (including Avalonia and Baltica) that had broken off from Gondwana were joined to Laurentia by tectonic plate movement, forming a new landmass. It was a long process, taking about 150 million years, and occured mainly between the late Cambrian (490 million years ago) and mid Devonian (390 million years ago).
    The main ocean between the colliding plates, the Iapetus Ocean, was subducted. During the Cambrian, it was subducted to the north, beneath Scotland, and to the south, beneath Anglesey and North Wales. During the Ordovician, it was subducted beneath the Lake District.”

    The area of Scotland that has a quite different origin covers broadly the north-west coast, north Highlands and Grampian Highlands of Scotland. The geology, fossil record and even the flora and fauna are notably distinct from much of the remaining British isles.

    Reality is almost invariably stranger than fiction.

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