Opinion

2007 - 2022

Powerless on Total Drama Island

The enervating spectacle that has been going on for about six months bloomed into full-farce yesterday. The Johnson debacle displayed all of the pure elements of a broken Britain: rolling broadcast media coverage dissecting everything but saying nothing; an inert and lifeless opposition mouthing in desperation in the background; a constitution that creates no checks and balances on unhinged and out-of-control politicians, while all the while a very old lady sits in a palace. Mandatory impotence is the only way to describe the condition of 21C British politics. No-one can do anything about anything so we all just watch in bored amazement.

Ever since Allegra Stratton (wife of James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator) blubbed on telly and unleashed the horrors of #Partygate we’ve been in a daily news cycle of daily meltdown, with a flood of allegations and a torrent of hilarious/grotesque abuses of power from minor indiscretions and micro aggressions to large-scale examples of corruption and thievery. Every day a new scandal would be uncovered, denied then subsequently admitted and apologised for until it became entirely routine.

The ever-presents cast of thousands are paraded before us like a circus: Big Dog, Nadine, Steve Bray, Carrie, Femi, Priti, Michael Fabricant, James O’ Brien, Angela Rayner, Cold War Steve, Alexander Lebedev, Suella Braverman … occasionally Farage patrolling the English Channel like Captain Birdseye gone a bit fash.

So there’s a spectacle to all this that offsets the fundamental reality that we are all powerless. There seems to be no way to remove from office someone blatantly unfit to occupy it. Even when he is forced by his colleagues he still doesn’t actually leave, instead he starts appointing a  new Cabinet going further down and down the rungs of incompetence from a party already gutted for what passed for talent. The opposition are (seemingly) powerless to do anything even in the face of a rolling constitutional crisis playing out before them. There are no constitutional checks and balances, no impeachment process, no mechanisms for censure at all. It just goes on and on an on.

This sense of powerlessness pervades British society. It’s this emptiness and passiveness that defines being Subjects. It’s probably the reason why Take Back Control had such resonance.

Nobody’s Leaving

We’re familiar with the Scottish end of it. There’s no way for Scotland to elect a UK government. Even when there are 45 out of the 59 MPS elected support independence it makes no difference whatsoever. Now we are told that Labour will block an independence referendum even if the SNP wins more than 50 per cent of the popular vote at the next general election, Sir Keir Starmer has pledged. And, according to Ciaran Martin (Professor of Practice in the Management of Public Organisations at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford):

“The tactical heart of Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal is to refer her own referendum bill to the Supreme Court. But even a win following a referendum bill, however unlikely, doesn’t mean a referendum that would deliver independence. Westminster could change the law and make a vote unlawful. Or it could refuse to act on the result in advance, bolstered by a unionist boycott. The Supreme Court can choose to rule Holyrood’s referendum bill lawful, but it can’t require the United Kingdom Government to dissolve the British state.”

He goes on:

“The First Minister’s Plan B can similarly be blocked off. There is no result at the next general election, however impressive, that can compel London to begin independence negotiations…”

Martin’s analysis is devastating if true, and I’m not sure everyone has woken up to the realities and the consequences. He writes:

“What it will in effect rule, though the wording will be crucial, is that – in law – Scotland is not really a nation, and certainly doesn’t have the legal right to secede from the United Kingdom. Scotland is part of a unitary state, not a voluntary union that one party can leave.”

“The critical constitutional fact is that for now, even though the principle of Scotland’s right to self-determination is accepted rhetorically, there is no longer any lawful, democratic way for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.”

What he’s saying is that the Union – the Precious Union – isn’t a Union at all. This is bad. But it might be good.

It will be interesting to see what all elements of Scottish and British politics make of this and how they respond. The attempt to defend a broken and hopelessly undemocratic Union is one thing but the idea that you are effectively permanently captured is another.

Is it possible that Sturgeon might do that most un-Scottish thing and seize victory from the jaws of defeat, by being effectively beaten?

Bullish Delusion

As we watch this hellscape unfold its worth focusing on the fact that’s its this country we’re tethered to. This really is it. If Johnson’s regime was born from chaos, the strange potent mixture that was the Brexit campaign, it is also something that is now settled. Labour have decided unequivocally to leave Brexit alone. Whatever happens, however socially, culturally or economically destructive Brexit proves to be, it will be protected.

So two really clear things emerged in the last week, aside from the Johnson sideshow. First, Being part of Britain means being out of Europe forever. Second, “there is no longer any lawful, democratic way for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.”

‘Bullish to the point of delusion’ was how one person described Johnson, the figure we have all been amazed and mesmerised by. But like the ‘cast of thousands’ the concentration on the personal individual is a deception. The media circus of these strange individuals allows us to divert our gaze from the systemic problems that British society and British politics suffers from.

After all this – after half a year and more of continual drama – after all of the blatant corruption, the suitcases of booze (and cash), the endless lies and distortion – the dozens of cases of sexual assault – after all this?

Nothing.

The brighter among you will have noticed that Boris Johnson didn’t actually resign at all.

It’s ten days before Westminster shuts down for the summer. Nobody can recall Parliament except the Prime Minister. Nobody can call the Prime Minister to account for nearly three months. We’ll probably all have forgotten about all of this by then.

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Comments (45)

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  1. Helen Burns says:

    Better Together, eh? It worked out really well.

  2. Graeme mcCormick says:

    All so true; we will have to take Independence and as we need to take the people with us we have to have control of our public finances before we make the break so that people have money in their pockets. Enter AGFRR to provide a Universal Citizens Income

    1. MacGilleRuadh says:

      I agree Graeme, only by successfully implementing radical policy will the 48-50% indy support level reach 60%+. The awkward truth is that the Ciaran Martin view and that of the established unionists can hold in its intransigence is because support for indy is pegged at about 50% or just below. Were it to be 65% or so over a sustained period and were it obvious that the Scots (however defined) were clamouring for indy then I don’t think the unionist intransigence would be maintained. We have to face the fact that about 50% of Scots are content-ish with this shitshow. That is unpalatable but is the one and only point upon which the Starmer/Johnson democracy denial platform rests. It’s no good whining about Westminster all the time, positive action (of the type Graeme advocates) has to be implemented first.

  3. Squigglypen says:

    Gee thanks for cheering us all up Mr Small.
    I’ve said it once if I’ve said it a hunner times..UDI.(that’s 101)
    The sassenachs lie..break the rules ..undermine our country..lie again…. etc.etc… why can’t we?
    Yeah I know Nicola you want to be legal..why?….there comes a point when you have to protect our country
    from these creatures….they’ll just laugh at you…puir wee honest daft Scots..hoho!
    When they are on their arses…grab the initiative Nicola….. Now is the time Cato!
    Hands up those who voted NO to freedom for Scotland and preferred to remain in this toxic union…you betrayed your country..go and throw yourself in the Clyde.

    1. Alastair McIer says:

      That is precisely the sort of antagonistic rhetoric that threatens to lose us the coming referendum. No one will ever be persuaded to our side by being called a “traitor”. Please stop.

      1. 220708 says:

        But Squiggly isn’t interested in winning a referendum; the splenetic nature of her posts makes clear that what she’s after is revenge.

        1. Derek Thomson says:

          No, the splenetic nature of her posts makes clear that she’s very angry, and little wonder. So am I, increasingly so, with every “won’t allow” fanning the flames to a point where you wonder where it may all end.

          1. 220712 says:

            Well, whether its vengeful or angry, her antagonistic rhetoric is hardly calculated to win others to the cause.

  4. CW says:

    With or without legal approval, the only way independence will be both won and worth winning is with a mass, grass-roots and radical popular movement taking appropriate civil action if necessary.

  5. Adrian Roper says:

    This is good. Although the reference to devolution towards the end is unfortunate.
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKRejoinTheEU/permalink/1183817395521222/?fs=e&s=cl

  6. Niemand says:

    Out of interest, what is the mechanism for removing an FM with a big majority from Holyrood who doesn’t want to go?

    1. Dave Millar says:

      Are you seriously proposing that there is some equivalence between Sturgeon and The Convict?

      1. Niemand says:

        Not at all it was a genuine question due to Mike pointing out how hard it is to remove a PM who won’t budge and a set of MPs who won’t vote him/her out in sufficient numbers as happened a few weeks ago in a confidence vote (the only official mechanism that I know of). It wasn’t a reference specifically to NS. I kind of assume there are better mechanisms at Holyrood, but are there? I would be surprised if the opposition at Holyrood had any more power but I could be wrong.

    2. 220707 says:

      According to the 1998 Scotland Act, which is in effect our current constitution, the first minister, once appointed, continues in office as the head of the Scottish government until they resign, are dismissed by the Crown (who’s first minister they are), or dies in office. Resignation can only be forced in the Scottish parliament by the passage of a Motion of No Confidence in the first minister or the Scottish Government or by rejecting a Motion of Confidence. In either of those situations, the first minister must tender their resignation and the resignation of their government to the Crown. And in such circumstances, the presiding officer would appoint an interim first minister until the Scottish Parliament could choose a new nominee to be presented to the Sovereign for formal appointment.

      1. Niemand says:

        Ok thanks. I think I am right in saying that a motion of no confidence can be brought forward by any party at Westminster in the PM, or government, but this means little if the governing party has a big majority and votes it down. I am hearing Labour are going to bring a vote of no confidence on Johnson again in the hope the Tories will vote with them. But what happened a few weeks ago was not this but Johnson’s own party trying to get rid of him. That is by internal party rules which I assume the SNP will have also. There is of course no equivalence of the FM being dismissed by the Crown. What I am not therefore seeing is that much difference. Tbf it wouldn’t be right if an opposition had great power to get rid of a PM or FM as it would be profoundly undemocratic.

        1. 220708 says:

          But, ultimately, the only way we, the electorate, can oust a sitting prime/first minister is by removing the majority s/he can command among the members of the parliament in which s/he sits on behalf of the crown. In neither Scotland nor the UK can we directly elect/unelect out head of government, any more than we can elect/unelect (directly or indirectly) the ‘crown’ or head of state that appoints her/him.

        2. Me Bungo Pony says:

          However, the electoral system for Holyrood precludes the gaining of a large majority. So it is all a bit moot.

          1. 220708 says:

            Good point! This does make the crown’s first minister more vulnerable to a vote of no confidence in the Scottish parliament and require her/him to curry more cross-party support for her/his premiership. This is an important check on the ability of individual parties to capture power.

          2. Niemand says:

            Indeed, excellent point.

  7. gavinochiltree says:

    Boris has kicked the can down the road for three months.
    In that time anything can happen while the economy stagnates and standards of living plummet.
    Civil strife; war; economic collapse; death of an ancient Queen—-some of which “might” necessitate suspension of normal governance—-obviously Boris will be in place to save us from whatever “catastrophe” gets manufactured.

    One scenario.
    Another one is where Boris stuffs his pockets (and his pals) with taxpayer loot.

    1. Tom Uktuous says:

      Spot on Gavin. Cameron gambled his country for the sake of a commons majority. Thatcher went to war and killed 907 people to save her career. The clown though is off the scale. He’d gladly start WW3 and risk the end of mankind to save his. At the very least he may try to necessitate a border on Ireland to trigger an IRA mainland blitz. We’ll then have the Daily Mail telling us how we need a “strong wartime leader”. If they don’t get rid of him now then it’s far from over.

      Incidentally, with Starmer tiptoeing around the fascist vote and the gutter press on the EU I can see the Tories eventually getting back in as the party of re-join while Starmer looks on like old Dan Tucker.

  8. Neil MacGillivray says:

    At the pseudo resignation speech it was noticeable that the Minister closest to Mrs Johnson was none other than the Alister Reid.

    They two other secretaries of state, NI and Wales, both resigned from the Cabinet but not our so called secretary of state. Says a lot about him – and none of it good.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    This marks the failure of the Tory project, in that their party is supposed to promote a Great Man (Occasionally Woman) with appropriate leadership credentials to the highest office a subject of the monarch can reach. They really had everything going for them to do so, including a supportive corporate media and almost certainly the royalist and secret state organs, a large intake of MPs to choose from, and a system of elitist education they champion and protect that schooled most of them. Yet it produced someone who in general foresight was completely unfit for public office.

    But it also marks the failure of the British imperial system of politics, which is supposed to produce a credible opposition and alternate government. The article is spot on about the appalling inadequacies of the British quasi-Constitution.

    It should be clear that the political system is broken beyond repair, contagiously corrupt, and grossly unfit to provide governance for the 21st century with all its pressing and sometimes novel, and yet-unknown challenges, in an accelerating, fragile and damaged world. It needs to be rebuilt from first principles. If the current UK political class refuse to acknowledge this, that alone would be grounds for a constitutional breakaway from the UK, on the same principle that a commanding officer need/must not be obeyed if they are insane and/or issue illegal orders. Apparently the Met has gone into special measures. How long before Westminster follows?

  10. Billy Lennox says:

    It should not come as any surprise that there is no law defining the legal process for independence. Countries tend not to have standing legislation that describes how they would break up. They tend to become independent by international recognition (often with UN coordination). Such recognition usually depends on convention having been followed (e.g. accepted “peoples” or geographic entity, non use of force, demonstrated will of the people). The route to Scottish independence is available by use of these conventions. Any Westminster complaints of not playing by their rules are irrelevant. This article’s tone of resignation that Scotland is stuck and impotent is wrong, we can do whatever we want. Convincing enough people to support indy remains the priority, not fretting over process.

    1. 220708 says:

      ‘Countries tend not to have standing legislation that describes how they would break up.’

      That’s perhaps the major flaw in our Treaty of Union; unlike the treaties that constitute the European Union, it contains no provision for its review, let alone for its revocation.

      1. Niemand says:

        True though worth noting there was also no clause/article about leaving the EU till about 2000. I believe it was introduced after an anti-EU British MEP got it inserted. So it is relatively new in the lifetime of EU, I suppose because no-one thought anyone would want to leave.

  11. Jim Wands says:

    Why then the need for a Conservative and Unionist party or is that also a delusion.

    1. 220708 says:

      It’s needed for exactly the same reason that any other political party is needed: to represent the communities of interest it represents in our parliaments.

  12. MBC says:

    There isn’t a legal way to escape most decolonisations. You just have to keep building the movement and building the political pressure until they yield.

    All decolonisations end with a treaty and a negotiated transition to power.

    It’s what it takes to get them to the negotiating table that’s the hard slog.

    That was the tragedy and farce of 2014. It was handed to us on a plate. But the Scottish electorate bottled it.

    OK, many were gaslighted, others were conned.

    But the hard fact is that we bottled it, it was there for the taking and that’s the tragedy.

    Now we have to do it the Really Hard Painful Long Way.

    1. Thanks MBC -I think you are right.

  13. Blair says:

    As pointed out by other commentators, countries on the whole do not come into being via referenda and if support for independence reached critical mass “we” (meaning the imaginary community of supporters) would by pass the legal rigmarole of a constitutional set-up that is designed by and altered by “our” adversaries at will with the express purpose of tripping “us” up. This strategy can be infinitely successful at taking the steam out of the independence movement so long as support hovers around 50% . On that basis I would argue that we are beholden to pollsters and media (the latter patently working to establishment-set agendas, the former recently exposed to be on the same track for anyone paying attention re: Yougov admissions about suppressing Labour’s polling numbers at a critical point in the 2017 election) than we are beholden to the brute power of British lawfare, which I suspect would bend and break if pressed against by an engaged cross-community of the public, emboldened by the belief that a solid majority of their would-be countrymen agree.

    1. 220709 says:

      Ah, but an ‘engaged cross-community of the public’, is precisely what the movement for independence lacks. All it has is a loose coalition of diverse wishful thinkers who each imagine that independent government would give them more power in the pursuit of their social hopes. I remain to be convinced that voting ‘Yes’ to having our own wee Westminster in Edinburgh will bring us independent government, government that’s not still in thrall to the existing establishment/power relations in our society.

      We need to be demanding more of Scottish government in return for voting ‘Yes’.

      1. Adrian Roper says:

        Here’s a suggestion.
        Anyone who wants Scotland (or in my case, Wales) to be an independent country should adopt a four point plan of action:
        1. Love your neighbour – show people that your beliefs are grounded in compassion.
        2. Connect with your community – show people that your beliefs are grounded in collective wellbeing.
        3. Support a political party – show people that your beliefs are grounded in democracy.
        4. Ready yourself for a patriotic death – no need to show this to people unless or until necessary.

        Hopefully step 4 will not need to be fulfilled, but most liberation movements are underpinned by patriotic deaths. Ireland is the most relevant example. Pierce’s call for recognition through blood (much though we might regret the truth of it), when fulfilled by the British state, created an “engaged cross-community of the public” in support of Irish independence.

        Is it all worth the trouble?
        How important is Scotland (or Wales)?

        Or Ukraine?

        1. 220709 says:

          A war of independence… Pass the face-paint!

          1. Adrian Roper says:

            I wasn’t recommending a war of independence. I was pointing out that a) independence movements have usually involved people being killed and b) these deaths have usually galvanised popular support where before there was little. Ireland being a case in point. The Irish nationalists didn’t win a war of independence. They won the support of the majority of Irish people.
            I’d also note that many ordinary Scottish and Welsh people are ready to die for “Queen and country” as members of the British Army. Sometimes they wear face-paint.
            Is it OK to be Bravehearts for Britain but not for Scotland or Wales or England?

            Or the planet?

          2. 220710 says:

            No, it’s not okay. It’s universally stupid.

        2. Niemand says:

          How would you show people you are readying yourself for your death exactly? Make a will and post it on the internet with an explanatory note? Stand in the street with a gun labelled ‘British State’ pointing at your head? I am sure this would have people flocking to the cause, though it *might* come across as a bit hollow given there is zero threat of actual deadly political violence from the British state towards Welsh and Scottish citizens. But I have solution to that – foment some with violence of your own.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, yes indeed. I think Boris Johnson said something about dying in a ditch for some cause. Not perhaps the best role model. I cannot really see him making the choice of Achilles. Alternatively, live humbly for a cause, perhaps? Sure, in the UK, even taking part in peaceful political protests, or in some places walking down the street whilst black, risks violent state retribution. Still, I expect government neglect, malice, corruption and incompetence have killed more people recently. They don’t have to be martyrs for their deaths to be taken seriously and weighed politically.

          2. Adrian Roper says:

            Hi Niemand, I specifically didn’t suggest telling people one was readying oneself for a patriotic death. At least I can be excused of that stupidity! Floating the whole idea of patriotic death was perhaps stupid though. I’d been reflecting on the Irish experience. The support for independence in 1915 was not compelling. The executions of the rebels generated overwhelming public support within the space of a year. Meanwhile, support for independence in Scotland is stuck at the stalemate level (and lower in Wales). I note also that Norway only became independent from Sweden after months of tension and the threat of war. Thankfully nobody died on that occasion but some Norwegians had been preparing for it. Maybe the preparedness is enough. Maybe I’m stuck in a stupid headspace. Here’s hoping for peaceful alternatives.

          3. Niemand says:

            Fair do’s Adrian. There is much temptation to compare the situation to Ireland but the parallels are weak really, not least given that Scottish independence was rejected by the populace in a free vote in 2014. I suspect it would be for Wales too. I suppose it is just about imaginable for the British state to send the troops in if say NS declared UDI and then, well anything goes I suppose. But neither of those things seem at all likely. My reaction was visceral because it is more likely some hotheads would actually start a terrorist campaign (and that is what it would be) which would be a total disaster. MBC above has it right – the road is now long and hard and there are no shortcuts.

          4. Adrian Roper says:

            Agreed.
            I think my other three recommendations are pretty sound. Love, community, democracy.
            Let’s stick with them, and bury the fourth in a box marked “Tiananmen / Maidan situation”. And pray it never needs to be opened.
            “For England make keep faith,
            For all that is done and said”.
            As Yeats put it in his Easter 1916 poem.
            Cheers

      2. Paddy Farrington says:

        What’s beyond dispute is that not voting for independence will achieve precisely nothing.

        1. 220710 says:

          Indeed, but the Scottish government shouldn’t get its independence cheap. We should hold out for more democracy.

          Just what, in terms of governance, will we be getting for our vote? All that’s on the table at the moment is our own wee Westminster in Edinburgh. My vote’s worth more than that.

          1. Paddy Farrington says:

            A ‘wee Westminster in Edinburgh’ is a travesty of what’s on offer. Let’s keep the discussion honest.

          2. 220711 says:

            What is on offer then, Paddy? What is the prospectus for our independent governance? As far as I can gather, it’s just transfer power to the existing institutions and those that are currently under development by the bureaucracy, then ‘wait and see’, ‘trust us, it will be whatever you wish it to be and more; a big rock candy mountain’.

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