Being Supreme, Becoming Ungovernable

The ramifications from this week’s Supreme Court ruling continue to unfold. For some there’s a shrug of the shoulders, a contemptuous ‘told you so’ and a wry ‘this changes nothing’. For others on the left it is more apocalyptic – the final nail in the coffin of Scottish independence, as they have long predicted. The same comes from the Unionist right who have been falling over themselves in the unbridled ecstasy of witnessing national humiliation in real time.

But among the cackling there’s some more chastened analysis. Here, in the post-mortem, Kenny Farquharson asks a question that has been ringing around the country for the last few days: “Is Scotland’s presence within the UK voluntary? If yes, what are the legal means by which Scotland can voluntarily leave?” (‘Referendum ruling poses a challenge for Rishi Sunak‘).

He concludes: “There is, as yet, no convincing answer from the UK government. This is unsustainable.”

The ruling has pushed most people back into their standard default places, but to give Farquharson his due he is at least thinking about its consequences:

“To be blunt, and to say out loud what is usually said sotto voce, the UK government risks civil unrest and violence if independence supporters are denied a democratic path to achieving their legitimate aims.

The UK government has been here before and responded with a deftness of touch that won international plaudits. In the Good Friday Agreement it provided the nationalist community in Northern Ireland with a legal, constitutional, peaceful means of exiting the UK, if that was the majority view.

A wise prime minister, whether Tory or Labour, would put Scotland on a comparable footing to Northern Ireland. This would take much of the heat out of Scotland’s constitutional debate. The focus would be on whether independence was a good or bad idea, rather than on whether democracy was being denied.”

This would indeed be a constructive move, but remains unlikely. All of the people around Sunak advising on constitutional affairs remain the same. Alister Jack remains – landed insouciance personified – waiting patiently for his ennoblement for studied uselessness. Scotland is a hinterland of no electoral worth to the Tories. The SNP are an irritant at Westminster but have managed to leverage little actual real pressure despite their numbers.

What would be the motivation for the Conservatives to act unilaterally to ‘put Scotland on a comparable footing to Northern Ireland’? It would be the right thing to do, it would be a bold and decisive constitutional move, and it would create parity and symmetry in a constitutional quagmire wracked with contradictions. But there’s little sign that a Conservative government fighting a rearguard action defending its Red Wall and its Blue Wall would care much about Hadrian’s Wall.  What would be the gain?

Most of the Conservative leadership – and possibly the Labour one too – believe that simply supressing any possibility of a referendum is a winning strategy. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling this led to Nicola Sturgeon framing the independence movement as a ‘democracy movement’ to howls and shrieks of derision from the very parties who *checks notes* were just celebrating the closing down of a democratic event based on a triple mandate.

Lawyer Cat Headley was among these pleading: “To brand one side of this already incredibly polarised, divisive and bitter debate “supporters of Scottish democracy” and by inference, the other side “the opponents of Scottish democracy” is insulting and unbecoming of the FM.” Aside from the tired old trope of ‘polarised and divisive’ this seems disingenuous. You can’t have your cake and eat it. If you want to base your argument and your strategy on denying a democratic event you fear you would lose, you can’t then turn around and ask for a Democracy Medal. It doesn’t work like that.

I don’t think that political violence is imminent as a result of the Supreme Court ruling as Kenny Farquharson suggests. But I do think he is right that denying a democratic path to “achieving legitimate aims” is dangerous intransigence which may well, and probably should lead to civil unrest.

If Rishi Sunak, the man who thought Darlington was north of the border, is unlikely to take up the challenge of a Good Friday Agreement for Scotland, and if the SNP seems consumed by hyper-caution, centrism and the effects of too-long in power, then the wider movement and wider civil society will have to begin to exert pressure as – yes – a democracy movement. This urge to ‘become ungovernable’ in the most creative ways has some recent history. The tributes that flooded in for the late great Ian Hamilton speak to that tradition, as did the Anti Poll Tax campaign, and more recently the Kenmure Street revolt. Rather than feeling (and being) disempowered by the political class, its time again for leadership from below.

Rory Scothorne has written about the Supreme Court ruling, with more positivity than most could muster: “The irony of all this is that the Scottish parliament was supposed to reinforce the legitimacy of the UK state, not undermine it. With sovereignty and the union safely reserved, devolution was designed to give Scotland a distinct voice within the union without threatening the union itself. And yet in permitting Scotland such a prominent outlet, Westminster has created a political system that speaks for its people far more directly and authentically than the UK government ever can, yet which is officially denied the ability to match voice to action. The supreme court judgment is an open admission of the dangers this mismatch poses to the structure of the state itself. Far from being a blow to independence, this admission presents an opportunity to conjure up those spirits of resistance, old and new, and put them to work for one last heave.”

I’ll have some of whatever Rory’s on. But seriously I think we need some realignment and a transfusion of new energies in order to achieve ‘one last heave’, but he’s essentially right. Channeling the anger that this judgement has evoked is key, as new (old) relations are laid out before us and eyes are opened. If the smarter pens amongst the Unions commentariat have figured out that this is completely unsustainable, then we are getting somewhere. The heavy lifting of resolving and transcending intractable problems does not lie with politicians alone.









Comments (18)

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  1. norm says:

    Where have the Scottish Independence Convention / Voices for Scotland gone?

    A fairly uncontroversial vehicle for civic Scotland to be out there making the case, and changing peoples minds for independence have fallen completely silent

  2. Bill says:

    I am currently reading ” The State We’re In “, by Will Hutton, the Vintage publication of 1995. I am into the second chapter and reading the detail of the creation of the Conservative hegemony. The focus does detail how the appeal of Thatcher was to the English concept of ‘gentleman’s party’ and all that that implied. The seeds of our current economic problems were sown at that time. Society was taken over by the Conservative party and they controlled all the organs of state political as well as the judiciary. Power was taken into the hands of the executive and Parliament rendered impotent. The Civil Service were also suborned and the outcome was that most legislation was ill-drafted and not scrutinised at all. The will of the Tory party was extant.
    Hutton also predicted the state of the economy that we now face. Given the control that the Tories have is it any wonder that the wishes of the Scottish people can be not only ignored, but discarded with disdain? The Tory hegemony was acquired ruthlessly by Thatcher and enhanced by all succeeding Tory Prime ministers. Johnson being probably the worst at ignoring and/or destroying any check or balance on his desires.
    Given that Barbados and other Caribbean countries have declared themselves republics, removing the head of the Royal family as head of state, perhaps this is the route that Scotland must follow. We are a nation, we are a state, we can be independent. We do not need the authority of a right wing, increasingly fascist, Tory government in order to follow our own course.
    How this process is managed is what we need to debate. The creation of a Constitution(written), a Bill of Rights, the structure of Government to be transparent and accountable, the resolving of the currency issue and of tax structures, would be a start. Given that the government of Barbados is seeking reparations from those who benefitted from slavery ( currently in discussion with Richard Drax,) including the Royal family, can this be a model for us? All we need is the courage to do it. Of course we would have to ensure that in an independent Scotland, the hegemony of the SNP was disassembled.


  3. CathyW says:

    Your final point, Mike, is the most important one, I think: it is no good just voting for nicer/better politicians and expecting them to deliver fundamental change. If it was that easy, we’d all have been living in paradise long since! Real advancement has to come from below with all the sustained effort and argument and setbacks that entails. I do think we need the sort of grass-roots campaign that defeated the Poll Tax, that brought people out in protest at the Iraq War – and in the past, established women’s suffrage, trade unions and much else. Non-violent civil disobedience should certainly be on the agenda now.
    I also find myself a bit bemused at the anger/surprise many independence supporters have expressed at the Supreme Court ruling. It seemed pretty clear to me that the Scotland Act made the constitution a reserved matter (and not by mistake or oversight!) – the judges have duly confirmed that to be the case. They can’t change the law, only Parliament can – under pressure from mass campaigns of activism when necessary. As you say, probably not much mileage in trying to bring the Scotland Act into line with NI at the moment but if Labour needed SNP co-operation to govern after the next General Election an obvious bargaining chip.

  4. Stewart Bremner says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve had a heavy work week and am still trying to get my head around what the SC ruling means. Becoming ungovernable sounds right.

  5. Kathleen Jamie says:

    Genuine question, Mike. What form do you think might civil unrest might take, by Scots within Scotland?

    1. Well I’m sure it could take many forms but I think we could think about that the principles might be that would work for people and be inclusive and empowering.

      I don’t think, for example that the AUOB marches are this. I have great respect for the people who have put great energy into organising them and going on them but I think they are a bit one-dimensional.

      I think it needs to be NVDA, civil disobedience. I think it would have impact if it had scale and if it had some symbolic resonance. If we think of the campaigns that had impact, or that we remember, for different reasons the Womens Peace Camp at Greenham Common; the Jarrow March; Occupy; the Upper Clyde work-in; the anti-Poll Tax campaigns all worked. To a lesser degree so did the vigil at Calton Hill in favour of Home Rule.

      I think there needs to be an element of transgression without threat or violence. Think, for example of the reclaiming of the Stone of Destiny. It was its symbolic value as much as anything that made it a success.

      There are some ideas that won’t go on a public forum.

      1. Bill says:

        Given the Tory hegemony, especially the control of the press, I am sure that were the SNP to commence discussing a new constitution and the currency issue, coupled to withdrawing from the Westminster parliament,( as did Sinn Fein), this could indeed be a catalyst for action. As work- ins are now illegal, we would need to occupy appropriate premises and run the risk of arrest and trial. Perhaps a Jarrow style march, of 30000 and the occupation of Westminster would have sufficient impact. We would need to be creative – ideas anyone?


        1. Thanks Bill – yeah I mentioned those events or actions more as they each have some specific quality that made them powerful, rather than we would copy them precisely.

          The Greenham Common protest had the bravery of the women and the fusion of feminism and peace (with a specific target); the Anti-Poll Tax campaign had the sense of solidarity and direct action as well as a very specific thing people could do (withhold payment), as well as an inspiring leader in Tommy Sheridan; similarly Occupy had a specific location and brought together people from nay different campaigns that was very powerful.

  6. Alice says:

    Ideas needed …step forward our SNP members at Westminster …they have been down there long enough to be fully aware of how the system does and does not operate …is it not time for them as a collective to come up with firm plans to take us out of the Westminster system?

  7. Cathie Lloyd says:

    We do need new voices – certainly if the ragbag who followed the first few speakers on Wednesday evening are anything to go by (Edinburgh Women for Independence an honorable exception). We also need to unite around a progressive project – I would favour a hegemoic red-green alliance bringing together the social democratic ideas being espoused by the SNP and the Greens to a ‘wellbeing’ agenda. Why were there no trade union or Green speakers on Wednesday? We need those voices to mobilise the constitutencies they represent.

    We also need a realistic understanding of power relations to challenge the extreme fringe who seem to think that dredging up ancient charters will automatically bring about a collapse of the British state. We need to understand how soft power can be effective in undermining what is after all, a crumbling edifice.

    1. Paddy Farrington says:

      I very much agree with the idea of a red-green alliance involving the SNP, Scotland’s labour movement, the Scottish Greens. And also Mike’s point about inclusive and empowering forms of NVDA. We need to not lose sight of the fact that the current level of support for independence is not yet sufficient, and that we need to broaden the alliance supporting it. This means going beyond the purely political sphere, and at all costs avoiding the creeping fundamentalism that some seem to find attractive but is a complete turn off for most.

  8. Gordon Benton says:

    Comment for Bill.
    The need to have such as a Constitution and answers to such as the currency as you mentioned is a ‘must’ and ready in time when the Scottish voter is being asked to vote on the continuum of the present Westminster rule or Independence. For the punter, it is no help to have this promised after the vote; surely!
    But something in your comments is missing. What exactly is the elector voting for? No one knows! We stakeholders all have our dreams, but they are our own. i am suggesting that as a matter of urgent priority, these ideas are brought together, and put into one structured ‘dream’. This would be in the form of what WILL happen to us all, Nation, the environment and our relations with the World when when we voted for our independence, and what COULD happen. Putting flesh on our dreams! This would be structured in the form of 25, 50 and 100 year undertakings,, intentions and aspirations in the form of a “Master Plan Strategy for an Independent Scotland”.
    Until then we are stuttering along on a wing and a prayer. And we will lose, because the Unionist position will be made very clear -” who pays your pensions, our pound, no EU for you, poverty, too stupid, aren’t we friends, what about … etc – with massive funds the MSM and the BBC behind them. We have to ‘up our game’, bringing in the best talents in our country to PROMOTE what the new Scotland is going to be like for our grandchildren. What we are producing by way of pamphlets is just not good enough. And it is not just me saying this.

    1. Bill says:

      Yes Gordon, what I was suggesting was that we need all of these issues resolved before a vote on independence in order that we know for what we will vote. We’re the SNP and others who support the idea of independence to start this process, coupled to a withdrawal from Westminster, then that might be the catalyst that is required.


  9. Alan C says:

    I think the first thing that needs to happen is for all indy parties to come together, I’m sick of hearing SNP suporters dissing Alba suporters and vice-versa, we all want the same thing, lets get together for christ sake.

    1. I can see how it would benefit Alba Alan but how would it benefit the other indy parties?

  10. Jake Solo says:

    Blah de blah de blah de blah de blah de blah de blah

    Meanwhile the other jaw of the trap that will make it all moot is promoted from Twitter to the papers, (well, The National)

    Gugliano yesterday and Brown today. Not hanging around are they? Ironic.

  11. Alvin Vertigo says:

    If you think about it, the English Government’s stance here- no legal route to leaving the Union- is exactly the same as the one they are applying to migration: no legal route to asylum. They are also trying to apply the same tactic to dissent in England- no legal route to protest.

    It seems to me that this gimmic they’ve stumbled upon, as the answer to all their difficult problems, can only blow up in their faces.

  12. Alex says:

    If you really want a hammer STOP SENDING MONEY TO ENGLAND!

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